An unfortunate miscalculation of capital.


Figure 1: "Don’t saw off the branch you are sitting on."

The killing of education

In this century a slew of painful writings threw light on what's been happening to education. Among them Unmaking the Public University (2011) by Christopher Newfield, Fall of the Faculty (2011) by Benjamin Ginsberg, Neoliberalism's War on Higher Education (2019) by Henry Giroux and of course John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (2002). Together, I think these give an accurate account, at least as far as I've seen things as a professor these past 30 years.

What I now see as a cybersecurity practitioner, is that Western society has scored a spectacular own goal through a profound miscalculation. We're running out of capable people who can operate, protect and maintain the technical infrastructure we're now entirely dependent upon. It is not a problem that can be solved by immigration or global remote labour. It isn't a problem that "AI" can solve. This puts us in a precarious defence position.

An assault on education, designed to curb it's democratising influence, began arguably with Powell's famous 1971 memorandum decrying the "Attack on American Free Enterprise System", and an influential 1975 paper on The Crisis of Democracy by The Trilateral Commission. These right-wing ideas were a reaction to the culture of the 1960s, to civil rights, anti-war, feminism, and free speech which increasingly criticised capitalism and its effect on the environment. Ironically the attack harmed not only the arts, but technical skills too. Though this creed started in the United States it spread into British culture from the late 1980s, but less so into Europe. Indeed the prominent systems and quality theorist W. E. Deming called it the "American disease", criticising what today we'd broadly term 'cost-cutting efficiency' as the cause of plummeting quality.

Another result was a project to privatise the public schools and universities. It aimed to kill intellectual life, so business could defend its interests against "liberal media and leftists". That project is very much alive today under the guise of conservative calls to 'protect the children' by banning books and organised political assaults on higher education.

Capital has always required that people be no more educated than is necessary to operate its factories, thus education's goal of personal enrichment has been entirely replaced by dreary, dead-end corporate values. The new order eschews open sharing, mobility, plurality of views and deep knowledge. Broad education is reduced to job training, limited to narrow technical expertise.

This poor quality substitute for real education does not activate our knowledge seeking and self-development capacities. Theorists refer to it as the banking model of education. Under this model students are simply passive recipients of flat information, which they 'bank' as if it were money. They need not think as such, since all questions of process and purpose are replaced by economic logic of a new professional management class (the MBAs). This way, business owners could maintain authority over production without ideological challenge.

Perhaps the most devastating impact of this credo has been on culture. It has destroyed people's self-respect. When you no longer see yourself as a human being, with potential, valuable in your own right, but instead as an 'asset' to exploit in the job market, it is a path to madness. It is no different from the fate of the individual under Communism except that one serves the economy instead of the party. Much of our current teen mental health crisis, especially amongst students, is rooted in this loss of "lived life" and its replacement by Marxist reification, also known as "using yourself".

Historical wars have shown that such reified persons are no use in a defence force except as cannon fodder. They will care little for their own lives, but blindly follow orders and march into machine-gun fire. However, they cannot survive a single day on their wit, since they have no drive to. They are are not good soldiers.

Similarly crippled, students have been restricted to studying subjects able to earn high-paying jobs necessary to repay huge debts. STEM was idolised and humanities demonised, leading to a dangerous imbalance. Up went the shutters on English and History departments. Out went the professors of Politics and Geography. The gates were chained, and a huge "Closed Forever" sign went up at the Psychoanalysis centre. If you couldn't measure it, write it down as an economic formula and compete for grant money, then it went into the shredder. If it didn't have "industry demand" and add "shareholder value", it was for the chop.

If "industry demanded it" but it didn't smell right then a subject could be beaten into a STEM shape. Nursing, a carey-sharey calling, became vocational healthcare with proper targets, and so on.

Do not mistake this as separation into useful and useless subjects. Middlesex University and University of West London in the UK famously ran bachelors degrees in Homeopathy, a quack subject which was able to "attract students" and therefore make a profit in the new education market.

At this point little more needs saying. In 2024 The university has been devastated. It's a triumph of form over function, of appearance over reality. Clueless deans and chancellors make apologetic speeches to docile acolytes about the low quality, unaffordable experience we still pretend is "education". We sell little slices of British approval to overseas students for about £100,000 a go. Students openly cheat, entitled to the certificates they paid for. Tens of thousands of academic staff have quit, leaving barren institutions to deliver mechanical, cookie-cutter courses provided as corporate packages for remote study.

The student union bar is boarded-up, a relic of sociability. Students hide in their claustrophobic accommodation, like battery hens munching anti-depressants. Libraries are empty and papers locked up online by greedy publishers. It's a ghost town. A run-down, out of season seaside resort with a disused, rusted roller-coaster and spooky, dilapidated amusement arcades.

When not in therapy sessions with mental health counsellors, students play the slot machine of the certificate mills, putting a coin in the AI essay writing machine, and hoping Turnitin and other dehumanising proctoring software is looking the other way as they give it a desperate kick. Higher education is officially a wasteland, and we can expect most of the smaller universities to go to the wall in the next couple of years.

