June 26, 2016

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion

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Edvard Munch's The Scream (public domain) Location: National Gallery, Norway

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (public domain)
Location: National Gallery, Norway

This is the second post on the topic of technology, alienation and the role of education, with a particular focus on the consequences for teaching and learning. The first post was a general introduction to the topic. This post focuses on how technology can lead to alienation, and provides a framework for discussing the possibility of technology alienation in online learning and how to deal with it.

What do I mean by ‘alienation’?

Alienation is a term that has been around for some time. Karl Marx described alienation as the perception by people that they are becoming increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives. Ultimately, highly alienated workers come to lose the sense that they can control any aspect of their lives, whether at work or at home, and become highly self-estranged. Such people are profoundly discontent, prone to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and the support of extreme social and political movements (Macionis and Plummer, 2012). Although Marx had an industrial society in mind, the definition works equally well to describe some of the negative effects of a digital society, as we shall see.

Causes

There are of course many different but related causes of alienation today:

  • the increasing inequality in wealth and in particular the perception by unemployed or low paid workers that they are being ‘passed by’ or not included in the wealth-generating economy. The feeling is particularly strong among workers who previously had well paid jobs (or expectations of well paid jobs) in manufacturing but have seen those jobs disappear in their lifetime. However, there are now also growing numbers of well educated younger people struggling to find well paid work while at the same time carrying a large debt as a result of increasingly expensive higher education;
  • one reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs is the effect of globalization: jobs going abroad to countries where the cost of labour is lower;
  • dysfunctional political systems are another factor, where people feel that they have little or no control over decisions made by government, that government is controlled by those with power and money, and political power is used to protect the ‘elites’;
  • lastly, and the main consideration in these posts, the role of technology, which operates in a number of ways that create alienation:
    • the most immediate is its role in replacing workers, originally in manufacturing, but now increasingly in service or even professional areas of work, including education;
    • a more subtle but nevertheless very powerful way in which technology leads to alienation is in controlling what we do, and in particular removing choice or decision-making from individuals. I will give some examples later;
    • lastly, many people are feeling increasingly exploited by technology companies collecting personal data and using it for commercial purposes or even to deny services such as insurance; in particular, the benefits to the end-user of technology seem very small compared to the large profits made by the companies that provide the services.

Symptoms

Here are some examples of how technology leads to alienation.

There have been several cases where intimate images of people have been posted on the Internet, without permission, and yet it has been impossible for the victims to get the images removed, at least until well after the damage has been done. The Erin Andrews case is the most recent, and the suicide of the 15 year old Amanda Todd is another example. These are extreme cases, but illustrate the perception that we have less and less control over social media and its potentially negative impact on their lives.

Sometimes the alienation comes from decisions made by engineers that pre-empt or deny human decision-making. I have always driven BMWs. Even when I had little money, I would buy a second hand BMW, mainly because of its superb engineering. However, I am driven crazy by my latest purchase. The ignition switches off automatically when I stop the car and automatically switches on again when I take my foot off the brake. One day I drove into my garage. I had stopped the car, and turned round to get something off the back seat. I took my foot off the brake and the car lurched forward and hit the freezer we have in the garage. If I had been on the street and done that, I could well have hit another car or even a pedestrian. The car also automatically locks the passenger doors. I have parked the car and started to walk away only to see my passengers pounding on the window to get out. I could cite nearly a hundred instances from this one car of decisions made by engineers that I don’t want made for me. In most cases (but not all) these default conditions can be changed, but that requires going through a 600 page printed manual. Furthermore these ‘features’ all cost money to install, money I would rather not pay if I had a choice.

We are just starting to see similar decisions by engineers creeping into online learning. One of the most popular uses of data analytics is to identify students ‘at risk’ of non-completion. As with the features in a car, there are potential benefits in this. However, the danger is that decisions based on correlations of other students’ previous behaviour with course completion may end up denying access to a program for a student considered ‘at risk’ but who may nevertheless might well succeed. In particular it could negatively profile black students in the USA, aboriginal students in Canada, or students from low income families.

A framework for discussion

I am dealing here with a highly emotive issue, and one where there will be many different and often contradictory perspectives. Let’s start with the ‘moral’ or ‘value’ issues. I start from the position that alienation is to be avoided if at all possible. It leads to destructive forces. In education in particular, alienation is the opposite of engagement, and for me, engagement is critical for student success. On the other hand, if people are really suffering, then alienation may well be a necessary starting point on the road to change or revolution. So it is difficult to adopt an objective stance to this topic. I want therefore to focus the discussion around the following issues:

  • what are the main developments in online learning that are occurring or will occur over the next few years?
  • who are the main drivers of change in this area?
  • what is the main value proposition? Why is this area being promoted? Who stands to benefit most from this development?
  • what are the risks or what is the downside of these developments? In particular, what is the risk that such developments may actually increase alienation in learners?

I will look at each of the following developments in the next series of blog posts within this framework, developments in online learning that have great promise but at the same time could, if not carefully managed, end up increasing alienation:

  • competency-based learning;
  • personalised and adaptive learning;
  • learning analytics;
  • online assessment methods (badges, machine marking, e-proctoring, e-portfolios, etc.);
  • unbundling of educational services

I will then end this series of posts with a discussion of ‘defensive’ strategies for learners and educators to deal with the negative impact of technology in a digital age.

References

Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2012) Sociology: A Global Introduction Don Mills ON: Pearson Education

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