HEWN, No. 300

"Writing is always a brutally social process that is rude enough to masquerade as a solitary one" -- Tressie McMillan Cottom

I hadn’t cracked open a single book so far this year until Thick arrived this week.

Well, that’s not quite true. I am sitting at my desk, surrounded by books, open books — mostly books about B. F. Skinner as that’s what I’ve been writing about this week and last. I have open to various pages or bookmarked or dog-eared in some way all three volumes of his autobiography, a biography, a book on his “technology of behavior,” The Analysis of Behavior, About Behaviorism, and his anthology of articles on the “technology of teaching.” The writing is going as well as can be expected, all things considered, thank you very much.

Obviously, I was so looking forward to getting my pre-ordered copy of Thick, the new collection of essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Amazon informed me that the package was out for delivery, so I had my Tuesday evening all planned out: I’d drink some red wine (perhaps a lot of red wine — Skinner’s fault) and read it cover-to-cover. My iPhone told me, late afternoon, that the delivery was just three stops away. When I checked my phone an hour later, it was one stop away — just one block up and around the corner. And then nothing. No package. No book. I looked at my phone again after I’d made dinner, and the little blue dot that represented the Amazon delivery van was now parked miles away — in Los Angeles, that translates into hours and hours and hours away. I wouldn’t be getting the book by the promised 9pm deadline, clearly. (And hell, I’d be in bed around then anyway.) Some time in the middle of the night, I got a text message from Amazon: the package was lost. “Please contact customer service.”

If you use Amazon — and go ahead, it’s fine, you can lord over me if you don’t — you know that contacting customer service is next to impossible. If you need something more complicated than a refund or return, your task becomes the true, twenty-first century digital literacy test to figure out what to click on that will let you speak to or type at a human being. I eventually pushed the right button and chatted with someone — a helpful person who said he had to talk to the driver first to see what had happened and then who told me the package would be delivered Thursday. “So, it’s not lost?” I asked. “Oh, it’s lost. The driver will just pick up another one locally and bring it to you” — which sounded odd, I confess, but maybe the Amazon logistics work a little differently than I’d been led to believe. (Indeed indeed indeed. See also: “Mackenzie Bezos and the Myth of the Lone Genius Founder.”) Thursday morning, Amazon refunded the price of the book. “Goddammit,” I muttered, certain that I really should do the right thing and order from the publisher directly, but uncertain, as I’m going to be on the road (again) soon, that the book would arrive in time.

Then — hoorah — someone knocked on the front door (which never happens with the regular Amazon delivery); and sure enough, there was a small brown box containing a beautiful black book. And, so just two days later than originally planned, I could sit down and read it all in one sitting. Buy the book. Read the book.

There are plenty of things that I love about Tressie McMillan Cottom and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s writing. Thick exemplifies much of this. She has this way of assembling words and turning phrases and shaping provocations that is, all at once, casually conversational and deeply theoretical and absolutely fucking hilarious. “Sometimes you have to write densely because the ideas are so dense,” I remember a (white woman) professor once saying in graduate school, justifying the inscrutable prose of this or that postmodern (white woman) scholar. Most mostly, I’d contend, you don’t. You can be sharp and deep and nuanced. You can be committed to critical theory and “critical truth telling” and clarity. You can. You can.

There’s an excerpt of the book in Time — “I Was Pregnant and in Crisis. All the Doctors and Nurses Saw Was an Incompetent Black Woman” — which is powerful and painful and necessary. The longer version of the essay deftly ties this problem of (in)competence to credentials, to LinkedIn and global, structural inequality. So the next time you hear someone make a call for “competency based education,” for example — one of the myriad of phrases that moves in and out of favor in ed reform and ed-tech circles — recognize that, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “the competency trap is a cumulative multifold iron cage of network effects in oppressive regimes” and recognize too that those who talk about new policies and new practices and new products without attention to the lived experiences of Black women speak with corpses in their mouths.

Speaking of corpses, I wrote about the “Fables of School Reform” in The Baffler. “When You Give Teachers a Gun” writes Jay Willis in GQ. “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success” writes Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker.Waiting for O Superman” by Rolin Moe. “Surely You’re a Creep Mr. Feynman” by Leila McNeill. “The Rise and Demise of RSS” by Sinclair Target.

