Saturday, 2 January 2016

Why Sociologists should be early for the next Technological Transformation of Education and Society

Over 10 years ago, I was engaged with the Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards (which was a service of JISC) in exploring the impact of Web Services on education. Web Services were a fundamental shift in the technological infrastructure - the exploiting of the potential of the HTTP protocol for disaggregating data services, and with it the disaggregation of the functionality of applications. Web Services introduced new levels of rationalisation into technological infrastructure, allowing rapid growth of the social web, with Web 2.0 services like Facebook, Twitter and so on rapidly arriving in the wake of the possibilities of the new technology. JISC were interested in the possibility of Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) in educational institutions, initially creating a 'framework' of institutional services which could be linked together by means of standardised data interfaces. SOA has changed much in business infrastructure - not least, in new subscription funding models for software vendors (Microsoft's Office 365 is a classic Web Service implementation, iTunes was one of the first adopters), but also in affording new possibilities for outsourcing, disaggregating services, seamless mashups of different services and so on. And the social web, Web 2.0, has changed the way we live in a fundamental headline-grabbing way: headlines which we flick through on our smartphones - the clearest example of mashups and web-service coordination.

However, the thing that made it possible wasn't particularly headline-grabbing - Web Services are 'geeky'. Consequently, those who think deeply about society and education were relatively late to the party. It seems that only when the technology becomes so obviously important do they take any note. Now there are quite a few important critical books on the impact of web2.0, surveillance, capitalism, etc: Old-timers like Andrew Feenberg have been trying to keep up for a long time (but always somewhat late!), but among the younger academics, personally I'm keeping an eye on Dave Elder-Vass who has an important book on Pro-suming and Web2.0 coming soon, Clive Lawson who has just finished his book about the ontology of technology, and Mark Carrigan, who has just written a great guide to social media for academics, as well as more thoughtful e-learning academics like Lesley Gourlay who are delving into the socio-material literature in an effort to find new explanatory frameworks for technology in education.

But is it all about to change again? I can list a few problems:

  1. The sociological critique is too late to have any real impact - save the opportunity and necessity for sociologists to carve out a reputation for themselves (a sad indictment on the state of our Universities which technology has been instrumental in delivering!)
  2. Technology keeps on moving
  3. Web 2.0 is now old - and the future isn't Web 3.0... or probably "Web anything"...
  4. There are rumblings of another fundamental technical change which are only being heard by techies at the moment but which ought to be heard by the sociologists and educationalists if they really want to try to build a better society (and we should aspire to this, shouldn't we?)
  5. We need sociological and educational input in the early stages of these technologies, not when the technologies have matured - it's too late then.

I cannot be certain of this, but the technological 'rumblings' that could change everything concern the resurgent interest in the peer-to-peer technologies surrounding bitcoin and the consequent 'distribution of the web': blockchain, ipfs (, the Linux Foundation's announcement that it is to create a 'standardised' blockchain (see, IBM's ADEPT (see focusing on the internet of things, Microsoft's deal with Ethereum to provide Blockchain on Azure (see Web distribution fundamentally means everyone becomes a server, and this is a concept which has implications not only for the computing devices we now know - phones, laptops, etc, but the computing devices which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the environment - the so-called internet of things. The network gives us means of effective control to harvest processing power from billions of devices rather than rely on the servers of Google, Amazon and so on. Similar arguments are being made for harnessing the network as a means of control for low-powered individual devices like LED lights, fuel cells, and so on. Large-scale grids may soon look very old-fashioned.

The social consequences of a decentralised approach will not be insignificant if it takes off. As an educational technologist, I'm continually frustrated by what I can't do because I can't get on to the right servers to do it. Blockchains could remove those obstacles: any tool can be deployed by anyone for use by anyone: no more waiting for Twitter to think of the next way they can 'enhance' their service. More importantly, blockchains can potentially de-massify the web. Peer-to-peer relationships are different from client-server relationships: everyone can be both a client and a server. This is very different from the typical MOOC: there's an opportunity for genuine 'resource bargains' between individuals in sharing documents, conversations, code, tools, etc: maybe a bit like the exchange relations in bitcoin transactions. Nobody can be sure of the details of this, but the prospect is fascinating and exciting - it demands some deep thinking and careful interventions: the technology will take on a life of its own soon enough and the opportunity to influence it will be lost.

Any new technology is an opportunity to explore ancient problems afresh. The problem is that those who think most about the ancient problems are often the last to think about new technology as it emerges. I would like to change this - particularly if Blockchain really is as significant as it looks right now. As Andrew Feenberg points out,
"Technology can deliver more than one type of technological civilization. We have not yet exhausted its democratic potential" (Feenberg, "Between Reason and Experience"). 
Technologists have little experience in thinking about "democratic potential"; sociologists and educationalists are much better equipped. 


David K said...

Alas, non-financial blockchain implementations have that whole "wouldn't it be nice if people did thing x via method y and stored it in format z" feel to them...

Mark Johnson said...

The world of webservices was like that in the early days...

To be honest, what interests me most is when there is a new technology, and a host of different people with very different agendas all talking about it, not quite knowing what it is or what it might mean.

The technology isn't the story; the story is the conversation that re-examines the world around us for a brief moment... until the technology becomes standardised and "corporatised" and we sink back into some newly constituted Google or Facebook! I think this is about a moment in time... JISC really ought to be on to it... ;-)

Mark Johnson said...

oh - and do you remember this... - maybe wasn't so crazy after all...