HEWN, No. 292

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us" -- Gandalf

I should have written something, I realized last Sunday, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. (Thankfully, Michael Sacasas did: “Technology After the Great War.”) I think I shared a link on social media to a story of the war’s “incredible carrier pigeons.” But I should have written something (and not just something on war pigeons. I’ve delved into that topic at length already, and I’ll probably mention the birds again next week when I show off photos from the new tattoo I’m getting on Wednesday.)

Always with the pigeons.

The war hero Cher Ami, stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian.

I should have written about World War I and education technology — because I can think of few events in the 20th century that had a more significant impact on the development of the field.

I realize that isn’t how the story usually gets told. Many folks prefer to emphasize Sputnik or the computer. (Or, if you’re one of those darling education entrepreneurs, you likely insist the most significant event in the history of ed-tech was when you arrived on the scene.)

Entry into the First World War demanded the United States expand the military rapidly, and because of the changing demographics of the US population — thanks to previous decades of immigration and urbanization, for starters — there were vast cultural, educational, and linguistic differences among soldiers. One question became: how to standardize and how to differentiate their training? (And how to do so efficiently and scientifically.) As such, the war saw educational psychologists like Robert Yerkes and Edward Thorndike attempt to fundamentally reshape how military recruits and military officers were assessed and ranked — on a quality called “intelligence” not simply on the idea of “character.” The new “science” of “intelligence” and intelligence testing needed new instruments and it needed new machinery — and following the Great War its proponents needed new markets and new objects of inquiry as well. That market was found in schools, where some of the same questions arose: how to standardize, and how to individualize education?

I ranted a bit about some of this on Twitter — a response to the latest hoopla about “personalized learning,” which is certainly what these educational psychologists in the 1920s and onward thought they were doing by measuring and ranking students and building machines so that these students could move through material at their own pace. Khan Academy didn’t invent this.

Mark Zuckerberg is just one of the ed-tech reformers bankrolling the messaging around “personalized learning,” which should absolutely strike fear in your heart if you look at how he and other Facebook leaders have “personalized” and weaponized news and information to the detriment of democracy. This week’s NYT article on Facebook is stunning. Simply stunning. “Facebook Is a Normal Sleazy Company Now,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan. Arguably it has been all along, but many folks seem to have believed the sunnier stories that Silicon Valley preferred to peddle about itself. Read Alexis Madrigal on “When the Tech Mythology Collapses” and what the history of falling out of love with another industry might teach us.

Elsewhere in tech dystopia: Michelle Alexander on “The Newest Jim Crow” and on algorithmic sentencing and “e-carceration.” As if California doesn’t have it hard enough right now, here’s what happens “When Elon Musk Tunnels Under Your Home” by Alana Semuels. “I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It,” Kevin Alexander confesses. “Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer” by Nellie Bowles. Perhaps because, contrary to all the myth-making about “openness” and progress, these folks were more invested in war and authoritarianism all along.

Yours in struggle,