EdTech and the Fate of the Individual

The EdTech discourse still hasn’t faced up to the demise of the individual. The technophiles talk as if technological “progress” along current lines is liberating and empowering individuals now able, for instance, to get direct access to the colossal warehouse of the world’s accumulated knowledge, pulling the ecclesiastical rug from under the feet of the pedagogical priesthood that has kept them subjugated since the earliest days of organised education.

But where are all these individuals? And if we went looking for them, would we know what we were looking for?

Social observers less blinded by the white light of technology noted long, long ago that the age of the individual was well and truly over, and the tech that was supposedly liberating it, was, in truth, merely burying it further underground.

We confess at the outset that we are not individuals. The time’s being out of joint is something we feel in the pit of our being – a being so fragmented that it could not possibly be called an individual.

What follows are some fragmentary reflections on the demise of what the technophiles think is on the rise.

There is absolutely no originality in any of this. The central idea is one borrowed from Georg Simmel, who observed at the turn of the twentieth century how the growing emphasis upon personal freedom was a corollary of our perfect adjustment to an utterly impersonal order hostile to any meaningful notion of individuality. Modern personalisation is, in truth, impersonalisation. The culture and structure of the society in which we live condition us not just to bow to but to welcome with open arms an essentially anti-individualistic social order, delighted as we are with the negative freedoms it allows. (The Philosophy of Money. p460)

The idea reappears a few decades later in the work of Theodor Adorno: The liberation of the individual within our technocracy has been its negation. Freeing the individual from the old bonds under these conditions has not strengthened the resistance that is constitutive of the individual, but eliminated it. (Minima Moralia. p149)

Furniture and individuality

Writing at a time when flat-pack furniture was as unthinkable as a lunar landing, Simmel described a rising younger generation that had a new relation to the things among which it lived – a younger generation for whom developing a personal connection to particular items of furniture was a quaint eccentricity belonging to the past. (PoM. p460) When things in the home become abundant, cheap and easily replaceable, and when they are frequently replaced, the phenomenon of personal attachment wanes. And something within people themselves wanes, Simmel reminds us.

The logical end state of this trend is IKEA, and people filling their houses with cheap, flat-pack, mass-produced furniture that can be disposed of when the need arises without the slightest sense of personal loss. Bin it; move on. The future is calling us; let go of the past.

The rise of the flat-pack world marks the fall of the individual, no longer aware of the substance draining from him.

Hence, for those who are unsure whether they are or are not individuals, there is the IKEA test of individuality. Visit your local IKEA warehouse; wind your way along the labyrinth of flat-pack commerce; then join the queue for the Swedish meat balls on the far side of the checkout. If you are not physically sick, stop kidding yourself that you are still an individual.

The family home

The home in which one grew up: Who now thinks twice before selling it once those who devoted their working lives to paying for it have died? And it matters not who is going to live in it and what is going to become of it. We receive the money equivalent of its value and that is the end of the matter. People less schooled in the universality of the principle of exchange are reluctant to sell the family home, and we see that as proof of how primitive they are.

We have lost our attachment to things – very particular things. The problem with society is not that it is materialist, but that it is not materialist enough. It does not take things seriously. Every thing is disposable, exchangeable and replaceable by something more up-to-the-future – something that will almost certainly arrive packed flat.

However, the essence of individuality is not to be found in a narrow-minded nostalgic attachment to family heirlooms (many of which may be soaked in the blood of those denied even the delusion of individuality), but in resistance. The point is that without either an attachment to particulars or at least the memory of such an attachment, there can be no resistance to the now imperial impersonal order so indifferent to particularity.

The individual and the measure of all things

In the first age of modern individuality – the Renaissance – the demand went out that man be the measure of all things. The taste for the towering ceilings of Gothic cathedrals disappeared and was replaced by a preference for buildings that affirmed rather than humbled the individual.

