The Condition of Postmodernity, Chapter 1 Summary

A summary of chapter one of David Harvey’s (1989) Condition of Postmodernity

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Condition postmodernity chapter 2 summaryA summary of David Harvey’s (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity’: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change.

This is a summary of the introductory chapter of part one of this book, in which Harvey introduces us to some basic definitions of modernity and postmodernity.

Part 1 – The Passage from Modernity to Postmodernity in Contemporary Culture

Starts with a quote by Max Weber…

‘the general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge, and that the highest ideals, which move us most forcefully, are always formed only in the struggle with other ideals.’

1. Introduction

Condition PostmodernityJonathan Raban’s Soft City – a highly personalised account of London in the 1970s written in 1974 was written at the cusp in intellectual and cultural history when something called postmodernism emerged as a cultural aesthetic in its own right (developing into something more than just being anti-modern).

Raban rejected the thesis of a city tightly stratified by occupation and class, depicting instead the spread of individualism and entrepreneurialism, where social distinction was broadly conferred by possessions and appearance – the city was an emporium of styles, and primarily about the production of signs and images – something not rationally planned and rigid, but more like a theatre in which people acted out a multiplicity of roles. Rather than a place of lost-community, the city was a labyrinth, a honeycomb, consisting of diverse networks.

Harvey recognises that this is just one view of the city, but his purpose is not to judge its accuracy, but to ask why this particular view was so well received at that time.

Raban’s vision of the city was one which could not be disciplined by rational planning, one where imagination and fact fused together – his vision appealed to ‘subjective individualism’ – casting it as a place where people were relatively free to act and where personal identity was fluid. – (it’s sort of in the title ‘soft city’…..

‘The city invites you to remake it into a shape you can live in…. cities, unlike villages and small towns are plastic by nature. We mould then in our images: they, in turn, shape us by the resistances they offer.”

Raban also recognised the downsides of urban living – too many people lost their way in the labyrinth and it was too easy for us to lose each other as well as ourselves; there was a lot of violence beneath the surface, and although we were free to play with images, ‘creative entrepreneurialism’ had the potential to impose an ‘imperialism of taste’ which could create a new hierarchy of values….

‘the very plastic qualities which make the great city the liberator of human identity also cause it to be especially vulnerable to to psychosis and totalitarian nightmare’.’

Raban was influenced by Roland Barthes, and Le Corbusier’s modernist style of architecture is the bête noire for Raban, however the text is more than simply anti-modern, and the tension between the two mark this text out as a sign that postmodernism has arrived.

Harvey now points to Cindy Sherman as one of the major figures of the postmodern movement.

Sherman’s work parallels the theme of the plasticity of the city in Raban’s work – All Sherman does is take photographs of herself in different walks of life (and somehow convinces people to pay her enough to earn a living doing it?!) – emphasising the ‘malleability of appearances and surfaces and self-referential positioning of the authors as subjects’.

So what is this postmodernism of which many now speak?

No one agrees as to what is meant by the term except that ‘postmodernism’ represents some kind of reaction to or departure from ‘modernism’. Since the meaning of modernism is also very confused, the reaction or departure known as postmodernism is doubly so.

Terry Eagleton (a literary critic) defined postmodernism thus in 1987:

The typical postmodernist artefact is playful, self-ironizing and even schizoid; and that it reacts to the austere autonomy of high modernism by impudently embracing the language of commerce and the commodity. Its stance towards cultural tradition is one of irreverent pastiche, and its contrived depthlessness undermines all metaphysical solemnities, sometimes by a brutal aesthetics of squalor and shock.’

The editors of the architectural journal PRECIS (1987) see postmodernism as a legitimate reaction to the monotony of universal modernism’s vision of the world.

‘Generally perceived as positivistic, technocentric, and rationalistic, being about linear progress, absolute truths, rational planning of ideal social orders and the standardisation of knowledge and production. Postmodernism by way of contrast privileges heterogeneity and differences as liberative force in the redefinition of cultural discourse. Fragmentation, indeterminacy and intense distrust of all universal or totalising discourses are the hallmark of postmodernist thought.’

 Examples of postmodernism include:

– The rediscovery of pragmatism in philosophy – Rorty (1979)

– New ideas about the philosophy of science – Kuhn (1962) and Feyerbrand (1975)

– Foucault’s focus on polymorphous correlations in place of simple or complex causality in history.

– New developments in maths emphasising indeterminacy – chaos theory a fractal geometry.

– the concern for ‘the other’ in anthropology and politics.

What all of the above have in common is the a rejection of metanarratives (large scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application.

