Critical Perspectives: Digital Technologies, Education and Sustainability
We live in an age of digital technology and year after year new infrastructure to support this gets laid out, economies expand based on these and new software tools are released into the wild made by tech developers trying to make a living. For many, digital technology has permeated every aspect of our lives as users, and if not as users then as people who have their lives shaped by other peoples use of digital technologies.
This is a portmanteau article designed to provoke critical conversations around digital technologies.
It is to this backdrop this critical exploration of digital technologies has been written after being invited by educators at the University of Manchester to be one of the mentors of students who are designing educational technologies. As a part of a MA Education for a Sustainable Environment, this teaching aims to:
- Work towards constructive societal and environmental impact
- Help address local and global environmental and sustainability challenges in and through education
- Develop a blended teaching approach capable of sustainably supporting learning all over the world
- Innovate creative blended pedagogy to encourage sustainability and flexibility
As someone who has developed the social practices of the Ragged University project, critical understandings of the usefulness of digital technologies and how they operate in the lives of people has been an imperative. Over fifteen years of experimentation and trying out different approaches of using technologies in open educational contexts (i.e. settings outside of formal education), understanding what works and what is problematic has been essential. Also, having been someone who lives on a low income, understanding what technologies are accessible and practical for those on low incomes has been the foundational reality for progress.
It was a great thing to be invited to offer my critical thoughts into this course and more generally into the formal educational settings of the University of Manchester where, in my experience, there are many educators working hard not to be bounded by the financialised formal institution which modern universities have been shaped into. Realising that other mentors to the students were the likes of the head of sustainability at Microsoft, I did emphasize that I had distinctly critical perspectives on technology which may be unsettling. To my delight, I was told that this was why I was being asked as it was important that students got a mix of perspectives.
This article is an agglomeration of a few presentations and discussions which have happened over the years. It is the converse to my affirmative appreciation of the technologies which are available and their usefulnesses, so get your pot of salt on the table and season as required (but remember that too much is bad for your health). This is a critical review which is much needed to arrive at the meaningful from the entertaining, nonsensical and plain exploitative. In terms of criticality I like the philosophy imbued in Kintsugi and the meditations which come of wabi-sabi.
Educating for Sustainability
The starting point for this work I am choosing is the opening of Victor Nolet’s book ‘Educating for Sustainability; Principles and Practices for Teachers’ published in 2017 by Routledge. It offers a spark point in order to generate critical viewpoints about the world we are living in not as the panglossian ‘best of all possible worlds’ but as pluralistic congregation of all possible worlds. What follows is a verbatim excerpt which will be problematised, in particular in view of the roles which digital technology does play and can play in the lives of humans:
For many people, the phrase “brave new world” evokes images of Aldous Huxley’s (1932) novel that portrays a future world where a powerful government protects individuals from the perils of overpopulation and excessive violence though a highly regulated caste system and state-mandated use of birth control and sedative drugs. Of course, Huxley borrowed the term “brave new world” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Shakespeare used the word “brave” to refer to something splendid, bold and exciting.
For Shakespeare’s Miranda, a 15-year-old girl in love, the way the character John in Huxley’s novel views the world, at least until he realizes his own values are in direct conflict with the reality of the world in which he finds himself. For John, the notion of a bright and shining brave new world becomes a bitter irony. Today, life on our planet often seems like something out of science fiction where multiple realities exist in the same time and space.
On one hand, billions of people around the world experience an existence that would be immediately recognizable to the characters of the most pessimistic of dystopian fiction. These are the people who live under the repression of fundamentalist theocracies, dysfunctional kleptocracies, or military police states. These are the people for whom even the most rudimentary health care is non-existent and survival involves a daily struggle for food, water, and safety.
The people who live in this reality have limited opportunities to realize their full potential and diminished hopes for a positive future. Of course the most vulnerable, the most at risk in this version of reality are children. Consider that every 40 seconds, some place on the planet, a child under the age of five dies from a diarrhoeal disease simply because she or he lacks access to clean water and the most basic health care (United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (2015). The State of the worlds children 2015, New york: Author).
At the same time, billions of other people around the world live an existence that just a few generations ago would have been imagined only as a futuristic utopian fantasy. There are the people who live in the developed areas of the world, where ready access to clean water is taken for granted, famine is largely unknown, education is nearly universal, and state-of-the-art health care is widely available (albeit for a price). Many of these well-fed, clothed, and sheltered people are in nearly constant contact with sophisticated and powerful technology devices, including smart mobile phones; miniature entertainment devices; televisions that can access hundreds of channels; and of course, sophisticated portable computers connected to an ever expanding internet.
Again, though, those most directly affected by life in this reality are children. For example, a recent study funded children in the United States spend as much as 6.5 hours each day interacting with some form of media; during that time they consume the equivalent of eight hours of content. The word “content” here does not necessarily mean that they are exposed to healthy or useful information. Often the content of the media with which these children interact perpetuates damaging stereotypes and is violent, racist, sexually charged, or highly commercialized.
Meanwhile, the diseases of excess, including childhood obesity, heart diseases, Type II diabetes, and addiction are endemic in many areas in the developed world. O brave new world that has such people in it! How can one planet sustain these parallel realities – these very different versions of a brave new world ?The answer to this question is “It cannot!”. Planet Earth simply does not have the capacity to provide enough breathable air, potable water, food, energy, and shelter for everyone on the planet to experience the standard of living enjoyed by those in the developed areas of the world (Global footprint network (2015), Footprint Basics: World Footprint: Do we fit on the planet ? Retrieved from www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN).
