Monday, 7 October 2013

Towards 2023: Education rediscovered?

Have things changed that much in the last 10 years? In 2003, we had smartphones (although not iPhones). It was the year of the 2nd Gulf war. Mass broadband was on its way. VLEs were well-embedded in education. There's little, apart from tablets (although what were called 'tablets' - which we now call convertible laptops - were available), which we have now that we didn't have then. But we didn't have an economic crisis. We even had a great summer!

But decades are not even. The decade between 1993 and 2003 saw the worldwide-web, the dot-com boom, the millenium bug (or rather lots of computing jobs trying to deal with it!), the election of Tony Blair and 9/11. That's quite a lot. Having said that, the gap between 1993 and 1983 is perhaps even more astonishing! So is the trend to  less change? What will we say in 2023?

This kind of comparison is a bit misleading. Not all change is visible on the surface. Between 1983 and 1993, many superficial changes were in evidence (personal computing being the most obvious), but the organisational substructure of society was only changing slowly. As superficial changes become less noticeable, it may be the case that organisational substructure transforms itself more profoundly. Between 2003 and 2013, there has been a dramatic technocratization of the management of institutions which has sat on the back of the wiring of everyone into an electronic network. The multinational corporations who control our networks increasingly operate with the economic force of superstates. What has shifted are balances of power, means of control and the distribution of risks. Increasingly the political sphere has become inseparable from the unrelenting political self-legitimation of technology. This has provided rich pickings for the rich.

The economic crisis, which is really the defining event of this current period, is a symptom of the kind of stagnation that always accompanies gross imbalances of power. The last time the world saw something like this was in the 1930s when the US government vaults heaved with the weight of European gold as it made its way over the Atlantic either in reparations from Germany, or debt repayments from the rest of Europe. Now it is multinational corporations whose vaults (and their executive's pockets) are swollen. It's a dangerous and one fears an unsustainable situation.

So what about 2023? The comparison with the 1930s is chilling - is the kind of destruction of capital (which Marx argued that in such a situation was necessary) possible? We can only hope that the answer is no. One possibility is the creation of new forms of capital which disrupt the old and create a refreshed dynamic within the economy. We should be careful what we wish for, but I think this can come about through a step-change in technology. I think the step-change will be a transformed way of thinking about computers.

By 2023 we will probably have quantum computers which operate at speeds which are as unimaginable to us today as our current processing speeds would have been to the computer pioneers in the 1950s. But what are the implications of all this speed?

One of the important shifts in our networked society has been a fundamental transformation in the nature of "tools". Tools are no longer only artefacts which through their material constraints help individuals reorganise their worlds. Tools still do this, but they also constrain users in the service of tool-makers who really have the power. Increasingly the environment within which we live is made both through our attempts to organise ourselves in it, and through the manipulations of our constraints by those who learn how to control us through our use of their tools. As computer power increases, so they will even learn how we feel: the efficacy of the constraints applied to people become more and more effective. Whilst this appears remarkably unequal, it may equally be a stable situation. So maybe no war - but it does appear to be a kind of  'information feudalism'.

Education becomes crucially important in an 'information feudal' society. In order to maintain the dynamics of information flow which feed the controlling forces bearing upon the population, it is necessary to have a technically educated population whose behaviour can be continually stimulated into new patterns, and who can be continually manipulated by the constraints that are constructed for them. The flow of new patterns of tool-driven behaviour, stimulated by education, becomes the new dynamic of economic flow. "Education" will, by 2023 have transformed itself into something entirely complicit with the controlling multi-national forces.  The transformation will be so complete that it will be impossible to remember that education was ever anything else. In the same way that the pathological control of the Catholic Church governed all aspects of life in Europe in the Middle ages, so education will operate a similar "information monasticism". There will be a blind faith in education which delivers economic obeisance.

The spanner in the works will be, as always, authenticity and novelty. The patterns of behaviour which stem from love and attachments may become well-known to the tool-makers (as indeed they are beginning to be already), but most of this behaviour is based on fears (the loss of loved ones for example): it is possible to overcome this. The greatest threat to a controlling society is the divestment of fear. Whilst it might have been forgotten that the original mission of education was precisely this loss of fear, there is a hope that this might be rediscovered.

It is this rediscovered education that offers us hope. Maybe rediscovery will come from the realisation of the profundity of the human and mysterious connections that bind us together. It may be that the speed of computers contributes to an empowering of individuals in the face of controlling forces: after all, these are machines which now have the capacity to analyse how we feel. It may be that personal insight in the light of technological power assists in the divestment of fear. All these things are possible. But if the alternative is the destruction of capital, then perhaps we should be grateful that our technologies may steer us to a future that, whilst not being ideal or free any more (and perhaps a little less) than we are now, maintains the possibility of freedom.

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