education, technology and the end of the end of history

In June 2009, a group of people who loosely knew each other, or were connected through emergent social networks and individuals, gathered for discussion about the intersection of education and digital technology. This collective, known as the ‘52group’, gathered from across the Higher Education sector in the global North produced a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’.

At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?” Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts. In 2015, to mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking, members of the original ‘52group’ individually revisited the term to consider its continued definition and relevance. My own response is here, with links to reflections from the other members of the group.

In 2019, Petar Jandrić (editor of the newly founded journal Postdigital Science and Education) discovered the original position paper and 2015 responses. Delighted by this rare opportunity to examine ten years of development of the concept of the post-digital, Petar contacted the group with a request to revisit the theme in 2019. Dave Cormier has posted his reconsideration here. Mine is appended below, with an extended bibliography.

NB After the fact, and following a decade of attempting to reconsider my position in light of intersectional and indigenous struggles, I note that the 52 Group consisted of white men of a certain generation, with plenty of social and intellectual capital, each working in the global North. It would be interesting to critique these positions and possibilities, in light of status, privilege and power. That is not to say that the original members of the group did not do this, just that there is more to say.

ONE. No shade in Capital’s shadow.

When the 52 Group originally met to discuss the intersection of education and digital technology the world was very different. It was more hopeful for connectedness and meaningful forms of connectivity. Such forms of connectivity were rooted in the humane, and in liberal values, which naturally emerged from the dominant political economic order. This order tends to describe the relationship between technology and society (or technology and the reproduction of that society) in positivist or determinist terms. Moreover, it does not help us to reimagine society in the face of crises, precisely because technological determinism reinforces the idea that we have reached the end of history. As a result, the limits of our imagination can only be shaped by finessing our future through our capitalist present.

Yet, in the intervening decade we have witnessed: the ongoing struggle of the global economy to overcome the crash of 2007; the rise of economic populism and the reinforcement of political binaries; the imposition of austerity politics, with differential impacts for specific populations; an inability to deal with crises of the environment; and on and on. We have witnessed the ongoing separation of politics and economy, such that solutions to these ongoing ruptures cannot be imagined beyond the existing, dominant mode of production.

This dominant mode of production warps our imagination through imposition of technological solutions. Such solutions are used not for humane values, rather for the generation of surplus that can be accumulated. Surplus emerges in the form of economic value, wealth in the form of profit or money, or time that can be diverted to more work, either collectively or on the individual self. Technological solutions are central to the accumulation of surplus, and as a result they are used inside capitalist production processes to discipline labour, to drive efficiencies in the use of labour power, to create new commodities, and to generate new markets.

TWO. Techno-discipline

At the intersection of education and technology, the work of students, academics and professional services staff is disciplined through workplace and attendance monitoring, performance dashboards, and the imposition of rating and excellence systems that seek to reshape affective labour processes. The labour processes of students and academics are increasingly commodified, as pedagogic processes and content are opened out such that new infrastructure and data services can be extracted by private providers and resold into the sector. The teaching, scholarly and research activity of the University is conditioned by discourses of employability, entrepreneurship, excellence and impact, and shaped by the intersection of performance data around debt, future earnings and learning outcomes. Moreover, these intersections are enabled globally, through flows of resources from the global South to the global North, with commodity-dumping in the opposite direction.

Individual bodies are conditioned collectively against dominant norms of production, shaped by an idealised view of how education and technology are generative of productive, human capital. As a result, digital technology is folded inside an apparently never-ending terrain of competition at the level of the individual, the subject, the institution and the nation. Digitally-reinforced performance metrics impose digitally-reinforced performance management.

Moreover, in this idealised view of production, in the technology-rich university of the global North, the reproduction of enriched human capital rest upon the ongoing exploitation of other bodies. These bodies undertake estates-related activities, cleaning, porterage, cooking and purchasing/logistics, at work and in the home. These bodies exist in low-wage, sub-economies that are often precarious and lacking in labour rights, such as pensions, maternity/paternity cover, holiday and sick pay. These bodies are often marginalised along intersections of gender and race.

THREE. Ongoing techno-colonisation, exploitation and expropriation.

The only space for radical imagination appears to be in the further, ongoing colonisation of the body and the Self by digital technology, as a means of generating surpluses. This is not the 52 Group’s original conception of ‘the act of [technology’s] colonisation, or appropriation, by people into their lives.’ Rather it is Capital’s colonisation of the soul in the ongoing search for surplus. Here, there is an overlay of these terrains of competition in ongoing corporate processes of exploitation and expropriation. Such processes limit the energy and capacity that societies have for re-imagination, precisely because these become bounded by the competition between humans and machines. Again, the 52 Group argued that ‘As digital technology is culturally normalised it becomes ever more transparent’, yet whilst technology and its commodities may be built upon ideas of openness these ideas do not enable transparency. Rather they are a legal terrain for the enforcement of privatisation and commodification through intellectual property, copyright, and patents.

