Impossible Goals, or a Requiem for Hope: a Response to Kidcrooked

As I finish my first year of Masters Studies in sociology at Queen’s University, I have discovered I have learned many things besides the academic material from my courses. I am a Teaching Assistant for the first year introduction to sociology course; I am responsible for 2 tutorial groups, totaling 34 new post-secondary students, guiding them, teaching them, and marking their work. What I see from many of them is idealism and perhaps a hope that things may one day change, whether it has to do with inequality of the LGBT etc. movement, access to internet, socioeconomic status, or marginalization of particular groups of people due to their work or ethnicity. In fact, I recently learned of the new posts (here and here) while I was showing the site to one of the more inquisitive students. I agree with the position that there is an outrage or at least strong positive interest in marginalization and inequities in society.

Given my participation on this project revolved around digital pedagogy, I will try to formulate a response to the recent posts by Kidcrooked that critiques some thoughts, while also stays in the topic of digital learning. As usual, my post will remain theoretical until maybe the day comes when I want to make it into something more than a simple response.

One of the statements that stood out to me was the idea that there is always a ramp present in the digital world, for the democratization of the internet. I humbly disagree. If anything, there are rapid movements to destroy this ramp, though I would suggest this ramp is a half-baked one, under construction. They are destroying something that hardly existed. The end of accessibility before it began. The internet was not conceived under the contexts of democratization of information, it was built towards that by like-minded users who wanted to share their life. Like everything else, life itself has been given a price-tag. Many people pay to set-up their exhibits of themselves, they pay to learn what is going around them as they huddle in their homes, they pay for constant and immediate connections to the world around them. To gain access to academic journals we must pay, to go to school we pay, to utilize digital teaching tools we pay. Freedom of expense is a fantasy, one generated by hidden fees covered by taxes, tuition prices, and student levies. Corporate interest has, and is continually, taking over construction of these ramps of accessibility. A school cannot afford valuable online resources? Too bad, you must make do with what you have. I am sure some schools could hire their own students from the computer science departments to make more effective teaching tools than we currently have. We are taught from the outset to struggle and overcome inequalities presented to ourselves, making inequalities seem like something natural, that to overcome inequality makes you stand above it. Once overcome, we are often presented with three choices: to forget it in our exhaustion, to tacitly consent to reproduce it in ways we do not consider, or to place yourself back in it to help others rise above it. A difficult choice, influenced by our cultural, economic, and symbolic capital. Nevertheless, before I stray too far from my point, the ramp of accessibility is not there, rather it is a pay-to-use elevator. Welcome to the floor you can afford.

A point of contention is the idea that we will write about the internet as an “age of an equalizer.” There are fundamental powers at work in the fight for internet equities that cannot even be seen. If anything, we will write about the internet as an age of extreme symbolic violence, a clash of capital, in a Bourdieusian sense. The fight for the internet is only just beginning, and more than likely will not end favourably for the average person or academic. Attacks on net-neutrality are made daily. Bourdieu shows us with his notion of the hierarchical field that there are so many agents working against change, that even to break away from the hierarchy and start a new one causes the old order to adapt. If the internet has equalized anything, it has equalized the ability of dominant social structures to adapt equally as fast, if not faster, than innovative material can be dispersed. With the democratization of the internet also comes the availability of incorrect ideas being available, whether they are anti-progressive views, or misinterpreted or willfully twisted concepts and theories. I recently showed a video from the Feminist Frequency series on Youtube to my tutorial groups, and a large majority of the students were less than impressed as they dug down to the deeper issues. Yet for many, this is seen as the face of modern feminism, simply because it is so easily accessible. As much as we hope the internet will be what we want it to be, it is little more than an idealization, something that cannot be achieved if full democratization is enabled. To disable a full democratization is playing on the borders of those fundamental inequalities we wish to destroy.

In terms of internet being an equalizer in the educative processes, in its present shape it most definitely is not. Access gaps due to lack of infrastructure can be crippling to new students competing with those who have access to these things. Schools that are underfunded lack the resources to help their students, who again have to compete with higher funded schools which have more technological resources. The more funding available, the greater access to knowledge, and this is in a broad sense, not just a social science angle. Where money lies, power lies, and the field is reproduced.