Man as measure of all things

How things have changed. Rather than giving the measure, the individual is now measured at every turn, and assessed as to his ability to fit into a structure whose complexity dwarfs anything the Gothic architects might have imagined.

And in an increasingly joined-up educational system the trend is to remove those assessments from the remit of the teacher (subject as she is to all her biases and personal misconceptions and erroneous inclinations) and automate them with perfect objectivity, enabling pupils and parents to know at any minute of the day exactly how the child measures up.

The vending machine

Digital vending machines can be spun as liberating the individual, but this is merely a pseudo-liberation since what is really achieved is the liberation of retail as an enterprise that henceforth refuses all limitations. The idea that there are days on which there should be no shopping, and the idea that shops should be confined to a particular area and open at particular hours and sell at a rate determined by the limitations of personal sales staff is flatly refused. It is retail saying, “Free, free at last,” not the individual, whose place is taken by the happy shopper, for whom the decimation of the town centre is amply compensated for by the convenience of online shopping – someone whose preferences dovetail perfectly with the interests of the anti-individualistic order.

The now standard critique of standardisation assumes the war has been won when there is nothing in our public squares that resembles those offensive lines of Maoists wearing identical uniforms. If everyone is amassing unique collections of stuff bought online, surely there is no repellent standardisation. But our cultivation of this essentially cosmetic personal difference goes hand in hand with our willing embrace of a deeper standardisation: the standardisations of time (every day is now a shopping day) and of the shopping experience itself (now that the last traces of a personal service have been annihilated), and the standardisation of personal priorities (we all agree now that considerations of price and convenience trump those having to do with the quality of life in the local town centre, where the old shops are now boarded up), and the standardisation of reason itself (we all agree how irrational – how medieval even – it would be to forbid people to shop on a certain day of the week).

Educational vending machines

The pattern long-established in the market is now being applied to schools. What was called a market in education quickly became education for the sort of impersonal mechanisms that dominate the market. The so-called personalisation of education, in practice, trains children to be grateful to an impersonal order that saves them from the irritating interference of other human beings – a grateful acceptance of the rule of the algorithm that automatically matches the educational programme to the objectively ascertained level, ability and typology of the student.

The oft-repeated rant about a one-size-fits-all education fails to see that a one-algorithm-fits-all model is no better. The teacher, depicted so often as a willing agent of standardisation, is someone through whom an individual-friendly attitude to the prevailing standards could be negotiated, at least in theory. With the algorithm, even in theory, there is no room for negotiation. Submit or fail.

EdTech personalisation continues to impersonalise the subject of learning insofar as no room is given for the personal response, the grading of which could never be automated. The child learns that all the rewards come from choosing what has already been predetermined. Why slow things down and make them hard by looking for a path that has not already been charted?

Sugata Mitra’s version of this technocentric training is a preparation for a world in which, as he puts it, knowledge is obsolete. The questions that Mitra’s teachers pose for their pupils send them looking for the answers online. What counts as knowledge is exclusively what is or could be found online and then subjected to strict criteria of rational validity. The idea that the most important forms of knowledge depend upon personal experience is systematically eliminated. What Mitra avoids mentioning is that the obsolescence of knowledge is also the obsolescence of the individual.

Without knowledge of their own, grounded in forms of personal experience that have not yet been perfectly adapted to the prevailing order, people can be nothing other than drones whose mental activity serves the objective hive mind, rather than being a force in its own right.

EdTech and modern warfare

There is a connection that needs to be made between the technologies of education and those of war.

Robert Musil wrote a short story after the First World War describing the death of the individual on the battlefield. The quotation recalls the idea of a strange thing called “character”, which used to be the spiritual backbone of the individual. Education for individuality used to be less about PISA standards and more about character-building. The narrator in Musil’s story says:

I am convinced that the development of character has something to do with the way we wage war, and that nowadays, for that very reason, it can only be found among savages. For those who fight with knives and spears require character to come out on top. But what kind of character, however resolute, can stand up to tanks, flame throwers and poison gas!? What we therefore need today is discipline, not character!

