on digital literacy, use value and alienation

With Lucy Atkins and Josie Fraser, I’ve just had a paper published on Defining a self-evaluation digital literacy framework for secondary educators. The abstract for this paper connects educational policy to classroom practice, in order to support the creation of a framework that amplifies teacher-agency and the idea of radical collegiality. This is important in enabling teachers to engage in a conversation about reclaiming the spaces that are infused by pedagogy technology. In the face of UK Coalition Government and opposition Labour Party attacks on the professionalism of teaching staff, which further reproduce anxiety-driven performance management, this repositioning of digital literacy as a crack through which teacher professionalism might be reclaimed seems important.

The abstract goes as follows.

Despite the growing interest in digital literacy within educational policy, guidance for secondary educators in terms of how digital literacy translates into the classroom is lacking. As a result, many teachers feel ill-prepared to support their learners in using technology effectively. The DigiLit Leicester project created an infrastructure for holistic, integrated change, by supporting staff development in the area of digital literacy for secondary school teachers and teaching support staff. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how the critique of existing digital literacy frameworks enabled a self-evaluation framework for practitioners to be developed. Crucially, this framework enables a co-operative, partnership approach to be taken to pedagogic innovation. Moreover, it enables social and ethical issues to underpin a focus on teacher-agency and radical collegiality inside the domain of digital literacy. Thus, the authors argue that the shared development framework constitutes a new model for implementing digital literacy aimed at transforming the provision of secondary education across a city.

We argue that in moving beyond audit-based frameworks to one that is framed through trusted self-evaluation, it is possible to connect educational practices to pedagogy and continuing professional development. We speak about embedding self-review into the heart of a digital literacy project, and then deliberately connecting them to co-operative, practitioner-led development opportunities that are negotiated across a City. In focusing on the development of co-operative practices that are rooted in pedagogic practice, we argue that it is possible to strengthen radical collegiality, and thereby push back against policy directives that marketise and commodify the curriculum and reduce its meaning to entrepreneurial skills and employability. This focus on teacher-agency and co-operation, which pivots around a custom self-evaluation framework, demonstrates that city-wide pedagogic transformation through teacher empowerment is a radical possibility.

There are two ways in which this argument might be enriched. First, through a focus on the ways in which technologies and hence digital literacy might be used to democratise the classroom and to discuss alternative social forms. Second, on the contradictions between digital literacy formation and the ways in which technologies are alienating.

ONE. On digital and democratic literacy

One of the key contradictions that emerge from inside capitalism is that of the commodity framed by value. I have written elsewhere about how educational skills, services, practices, data and so on, are being commodified and accumulated by third parties or associations of capitals, through the control of information streams or access to software that is protected by patents or through the enclosure of the digital commons, and so on. However, in the literature there is little analysis of how digital skills, practices and knowledge might be developed, shared and re-purposed co-operatively inside and across the classroom, in order to describe an alternative world away from education for employability or entrepreneurship.

One way in which a dialogue around alternatives might emerge is through a focus on the social use value of those digital skills, practices and knowledge as opposed to their exchange value. The latter posits the market as the only mechanism through which students or staff can access or develop digital literacy as an individual use for them. Yet, there are examples in the Telekommunist Manifesto and from venture communism of how approaches to policy and practice of digital literacy rooted in peer production and copyfarleft might enable the social use of digital technologies to be amplified over-and-above their individuated, entrepreneurial accumulation and exchange. As Dmytri Kleiner argues in the Telekommunist Manifesto (p. 8):

We need venture communism, a form of struggle against the continued expansion of property-based capitalism, a model for worker self-organization inspired by the topology of peer-to-peer networks and the historical pastoral commons.

This means that inside and beyond the classroom, spaces are needed that refuse their co-option for the market and for the accumulation of wealth and power by an elite. This includes the ways in which public education is co-opted for a rentier class that harvests data, and sells and re-sells services, or the ways in which technologies are used to maintain alienating structures of domination over teachers and students who can be individually or as a fraction of a social class labelled as luddites or laggards or failing.