This week’s pigeon is a Nun pigeon:

(Image credits)

Back to writing my book now...

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 299

"Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis." - Kurt Vonnegut

Happy New Year. I hope that your 2019 is off to a good start, with the right balance of winding up and winding down, taking stock and letting go, wrapping up and starting off.

I started off writing, really writing, Teaching Machines on January 1, as I swore I’d do. I set a daily word count goal — set it intentionally a bit low, I won’t lie — and I’ve far surpassed that number of words in Word each day. They aren’t great words. They aren’t necessarily the right words. But words have been written. They can be edited later. The amount of words I still have to type and polish is overwhelming if I stop and think about it. But I can’t stop too long. If nothing else, the book seems a little more real today than it even did a week ago.

I like to read how other authors work, although I rarely take explanations of their particular writing practices as advice. I do quite like what SF writer John Scalzi wrote this week about “Wasting My Own Time.” And while I think most generational analysis is bunk, there are some elements in the latest article by Anne Helen Petersen that strike me as true, not just in terms of accomplishing writing projects, of course, but for getting (or not getting) all sorts of other tasks done: “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.” I’m not a millennial — I fall well outside the supposed age range. But I recognize and I experience a lot of this “condition” as she calls it. The psychological trauma of socioeconomic precarity hardly has an age limit.

This week’s pigeon is a Danish suabien:

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I don’t agree with the order of importance that Matt Novak gives “Technology, Ranked” but hey. At least he did not include a single piece of ed-tech. Speaking of ed-tech, historian Larry Cuban suggests that “The Virtue of Slow Software” might be “Fewer Fads in Schools.” We can only hope, I suppose. But I have this terrible feeling that while I spend the new year paying attention to the history of ed-tech and less to its current state, that all sorts of unscrupulous people are going to use the opportunity to make a run on the store.

Great. Just great. Related: “The Business of 'Ed-tech Trends' for 2018.”

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 298

"Every historical period has its godword" -- Theodore Roszak

It’s that time once again for folks to publish their predictions for the coming year. I find the practice to be incredibly irritating, in part because so few people are willing to revisit their past predictions and admit that they were wrong. The worst, in my opinion, are those high-profile futurists who keep making the same predictions year-after-year, and no one calls them on their bullshit. It’s been at least five years since Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen started telling everyone that in ten to fifteen years, half of all colleges would be bankrupt. He’s still peddling that same timeline; the collapse of higher education is still ten to fifteen years out.

At the beginning of the year, I made a quick list of some of the things that the tech industry — its analysts and marketers and carnival barkers — said would come to pass in 2018. There were lots of predictions, no surprise, that we’d see self-driving cars and flying taxis, and that the price of bitcoin would skyrocket. There were lots and lots and lots of exuberant predictions about the price of bitcoin (which is, I believe, now trading at near its lowest point this year). Congrats, everyone. You’re very bad at this.

Technologists suck at predicting the future. They suck because they don’t understand the past; they’re blind to much of the present. They’re terrible at predicting the future because they fail to grasp the systems and practices surrounding their products, firm in their faith instead that their own genius (and their investors’ continued support) will be enough to muddle forward.

I can’t bear to look too closely at what industry folks are predicting for 2019. Such is one of the very positive side effects of staying away from social media — I don’t have to. Such is one of the very positive side effects too of writing a book about the past. But I imagine that most folks are pointing to 2020, not 2019, as the really big year for “the future.” 2020 is a nice, even number, and the future, as Christensen’s predictions show us, surely functions in units of five. 2019 is not even prime.

How Much of the Internet Is Fake?” asks Max Read. “Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.” It’s all built on lie and after lie after lie after lie. (We don’t call them lies, of course; we call them PR.) These stories are well-funded; the storytellers well-connected. They aren’t interested in our seeing clearly.

This week’s pigeon is a Norwich Cropper. It sure looks like it’s about to tell you to invest in crypto:

(Image credits)

Here’s to a better future…

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 297

"Everything changes. Don't be afraid." -- Al Swearengen

I founded Hack Education in the spring of 2010 because I felt as though the coverage of education technology by technology journalists, when there was coverage at all, was roundly terrible.

It’s still terrible. Arguably, it’s gotten worse.

