Modelling Worlds: The Politics of Simulation

A guest post from Nathan Coombs who is an incoming Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He edits the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Politics of the Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). His current research interests are in financial algorithms and financial regulation. He can be contacted at n.coombs (at) fastmail.co.uk


 

hft

Over the last decade, scholars have become increasingly interested in what we do when we make use of models and simulations. An emerging consensus – often legitimated through reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory – is that mathematical models and computer simulations are not passive tools but rather a material force in their own right. Agents may employ such technologies in order to achieve pre-determined ends, but the technologies themselves have an effectivity that exceeds their users’ intentions, and set in place path-dependencies that serve to proscribe the range of political and economic possibility.

This concern with the politics of technology cuts across multiple disciplines including Sociology, Communication Studies, International Relations, International Political Economy, and Management Studies. However, the Social Studies of Finance (SSF) has perhaps gone furthest in exploring the practical implications of modelling and simulation technologies. Applying Austinian and Barnesian notions of performativity, researchers in this field have sought to grasp the way in which economic models shape markets, and to dig into the mathematical and technical details that underpin this process.

Donald MacKenzie’s book An Engine, Not a Camera (2008) is exemplary of this approach, and a common point of reference for scholars in SSF and all the aforementioned disciplines. In his analysis of the development and uptake of the Black-Scholes option-pricing model in the 1970s, MacKenzie aims to show how the model’s employment of the efficient market hypothesis – where stock prices are considered to accurately reflect their risk – led to a period in which the pricing of options came to reflect that predicted by the model. The point of MacKenzie’s analysis is not to endorse the neoclassical economic assumptions codified in the model. Rather, it is to point out how models serve to socially facilitate evaluation practices in the face of complexity, uncertainty, and epistemological opacity. On this basis a model can also contribute to financial instability when it is both widely employed and based on assumptions that are confounded by ‘real world’ contingencies.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies: A Shout-Out!

Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies Covers

Our friends and colleagues over at the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies (which, you will recall, is a fully open access, student-and-junior-faculty-run critical IR journal) have just issued two calls: one for new members of the Editorial Team, and another for papers to fill Issue 7 on the theme of ‘Modelling Capitalism’.

Prospective Editorial Team members can find full details here. The positions are suitable for early-career lecturers, postdoctoral researchers, or PhD candidates currently in the first two years of their study and will be considered on a rolling basis. Meanwhile, the blurb for Issue 7 (deadline for submissions: 1 August 2013) is as follows:

Frequently held in suspicion by critical thinkers, modelling and simulation technologies are nonetheless more and more integral to how the world works, utilised by international bodies, governments, financial firms, and large corporations. This special issue wishes to approach in a synoptic fashion some of big themes raised by this development. Questions we are  concerned with include fundamental philosophical issues: Can economic models ever be realistic? Can they model complexity? Pragmatic questions: Is their use responsible for the depression initiated with the 2008 crash? To what extent are they changing the nature of capitalism? Political debate: Do models merely dress up dominant ideologies in technical drapery? Can models be used for critical purposes, or for proposing economic alternatives? With this issue we thus aim to bring into dialogue scholars working in diverse fields including the philosophy of science, economic modelling, the social studies of finance, and political theory.

Issue 6, on ‘Democracy and Law’, is now out and available in full.

The Best Things In Life Are Free?: Open Access Publishing and Academic Precarity

The fifth post this week on open access and its impact on IR (amongst other social sciences) from previous guest poster Nathan Coombs (follow the blue underlines for the first, second, thirdfourth and sixth posts). Nathan is completing a PhD in politics and philosophy in the Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is co-founder and co-editor of the transdisciplinary, open-access journal, the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies. He has a book forthcoming in 2013: The British Ideology. Images by Pablo.


When my colleagues and I established the open-access journal, the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies in 2009, to us open-access publishing meant placing an academic journal online which would be free for both our contributors and our readers. We took inspiration from open-access journals in critical philosophy such as Parrhesia and Cosmos and History, the efforts of the Open Humanities Press, and the Australian book publisher Re.Press, who make PDFs of their releases available online simultaneously with their distribution to bookstores.

Since this time, however, the term open-access seems to have become increasingly polyvalent. As discussed in contributions to this series of reflections by Pablo, Colin Wight and David Mainwaring, open-access publishing is now endorsed by government and publishers. Yet the price of this move into the mainstream has unfortunately been a watering down of the term. In the ‘gold’ open-access publishing scheme proposed by the Finch report, for instance, universal access to academic publications is secured, but only by preserving the existing journal subscription system and by introducing Article Processing Charges (APCs) for authors.

