When I come across colleagues or friends/family getting excited about a new technology or a functionality added to an existing one, I feel extremely ambivalent.
On the one hand, as someone whose ability to keep in touch with friends and family and also to pursue professional success depend quite heavily on emerging information and communication technologies, I want to join them in the excitement.
But on the other hand, I am also keenly aware of how the same technologies are helping to reinforce inequalities and divides, how they are causing people to leave behind and disregard diverse forms of knowledge practices and social/cultural engagements, and most significantly, how they are allowing people to mask or gloss over deeply disturbing resurgence of colonial worldviews and hegemony. I want to reflect on the last phenomenon in this post.
A colleague recently wrote a blog post in which he described a family member’s discovery and revival of lost family/community connections through Facebook. There must be millions of stories like this around the world only on account of this one social media platform, and I’ve seen a few heart-melting videos of people finding friends/family and reconnecting with them. And when I read the colleague’s post, I wanted to share my own happy stories of discovering old and developing new connections. But I couldn’t just do that because I also wanted to point out some serious problems that the happy stories tend to mask–I thought I would be a killjoy if I did the latter.
Similarly, I was reading an article in an academic news venue this morning in which the authors shared some of their findings from a study of African universities, suggesting that education may need to be shaped by local realities if its global homogenization doesn’t work. At first, I was impressed by how the scholars recognized the complexity of context/culture and the need to take that seriously by educational policy makers. But when my colleague Maha Bali from Egypt shared a critical view about the article, I went back to read it again, and the more carefully I read it, the more bothered I was. Why would the writers, who are some of the most respectable intellectuals in the field of cross-border higher education, even accept homogenization so uncritically? I wondered if they would be happy, let’s say fifty years down the road, in a world where (let us suppose) universities are defined and shaped by Chinese political, economic, and academic forces? How do intellectuals become inured to and rather smug about power structures in the world? Are we in an era where the kind of critical sensibilities of the mid to late twentieth century no longer exist? What makes scholars in our time so uncritical of power and privilege in the world–or is it just that only the uncritical are talking and their more critical counterparts have largely gone silent?
Also on the positive side, there are two particular situations in which I think emerging means for building virtual social and professional communities serve us in unique and powerful ways. First, if you live far away from where you grew up and have family and friends (like me), or went to live or work and left the place after becoming a part of the community (as increasing numbers of people do in the world today), then social media are a blessing. Second, even for people who have never met with one another, social/professional networks help them form what James Paul Gee calls affinity groups (like teachers and other professionals sharing ideas, young people engaging in cross-border popular culture activities, etc). For me, two powerful examples of this phenomenon would be ELT Choutari and EdConteXts, groups of educators in Nepal and around the world respectively most of whose members I haven’t met in person but we work together in inspiring and impactful ways. In both cases, even a slight increase in convenience with which people can connect often make a big difference. For example, until Google introduced Hangout last year, I used to connect to a group of teachers/bloggers back home in Nepal by using email, Facebook group discussions, and voice-only conference call on Skype. When Hangout added video-based conference calling for up to ten people, with chat and other functions on the side, that made a huge difference in our communication and rapport building. We saw and heard colleagues who’ve never met each other: waving at each other, seeing each other smile and using body language that we share because of the same cultural background, and sharing jokes when colleagues in Kathmandu order and eat typical Nepali breakfast that make mouths water for those of us in the US . . . were all new dimensions to our newly blooming professional relationship.
One more. Just yesterday, I noticed that Google Documents updated its edit and comment functions by adding “suggest” and “view” options so, now, collaborators are able to not only change others’ texts but also show track changes! This is a HUGE convenience and it makes the already powerful tool for professional collaboration even more useful. What a particular affordance of a new technology can add to human relationship can sometimes be just amazing.
The negatives are often more intense. When I share the excitement about technologies, I also become uncomfortable because alongside every productive, meaningful, or touching social, educational, or professional use of new applications, the same tools are also serving to further reinforce the interests of those with more money and power. For instance, while small groups of teachers like the one I mentioned above are sharing ideas and building communities across borders, thousands of other teachers and learners across the world are being persuaded that the amazing store of authentic and high-quality knowledge that was waiting to be unlocked for the underprivileged majority beyond the few global centers of that knowledge is rapidly becoming available today. This kind of discourse would be very offensive for previous generations of scholars. I’m thinking, for instance, about the world of xMOOCs where most video-lecturing “star” professors from the West don’t seem to know, care, or listen to anyone about their context-blindness. And, more strikingly, those who write about the developments in cross-border higher education don’t seem concerned about it either!
The fanciness and magical feel of the technologies, the masking of ulterior motives behind seeming altruism, and the cherry-picked narratives used for cunningly validating colonial worldviews and hegemony as a global good all seem harder to explain today than twenty years ago. So, while millions of people and thousands of institutions are using technologies in personally, socially, and professionally transformative ways—such as families and friends reuniting after years/decades through Facebook, professionals and their institutions collaborating in meaningful ways, and even public institutions and governments achieving unprecedented social goals—the same technologies are essentially pushing the world decades behind (not forward) if we consider how they are enabling people to re-validate colonial mindsets that most people would have pooh-poohed thirty years ago.
What I call “technomagicology”—the logic or assumption that if it’s done through the fascinating affordances of technology, then it’s simply socially and professionally more advanced/progressive and therefore okay—of our time would shock the critical sensibilities of high school students of the 1960s. Unfortunately, the generation (now in their seventies and eighties) which saw many nations around the world becoming independent from colonial rule after decades/centuries, the generation that was instinctively critical of the insidious ways in which corporate and geopolitical power players used fancy stories to advance their privilege, are too easily dismissed as luddites.
It is as if people in our time are staring at the magical feats of the internet so much, and at the peril of their critical thinking faculties, that–like in Chris Van Allsburg’s story The Wretched Stone,* where sailors turn into apes by staring too long at a rock (which is a symbol for the TV)–even our scholars and educators have turned into helpless gazers when it comes to anything that has to do with the magical feats of the internet!
Of course, we use the web as a powerful medium for connection, learning, and doing impactful work. But we shouldn’t forget that the web also serves far more consequential purposes of those with offensive colonial mindsets.
* Thanks to Soni for suggesting the Allsburg allegory as an analogy. I wish I had a memory like hers!