The Future of Digital Cultures

It’s week 3 of E-Learning and Digital Cultures, which of course means that I am ready to write about week 2! Thankfully, this MOOC is designed to allow for some time flexibility. Here are a few ideas and reflections from the week 2 videos and readings.

During week 2, the instructional team shared some utopian and dystopian views of what future culture might be like in a highly technological age. Interestingly, the two utopian views were both from technology companies, Corning and Microsoft. While both showed a variety of scenes from daily life, they placed a heavy emphasis on business life, particularly business travel. Curiously, the imagined future devices were themselves technically very advanced, but the social applications were very familiar from present-day life. People were shown going to business meetings, attending school, and making their way around the house in a way not at all different from the present day. My favorite: the kids’ school uniforms were straight out of San Francisco Catholic schools!

The two dystopian videos were alarming views of company or state control of society, in which technology is used to keep people captive. Sight is worth a view if you have a spare eight minutes. Wearable computing, video game culture, dating sites, corporate control, and personal greed all come together in this detailed, entertaining and frightening view of the future.

While I fully agree with the need for vigilance against political and corporate totalitarianism, I have too much faith in humanity to believe that these dystopian views will in fact become reality. I am reminded of the historical analysis in Hamlet’s Blackberry, in which William Powers demonstrates that humanity has not only survived but also shaped cultural change in response to past eras of rapid technological change. My favorite example: according to Powers, the telephone was first envisioned as a mass broadcast device. We would all pick up the phone to listen to messages sent from a central agency. Instead, people’s unstoppable desire to connect with each other transformed the telephone into a personal communication technology. Returning to the week 1 theme of determinism, personal agency is alive and well and shapes technologies at least as much as technologies shape people.

In the week 2 readings, Johnston addresses how the Internet is characterized by metaphors to help people understand it. However, metaphors such as “superhighway” oversimplify the true nature of the Internet, limiting people’s ability to fully appreciate its potential. While I appreciate this point of view, I equally feel that innovators constantly invent new Internet applications and thus stretch our collective understanding of what one can accomplish there. While the superhighway metaphor was all about transcending space and time, we have more recently developed new metaphors to reflect more recent applications of the Internet for social connectedness and knowledge creation.

In a self-referential moment, the course brings in two articles about the relevance of MOOCs, Shirky’s “Napster, Udacity and the Academy,” and Bady’s “Questioning Clay Shirky.” I lean toward the less revolutionary Bady, reminded that the more things appear to change in education, the more they stay the same. Channeling Cuban and Tyack, public education in the U.S. has proven remarkably resistant to change, the basic model surviving intact despite repeated waves of educational innovation. I don’t see much evidence to conclude that the most recent set of innovations will break this trend. Our society has a very firmly-held conception of what Cuban and Tyack call the “grammar of schooling,” or what people recognize as school-based education. As long as most MOOCs faithfully reproduce this grammar, they are likely to remain a pale echo of place-based schooling rather than a viable replacement. That people are taking free online classes does not mean that physical schools are now obsolete. At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if prestigious universities were offer a number of free courses to the world indefinitely, as an expression of some small measure of public purpose from these giant institutions?

I look forward to the week 3 content. Given the upcoming long weekend, I even have some hope that I will be able to get through it before the week is out!


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