Collapse of the sector will please those who have hoped to see an end to higher education for the masses. But the fault lies squarely with the universities themselves, where decades of corruption, mismanagement and selling-out to publishers, BigTech, trendy think-tanks and donor money has led them to their own demise..

Well done "industry"! Happy now "business"?

Well here's why you shouldn't be… That was everything sustaining you.

What we've lost

Like a cartoon lumberjack sitting on the wrong side of the branch, industry has been sawing away it's own future. Sustainability and resilience are very complex matters. Like a thousand ton oil tanker, society won't turn on a sixpence. Planning is measured in generations. Modern politics has forgotten that. It operates on "news cycle" horizons of a few weeks at most. That fits perfectly with suicidal, reckless capitalism.

The error is this: So business could grow strong, society has been made to grow weak. But business does not protect society. Society protects business. Business only exists because liberal democratic society gives it protection and the nurturing conditions to do so. Industry is subservient to the social contract and rule of Law. Insofar as it undermines the society that grants it those conditions it is suicidal.

Collapse and crisis are rarely things we see coming. We need to be already in crisis before there's some symptoms to act on. By the time an animal feels the effects of malnutrition it's already too weak to hunt. Like climate change, we're probably well into irreversible downward spirals now in computer resilience and security. Things are going to get much worse for quite a while.

Incidents like the British "Horizon" Post-Office scandal, Solarwinds, and Cambridge Analytica will become weekly and then daily occurrences, fundamentally sapping public confidence in all digital technologies. Perhaps that is necessary as most of what we currently build is unfit. After 70 years, software engineering is still in its infancy, and we've failed to learn anything from decades of letting corporations do what they like.

Security problems cannot be solved by rote. Or by legislating. They cannot be solved by pre-packaged systems and "solutions". Narrow technical expertise is not enough. Neither will markets fix it. Cool business idea and some Venture Capital funding is not enough. A whole spectrum of knowledge must be brought to bear on complex problems, over a sustained time period. It requires smart and dedicated people who give their whole lives to curate the depth and breadth of knowledge necessary to stay balanced on the shoulders of giants.

But for a decade we have been paddling the wrong way while a powerful current drags us up the creek. It is the current of nihilistic self-defeat. We've been deliberately weakening the power of the next generation, of those who can protect and maintain systems, because the status-quo fears them. We've been deliberately weakening security so that paranoiacs can have "visibility" of imaginary enemies plotting against them - and so that manipulators have 'intelligence' on citizens in order to persuade them to vote 'correctly'.

Look to history and we see such self-immolation is common. Once the cities, steel mills and power stations of the Soviet Union had been built, Stalin had all the bourgeois engineers rounded up and shot. For tyrants, there is no greater threat to their system than the people who designed, built and understand it. The West has had it's own much slower-burning purge.

We've deliberately dumbed down deep technical knowledge to make everybody including the engineers into consumers of technology. Through corporate cloud services we've sabotaged the presence of tangible general purpose computing and undermined agency and autonomy of owner-operators. Fast profit from selling appliances to keep the masses amused became our priority.

Timeless, concrete, empowering knowledge is out. Chameleon frippery, colourful commercial brands and a tide of ephemeral "apps", is in. Solid projects of digital literacy to teach children code succumbed to generic classes on Microsoft Office, Excel spreadsheets, and how to run Facebook and YouTube marketing.

Even more serious than the harms done to technical and artistic life is the impact on the relational incurred by ideology. Human qualities we so desperately need now have been mercilessly beaten out of students;

Collaboration and complex team-based project management has been rejected in favour of ambitious individualism. Tolerance, generalism and plurality of opinion are seen as "not picking a side" in the polarised BigTech stage-drama in which comedy Bond villains strut and fret. Scepticism is wilfully mistaken for antagonism. The nuanced "extreme centrist" voices we most need to hear are labelled troublemakers and suffocated. Social cooling and learned helplessness have muted justified outrage, making "useful idiots" of experts who should know better and show more courage.

Creativity is mocked. Why cling to human subjectivity when we are all nothing but "large language models"? Why learn a skill that a machine will soon do better? Why learn any skill that isn't profitable? Originality is devalued, in a world where everything has been "tried already", patented, copyrighted, trademarked and owned.

Correctness, doing things the hard way, patience, diligence, delayed gratification; these are all considered forms of weakness and failure. Convenience and efficiency rule supreme! Balance, empathy, kindness, diplomacy, compassion and care are relegated to faults,

It is only possible to think this way if one is stripped of humanity. As industrialists and leaders of universities we have been very effective at it. But it also requires the complicity of teachers and students, and in that role we have been willing, enthusiastic enablers of our own dehumanisation.

Sadly, an enormous miscalculation is that the humanities really matter*, if you aim for survival in the long-term.

Why thinking matters

A complex security problem is as likely to be solved by someone who has read the books of Jane Austen as the papers of Alan Turing.