Eagleton’s full description of postmodernism…

‘Post-modernism signals the death of such ‘metanarratives’ whose secretly terroristic function was to ground and legitimate the illusion of a ‘universal’ human history. We are now in the process of wakening from the nightmare of modernity, with it manipulative reason and fetish of the totality, into the laid-back pluralism of the post-modern, that heterogeneous rnage of life-styles and language games which has renounced the nostalgic urge to totalise and legitimate itself… Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives’.

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Solutions to the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’

In the final section of Zimbardo and Coulombe’s ‘Man Disconnected’ the authors outline a few suggestions about how to combat the crisis faced by young men around the world. The post summarizes chapters 16-21).

Before reading this you might like to read the following posts:

  1. Man Disconnected, which summarizes the evidence that young men are in crisis (chapters 1-7)
  2. Man Disconnected summary part 2: why are young men in crisis? #1 (chapters 8-10)
  3. Man Disconnected summary part 3: why are young men in crisis #2 (chapter 11) – technology enchantment and arousal addiction
  4. Man Disconnected summary part 4: why are young men in crisis? #3 (chapters 12-15)

Solutions to the Crisis of Masculinity

Zimbardo and Coulombe break down their solutions to focus on what governments, schools, parents, men, women and finally the media can do…

What governments can do:

  • Support the role of the father
  • Limit the use of endocrine-disruptors
  • Get more men into grade school teaching positions
  • Get junk food out of schools
  • Improve how schools prepare students for their lives ahead

What schools can do:

  • Teach life skills
  • Incorporate new technology for more interactive learning
  • Quash grade inflation

What parents can do:

  • Teach children to be resilient by letting them organise their own play and take risks
  • Give children responsibility for important tasks within the family
  • Encourage children to think about a future career, and to explore vocational options
  • Discussing taboo topics like sex
  • Fathers need to priorities fatherhood
  • Get children to track how much time they spend on different activities

What men can do:

  • Turn off the porn
  • Track your activity and consider what else you could be doing!
  • Play sports
  • Make your bed (small accomplishments lead to bigger accomplishments)
  • Discover your inner power
  • Make a few female friends
  • Don’t call women sluts
  • Find a mentor, be a mentor
  • Vote

What women can do

  • Mothers and sisters basically need to encourage the strength and hardness associated with manhood, while having the depth of character and emotional sensitivity to help men become better communicators.
  • Don’t be promiscuous – because this just sends out the message to men that they will always have a string of available sexual partners
  • Choose a ‘good partner’ rather than a ‘flash partner’ – there are plenty of ‘good men’ (who want long term relationships) being overlooked because they are ‘drowned out’ on dating sites by better looking men who have no genuine interest in commitment.

Zimbardo’s final chapter is a brief one on what the media (especially the porn and gaming industries) can do to help stem the crisis of masculinity.

 

Technology Enchantment and Arousal Addiction

A summary of Zimbardo and Coulombe’s Man Disconnected, part 4.

It seemed appropriate to devote a whole blog post to this chapter (chapter 11) as this seems to be the main thrust of the book. (No, the book’s not that well organised!)

Zimbardo Man Disconnected.png

Chapter 11: Technology Enchantment and Arousal Addiction

J.R.R. Tolkein used the word ‘enchantment’ to define a human being’s total immersion in a fictitious world.He said that the more…

‘You think that you are bodily inside [a] Secondary World [the more] the experience may be very similar to Dreaming… but you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp’.’

Tolkein’s writing is certainly enchanting – when I first read The Hobbit and  Lord of the Rings when I was about 11, I was absolutely transported into Middle Earth for most of the book.

However, according to Philip Zimbardo, it is far easier to get wrapped up in online virtual realities than it is in a book, because they are more sensually immersive and have rewards systems and status which hook you in: with games, for example you get to actually play the hero or anti-hero, and gain virtual rewards risk free; while with online porn you get to be a ‘virtual sheikh with a harem’ – having your choice of girls to wank over with no threat of rejection.

Today, both computer games and porn are extremely pervasive, and literally millions of young men use these two together as their first port of call to meet their basic ‘male urges’ – to be competitive/ be a winner/ and gain status, and to achieve sexual gratification – you can do both by using a combination of computer games and porn: in fact, not only is it accessible (and very cheap), you have a choice over exactly which game, or which ‘type’ of porn you want to use to ‘fulfil your needs’.

This has been encouraged precisely because men have been taught to be ashamed of their competitive nature and their male-sexuality over the years: according to Zimbardo these are effectively aspects of masculinity that men have been taught to hide in an era of female liberation: the result is that young men repress these ‘natural’ aspects of themselves in public and turn to online worlds to express these aspects of themselves: to be competitive and get their status rewards through gaming, and get sexually gratified by wanking over porn.

