This talk was presented today at the Designs on eLearning conference. The full slide deck is available here.
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today.
I confess: I was immediately intrigued by the theme to this year’s conference – “Anxiety and Security.” By centering these two conditions, by taking them seriously as scholars and practitioners, I believe we can crack open some of the crises that we are experiencing, in higher education and beyond, always recognizing as George Siemens reminded us yesterday, of complexities.
If nothing else, we can name these things: our fears, our worries about the present, about the the future. The utter turmoil that many feel this country, the whole world faces, right now and moving forward. The slipping, the stumbling. Disquietude. Our concerns over job security, financial security, national security, border security, information security, food security, environmental sustainability, institutional sustainability, physical and mental well-being, pharmaceuticals, addiction, automation, violence.
These are rarely topics addressed at education technology conferences; even the topics that might be most directly pertinent to the field – information security, institutional sustainability, for example – are brushed aside, in part I would argue, because education technology has worked quite hard to repress the trauma and anxiety associated with the adoption of new technologies and more broadly with the conditions, the precarity, of everyday life. Education technology has become so bound up in arguments about the necessity of technology, that it’s forgotten how to be anything other than the most loyal of servants to ideologies of machines, efficiencies, capitalism. It’s always sunny in education technology. Its tools are golden and transformative; its transformation, its disruption is always profitable and progressive. Better. Faster. Cheaper. Shinier.
Education technology is not always loyal to institutions, of course; it’s not always loyal to democracy either; it’s not always loyal to learning or to teaching – to students or to teachers; but it’s always fiercely loyal to itself and its own rationale, to its own existence. If there is an anxiety that education technology readily embraces, it is simply the anxiety that there’s not enough technology in the classroom. That education has not become sufficiently technologized. That education technology is still – somehow, strangely – an upstart, an outsider. That the digital flounders, powerless, against the entrenchment of the analog. That education technology has not been recognized, as some have recently lamented, as a discipline.
I want to suggest that what we need instead of a discipline called “education technology” is an undisciplining. We need criticism at the center of our work. We need to recognize and sit with complexity; we need to demand and stand – or kneel – for justice. We also need care – desperately – the kind of care that has compassion about anxiety and insecurity and that works to alleviate their causes not just suppress the symptoms. We need speculative fictions and counter-narratives that are not interested in reproducing education technology’s legacies or reifying its futures. We need radical disloyalty, blasphemy.
In her 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto,” science studies scholar Donna Haraway gave us a blasphemous, “ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism,” one centered on the figure of the cyborg. This figure has been key in my own thinking about science and technology and nature and gender – how to challenge the exploitation and control wrapped up in our narratives and our practices of education technology. Haraway writes – and I’m going to quote her at length, my apologies,
The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate; through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic compulsion to name the Enemy. Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not remember the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connection – they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.
We must be more unfaithful to the inheritance and intentions of information technology and education technology. And I say this as someone who’s constantly reminding people of ed-tech’s history. Not ignorant. Unfaithful. We must remember – we must always remember – that the origins of computer technologies are in militarism. Command and control. We cannot feign surprise when these technologies are used to surveil and to punish. They do so by design. When I echo Haraway and call for an undisciplined blasphemy against the sacrosanctity of “computers in the classroom,” I do not mean we ignore or forget history; rather we need to be wary when this history gets rewritten and stylized. There is actually no need for us to long for a “Web that was,” and certainly no imperative we muster nostalgia for “once upon a time at university….” Many of us have never been welcome in either space.
It’s worth underscoring, particularly as the essay has remained so relevant, that the Cyborg Manifesto is thirty years old. It was penned in the middle of the Reagan era, when anxiety and security involved a Cold War, a threat of mutually assured destruction. One slogan that it spawned, “cyborgs for earthly survival,” meant to call together feminists and socialists and scientists in building technologies and stories that walked us back from the brink and towards a more sustainable and equitable world – for humans and more-than-humans alike.
And yet here we are. Thirty years later. On the brink still. On the brink once again.
