Journalism and Art in Digital Societies (III)

Morality in so-called Information Societies

As the reader would have hopefully noticed, I agree with what I believe is the most fundamental premise in Postman’s theories: that it is a mistake to believe that the development of digital technologies (or any kind of technology for that matter) by itself would solve the major problems that the societies of the twenty-first century are facing. Yet, I do tend to disagree with what I consider an over-idealisation of the past on Postman’s account. Thus, at this stage I think the contraposition of Postman’s arguments with those of Ken Robinson (exposed in the first part of this essay) would throw some interesting light on how digital technologies may affect education in the twenty-first century.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986), Postman expressed his preference for a “print-based epistemology” over a “television-based epistemology”, particularly when addressing a serious issue like education. In this sense, his work can be seen as a defence of the educational system that emerged from the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. This train of thought is also evident in the title of his 2000 book, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century.

In another of Postman’s YouTube appearances, he is interviewed in a program from the Canadian television station TVO, shortly after the publication of the aforementioned book. In this interview, Postman explains how his book aims to expose how technological advances do not imply, or necessarily lead, to social wellbeing. As a foundation for his argument, Postman references an essay by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1750), which questioned if “scientific progress contributed to the corruption or purification of morality”. As Postman pointed out, Rousseau’s conclusion was that “in fact, the great mistake we would make is to assume that technological and scientific innovation are the same thing as human progress.”

Thus, by “building a bridge to the eighteenth century”, Postman meant we should be raising the type of questions thinkers like Rousseau asked about the influence of their contemporary technologies. This, in my opinion, is very good advice. But, isn’t he raising such questions? Haven’t I just listed them? This brings me to what I believe may fairly be the biggest problem with the current educational systems (or, to be more accurate, with the ones I know). This problem is a communications problem, of how the academy communicates with the outer world.

As I have implied earlier, by questioning how serious academic publications favour society, the problem I have observed (as a student in both Colombia and Australia) is that under the current educational system(s) the knowledge that emerges from the academy tends to remain isolated from the outer world: that is, from the greatest numbers of people.

This, I believe, is particularly problematic in the so-called social sciences. Taking medicine as an example, from an early stage in their careers, those aspiring to be doctors are introduced to the environment of the hospital. Now, if one were to rate medicine as a science in terms of progress, it would, arguably, be at the top of the list. But what can be said about the social sciences in this regard? Has there been any considerable progress since the Enlightenment?

This is not necessarily a rhetorical question. As the reader may remember, I have mentioned how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is, in my opinion, the most important contribution of the twentieth century. And at this point I can also include other examples like the Save the Whales movement. Yet, without demining the importance of the right to protest or the power that this type of social movements may have, I can’t but help wonder: is this the ultimate meaning of the term participatory democracy?

So far, the debate about whether the Internet and digital networks can be seen as a “democratic weapon”, as Orwell (1945) would have called it, or as the “ultimate levelling technology” envisioned by Tim Berners Lee, is mostly based on massive social protests. The most relevant, or at least the more renowned, of which are happening within the Islamic world. All conclusions on this matter are still mere speculation. What is going to happen in Egypt? Or in Tunisia? How about the 2013 elections in Iran? Or, to use a Western example, what about the Occupy Wall Street movement? If the worse happens – whatever that worse may be – is it going to be the Internet’s fault?

Education in Cyberspace

I am not saying the academy should stop asking this type of questions. But it should also be thinking about how to expose them – or better still, export them – making them accessible and understandable to the great majorities that cannot access the discussions where they are being raised. Various groups of academics have recognised this problem and started to use digital networks to offer free access to the knowledge formed in academic discussions.

One good example of this is the RSA Animate series[1], which has provided me with various references for my thesis. Another example is the social entrepreneurship company, Coursera[2], founded by Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, recently highlighted in Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times (May 15, 2012). As Friedman writes:  last semester (Ng) taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. “To reach that many students before”, he said, “I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years” (Quoted from Friedman, 2012, para. 2).

One hundred thousand students at once! What would Postman say about that? Postman stated that the first question to ask when assessing the development of all new technologies should be: What is the problem to which this technology is a solution? In regard to digital media, one problem that comes to mind is the so-called third world brain drain. At this stage, it is important to point out how this problem not only implies a drain from developing nations to developed ones, but also within these nations. Thus, projects like the RSA and Coursera seem to be steps in the right direction. However, as Postman would say, the introduction of a new technology “always produces winners and losers.”

So, who is losing?

In Postman’s conference at Calvin College, he quotes an article from the Washington Post from June 1996: which spoke of a plan by the State of Maryland to spend 100 million dollars in connecting all the schools in the state to the World Wide Web by the end of the year 2000. He also pointed out that this was happening while schoolteachers were being underpaid and overworked, and that most teachers were happy about it. In response to this, Postman hypothesised about a different education plan, where: “the State of Maryland intends to spend 100 million dollars to increase the number of teachers in the state, to pay those we have more and to reduce teaching loads.”