Instead of mostly ignoring ed-tech, now tech investors and entrepreneurs pour money into it and to the marketing of its associated practices, products, politics. Their designated storytellers dutifully retype the industry press releases and spread the industry narratives. These storytellers have no sense of context, no sense of history, no substantial knowledge about the subject matter, but they are well-connected and well-funded. To them, everything in ed-tech is glorious and innovative (except Blackboard, of course); and the adoption of technology, which they’re certain has never happened ‘til now, so long overdue. MOOCs, blockchain, VR, iPads, YouTube, digital flashcards — these are all poised to revolutionize education forever, the storytellers have insisted.

Until they’re not. Then the storytellers will furrow their brows and throw a line or two into a tale, suggesting perhaps perhaps perhaps there are privacy issues or security issues or sustainability questions or pedagogical problems. But any concerns are all quickly forgotten as often the very same storytellers the very next day tout the very same problematic product, no mention at all that are concerns or criticisms. Ed-tech relies on amnesia.

Ed-tech is a confidence game. That’s why it’s so full of marketers and grifters and thugs. (The same goes for “tech” at large.)

I wrote this past week about “The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology in 2018.” It’s the ninth year in a row I’ve reviewed and analyzed all the year’s bullshit. It’s also the last.

I'm focused on the book now. Yes I am. I want it to be good, and I want it to be smart. To get there, I have to ignore the 24-7 news cycle of press releases and empty punditry because I am quite certain that those are precisely the things that helps keep ed-tech trapped in its ignorance. (The same goes for “tech” at large.)

2018 was, as Librarian Shipwreck argues, “a disastrous year.” The disasters are older than 12 months, no doubt, and the turn in the calendar year will not mean we leave them behind. But for me, I am going to leave behind my day-to-day, week-to-week chronicling of the disasters of ed-tech. I don’t have enough energy or time or money to battle the storytellers’ marketing at their frequency, at their decibel level. In the new year, I’m taking a different tact.

This week’s pigeon is an archangel pigeon:

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Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 296

"The problem is not that there is evil in the world. The problem is there is good because otherwise who would care" -- V. M. Varga, Fargo, Season 3

I’m juggling so many ideas in my brain right now, it will be a relief to begin to put some of them on paper — not just as the notes that I’ve been jotting down during my research for Teaching Machines, but to finally craft longer sentences, paragraphs, arguments. It is time to write this book.

But first, a few more tasks...

Most of the reading I’m doing right now in my final weeks of research I’d describe as “contextual” — that is, I’m reading the bestsellers and articles that reflect ideas influencing and influenced by and adjacent to teaching machines and behaviorism in the 1950s and 1960s. Needless to say, I’ve been reading a lot about cybernetics — something that totally colored how I thought about the article Mike Caulfield published this week on “The Homeostatic Fallacy and Misinformation Literacy.” Homeostasis is a cornerstone of cybernetic (and information) theory. And yet here we are, thanks to data-driven “feedback,” all out of whack.

All the reading on cybernetics — Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Gordon Pask, and the like — has colored too how I thought about the 50th anniversary of “The Mother of All Demos” that rolled around last weekend, an event that many in the tech industry like to point to as unveiling or foretelling the future of personal computing. I’ve been thinking, I suppose, how and why the augmentation of human intellect, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Englebart himself, is most often now traced to Silicon Valley and to Xerox PARC as opposed to other places, people, institutions.

And so I’m stewing a bit on how “intellect” (yes, I’m reading some Richard Hofstadter as well) in Silicon Valley might actually matter far less than “innovation.” Scholarship (and perhaps democracy) matters even less. I think there’s something wrapped up in all this marketing and mythology that might explain in part why the tech industry (and, good grief, the ed-tech industry) is so incredibly and dangerously dull. You can’t build thinking machines (or teaching machines for that matter) if you’re obsessed with data but have no ideas. (That’s a Theodore Roszak insight there. Reading him too.) You can’t augment humankind, turns out, if you loathe and if you undermine humanity.

Anyway, all these thoughts and more and the book and such are prompting me to make some big changes to my website Hack Education. I'll write more about that next week...

Reading recommendations, in the meantime: “His Only Living Boy” by Casey Parks. “The Rise, Lean, And Fall Of Sheryl Sandberg” by Anne Helen Petersen.

This week’s pigeon is a Jacobin pigeon (but you could probably tell by the ruffle and wicked side-eye):

(Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

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