The politics of educational technology

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 9 June 2011

Last week Joss Winn reminded me of the urgency of the work that he and I have been doing in the last year around resilience, tied to the impacts of liquid fuel availability/costs, peak oil, climate change and the treadmill logic of capitalism. Reflecting on the triple crunch of energy, economy and emissions, Joss ended his piece by stating that:

“It’s time that a co-ordinated effort was made by the sector to examine these issues in detail, involving academics from across disciplines as well as business continuity managers and VCs. We really do need to start ‘thinking the unthinkable‘…”

Whilst both he and I have been blogging about resilient education for a while, five issues have begun to pinch, which ought to re-focus those of us in higher education and in educational technology, on the politics of our position. These are big issues that threaten to overwhelm us. But they cannot be ignored.

1.    Global socio-political disruption: the media has focused in on what has been termed the Arab Spring, with an overt focus on Libya [see below on oil], and has tended to overlook analyses of tensions in either the United States based on unemployment figures and the deficit, or across Europe in Greece and Spain. This is then connected to issues around youth unemployment, which in turn has implications for discussions of what our higher education is for, and for whom our higher education exists, and who is abandoned by us. We might usefully reflect on the New College of the Humanities farrago, in light of our educational approach to social justice and inclusion. More importantly, in Western economies struggling under the weight of fiscal stimulus, needing to reduce deficits and structural debt, with pensions and an ageing population to consider, the inter-relationship between higher education and the politics of austerity need to be critiqued and alternatives developed. This is especially important in our current political space, because, as Paul Mason notes: “At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future”.

2.    Local socio-political disruption: the emerging neoliberal higher education project is contested. However, we exist in a space where the routine brutalisation of our young people on our campuses is tolerated, where those who dare to criticise established positions of power are termed terrorists, and where our use of social media for local and national organising comes under attack. Neocleous argues that “the logic of ‘security’ is the logic of an anti-politics in which the state uses ‘security’ to marginalize all else, most notably the constructive conflicts, the debates and discussions that animate political life, suppressing all before it and dominating political discourse in an entirely reactionary way.” Higher education should be the battle of ideas. If we truly believe in the transformatory power of social media, then we need to use itto contest these hegemonic positions.

3.    The economy: our framing of higher education rarely considers either the politics of our work or global economic outlook, for example in terms of the threat of a technical US default on its debt or China’s emerging lack of resources. Our planning and our thinking are around business-as-usual, as if higher education existed in a global, political economic bubble, in which the contradictions of capitalism remain someone else’s problem. That’s before we stop to think about the impact on other people of our consumer-driven lifestyles and work and higher education.

4.    Personal and institutional debt: Williams has noted that, in the move from education as a public good to becoming an individual commodity: “student debt, in its prevalence and amounts, constitutes a pedagogy, unlike the humanistic lesson that the university traditionally proclaims, of privatization and the market.” This is reiterated in the development and focus of the New College of the Humanities. However, it also refocuses the future of higher education and its funding mechanisms [in a world that faces the disruptions noted above], and the fear that middle of the road universities will soon be in the middle of a funding crisis. Paul Mason has also highlighted how finance capital in the West repackaged debt and risk in the sub-prime crisis. Are we about to see the same in the form of commodity-trading in student-driven debt? How does a pedagogy of debt enable the resilience of communities-of-practice or individuals?

5.    Energy and climate change: liquid energy is the key issue that we choose to ignore, and which is inextricably tied to the economic issues noted above. This ranges from the impact of geopolitical instability in Libya, to our desperate rush for tar sands in Madagascar, to the problems of energy policy and climate change objectives. So we focus upon green league tables or Masters degrees in the Economics of Transition, and do not consider them within a deeper critique of our dominant political-economic paradigms. Our debt-fuelled higher education is about to be driven by consumption of learning as a commodity. What will be the impact of that increase in economic spending on emissions and energy use? How will that frame resilience?

Technology is implicated throughout these issues, from governmental control/abuse of social media use and data, to feeding fears of anti-intellectualism, and through carbon emissions and the use of liquid energy. More importantly, it also fuels a myth of progress, tied to economic growth and libertarian utility, set apart from a deeper engagement in the history of struggle and the politics of its development and use. We tend to forget our history, in a rush for the future, and where we do remember our memories only stretch as far as Web 1.0. We might use the term Luddite related to technology, but we have no idea of the history of that term and what the Luddites were fighting for, and how technology was implicated through its non-neutrality in that story. The term is pejorative of those deemed anti-progress, and yet the real issue, as Feenberg has argued, is that ” technology is not a destiny but a scene of struggle.”

