Although my birthday isn’t until later this week, my wife gave me my big present early. It’s a new iPod to replace the one I got back in 2006. It is an absolutely astounding thing to me that iPod one is about a third the size of my last one yet it must have at least four times the capacity. It has enough memory for me to transfer all the music on my laptop and still have plenty of room for all the podcasts that I had downloaded over the years and never got around to playing. In fact, I still haven’t played anything on that iPod other than those podcasts.
All my talk about podcasts amuses my wife. It’s not that she dislikes “This American Life,” but she can’t get over the fact that I have more interest in listening to 5-year-old radio programs than I do in listening to my music. Yet to me, that’s what makes the iPod such a terrific gift. I love it because I can use it my way, not the way that I’m expected to use it. It is technology under my control, not technology that controls me.
This is the context from which I’ve been watching Adam Curtis’ “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,” a BBC documentary that I first read about at reeserants (different spelling, so no relation). I’ve seen all three hours of the documentary now, and to try to sum it up here seems next to impossible. It’s one of those documentaries that starts in places that you never expected to be going and then works back to a common theme. It’s also very, very good.
While I can’t retrace the path of the documentary here, the overall theme is quite clear: Efforts to destroy authority through technology designed to facilitate group organization create as many problems as they solve. That’s because these technologies recreate pernicious forces that existed in such societies already like the rich exploiting the poor. Start a commune, the strong personalities will dominate the effort and pull it apart. Start a cyber-community with no central authority either and the same thing will likely happen. Unfettered democracy, in other words, can actually be anti-democratic.
So what happens if you destroy authority in the classroom? While Curtis doesn’t take this point in the edtech direction, reeserants does:
Call me old fashioned, but I like to see school, or college, or university as having some sort of authority, that steps aside from whatever is new and cool and brings some kind of critical distance to all the hype being spouted about this, that and the other – hype that nine times out of ten is making someone somewhere a load of cash.
I like to think of education as somewhere that independent thinking is encouraged and the status quo is questioned – this sort of approach is typified by someone like Neil Selwyn who contrasts hype with hard facts. I like the idea of being allowed to challenge orthodoxy; my main worry with the idea of the wikirriculum (or Education 2:0) is that schools will just become echo chambers for whatever fad happens to be in vogue.
I’m actually a little more optimistic than that. Why? It takes me back to my new iPod. There are technologies that I can control. I love those technologies. Then there are machines that form part of a gigantic collective ecosystem that I cannot. If I have the first kind of machines at my disposal, then my life will be better as I will finally have more time to listen to “This American Life.” I will also maintain my ability to challenge any orthodoxy I want. However, if I give up the power to grade my own papers or write my own syllabus to the will of the collective, then my class (not to mention my life) will be subject to forces beyond my control. This will probably leave me frustrated and unhappy.
While I know next to nothing about baptism, my understanding is that it’s at least at some level an act of trust to stick your head underwater and have faith that the person dunking you will let you come up before you suffocate. Curtis has convinced me that my distrust of people who want to dunk me and my class in the digital river of information flowing throughout the world* is indeed well-founded.
I’ll stick to sprinkling, thank you very much.
* Yeah, I know it’s a bad metaphor, but I wanted to post a Talking Heads video so please back off.