I fret about this quite a lot, being “ed-tech’s Cassandra” and whatnot. I fret about the brink, no doubt, and I fret that the theories and practices we’ve devised to resist destruction are actually quite ineffective. I think about this in relation to the Cyborg Manifesto as well as one of the other pieces of writing that’s central to my own thinking, Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, published in 1980. I do wonder if we have been too hopeful – ironically perhaps considering we were all in the midst of Reagan’s reign of apocalypticism when these ideas were first published – about a radical potential for computers and cyborgs. (“We” – I mean, I was 9 in 1980, 14 when the Cyborg Manifesto was published.)
Papert, who helped develop the first programming language for children, LOGO, and its beloved Turtle robot, and who passed away earlier this year, was a visionary thinker about computers as powerful “objects to think with.” He described himself as a Robin Hood – another blasphemous figure – stealing computing power from the AI labs of MIT and giving it to children. And to be clear, it wasn’t simply stealing computers; his intention was all about power. “In most contemporary educational situations where children come into contact with computers the computer is used to put children through their paces,” Papert wrote, “to provide exercises of an appropriate level of difficulty, to provide feedback, and to dispense information. The computer programming the child.” He envisioned something profoundly different:
In the LOGO environment the relationship is reversed: The child, even at preschool ages, is in control: The child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think. The experience can be heady: Thinking about thinking turns the child into an epistemologist, an experience not even shared by most adults.
By the time Papert published The Children’s Machine in 1993, he readily admitted “little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.”
Perhaps it’s worth asking how subversive the computer truly ever was.
Like Papert, I too am interested in “objects to think with,” but I’m less enthralled by computation or calculation, I confess. And today, I want to talk instead about figuration, figures to think with.
The cyborg is a figure to think with, to be sure. I’ve written elsewhere about monsters as figures to think with. Education technologies’ monsters. Education technologies as monstrous. My contention, drawing on the work of sociologist of science Bruno Latour, is that we have created these technological monstrosities because, like Dr. Frankenstein, we have forgotten to love and care for our scientific creations. Care is largely absent from education technology, which instead promises rigorous and efficient training. Care is too often completely absent from education, let’s be honest; our institutions do not value the affective labor of teaching and learning.
But it’s another figure I want to turn to in this talk, another “figure to think with.” And that’s the pigeon.
I’ve used the pigeon as an emblem on my website Hack Education for a couple of years now. I thought I was ridiculously clever to tie the pigeon to the history of the future of education technology. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as I started to prepare for this keynote, I picked up Donna Haraway’s brand new book, Staying with the Troubles, and, sure enough, the first chapter is on pigeons. I admit, I was both thrilled and mortified. It wasn’t really an anxiety about whether or not I was wrong about pigeons; but what if – and this is the real fear of writers, I think – my work is redundant, simplistic, or worse irrelevant.
For her part, Haraway writes of pigeons that they are “competent agents – in the double sense of both delegates and actors – who render each other and human beings capable of situated social, ecological, behavioral, and cognitive practices.” She traces this pigeon figure, to a certain extent, along the arc that I’d planned to – from cyborg figure through the figure of the “companion species.” The latter, she argues, are those critters with which we have historically situated relationships – not just as meat but as creatures that keep us company, with which we have relationships, for whom we care, again not simply so we can eventually eat them, but because they offer a deeper sort of reciprocity and we them. Companion species, Haraway says, are “relentlessly becoming-with,” and as I think about the task of how to “re-con-figure” our education technologies – as the word’s etymology suggests “to figure again together” – I believe we need this deliberately messy, convivial response, one that extends beyond our current categorizations of whose words and whose ideas and whose bodies and whose lives matter.
Yet much like my doubts about Haraway’s cyborgs or Papert’s turtles, I will admit I’m less confident of the pigeon as a “competent agent”; or rather, when I talk about the pigeons of ed-tech, I worry that we have forgotten how to be faithful companions for these significant, persistent birds. I worry that rather than “competent agent,” that very agency is stripped away as birds and children and other “lab rats” are trained by various education technologies for obedience and compliance and – this is my greatest fear – destruction.
There are a handful of questions that I frequently get about my work – questions, or rather, accusations. “Audrey, why do you hate ed-tech?” I do not hate ed-tech. I hate injustice and exploitation. And “Audrey, why do you hate pigeons?” I do not hate pigeons. I think they are fascinating creatures. I would not choose them as a key figure if they were dull. I find the bird to be quite beautiful and, I hope, more than a little subversive. Its plumage often shimmers with a surprising iridescence. Some species of the bird are incredibly striking – the headdress on the Victoria crowned pigeon, for example.