Yet the historian Ellen Meiksins-Wood has noted that:

‘we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself’.

Our education and our use of technologies are implicated. In order to understand our present position, and to develop alternatives that matter, we need stories and metaphors and critiques of where we are. There are elements of this, for example in the work of Feenberg, but we need a coherent, contextualised history and a politics of educational technology more than ever.

This is emering elsewhere, outside the formalised educational institution. On Sunday night a UKUncut conversation on Twitter opened up a possibility for discussing a history of direct action, using the #DAHistory hashtag. We also have clear examples of where technology has been critiqued and is being developed politically in the form of oppositional spaces. We also have examples of hacktivism and network movements in opposition to the global incorporation of networked technologies. Critiquing power relationships within our use of technology is important because, as DSG have noted “Governments are responding with a conscious and concerted effort to reframe cyber activity and activism as criminality against state and capital, which, no doubt, will soon be upgraded to a form of terrorism. This bears analogies to similar reframing of narratives around workers movements throughout the 19th and 20th Century, not least the “strategy of tension” in Italy in the 1970s.”

In the face of disruptions, and the return of politics in an era of austerity, those of us who work in education and technology might usefully ask: what is to be done?

Postscript: the importance of metaphors and stories of technology-in-education

We have a narrative emerging about the contradictions in the cycles and circuits of capitalism, and the place of technology in those contradictions. Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg de Peuter raise this in terms of games and the creative industries, arguing that the commodification and exploitation of “creatives”, gamers and hacker culture, is a form of “playbor”, which subsumes the desire to play games within the profit-motive. They argue that we need to understand this process of subsumption, in order to find ways around it, and to challenge it. These challenges might echo the revelations about of Sony’s attempts to silence speech that reveals security flaws about its PlayStation hardware, or they might echo the emergent history of hacktivism against Sony. Both de Peuter and Dyer Witheford argue that the dominant narratives of educational technology, for example of Web 2.0 technology as user-generated and hence emancipatory, or of learning analytics as allegedly leading to efficient, personalised teaching and learning, or of technology as implicitly progressive, need to be critiqued within a more substantive history of capitalism and the western, liberal state.

In doing this, Dyer Witheford argues for an alternative narrative, one of possibility, framed by the revitalisation of the commons:

“A twenty-first century communism must also be envisioned as a complex unity of terrestrial, state and networked commons, but the strategic and enabling point in this ensemble is the networked commons, which open possibilities for new combinations of planetary planning and autonomous association.”

This narrative of the insertion of global networks of capital within higher education feeds a second metaphor, that of the shock doctrine. Klein’s work on shock opens up a way of viewing what Hardt and Negri call Empire and what those who follow Deleuze and Guattari frame as immaterial labour within a networked reimagining of our global social relationships. We might now usefully work in common to reveal the impact of this shock within UK higher education, on issues of debt as a form of indentured labour, and of the discipline of the kettle and order, and of the ways in which states attempt to utilise technologies to impose order and control. Such a revelation demands rhizomatic or permeable working across disciplinary boundaries, in ways which develop resilient alternatives to dominant, powerful narratives of the purposes of our lives.

Each of these stories offers hope. Hope in that we might use them as metaphors to help us explain our world, in light of global crises; in order to understand how our behaviours and our cognitive dissonance impacts consumption and production in this world. As a result we might try to build something different. In the worst case scenario, these stories might help us work with others to become more resilient at scales and in networks that matter to us.

These stories enable us to critique in common the ahistorical truisms of liberal democracy, that technology and education can only meaningfully serve capitalist expansion, through discourses of finance capital that are related to value-for-money, efficiency, private/public, and the market. A global range of skills, alongside stories in which they might be situated, exist in spaces that remain as yet unenclosed. These spaces might be harnessed collaboratively for more than profiteering, or the extraction of surplus value or further accumulation or financialisation, or alienation. We teach and re-think these skills and these ways of thinking every day with other staff and students and within our communities of practice. We need the confidence to imagine that our skills might be shared and put to another use. We need the confidence to defend our physical and virtual commons as spaces for production and consumption. We need the confidence to think ethically through our positions. We need the confidence to live and tell a different story of the purpose of technology-in-education.

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