Pessimistic narratives about technology (continued)

‘They’ are collecting data on us every day, who we phone, where we move, what we buy, who we see, what we do and say. Some at least of this is benign; if ‘they’ know more about where we go then we might be able to have a more rational transport system; if they know what we want there is a better chance that we will get it. But what if ‘they’ have more sinister motives. This was the theme of the ‘Dictatorship of Data’ [1] in which the BBC correspondent Gordon Corera looked at the use of big data in surveillance societies. There were several key themes in the programme:

• The personal data routinely collected today far exceed what was collected in even the most obsessive surveillance societies such as DDR or imagined in dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984.
• We are right to think that our actions and movements are being monitored and even if they are not, we increasingly imagine that they are with all the consequences that brings.
• You cannot escape from being monitored. For example the programme spoke to an Ethiopian dissident who found asylum in England only to discover that his movements were being monitored via his laptop by Ethiopian security services, putting any one he contacted at risk.
• There is a flourishing and uncontrolled trade in surveillance. For example there are commercial organisations [2] willing to provide surveillance services to nearly anyone for anything.
• You do not need to monitor everything. For example it might be more useful to access your list of social network ‘friends’ than to know what you are actually talking about.
• Social media, so often seen as the tool for opening up new forms of counter cultural protest [3], provide unexpected opportunities for security agencies to harvest lists of dissenters and to manipulate and disrupt through rogue messaging.

Two further issues which came out of the programme had a more general significance in how we think about Big Data. First, analysis of Big Data only works as our lives are patterned and fairly predictable. We might like to think of ourselves as spontaneous and creative but in practice we are not; we need regularity and order in our relationships and because of this we are traceable. Second, the sheer quantity of Big Data might appear overwhelming and to search for dissenters might look like searching for needles in a hay stack. However with Big Data the ‘haystack’ provide the clarity. In other words deviations from the norm stand out because the norm is so clearly established.

Programmes on the perils of Big Data can easily get stuck into dystopian views of technology but Gordon Corera largely avoided this by offering counter cases. For example he gave space to speakers from the Tactical Technology Collective (TTC) [4] an organisation concerned with ethical use of Big Data in the service of social change. However, as with nearly all reporting of technology, it was difficult to avoid a narrative of inevitability regarding both the impact of technology and our responses to technology. In practice technology has always had unpredictable consequences, those or who predict the future often get it wrong. As an example there were voices in the 1970s which proclaimed that the introduction of technology would mean shorter working weeks and unimagined opportunities for leisure, but compare this to what actually happened [5]. Part of this unpredictability, and something that social science can never resolve to everyone’s satisfaction, is how do we recognise both order / pattern and change / agency. In many discussions of big data [6] there is an ‘ecological fallacy’ which leads researchers to extrapolate from noticing patterns of group behaviour to the assumption that anyone who shares certain characteristics of that group will behave in a similar way. What is more, there is a backdrop to our behaviour which requires explanation: circumstances change and people change with them. As Corera’s programme showed, in spite of unprecedented surveillance, the DDR collapsed and at some time point in time so will the present Ethiopian government. Finally, the programme left you wanting to know more about Big Data and ‘liberal democracy’. Rather than a binary distinction between bad and good regimes doing bad and good surveillance there is surely a continuum.

[1] BBC (2015) The Dictatorship of Data, 17 November 2015 Radio 4 available at
(Note that programmes are usually available for a limited time only).
[2] The programme spoke to FinFisher representatives – for more on Finnischer go to You would guess, given their willingness to speak, FinFisher were by no means the worst example in this murky field.
[3] Castells offers one of the most romantic perspective here: Castells, M. (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social movements in the internet age, Cambridge: Polity Press.
[4] The Tactical Technology Collective is at
[5] Robins, K. and Webster F. (1988) Athens without slaves…or slaves without Athens? The neurosis of technology. Science as Culture 1: 7-53.
[6] A similar point is made in a growing critical literature on Big Data, see for example Kitchin. R. (2013) Big data and human geography: Opportunities, challenges and risks, Dialogues in Human Geography, 3, 3. 262-267. For a chattier article see
Cukier, K. and Mayer-Schönberger, V. (2103) The Dictatorship of Data, MIT Technology Review May 31, 2013 at

Pessimism and technology in school

Two recent news items posted to the BBC news web site have helped contribute to a pessimistic narrative about using technology in school.