And now that smart bombs have replaced poison gas Musil’s point is further corroborated, not contradicted. On the battlefield there is absolutely nothing for the individual to engage with; the technology negates him even before it reduces him to a cloud of tissue fragments.

Drone target

The same thing happens with digital technology designed not to kill but to entertain and educate. Even though the person is able to do things (click this, tap that, etc. and see things change in response) the individual is confronted with a technological complex that must remain alien to his or her individuality.

When young children build their own houses offline with things they find close to hand, they can think of that new space as exclusively theirs and they can imagine that values hold sway there that no longer have a place in the adult world. In the virtual substitute for this – playing some simulated house-building game online – surely the experience is quite different. Other motivations, such as the amassing of points, have to come into play because there can be no experience of creating a space that is truly your own and separate from an adult world in which things have to be one way and not another. All online games require that you play by the rules. Players are neither creating their own rules nor creating a space they can experience as entirely their own.

In a sense, the child does a deal with the demon of digital tech, and agrees to leave aside his or her individuality (the private worlds conjured up by their own imaginations) in exchange for the sensory rush of pixelated sights and sounds, and the pseudo-challenges designed to keep them hooked. And there are people who seriously suggest that online games provide a model for future-orientated education. If so, the future will not be a place for the individual.

As long as there are still some children creating spaces of their own from the simplest materials found offline, there is hope still for individuality.

Skepticism and individuality

A certain skepticism is constitutive of modern individuality. The Renaissance individual was someone who grew up in a totalitarian medieval order, and who found the strength to question it, and insist upon a re-evaluation of its most fundamental values.

This was not an idle skepticism about all knowledge that ends with a shrug of the shoulders and a resigned acceptance of the way things are, but a courageous skepticism regarding a prevailing dogma that seemed to contradict the lessons of felt experience. In a sense it was subjectivity asserting its truth against the institutionalised objectivity of ecclesiastical dogma.

Critical thinking is there in the edtech pedagogical toolbox, but, for the most part, it serves to support, rather than question, the prevailing dogma. Mitra, for instance, wants his pupils to submit everything they find online to tests of rational validity, sifting incontrovertible fact from all-too dubious values. Children thereby learn to denigrate the voice of personal experience, and give credence only to what conforms to the impersonal order. In this way, the Enlightenment (that stood on the shoulders of the Renaissance) proves itself to have evolved into a new medievalism, splitting reality into a personal realm full of affect but devoid of truth and an affectively dead order of public, impersonal truth, insisting that the latter rule the former.

Individuality and unity

Another value integral to individuality is unity. There is still some truth in the Renaissance ideal of the l’uomo universale. The IKEA test of individuality is to be complemented by the DIL test, where DIL stands for: division of labour. This considers how happily you submit to the demand that your public identity be constituted almost entirely by your chosen specialism in the global economic order. The happy labouring specialist is hopelessly deluded if he considers himself a paragon of individuality.

One damning aspect of Sir Ken Robinson’s books about finding your passion is their complete blindness to the passion of the individual – a passion that cannot possibly find itself in the conscientious fulfilment of one’s narrowly defined job description.

Industrial education

When the individual is reborn, his or her first words might be: “No, we cannot find our passion here.” And his second words (in response to the inevitable Robinson rejoinder) might be: “And no, we will not rest content supplementing routine labour with a distracting hobby. The individual is not the Sunday-afternoon angler.”

Individuality and self-understanding

The emergence of the individual in the Renaissance was also the beginning of the modern autobiography and of modern introspection. Intellectual reflection and individuality go hand in hand, and education inevitably recalls the Delphic injunction to know ourselves. In the intervening centuries something went awry, though.

