“Democratization” in tech-speak does not equal “democracy.” It means the spread of a product and a culture. And that culture is authoritarian, not because it’s Chinese or American, but because it has emerged from this computational ethos, one that is built on counting and tracking.
For this reason, I would suggest a renewed focus on MESH education, which stands for Media Literacy, Ethics, Sociology, and History. Because if these are not given equal attention, we could end up with incredibly bright and technically proficient people who lack all capacity for democratic citizenship.
The future of the nation and the world depends on an engaged, informed, and critically-thinking population. That means we need more than just STEM, more than technological advances, and more than high standardized test scores. We need MESH and civic competence as well.
But if we’re interested in preparing kids to be active participants in a democracy, we must focus not only on what they know but on what they’re inclined to do. And the desire to participate depends on the opportunity afforded them while they’re young. In plain language, the way children learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions. And not by memorizing the names of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
It’s odd, therefore, as educator Shelley Berman once observed, that “we teach reading, writing, and math by having students do them, but we teach democracy by lecture.” In fact, it’s not only odd – it’s counterproductive. Factual knowledge may or may not be necessary for meaningful citizenship, but it surely isn’t sufficient.
They blamed students who lacked “grit,” teachers who sought tenure, and parents who knew too much. They declared school funding isn’t the problem, an elected school board is an obstacle, and philanthropists know best.
They published self-fulfilling prophecies connecting zip-coded school ratings, teacher performance scores, and real estate values. They viewed Brown v. Board as skin-deep and sentimental, instead of an essential mandate for democracy.
They implied “critical thinking” was possible without the Humanities, that STEM alone makes us vocationally relevant, and that “coding” should replace recess time. They cut teacher pay, lowered employment qualifications, and peddled the myth anyone can teach.
They instructed critics to look past poverty, inequality, residential segregation, mass incarceration, homelessness, and college debt to focus on a few heartwarming (and yes, legitimate) stories of student resilience and pluck.
They designed education conferences on “data-driven instruction,” “rigorous assessment,” and “differentiated learning” but showed little patience for studies that correlate student performance with poverty, trauma, a school-to-prison pipeline, and the decimation of community schools.
It is only now, a decade after the financial crisis, that the American public seems to appreciate that what we thought was disruption worked more like extraction—of our data, our attention, our time, our creativity, our content, our DNA, our homes, our cities, our relationships. The tech visionaries’ predictions did not usher us into the future, but rather a future where they are kings.
They promised the open web, we got walled gardens. They promised individual liberty, then broke democracy—and now they’ve appointed themselves the right men to fix it.
But did the digital revolution have to end in an oligopoly? In our fog of resentment, three recent books argue that the current state of rising inequality was not a technological inevitability. Rather the narrative of disruption duped us into thinking this was a new kind of capitalism. The authors argue that tech companies conquered the world not with software, but via the usual route to power: ducking regulation, squeezing workers, strangling competitors, consolidating power, raising rents, and riding the wave of an economic shift already well underway.
In a winners-take-all economy, it’s hard to prove the rulers wrong. But if the tech backlash wants to become more than just the next chapter in their myth, we have to question the fitness of the companies that survived.
The first is that implementation is policy. Whatever gets decided at various times by leadership (in this case, first to separate families, then to reunite them), what happens in real life is often determined less by policy than by software. And until the government starts to think of technology as a dynamic service, imperfect but ever-evolving, not just a static tool you buy from a vendor, that won’t change.
The second lesson has to do with how Silicon Valley — made up of people who very much think of technology as something you do — should think about its role in fighting injustice.
This is one of the lessons you can’t escape if you work on government tech. When government is impaired, who gets hurt? More often than not, the most vulnerable people.
In order to properly administer a social safety net, a just criminal justice system, and hundreds of other functions that constitute a functioning democracy, we must build government’s technology capabilities. In doing that, we run the risk of also increasing government’s effectiveness to do harm.
Which is why Silicon Valley can’t limit its leverage over government to software. Software doesn’t have values. People do. If the people who build and finance software (in Silicon Valley and elsewhere) really want government that aligns with their values, and they must offer government not just their software, but their time, their skills, and part of their careers. The best way to reclaim government is to become part of it.
Democracy requires active work. Every generation has to reclaim it. Educators have a critical function, at a moment when we live in filter bubbles and echo chambers, to create safe spaces and facilitate points of confrontation to break single identities. If we are serious about democracy, it is about how we teach. It is about living democracy in the classroom. It might be timely for teachers to consider whether they model authoritarian leaders, how they might support curricula disobedience and academic freedom, and what their professional code of ethics is.
K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.
Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.
Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.
If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.
That eagerness to coddle capital has always been part of our culture. Maybe it could be justified in a society hemmed in by commodity money and weak financial markets, where there might be some limitations to the amount of capital available for investment. But there is far more capital looking for profits today than there are plausible investments. We’ve just run a huge real-life experiment. The Republican tax bill gave corporations billions of dollars in tax breaks for money stashed “offshore” to avoid taxes. The brilliant CEOS had no profitable use for it and gave it to their shareholders.
The neo-feudalist economy caused by unchecked, unregulated capitalism that turned at best a winking nod to social welfare, more often a blind eye, and at worst a joyous ax, has facilitated a nationalist, authoritarian rise in pitch, and an abrupt shift right in federal ideology. Donald Trump is both the drooping wilted leaf of this societal rot, and the root. But why?
Human life in the US has no inherent worth. We are not valued beyond the revenue we can generate for the white men who do not need it. Think of how we talk about our own people in a professional setting: Human resources. Human capital. Taxpayer base. These are ways of talking about people that reduce them to streams of income. Think of all the things life offers beyond revenue: love. progress. art. invention. community. health. knowledge. We do not value these things at the institutional level, in fact, we actively curtail them all. But that’s only one piece of the inextricable puzzle.
Additionally, this country was founded with two original sins baked in: Genocidal concentration of its indigenous people, and mass enslavement of the African race. These sins were never reckoned, and they continue to manifest themselves in a litany of ugly and tragic ways. You’ve no doubt read about them by now, but in case you’d like a tweet-length summary, we’ll call it: systemic dehumanization and oppression of all people who are not white.
So that’s how we got here: People can’t afford to live. We’re jailing babies in cages. Kids are being shot up in schools. We’re deporting people seeking asylum. Flint doesn’t have clean water. Puerto Rico is a mess. We’re attacking women online and assaulting them in the streets. All given the tacit, or even enthusiastic, approval by a fascist authoritarian apex predator who has free reign to indulge his darkest impulses. Yet make no mistake: Authoritarianism is not the cause … it is a symptom of a deeper, underlying sickness. Civilization is a thin veneer. As civilization crumbles (as it is assuredly doing now), it emboldens and empowers monsters like these.
When a nation fails, the out-groups are often the first to hear its roar, and the first to feel its rage. So you can see it now. The only way out is through.