Whether these pseudo open-access schemes will prove to be unstable transitional forms or lasting models only time will tell. In any event, for my contribution I want to focus on open-access in its fully fledged form: ‘full open-access’ we will call it. The model of full open-access, as operated by the JCGS, does not permit any persistent role for the private (profit motivated) sector within academic journal publishing. Full open-access journals are housed on independent or University affiliated websites, freely available to everyone in the world within an internet connection, and provide a free anonymous peer-review service for contributors.

Let us imagine a world where academic journal publishing turned over completely to this approach. Journal subscription fees would be swept away. Academics would take control over their publishing arrangements. The profits of corporate publishers would dwindle to zero. An enticing scenario for anyone exasperated with the current status quo.

As with all things that sound too good to be true, though, caution is required. Continue reading

Open Access: Is It Really “Open”?

Our fourth post this week on open access, IR and the ambiguities of the future, from Nivi Manchanda (following Pablo, Colin Wight and David Mainwaring and followed by Nathan Coombs and Meera). Nivi is a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and also currently Editor-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, one of the very few student-run IR journals that consistently hosts material worth reading (apart from Millennium of course!). When not running the Cambridge Review, she studies Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan.

UPDATE (27 January): Nivi has now joined the Disordered collective on a more permanent basis and you can read more from her by clicking on her face in the sidebar.


The open access movement for academic journals is excellent in theory; not merely because of the need for an alternative to the clearly out-dated journal system that we currently have in place, but also to reclaim the internet as it were. In an ideal world, the internet would be the space for the unbridled circulation and dissemination for knowledge that the World Wide Web’s original architect had imagined it to be. In practice, however, ‘open’ access the way it is conceived in the Finch report (which is the the catalyst of, if not reason for, this conversation) is hardly ‘freely available’ and ‘non-proprietary’ research in the way the slightly misleading ‘open’ here might suggest.

For a student-run journal some of the many problems (delineated nicely by Pablo and Colin) with the ‘Gold’ OA system embodied in the Finch proposals become particularly acute. In the first instance, with regard to the benefits of the present system, in a field governed by citation indices and impact factors, there is something to be said about the legitimacy and credibility that a set-up with a renowned academic publisher provides. The other big advantage of having a publisher who is invested in the journal, especially for the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (hereafter CRIA) and other student-run publications I would imagine, is the discipline they demand. Having a set publication schedule has been crucial for CRIA, not only for associate editors who are copy-editing in the middle of term but also for peer reviewers and authors who get nagging automated reminders every week from ScholarOne’s Manuscript Central, the web-based submission and peer review tool used by Taylor & Francis (Routledge). Finally, although an equivalent open source software exists, merely getting some training in the workings of Manuscript Central and of indeed access to it, has been a great asset for CRIA.

This is not to say, in any way, that the current journal system of pay walls and enormous publisher profits is not deeply flawed. It is, but so is the solution proposed: high Author Processing Charges (APCs) that would hit students and early career researchers disproportionately, to say nothing about those who are not affiliated with an academic institution. Academics are however, thinking about ways around this with mixed success. A great example would be the initiative taken by Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge who has managed to persuade Cambridge University Press to launch a gold open access electronic journal – The Forum of Mathematics – with a print on demand option. To keep a check on what is being sent in, authors need to send in a reasonably long justification of why they are interested in publishing in the journal and what ‘cluster’ they want to submit their paper to. A ‘cluster’ is like a stream, for instance a theory or anthropology stream in IR – schematically speaking. There are of course nuances and overlaps that Gowers has meticulously devised a system for dealing with, and which could potentially be looked at as a model for a social science/IR journal. Each cluster has one editor and a few managing editors working on it who are experts in that particular field.

Continue reading

#occupyirtheory, International Studies Association (San Diego) Edition

ISA 2012 is just around the corner, and it will doubtless be as hectic and awkward and joyous as ever. Robbie and I will be appearing at an event on #occupy and its relevance for IR on Tuesday at 7 in Indigo 204 at the Hilton Bayfront. We’ll be joining Lucian Ashworth, Lara Coleman, Nicholas Kiersey and Wanda Vrasti (all chaired by Jason Weidner) for what I’m sure will be an exciting roundtable discussion. More importantly, it will be brief, with most of the session given over to a General Assembly-style discussion of what IR can learn from #occupy, what #occupy might get from IR, and how we might take the spirit and organisational form into the discipline itself (or not).

