The Crisis & Digital Complicity

Digital complicityThis is our response to a question posed by the TESOL Greece blog:

”During an economic crisis, resources (books, budgets, infrastructure) are limited but high standards and qualifications are required so that learners can survive on the job market. Can the use of technology help learners and teachers overcome this problem? If so, how?”

The obvious answer is: Yes, followed quickly by a plug for the inexpensive and helpful online resources that the author of the answer is busy marketing.

The obvious answer, though, is dull and unenlightening. The question, on the other hand, is interesting. It is itself so very questionable – especially the image of technology that it uses. For a start, there is the strange metonymy in thinking that digital tech is technology in its entirety. Are the books and infrastructure not also technology? Are budgets not also tools and means of control, and therefore forms of technology?

Linguistic quibbles aside, what is even more interesting is the assumption that digital technology is somehow not part of the crisis – not part of the system that is in crisis – because if we are to see it as a solution, are we not assuming it is not part of the problem? But what if the tech were an integral part of the system that is in crisis, and, therefore, part of the problem? Would we not then see things differently, and would we not then want to do things differently in the classroom?

Anyone comparing the crisis now with the crisis back in the 1930s must be struck by our collective inability to learn from our mistakes. In the intervening period we learnt how to split the atom, defy the Earth’s gravitational field, put a man on the moon, and microwave a frozen pizza, but we did not learn how to avoid destroying the life savings of millions of our fellow citizens, and how to avoid the economic suicides that followed. Why not? Part of the answer has to be our very weak sense of history, or our refusal of history – our refusal to look back, to connect with the past and learn from it. In other words, part of the reason for the current economic crisis is a deeper crisis in our sense of time and our sense of ourselves as beings who live in history. Now, the question is: Is the latest technology embroiled in that crisis, or does it point beyond it? Is it part of the problem or part of the solution?

A hypothesis: Digital technology currently exists as part of a larger way of life – a way of life suffused with a mythology that has a particular sense of time built into it. According to this sense of time the past is a place where obsolete things accumulate, either to be ignored or pored over by historically irrelevant antiquarians or to be played around with by postmodernist lovers of mix and match retro styling. The past is itself obsolete. The future is everything. And the future is something that we will invent. It will be the future of new technology – an even newer technology that will render the current form obsolete. Although the apostles of the Digital Gospel like to contrast the good new world that they see on the horizon with the bad imperialist and authoritarian past, there is a sense in which technology itself is now the big imperialist, since it has colonised our very future and our very sense of ourselves. How would we think of historical time now if not in terms of the obsolete tech of the past and the shiny new innovations of the future?

Two examples: A president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology perfectly recycles the myth that we will invent the future – implying that the future will be a world of inventions – a bright, new world with more and better tech. And we will know it is a better world, not because the people are better or because our democracy is better (if anyone still cares about such a low-tech thing as democracy), but because the tech is better.

MIT STEM nonsense

However, to appreciate what technology has become and what we have become in relation to it, it is a mistake to speak only to scientists. To a much greater extent the meaning of the techno-human nexus is invented by marketing teams. Technology is nothing without the myth spun around it – a myth spun now by advertising. Here is a piece of techno-centric myth-making that specifically addresses our sense of time:

It tells us (with the sublime multicolour authoritarianism of our Brave New Technocracy) to “Turn off yesterday”(3.28). Why? Because we must “optimise ourselves” – an instruction that only makes sense to people willing to think of themselves as technology – as things that need to be continually upgraded and optimised and renewed. We must optimise ourselves. And how is that to be done? By the technology itself – a technology which will liberate us from a past which must now be considered as obsolete as the floppy discs on which some of our doctoral theses are stored – now irretrievable.

Increasingly, we are turning off our shared past – our shared histories that are (or ought to be) a deeper part of our being than the shiny gadgets we absolutely must have close at hand 24 hours a day. In a very worrying sense, we are turning off ourselves. And the upshot of this is that we are making it harder to imagine a shared future in which we might break out of the cycle of boom and bust, of bubbles and crashes – the cycle whose grimmest aspect is evident in the current crisis here in Greece.

Provisional practical conclusion: Let’s use the e-books, the stellar apps, and other bits of digital tech, but let’s not be too naïve, and let’s find a way to do this that loosens the grip of the techno-centric imaginary on the young, perhaps helping them to appreciate later on that the mythologised technology is a culpable part of the crisis.


Credits for the Intel photo: TheeErin

written by Torn Halves on November 1, 2012 in digital revolution and education and pedagogy with one Comment