A complex of factors have led to the emergence of what Georg Simmel calls the objective lifestyle. We busy ourselves with the duties of our station, then fill our free time with distractions, and become indifferent to questions about who we are, what really matters and what we are doing. Or where those questions live on, they are confined to a subjective spirituality that is cut off from any critical engagement with the details of the objective world we help to sustain through our everyday activities (Google’s mindfulness classes, are the prime example). Both the objective lifestyle and a narrow subjective spirituality are antithetical to individuality.

The edtech discourse all too often betrays the indifference Simmel describes. People like Prensky and Mitra are over the moon when they see children from the Indian slums managing to put together sentences about recombinant DNA. Questions about how that information is going to fit into those children’s developing understanding of who they are, and what matters, and what they are doing are not even raised. Genetics is cutting edge. That is an objective fact. The child can forget the slums and the tensions of Indian society and Hindu civilisation and the funeral pyres on the Ganges. What significance can they possibly have? Being at the cutting edge of the most impersonal knowledge we have is all that matters.

Camille Paglia has written a lovely essay on education describing students who have gone through the hole in the wall and found themselves in a strange non-place of objective concerns with no apparent connection to an understanding of themselves and of the world to which they actually belong. The students – products of a long training in the objective lifestyle – reminded her of the scene in the Kubrick film where an astronaut spirals off into the distance after his lifeline to the mother ship is cut.

Cognitive alienation and edtech

Pedagogy is dominated by two trends at the moment: One trend is concerned entirely with objectified knowledge and wants to see the country’s schoolchildren getting top marks in the PISA rankings. The other is concerned entirely with the subject (the person), wanting to see students expressing themselves, following their curiosity and developing their own intellectual agency unhindered by any prior objective framework. What these two views lose sight of is the need for students to begin to understand the world to which they belong and which is constitutive of them.

Individuality and action

We live in a society in which people are still identified with their position in the division of labour. We might like to think of ourselves as essentially thinking beings for whom the Cartesian cogito is decisive, but socially the syllogism given the greatest credence is still: I labour, therefore I am. In the public realm at least, we have completely lost the idea that there is something more important than labour.

The point is not that the individual is one who aristocratically refuses to labour. Rather, the point is that individuality is not seen in labour. Hannah Arendt argues this eloquently in The Human Condition, where she argues that individuality only shows itself through action – through initiatives taken within a community that start something new, and that become part of the narrative in terms of which that community understands itself. The individual is one for whom the syllogism that really matters is: I act, therefore I am.

The dominant trend in the edtech discourse involves focusing on the technicalities of problem-solving, not on the historical realm of action or the realm of ideas in which individuals might find new ways of making sense of things. Education seems to be framed as a preparation for a drone-like life of serving the system, being aware of where problems are arising, and being ingenious enough to come up with solutions to sustain the harmonious life process of society – a high-tech version of the type of labouring non-activity characteristic of pre-historic societies. We are being prepared not just for the hive mind, but a hive life.

The individual and the entrepreneur

One sign of the antipathy of the edtech discourse to any genuine individuality is its embrace of the entrepreneur.

The entrepreneur is not an individual. What emerged during the Renaissance was a critical spirit guided by a new idealism – a new sense of where the truth lay (where “truth” refers primarily to the values guiding human life). The entrepreneur is what individuality degenerates into when there is no idealism left, when there is no belief any longer in an objective order of value to inspire the individual to struggle against something. An example pulled almost at random: The National Association of Professional Women defines success as “owning your own power.” There is nothing any longer that you ought to succeed at, no vision of a better world that professional people ought to be struggling to realise. It matters not what you do, as long as you come out on top, with power that you own (whatever that means), or as they alternatively put it “the power to be YOU”. And that last tagline indicates how the veneer of entrepreneurial professionalism conceals motives that are narrowly egoistic. Individualism is not narrow, entrepreneurial, opportunistic egoism.

Entrepreneurial egoism

Although we have somewhat flippantly suggested two tests of individuality, the most important is one implicit in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. That demonstrated how nice college students could so easily become willing sadistic agents of an institution that frees them of all moral responsibility. In looking for individuals, we are looking for people who would refuse to comply with such a regime. How many entrepreneurs looking to own their own power would make the grade?