There is one big difference between the State of Maryland’s plan and projects like Coursera: which is that the latter is not being funded with public resources. But still, in my very basic understanding of economics, I can see how one professor teaching 100,000 students represents a threat to other, less renowned professors. And I believe Postman would have seen how this situation also represents a threat to the students: for it may lead to the decline of physical interaction within the educational process.

I think it is a good thing that anyone with a reliable Internet connection can have free access to academic discussions worldwide. But not if this is what the whole educational process will be reduced to. This is why I believe higher education programs – particularly in the so-called social sciences – should include components that require physical attendance; and which should be designed to address social problems and provide help to different communities. One that encourages, rather than deters, physical interaction and aims to address problems like the third world brain drain. But at the moment, I would like to focus on another of Postman’s questions: who is most threatened by the development of digital technologies.

Who is Afraid of the World Wide Web?

According to Morozov (2011), the idea that authoritarian governments fear technology is a myth. And there are some Orwellian features in the development of digital networks that, at the very least, allow Morozov’s arguments to cast a shadow on the idealised view of the Internet as a “democratic weapon,” or as Tim Berners Lee’s “ultimate levelling technology.” So, let’s rule out for a moment the authoritarian state and see who else might fear digital technologies.

For this purpose, in the following paragraphs I am presenting a hypothetical scenario of how the academy may use digital technologies to address the problem of corruption in Colombia. Before doing so, I will briefly expose to what extent corruption has become a critical matter in Colombia.

In the last decades, there have been various corruption scandals in Colombian politics. These scandals vary in form, and go from the macabre example of the “false positives,”[3] to countless cases of corruption in the system of public contracting: leading to a major crisis in the nation’s infrastructure.

On November 30, 2011, analyst Marco Silva published a column in the Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, where he presented the following account of the state of Colombia’s major roads:

The concession network only covers 5,283 kilometers out of the 16,876 that constitute the primary network in charge of INVIAS[4]. Of these, more than 2,600 are unpaved. The contractual terms and the modifications on the initial conditions of the current concessions are, in almost every case, disproportionally in favour of the particular (i.e., private concessionaries) against the interests of the State. The 22 concessions hired between 1994 and 2007, with an approximate cost of 10 billion pesos, have, to date, cost more than 22 billion pesos, with more than 50 percent of them presenting major delays.” (Silva, 2011, p N/A)[5]

According to Silva, the roads in Colombia began to deteriorate since the early 1990s. This was caused by circumstances like the beginning of an economic aperture; the constitutional change of 1991 (which reformed the administrative structure of the State) and the policy of assigning the construction and maintenance of the nation’s major roads to private concessionaries. From this moment onwards, railway transport has been steadily abandoned – favouring road transport – to the point that, at the moment I am writing this, it is practically non-existent. As Silva points out:

Today, more than 80 percent of (Colombian) freight is transported by road, but more than 50 percent of the road’s network is in less than optimal conditions. (Silva, p N/A).

Silva also mentions how in the fifteen years it has been operating, the system of private concessions has not delivered one major work of infrastructure. In his defence, the Colombian Chamber of Infrastructure (CCI)[6] argues that, if it were not for the system of private concessions, the country would now be completely without road communication  (Semana Magazine, 2011).

If there is anything to be learnt from the twentieth century (and this early twenty-first century), it is that corruption is a feature of both public and private sectors. And in a case like the Colombian, it is evident that it has outgrown all political ideologies. So, what can be done? How can the academy, using digital technologies, contribute to a solution to this problem?

In the scenario I have imagined, the academy (that is necessarily more than one learning centre, including at least one university) would form an interdisciplinary group led by professors who are experts in different areas. In this case, the group would have representatives (i.e., students and teachers) from the schools of engineering, law and media and communications.

By visiting the website of INVIAS, one may check the list of control entities that regulate the nation’s road works (INVIAS, 2012). These are all public institutions, which make part of a political system that, in my opinion, is questionable on all fronts (to say the least). What this hypothetical scenario proposes is that the academy should become another control entity unattached to that political system.  

The control, in this case, would begin from the moment when the State puts out to tender, the construction of any given work of infrastructure. From this moment onwards, the academic group would assess all the proposals coming from either the public or the private sector and recommend what it considers to be the most suitable proposal. In this scenario, the final decision of who is appointed to do the work would still be made by a political institution (e.g., the National Congress or a local council) but the members of that political institution would have to explain why (if it so happens), they have appointed the work to a proposal that has not been recommended by the expert group coming from the academy.

