Thursday, 21 July 2011

Educational Technology and Washing Machines

Many technologies that we get used to in our daily lives save us labour: washing machines, vacuum cleaners, cars, telephones, etc. Cynics might even say entertainment technologies save us the labour of entertaining ourselves. Systems thinkers like Marshall McLuhan would (rather than say labour saving) talk about 'extending' human capacity: clothes extend the skin, the car extends the feet, telephones extend the voice, the washing machine extends the scrubbing brush, etc. But many of these are 'hybrid' extensions: it's not just the scrubbing brush that is extended, but also the walk to fetch the water, the effort to heat it, etc...

Does the intenet 'extend' the book? Of course, in place of 'extend', the cybernetician might also say 'amplify'. "The internet amplifies the book" seems a less contentious thing to say. In this way, it is like the telephone. But within this 'amplification' there is also an aspect of 'labour saving'. Illich worries about this sort of amplification because it (in his view) harms the sense of conviviality in society. Consequently, Illich favoured limiting the power of technologies so that convivial labour (which he saw in terms of people working together to achieve common goals) could be maintained.

What about learning? or Teaching? There's some trendy stuff on 'accelerated learning' (see  http://www.acceleratedlearning.com/) which is tied to the (highly problematic) theory of learning styles which seems to be heading in this direction. The basic view is that 'learning' is about achieving a neural state that is responsible for the skilled performances (linguistic and otherwise) that are associated with other members of society who are recognised to possess knowledge. Somehow the neural state can be engineered in a way more rapid than the methods of achieving it with the traditional 'labour of learning'. The techniques offered are designed to engineer this neural state.

Of course, not all the techniques in themselves are necessarily bad (although some probably are). Some of them might be very effective in their own way (which unfortunately serves to convince the gullible that the underlying philosophy is correct!). The problems lie in the conception of the labour of learning and its relation to human individual and social life: it is as if learning is like washing-up or hoovering.

As an activity, learning is polymorphous. It encompasses almost everything we do, which from one aspect or another can be said to be learning: sleeping, reading, talking, walking, eating, breathing, driving, looking, etc. Interestingly, teaching (as Paul Hirst pointed out) is also polymorphous, but perhaps less so: opening windows, sharpening pencils, walking around, talking, (but not necessarily sleeping (although it has been known!)). Washing-up is not polymorphous: there's a particular class of things that are done when we wash up, and probably little dispute about what is involved. Turning learning into a 'neural engineering' project turns it into a less polymorphous activity: increasingly there is little dispute about what is involved - which I find a little chilling!

Hirst makes the comparison between the polymorphous activity of teaching with that of 'work'. This is interesting because it also raises the issue of 'labour'. Given Arendt's distinction between work and labour, where work is that which reconstructs the nature of political existence (which includes making things, writing books, creating concepts, etc), whereas labour creates nothing of permanence, otherwise serving the biological processes and necessities of human existence. Through this lens, we can see that learning is not labour, but work: it is precisely about recreating the nature of political existence. In this view, teaching is merely the human counterpart of the work of learning.

This helps when we come to think about labour saving and educational technology. Whilst technologies like washing machines are labour-saving, they are not always work-enhancing, although in the case of the washing machine, the liberation from drudgery has a political aspect - particularly if the person who was labouring in washing up was oppressed because of it. But that can only happen if work follows from the liberation from drudgery.


The same might apply when we think about the amplification of books by the internet. However, visiting the library was not really labour, because in going to the library the work of learning was already in action  in the intention. What labour is there for the internet to save? Yet, we can't all go to the library - particularly if you live in Africa or other places far removed from Oxford (or Manchester...). And by being able to read in Africa, the possibility of the work of learning is created and supported where it might not once have been possible.


The internet (and maybe communications technology in general) is work in Arendt's sense: it recreates the nature of political existence. The work of learning that might then sit on it is up to the individuals who engage with it. It may be that the biggest problem we face is lies in the domain of the politics of education, and the pressure for qualifications. At the moment when I learn because I have to get a degree is the moment when the work of learning turns into labour, and indeed that labour can be 'saved' through technology.

Turning work into labour is a problem for our society: it is a simultaneous movement to de-politicise and technologise. And what "biological processes and necessities of human existence" are being met through this 'labour' of learning. Answer: Risk!

7 comments:

dkernohan said...

Thanks Mark... a very timely (for me at least!) and provoking post. I'm sure I'll be referring back to this a lot.

Astrid Johnson said...

Darling, you might not be aware of this, but there is still some work involved even with a washing machine: I buy the washing powder, collect the washing, fill the machine, shake your shirts and hang them and the rest of the washing. When they are dry I fold them up and put them away.....

Astrid Johnson said...

Hmm, I meant labour, not work....

Mark William Johnson said...

Hmmm.
I think I'd revolt if I were you... and demand some superior technology!

Astrid Johnson said...

Superior technology, great, Like a husband who helps in the house.... :-)

Mark William Johnson said...

Yes, I'm afraid I came off the production line slightly unbalanced! (Must be something in the chips!) Maybe a different model would work better...
BUT there's a fascinating thought - could an android work? or just labour? (but oh dear! that's another intriguing thought and the washing is piling up!)

Astrid Johnson said...

I have given it some thought. I don't think I want another model. I am quite sentimental that way. Although faulty I got quite used to the current one and in the decades to come will only curse once in a while at its disfunctionality.

You should really watch BSG. It might help you to answer the work/labour questions for androids etc.