beware of geeks bearing revolution

Today, the revolution has finally come to education.  “It’s hardly revolutionary to say we’re living through revolutionary times,” proclaims an article titled, “Recoding the Classroom,” in the most recent issue of Google’s online journal, ThinkWithGoogle: “How we work, communicate, live, and learn has been transformed by the information age spawned by the internet.  [H]ere’s the thing, if the world we live in looks nothing like it did three decades ago, and even less like it will three decades hence, is it right that the classroom of today would be instantly recognizable to your mother, your mother’s mother, or your constantly networking, cell phone-obsessed daughter?”  In this showdown between “the world” and “the classroom,” technology is pushing the world to the speed of thought, and education either catches up or loses out.

This “logic” of modernization has become so natural these days as to beg a modicum of skepticism.  How “revolutionary” are these revolutionary times?  And, who are the revolutionary we’s and you’s conjured up by this rhetoric?

As for the first question: yes, we have smartphones, iPads, super-sized LCD televisions, networks, collaboration platforms, and convergence, but can we has revolution?  In 2010, there were 46.2 million Americans in poverty, the fourth consecutive year the rate went up and the largest number in the fifty-two years since poverty estimates were first published.  Since 1980, income inequality has accelerated. A study by University of California, Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez found that, as of 2007, the top decile of American earners pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917.”  As the Congressional Budget Office recently opined: “the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979.”  Ironically, 1979 was the same year the Microsoft entered the OS business.  Apple was incorporated in 1977.

In some very important ways the world looks a lot like it did in 1982.  In fact, the “revolution” looks a lot more like a counter-revolution – - class structures harden, opportunity evaporates, power consolidates.   As a quartet of English philosophers declaimed in 1971: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The rhetoric of revolution requires change and stasis.  And if the “world” isn’t quite moving at the speed of light, perhaps we can still count on the “classroom” as a bastion of permanence, the kind of place “you,” your grandmother, and your daughter have in common.  When “you” or your grandmother attended K-12 school, you probably had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, play a sport, or enjoy recess.  Your daughter most likely doesn’t.  High schools built to accommodate 1,400 students now host 4,000.  One advocacy group reports that 48% of New York City schoolkids are enrolled in overcrowded schools.  (Shortly before resigning, NYC Schools chancellor and former Hearst Magazine chairman, Cathie Black offered her solution to school overcrowding: “Could we just have some birth control?”)  Higher ed seems to be changing pretty fast as well: rocketing student debt, supersonic tuition hikes, a disappearing professoriate, and of course overcrowded classrooms.  Obviously, this ain’t your grandma’s classroom; given the speed of its decomposition, education hardly functions as the turtle to technology’s hare.

So, if the revolution isn’t quite so “revolutionary” and the “classroom” isn’t quite so time-bound – - why is the millenial rhetoric of technology so common in education these days?

One obvious reason is that much of this rhetoric mistakes things for relations: more  devices – -  iPads, smartphones, apps – -  don’t equal more or better schools or learning.  This is a technological determinism shared by many progressives and conservatives.  For instance, a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation recently argued that the presence of air conditioning, cable t.v., and Xboxes in low-income households proves that poor people aren’t really “poor” at all.  (Following this logic – - thanks to electric lighting, today’s poor are a lot richer than Andrew Carnegie!)  Focusing on things, the Heritage Foundation cheekily misses more important measures of poverty like  powerlessness, inequality, and marginalization.  The educational version of this reasoning is apparent: more things – - cell phones, computers, iPads, etc. – - will revolutionize education despite deteriorating environments, greater inequalities,  and massive disinvestment in public schools and universities.

Still, a little debunking probably won’t put a stake through the tech-as-revolution rhetoric because its power hardly rests on ordeals of truth or falsehood.  Like much of the talk surrounding technology, this “revolutionary” rhetoric is mythical.  More particularly, it belongs to a long tradition of the technological sublime.