All proposals should include plans, a detailed budget and a chronogram stating when the work would be finished and how it is progressing on a periodical basis (i.e., weekly or monthly). At the time of signing the contract, the legal team within the academic group would assess the contract and see that it does not include clauses that would act in disproportional favour of the particular against the interests of the State.

When the works begin, the engineering team would be regularly assessing its progress. Once the work is been finished, this team (probably with new students) should monitor the maintenance of the work: for, as Silva points out, the lack of maintenance is one of the main reasons why many roads have collapsed during the last rainy seasons (Silva, 2011).

During the entire process, the communications team would be in charge of publicising the recommendations produced and the anomalies found by the other teams. This team should also encourage a debate with different members of the communities affected by the works and, in this way, act as a channel between civil society and the ruling classes which make the decisions that affect them on a daily basis.

If, like Morozov argues, digital networks are not necessarily the enemies of the authoritarian state, they do seem to threaten bureaucratic institutions and, often corrupt intermediaries. To what extent do digital technologies represent a threat to this kind of institutions? It is hard to tell. Yet, following on a case like the one I have just presented, I can think of future scenarios where the democratic electoral process would not be reduced to the, often mandatory, act of choosing from a group of given candidates (i.e., individuals who may or may not represent the electorate’s standpoint) to act as representatives (hence the name “representative democracy”); but it would consist in choosing – I may add voluntarily – between projects and proposals coming from various institutions with a higher degree of expertise (e.g., the academy, independent research groups, supranational organisations and NGOs). Wouldn’t this be closer to something we may call participatory democracy?

Talking about participatory democracy, Postman also stated how, in a review of Lawrence Grossman’s book, The Electronic Republic (1995), he criticised Grossman’s prediction that “digital technologies would make it possible for plebiscites to be conducted every week”, so that institutions such as “the Senate and Congress would become largely unnecessary”. This, according to Postman, would lead us to “become faceless citizens voting alone on issues we do not have the time or place to discuss” (Postman, 2000c, para. 18).

In other words, Postman seems to be predicting that, if the electoral process develops as Grossman has foreseen it, then people would end up deciding on the most important matters as they decide who wins a reality show.

But isn’t this happening already? Postman seemed to think so: it is evident in his recurrent criticism of so-called political ‘debates’ happening on television (1986, 1995, 1998). But Postman also recognised the logistical differences between holding a plebiscite with 5,000 Athenian citizens – which is the analogy Grossman uses in his book – and 250 million American citizens. Nonetheless, not all, in fact I believe just a few, of the 250 million American citizens (or the 40 million Colombian citizens or the 20 million Australian citizens) would be interested in participating in such a plebiscite. Furthermore, people would like to participate in plebiscites about certain issues and not participate in plebiscites about other.

In countries where it is not obligatory to vote, the statistics seem to show that people tend to prefer not to. According to data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) the voter turnout for the 2010 parliamentary election in the US was 41.59% (dropping from 64.36% in 2008) and 70.33% for the 2008 presidential election (dropping from 86.08% in 2004). Whilst in Colombia, the voter turnout for the 2010 parliamentary election was 43.75% (rising from 40.49% in 2006) and 44.35% for the presidential election of 2010 (dropping from 45.11% in 2006).

This may be interpreted as (a) a symptom that, as argued by Postman, the so-called information societies of the twenty-first century are basically an early version of Huxley’s Brave New World; or (b) that the so-called information societies of the twenty-first century are becoming more sceptical of how democratic contemporary political systems truly are. At first sight, these two interpretations seem to be opposites, yet they both evidence something I believe tends to be omitted from the debate about the public sphere: that civil society prefers to remain as the victim in its relationship with the system.

Thus, as depreciated as politics is, in general, and a political system may be, in particular, the politician would always have the argument in his favour that, at least he/she is doing something for the greater good of the nation (or the state, or the city or the neighbourhood). On a similar note, the person who voted would always have the argument, in favour over that who didn’t, that at least he/she voted. Regardless of what policies the politician for whom he/she voted supports or if the politician ends up profiting at the expense of the voter’s taxes.

Although I believe these problems are related to all representative democracies, they are definitely more evident, and their consequences more serious, in a developing nation like Colombia than in a developed one like Australia. This is, to a great extent, why I have pictured the aforementioned hypothetical scenario –involving interdisciplinary groups from academic institutions acting as control entities – in Colombia. For it is in Colombia, rather than in Australia, that changes in the democratic system are most needed.

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Journalism and Art in Digital Societies (IV)


[3] Extrajudicial killings of civilians committed by the Colombian Armed Forces: which number, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), more than 3,000 people (Human Rights Watch, 2012).

[4]Instituto Nacional de Vías [National Roads Institute]: affiliated to the Ministry of Transport, in charge of the execution of all projects and policies related to the nation’s roads.

[5] My translation.

[6] Cámara Colombiana de Infraestructura: an institution that gathers various associations of builders, engineers and public contractors.