In the world of online gaming and porn gaining status and sexual gratification is very easy: you simply learn a few skills and level up, or choose your fetish and spank your monkey, and millions of young men who have effectively grown up immersed in these environments now have their pleasure sensors hard-wired into this ‘switch on get gratified immediately’ mentality. There is also research which suggests that the more pleasure is associated with habitual patterns of action (such as online gaming and porn) then the less responsive pleasure centres are to less familiar experiences.

The problem with this is that in real-life gaining status through such things such as working with others, and gaining sexual gratification in a relationship are just a little bit more complicated!

Zimbardo has been criticised for lumping gaming and porn together, but he sees them as similar arguing that they are both based on ‘arousal’ and that increasingly the two are merging. As far as he see it, Porn and Video games are potentially psychologically and socially damaging to some males, especially those who use them excessively in social isolation.

Zimbardo points out that games designers may think they’ve ‘hacked Maslow’ except that the rewards online games offer can be achieved without the need to relate effectively others.

Zimbardo now cites research in which in gaming cultures, it is common to mock people for losing, which doesn’t happen in real world sports, and that some gamers retreat further into their gaming worlds the more their offline lives do not yield them success.

There is also a phenomenon in which gamers real world selves becomes more like their gaming personas, and Zimbardo warns us that this could lead to more egocentric and individualised behaviours.

Finally, there is a problem that people’s behaviour can be manipulated online, through clever use of avatars for example, a problem which will become more acute as online and offline worlds become more similar and harder to distinguish.

The Dynamics of Porn

In this section, Zimbardo outlines the results of a survey on the effects of porn on young men and women. The general gist is that the availability of online gratification through porn reduces young mens’ patience, makes them hold themselves to unrealistic expectations and cripples them socially.

He cites numerous interviews with men young and women in which they outline the fact that porn has resulted in a lot of young men suffering from performance anxiety, further evidenced by viagra prescriptions increasing for the under 30s.

Porn also encourages young men to see sex as just an act in itself, with no ‘build up’, or no ‘chase’ as such – young men are now less likely to approach women in night clubs, partly because, in porn, there is no story to lead into the sex-act itself.

Chronic Stimulation, Chronic Dissatisfaction

A recent study by the CDC found that heavy porn users are more likely to suffer long term physical health problems, suggesting that over-stimulation through porn rather than engaging in actual person to person sexual interaction might lead to eventual sexual isolation.

According to Alexa, 5% of the top most 100 viewed websites are porn site, and most of the people viewing them are young men under 24…. Alone in their bedrooms.

And porn sends out certain messages, most obviously that sex is about fucking rather than emotional connection and conversation, and of course condoms are rarely seen in porn.

7/10 heavy porn users report sexual problems in their relationships, compared to 3/10 light porn users.

Research from the Max Planck Institute suggests that heavy porn use ‘wears out the pleasure receptors’….. The lead researcher hypothesizesd that to get a dopamine release, and basically to get an erection, porn users would rely  on more and more extreme types of porn….. And sex with the same partner in real life becomes less and less satisfying as a result.

The Madonna-Whore complex…

Zimbardo rounds off this section by suggesting that a lot of men in the Western World have developed a ‘Madonna-Whore complex’ – they regard the women they have, or want to have sex with, as whores… but they cannot deal with women who are both attractive to them and nice – mainly because they can’t sustain an erection when having sex with the same woman over and over again.

The Dynamics of Video Games

Zimbardo starts this question by pointing out by recognising that there are positives to playing computer games, and that that they are really only concerned here with young men who play video games in isolation, primarily with strangers, which is just over a third of all gamers.

For these people, Zimbardo suggests that computer games can make real life and other people seem boring by comparison.

He cites statistically controlled evidence that children who spend more time gaming later on suffer lower paper-test scores at school, and reduced attention spans generally, suggesting that this could explain the higher rate of ADHD among boys compared to girls.

Comments

This chapter is a bit skewed – much more evidence on the effects of porn, much less on gaming, and I’m not convinced that it’s useful to lump the two together – these are both hugely diverse areas which at least deserve the attention of being studied separately, surely?

Man Disconnected

Amid shifting social, economic and technological climates, young men are getting left behind, at least according to Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe in their 2015 book ‘Man Disconnected: How the Digital Age is Changing Young Men Forever‘.

Zimbardo Man Disconnected.png

The two authors cite a range of anecdotal and research-evidence (some of it primary) to put forward the argument that men are ‘flaming out academically’, falling behind in the world of work, failing to connect with women and struggling with addictions to porn video games and drugs (both legal and illegal).