This labelling does little for the generation of social solutions to social problems, and risks exacerbating the disconnection between how people think and act with digital technologies, and how they engage in a broader political process. This disconnect is amplified through technological change that removes our collective power and autonomy, when all that teachers and students are left with is: the next upgraded mobile tool or tablet or bring your own device policy; the obsession with personalisation through access to data and information about performance or always-on social networks; the latest fetishized technological solution to engagement or emancipation; the monitoring and surveillance, including auditing, of performance through external frameworks; or whatever. Students and teachers are simply left with compensatory consumption and the outsourcing of solutions to social problems, and as they approach higher education they face increasing levels of debt and alienation. In part this is because those spaces that should be enabling students and teachers to develop creative alternative uses for skills, practices and knowledge are subsumed under exchange value and the desperate search for entrepreneurial truth.

Thus, we might question whether those digital literacies might be developed, in order to frame an alternative peer-produced pedagogy of care, which drives: collective uses for skills, practices and knowledge; social value rather than the desire to use education to accumulate money or private property; and associated educational forms, perhaps as open commons? In turn one might hope that it is possible to find ways to act co-operatively and to share resources that maintain their associational, not for-profit strength. As Kleiner argues (p. 28):

While copyleft is very effective in creating a commons of software, to achieve a commons of cultural works requires copyfarleft, a form of free licensing that denies free access to organizations that hold their own assets outside the commons.

This is the production of a pedagogic space that is against the ideological power, culture and democracy of money. This is the use and production of a digitally-infused education that denies the one per cent their ideological and practical pedagogic support. This builds upon the work of the peer-to-peer foundation in finding ways to generalise forms of peer production, peer governance, and peer property, in order to overcome three critical issues that fold education and digital contexts into their logics.

The first is that ‘The current political economy is based on a false idea of material abundance. We call it pseudo-abundance. It is based on a commitment to permanent growth, the infinite accumulation of capital and debt-driven dynamics through compound interest.’

The second is that ‘The current political economy is based on a false idea of “immaterial scarcity. It believes that an exaggerated set of intellectual property monopolies – for copyrights, trademarks and patents – should restrain the sharing of scientific, social and economic innovations. Hence the system discourages human cooperation, excludes many people from benefiting from innovation and slows the collective learning of humanity. In an age of grave global challenges, the political economy keeps many practical alternatives sequestered behind private firewalls or unfunded if they cannot generate adequate profits.’

The third is that ‘The pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce and slow, does not advance social justice. Although people may have a formal legal equality of civil and political rights, serious and increasing material inequalities make those rights more nominal than real. At the other extreme, the polity explicitly grants human rights to the artificial legal construct of the for-profit corporation, a pathological institution that is solely beholden to its shareholders, and is constitutionally unable to take into account the common good.’

Michael Bauwens and Franco Iacomella argue that:

The peer-to-peer vision relies upon the three major sectors of society – the state, market and civil society – but with different roles and in a revitalized equilibrium. At the core of the new society is civil society, with the commons as its main institution, which uses peer production to generate common value outside of the market logic. These commons consist of both the natural heritage of mankind (oceans, the atmosphere, land, etc.), and commons that are created through collective societal innovation, many of which can be freely shared because of their immaterial nature (shared knowledge, software and design, culture and science).

They see this produced through

future political and cultural alliances… as a confluence of various global forces: 1) those working against the enclosure and the privatization of knowledge, which are simultaneously constructing new knowledge commons; 2) those working for environmental sustainability, including the protection of existing physical commons; and 3) those working for social justice on a local and global scale. In other words, we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”

The question then is what is the role of digital literacy and digitally-enabled educational spaces in creating such a co-operative dynamic? Is it possible to use copyfarleft against the use of Intellectual Property Rights as new sources of monopoly power for rentiers? Is it possible to liberate digital technologies infused as social use values through critical pedagogy, in order to open up new areas of class struggle? Is it possible to develop and protect the social and associational use value of the critical, educational, open Commons , in order to talk through alternatives? Is it possible to open out educational possibility through the knowledge commons or free access to higher education, rather than let them be structured through the market?