There cannot be equality where there is always a power that creates a fundamental imbalance, even when it cannot be precisely located or hidden in a plain sight obscurity. Often we are staring at this imbalance of power. Even as I type this I know my computer is better, faster, and thus more efficient than many others. Other students are faced with slower computers, which means more “wasted time” (in the sense that you must wait for things to load, to download, etc), and less time is dedicated to actual research, merely on a technicality.

Furthermore, for every principle of inequality that is being solved, another one appears, because the roots of our problems are like a weed: deep and hard to find. Even with progressive ideas such as open-access scholarly journals, we are still faced with inequalities in terms of knowledge accessibility. If we cannot understand the material in the journals, what use is it to us? It is not even a primary matter of being “high-brow” or “well-read,” it continually goes back to fundamental inequities of economic and cultural capital that are generated and handed down in society.

In accordance to the introduction of this post, Kidcrooked discusses the introduction of gadgets, and the Canadian cultural mosaic. Baudrillard identified in 1984 that a cultural mosaic is a myth, it is artificial. It is a delusion to hide the real culture, the “capitalist centralization of value.” These gadgets, though useful, as I described earlier are niche pieces of equipment set not to benefit the people, but to gain profit. We can look to the most innovative of designs, those that can do the most, and wonder why they are suppressed, or never make it out of proto-type stages. As I discussed before in this post (and thus will not repeat myself at length), unless the gadget will turn a profit, it will not be generally available to the market. In the case of 3D Printers, it will not be long before they are entirely regulated by both government and corporative powers.

In the end you may ask, reasonably, how is it that I feel the field or dominant social structures are constantly reproduced but we are making undeniable advances in society? To this I suggest that dominant social structures integrate changes on their own terms. Every change is done with the subtle consent of power, as it learns to control and integrate the new order into the old. Technological advancements in the classroom can only be achieved with the approval of the hierarchy. What can be accessed is a matter of economic capital (power). New cultural capital values are approved or disapproved. Schutz once suggested that the fundamental anxiety of society is the fact we know our finiteness. Bourdieu continues this line of thought suggesting that we are always in a search for recognition. Inequality will be, and always has been, generated on the premise that we are better than someone else, and will take available means to achieve it. To be recognized is to surpass others, and competition, especially in this society, breeds this. There are a multitude of factors that will allow, for example, one school to get ahead of another, to get more funding, donations, better teachers, and so on. Students will always try to be better than one or another, whether it is competition for admission to a prestigious institute, or stacking their résumé for a job. Until the corporative interests surrounding education, particularly technological education, is entirely dismantled with a suitable substitute, competition and therefore inequality will continue to persist.

Perhaps I have become too vitriolic. Although yes, it is our job as scholars to respond to both the historical institution and work to change inequalities, we are pitted against a monster of enormous proportions. It is no exaggeration to say we must stand up to the very fabric of social reality. A virus so vile it infests the most miniscule and obscure vein of the social body, and readily adapts to healing processes, creating a task that almost endless, and designed to destroy all hope through displays of power, greed, and distrust manifested in the forms of institutions we hold most dear.

Works influencing this piece

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects,and Simulacra and Simulation.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man.
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers Volume One: The Problem of Social Reality.

The Digital Classroom: Catering to Idealism

One more theorist inspired post from me, once more applying ideas towards technological learning environments. This time I will examine the issue from a perspective inspired by Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard was a French theorist, writing in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. He covered a broad range of ideas, but some of his core themes were that of simulations, consumerism, media, technology, and signs/symbolism. His bibliography is quite lengthy, and since I can only include so much, this article will use some ideas found in The System of Objects, Simulacra and Simulation, and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Again, I must note in advance, this post will seem very non-supportive of technology in the classroom, but I want to again note that this is not my position, rather that this should provoke thought about the origins of said technology, and the political/economical/ideological motives behind equipping classrooms with technology. By understanding these underlying themes, we can have a fuller understanding of the true meanings and ramifications of technology in the classroom. It may be a harsh reality to face and some may rail against such claims, but technology in the classroom does in fact have many downsides to it, most of which are the fault of said ideological influences.