The paradox: An anti-social education

Under present conditions, the only way in which a glimmer of individuality can show itself is through resistance to the prevailing order. For pedagogy this entails a paradox: Calling for an educational system (which is required to prepare children to fit into society) that turns students against their society. How could that be possible?

People fond of the #edtech hashtag seem to think that the tech itself removes the paradox. If only those aging human beings representing the dead hand of the past can get out of the way sufficiently to allow children to do what they want with the technology, the old order will simply wither and die and a new world will effortlessly emerge, peopled by smart, savvy monads who find their passion in doing something useful for the prevailing order.

But we are playing with words if we call a training for a high-tech apiculture an education for individuality. No, the paradox remains. There is no technological quick-fix obviating the need to clash head on with the powers that be. The first modern individuals asserted themselves against an establishment that burnt heretics at the stake. The forces now ranged against a new reassertion of individuality are far, far stronger. It is ludicrous to suggest that the technocracy, through its consumer gadgetry, is in the process of quietly digging its own grave.

Thinking the unthinkable

Perhaps the paradox justifies a little utopian thinking. If the above reflections on the demise of the individual are not entirely wide of the mark, what implications do they have for an education that might encourage a rebirth of the individual? Here are a few equally fragmentary notes on what that education might involve.

1. A genuine development of the personal: Filling education with things that will enrich the children’s experience of and attachment to the world in which they live. Direct contact with things is to be preferred to their simulation or their presentation on video. It is far more valuable for children as future individuals to develop a deeper experiential engagement with fewer things than have a superficial contact with more. And the virtual, when introduced, needs to be used to deepen that experience, rather than replace it (helping, for instance, children to find their way around the sky at night, instead of persuading them that what they can see with their eyes and their tools is nothing compared to the dazzling virtual reproduction seen on the screen).

The personal is to be preferred over the technologically mediated. If the students, for instance, can help each other rather than atomistically finding the answers online, then the former is to be preferred.

Regarding the children’s cultural heritage: Even if all the folk traditions have been killed by the flat-pack culture, they can still be presented and practised so that at least children are aware of what has become extinct and what it might once have meant.

Children need to be brought up with a sense of their world-shaping power. This will require a low-tech education in the beginning, working with things the children can take apart and put together themselves, instead of being faced with an incomprehensibly complex box of tricks that must remain forever closed to them.

There may still be some truth in Rousseau’s suggestion that an education for individuality must stress the virtue of self-reliance. Rousseau’s taking Robinson Crusoe as the ideal may be way over the top, but that doesn’t detract from the importance of children learning how to grow their own food, cook for themselves, make their own clothes, build things and decorate them, and entertain themselves as much as possible.

Concentration and solitude need to be valued. Although the Renaissance involved an affirmation of the value of this social/political/historical world, it required the ability to disconnect from the prevailing order. Education for individuality needs to combat the danger of a creeping Pavlovian mindlessness in an excessive digital connectivity with its multi-tasking dependence upon a continuous rush of stimuli coming from elsewhere in the hive. It is as important for future individuals to know how to disconnect as it is for them to reconnect.

There needs to be a revival of Rousseau’s idea that an education at odds with the prevailing dynamic in society needs walls. An education for individuality needs to protect children from the forces conditioning children into an anti-individualistic lifestyle.

Education at all levels needs to sustain the value of a certain roundedness, protecting the child, in particular, from the crushing imperative to specialise too early.

2. The value of the teacher as an individual: A new appreciation of the teacher as both role model and interlocutor (as opposed both to the authority figure who commands silence and to the self-effacing guide at the side who allows the stage to be taken by the shiny gadgetry). A role model, for instance, for how the different kinds of knowledge (including, crucially, the knowledge of our ignorance) can be integrated in the individual, and a model of how the individual might rise above the dwarfing influence of the vast technocratic complex in which we live.