Nolet raises some powerful points but I would argue through the necessity of taking a systems thinking perspective that some of his framings are not helpful precisely because of the assumptions they carry. The notion that digital technologies are always an enrichment of our lives and world is a modern fallacy which we have to be careful to scrutinize.
Digital Cognitive Dissonance
This deep dive article rehearses the many issues which I see as pertinent considerations when deciding what place to give what technologies. In part I see the digital participating in the erosion of our sociological habitat as much as – in many cases – it providing a vital surrogate for the desertification of our physical-real time environments via the financialisation and marketisation of our life worlds.
This is not by chance but by the concerted force of what can only be understood as oligopolistic/kleptocratic compulsions of privileged people infected with the drive to colonise and create empires of exclusively private finance.
We must now muse on the emerging realities of having so profoundly changed – for many – our entire sensory, intellectual and emotional environment. The human species is now mass enabled to become unmoored from reality. Through purely digital means people are capable of:
Experiencing auditory and tactile hallucinations [Lin, Yu-Hsuan, Sheng-Hsuan Lin, Peng Li, Wei-Lieh Huang, and Ching-Yen Chen. 2013. “Prevalent Hallucinations during Medical Internships: Phantom Vibration and Ringing Syndromes.” PLoS ONE 8 (6): e65152. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065152. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065152].
Developing physical withdrawal symptoms [Barreda-Ángeles M and Hartmann T (2022), Hooked on the metaverse? Exploring the prevalence of addiction to virtual reality applications. Front. Virtual Real. 3:1031697. doi: 10.3389/frvir.2022.1031697]
over riding ancient self preservation mechanisms like the impulse to sleep and eat [Kuperczko D, Kenyeres P, Darnai G, Kovacs N, Janszky J. Sudden gamer death: non-violent death cases linked to playing video games. BMC Psychiatry. 2022 Dec 23;22(1):824. doi: 10.1186/s12888-022-04373-5. PMID: 36564741; PMCID: PMC9789564.]
and some abandon their interactions with the physical-real time world all together [Coppola, M. (2022). Defining Hikikomori between Digital Migration, Ghosting and Cyberactivism. A Netnographic Study on Voluntary Social Self-Isolation in Italy. [Italian Sociological Review, 12 (7S), 865-880]
What are the truth claims to what I have just argued ? What mechanisms/mental muscles have people developed to be able to distinguish truth from fantasy, coincidence or circular reasoning (A question which Michael Ventris regularly asked himself) – or even plain deception in a world where major figures claim they have ‘alternative facts’ when science does not suit them ?
Alongside this what are the issues of privileged and self referential institutions which have set themselves up as gatekeepers of science excluding people from taking part in collective scrutiny of testable knowledge ? When people are actively excluded from some part of life, eventually they will reject it as something which is a part of their life. I would argue that the world recreated through the digital and the habits it creates directly evoke the questions I have raised here as imperatives if we are to be involved in seriously appraising the reality of the situation unfolding.
We should seriously question the passivity which people adopt and the casualisation of response to the digital inculcation of our lives. It is through the position of passive acceptance that questions are not asked and a very real hypnogogia emerges where we more readily dedicate our evenings to drinking a bottle of wine to forget than invest the time it takes to drink a bottle of wine to learn about what might prevent a life threatening illness like cancer (for ourselves or our loved ones).
This all sounds spectacular, sensationalistic and alarmist but we are now in times when we need to do some deep learning in order to assess what are realities and what are fictions which are capable of superseding and damaging our realities. Learning and taking the time to weigh up in measured ways what makes provable sense (rather than sense to our desires) is the only way we have of navigating back out of the living dreams we collectively bring into being through their inception.
Notionalising what is happening to our own consciousnesses we can measure the depth of our learning – the exploration of reality – by looking at how much time one gives over to taking in new information in a structured task. Can I spend the time that I might give over to playing a game or eating a meal to listening to a long form presentation by a thinker who is maybe trying to summarize ten years of their life as a researcher, or am I habituated to only watching short videos which I hope will cover all that ground in ten minutes (but end up cutting out all the information) ?
For many a gross amount of time is handed over to being excited by the flickering lantern of screens polluted by attention-disrupting-adverts designed to interrupt and commandeer the reward mechanisms hard wired in our neurology provoking consumption behaviours in order to feel at peace. Considering how ubiquitous digitized experience is, if you cannot make sense of the last statement in terms of ‘live issues’ relating to digital experience then you may have already lost your psychological autonomy to technology. When was the last day which went by without your using a screen ? Was it an anxious day ? Did you feel lost or found ?
What credence do we give to the fears which are stated about technology ? The invention of musical notation gave rise to musicians saying that no new music would be written; Socrates warned that the invention of writing would hinder our ability to think; the use of radio was suppressed as a technology because the music industry feared that it would collapse their business; some people suggested that riding on the first trains would cause people’s heads to snap off…
“You, who are the father of letters have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess…. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding, and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.” – Socrates
At the same time we know that the chemical and pharmaceutical industries have unleashed large numbers of ailments on the world via the chemicals they produce and the pharmaceuticals they sell. We know that the despoiling of the food chain through industrialisation has generated another raft of illnesses. We know that the casual use of mercury and arsenic for hat making and cosmetics resulted in disease. We know that the use of lead to deliver potable water and create domestic paints caused large numbers of serious health problems. Can we afford to adopt one side of the fence and take on the mantle of a bliss-ninny or doom-sayer ?