Nevertheless, the black, white, and grey pigeons commonly found in cities elicit strong negative opinions and stern city policies – “Do not feed the pigeons!” London mayor Ken Livingstone once claimed that it cost his city $235,000 a year to clean up after the pigeons in Trafalgar Square alone. He supported a ban on feeding them. He hired a falconer – armed with falcon, of course – to keep the birds away. The Piazza San Marco in Venice, also famous for its pigeons, similarly tried to ban vendors who sold bird feed to the tourists. Other cities have undertaken various anti-pigeon efforts – shooting them, poisoning them, electrocuting them, installing plastic owls to scare them or spikes to prevent them from roosting, blaring music, and so on.
Our hatred of these birds (and by “our” I should clarify that I mean specifically North American and Western European) is very recent. It’s only been in the last century or so that we’ve distinguished the pigeon from the dove. And while the dove has retained its symbolic power as a bird of peace, the pigeon is now viewed as a marker of defilement, a sign of urban decay. The pigeon was first described as a “rat with wings” in The New York Times in 1966, in an article by then parks commissioner Thomas Hoving calling for the restoration of Bryant Park. Hoving described the park in disarray, overrun by litter, vandals, homosexuals, the homeless … and pigeons. “Rats with wings,” he called them – that phrase now commonly used to frame the pigeon as a vector for disease.
Pigeons are viewed, to borrow a phrase from anthropologist Mary Douglas, as “matter out of place.” They do not belong. They are taboo. They remind us of dirt and danger and disorder. They violate the social order, a transgressive invasion of public space, of human space.
But this is an odd accusation to make of the pigeon. Unfair even. The pigeon evolved alongside us. The pigeon has been with us, thanks to us, for thousands of years.
The rock pigeon – Columba livia – was domesticated some 5000 years ago. They were raised for their meat and for their guano, a resource so valuable that, in some regions, only the nobility had the right to possess a dovecote – la droit de colombier. While the fatter breeds became food, the leaner ones were bred for their homing instincts and became message carriers. Others were bred for their speed and became racers, a sport that continues to this day (but it’s worth noting, primarily in immigrant, working class neighborhoods). Pigeon “fancying” has long been so popular and produced breeds so diverse – in their shape, size, color – that Charles Darwin devoted the first chapter of Origin of Species to the genealogy of the pigeon.
The pigeon, much maligned, is a figure at the center of science, of modernity. “These birds are thoroughly entrenched in the cityscape,” as Colin Jerolmack writes in his book The Global Pigeon. “Pigeons have in effect become naturalized urban citizens. Their presence on city streets is utterly pedestrian, in both senses of the word.” The rock pigeon was originally a cliff-dweller; now it lives surrounded by skyscrapers and cement.
They are utterly mundane; and at the same time, the birds are contested figures – as Haraway describes them “contested subjects and objects of ‘modern progress’ and ‘backward tradition.’”
Today’s city-dwelling pigeons are the feral ancestors of the long-ago domesticated birds. Pigeons are not native species in North America; they are “creatures of empire.” Rock doves were first brought to this hemisphere by the French in 1606. The pigeons most commonly in our midst are the ancestors of the birds that escaped. They are neither fully domesticated nor completely wild. They are – with a nod to Haraway once again – a companion species gone astray, a border creature that might mark its own and just as importantly our own trainability, a reminder of what happens when our cyborg fantasies about hybridity and resistance are, despite their subversive theoretical promise, quite submissive to the technologies of command and control.
The importance of figures and figuration, again: doves and pigeons share the same bird family. The former is a symbol of peace; the latter has been used as a weapon of war.
Computing technology is also a weapon of war, of course. The world’s first programmable, digital computer was developed by the British during World War II to crack German communications.
Education technology has roots in war as well – in the development of standardized testing for World War I recruits, in the Department of Defense’s development of SCORM and computer-based training simulations. Simon Ramo, “the father of the intercontinental ballistic missile,” is also the oldest person to ever receive a patent – yes, in education technology – “for any person, business, or entity seeking information to ensure that information being presented is useful by being understood.”
The pigeon. The object of technological experimentation, manipulation, and control, weaponized.
The pigeon. A key figure in history of the future of education technology.