3. The particularity of the school: The building itself has a pedagogical significance ignored by those who insist that the brick and mortar school is a relic of a dead culture. The school is a lesson in itself, not just a thing of instrumental value – a place where children gain access to information. Before the children share material online, they need to decorate the space in which they spend their school day.

The particularity of the school community needs to be recognised as a value, and the child needs to feel that his belonging to it is an important aspect of his or her life. Part of the rationale for set times and keeping to set groups and perhaps a set dress code is so that an attachment can develop – a personal relationship to something that is more than the sum of its parts, instead of encouraging the child to see the educational apparatus in purely instrumental terms.

4. An education for critical engagement: While providing students with a training in how to make a living the curriculum needs to put concerns with culture, history, politics and ethics at the centre so that all students can begin to engage critically with numerous aspects of the world in which they live.

To prepare for this, priority needs to be given to judgments of quality over assessments of quantifiable standards. And there needs to be an ongoing discussion with students of what can be judged to be good, beautiful, right, ethical, proper and considerate.

Great emphasis needs to be placed on the arts of argumentation, critique, and the articulate expression of one’s point of view. And this needs to be developed not as an idle skill, but as a way of getting to grips with a whole range of currently controversial issues. Sophistry and the debilitating perception that argument is futile need to be vigorously countered.

The idea of a grand historical narrative that students ought to be familiar with (albeit as something subject to critique) needs to be revived. The Renaissance was a renewed affirmation of the beauty of this world inspired, in part, by a study of a dead world. The study of the dead remains essential to an intelligent affirmation of the living.

That narrative, far from being nationalistic, needs to sketch the fate of individuality. Those beginning to recognise the value of individuality as such need to be familiar with key episodes that constitute a canon (again, subject to critique). A reading and discussion of Pericles’s funeral oration is a must, as is a study of the rise of the individual in the Renaissance, together with a study of the Enlightenment that follows it and sows the seeds of the downfall of the individual.It should be seen as tantamount to a sin for students to leave school without knowing why Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake. And students inspired by the ideals of individuality should be able to articulate forceful opinions about the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is not the dead “information” of which the post-individual age is so excited. It is knowledge constitutive of the individual, and needs to be framed as such.

In all of this a narrow, exclusive concern with our particularity has to be avoided. Particularity as such has to become the key issue – the value of culture itself and it’s miraculous emergence. Hence, the importance of learning a foreign language, through which the student might be able to gain a deeper appreciation of her own and a clearer sense of language as such. It is that depth that is the issue here, not some misconstrued cultural levelling that is likely to end with students feeling lost because everything seems equally valid and equally invalid.

Finally, the school needs to be a community which encourages individuals to take initiatives. There need to be fora in which suggestions for projects can be made, then planned and implemented by the students themselves, and there need to be more overtly political spaces in which questions can be raised and answers sought for issues that trouble the students. The individual needs this very particular communal setting in which he or she can make a difference to the life of the whole. A network of volunteers in the cloud could only be a third-rate substitute for the community with which the individual has developed a deep personal attachment and in which he or she can begin to act.

A second Renaissance

The birth of the modern individual in the Renaissance was part of a courageous refusal of the ecclesiastical denigration of this mortal/individual/historical life. The demise of the individual more recently has been part of a creeping medievalism in which the life of the human being is denigrated again as something that must serve a higher order – an order described chiefly by the highest of the new High Priests: the economists, who know that the Newest Testament is written not in Sanskrit, Hebrew or Greek, but in the truly universal language of maths.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that we need a second Renaissance, overturning this new medievalism. And to prepare the way for that we need a new approach to education to encourage the emergence of individuals with the courage to end our drift into a new Dark Age.

Joan of Arc - renaissance individual

written by Torn Halves on March 11, 2015 in Edtech and Ken Robinson and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with no comments