As time goes on we have 20/20 hindsight. To this extent there are two reports published by the European Environment Agency under the title of ‘The Precautionary Principle: Late lessons from early warnings‘. These reports (below) are “about the gathering of information on the hazards of human economic activities and its use in taking action to better protect both the environment and the health of the species and ecosystems that are dependent on it, and then living with the consequences. The report is based on case studies”. Can we afford not to be aware of these and have our actions in the world informed by them ?
Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000;
European Environment Agency Report No 22/2001
The Precautionary Principle in the 20th Century Late Lessons from Early Warnings
Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation;
European Environment Agency Report No 1/2013
In the document of this series ‘Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation’ you will find in ‘Part C: Emerging issues’ a critical discussion of one of the most popular digital technologies discussing “Mobile phones and brain tumour risk: early warnings, early actions?” by Lennart Hardell, Michael Carlberg and David Gee.
There is no doubt that societally we are confounded by the speed and scope of change and this has given rise not just to new types of science fiction dogmas which hold the structure of religions (i.e. the notion that aliens are running the planet) but also due to new corruption of politicians and cabals of plutocrats. With the documented rise of structured disaster capitalism driven by the likes of William Rees Mogg, is it a surprise that people believe in conspiracies as the community structures and lives of people are being destroyed by predatory privilege and moral abandonment such as the Moggs ?
Why am I talking about financial investors and political actors like Mogg and Davidson ? The reason is because the setting of the euphemistically called ‘market place’ is structured around particular values and the character of major actors in places like Wall Street, the City of London and Silicon Valley. The structuring force of finance cannot be disregarded as intimately woven into the technologies.
Understanding the conditions in which enterprises are forged, resourced and managed is essential to getting a sense of the moral compasses that are guiding businesses and how they act in the world. If an enterprise cares not for people then I would argue that it generally cares not for other considerations like the environment and biosphere.
William Rees Mogg wrote a book called ‘The Sovereign Individual; How to Survive and Thrive during the Collapse of the Welfare State‘ along with
“Faster than all but a few now imagine, micro processing will subvert and destroy the nation-state, creating new forms of social organization in the process.”
When thinking about the environment in which technologies are developed, directed and stewarded it is a vital consideration to take into consideration the likes of the Rees-Mogg’s and Davidson’s of the world who have inordinate influence to shape and determine technological outcomes in the world; their values are embedded in the technologies through which people’s lives are mediated. Their intentionality of eroding the nation state in terms of abandoning having responsibilities towards the welfare of its citizens is also a reflection of how the technology companies relate to the citizen at large.
The Exploitation of Reward Consciousness
The proliferation of ‘market values’ as guiding compasses for technology development has driven decisions such as the development of technological interactions as what get called ‘dopamine farms‘. With shareholder profit grossly driving what gets investment and what innovations are made, what emerges as a concern are the mind sets both of the functionaries in places like Wall Street and the City of London and also the rarified echelons of executive management in general.
The essence of dopamine farms extends back to a discovery which B. F. Skinner made on what he called ‘gambling behaviour’. As a psychologist Skinner was following on from the work of Pavlov who had become known for articulating ‘the conditioned reflex’ – a learned association between a stimulus and a response which become engrained in a learning subject. Pavlov famously experimented on dogs and ringing bells prior to feeding them establishing that informational stimulus could cause physiological changes in the body’s of the dogs once a conditioned reflex was established.
Skinner discovered that whilst structured stimuli stimulated the production of conditioned reflexes, unstructured or “mixed schedule” reinforcement caused unusual excitation of the subjects in response to stimuli. This meant that when pigeons (which he used to for studies) were given the reward of a piece of grain when they tapped a pedal, what happened when the pigeons were given ‘random’ payouts in response to effort caused them to disproportionately invest in the reward seeking behaviour. Apparently when given mixed schedule reinforcements (random rewards of grain) one pigeon tapped so fast and hard on the pedal that its beak started smoking. Ultimately Skinner equated this to behaviour seen in problem gamblers and this body of research became associated with addiction research.
Some notable monetisers of this psychology were the gambling cartels who had recognised that games could produce fixation, hyper reward seeking behaviour and addiction. Adopting and applying the mixed schedule reinforcement psychology, the gambling and technology industry deliberately used this knowledge in order to profit by exciting people with the stimuli pattern of games, bells, flashing lights and the like. They knew that fixation and addiction could be established in someone via the conditioned reflex and mixed schedule rewards.
Come forward some years, as these understandings started to be employed by tech companies by using specific structures of experience which acted as mixed schedule rewards. Companies like Facebook and social media platforms found that they could ‘increase engagement’ by evoking this hyperstimulation of the nervous systems of people. By this time psychologists and marketing executives had become armed with deeper knowledge of the neurochemistry which was a result of the progress of the biomedical sciences…
…they knew that a chemical was released by nerve cells in response to reward and pursuit of reward behaviours. This chemical was called dopamine and had been well established as one of the main agents which constituted the mechanism of action of drugs of addiction such as cocaine. The ‘pleasure centers’ could become hyper-stimulated to cause large releases of dopamine in response to stimuli, it causes addiction which over rides self regulatory behaviours and impulse controls driving consumption.
