Changing our default settings – part 2: Educational technology as ideology

Selwyn argues that “any instance of digital technology use in education is shaped by a range of social interests – from designers and developers, financiers and marketers to technology-using educators and the educational institutions they work within.” These social interests shape the technology itself as well as our perceptions of it. Contrary to popular belief, the technologies are also shaped by the ideologies of the designers and developers, financiers and marketers, educators and educational institutions. Selwyn goes as far as to say that “strong arguments can be made for digital technology as one of the key ‘mechanisms’ for giving dominant ideologies a ‘real existence’ in contemporary society (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999/2005).”

What are these ‘dominant ideologies’? Selwyn lists three.

1. Libertarianism

Libertarians see society “as being organised along meritocratic lines of self-ownership and individual control of resources” (Selwyn). They emphasise personal responsibility, self-management and self-sufficiency. Perhaps more relevantly, various scholars over the years have written of cyberlibertarianism, defined by Langdon Winner as “a collection of ideas that links ecstatic enthusiasm for electronically mediated forms of living with radical, right wing libertarian ideas about the definition of freedom, social life, economics, and politics in the years to come” (1997).

In their influential 1996 essay The Californian Ideology, Barbrook and Cameron describe a ‘loose alliance’ of ‘techno-boosters’ which “has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley.” According to Barbrook and Cameron,

the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich.

However, this is a vision based on a ‘wilful blindness to racism, poverty and environmental degradation’.

Writing in 2013, David Golumbia includes in his list of prominent cyberlibertarians Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), John Perry Barlow (who wrote of digital natives and immigrants several years before Prensky did), Elon Musk, Julian Assange and Sergey Brin.

2. Neoliberalism

According to Stephen Ball (in Selwyn 2014), neoliberalism

extends libertarian notions of individual liberty, self-responsibility and personal entrepreneurism with an explicit belief in consumer choice and market freedom, coupled with the dominance of private interests over the workings of the state.

In its emphasis on consumer choice and market freedom, it is “linked intrinsically with the organisation of capitalism and capitalist relations” (Selwyn 2014). David Harvey (2005) takes this further and links it explicitly with digital technologies:

[Neoliberalism] seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market. This requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace. Hence neoliberalism’s intense interest in and pursuit of information technologies.

In Australia, as well as the UK, US and New Zealand, both major political parties have been strongly influenced by neoliberalism and both have demonstrated an increasingly intense interest in IT. Malcolm Turnbull’s background in this area is well-known; he has also talked repeatedly since becoming PM about ‘agility‘, ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also hopped on the Silicon Valley freedom train. Echoing the breathlessly boosterist sentiments in his 2015 Budget Reply speech, he wrote in July that “[d]igital disruption is not a negotiable, it’s not something we can wish away – nor is it something we should be daunted by.” This thinking seems to have been strongly influenced by Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, which Shorten apparently received from Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen (who, presumably, also found it revelatory) as a Christmas present. Chapter one of ‘2MA’, as the authors call it, starts with this quote from Freeman Dyson:

“Technology is a gift of god. after the gift of life it is
perhaps the greatest of god’s gifts. it is the mother of
civilizations, of arts and of sciences.
Oooooooook then.

3. New Capitalism

According to Selwyn, new capitalism – also referred to as ‘digital capitalism’, ‘virtual capitalism’, ‘hi-tech capitalism’, ‘informatic capitalism’, ‘cognitive capitalism’, etc. – can be “seen as encompassing most areas of everyday life [such as interactions between learners and teachers] as potential sources of profit generation” and as “based largely around the privatisation of ‘immaterial assets'”.

Considering these three dominant ideologies together, Selwyn states:

It could be reasoned that digital technologies have a two-way relationship with these ideologies – clearly being shaped by these dominant values and interests, but also acting to perpetuate the dominance of those values in wider society. Indeed, digital technologies can be seen as a key material form of these ideologies.

Following this, I would argue that it is through technology that these ideologies are finding their way into our classrooms and our lessons and our materials, even if they might otherwise be free of politics, bias or ideology.

Student data as an immaterial asset

Data has been referred to as the ‘new oil‘ and it appears that it is the biggest and latest ‘immaterial asset’ to be gathered, processed and traded. Following are some excerpts from a recently-released joint ‘policy brief‘ by the Lisbon Council and Progressive Policy Institute (see the image below).


(Incidentally, according to Evgeny Morozov, Google, HP, IBM and Oracle are all donors to the Lisbon Council and one of its founders, Ann Mettler, now works for the European Policy Strategy Centre , “an internal policy thinktank for the European commission”.)

What Whose data are they referring to? Where does it come from? How do they get it? One way of getting at least some sense of this is ‘The Internet in Real-Time‘. However, even assuming that’s accurate, it doesn’t capture the vast amounts of metadata that we create through our online (and offline) interactions. Bruce Schneier, in Data and Goliath, estimates that this year alone, “76 exabytes [76 billion gigabytes] of data will travel across the internet every year.”

My argument is that, in our enthusiasm for using internet-connected technologies in education, we are largely oblivious to the nature and volume of data created by and about ourstudents and, therefore, the ways we are complicit in “the establishment of educational arrangements that primarily benefit elite economic interests at the expense of the majority” (Selwyn 2014).

Part 1: Attitudes to educational technology

Part 3: The Student Data Blueprint

Part 4: Unpaid digital labour

Part 5: The Five-Point Plan

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