Saturday, 26 December 2015

Educational Metatechnology and Listening

Our computer technologies are bad at listening. Of course, they record all the text we send to each other - to which the security services continually 'listen' to make sure we are not extremist nutters - but among the many reasons why we should object to what the security services do, the most important is the fact that their analysis of vast amounts of data is NOT listening. No doubt, some terrorist plots have been intercepted - for which some people should be grateful. But it doesn't pick up the disquiet about liberty and surveillance, increasing social alienation, atomisation and technocracy all of which feed the appetite of those who would seek to commit terrible crimes. Selective listening is not listening: more than not listening to the dynamics of social pathology, it becomes part of that pathology - selective listening is listening to fear and this is what our communication technology gives us.

It doesn't have to be GCHQ. Online education produces vast amounts of data. We analyse the data and detect that 90% of people have dropped off MOOC a, and 87% dropped MOOC b. Surmising what this tells us about the respective merits of MOOCs a and b is not an act of listening. It is the opposite of listening. MOOCs are a bit like very bad elevator music: it makes everyone feel bad, but some people manage to get to the top floor in the elevator despite this. But because we think that listening to the data of online education is listening, and because we act in response to it, we turn up the volume of the bad music, piling injury upon injury to education as we increasingly fail to listen to what's happening.

What we should really be listening to is our feelings. Technocracy and functionalism have overridden education to the point that the phenomenology and the politics of education have been squeezed out in favour of data and marketisation. A conversation is not an exchange of text whose contents can be analysed. If it were, all our conversations would involve us creating documentary evidence of our utterances and our meaning (the metadata!). We don't do this in the flow of everyday conversation. The word 'conversation' is from the latin - to "turn together" (con-versare). Turning together through the exchange of text documents is a somewhat stilted affair. In most online conversations, we dance alone with imaginary partners, only to correct our moves in the light of text signals from other people. But it is hit-and-miss.

It is the job of universities to listen. They now fail to listen because they have become constrained by technocracy, technology and markets. As they fail to listen, they will hurt people. The emotional damage they risk creating is not just to the staff they sack in their effort to be efficient, or the brilliant minds they never employ (most of my favourite academics would not get jobs in Universities today), but the damage to their students, alienated by increasingly rigid curricula, failed through unrealistic promises about "graduate premiums", burdened by debts that strike when they are beginning to establish their own families on incomes more meagre than they had hoped or were promised. Behind all of this are feelings of betrayal, anger and confusion.

Emotions really count. All good teachers know this. Not listening to emotions is very stupid behaviour, and our universities risk becoming good at not listening, or believing they are listening when they are not (even more stupid). In the final analysis, emotions drive new movements and change the world - but in ways which are not always peaceful. Universities must listen to everything - not just their market constraints. Their job is to reimagine the world, to explore what Ron Barnett calls "feasible utopias".

We have not got our technology right. Which leads to the question as to what a proper 'listening' technology might look like. I believe that what we should be looking at is a technology which helps us to understand our constraints: a technology for the management of a "social ecology". Since today's technology has become the single most powerful constraint upon the ways each of us lives, a technology which helps understand constraints is a metatechnology. It has to be a facilitator of conversation about technology: not conversation as the exchange of text documents, but the means by which we look into each others eyes and ask what our screens are doing to us.

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