In the extreme cases we find that some people literally game themselves to death. In the light of the science showing how dopamine levels are being affected, it is a reasonable thing to ask how these digital technologies are affecting the psychology and judgment of society at large. Dopamine is, after all is said and done, the same chemical mechanism of action which cocaine, amphetamines, methylphenidate and ethylphenidate uses, so why should we take it less seriously than the considerations we engage with when putting a chemical into our body ?
Presentations: Developing Sustainable Educational Technologies
In October 2023 I gave a presentation to students on the reflections I have with regards to how I perceive sustainability and ethics relating to digital technologies in education. The students are all involved in designing new digital technologies for educational settings drawing together their understandings of pedagogy and digital design. Here is the video I produced from the audio recording made in the classroom:
This was a presentation I gave to the first cohort of students when I was asked to be one of the mentors as they produced different designs for educational technologies; the other person who was asked to be a mentor was the head of sustainability at Microsoft at the time – Andrew Quinn. Having seen what a mess technology has made of human ecologies of administration and having witnessed the baseline shift from a human fronted system of working to a highly depersonalised system of working I thought that offering reflections on how I critically think through what digital tools I use would be my focus:
Once again I was asked to come and be a mentor for a new intake of students on the course designing educational technologies whilst thinking through the ethics and sustainability in the design process. Again I was giving a critical perspective based on my life experience and having worked from the grass roots in delivering a range of educational projects.
Rather than just rehearse the presentation I had done before I wanted to slightly shift the perspective so that a sense of a more round view might develop if someone took the time to watch both. Once again I spoke about the qualities which I looked for or scrutinized in a digital tool, and once again I examined the macro factors which change the nature of technologies and technological environments over time.
Whilst I highlighted the nature of Microsoft as inherently incapable of acting as a moral agent due it its nature embedded in the stockmarket, in the new presentation I chose Apple to illustrate this principle of the standard of lies which inevitably comes about in companies of these size having their actions dictated by profit and loss.
Choosing Amongst Common Operating Systems
This section will take the reader through some analyses and decision making examples when making decisions about what technology to go with. This in effect means putting your eggs in a basket. With all the connotations which go with that as a proverb, sometimes we simply don’t have the finance to be able to have all the tools, toys and technologies which would give the most resilient spread. In these situations the individual has to think about choosing the most appropriate for their situation.
My assessment of the major operating systems available –
Mac – A level of control freakery and environmental crime which says avoid; cult of finance/style, strongly drive redundancy and upselling in their own goods
Microsoft – Colonial but hackable foundation operating system with the most software options; very much understandable through what their infamous motto was: “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish”
Linux – Bread and butter operating systems for people who invest in their tools; safe, transparent, reverses redundancy, functions beyond finance boundary. Issues; not got the levels of compatibility, sometimes requires a bit of computing knowledge
Choosing which operating system to go with determines which ‘ecosystem’ you will be tailoring your work, applications and storage files to. Whilst Apple have engineered a very good product they have a track record of upselling and pushing redundancy. Their attitude of appealing to the ‘luxury’ (i.e. exclusionary) market means that their goods aim to hemorrhage money out of their users as their client base feel comfortable to pay for the lifestyle branding which they feel articulate a part of their image.
Mac are cult-y in that they seem to like to speak to the people heavily invested in their aesthetic representation, often for no other reason. Whilst there is a sizable capacity in Mac products, and the major applications are (or this used to be the case before the improvement of the PC units) more stable so Apple ultimately drew in a lot of creative professionals in the early years because they needed a computer which did not crash in the middle of a project.
I had been gifted a Mac when a major printers had been closed in Edinburgh some years ago (Waddies). Whilst it was a great and generous gift, I realised that there was a war going on between Apple Mac and Microsoft, and the users of technology were caught in between. File compatibility was terrible so I was forced to make a decision to abandon Mac for the more universal PC which meant dealing with Microsoft’s moral abandonment issues and its insistence on messing up its own products once they get to a level of competence and stability.
Microsoft is at least more modifiable and hackable – this means that you have the greatest ability to turn the operating system into something which more suits your needs. This choice, whilst it feels like the long way round, is the stitch in time. If you are not in control of your technology (through knowledge you can apply and wield) then your technology is in control of you. Microsoft is insecure and riddled with attack vectors, but this ultimately gives the system the malleability for people to change what they don’t like.
On the front of Linux, it offers a range of operating systems which often are tailored to needs. Linux LXLE upcycles old hardware, Linux Mint offers a comparable software experience to Microsoft Windows and Linus TAILS offers a complete computer system which can be loaded onto a USB. Linux is an open source development which year after year has gained more and more adherents as it becomes more user friendly to those who have basic computing skills (like installing an operating system).
Corporate Vignette: Apple Inc.
Apple Mac due to their high engineering levels of quality and holding back until they got their product functioning before releasing it on the market to build its client base ended up creating a better product than the PC ecology. The issue with Apple Mac is that it has been built in a walled garden and has its whole software ecology largely sewn up by design which allows it to leverage all sorts of manipulative and monopoly practices. As a multinational corporation it has been taken to court a number of times too extensive to list here therefore some examples have been included:
Apple clean energy project fined for environmental violations:
Friends of the Earth links smartphones to island devastation in Indonesia
Friends of the Earth links smartphones to island devastation in Indonesia
Mining for smartphones: the true cost of tin
The Real Story On Apple’s Tax Avoidance: How Ordinary It Is
Here’s How Apple Is Doing On Conflict Minerals
Feds Drop Investigation Into Los Angeles District Over $1 Billion iPad Purchase
Apple’s Empty Grandstanding About Privacy
Your Data Is Shared and Sold… What’s Being Done About It?
