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robertogreco : smallestfederatedwiki   1

Convivial Tools in an Age of Surveillance
"What would convivial ed-tech look like?

The answer can’t simply be “like the Web” as the Web is not some sort of safe and open and reliable and accessible and durable place. The answer can’t simply be “like the Web” as though the move from institutions to networks magically scrubs away the accumulation of history and power. The answer can’t simply be “like the Web” as though posting resources, reference services, peer-matching, and skill exchanges — what Illich identified as the core of his “learning webs” — are sufficient tools in the service of equity, freedom, justice, or hell, learning.

“Like the Web” is perhaps a good place to start, don’t get me wrong, particularly if this means students are in control of their own online spaces — its content, its data, its availability, its publicness. “Like the Web” is convivial, or close to it, if students are in control of their privacy, their agency, their networks, their learning. We all need to own our learning — and the analog and the digital representations or exhaust from that. Convivial tools do not reduce that to a transaction — reduce our learning to a transaction, reduce our social interactions to a transaction.

I'm not sure the phrase "safe space" is quite the right one to build alternate, progressive education technologies around, although I do think convivial tools do have to be “safe” insofar as we recognize the importance of each other’s health and well-being. Safe spaces where vulnerability isn’t a weakness for others to exploit. Safe spaces where we are free to explore, but not to the detriment of those around us. As Illich writes, "A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favor of another member’s equal freedom.”

We can’t really privilege “safe” as the crux of “convivial” if we want to push our own boundaries when it comes to curiosity, exploration, and learning. There is risk associated with learning. There’s fear and failure (although I do hate how those are being fetishized in a lot of education discussions these days, I should note.)

Perhaps what we need to build are more compassionate spaces, so that education technology isn’t in the service of surveillance, standardization, assessment, control.

Perhaps we need more brave spaces. Or at least many educators need to be braver in open, public spaces -- not brave to promote their own "brands" but brave in standing with their students. Not "protecting them” from education technology or from the open Web but not leaving them alone, and not opening them to exploitation.

Perhaps what we need to build are more consensus-building not consensus-demanding tools. Mike Caulfield gets at this in a recent keynote about “federated education.” He argues that "Wiki, as it currently stands, is a consensus *engine*. And while that’s great in the later stages of an idea, it can be deadly in those first stages.” Caulfield relates the story of the Wikipedia entry on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, which, 16 minutes after it was created, "someone – and in this case it probably matters that is was a dude – came and marked the page for deletion as trivial, or as they put it 'A non-notable article incapable of being expanded beyond a stub.’” Debate ensues on the entry’s “talk” page, until finally Jimmy Wales steps in with his vote: a “strong keep,” adding "I hope someone will create lots of articles about lots of famous dresses. I believe that our systemic bias caused by being a predominantly male geek community is worth some reflection in this context.”

Mike Caulfield has recently been exploring a different sort of wiki, also by Ward Cunningham. This one — called the Smallest Federated Wiki — doesn’t demand consensus like Wikipedia does. Not off the bat. Instead, entries — and this can be any sort of text or image or video, it doesn’t have to “look like” an encyclopedia — live on federated servers. Instead of everyone collaborating in one space on one server like a “traditional” wiki, the work is distributed. It can be copied and forked. Ideas can be shared and linked; it can be co-developed and co-edited. But there isn’t one “vote” or one official entry that is necessarily canonical.

Rather than centralized control, conviviality. This distinction between Wikipedia and Smallest Federated Wiki echoes too what Illich argued: that we need to be able to identify when our technologies become manipulative. We need "to provide guidelines for detecting the incipient stages of murderous logic in a tool; and to devise tools and tool systems that optimize the balance of life, thereby maximizing liberty for all."

Of course, we need to recognize, those of us that work in ed-tech and adopt ed-tech and talk about ed-tech and tech writ large, that convivial tools and a convivial society must go hand-in-hand. There isn’t any sort of technological fix to make education better. It’s a political problem, that is, not a technological one. We cannot come up with technologies that address systematic inequalities — those created by and reinscribed by education— unless we are willing to confront those inequalities head on. Those radical education writers of the Sixties and Seventies offered powerful diagnoses about what was wrong with schooling. The progressive education technologists of the Sixties and Seventies imagined ways in which ed-tech could work in the service of dismantling some of the drudgery and exploitation.

But where are we now? Instead we find ourselves with technologies working to make that exploitation and centralization of power even more entrenched. There must be alternatives — both within and without technology, both within and without institutions. Those of us who talk and write and teach ed-tech need to be pursuing those things, and not promoting consumption and furthering institutional and industrial control. In Illich’s words: "The crisis I have described confronts people with a choice between convivial tools and being crushed by machines.""
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november 2014 by robertogreco

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