The more recent of these is an evaluation of online charter schools which found that in 17 US states these schools were associated with ‘significantly weaker academic performance’ in maths and reading [1]. This item needs a bit of unpicking. The headline was ‘Online schools worse than traditional teachers’ and this led me to conclude schools offering online access were being compared against those without. It is only by reading further down the page, and by accessing the original report [2] one sees the study is really about being schooled at home. In these ‘charter schools’ students are provided with computers, software and learning materials, and have access to teachers using the expected range of communication technology, however they do not seem to be expected to attend a physical school as such. The approach was heralded as a new initiative in education but it is not clear that it has been properly thought through or adequately resourced. Indeed a lead author of the report is quoted as saying ‘Challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction, and they are exacerbated by high student-teacher ratios and minimal student-teacher contact time, which the data reveal are typical of online charter schools nationwide.’

My own knowledge of virtual schooling is confined to enhancement activity [3] and to providing students in school with access to teachers of shortage subjects. There have, in addition, been more closely targeted initiatives for learning at home, including some years ago a ‘Notschool’ initiative [4] which appeared to successfully support ‘hard to reach’ young people. Key to the reported success of Notschool was building a curriculum around the interests of the young people concerned and offering a high level of tutor support, both face to face and online. All this seems rather different to what has gone on in Charter Schools experiment.

A second, earlier report on the BBC site is of more general interest. This concerns a study from the OECD of PISA tests [5] under the headline: Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results [6]. The news items begins by saying that ‘investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance, says a global study from the OECD….[and that] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results.’

This is accurate but the reporting is slanted against ‘classroom technology’ – a stance backed up by the government’s (we are talking about England here) expert on pupil behaviour, who is quoted as saying teachers had been ‘dazzled’ by school computers. I don’t think the OECD study says anything about being dazzled but rather notes an understandable desire among those contributing to educational systems to use technology and to develop the teaching of new skills particularly in respect to understanding information handling and online risk. The OECD also found that students who use computers moderately at school tended to do better than those who used them rarely. I suppose the headline could have read ‘students who use computer a bit might do a bit better’.

Nonetheless, the OECD findings need to be taken seriously and questions asked why might technology be having so little effect? One partial answer is that perhaps we are measuring the wrong things. For example how can you compare what is learnt by, for example, creating a short multi media web site with what is learnt in presenting, say, a wall display by hand. Surely the use of technology is either worth doing for its own sake or it is not. Indeed why would you expect creating a web site to have any impact on traditional literacy or mathematics skills. To be fair the OECD did try to get round some of the difficulties of measuring like with like by setting up tests in ‘digital reading’ and ‘digital mathematics’ which might have been expected to favour the more digitally ‘literate’. These were interesting innovations but only go so far. A second answer to the disappointing impact of technology is that perhaps we are using the technology in the wrong way and here the report sees the quality of teacher student interaction around the technology as critical. The OECD argues we need to develop greater pedagogic understanding and reflection on technology use and few would argue with that.

Three things I think we can learn not just from the studies themselves but their reporting:
• the media used in teaching is only going to make a marginal difference, the wider context is so much more important.
• we should start by asking what kind of school system we want and working backwards rather than what the technology could do and working forwards.
• discussion of the impact of technology is usually much more nuanced than the press or policy advisors report it.

For what it is worth my view is that during times of economic upturn we look at our schools systems to bolster creativity and innovation, and technology both reflects and contributes to this outlook, in contrast in times of economic retrenchment we look for a more utilitarian curriculum and technology gets shunted aside.

[1] BBC News (2015) Online schools ‘worse than traditional teachers’, 4 November 2015
[2] CREDO at Stanford University (2015) Online charter school students falling behind their peers, 27 October 2015, press release with links to the reports at
[3] IGGY is an example of a global educational social network and is designed to help gifted and talented young people aged 13-18 ‘realise their full potential’, it is based at Warwick, where I work. Other networks are of course available particularly in specific subjects rather than the more general remit of IGGY.
[4] Duckworth, J. Ltd (2005) Evaluation 2005, at
[5] The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a three yearly international survey of 15-year-old students – see
[6] BBC News (2015) Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results, 15 September 2015 at
[7] OECD (2015) Students, computers and learning: Making the connection
DOI:10.1787/9789264239555-enOECD /