A few moments from that history:
In 1908, Dr. Julius Neubronner – the personal pharmacist to Victoria, Princess Royal, the Empress of Germany, and the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria – patented his “Method of and Means for Taking Photographs of Landscapes from Above.” The patent involved three objects – a miniature camera, a timer, and a homing pigeon. Neubronner was already using pigeons to deliver medications to his customers, and he purportedly came up with the idea for pigeon photography when one of his pigeons got lost en route, then showed up a month later. Where had the bird been? Neubronner decided to merge his usage of pigeons with his interest in photography, strapping a camera to a bird and transporting it some 100 kilometers from his house. The pigeon, eager to be rid of its heavy load, would fly directly home. The timer was set to snap a photo in flight. Neubronner displayed his photos and sold postcards at various exhibitions in the early 1910s. With the outbreak of the first World War, Neubronner believed the pigeon camera could be transformed from hobby to military technology. Nevertheless, pigeons were primarily utilized in WWI for their traditional function of carrying messages behind enemy lines rather than as “advanced” aerial surveillance.
Perhaps the most famous of these pigeons was Cher Ami, a Black Check carrier pigeon, one of 600 birds owned and flown by the US Army Signal Corps in France during the war. Cher Ami delivered twelve important messages to troops in and around Verdun. On her last mission, she was shot through the breast by enemy fire but managed to return to her dovecote. A message capsule was found dangling from her leg from Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of the “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Infantry Division, stuck behind enemy lines without food and ammunition and beginning to receive fire from allied troops who didn’t know they were there. After Cher Ami’s message was received, the survivors of the battalion were returned safely to the American line. The bird died from her wounds, but Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm for her service. She was actually registered as a cock, but when her body was prepared for taxidermy – she’s on display at the Smithsonian – it was discovered she was a hen.
Some 32 pigeons were awarded the Dickin Medal – the animals’ version of the Victoria Cross – for their service in World War II, including Gustav who flew 150 miles on June 6, 1944 from Normandy to the British mainland in five hours and sixteen minutes, facing a headwind of up to thirty miles an hour, bringing the first report of the success of the D-Day landing back to the UK. (The allied forces were under radio silence for the operation.)
In the 1970s and 1980s, the US Coast Guard worked with pigeons for its Project Sea Hunt, training pigeons to identify orange, yellow, or red objects in the water. The practical application: to identify humans in need of rescue – or at least identify their lifejackets. They were transported via a helicopter containing a plexiglass pod with three trained pigeons who’d peck an indicator when they saw the color. The pigeons accurately identified people and equipment in the water 90% of the time; humans only 38% of the time. But the Coast Guard used the search and rescue pigeons only once. Their rescue effort was successful, but the helicopter carrying the pigeons lost power and had to make an emergency landing. The pigeons were killed, presumed drowned at sea.
There were no medals awarded for valor. I do not know these pigeons’ names.
Training pigeons, whether for military service or otherwise, has a long history; studying this training, investigating how teaching and learning works for pigeons has been a main area of focus for the field of psychology, as it was developed and institutionalized in the twentieth century.
One cannot talk about education psychology without talking about pigeons. One cannot talk about education technology without talking about education psychology. One cannot talk about education technology without talking about pigeons.
This is the photograph I come back to again and again.
As part of his graduate work, the famous behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner invented what’s now known as “the Skinner Box.” His “operant conditioning chamber” was used to study and to train animals to perform certain tasks. Do the task correctly; get a reward (namely food). This is the foundation of Skinner’s theories of behaviorism.
Skinner was hardly the first to use animals in psychological experiments that sought to understand how the learning process works. Several decades earlier, for his dissertation research, the psychologist Edward Thorndike had built a “puzzle box” in which an animal had to push a lever in order to open a door and escape (again, often rewarded with food for successfully completing the “puzzle”). Thorndike measured how quickly animals figured out how to get out of the box after being placed in it again and again and again – their “learning curve.”
We have in the puzzle box and in the Skinner Box the origins of education technology – some of the very earliest “teaching machines” – just as we have in the work of Thorndike and Skinner, the foundations of educational psychology and, as Ellen Condliffe Lagemann has pronounced in her famous statement “Thorndike won and Dewey lost,” of many of the educational practices we carry through to this day. (In addition to developing the puzzle box, Thorndike also developed prototypes for the multiple choice test.)