In order to understand why men are increasingly disconnected, they develop a three part analysis:

  • firstly they highlight the individual dispositions (such as ‘shyness’ and ‘impulsiveness’) related to male disconnectdness
  • secondly they look at situational context – such as widespread fatherlessness and the ease of availability of online games and pornography
  • Finally they look at structural factors such as changes in the labour market.

These three factors together have resulted in many men lacking purposeful direction and lacking in social skills: may would rather live at home with their parents, often extending their childhood into their 30s, (on this note, you night me interested in this post on the increasing numbers of young people living at home with their parents, UK focus).

Rather than face up to the complexities of adult life, more and more young men stay at home, distracted by an online world of gaming and porn, which further reinforces their social isolation and awkwardness.

The book is split into three sections:

  • the symptoms (or you might say indicators) of men being disconnected, which I deal with in this post
  • the causes of men being disconnected.
  • Finally, the authors offer some solutions for dealing with what we might call a ‘crisis of masculinity’.

The Symptoms of Male Disconnectedness 

In this (short) section the authors simply trawl through a range of evidence to outline the problems faced by young men in many societies about the world. NB the evidence cited is mixed – some is global, some US and UK focuses, some not particularly well referenced at all.

The authors break ‘the symptoms’ down into seven major sections:

  1. Disenchantment with education – girls are outperforming boys in every subject at every level of education around the world.
  2. Men opting out of the workforce – the male unemployment rate globally has increased nearly fourfold since the 1970s – from 2% in 1970 to 7% in 1990/
  3. social intensity syndrome – this is a phenomenon in which increasing male shyness means men prefer the company of other men… they’d rather have bromance than romance.
  4. excessive gaming – this is a weekly evidenced section – we are told that the average person will clock up 10k hours of gaming before they are 21, but in terms of gender, we are simply told that the majority of gamers are male, and informed that in a couple of pieces of research of couples where only 1 person was into gaming, that person was male 70-80% of the time.
  5. becoming obese – this section focuses mainly on the US where 70% of US men are overweight, 1 in 3 are obese.
  6. excessive porn use – the average boy watches nearly 2 hours of porn ever week, and 1 in 3 are heavy users, meaning they can’t even count how much they watch. The problem with porn is that it teaches young men (with no prior sexual experience) to treat women like sex objects rather than as human beings.
  7. over-reliance on medications and illegal drugs – this is a poorly written section, the only statistical evidence cited is that 85% of medication for disorders such as ADHD are given to males.

If you like this sort of thing then you might also like the following, follow on posts:

Before reading this you might like to read the following posts:

  1. Man Disconnected summary part 2: why are young men in crisis? #1 (chapters 8-10)
  2. Man Disconnected summary part 3: why are young men in crisis #2 (chapter 11) – technology enchantment and arousal addiction
  3. Man Disconnected summary part 4: why are young men in crisis? #3 (chapters 12-15)
  4. Man Disconnected summary part 5: solutions to the crisis of masculinity (chapters 16-21)

 

Sociomaterial Perspectives on the self in digital networks

Sociomaterial perspectives hold that datafication via digital devices (both personal and public) are fundamentally  intertwined with the way we construct our identities and ‘practice selfhood’, so much so that it is more accurate to say that today we ‘live in media’ rather than ‘we live with media’.

The most obvious manifestation of the intertwining of digital technologies, datafication and selfhood is our extensive use of mobile phones, tablets and laptops: not only do we rely on these devices for information, we also use them (sometimes consciously, sometimes not) to continually upload information about ourselves to the net.

And even if we choose to reduce our use of such technologies, or live without them altogether, our sense of self will still be partially governed by digital technology because so much of public life and public space is informed by its use.

Sociomaterial perspectives on human action are strongly influenced by actor-network theory and take our extensive use of digital technologies into account by focussing on the way that humans interact with non-human material objects such as computers in heterogeneous and diverse networks.

This approach sees objects as agents within a network, able to exert influence on humans, and it is interested in how things and meanings interrelated. It also takes account of how factors such as class, gender and ethnicity influence the context of a relational network.

Sociomaterial perspectives also recognize that there is a complex ‘web’ of interaction which lies beyond (or behind) technologically mediated networks: programmers, marketers etc, and (importantly I think) that the technologies and software which governs action within a network are themselves the product of human interactions (and thus values).

This perspective offers a useful response to post-structuralism which focuses purely on discourses and meanings, which are largely seen as floating free from the material context of action.

More specifically the sociomaterial perspective on understanding selfhood in a digital age focuses on:

  • How people experience technologies
  • How technologies are incorporated into people’s senses of self, and how they extend their sense of self
  • How social relations are configured through such networks incorporating networks.