Can you spot a lie, or something anomalous? Would you call it out? Against your "boss"? Can you understand the motives of people? Maybe even have a little sympathy for the Devil? Do you have the patience to wait, maybe for months or years for a plan to come together?

Being a great computer security person asks that you understand maths, physics, electronics, code and networks… but did you also know how important psychology, social sciences, politics and history are?

The big problem with a denuded corporate credo designed to churn out cubicle drones is that it stunts intellectual growth. There is no place for classical human virtues to grow. As Horace Mann knew when creating the first public schools, there is no space to create the kind of people who can defend democracy.

Because it sells 'education' as just another commodity it avoids teaching self-learning. A good computer security person is driven by insatiable curiosity and auto-didactic (self-learning) powers. The world is changing too fast for any professor or syllabus to track. Nobody is going to spoon-feed it to you. You must learn a modern form of classic excellence and roundedness (Arete).

It also creates timid learners. Once you've left education, it's not over. A new responsibility passes to you to keep up the process and up the pace. That requires not just self-discipline but it requires courage too. Nothing is off-limits. Young people who've been broken by corporate education, trained to be compliant, docile consumers of approved, pre-packaged, safe knowledge stand no chance in this game. If the horizons of your career in cybersecurity is Microsoft products, then give up now and take up stamp-collecting.

Cybersecurity needs naughty boys and girls. Are you smart enough to get on the "dark web" and download the hacking papers that were banned at your university? Oh, and did you remember to open them in a sandbox, sanitise them of malware and fingerprints? Or did you spend your time at university "obeying the rules" like a good kid, hoping one day you'll be offered a dream job at the Happy Happy Corp?

Security happens because people care, not because systems are theoretically infallible. Security comes from constant vigilance for and against our systems. Reliability and resilience come out of deep understanding, connection to others and contemplation of the future. A shallow, insular, reactive posture based on "compliance checklists" is not going to cut it in reality. That is safety, not security.

The grave miscalculation of conservatism that goes back to the fears of Powell and the Trilateral Commission, is just how much smarter and in control the people need to be in order for us to sustain a technological society. The dutiful, responsible and intellectually courageous middle class has been all but eradicated. Dignity of labour and the honest guile of the technical working-class engineer is now long dead. What we are left with is professional impostors and a fragile cybernetic dream increasingly predicated on fake "AI" and wishful thinking.

The naive Marxist hope of the old industrialists was that machines would run it all. They got it wrong. Machines can make static goods well enough. One day they may even be good enough to fully take over most agriculture, light manufacturing and surgery. But as anyone who pays close attention to the latest news about "AI" knows, the cheap, capable, ubiquitous robot overlords are not coming. Except as weapons.

The autonomous cybersecurity sentinels that would "protect our digital borders" are never going to work. Not because the whole thing is an infantile science-fiction dream, but because we don't have "borders" to protect anymore. The world got complex. We need cybersecurity people who are complex too, outstanding thinkers, who don't give a damn about the "shareholders". Who don't give a damn about "best practice", because they can think for themselves and see two steps ahead to better practice.

Error correction

You don't need to be David Stirling to dare and win. But it is most definitely time for a bit more of that spirit.

We're losing the battle by following the old rules. We are stuck. We need a new vision and some courage to speak more truth about public cybersecurity, like:

  • Giant monopolies and monocultures are antithetical to good security models. They're just bad for society. Many more smaller businesses are needed.
  • Progress is a vector not a scalar, it's direction is important.
  • Technology must be made in the public, not only private interests.
  • Markets are not good solutions for almost all the hard questions in digital technology.
  • The direction and purpose of technology is a policy debate as important as health, defence or transport. People must have a say.
  • Security is never a bare noun. It is always for something, from something and towards some definite end.
  • The legal assumption that computers "are correct" is insane and lethal. That onus needs fully reversing.
  • Popular cultural assumptions of inevitable technological determinism are very dangerous and require active countering.
  • Technology as a social control and surveillance mechanism, is fundamentally incompatible with prosperity, innovation and progress.
  • Governments have a role in civic cybersecurity, which is at the root of national security.
  • Zero trust is impossible because society depends on trust. A society with no trust is a society that's not worth living in.
  • Security can never be added later. If it's not secure it must be rebuilt.
  • and many, many more principles at the root of civic cybersecurity.

We need a new commission and a new memorandum, one that reverses the devastating mistakes of those 1970s conservative reactionaries. New institutions and funding for technological progress, education and research must be rebuilt as public projects. We need a plan to re-humanise education, oust the short-term profiteers and remove industry suck-ups who have hollowed out academia like termites. All of these trajectories have left our nations vulnerable.

Our "Crisis of Security" is that BigTech companies; Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Cisco, Fujitsu, and now OpenAI… and so on… are the cybersecurity threat. We all need and deserve better.

Date: 17 April 2024

Author: Dr. Andy Farnell

Created: 2024-04-18 Thu 09:13