As a corporation it is incapable of acting in an ethical way due to its organisational make up – majorly because of the structure of the stockmarket and how share holder primacy (privileging paying shareholders dividends) drives its decision making (this is regardless of the intentions and values of the individual employee). The finance Apple Inc. has accrued and its deliberate obstruction to fixing, upcycling and recycling along with its dubious relationship with data collection and data brokers makes it out to be a troubled enterprise.
It’s cult like following and its ‘gentrifying’ (euphemism for driving low income individuals out) effects on economy, place and disposable income argue for this lifestyle brand produce to be scrutinized from multiple angles. Certainly it is not financially, environmentally or socially sustainable and due to its walled garden eco-system it makes it the least hackable/customizable, therefore least useful for off-label use.
Corporate Vignette: Microsoft and Multinational Behaviour
Microsoft, as one person put it, is no longer in the business of making operating systems. It seems that whenever Microsoft manages to bug fix and arrive at a stable operating system or product they then go onto breaking it again or making it redundant. Windows 10 was widely regarded as the beginning of spyware/adware being bundled and hardwired with an operating system – ho hum…
Below is a short video from a long time Microsoft user which illustrates the code/structure churn driven by the executive at Microsoft. It kind of exemplifies the kind of experience when people have been subjected to, a sort of narcissist/co-dependency experience. It is a good example of what not to do as if it were not for the aggressive monopoly which Microsoft has created then people would have abandoned ship long ago; this inevitably is coming anyway precisely because of the domineering morality free management track it takes.
As a multinational which operates on the stock market it cannot be regarded as having a moral compass. Microsoft produce operating systems and software packaged inside spyware. Windows is a spyware encrusted platform which itself is to some extent a result of ad hoc design. Microsoft launched its platform before they had fixed its problems which resulted in all its succeeding generations carrying over major architecture which made the operating system inherently insecure.
This sounds like strong meat but let us consider the reality that the government of France put an injunction on Microsoft telling them to stop spying on their citizens. More recently the German government has banned Microsoft Office 365 from their schools because of its exploitation of users data. This kind of flagrant disregard of the privacy of computer users has dove-tailed with the corporatisation of formal education targeted as a “market opportunity” by the European Roundtable of Industrialists and the mass door-stepping of institutions by multinational companies.
Microsoft was just ordered to stop Windows 10 from spying on users
Microsoft Office 365 Declared illegal for German Schools, Again!
Is this company trust worthy ? No, and as a result, in the impoverished market place it has created through its monopoly practices (See Encyclopedia of White Collar and Corporate Crimes entry below) people and communities need to make do with either (what many regard as) a dysfunctional operating system or hack the software so that it does not spend your energy, bandwidth and use your hardware to communicate your digital activities back to mothership, advertise at you and/or shape your experience in digital space according to what surveillance capitalists decide.
Salinger L. M. (2013). Encyclopedia of white-collar and corporate crime (Second). Sage Reference. Page 601 -602
A major part of the Microsoft business model is based on expropriating and selling your information so your digital experience can be engineered around the desires of corporate interests. Where you have made your camp on such issues determines whether you have either handed over control to companies which are driven by extrinsic motivations and subterranean forces of commerce (mercenary decision making memes; golems of moral disengagement) or you have oriented yourself towards discerning what your conscious experience of this part of living will be like – you are maintaining a conscious control over which environment you will manage a significant part of your life.
One is a space of psychological intrusion by narcissistic and situational forces (see Prof Philip Zimbardo) (that of the profiteering oriented advertising inculcated marketplace) which is significantly influenced by cocaine intoxicated decisions (See Cathy O’Neil below) emanating out of privileged bubbled worlds of finance divorced from the sociological and environmental realities of the contexts they are affecting. In this kind of abstracted, financial abstract world of decision making people are particularly good at convincing themselves and others their version of reality is the correct one. It is an environment which I associate with the manipulation of decision architecture and the psychological pollution of advertising and marketing.
“…Imagine a predictive policing algorithm where they only focus on violent crime like murder. The problem is that murder is really hard to predict; like even if you did predict murder would you stand outside a house waiting for someone to get murdered ? The problem is that the things that are actually easy to predict are things like poverty, so my claim is that predictive policing is more or less creating a feedback loop where you’re having a pseudo scientific basis for sending police back to neighborhoods that are already over policed.
Another thought experiment – imagine that if after the financial crisis all the cops have been told to go to Wall Street and arrest the bankers and found out if they had cocaine and their pot in their pockets (because they all do) (not all of them), then the predict then the police records the police data the data which is just a reflection of what police do right the data would tell them in these predictive policing algorithms go back to Wall Street because that’s where the crime is, but that’s not what we did.”