Assemblages

The concept of assemblage is often used in the sociomaterialism literature. An assemblage is configured when humans, nonhumans, practices, ideas and discourses come together in a complex system. With digital systems, an assemblage will consist of the following:

  • Computer software and hardware
  • Developers
  • Manufacturers and retailers
  • Software coders
  • algorithms
  • Computer servers and archives
  • The computing cloud
  • Platforms and social media

According to sociomaterial perspective, individuals are ‘entangled’ in such assemblages – and understanding these entanglements is a complex business, precisely because these assemblages are complex – there are lot of human, and non-human actors involved.

Within these assemblages, humans can iimbue objects (such as their phones) with biological meaning, and understanding these meanings is key to understanding human action, but humans are also changed by all of the above ‘objects’ (along with the other actual humans) which make up the assemblage in which an individual acts.

Turkle (2007) for example calls mobile devices ‘evocative objects’ because they are basically repositories of ourselves – we have so much information stored on them!

Kitchen and Dodge (2011) use the term code/space to denote the ways in which software and devices such as mobile phones and sensors are configuring concepts of space and identity – our devices may even govern our access to certain spaces (think etickets), and because our behaviour can be tracked through them, we can also be nudged, or disciplined into certain ways of acting via our technologies.

Sources and Notes

This is my summary of part one of chapter two of my current January 2018 read: 

Lupton, Deborah (2017) The Quantified Self, Polity

This kind of theory should hit A-level sociology about 2035, about 2 years before the cyborgs take over once and for all. 

Big Data: Controlling its Use

Changes in the way we interact and communicate lead to changes in the way we govern ourselves and just as with the invention of the printing press resulting in the evolution of copyright and libel laws, so the emergence of big data will result in new laws to govern the new ways in which this information is collect, analysed and utilized.

In this final chapter of the main section of Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s (2017) ‘Big Data’: The Essential Guide to Life and Learning in the Age of Insight – the authors suggest four ways in which we might control the use of Big Data in the coming years….

Firstly, Crozier suggests we will need to move from ‘privacy by consent’ to ‘privacy by accountability. Because old privacy laws by consent don’t work in the big data age (See here for why), we will effectively have to trust companies to make informed judgments about the risks of re-purposing the data they hold. If they deem there to be an element of risk of harm to people, they may have to administer a second round of ‘consent of use’, if the risk is very small, they can just go ahead and use it.

If is also possible to deliberately blur data so that it becomes fuzzy and you cannot see individuals in it – so you can set analytical programmes to return aggregate results only -an approach known as differential privacy.

Comment: NB – this sounds dubious – we just trust companies more….the problem here being that we can only really trust them to do one thing – put their profits before everything else, including people’s privacy rights. 

Secondly, we will also need to ensure that we do not judge people based on propensity by aggregate. In the big data era of justice, we need to hold people account for their individual actions – i.e. for what they have actually done as individuals, rather than what the big data says people like them are likely to do.

Comment: NB – all he seems to be saying here is that we carry on doing what we already do (in most 9cases at least!) 

Thirdly (which stems from the problem that big data can be something of a ‘black box’ – that is to say the number of variables which go into making up predictions and the algorithms which calculate them defy ordinary human understanding) – we will need a new series of experts called algorithmists to be on hand to analyse big data findings if and when individuals feel wronged by them. Crozier argues that these will take a ‘vow of impartiality’ in monitoring and reviewing the accuracy of big data predictions, and sees a role for both internal and external algorithmists.

Comment: this doesn’t half sound like something August Comte, the founding father of Positivism,  would say!

Crozier argues this is just the same as new specialists emerging in law, medicine and computer security as these field developed in complexity.

Fourthy and finally, Crozier suggests we will need to develop some sort of new anti-trust laws to ensure that one company does not come to have a monopoly on data.

Comment: Fair enough!

Overall Comment 

I detect a distinct pro-market tone in the authors’ analysis of big data – basically we trust companies to use it (but avoid monopoly power), but we mistrust governments – precisely what you’d expect from the Silicon Valley set!

Is Digital Technology Good for Education?

Digital technology is now an integral part of education. Devices such as tablets and smartphones are now common means of interacting with people, consuming media, interacting with institutions and generally living out many aspects of our daily lives.

These technologies have transformed the generation and communication of knowledge, and the way in which learning and understanding take place. In an organisational sense digital technologies are now central to the ‘formal’ organisation of education: free online courses have emerged to supplement and compete with traditional bricks and mortar institutions; national governments now spend billions on digital education resources and have ed tech policies and initiatives; and digital education is entwined with a global economics and politics and ongoing changes as to what counts for knowledge skills.

While it is teachers and students who have to use technology, much of the debate about ed tech takes place amongst those outside of education: Policy makers, industrialists and other influential actors outside of education often frame discussions about educational technology in dramatic terms of wide-scale educational reform, speculating on how ed tech might lead to major transformations such as doing away with teachers, schools and universities.

