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This is Part 2 of my research series on the blockchain in education. Part 1 – an introduction to the blockchain – is available here.

All digital technology is ideological. All education technology is ideological.

I repeat this (and quite often, it seems) because technology – and ed-tech in particular – is too frequently discussed as though it is ideology-free. It purports to be at once (and, yet, incongruously) both neutral and necessary. It presents itself at once as value-free (and, yet, incongruously) progressive. That is to say, if technology contains any ideological underpinning at all, we’re supposed to believe, it’s that its forward march is quite inevitable; but that’s okay as it is forward movement – technology serves to make the world better.

This sort of end-of-history, post-ideology ideology that permeates digital technologies (conveniently) frames challenges and criticisms and questions as “ideological” in which “ideological” here means politically-loaded, polemical, biased, bad.

That’s not what I mean when I write that digital technology is ideological or that education technology is ideological. I don’t mean simply that these are interwoven with a certain politics or that they represent developments that I find personally disagreeable. Rather, “ideology” as I use the word refers to the ideas, values, and practices – discourse and power – grounded in the forces of production (e.g. global capitalism) and in the institutions that re-inscribe these. “Ideology” is one way we can think about social struggles, especially as various groups try to legitimate their own interests and do so in such a way that their ideas, values, and practices are seen as natural.

Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology in powerful ways, but these technologies also have their own ideological underpinnings as well, ones that serve in turn to justify and reinforce the cultural and economic changes that society is currently undergoing. Think “Sharing Economy,” for example. This is also, in part at least, what Neil Postman famously described over twenty years ago as the growing pervasiveness of “Technopoly”:

Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements. Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy.

In his book Distrusting Educational Technology, Neil Selwyn identifies three contemporary ideologies that are closely intertwined with digital technologies – I tend to use the shorthand “Silicon Valley narrative” to refer to these): libertarianism, neoliberalism, and “the ideology of the ‘new economy.’” Selwyn reminds us that these three are deeply intertwined in education technology as well, despite what might seem on the surface to be a conflict between the “commercial” and the “countercultural” interests and ideologies that at once push ed-tech’s adoption. Selwyn writes that

…The fact that educational technology appears to be driven by a set of values focused on the improvement of education does not preclude it also serving to support and legitimate wider dominant ideological interests. Indeed, if we take time to unpack the general orthodoxy of educational technology as a ‘positive’ attempt to improve education, then a variety of different social groups and with different interests, values and agendas are apparent. …While concerned ostensibly with changing specific aspects of education, all of these different interests could be said to also endorse (or at least provide little opposition to) notions of libertarianism, neo-liberalism and new forms of capitalism. Thus educational technologies can still be said to be ‘ideologically freighted’, although this may not always be a primary intention of those involved in promoting their use.

Arguably, the blockchain and its potential applicability to education is much more obviously “ideologically freighted,” because of its connections to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Many proponents of the blockchain insist that the “distributed ledger” can be separated from Bitcoin, but I’m not certain that it can be severed quite so neatly – either technologically or ideologically.

(For more details on the history and technology of the blockchain and bitcoin, read my introduction here.)

(Image credits)

VCU professor David Golumbia has written extensively about the politics of Bitcoin, which he describes (in a 2015 article as well as in a forthcoming book) as “right-wing extremism” – evident in the rhetoric about the cryptocurrency as well as in the design and functionality of the software itself.

Golumbia connects the some of the ideas underlying Bitcoin to “cyberlibertarianism” – the belief that the government should not regulate the Internet and that “freedom” is something created by and through digital technologies. Cyberlibertarianism is also, as the name suggests, tied more generally to libertarian beliefs about freedom and liberty and the state’s supposed role in circumscribing these. “Free“ as in ”free markets.”

Golumbia also traces the origins of and interest in Bitcoin to certain right-wing beliefs about the operation of the world’s monetary system, which includes a rejection of central banking as a vast conspiracy of the global (Jewish) elite. From an explanation of Bitcoin written by Satoshi Nakamoto, its pseudonymous creator, in 2009:

The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve.

Debates about the role that the US Federal Reserve and monetary policy plays in inflation are well beyond the scope of my expertise on education technology, I’ll go ahead and admit that right now. But some of these ideological underpinnings in Bitcoin – whether or not one agrees with Golumbia’s provocative labeling of these as “right-wing extremism” – are of crucial importance for those in ed-tech to grapple with, particularly if education is to explore and adopt blockchain technology. To suggest that the blockchain is ideology-free is folly.

And again, despite the insistence that Bitcoin and blockchain are distinct, I would contend there’s still plenty of overlap, not just in the software but in the discourse about what purposes the technology will serve.

There are (at least) three elements of this discourse that are relevant to discussions about “the future of education” – that is, these elements are particularly instructive about the ideological shape of an imagined future. These are the anti-institutional bent of the blockchain; its reliance on decentralization (as a technology and as a metaphor); and its invocation of trust (and mistrust) as the key social behavior mediated by the technology.