Weapons of Math Destruction | Cathy O’Neil | Talks at Google; 27 minutes 31 seconds
What we see with the abstract world of financial services in various places are feedback loops influencing both the system and the actors in the system. What we see from the informational systems is arguably an environmental setting which is saturated in Skinner’s mixed schedule reinforcement signaling which give saturation levels of dopamine to decision makers working on the stock market. As well as this we see a high level of use of drugs like cocaine which similarly saturated the decision making apparatus of actors making financial decisions. To this we need to add into the mix the understanding we have of situational forces which Philip Zimbardo brings from his work – that the pressures of a given context significantly influence the behaviour outcomes. Do we have any option but to perceive Wall Street and the City of London as ‘under the influence’, and consequently do we have any other option but to perceive that enterprises on the stock market as ‘under the influence’ ?
It is in that kind of environment that multinational companies are forged and their behaviours determined – we should be aware of this and be realistic as to how ethical or clear minded the decisions which shape the behavioural outcomes of businesses which have undue influence because of their scale.
This perspective is that multinational commerce is ill-regulated (largely by people marking their own homework) offers a clear understanding that finance is not your friend. In this orientation of notionalising the character and values of multinational tech giants the individual gives time to learning how to put counter measures in your computing devices so that you are choosing what your psychology is exposed to and largely who gets to collect/appropriate data about your life, behaviour, work etc for hidden agendas.
General Principles on Digital Technologies
I have brought together key tenets about digital decision making in respect to the software, systems and digital networks I mediate my life through. These are not a fixed set of principles but are added to, change and evolve over time as new realities come to light:
My take is:
- To gate as much data appropriation (collection is a euphemism for stealing) as possible to reduce the data footprint created and therefore the carbon dioxide and carcinogens generated. For every kilo of carbon dioxide generated a corresponding amount of carcinogenic and disease creating pollution is released into the living environment.
- To gate the influence and intrusion of commercial forces on my life and psychology (if you dont think you are being affected you are already in capture).
- To impose the performance and longevity of the hardware I own (the cloud is just someone elses computer) by blocking telemetry and tracking (spying/corporate stalking), as well as switching off computational processes superfluous to requirement and remove bloated, cumbersome software from the system which take up material/data resources.
- To have a saner, healthier digital experience where I can utilise the constructive and entertaining aspects of the digital
- To have a better internet experience free from the psychological pollution of dopamine farms, advertising, choice architecture and filter bubbles
- To free up and make available cognitive space/capacity for constructive and creative functions in my life and civic life.
- To contribute to a social protest and resistance about the use of technology to undermine democratic societies where people develop with choice and awareness in healthy xenophilic network structures
- To avoid becoming encompassed by a solipsistic humanocentric reality divorced from the wider natural environment that is manifest through and with multiple other species and lifeforms as well as landscapes and material forms not generated and designed by humans.
- To reduce Electromagnetic Frequency pollution which is now a frontier emerging as a problem for human health and eco systems.
The Digital Security/data Question
On the matter of security services like GCHQ etc, I am less concerned about a certain level of well regulated surveillance used to keep populations safe from pathological individuals and organisations. As I know there are bad actors in the world who exploit, damage and murder (and other forms of life, i.e. monkey and others) I agree with security services and defense in the right forms. I also feel that well thought out thinkers and commentators like Edward Snowden are requisite and imperative for healthy democratic societies as any human and any organisation of humans are not infallible.
Particularly with regards to the utter mess which British politics (and the social infrastructure in general) is in there needs to be public scrutiny of the public institutions. Infallibility is not a characteristic of the human. Governments and systems of governance are as good as the people enacting them and the values/aims encoded in their operational bureaucracies (digital technology is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracy is a technology). In the British context the legislature whilst imperfect, has matured over three hundred years to become more representative of the population in general even though access to legal representation is not equitable.
The current state of affairs is eroding confidence in the nation state especially with the extreme and inhumane policy suggestions being voiced by current generations of politicians arguing for abandonment of human rights legislation, suppression of public demonstrations and disregarding established international legal frameworks. All this seems to play into the hands of disaster capitalism producing the cultural tone for suggesting that there is a trade off between privacy and security in digital terms which needs to be questioned as much as surveillance capitalism. Here is a recording of some established figures in the field exploring this trade off and challenging the notion the if you have digital security you cannot have digital privacy:
As the legislature of Britain becomes more seasoned and representative structures of power and privilege are moving themselves “off shore” into secrecy jurisdictions where they shirk paying taxes and avoid laws and are not under the same obligations as public bodies. Interestingly the cultural rhetoric of the United States questioning government is arguably heavily shaped by fighting the oppressive colonialism of Britain where the colonies were being sacked by the greed of the political government at the time. In the current configuration it seems like the populations are suffering a similar kind exploitation where ‘no taxation without representation’ might be flipped to ‘no representation without taxation’.
Private companies, and even more so, ones which have based themselves in secrecy jurisdictions (aka Tax havens – places companies and individuals go to avoid the law) are opaque and unaccountable which not-uncommonly results in moral disengagement and unethical outcomes. In political economy terms I see a mixed market environment as offering the best possibilities for the development of equitable societies. Placing this in context we might look at how the public scrutiny of public institutions is legislated for through the Freedom of Information act.
For example, a prison run by the government in the UK is subject to Freedom of Information requests by the public whereas privately run prisons are not. In sight of how people’s health information is currently under the government management, we are seeing a political push to hive this work off to controversial company Palantir (a company steered by disaster capitalist Peter Thiel) – a company with a dodgy track record (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palantir_Technologies).
