Wednesday 27 March 2013

Politicizing Educational Technology

Technology seems to just happen to us. MOOCs are 'just happening' to us. But as the recent backlash against Google Glasses shows (see it is social change which legitimates itself according to a progressivistic logic, but for which nobody votes. There is no democratic accountability for technological change.

This is a question that Andrew Feenberg and Ulrich Beck have been asking - the challenge seems to be "how can technical developments be considered within a context of an informed political debate? How can the will of the people count in technology?" This is tricky. It is not true that all technical developments are 'off' the political agenda. Developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering are very much political issues. But developments in social technologies arguably have a greater impact (certainly a wider impact) than any of the "niche" technical developments that people worry about, yet there is little discussion about beyond 'healthy living' advice ("don't spend too much time online!", "video games are bad/good for you", etc) which appears more as lifestyle advice rather than political force.

The deep problem is one of distinction-making. Social technologies blur the boundaries between the person and their environment. It challenges us to think of what we mean by 'will' and 'freedom' in the first place. The very assumptions of democracy become blurred in the corporate strategies of global technology companies. And they, of course, like it like that.

Where do we start to draw distinctions? What measures can we use to keep our bearings? The social sciences abounds with competing theories and methodologies by which academics grapple with this - often only servicing the needs of the academic machine and academic careers rather than making concrete social progress. One theory - a cybernetic one - which I think is particularly pernicious is the "everything's a process" theory. "education's a process, society's a process, we're all in a process..!" The technology companies love that! There's nothing to get hold of in a sea of relavistic logic which is always defensible, but which invites those who can dictate the processes to run the show. The technology firms, the financial services industries are very much 'dictating the process' at the moment. Governments, the representatives of the will of the people, are dancing to their tune.

We are not processes. We are "persons". If you ask me what a "person" is, I cannot really say abstractly, except to say you and I are one, and there are things that we share: there are people we love and who love us. There are hopes and dreams and there are fears. And all people are like that, and yet they are all fundamentally different in the details. And whatever fancy ideas we have for the way the world works, those ideas take second place to our dreams, our loves, and the drive for meaning in our lives.

The essential problem of the social sciences and politics seems to be that we can't get beyond 'persons'. There is no satisfactory abstraction into institutions and social structures (although those things certainly have causal powers); there is no satisfactory abstraction into the components of experience of consciousness (yet mental process too are important). Persons are not divisible and each is different.

What does "the will of the people" mean when we look at things like this? My will is not a statement. It is not an abstraction. It is a movement towards something which I cannot tell. It is an absence. Ah! But there's a clue. Because the will of people is not the will of a person. It is what happens when many persons understand their common absences. Then politics is possible.

Our technology world is largely 'positive'. E-learning has been particularly guilty of a positive self-presentation and an entrepreneurial drive. Criticality gets pushed aside. Instead we assert things which are there, rather than the things which are left out. Politicizing technology means concentrating on the absences. It is through the process of determining what isn't there that coherent distinctions can be made. 

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