In an article and video explanation of Bitcoin and blockchain posted on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ news site Spectrum – “The Future of the Web Looks a Lot Like Bitcoin” – this issue of trust is posited as one of the cryptocurrency’s major innovations. Thanks, principally, to the blockchain, the video contends, “for the first time, you don’t need to trust to share or update your digital records.” Instead of trusting strangers – which, according to the article is how current legal and financial systems operate – this new technology enables us to trust the “code.” Bitcoin “assumes everybody’s a crook,” the IEEE article argues; it “uses self-interest and greed to secure your Bitcoin,” adds the accompanying video.

What does it look like to port these ideas to education – recognizing of course that some of them conflict and some of them coincide quite nicely with pre-existing beliefs? What does it mean, for example, to “assume everybody’s a crook”?

Many practices and policies in education already presuppose that the student is a crook, or at least a “cheat.” New digital technologies are presented as both the cause (or accelerant) of cheating and as the solution. “How the sharing economy is creating a marketplace for cheating,” reads one recent headline in the online publication Bright. “Cheating in exams mitigated with use of tablet cameras,” one proctoring company’s blog contends.

No surprise then, many of the arguments made for incorporating something like the blockchain into both education and employment practices and policies rest on similar assumptions about the student as well as the former student (namely, the job applicant). “A surprisingly large percentage of people lie on their resumes to get an edge in a competitive job market,” insists one story on the Holberton School’s use of the blockchain for their certificates. A move to place certification – degrees, badges, and the like – on the blockchain implies that students’ own claims about their education cannot be trusted and must be authenticated and secured – and authenticated and secured specifically via technology.

It’s worth asking here, of course, which students’ claims are likely to be viewed as suspect? And a related question: which certificates, “verified” via the blockchain, might find a new legitimacy?

The latter cannot really be answered without thinking more broadly about the challenges and criticisms that the current accreditation system is facing. (This is something I’ve highlighted in previous years’ “Top Ed-Tech Trends” – in 2013, 2014, and 2015.) Nor can it be answered without consideration of, as I have noted above, the strong anti-institutional bent built into the software and into the ideology of the blockchain (and apparent in the politics espoused by many of the investors in the blockchain and Bitcoin, as I detail in my previous article). As the accreditation system in the US comes under scrutiny – late last week, for example, 13 state attorneys general called for the Department of Education to revoke the accrediting power of the ACICS, the agency that oversees the accreditation of many for-profit universities including the now defunct Corinthian Colleges – we must scrutinize what shape any “reforms” take. There are competing ideologies at play here, and those connected with the “Silicon Valley narrative” – namely, libertarianism, neoliberalism, and global capitalism – have much more affinity with the dismantling of regulatory agencies than they do the expansion of public or democratic oversight.

But here, perhaps, is why that word “decentralization” is so frustrating – so ideologically fraught. It is invoked, with some frequency, as both a technological feature and as a political one – as though the former insures the latter, as though the latter is necessarily more liberatory or democratic than previous non-technological arrangements. Decentralization is touted across a variety of digital technologies – indeed, the Internet itself – and is connected to social practices that it purportedly enables – “professional learning networks” or “connected learning” are two education-related examples. Often these networks are lauded as though they flatten or erase power or, at the least, as thought they de-institutionalize the communications that might occur across them. And yet the history of transportation networks and radio networks and television networks would suggest something else – a consolidation of corporate power. Decentralization in digital technologies is frequently discussed as though there are not similarly powerful corporate interests involved (indeed, they are many of the same corporate interests that dominate radio, television, and telephony), working to centralize their control of new technologies of communication.

This conflation of technological and political decentralization is apparent in blockchain rhetoric. “Blockchain is a distributed database.” Okay. Therefore “the blockchain is decentralized.” Perhaps. But it would be a mistake to confuse a technological protocol with a democratic politics or an equitable redistribution of money or power. (1% of the Bitcoin community owns 99% of Bitcoin wealth, for starters.) The blockchain does not “disrupt” or unsettle the current financial system – it’s being bankrolled by it – something that conforms to the ideological underpinnings of “the Silicon Valley narrative.” If there is any redistribution of power via blockchain technologies, it is already being centralized in and by the technology industry, in and by its technocratic elite.

The word “decentralization” is often used interchangeably by those in technology as “democratization,” but that strikes me as a rhetorical sleight of hand used to wave away the accumulation of private wealth and power and the dismantling of the public sector, cheered by those espousing the neoliberal and libertarian politics of Silicon Valley.

And there’s too much hand-waving about the blockchain in education – waving away concerns, for starters, about how simple its implementation would be technically. To be honest, however, what the blockchain can and cannot do technically is probably the least important thing you can say about it. (And I say that having written some 4500 words about just that.)

Nevertheless, I do maintain that discussion about the blockchain is significant – and incredibly revealing – because of the technology’s ideological dimensions. Whose interests are served by the blockchain? What values does the blockchain legitimate? What values does it undermine? Let's recognize, of course, that there might be competing and even incompatible interests at play here. But with the blockchain as with all of ed-tech, we need to do a much better job asking, what are the ideological underpinnings of these technologies? How are the dominant ideologies associated with the "Silicon Valley narrative" – neoliberalism, libertarianism, and global capitalism – valorized, even hard-coded, at the expense of others?

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Audrey Watters


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