Note that Peter Thiel co-founder of Palantir, Pay Pal and major investor in Facebook wrote the preface to the 2020 edition of William Rees Mogg’s book The Sovereign Individual (ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sovereign_Individual)
The notion of the blocking all governmental surveillance is somewhat a fiction due to the technocratic panopticon the governments of the UK have generated over time. The question is whether we have more to fear from private enterprises driven by people who aim to dismantle the checks and balances of the nation state, whether we should fear the very same people being in key political positions and lobbies, or both ?
The level of control and surveillance over the British population have exceeded levels in other cultural settings when we consider “surveillance creep” through extending usage of technologies such as the ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) system. Digital technologies I see as largely extending the reach of individuals in the world. I see policy systems and written language as technologies and am examining how policy systems share characteristics with artificial intelligences.
Whatever way things are cut, constant vigilance is important for scrutinising whatever seats of power emerge in the political economies we exist in and under. Like Cathy O’Neil puts it in her Weapons of Maths Destruction – “An algorithm is just an opinion in code”; it is not enough just to examine what technologies are doing in our lives but we must also look at the people behind the technologies to understand the character and values embedded within them.
The Canteen in the Death Star
As I think about technologies in relation to sustainability I think about what tools and resources, behaviours and activities can we utilise such that in a thousand years time the planet will still be supporting life in a happy and not torturous existence. For example, I know that if everyone continues burning petrol our air will not be breathable, our water not drinkable and our food chain full of poison.
I think about the behaviours which I imagine in a scenario where I live around a lake with several other neighbours. The lake is where we get food and water from. There are is a wood and an area of fertile soil which is good for growing things in. On some level I need to consider others and my self. If I eat all the fish at once there will be no fish for me – or anyone – tomorrow. If I use the lake as a dumping ground for my sewage and waste then my health, and the health of others, is going to be affected. If I chop down all the trees, there will be no trees or anything which the trees support.
In other words I think about the ethics of my actions. I consider how what I do affects others as well as myself. Don’t spit in the well, as that is where people draw drinking water. In economics this is called thinking about ‘externalities’ – those things which you are externalising in the world. They can be positive externalities (like planting wild flower meadows supports bee colonies which pollinate crops and produce honey) or negative externalities (like emptying chemical waste into the lake could make all the shell fish toxic to eat).
I see sustainability as intimately woven with economics (i.e. don’t poison the soil, it is where we get our food from etc) and ethics (the values which determine how people treat each other). Not thinking in these ways is stupid because these aspects of living determine what abundances we have today and what abundances will be there in the future.
So knowing that ethics plays a sensible role in the economics of non-disaster, I look at the businesses and the people in business and think about how they treat other people. How individuals treat other people determines what possibilities can exist from interactions with them. As an important thought experiment I consider how humans historically are prone to all manner of bad behaviours which create bad situations for others to clean up.
Peter Singer has a good and simple thought experiment which I riff off of. He is attempting to get people to think about the values which they live by and explore notions of responsibility in relation to costs…
So thinking my way into a corporate reality, particularly stimulated by someone dear to me who when I first met him was clear about the values he would not transgress. What mattered to him was a humane world in which people were all treated with dignity and respect. He worked his way up through the frontlines of a number of large companies and now ten years latter is a highly sought after individual in a very well paid executive role. He has had children and moved from company to company and eventually told me “If I was offered enough money I would work for anyone”; this transition through conscious moral disengagement haunts me because it is someone I care for and have known from a time when he refused to work for bad actors.
So I imagine the conversations which take place where people are working in the canteen on the death star (for all those Star Wars fans). You think that you are not involved in the destruction of planets, people etc because those are the orders of Darth Vader carried out by the people who are executives under Vader and their military subordinates; you think “I don’t do that, I am just earning a living serving sausage rolls and beans in the canteen”. There is a local charity you give to and the workplace organises a fun run to raise money for the chosen charity which is the subject of affections. At what point do you consider yourself as contributing to a poisonous empire ?
It is an issue which exists in law when people examine responsibility for collective acts relating to corporate manslaughter. In the book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem; A Report on the Banality of Evil’ the writer and thinker Hannah Arendt famously documented the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had made as a part of his defense of his role in the genocide perpetrated against Jewish peoples and other marginalised groups that he was just a bureaucrat who was following other peoples orders. Whilst acting as a mentor for students designing educational technologies with sustainability and ethics in mind I put this moral quandary to them:
As software designers you may:
- Design a useful product
- You may launch it on the open market as a free product
- Finance and venture capitalists may ask you how are you going to monetize it to feed your self, your family, your cat etc.
- Do you use data brokering as an income stream
- Your software might be designed for a handheld device
- What if you discover this is bad for peoples health ?
- At what point are the incentives sufficient for you to morally disengage and cut off your income ?
The Emergent Issue of EMF Pollution
At this point I want to introduce an emergent issue with many computer technologies in that they require wireless signals to send and receive information. There is now a body of evidence sufficient to show that these sources of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation have negative impacts on health and biology, especially mobile phones. Here is a video of United Nations advisor Dr Devra Davis talking about this problem:
So where is something like pollution being factored into the considerations of technologists and educationalists as people are being pushed to be exposed to more and more EMF pollution ? To relate this to a moral, environmental and health problem in nearly all people’s lives, I suggest that the pollution caused by car exhaust fumes shares characteristics with the cognitive dissonance we culturally display to EMF pollution.