To what extent is digital technology actually changing education? Is this in our best interest? And How might the potential for radical change actually be realised?

Digital technology and social change

Discussions about digital technology are nearly always associated with doing things differently. Some envisage changes as being broadly positive with digital technologies being  associated with doing things cheaper, faster and more efficiently; others focus on the more negative aspects of social change – such as the idea of ‘google making us stupid’.

The potential of digital technologies to change education is imagined along a scale of modest improvement to wholesale revolution.

At the improvement end of the scale there is talk of:

  • ‘Improving learning’ – through making it more social, situated or authentic.
  • Improving learners – technology is described as enhancing, enabling, assisting, supporting and scaffolding learning.
  • Improving teachers – by expanding their capacity to teach, and making them more efficient
  • Increasing the relevance of education institutions – making them more relevant to society

At the transformation on end of the scale….

  • Courses being delivered online rather than face to face
  • Learning through playing games rather than being taught directly.

Tellingly, these changes are sometimes described in language borrowed from IT and compter engineering – for example ‘School 2.0’, and some commentators talk of ‘upgrading’ ‘hacking’ or ‘rebooting’ education.

All of these changes imply a recoding or re-scripting of the rules of education, with digital technology acting as a catalyst for change.

More extreme still is the idea that digital technology will lead to a wholesale revolution in education, with technology destabilising the formal educational establishment.

Some of the targets here include:

  • The school
  • The university
  • Formal examinations and qualifications
  • National curricula
  • Teachers and unions

These debates are framed in terms of empowering marginalised groups:

  • Individuals over institutions
  • Private markets over public sector monopolies
  • Outsiders over insiders.

A digital ‘fix’ for a ‘broken’ system?

One of the most significant aspects of ‘digital education’ is its discursive nature. In other words, the values and meanings that are attached to the idea of digital education could be seen as significant as any actual use of digital technology.

Despite some of the transformative claims attributed to digital technology there has been little rigorous evidence produced in the last 40 years of educational technology leading to sustained improvement of teaching and learning. Much of the rhetoric of digital education has proven frustratingly difficult to substantiate.

We are thus perhaps better of treating those descriptions of digital ‘revolution’, ‘transformation’ and ‘improvement’ as evocative and aspirational stories, rather than sober, objective and actual ongoing changes in education – as a space in which people voice their hopes and their fears, and we need to treat any claims attributed to educational technology with scepticism.

In this regard, it is worth paying attention to the prominent argument that digital technology can fix a broken, or outmoded education system:

The economist magazein for example recently turned its attention to the ‘reinvention of the university’ concluding that the internet will turn higher education upside down in the same way it has done with newspapers and book retailing.

Similarly, the media commentator Jeff Jarvis has proclaimed that ‘Education is one the institutions most deserving of disruption – and with the greatest opportunities to come out of it’.

Such statements constitute a direct challenge to the institutionalisation of education – to schools,  state run education systems and the agencies which surround them.

The Economist and Jarvis are by no means alone in voicing their concerns – it is now common to hear mention of education as being ‘broken’, or an obsolete product of a bygone era – with people speaking of the ‘industrial era classroom’, the ‘factory model school’ or ‘ivory tower’ universities –such manners of speaking which convey as sense of the mismanagement of education by monolithic institutions.

The criticisms levelled at  ‘traditional education’ are as follows:

  • The institutions are profoundly undemocratic, the power concentrated unfairly in the hands of elites – such as vice chancellors and university professors and unions.
  • They are inefficient and unresponsive,
  • The people who work in them are untrustworthy, self-serving and greedy.
  • There is a lack of creativity in designing curriculum content
  • There are entrenched problems such as truancy and the ‘school to prison pipeline’.

Martin Weller notes that the fact that education is broken has ‘become an accepted standpoint that is often stated as an irrefutable fact… from which all else follows, a sine qua non of educational revolution’.

Such prognoses tend to be advanced by those outside of the education system who are seeking reform from the various perspectives of the free market, libertarianism, home-schooling, child-centred learning and so on.

As Weller observes, whatever perspectives these criticisms start from, all such accounts are ‘manipulative’ and imply that education professionals cannot be trusted and that solutions require external agents are required to make changes.

For many of these commentators, digital technologies are seen as a means of shaking things up, sweeping away old regimes and remaking education provision in forms fit for the twenty-first century, and over the years they have become associated increasingly with radical forms of educational innovation and upheaval.

Rather than taking such stories at face value, we should be more critical of them, as these are potentially big changes with big implications.

