Friday 13 May 2022

Dialogical Design

Thinking about thinking may be essential to dialogue. This isn't because dialogue is solipsistic - although an internal conversation might well be. It is more because dialogue involves the creation of uncertainty: either uncertainty within oneself or the social uncertainty which new utterances reflecting internal uncertainty create in communication. Dialogue is what we do to manage uncertainty, and thinking about thinking is how we generate uncertainty. Since thought and utterance are both processes now mediated by technology, this "thinking about thinking" is increasingly "thinking about technology". 

In his famous essay "The Question Concerning Technology", Heidegger sets out to make this point at the very beginning. Before we get to the rather complicated terminology that Heidegger uses to describe the phenomenon of technology ("enframing", etc), he makes a point relating to "thinking about thinking":

"In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology. Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is a way of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary. We shall be questioning concerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology. When we can respond to this essence, we shall be able to experience the technological within its own bounds."

This is Heidegger in dialogue with himself in the context of uncertainty created by technology and existence. Irrespective of what we might think about his eventual conclusions, this is an supreme example of what it is to think. 

If we were to say that thinking about thinking is essential to dialogue, what would we say if there was utterance without thought about thought? Could this be dialogical? If not, why not?

At a recent online event, Rupert Wegerif made the point that fascism is not dialogical, and that those instances of fascist/extreme right-wing posting on Twitter weren't dialogical, while other interactions on Twitter almost certainly are. Is it the recursiveness of thought which distinguishes these things? 

An interesting question arose in this session as to whether TikTok was dialogical. TikTok appears to be the epitome of what Heidegger would call "falling" - the kind of thoughtless action that we engage in where the "readiness-to-hand" of the technology masks the world as it really is: like drone operators staring at computer screens and pressing "fire". We have the same experience in other forms of engagement with technology where we go into "autopilot" (driving is a good example). Is TikTok autopilot? 

My colleague Danielle Hagood objected to the idea that TikTok wasn't dialogical. Part of TikTok's  appeal lies in the counterpoint between the fallenness of the swiping of videos, and an inquiry into the behaviour of the algorithm. I think she's right - this inquiry into the behaviour of the machine, which is also an inquiry into our own thinking and reaction - is dialogical. 

I suspect it is a category mistake to talk about dialogue being facilitated by particular platforms or technological activities - one activity is dialogical and another isn't. That sounds rather like Theodor Adorno's criticism of pop music: that the only music that was worthwhile was that from the 2nd Viennese School. We (I) don't want to become a digital Adorno, sneering at all the fun people have with technology! All digital activities (all activities) provide the stimulus for thought to think about itself: it is this that makes them potentially dialogical. 

This is important when we consider conversation as an activity. Not all conversations are dialogues for exactly the same reason that not all technological activities are dialogues. Rupert's point about fascism is spot-on here. Fascism is fascism because it has no reflexivity on its own thought. To live in a non-dialogical world is to be both prevented from reflecting on our own thought (through fear) and/or to be prevented from uttering inner doubts in public which contributes to the external uncertainty. We see both these conditions in Russia at the moment. Of course, the Russian state proclaims a rationale for what it is doing - but it's manipulation of the media is characterised by the generation of non-questions in the public domain - often concerning the use of nuclear weapons. It admits (and permits) no genuine articulation of uncertainty.

This anti-dialogical condition is designed. So could we design an opposite condition: a condition wherein thought is encouraged to think about itself? 

I think the answer to this question is "yes", but I think there is no way of doing without this entailing a reflection on technology. Thought is inseparable from technology - from the medium, the technique, the technics and the politics. The condition for dialogue is a condition where the uncertainties that must be generated by dialogical processes are generated by unpicking the technological domain as much as the psychological and social domain. 

We need to think of a new kind of technology which can support this: something where the action taken with a tool leads to reflection on the operation of that tool and its relation to thought. This may be where the current drive for digitalization in education takes us. I'd be tempted to call it "Second-order educational technology"

Monday 9 May 2022

Learning technology and "Learning technology"

I have been heavily involved in promoting digitalisation at the University of Copenhagen for a year or so. When people ask what this is really about, I have found the simplest answer is to say that it is about encouraging students and teachers to look "beyond the screen". I often demonstrate this by simply pressing "CTRL-SHIFT-I" on my keyboard in a browser to reveal the Javascript console. It's perhaps analogous to producing a microscope in the natural environment. An invitation to ask more questions and explore new possibilities: to ask "What if...?"  