Here is a provocative graphic I created by bringing together advertisement campaigns that tried to get people to stop smoking by pointing out that secondary smoke is dangerous to children. I incorporated the image of a car exhaust and a graphic citing George Orwell’s expression ‘double think’. Would you give up your car and use public transport to protect the lives of you, your children and others – and the environment which sustains life in general ? This question shares ethical considerations with the technology questions I am raising:
Beyond this there are a series of questions which can be asked in relation to ethics character and values about how an individual might know their thinking, decision making and practice has become corrupted. This issue is a tricky one because of the human capacity for cognitive dissonance and bias – that is holding different mental accounts and standards for oneself and other people. How do we know when our thinking is corrupted ?
The Daniel Morgan report offers some helpful analyses on what constitutes ‘institutional corruption’. This report examined the instititional response to the investigation of the murder of Daniel Morgan and articulates institutional corruption as a problem. Here is part of their breakdown of how they are using ‘institutional corruption’:
The improper behaviour by action or omission:
i. by a person or persons in a position of power or exercising powers, such as police officers;
ii. acting individually or collectively;
iii. with or without the involvement of other actors who are not in a position of power or exercising powers;
For direct or indirect benefit:
iv. of the individual(s) involved; or
v. for a cause or organisation valued by them; or
vi. for the benefit or detriment of others;
Such that a reasonable person would not expect the powers to be exercised for the purpose of achieving that benefit or detriment.
The Panel has used this definition to consider the conduct of the police officers involved in the investigations of the murder of Daniel Morgan. The Panel includes in its wider definition of corruption some instances of failures on the part of senior officers/managers, acting as representatives of their organisations. The documentation reveals the following wide range of actions and omissions by senior postholders on behalf of their organisations; many of these actions and omissions have been identified in the reports of other independent panels and inquiries:
i. failing to identify corruption;
ii. failing to confront corruption;
iii. failing to manage investigations and ensure proper oversight;
iv. failing to take a fresh look at past mistakes and failures;
v. failing to learn from past mistakes and failures;
vi. failing to admit past mistakes and failures promptly and specifically;
vii. giving unjustified assurances;
viii. failing to make a voluntarily commitment to candour; and
ix. failing to be open and transparent.
Psychologists investigate the roles of different perceptions in accounting for behaviours. Situational forces play distinct roles in these behaviours and the likes of Philip Zimbardo, Solomon Ashe and Alex Haslam all make vital contributions to understanding how the situational forces of finance and reward and punishment all shape perception, behaviour and complex outcomes in organisational structures like businesses.
Educational Purpose and Neuroadaptation
In designing EdTech, its use cases will define its authenticity to the vision of education you have so it makes sense that EdTech designers understand the differing projects of education as they may differ with their outcomes if…:
- Education is to create a workforce literate in the things which the enterprise owners need them to be.
- Education is to draw out the natural capabilities of people so that people become enterprise owners
- or it the purpose of education cannot be defined in specific teleological terms without impoverishing its function.
Defining in concise terms your project of education will help you design the digital tools as instruments in order to achieve this and the public value associated with its functioning in the world. Your character, the values you hold and your decisions will be embedded in the tool as code. Experience and practicality in your world has determined the tools you are to design.
Are you doing this for money or for public value; or how are the two interrelating ? Where do these worlds abut in your decision making ? How are you to understand the effect of your technology in the world ? Does using your technology degrade existing capacities or does your technology excite existing capacities ?
Think about the ownership of a car and how it might affect the amount and type of physical activity a person does over time. Think of how the ownership of a car might isolate the owner from specific experience whilst making the experience which the car affords more prominent. Think of how the car and combustion engine are profoundly toxic but due to their utility as tools are used anyway producing a necessity for cognitive dissonance – is this cognitive dissonance helpful or unhelpful to the success of education ?
Are you creating a tool or a work around ? Will the tool you are creating enrich neural connections through mechanisms of neuroplasticity or will it impoverish neural connections by obscuring useful work ? Nicholas Carr is worth listening to and reading – here he is talking about his book ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’ :
How Much is Enough ?
I do hope that people understand, imagine and manifest the positive/constructive in the tech world as viable incomes/projects. This is certainly true for a number of realities where people are making comfortable incomes. I think we are globally facing the surrogate urgency to always have MORE money in a oligopolistic/monopolistic economic system which is artificially creating scarcity, now even in what were traditionally more stable middle class echelons.
The economic, social and environmental fictions we live with now simply cannot continue to operate as they are inherently dysfunctional. It is rather like the proposition of building a skyscraper to the moon, the idea is exciting but the realities will not sustain the building.
I suspect that more people will have to notionalise a ‘reasonable’ (i.e. relative to everyone else in the world) income rather than dream the dream of unicorn businesses, metastasizing franchise models, normalising negative externalities, financial exceptionalism and unending expansion (economic coloniality). ‘How much is enough’ is a deep question these days when set along side the question ‘do we get more from an economic system which produces relative sufficiency and artificial poverty’ ?
As I learn more about the dopamine impulse and addiction to mixed schedule reinforcement, I wonder about how much people are addicted to accumulating like they become addicted to social media. Are wealthy people simply victims of their own neurochemical impulses to fixate to the exclusion of other aspects of life ? Are people in a state of hypnogogia as they gear and fixate their life on getting more wealth, more technology, more indiscriminate stimulus ?