Technology has a capability to empower our societies
Address at the International Conference on Information Communication Technologies in Education held at Corfu, Greece
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, Nancy and dear friends, first of all let me also apologize for the delay. I hope you in this beautiful island of Corfu have, even with the delay, time to enjoy this place and the warmth and hospitality. It is an honor for me to be with you again, and I am glad that you have chosen Greece again as a meeting place for your discussions.
It’s an honor also to be able to speak to you, as I am not an educator; I am in politics. So it is a daunting task to talk about education and technology to ones that are so expert.
But I think there are some parallels, and I’d like to begin by saying that recently in combing through the Internet I fell upon a number of books that I had read in my youth, and which reminded me of important debates about what the purpose of education was or is even today. And although they may have been written many years ago they still have great relevance.
And I think that this dichotomy of challenges, of contradictions, of choices, that we have, both in education and in politics, are in many ways similar.
I fell upon a book of Paulo Freire which talked about the pedagogy of the oppressed. He very much said, as also Ivan Illich said then, that schools can be either to oppress, education either to oppress or to liberate. Well, John Dewey of course talked very much about democracy and education.
And in politics I also believe that you can have a politics that liberates, that empowers, that strengthens our citizens’ capabilities, or that minimizes, disempowers and marginalizes our citizens.
And if we take Obama, for example, President Obama, he may be seen by many as a savior, and in many ways he may be able to help in saving the world. but in practice President Obama, for example when he has to deal with the health bill, which he will want to pass, in universalizing health provision in the United States, he will have to work much more as an educator, much more as an empowerer of citizenship, to mobilize, to make people understand what the changes are, and what the responsibilities are for these new changes.
So I very much see that we have choices to make, in our politics and in our educational systems, which are crucial for today’s and tomorrow’s society. And what the purpose of education is, I think is at the core of much of the discussions we have to do for our societies.
Because education in many ways reflects what we want to see in our societies, in our future generations, in the relations we create between people, amongst people, the power relations, the skills we give or we don’t, in order to help or not help our societies.
And even though Charlie Chaplin is very far away timewise, in Modern Times, his Modern Times, and in such a beautiful way he described the Fordian model of industrial society, I still feel that our education systems reflect, to a large extent, that type of a production process, an industrial society, when we really have moved into a very different type of society.
Particularly in Greece we still have a very regimented, a highly regimented educational system, a highly centralized educational system, which is part of the necessity of a past establishment to control the effervescence and the power and the desire for change of a younger generation, but also was catering to an industrial society, even though Greece is not much of an industrial society, and therefore many of those who graduate from college and school are employed in the States.
But this kind of a school is very far from reality. Our schools are very far from the Greek reality, and school becomes very alien to everyday experience, the experience that our citizens and youth experience, which means that they end up being bored. They see a lot of rote learning, which I feel looks much more today like a concentration camp where people just are breaking stones, undermining a sense of a wider legitimacy of our educational system and a sense of purpose of why they are there, why they are in school. And it’s not, I think, happenstance the fact that only a few months ago we had quite a bit of violence in Athens and in Greece, by a very frustrated younger generation.
So how do we create a school which will be able to cater to these new realities that we are facing? And is technology a tool? And what can it do to help facilitate these changes, or, if you like, even become the reason for many of the changes in our educational system?
Well, let me begin by saying that technology obviously is not neutral. I remember in a lecture, when I was a student at LSE, which was a mind opener, when somebody from the BBC said that television was never intended to be a one-way broadcast, but we decided, or someone decided at some point that we would make it a one-way type of technology, where you had a passive listener and viewer on the one side, and someone who actually created the content and broadcasted it on the other side. So there was a monopoly, if you like, by the broadcaster on what you heard and what you saw. A very particular power relationship, which kept a wide range of people passive in this new communications world.
And that was a conscious decision. It wasn’t something that technology itself had simply decided upon because of the technical aspects.
As the Internet also is not a neutral forum or a neutral space, it is a web, but it also could be and become a spider web with Big Brother or many Big Brothers watching us.
So these are important issues, but there are also technologies which we make neutral, and one of them is, and this I see very much in Greek educational system, where we do have, unluckily very few, compared percentage-wise, to other countries in the European Union, we do have computers in schools. but the computers are usually allotted to a special room, a separate room, as sort of an alien kind of a being, which has nothing to do with the rest of the school. Almost like a peculiar extraterrestrial object, with some intrinsic value which we have to analyze.
But we forget that this actually should be a tool for our everyday work, sort of like taking the mobile telephone and putting it on a pedestal and analyzing it, rather than using it for your everyday work.
So what are the possibilities and what are the challenges in using new technologies? And I will make ten brief points, as sort of a rounded number, if you like, on how I see the challenges we have. And I’d like to put them to you, not in trying to give you all the answers, as a matter of fact in hoping that you will be those that can help, help us politicians in this educative process, in a very complex world, in finding what the new answers are that we have facing these very important technological developments.
Well, first of all the first point is that we are creating a common wealth. I was able to show an e-book, an electronic book, which I had bought over the Internet, to the Greek Parliament only a few months ago, basically not to show them what an interesting gadget this was, but that in fact through this book one can access, and in the future even more so – and I talked to Nicholas Negroponte about these e-books, and he said that yes, we can produce it. It will be under the $100 laptop price. It will be maybe around $50-60 for each e-book, and then of course as it’s mass produced even less.
We will be creating, and we are already creating a virtual library of humanity’s creations, creations over the ages, of humanity’s understanding, languages, discoveries, music, theater, paintings, inventions, novels, histories of the past, but also the ongoing production, every day and all day and all night. And you can see this by just going into the world of podcasting to get lectures that have taken place only a few days ago, or maybe are live.
