Tech imperialism vs education idealism in California

The future of technology is being shaped in Silicon Valley and California’s global innovation hub will thus dictate the evolution of education technology. The digital revolution and the ‘sharing economy’ mean education will become more accessible, but education technology writer Audrey Watters believes that does not necessarily bode well for the greater good that is the transfer of knowledge to the world’s most economically vulnerable people.

The profit-seeking, although seemingly altruistic, ventures of many Silicon Valley companies means that education in the future – if it were left to California’s technology leaders – could be perilously exclusive.

“California produces two-thirds of the United States’ produce and over a third of the nation’s farmworkers work in California, 95% of whom were born outside the United States,” Watters told the recent conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, or ICDE.

“The California ideology ignores race and labour and the water supply. It is sustained by air and fantasy. It is built upon white supremacy and imperialism. As is the technology sector, which has its own history, of course, in warfare and cryptography.”

This was the central theme of Watters’ keynote address at the 26th ICDE World Conference, held at Sun City, north of Johannesburg in South Africa, from 14-16 October and hosted by the University of South Africa under the theme “Growing Capacities for Sustainable Distance e-Learning Provision”.

The Silicon Valley narrative

“I am not swayed by arguments that we’re on the cusp of some sort of techno-utopia where all our problems are about to be solved by connectivity,” said Watters, referring to what she called ‘the Silicon Valley Narrative’, which heralds the Internet and technological innovation as the silver bullet to all life’s challenges.

“It celebrates the new, is quick to discard anything it deems old as obsolete, and invokes themes of innovation and disruption. It is also often characterised by a hero. The technology entrepreneur characterised by a ‘smart, independent, bold, risk-taking, white male'.

“The Silicon Valley Narrative has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. It fosters a distrust of institutions – the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes,” she continued.

“It does not neatly co-exist with public education. We forget this at our peril. This makes education technology, specifically, an incredibly fraught area.”


Watters added that a record-setting US$3.76 billion of venture capital had already been invested in education technology this year, and this money would change the landscape. “That money carries with it a story about the future. It carries with it an ideology,” she said.

Facebook, for example, has partnered with six telecommunications companies and phone manufacturers to form a new organisation called Internet.org that is attempting to bring Internet access to the some five billion people on the planet who do not currently have it.

The company was announced by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg in 2013, when he then argued that connectivity was a human right, and that Internet.org would also partner with MOOCs platform edX to offer free online education.

But it later emerged several Indian companies had backed out of the initiative, claiming that Internet.org gave preference to those paying to be part of the platform, and restricted access to sites not approved by Facebook.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s altruistic rhetoric aside, this is their plan. It’s an economic plan to monetise the world’s poor.”

Watters continued: “Researchers have found too that in certain countries a number of people say they do not use the Internet yet they talk about how much time they spend on Facebook.

“According to one survey, 11% of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they did not use the Internet. A survey in Nigeria had similar results: 9% of Facebook users there said they do not use the Internet.

“In other words, Facebook is ‘the Internet’ for a fairly sizable number of people. They know nothing else – conceptually, experientially. And, let’s be honest, Facebook wants to be ‘the Internet’ for everyone.”

She called this ‘techno-imperialism’, where the content, form and perceptions of ‘connectivity’ perpetuate a cultural and technological imperialism, “not only in Africa but in all of our lives”.

Ed-tech should support, not exploit

In an ideal world the story of education technology, particularly regarding distance learning and connectivity, is one where ‘ed-tech’ is supportive, not exploitative.

It should open opportunities instead of closing them. And it should meet individual and institutional and community goals and be driven by a rethinking of teaching and learning – not by expanding markets or empire.

“That’s not really what the ‘Silicon Valley Narrative’ says about education,” argued Watters. “Sometimes it does, I suppose when it wants to appeal to us as consumers; rather that’s not all that Silicon Valley really does.

“It is interested in data extraction and monetisation and standardisation and scale. It is interested in markets and return on investment. It says ‘education is broken’ and technology will fix it.”

Although the argument she put forward was an ideological one, Watters told delegates that it mattered to those in education as it represented forces that were at play in shaping the education technology space.

“Facebook is really just anecdotal here – just one example of the forces I think are at play, politically, economically, technologically, culturally.

“The new infrastructure – ‘the Internet’ if you will – has a particular political, economic and cultural bent to it. It is not neutral. Who controls the networks, who controls the servers, who controls our personal devices, who controls the software that’s installed on them?”