Human engagement with technology has always had a contested history, in which individuals or groups or States attempt to break or harness specific technologies for particular political ends. Now, such contestation is amplified at the boundary between the human and the development of 5G cellular networks, cloud native applications, artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies, convergent technologies including biotechnologies, and the Internet of things. Interactions at these boundaries then enforces human-machine intersections with digital, monopoly capitalism in the form of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, and the rise of alternate geopolitical rivals, in particular from China. As a result, techno-colonisation of what it means to be human is amplified.

In the original, 2009 conception of the post-digital, the 52 Group wrote:

Not only is the digital subservient to the social, it is, in some ways (and soon most ways), transparent.

Over the course of a decade this statement has become a dystopian pivot for understanding more than the relationship between digital technology and the social. It becomes a pivot for understanding the convergence of the personal/the person and a range of technologies (cognitive, biological, nano), in order to subsume what it means to be human fully under the dictates of capitalist reproduction. This has been described in terms of the post-information human or the post-human, or analysed in terms of what it means to be post-human. In these descriptions, society has viewed technology through an economistic lens, reinforcing the separation of politics and economics, and denying the potential for a reintegrated political economy that radically reimagines society. As a result, social reproduction cannot be viewed beyond the lens of capital, and technology cannot be viewed beyond the lens of expanding the field of accumulation.

FOUR. Techno-humanism at the end of the end of history.

In a crucial part of the original statement, the 52 Group write:

The obsessiveness associated with digitalism seeks to see innovation as the search for meaning (or use) in the newest technology. Innovation in a postdigital era is more effectively articulated as being associated with the human condition and the aspiration toward new or enhanced connectedness with others.

Existence at the alleged end of history can only define enhanced connectedness through the dystopian subsumption of the flesh under emergent technologies like biometrics, neurotechnology, human genetic engineering and 3D bioprinting, and speculative technologies like the exocortex. The terrain of aspiration is shaped through the exploitation of the flesh and of the mind, through the augmentation enabled by technology, and the ongoing expropriation of what it means to be human. Of course, it is imperative that we recognise that these moments of exploitation and expropriation are rooted in wider, intersectional injustices.

Populations struggle to imagine futures beyond socio-economic or socio-environmental problems where these do not emerge from experts, technocrats or technologists. Human-machine or environment-machine augmentation are sold as enhancement; as logical, next transhistorical steps. This is precisely because our imagination cannot be allowed to view solutions to such problems as anything other than mechanistic and economy-driven. They are devoid of political content, in part because imagining a different history is too threatening to the established order.

Yet, this is exactly what is required – a radical, political horizon, which is reinforced through a radical, political imagination. A radical, political imagination that seeks to renegotiate the relationship between humans and technologies, grounded in the inter-disciplinary re-integration of life. So that it becomes possible to reimagine the relationship between humans and technologies at the end of the end of history. So that it becomes possible to reimagine the relationship between philosophy and the natural sciences, or between the social and natural sciences. This is a reintegration of the material modes of production with what it means to be human.

In terms of the intersection between education and technology, the focus must shift towards intellectual work, as opposed to academic labour, being recombined at the level of society to ensure that knowledge is socialised rather than privatised. Moreover, productive technologies need to be collectively controlled, such that the things that societies actually need in order to flourish, namely socially-necessary goods and services, can be produced in ways that reduce the waste of time, energy and lives. Waste, the counterpoint to surplus, emerges from the production of useless commodities.

The integration of technologies with a new political economy reduces the space and time required for the production of the things needed for self-sufficiency. It widens as base for autonomous existence. The very automation or human-machine augmentation and symbiosis that capital demands and develops in order to discipline and control labour makes possible an exodus from the society of capitalist work. This potential erupts through the radical redisposal of the surplus time that arises as an outcome of that automation, alongside the new ways in which different groups can interconnect in that surplus time. At issue is less the reality of automation at the end of history, and more the role of human dignity in rupturing the end of history.

This rupturing is the end of the end of history. The liberation of science and technology from capital’s competitive dynamics emerges as a new political horizon erupts. This is central to moving beyond capital’s digital colonisation of humans, such that it can exploit and expropriate what it means to be human and humane. Instead of the intersection of education and technology, we might speak of convergence, such that students, professional services staff and academics are able to focus upon the relationship between freedom and necessity, in order to widen the former and reduce the latter.

At the end of the end of history, can we make it possible to focus on alternative educational practices that develop socialised knowledge as a direct, social force of production? At the end of the end of history can we re-imagine ways to deny capital’s abstract, normalised monopoly over the productive resources and potential of society? In this moment, it may be that educational contexts form dynamic sites in the struggle to recuperate social productive power, where they are predicated upon the dignity of inclusive and participatory work. A starting point is recognising flows of power and privilege that are reinforced digitally, and opening out political structures for refusing techno-fuelled colonisation.


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