“Once we have arranged the particular type of consequence called a reinforcement,” Skinner wrote in 1954 in “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching,” "our techniques permit us to shape the behavior of an organism almost at will. It has become a routine exercise to demonstrate this in classes in elementary psychology by conditioning such an organism as a pigeon.”
“…Such an organism as a pigeon.” We often speak of “lab rats” as shorthand for the animals used in scientific experiments. We use the phrase too to describe people who work in labs, who are completely absorbed in performing their tasks again and again and again.
In education and in education technology, students are also the subjects of experimentation and conditioning. In Skinner’s framework, they are not “lab rats”; they are pigeons. As he wrote,
…Comparable results have been obtained with pigeons, rats, dogs, monkeys, human children… and psychotic subjects. In spite of great phylogenetic differences, all these organisms show amazingly similar properties of the learning process. It should be emphasized that this has been achieved by analyzing the effects of reinforcement and by designing techniques that manipulate reinforcement with considerable precision. Only in this way can the behavior of the individual be brought under such precise control.
Learning, according to Skinner and Thorndike, is about behavior, about reinforcing those behaviors – knowledge, answers – that educators deem “correct.” When educators fail to shape, reinforce, and control a student’s behavior through these techniques and technologies, they are at risk, in Skinner’s words, of “losing our pigeon.”
Let me return, briefly again, to the pigeon as weapon of war.
During World War II, Skinner worked on Project Pigeon – also known as Project Orcon, short for Organic Control – an experimental project to create pigeon-guided missiles.
The pigeons were trained by Skinner to peck at a target and rewarded with food when they completed the task correctly. Skinner also designed a missile in which the pigeon could see the target through the windows. The pigeon would peck at the target; the pecking in turn would control the missile’s tail fins, keeping it on course, via a metal conductor connected to the bird’s beak, transmitting the force of the pecking to the missile’s guidance system. The pigeons’ accuracy, according to Skinner’s preliminary tests: nearly perfect.
Skinner also tested the tenacity of the pigeons – testing their psychological fitness, if you will, for battle. He fired a pistol next to their heads to see if loud noise would disrupt their pecking. He put the pigeons in a pressure chamber, setting the altitude at 10,000 feet. The pigeons were whirled around in a centrifuge meant to simulate massive G forces; they were exposed to bright flashes meant to simulate shell bursts. The pigeons kept pecking. They had been trained, conditioned to do so.
The military canceled and revived Project Pigeon a couple of times. “Our problem,” Skinner admitted, “was no one would take us seriously.” By 1953, the military had devised an electronic system for missile guidance, and animal-guided systems were no longer necessary.
The pigeon-guided missiles were never tested in combat. No one seems to talk about what would have happened to each well-trained bird that was to guide an explosive warhead, pecking pecking pecking until impact, until her inevitable death.
The same year that the military canceled Project Pigeon, Skinner came up with the idea for his teaching machine. Visiting his daughter’s fourth grade classroom, he was struck by the inefficiencies. Not only were all the students expected to move through their lessons at the same pace, but when it came to assignments and quizzes, they did not receive feedback until the teacher had graded the materials – sometimes a delay of days. Skinner believed that both of these flaws in school could be addressed through mechanization, and he built a prototype for his teaching machine which he demonstrated at a conference the following year.
Skinner believed that materials should be broken down into small chunks and organized in a logical fashion for students to move through. The machine would show one chunk, one frame at a time, and if the student answered the question correctly, could move on to the next question. Skinner called this process “programmed instruction.”
Skinner is often credited with inventing the teaching machine. He didn’t. Sidney Pressey, another educational psychologist, had built one decades beforehand. (Skinner said that Pressey’s was more testing than teaching machine.) Despite who was or wasn’t “the first,” Skinner has shaped education technology immensely. Even though his theories have largely fallen out of favor in most education psychology circles, education technology (and technology more broadly) seems to have embraced them –often, I think, without acknowledging where these ideas came from. Our computer technologies are shot through with behaviorism. Badges. Notifications. Haptic alerts. Real-time feedback. Gamification. Peck peck peck.
According to Skinner, when we fail to properly correct behavior – facilitated by and through machines – we are at risk of “losing our pigeons.” But I’d contend that with this unexamined behaviorist bent of (ed-)tech, we actually find ourselves at risk of losing our humanity.