So being President of the Socialist International, and notwithstanding the importance of intellectual rights and property, we are moving into an era where there will be an inexhaustible resource, a renewable resource, a renewable energy, if you like, which will also be a source which will be accessible, or we can make it accessible to all. Virtually free for all, and in many ways a common property for all.
And this is an amazing resource. So how do we use it? how would the educator redefine the whole process and relationship with knowledge and with students, because of this new, amazing common wealth and common property, which we, as humanity have?
The second point is I think one you very often may have heard. In this sea, this ocean of information, there will be new challenges and new skills that need to be developed, skills such as the ability to locate the relevant knowledge. How do you locate relevant knowledge in this huge, immense virtual library?
And then of course we get to the issue of search engines, and their inbred biases, possible biases, in searching this knowledge.
The third point is the ability to verify what is the validity, the legitimacy, if you like, the integrity of the information one is receiving?
The fourth point: The ability to critically assess information that one is receiving, finding it in the ocean of factoids in this digital world, how important is this information one is receiving, for the purpose one has in mind?
A fifth important point is the ability to combine this information, synthesize this information, over different sciences, through different sciences, in different subjects, combining different areas, from biology to ethics, from economics to engineering. And this is going to be a very important ability that we see more and more.
A sixth point is the ability to actually employ this information and this knowledge, both in the everyday academic and school tasks, but even more so in everyday life, a skill I think we need to develop.
The seventh point is: As schools change, they will, or they should become, centers of everyday innovation, the ability to use this information for the creation of new products. It’s not simply a passive learning. It’s not simply even an act of learning. It’s creating, creating new knowledge, new products, and not simply for the market but for social tools, personal tools, communication tools. Games, games for play, games for learning, games for change, games for simulating politics.
An either point would be that these new capabilities will in fact have a huge impact in how we form our curricula in our schools. curricula can be catering and tapered to personal needs, personal talents, personal capabilities, or personal disabilities, in order to make learning more accessible and more effective.
But also – and this is the ninth point – the ability to collective learn, which I think is a very, very important and new necessity in this Internet cyberworld. It is not simply an individualization of learning, but it also gives us new capacities of how we can collectively work together. And that we see more and more with the social networks, with the ideas of the Wikipedias or the Second Life, where this allows us to become co-creators or co-innovators or co-developers for finding solutions together in common problems.
And solutions not only for products or for books, textbooks or educational aids, but also – and I think this is going to be an important new role for our schools – bringing in to our schools, these social problems, the problems that we have in society, which we usually try to keep outside of the walls of the school. And we somehow believe we can have our schools somewhat inoculated from the outside world.
Why don’t we reverse that and say let us use this technology in order to bring in these social problems. They could be issues from racism, to climate change, to how we deal with inequality. Or more simple, but obviously highly political also issues: How do we recycle our products in our neighborhoods? How do we plan for our city? How do we make our neighborhoods more humane? How do we help the elderly or the handicapped?
Issues where we could actually use schools to become centers for social innovation and social change and solutions for our societies. And therefore training our youth and our students to become real citizens in a democratic society.
And this brings me to the final point, which I think is the message I would like to bring to you. It is that technology, in fact, has an amazing capability to empower, empower our societies. And technologies can become a major force for democratic revolution, I would say, creating huge capabilities and helping our citizens that, even though they see that we have so many capabilities today around the world – and I say this again as head of the Socialist International. Traveling around the world, people see that humanity has amazing capabilities: money, experience, knowledge, technologies. And yet today people feel sometimes more powerless than ever before.
So how do we in fact help them, to empower them, to empower our fellow citizens in creating a sense of citizenship but also a sense of co-responsibility in how we govern our world?
And this is why I believe that schools could become the center for creating and developing, if you like, the moral fiber of our societies, which is needed in the decisions we need to make, in how we use these new powers.
And these new powers do impact us, for good or for evil, whether it is from climate change, whether it is in our personal relations, whether it is in the power relations in our society. Schools must be able to help us assess what is right and what is wrong. We won’t impose that, but they must become workshops of discussing through profound debates about what we do with our societies.
So it’s an oxymoron, a contradiction. Something which looks neutral, technology, something which looks like it has nothing to do with politics, in the end – in the end – because of the power it gives us as human beings and society, puts us in a position where we have to make very important political decisions, very important moral decisions, about how we use this power.
I will just give you an example, and this has happened. What if we created games, for example, innovation, with special games where the purpose was to wipe out, in a virtual way, a whole population? Or what if, as I was informed only a few days ago when I was in Montenegro, not far from, when we had our Council of the Socialist International, by Socialist International women, when they condemned a game which was created recently in Japan, which has as its purpose to simulate the raping of a woman. On obviously it’s easy to condemn.
But these are questions which we have to face. How do we use these technologies?
So if there is a moral to this story, my story today, it is whether we discover an apple, as Adam did according to the Scriptures, or whether we bring power, the power of fire, to society, as Prometheus did, or whether we discover the power of the atom, as Einstein did, or whether a 23-year-old discovers the power of Facebook or YouTube or Google, we must learn, as humanity, how to share this power, how we use this power, how we actually empower our society, so that democratically we can govern these new powers and possibilities, for the benefit of public good, for the benefit of each and every citizen, for the benefit of our environment, for the benefit of a sustainable and humane world.
And this is the political and moral calling, if you like, one which, in a very broad sense, we all have, but also I think you as educators have, because what better place than to discuss and define these issues than in today’s and the future schools?
So good luck, and I look forward to the success of your conference. Thank you very much.”