One critical context is a more critical understanding of how technological intensity, including the use of digital tools and the development of digital skills, tends to make labour redundant. Just as we embrace the range of technological possibilities of the open commons or of digital production, we also need to face the reality that capital uses technological and organisational innovation to discipline labour and to impose consumerism. Capital controls and deploys technology to squeeze value out of labour, be that through new pedagogies for the entrepreneurial self, or to leverage strategies for employability or internationalisation. At issue is how might we embrace digital literacy through a more democratic pedagogy and a co-operative classroom to enable its social use.

TWO. On digital literacy and technological alienation

For Marx (pp. 327, 330), the worker suffers a four-fold alienation.

First from the product of his labour, which becomes “an alien object that has power over him”.

Second in his working activity, which he perceives as “directed against himself,” as if it “does not belong to him”.

Third from “man’s species being,” which is transformed into “a being alien to him”.

Fourth, from other human beings, and in relation to their labour and the object of their labour.

Marx (p. 324) argued that

…the externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

In this view all labour under private property, rather than that which co-operatively shaped an associational and open society, is alienated because one has to work in order to live. This is an external, non-authentic life shaped by wage slavery and the spectacle of consumerism. Digital life is central to this focus on the consumption of skills or content or practice, rather than on open production and sharing. This is the logic of commodifying the social and the personal, in order that it can be marketised or monetised. Education is not immune from this process, as the prevalence of merchants across the compulsory and post-compulsory sectors attests.

At issue here is the extent to which the digital literacy agenda, or that of coding for kids, or MOOCs, or the generation of digital practices, is each connected to the forces of production of capitalist society. So how do they reproduce spaces for value creation and accumulation, or surveillance and performance management, rather than for personal or societal growth and mutuality? As Marx noted in the Grundrisse, this is connected to the objective conditions of living labour, which are increasingly framed by the need to be entrepreneurial, in order to survive a marketised life.

The objective conditions of living labour appear as separated, independent values opposite living labour capacity as subjective being… The objective conditions of living labour capacity are presupposed as having an existence independent of it, as the objectivity of a subject distinct from living labour capacity and standing independently over against it; the reproduction and realization, i.e. the expansion of these objective conditions, is therefore at the same time their own reproduction and new production as the wealth of an alien subject indifferently and independently standing over against labour capacity. What is reproduced and produced anew is not only the presence of these objective conditions of living labour, but also their presence as independent values, i.e. values belonging to an alien subject, confronting this living labour capacity. (pp. 461-2)

How is digital literacy used to reproduce the objective conditions inside which the teacher and student must labour? How does digital literacy appear as a natural value of entrepreneurial education confronting and alienating the teacher or student?

This then forces us to rethink how digital skills, practices and knowledge developed in the classroom and developed by social labour:

appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual  workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them. They all appear quite simply as the prevailing forms of the instruments of labour. As objects they are independent of the workers whom they dominate. Though the workshop is to a degree the product of the workers’ combination, its entire intelligence and will seem to be incorporated in the capitalist or his understrappers, and the workers find themselves confronted by the functions of the capital that lives in the capitalist. (Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 1054).

How do digital literacies, through the skills, practices and knowledge developed, and the frameworks that are used to measure or self-evaluate them, appear to be external to the teacher and student, and structuring of their labour and identity? How do they dominate the teacher and student so that they must be entrepreneurial or risk becoming unemployable? How do they invalidate and make anxious certain behaviours and performances? How do they structure and reinforce perceptions of professionalism? Again, we might ask how do we work against the use of digital literacy for exchange value, in order to liberate their social and mutual use value? As Marx argues in Capital Volume 3 (p. 959):

Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.

How do we shape critical, digital spaces for collegial forms of continuing professional development that are productive of an alternative, radical pedagogy? How do we use such a radical approach to CPD, in order to shape a different social life?

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