As one of the arguments for supporting digitized classrooms, technology is slated to combat boredom, to cater to new ways of learning, and create new methods of teaching. However, I want to point out the most obvious fact: teaching with technology is still teaching. It is not replacing teaching or teachers, and thus will become subject to the same miseries, or even worse distractions, than traditional methods eventually. Digital interfaces in a classroom hold the attention of younger generations and students because they are a novelty. A techno-generation of students will view digitally enhanced classrooms much in the same way rebellious children today view the traditional methods. It is a circular process. The idea of learning and the attitudes towards that is what needs to be changed to allow the full effects of technological enhancements in the classroom to be felt. We are deluding ourselves into believing that technology will save the classroom, or that the fundamentals will somehow be different and more effective. Not that this is naivety, on the contrary, that is the very goal of technology, which allows it to flourish and invade our body. But we must be suspicious.

In the mad rush to equip schools with technology, the reduction of technology to merely a sign is evident. I do not mean to deprive digital interfaces of their ability to fundamentally change the classroom, but the symbolism of a digital classroom is stronger, and arguably more important. This movement is a modernization, to pull into the 21st century one of the oldest social environments. Digital interfaces serve as a sign of modernity, of a technologically savvy and triumphant society. Traditional methodologies are not seen as rational, nor 100 percent efficient; there is always a piece of technological equipment that can be created to achieve this, though always within limits imposed by dominant social structure. In short, technologically advanced classrooms serves to further legitimize our technocratic society. It is more the idea of an advanced classroom that is appealing to many than the practical application of it. The actual implementation is a nothing more or less than a worthy goal of society, though successful integration would be a “token” of power.

Referencing back again to my first post about surveillance and data collection, we come to a concept Baudrillard detailed in Simulacra and Simulation. He believed that we bring the sacred objects in life into a scientific order, in an effort to control them. He gave the example of museums effectively “killing” Egyptian mummified corpses; that we write our own ethnographies. The world has become a museum; everything is an exhibit. Though this work was written in 1981, it has been amplified to the infinite degree by the internet today. Social media is a prime example; we build our own exhibits for ourselves, and prostitute our images. Our data is collected, and advertisers have their own museums about us, the consumer, and cater back to us so we can continue to build on our own exhibit. In a similar way, this works in the classroom as well, if the technology is set up in such a way. The statistics of how well we perform in certain areas lead to an exhibit of our academic profile and abilities. We have seen how advertisers have invaded digital academic tools such as Blackboard; theoretically they could advertise to the student particular devices or programs that best suit their academic abilities or deficiencies. Additionally, schools or programs that require applications can see a deeper/rational/synthesized evaluation of a student, or even a host of students, through simple things like data collection and analysis. An exhibit of a student or classroom can be quite revealing. Nothing is private, and everything is oriented towards efficiency and economical benefits. Schools have a vested interest in having top performing students, advertisers make money from the data, and other companies make money from people purchasing the programs. Although this idea of an exhibit of the student may seem like a logical step, do exhibits and statistics always demonstrate the potential or true abilities of a student? As Baudrillard suggests, there is more and more information, but less and less meaning.

This idea of the exhibit of the student somewhat leads into the idea that people believe technology adapts to them. Any little learning deficiency, interest, etc, is seen as an individualization, personalization, a focus on them. This is wrong: everything is coded, predicted, anticipated, and such “adaptations” are designed to dupe you into believing technology is working for you. Any “adaptation” is an orientation to a paying consumer, or creation of adaptive ideas for profit in patents. Problem with math? Try this new teaching program! I see you like science; try this new data collection program! Perhaps if a new development is made requiring non-existent technologies, it could be an adaptation, though it is not an adaptation for the sake of the person, it is for the sake of filling another gap for profit. Point is, technology is not working, or doing the work, for you. If we have digital interfaces in the classroom as an example, they cannot “work” unless we utilize them. It is what WE do that matters. We manipulate it, and it does what it is told. Ultimately it is the programmers and corporations YOU are working for, the opposite of what we believe technology is doing. Every quirk has a niche and a price; there’s an app for that.Governments and companies both are pushing for this equipment, as it benefits both of them. Given the recent revelations of widespread data being monitored by government agencies, it can be debated whether or not this is actually in the student’s best interest.

Relating to this, technology opposes progress just as much as it promotes advancements. Advancing too far, too fast will kill it; it is only logical that it organizes itself against too fast of progress. It is in its best interest to go slow, and “adapt” to situations that come up instead of preventing or pre-empting them. This is economic play. Baudrillard discussed at length in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place how speculators make money of things that never really happen, that do not catch on, take off, what have you. The same effect is being applied here. Economic powers are speculating the worth of technologically enhanced classrooms, and speculating off the students. Why else would companies be interested in equipping schools with tablets, e-readers, computers, and so on? Advertising, media, promotion, money.