In the same way that we would encourage people towards deeper self-examination as part of their education, so I think it is becoming more important that a (related) technological-critical examination takes place within the digital environment in which we all swim. For the generation of students we are now teaching, the digital environment is a natural environment, whether they are comfortable in it or not - after all, there were always plenty of natives of the non-digital natural environment who were never comfortable in it!

Just as we would encourage people to explore and inquire about the natural environment, it seems reasonable to extend this to an inquiry into this "new nature", which is really as much an inquiry into ourselves as it is an inquiry into technology. Indeed the central issue of digitalisation is that it concerns the boundary between self and world which education has so-far been able to wash over. 

Faced with the mind-bending questions about identity and environment, sociology and psychology, it is much easier to stay rooted in traditional disciplines - both for students and staff. Moreover, our institutions have constructed themselves around these disciplinary sanctuaries. There are many reasons for an institution both to encourage "digitalisation" and to resist it. The encouragement comes from an a perception of existential threat - if traditional distinctions break down, then the raison d'etre for the institution is threatened, while if institutions fail to help students to adapt to the digital world outside, then they will be seen to be irrelevant. Digitalisation sits in the same camp as many other distinction-blurring issues: sustainability, decolonisation, and gender fluidity. These are all, I suspect, manifestations of deeper processes in our changing biological relation with our environment, our history, our institutions, and each other.  

The institution responds to this not with any fundamental organisational adaptation, but rather by declaring these things as "issues" or "agendas". So digitalisation, along with so many other things, has become an "agenda". Institutionally, "agendas" can be addressed by sticking something new on the curriculum, as if all that is required is a "bit more knowledge". So writing an essay on transgender rights (for example) will somehow address deep-seated and culturally established norms of bias and (often) bigotry. Is compliance with the "digitalisation agenda" merely satisfied with an essay about data privacy in the metaverse? What use is that? It keeps everyone busy, but does little to address what is really happening. 

So what about technology in this "learning"? What about "learning technology" for "learning technology"? Institutions have adopted a particular position with regard to technology for education which is now causing problems in its thinking about adapting to the challenge of the digital environment. Partly this has been caused by the commodification of technology in education, which has actively prevented students looking "behind the screen". Yet if we actually try to engage students in "looking behind the screen" there are some pedagogical challenges which have yet to be solved, but which are critically important. They might be listed:

  • How to avoid this becoming "computer science"?
  • How to make technical engagement personally meaningful?
  • How not to alienate students and teachers?
  • How to adapt assessment in ways which encourage technical exploration and creativity?
  • How to diversify activities so that students with different skills and dispositions can engage in activities that are right for them?
  • How to maintain interest and creativity when technical engagement often involves a quick descent into (often confusing) technical details which are far-removed from intended aims?
  • How to connect technical engagement to personal identity and spiritual development?
  • How not to throw out the disciplinary baby from the bathwater - transdisciplinarity cannot replace disciplinary expertise 
These are both pedagogical questions, and structural question within the university. They are challenges related to the act of "learning technology". There is, as yet, no sign that universities are willing to consider structural changes - particularly in assessment practices. So digitalisation will continue to sit as another "agenda". They want "learning technology" but cannot find a way of supporting the deeper process of personal inquiry involved in learning technology. 

But how could it be different? Perhaps one way forward is to think of how all the agendas piling onto education are symptomatic of a structural failing of the institution in a fast-changing world. It's like the British royal family now being increasingly confronted with the legacy of slavery - a legacy which biology is demonstrably showing the 200 year old epigenetic inheritance in heightened levels of diabetes, hypertension, stress and depression among black communities (see for example, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome | Dr. Joy DeGruy ( This is how science really challenges existing structures and practices. 

So what do we do? Should we throw away those structures? (Royals perhaps!) But we should invite innovative systemic approaches to restructuring to provide the space for personal exploration in a world which is moving fast away from traditional understanding. Assessment is where I would start - it is the principal constraint that keeps everything else stuck in its ancient shape.