One more pigeon fact and figuration: the species is one of the very few that has passed “the mirror test,” a psychological test that purportedly indicates self-awareness. In the test, first developed in 1970 by behavioral psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr., an animal is anesthetized and marked – with paint or a sticker – on some part of its body that it typically cannot see. When it awakens, it is placed in front of a mirror. If the animal touches itself to find and investigate the mark, it is seen as an indication that the animal recognizes itself in the mirror, that it’s not another animal. Only great apes, humans after age 2, dolphins, orcas, one single Asiatic elephant, and the Eurasian magpie have passed the test.
Untrained pigeons have never been able to, but the trained pigeons in Skinner’s lab were able to pass the mirror test – to be precise, a modified version of the test – in 1981. But as Skinner noted when he published the findings in Science, “We should not attribute this, however, to a pigeon’s ‘self-awareness’ or claim that a pigeon has a ‘self-concept.’ We believe that such constructs impede the search for the controlling variables of the behavior they are said to produce.” Skinner and his co-authors suggest that what the animals that pass the test are displaying is the result of operant conditioning for mirror usage. There is not some sort of internal introspection or recognition, according to Skinner; there is no consciousness, no “mind” – not just in pigeons but in any living creature.
There is, as Skinner was famously lambasted by Noam Chomsky for asserting, no free will. There is only training, operant conditioning ideally done via machine.
No free will – I think that puts Skinner’s warning that, without the proper training and teaching machines, we might “lose our pigeons,” in the lab and in the classroom, in rather a foreboding, oppressive, authoritarian light. If responses – to stimulation, to screens – are just a matter of operant conditioning, then what can we mean by responsibility? To ourselves, to one another, to the world? What ability do we have to be curious, to think differently, to resist?
Back to those fears and doubts and anxieties I have: can we extricate ourselves in education technology – our practices, our machines – from this particular pigeon lineage? How can we purposefully, willfully, subversively become “lost”? Purposefully “lost pigeons.”
The pigeon is both wild and domesticated, un-wild and un-domesticated. Disciplined and undisciplined. Highly trainable but resolutely feral. A border figure. A cyborg, of sorts, if you close your eyes and squint. To “be less pigeon,” a tag-line on my site Hack Education, is, less about pigeons than it is, quite frankly, an appeal to all of us to be less machine. To probe, not just to peck.
How can the pigeon as a figure – as a vector, a traveler, a neighbor, a racer, a messenger, a weapon, a spy, a conspirator, a companion – help us re/con/figure our educational practices, our educational technologies? To move carefully and ethically and lovingly away from exploitation and domination, from – returning to the conference theme – anxiety and insecurity?
I don’t have answers, only stories, fragments from the history of the future. But in the pigeon, I do believe we have a fascinating “figure to think with,” one that I hope prompts us to reflect on our responsibilities to all beings – humans or otherwise. Our responsibilities to all who come to live and learn with us, to not merely strap them into machines and pilot them towards their own destruction, to not only to see them as objects but as subjects, and as Haraway insists, “competent agents.” What happens when we do not trust in one another’s competency or agency?
I want for us all to be beautiful, iridescent, willful beings. I want for us all to be free.
Works cited: Noam Chomsky, “The Case Against B. F. Skinner”; Charles Darwin, Origin of Species; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto”; Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene; Colin Jerolmack, The Global Pigeon; Bruno Latour, “Love Your Monsters”; Seymour Papert, The Children’s Machine; Seymour Papert, Mindstorms; B. F. Skinner, “The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching”; B. F. Skinner et al, “‘Self-awareness’ in the pigeon”
Image credits: Slide 2: Patrick Marioné, 3: Jeremiasz Dx, 4: Misha Sokolnikov, 5: Young Sok Yun, 6: Boonkia, 7: Paul, 8: Peter Miller, 9: Peter Ficken, 10: GurtyGurt, 11: Robert Claypool, 12: Nathan Rupert, 13: German Federal Archive, 14: Helgi Halldórsson, 15: Ken Heyman, 16: Joe Price, 17: Neil Hall, 18: Theo Crowshaw, 19: Pedro Ribeiro Simões, 20: Dominique Cappronnier, 21: Nicholas Winspeare