Baudrillard suggested objects and technology grow like an organism; it evolves, it has waste, it has obsolescence. Technology, of course, is the exact same. Every year we see it, the new Apple products and the mad rush to purchase these expensive devices that undergo minor changes that are often aesthetic only in nature, a planned obsolescence designed to suck money out of the masses. In the classroom, this is the greatest danger of technology. It is expensive, and cannot be replaced at the consistent rate of growth it is experiencing. There will always be a school that is out of date, and then the point of digitally enhanced classrooms is lost, as methods become obsolete as fast as the technology. Again, economics are at play. We must also deal with the waste; where does all this go? The amount of waste technology produces is astounding, and is only growing.

There is another problem, regarding specificity of technology. Again, I noted in my first post that many instructors are incapable of fixing problems with the rudimentary technology in the classrooms. Baudrillard noted the increasing specialization in “gizmos” and technology in general. This is part of the plan; there are jobs out there for people who can fix these problems, so the people who really need to know (instructors) are not taught. Here is an example, though it is not exactly about learning with digital interfaces, but it paints the general picture. In my final year of high school, all of the clocks broke and everything fell out of time. All the buzzers were 8 minutes behind, and not a single clock in the school was correct. It remained this way for quite some time because apparently there was only ONE PERSON in the entire municipality that was licensed and trained (aka entitled) to fix the clocks. Great. In terms of actual classes, why do students have to wait for IT help to get the lesson going? It would be more much efficient if the instructors knew how to work these things, and then both students and instructors would not lose out on 10-15 minutes of class every week.

It boils down to this: money. Baudrillard asserted that the cultural mosaic does not exist, rather there is only one “culture,” and this one is the capitalist centralization of value. Everything can be given a price, and now that education and instructors are increasingly under the economic scope, economics are extraordinarily important, especially given the enormous focus on economics today. This centralized tendency to reduce everything to monetary value is extraordinarily demeaning, and is certainly a backwards progression. Technological advances in the classrooms are suffering from this, and as noted in this post and my last one, it is solely due to money, presumably greed.

There is a great technocracy at play here. It is evident in all of the above issues. It is also evident in the prevailing attitude about technology: if you do not have it, are not up to date, or non-proficient with it, you are socially ridiculed. Although it is not the social “castration” Baudrillard suggested happened to those who lost their driver’s licence, the principle is still applicable. It is an expectation of people today, an expectation that everybody has cell phones, social media accounts, mp3 players, and so on. Technology is not to be halted; those who have not come under technology are backwards, morally and socially. This idea allows it flourish, and continuously creates pretexts for development, pointless or not. This is one reason why we consider the traditional classroom model out of date, and legitimizes the push for digital enhancements.

The final idea I will explore about technologically advanced classrooms is that of a social paralysis. Baudrillard suggested technology does not actually create communication; I believe this to be a result of given historical time-frames (1968), and I will say technology DOES in fact create communication, but a non-standard type or form of communication. It cannot be denied that objects such as Smart phones or other media platforms are killing true human interaction and relationships. It may seem contradictory: does social media not count as human interaction or relationships? Not in my mind. Social media deludes people into believing this, but subtly we must be aware that we do not really have 900+ friends. It is merely an exhibit; social media does not give us the opportunity to learn how engage our peers in the flesh, and digital interfaces in the classroom pose the same threat. I feel that speaking with colleagues and engaging in open dialogue in seminar settings allows the best ideas to be birthed and grow. Technology cannot, and should not, be allowed to isolate students from not only themselves, but from the instructor. If indeed technology does not create or foster standard communication, this is what it should (at least in part) facilitate.

To wrap things up and keep it short, it is suffice to say that we need to really take a step back and look at digitally enhanced classrooms as something more than an educative tool. It was quoted in The System of Objects that “there is something morally wrong about an object whose exact purpose is not entirely known.” Technology in the classrooms is this. Very few people know every line of code that goes into these programs, the underlying motives, etc, for this equipment. It is a consumption of technology, and Baudrillard left us with an excellent definition of consumption: “an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs.” Technology is the sign, and there is so much at stake for all parties that everybody wants their piece of the pie, economically, politically, and so on. By considering some of the more sinister aspects of technology, and figuring out how to mitigate them as best as possible while being as open as possible, we can make progress in this endeavour.