Manuel Castells predicted the rise of the network society. Today we live in a post-industrial era, a time of transformation, as our existing systems of social organization, cultural capital, and political power are disrupted by digital technologies. Our involvement with technology is not simply a mechanistic or instrumental adaptation to take advantage of new technologically enhanced abilities. We are in the midst of the emergence of the network society, and it is taking place on a global scale.
Our global economies are now characterized by the virtually free flow of information. The flow of information, and the consequent cultural formations these flows give rise to, shape the ways and means for production of goods and services, and also the ways and means we consume these goods and services. The emergence and evolution of these networks give rise to distinctive cultural composite unities, even as other, less agile, cultural collectives struggle to sustain their existence.
Castells pointed out that these networks both reflect and create the possibilities for social organization, economic activity, and democracy. Both the networks, and the information flows they make possible, are largely outside national or international regulation. We are increasingly dependent on these networks to sustain our societies, our economies, and our democratic processes. Given our dependence on these systems, those who control the network systems control the possibilities for our future society, economy and democracy. Those in these positions of control have a great deal of power, including the power to control our future possibilities. As Castells explains, the main political arena in our networked society is the media, and the media are not politically answerable.
Unfortunately, you will not hear educators discussing the real social, cultural, political, economic, nor technological opportunities and issues of these times with their students. The field of education continues to take a very narrow view of digital technologies in education. First, educators have a tendency to deny our real dependence on technology by a ubiquitous use of the term ‘tool’ when referring to all things digital. Second, educators tend to consider digital technology as suitable for one of two functions. The first function is determining whether digital technology makes learning curriculum easier, more efficient, and more interesting. The second function is determining whether digital technology improves students’ learning of curriculum. Are they better able to learn concepts, remember facts, and apply curricular knowledge. These academic concerns for the role of digital technology in education ignore a much greater, and more pressing, need. We urgently need to become sophisticated users of digital technology, to understand not only how to write simple code, or manipulate software applications to our advantage, but also to understand the seen and unseen forces that influence our experiences through digital technology.
This is a systemic problem in the field of education. There is not going to be a simple, one size fits all answer. But what we need, and desperately, is for educators to understand how important it is that they engage, that they shift gears, that they have the conversations, not to reiterate well-worn conventions of ICT non-use, but to begin to build the human networks, the innovative interconnectivity. It is dispiriting to see the preoccupation with standardized testing, and how destructive testing is to real learning. Perhaps there is a way to re-connect, not in adversarial or divisive factions, but to imagine new futures in education, futures in education that actually prepare our next generation of citizens to ensure our dependence on digital networks is organized to serve society for the good of all concerned.