The inevitable digital change of education – reasons to be cautious

Firstly, we need to realise that claims about the need to fix or disrupt education are not value-free – they are linked to wider agendas

Second, we need to recognise the corporate, commercial and economically driven nature of much of the prevailing talk about disruption and deinstitutionalisation. While the greater involvement of the private sector in education is not necessarily a bad thing, history suggests that business ideals and the pursuit of profit do not always translate smoothly into education.

Third, history also reminds us that nothing is certain when it comes to educational change…. There might be unintended consequences (good or bad) from digital disruption.

Fourthly, we need to remember that the inclusion of more digital technology in education is not inevitable, and using ti more is not ‘common sense’. We don’t have to change anything!

Conclusions

We need to be sceptical about the grandiose claims made for the benefits of introducing more digital technology into education. Selwyn rounds off by suggesting that we ask the following questions:

  1. What is actually new hear
  2. What are the second order effects of change?
  3. What are the potential gains and losses?
  4. What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  5. In whose interests does ed tech work?
  6. What are the social problems which digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  7. How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems?

Sources 

This is a summary of chapter 1 of ‘Is Digital Technology Good for Education (2016) by Neil Selwyn

Forging the American Empire

Is it possible to perceive the making of modern America as a sort of colonial project? One in which the new American capitalist class colonizes the so called American wilderness for the benefit of Capitalism? This is the argument Andrew Brooks makes in his recent book – The End of Development:

On 4 July 1776 the newly independent United States of America consisted of 13 colonies that were formally ceded by Great Britain in 1783. The United States then expanded Westwards, and by the time of the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853, the modern boarders of the contiguous United States were established.

American expansion.jpg

Formal territorial expansions were legally and politically essential. Annexation first provided new space for capitalism, then new Americans came, conquered and combined land, labour and capital to generate wealth. Fundamentally though it was the direct control and space and the westward advance of Europeans and their conflicts with other Americans that were the real means of making the nation.

The whole history of the United States is one of occupation and land seizure: rather than territorial colonialism abroad,  there was unprecedented territorialism at home. Ironically, the American war of Independence (1775 – 1783), far from being a pure anti-colonial struggle, was rather a moment that enabled expanded imperialism led by the European Americans. Once the revolution had freed the settlers, they conquered the res of the North American continent and reorganized the space for capitalism. This meant removing the Native population to make room for an expanding immigrant population, as was advocated by Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franlklin Colonialism Indians.jpg

The popularization of the notion of ‘wilderness’ was a key ideological tool which promoted this expansion Westwards – the great interior of the new United States was portrayed as wild country which was the antithesis of civilization, full of wild savages, both of which needed to be overcome in order for progress to be made.

(Of course in reality, neither were true, many Native American Tribes had rich cultures which managed the land they had occupied for centuries in a sustainable manner).

In the 19th century, the American capitalist was a colonist at home, enjoying what the European capitalist had to travel to Africa or Asia to achieve: profits were accumulated through imported slaves, and later indentured Chinese labour on the Pacific Coast.

Profit was also accumulated via exploitation of Native Americans through trade. Indigenous peoples exchanged pelts for fish hooks, guns and knives, which benefited whites and forged a relationship of dependency.

Rifles changed the balance of power between tribes, causing warfare between native peoples, as well as intensifying hunting practices. Established cultures and ways of life that had existed for centuries were wiped out in a few short decades. For instance, muskets used by Metis hunters nearly wiped out buffalo in the Red River valley of North Dakota.

Metis-indians buffalo-bones.jpg
Metis indians shipping buffalo bones in North Dakota

Fur trading was one of the first major economic activities, but American capitalism soon diversified and grew as it learnt the lessons of the industrial revolution in Britain, and it was a rapid industrialization as the USA was both unencumbered by old social relations such as Feudalism, and all the necessary resources to fuel industry were on home soil.

Ultimately, Brooks argues that any time Washington, Hamilton, Adams or Jefferson referred to the ‘Federal Union’ in their presidential address, they were really referring to the process of forging an American Empire – except they didn’t need ships to go and do it in far away places, they had plenty of ’empty’ territory right next door.

The End of Development?

20170923_100207A summary of The End of Development: A Global History of Poverty and Prosperity, by Andrew Brooks (2017)

This blog post covers Part 1: Making the Modern World

Chapter 1: environmental determinism and early human history

The argument in this chapter is that nature (as in the natural environment) does not determine human society and culture, rather it is more accurate to talk of humans shaping nature, especially since the emergence of agricultural societies 12000 years ago.

From between 12-8000 years ago, agricultural societies emerged independently in 11 distinct places, and in each region, these societies domesticated crops and animals, thus adapting to and changing local environments in different ways.

Agricultural societies eventually came to dominate hunter gather societies because they are more resistant to environmental shocks, given their greater capacity to store food to see them through famine periods.