The sublime is that which astonishes us, which elicits wonder and amazement and seems to baffle rationality.  The sublime instills awe and intimates power.  Romanticism celebrated the sublime experience of nature, but Americans have an equally deep history of investing technology with the sublime.   Perhaps the most famous scene of the American technological sublime is Henry Adams’ encounter with the dynamo at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Gazing up at the huge machine, Adams recognizes the dynamo as a “symbol of infinity” and feels the humming machine as “a moral force.”  “Before the end,” Adams records, “one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”  The scion of America’s republican past bowing down before the machine: this image sums up the inauguration of a new political, economic, and cultural order.

Railroads, bridges, factories, electricity – -  in the late 19th century each of these new   wonders testified to American exceptionalism – - the nation’s occult but powerful connection to forces of change and progress.  Yet, technology’s charisma depended, as David Nye chronicles, on the power of myth to obscure, evade, and confuse.  Con Edison’s contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair, the famous City of Light, re-presented New York City “as an already-realized utopia – - a splendid human achievement rather than a city plagued by poverty, unemployment, racial tensions, crime, and class conflict”  As Nye exhaustively documents, the technological sublime – - the way technology was represented and experienced through images and narratives – -  “defamiliarized a known landscape and invested it with new meanings. . . In each case, the human cost of achieving that power was literally invisible to the inhabitants of the new technological structure.”   Myth’s alluring visions rest on its amazing capacities for blindness.

Myth is history’s great opponent, and the compulsive pleasures of the technological sublime follow from its sublimation of history.  As Vincent Mosco argues in his update of Nye’s work: “we want to believe that our era is unique in transforming the world as we have known it.  The end is preferred to more of the same; the transcendent to the routine; the sublime to the banal. “  The technological sublime exempts us from history and catapults us into a magical kingdom unburdened by the plagues of social fact, a kingdom of new, fungible relations, identities, and possibilities.  In this way, “revolution” becomes the opiate of the smart mob, consigning uncomfortable, obdurate realities – - of class, power, inequality – - to the ash heap of memory.

Yet, this takes us back to the “we” who enjoy these “revolutionary times.”  One of the more unremarked motifs in Nye’s account of the technological sublime is the way in which the temporal discontinuities (that was then; this is now) of the sublime also work to shore up collective identities.  “A powerful technological synthesis,” Nye writes, “creates a temporary community, investing the spectators with a sense of personal and national transcendence.” The technological sublime isn’t so concerned to elaborate this community; instead, it relentlessly asserts a difference that defines this community.  Like your grandmother, “they” live in the past; “we” live in the future.   The “we” that proliferates in the language of the technological sublime insistently marks and re-marks the the elite from the preterite.  In this way, the “revolutionary” rhetoric of technology nourishes and refreshes the class consciousness of an ever-fretful professional-managerial class.  The terrible beauty of the future depends on re-inscribing the same old differences of the past.

Capitalism survives by the vaccine of revolution.  Change, novelty, innovation, even disruption: these avatars of difference create the restlessness and desire that churn  markets and, in turn, drive the creation of value.  Pound’s “make it new” just as well underscores the avant-garde’s importance to consumer capitalism as to literary modernism.  Technology has always played an important role in this revolutionary fix: the “new” that refreshes is routinely identified with gadgets, buttons, knobs, diodes, tubes – - the magical accoutrements of the machine.  More recently, technology’s revolutionary promise has migrated from the commodity and the factory to the heart of the business enterprise itself.   Companies that embrace the disruptions of information technology will enjoy “business at the speed of thought,” those that don’t will have to enjoy eating dust.

Yet, capitalism’s revolutions are revolutions in service to the same.  Technology doesn’t  announce, embody, or establish the new; within capitalism, the sanctioned use of technology and its “revolutions” is to preserve, extend, and deepen existing realities.  Unless and until technology serves the movement to dismantle power and remake society, we’ll always be trapped in our grandmother’s classroom.

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  1. Pingback: MOOC’ing towards Bethlehem: California Embraces Online Ed | Babylon Is Burning

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