Wednesday, 17 July 2013

How are you oppressed online?

The presenting to a learner an online system to learn from is often an oppressive act. It is dressed up as a way of saying "here is a way you can help yourself", but it is also a way of saying "I cannot afford to talk to you individually. Don't bother me and go and do this instead." Much of our information environment has emerged through lack of care. The difference between letter writing and sending an email is more than the difference between media. It is a difference in the nature of concernful action. Lack of concern leads to oppression in the way that real people are replaced with flattening statistics. Decisions taken in the light of information consequently flatten people. So the question "how are you oppressed online?" is an important question.

The difficulty in answering it is a symptom of how much our lives revolve around information and how unaware we have become about its impact on us. Perhaps this isn't new. After all, the role of newspapers in forming 'public opinion' has been well established for at least two centuries.

Information is constraint on behaviour. It doesn't constrain behaviour in the way that material constraints like a lack of food, housing or money might constrain us. But it does constrain us in more subtle ways, leading us to think certain things, and to act in certain ways. When information becomes propaganda, it can be very powerful indeed.

Understanding information as constraint doesn't fit very well with the ethos of social media. Social media communications tend to be represented as a communicative freedom. "No longer do we have to be mere consumers of media: we can contribute to it too!" But this is a bit of a myth.

The issues are complex. The act of contributing to social media is an act subject to informational constraints that would surround any act. The result of an act of contributing to social media is also an act of contributing to  other peoples' informational constraints. There are a number of things we can point to in this process:

  1. social media appears as communicative freedom, but there is little to emancipate people from the constraints they are subject to when posting new data;
  2. social media provides a platform for manipulating mass opinion to act as a 'super constraint' which feeds back on itself (e.g. thousands of people 'like' x on Facebook);
  3. PRISM tells us that social media can inform higher-level powers of key points where strategic interventions may have most effect in constraining behaviour;
  4. PRISM also indicates how the mining of data is a process of converting information into cash through mass analysis producing accurate forecasting services which in turn reveal the most effective intervention points for directing behaviour.
What this means is that the cherished virtue of democratic "freedom of speech" can be controlled without it appearing to be controlled. The way that populist social media was harnessed by military powers in Egypt  is a good and rather tragic example of freedom of speech being easily hoodwinked.

There are some fundamental questions to be asked:
  1. What do we mean by freedom online?
  2. What is the role of education in delivering freedom?
  3. Do we care if we nevertheless feel that we can communicate 'freely'?
In terms of the nature of freedom, I think the fundamental issue is fear. To be free is to act courageously. Absenting fear is either a process of critical reflection or of deep ignorance! Either can work: indeed, both might be necessary. Fears can manifest in ways which are related  to education. An inability to learn something is usually the result of some fear somewhere:  families and the education system itself does most of the work in inculcating these fears. Good teachers will be able to work with the student to find out where the deep problem really is. Bad teachers will reinforce the problem! The difference is that you have to really care to get to the bottom of it.

Paulo Freire was a good teacher. He knew you had to start with the blockages. And the blockages are political. Get the blockages unblocked and learning is revealed not as something abstract, institutionalised and rarified, but as something practical, necessary and liberating. 

On the MOOCs of today, for every act we engage in, we can ask "how am I being manipulated?". Certainly, in any instructional course, it is the teacher's agenda, not mine. My activities are steered towards creating questions which the teacher can answer - not the ones they can't answer. The medium serves to maintain distance from the teacher. No teacher can manage commitment to 10,000 learners. The best one might hope for is that learners develop commitment to each other. But this also rarely happens, even when it is explicitly attempted.

Even in a non-instructional environment, like a blog, is there oppression? "Who gives me these tools?" (I ask as I use Blogger's online editor).  "Why does Blogger they give them to me?" - they do this because they want me to submit my data. "How do they benefit from my data?" My activities online are steered towards generating data that Blogger/Google can exploit. "How do they exploit it?" - we need to look at their technical infrastructure to understand what is now possible. "What are the capabilities of MapReduce, Discrete Wavelet transformations, etc?" - At each step of the way, the forces that bear upon freedom are there to be unpicked. At each step emerges a personal curriculum: the economics of information, the physics of data storage, the mathematics of analysis, the biology of interaction, the psychology of interpretation. "How can I avoid being exploited?" - what emerges through active critique is a kind of "artistry of political engagement". Like the standing man in Taksim Square, the challenge is to find new forms of expression which go under the radar and challenge those who would otherwise control us.

The more I think about this, the more I think we've got education upside-down. Education is about freedom, but manifests itself as oppression. Because we have been led to believe the questions that directly concern our deep freedoms are too difficult (education has told us this), we have grown accustomed to accepting the oppressive form of education as the "only way". Deep down, this is disastrous for science - which, ultimately, is an emancipatory critique. It is why what passes for science is little more than a technocracy of churning the big-data machines of genetic sequencing, social communications or intergalactic observation. Nobody's going to learn to be a scientist doing that!

But where there is oppression, there is an opportunity to help people see that there is oppression and then to overcome it. That is where learning happens. The dominant oppressive forces now are online (at least in the western-style democracies) and exercised through information and technology which nobody understands. 

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