Early agricultural societies also allowed for the development of a specialized division of labour, and were organised along feudal lines, with a tiered hierarchy of ruling classes taking tribute from those working the land. Europe in the 15th century was only one such system among many historical antecedants.

Brooks rounds this chapter off by reminding us that Europe did not colonize the rest of the world because of some kind of manifest destiny based on a unique set of environmental and cultural advantages, there were plenty of other cultures existing around the world in the 15th century that had similar features to the European feudal system.

What Europe did have was an emerging capitalist system, it is this that sets it apart and explains its rise to globalpower from the 15th century onwards.

Chapter 2: colonizing the world

This chapter outlines a brief history of colonialism, starting with the early colonial projects of Spain and Portugal in the Americas, which provided the silver and gold which kick started the global capitalist economy.

Brooks goes on to outline European colonial expansion across the globe more generally, arguing that European big business, governments and religion all worked together to dominate The Americas, Asia and Africa – often exploiting existing power structures to establish rule: profit, politics, piety and patriarchy all played a role in reshaping the colonial world from 1992 to 1945.

Brooks breaks down the history of colonialism something like this:

1500 – 1650 – Spanish and Portuguese colonialism – which involved the extraction of gold and silver, which was used to finance wars against Islam and other European nations. Spain also borrowed heavily from Holland on the basis of expected future returns from its mines in Latin America.  This led to the establishment of financial centers in Holland, and increasing wealth. Span eventually went into decline as its wars were unsuccessful and its colonial returns decreased

1650 – 1900 – Dutch and British colonialism – A newly rich Holland and Britain took over as the main colonial powers – state building was essential to this – a combination of political power and the granting of monopolies to the Dutch and British East India companies (for example) led to the increasing dominance of these two powers.

Brooks also outlines how slavery and the industrial revolution were crucial to the rise of these two powers, and includes a section on the famine in India to illustrate how brutal their colonial projects were.

It’s also important to realise that increasing inequality was an important aspect of Colonialism – obviously between Europe and poorer parts of the world, but there were also some colonies which were more prosperous (such as Australia) and also, within the the mother countries and colonies, this period of history led to increasing inequality.

The chapter rounds of by pointing out that from 1900, the base of world power is already starting to shift from European centers to America.

Chapter Three: American Colonialism 

This chapter starts with the ‘rise and fall of Detroit‘ which illustrates how industrial capitalism led to huge economic growth in America from the late 19th century to the 1960s, only to decline once industrial production moved abroad.

Brooks now argues that, following US Independence in 1776, American capitalists essentially focused on colonising the homeland rather than overseas territories, as there was so much land and so many resources within America – typically treating native Americans as non-people, who ended up in reservations.

There was some expansion overseas during the 19th and early 20th centuries – most notably with establishment of the Panama canal, but the ideology of American isolationism prevented this from happening.

It was effectively WW1 which led America to become to the world’s global hegemon – through lending money to the Allies, it built up huge economic dominance, which only grew as Europe was thrown into turmoil during WW2, following which America rose to dominance as the country which would seek to ‘develop’ the rest of the world, which is the focus of part two of the book….. (to be updated later)

 

 

 

The Capitalist Mode of Production

Understanding the Capitalist Mode of Production is crucial to an understanding of both Modernisation Theory and Dependency Theory – I thought the passage below did a nice job of summarizing what the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is.

A a special treat for my American readers, I have used the correct, British spelling of ‘labour’.

‘Today we think of Capitalism as the normal way of organising economic activity and tend to take it for granted, but it is a very different mode of production to previous feudal economies and hunter gatherer livelihoods…

Capitalism is based on private ownership of enterprises such as factories, plantations, mines, offices or shops and the operation of these assets for profit. Other elements of the means of production such as labour, land, technology and capital are also privately owned and can be bought and sold.

Labour is the most important input for production. Under capitalism, labour, the work of men and women, has become a special type of commodity which is sold in the marketplace. Capitalists use their money to buy labour and combine this commodity with other inputs, such as land, raw materials etc. to produce new goods and services. In profitable businesses, the economic value of these new goods and services are greater than the other inputs required to produce them.

Workers’ labour generates a surplus value greater than the workers’ wages. When the capitalist sells the finished commodities on the market they extract surplus value from the labour of the workers by paying them less than the value of the work they have completed. Capitalists are able to profit from the labour of others because they control the means of production.

The capitalist mode of production was different to earlier feudalism because of the role for waged labour and the importance of capital and markets for acquiring wealth. The important transition which lead to the expansion of capitalism around the globe through colonialism was the concentration of capitalist power through the fusion of state authority and capital.”

Source – Brooks, Andrew (2017) The End of Development