The hope is that the slightly later starting time will allow people to go both to the various Section receptions and meetings (briefly) and to come to this, whilst still leaving reasonable evening time for food and the rest. Please do get involved over at Facebook (see also the #occupyirtheory group and #occupyirtheory blog) and let interested IR-types know. Readers may also be (should also be!) interested in a recent forum from the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies on ‘Occupy IR/IPE’, featuring Nick and Wanda (as well as Colin Wight, Michael J. Shapiro, Patrick Jackson and others), which I’ve parcelled together as a single pdf for your delectation here.

Hope to see you there!

Academia in the Age of Digital Reproduction; Or, the Journal System, Redeemed

It took at least 200 years for the novel to emerge as an expressive form after the invention of the printing press.

So said Bob Stein in an interesting roundtable on the digital university from back in April 2010. His point being that the radical transformations in human knowledge and communication practices wrought by the internet remain in their infancy. Our learning curves may be steeper but we haven’t yet begun to grapple with what the collapsing of old forms of social space means. We tweak and vary the models that we’re used to, but are generally cloistered in the paradigms of print.

When it comes to the university, and to the journal system, this has a particular resonance. Academics find themselves in a strange and contradictory position. They are highly valued for their research outputs in the sense that this is what determines their reputation and secures their jobs (although this is increasingly the value of the faux-market and the half-assed quality metric). This academic authority, won by publications, is also, to some extent, what makes students want to work with them and what makes them attractive as experts for government, media and civil society. They are also highly valued in a straight-forward economic sense by private publishing houses, who generate profit from the ability to sell on the product of their labour (books and articles) at virtually no direct remuneration, either for the authors or for those peer reviewers who guarantee a work’s intellectual quality. And yet all (OK, most) also agree that virtually nobody reads this work and that peer review is hugely time-consuming, despite being very complicated in its effects. When conjoined with the mass noise of information overload and the extension and commercialisation of higher education over the last decades, our practices of research, dissemination and quality control begin to take on a ludicrous hue. As Clifford Lynch nicely puts it, “peer review is becoming a bottomless pit for human effort”.

This is an attempt to explore in more detail what the potentialities and limits are for academic journals in the age of digital reproduction. Once we bracket out the sedimented control of current publishers, and think of the liveliness of intellectual exchange encountered through blogs and other social media, a certain hope bubbles up. Why not see opportunity here? Perhaps the time is indeed ripe for the rebirth of the university press, as Martin Weller argues:

the almost wholesale shift to online journals has now seen a realignment with university skills and functions. We do run websites and universities are the places people look to for information (or better, they do it through syndicated repositories). The experience the higher education sector has built up through OER, software development and website maintenance, now aligns nicely with the skills we’ve always had of editing, reviewing, writing and managing journals. Universities are the ideal place now for journals to reside.

Continue reading

Beneath The University, The (Digital) Commons

UPDATE (8 September): In the comments, Lee Jones reminds me of the Directory of Open Access Journals, which gives some more info on existing outlets. Monbiot also tweeted details of a petition to make all publicly-funded research available for free within a year of publication, which you should sign (yes, I know it’s just a petition, but start somewhere OK?)


1. Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you, and doesn’t give you a key, the lock is not there for your benefit;

2. It’s hard to monetise fame, but it’s impossible to monetise obscurity;

3. Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.

Despite the focus on the artist and her output, Cory Doctorow’s three propositions for understanding copyright against creativity also speak to the products of the university (and both videos are worth watching). In short, the addition of copyright ‘protection’ to your work acts to restrict it, doesn’t actually drive higher resources to artists, and can’t really work in practice, thus requiring extending circles of criminalisation and monitoring. Contemporary copyright is a way of creating an obstacle course, one where the people who put in the work of limiting access are also the ones who you pay down the line for the access. In short, “they have created a problem that they know how to solve, and it works for them”.

In July, Aaron Swartz was charged under US federal hacking laws for downloading more than a few academic articles via MIT. It was about 4.8 million papers, since you ask. Wired reports that the penalty for this may amount to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Worse, there is some evidence that the prosecution is being driven by the state rather than JSTOR alone. He’s due in court this Thursday. After some germination, both George Monbiot and Ben Goldacre have entered the fray with astute and biting pieces on the profitable stupidity of these arrangements and their detrimental impact on the free exchange of knowledge, scientific progress, the public good, etcetera.

The problems of intellectual property and who gets to profit from it are general, but the scandal is in the specificity of different productive spheres. After all, an artist is not like a university lecturer.

Continue reading