Are we as mad as hell and are we going take this anymore?

While a UK regulator is investigating whether Facebook broke data protection laws when it conducted a psychological study on users without their consent, another more serious ethical issues resides in the behavior of the two Universities who collaborated with Facebook.
Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco seemed to have by-passed their own ethics committees while participating in the study. Any undergraduate, Master’s or Ph.D candidate knows and understands the rigorous process undertaken to get permission to conduct research which involves human subjects and/or animals-especially in the social sciences and psychology and medicine/psychiatry disciplines.
Cornell University has a 17 page document outlining a set of ethical standards to be followed while conducting research, while The University of California at San Francisco has a human research protection program in place.
The disinhibtion effect is a lack of regard for social and ethical standards in personal behavior while online and it seems to have infected the ethical standards of the two learning institutions that collaborated with Facebook. In flaunting their own ethical guidelines while collaborating with the social media website, the universities have let down their respective student populations and may have undermined their own credibility as research based institutions. Unsurprisingly, the social media website seems to have missed the ethical issue all together by wondering what all the fuss is about given that people’s data wasn’t compromised! We all should be mad as hell!

Is Facebook Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

The illusion of anonymity which surrounds online activity and social media has been shattered in a recent US court ruling. Facebook has had to comply with a court order and hand over data to assist investigators seeking evidence in a social welfare fraud case. Hundreds of people were claiming disability pensions when in fact their face book accounts revealed that they were perfectly healthy. Fraud has been around for eons, but Facebook hasn’t. The court subpoenaed data which included private messages, pictures and personal details.
The judge defined Facebook as a ‘digital landlord’; a rather clever definition really because the company controls vast amount of personal data from over a billion users world-wide, as well as drawing income from those who use its websites and server facilities. The court defined the social media website as “as a digital landlord, a virtual custodian or storage facility for millions of tenant users and their information… the search warrants authorizes the search and seizure of digital information contained within the Facebook server.” (Miller, 2014)
While the seizure of the data will have ‘free-speech’ and privacy advocates up in arms, the fact is no-one’s personal data on Facebook, or any other social media website is completely private. Facebook trawls its own user database daily for profiteering purposes, which many users could define as the “unreasonable seizure” of their personal data, and so Facebook crying foul under the fourth amendment is somewhat hypocritical.
But, it’s the legal definition which is intriguing and perhaps will wake-up the digital vox populi to the reality of living a life in someone else’s data-base, and within the strict confinement of a digital landlord’s server. Those who choose to live their personal and social lives through any kind of digital medium have very few rights, but clearly a number of legal and ethical responsibilities along with any number of unseen, or unknown legal liabilities. It seems that 21st century living in a cloud holds anything other than a silver lining.

Miller, J. (2014, June 27). BBC News Technology. Retrieved June 29, 2014, from BBC News:

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, world!

Trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) sounds like it’s straight from the laboratories of a mad scientist-well in some respects it is. The exclusive, somewhat secretive world of psychiatry has used electricity as a form of ‘therapy’ for decades. Through applying electrical current directly to the brain Psychiatrists attempt the reconstruction of reality as experienced by their ‘patients’. The late Professor Thomas Szasz, himself a psychiatrist was a fierce opponent of such practices arguing that mental illnesses are not real diseases, except for those with quite specific physical symptoms like Alzheimers and Dementia. He claimed-rightly so I think-that there are no objective, verifiable approaches to identifying whether a mental illness is present or not. It is almost impossible to falsify the research findings of psychiatry, for the most part they become lost in a maze of data and statistical analysis with meaning hard to locate when applied to standardized views of acceptable human behavior.
Most if not all psychiatric diagnoses are based upon a perceived understanding of what is real and what is considered acceptable thinking as acted out within the realm of private, personal and social behavior in a culture or society. In his classic book on self-development and independence, ‘If You Meet the Buddha on the Road Kill Him’, Sheldon B Kopp tells the insightful, witty and perceptive story about a man dressed in a white sheet and a funny pointed hat, speaking gibberish, being arrested by the police in a US town. He is taken off to a psychiatric institution, evaluated and assessed as quite mad. The following morning a dozen or so other similarly dressed persons appear at the institution while speaking the same strange language and seeking their lost friend. The captive man was eventually released into their custody. The moral of the story, according to Kopp, is that one man exhibiting strange behavior is a lunatic while a group of them represent an acceptable, if not slightly odd, community. And this seems to be the ever present danger within 21st century humanity today.
A recent online report (Young, 2014) claims that neuroscientists are able to change the brain function of healthy people through electric shock stimulation. Furthermore, the US military are testing this on their soldiers to improve and enhance their ability to react especially under stress and when deprived of sleep (Young, 2014). Researchers into this brave new world of mind-body manipulation observe the reactions of the brain through infra-red imaging. They stimulate the motor cortex and inhibit the prefrontal cortex to manipulate human cognitive processes and the accompanying physical responses. It is claimed that the results are extraordinary and improving performance and researchers maintain the effects last long term. According to the report researchers are also investigating ultrasound and laser light to manipulate brain wave patterns. This kind of research on human subjects raises serious ethical as well as medical concerns, especially around the long term effects and whether or not as the subjects age any long term damage will emerge. And whether the very essence and nature of a human being-our consciousness-should be manipulated to the extent that our actions are predetermined and we lose our capacity to exercise our free will. Perhaps we’ll find out in a similar fashion as we did when we had humans observe those nuclear tests in the deserts of the US and Australia during the 1950s when a horror was unleashed on humanity. It really is a mad, mad, mad, mad world!

Young, E. (2014, June 3). BBC Future. Retrieved from BBC News:

Now I see through a Google Glass Darkly

Nothing is more perversely voyeuristic than the vox populi paparazzi edging their way into the scene of a crime, a horrific accident or a social event and recording it, uploading it to the web and holding out longingly for their few minutes of fame.
I recently gave a presentation at an international conference on the use of technology in education and before I began I asked that mobiles be put on silent and that there be no photographs, videoing or recording of my presentation. In return I offered a copy of the presentation and also gave out the name of the journal in which the paper was soon to be published. A gentleman raised his hand and said “why are you anti-technology?” I said I wasn’t that it was simply my right to protect my privacy, I didn’t want my talk uploaded to YouTube, nor did I want my picture taken and uploaded on the web without my permission. I asserted my right to privacy and my right to own and protect the copyright of my material. There was a round of applause, but not everyone was happy. Another person suggested I was not sharing my information freely, and that I was part of the great conspiracy to with-hold knowledge and information and make money from people; however neither remark is true. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I simply hold the view that my privacy is a value I uphold and have a right to, and that my copy-righted work is available and can be accessed and used at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place.
Where has the idea come from that it’s a free for all with modern technology when it comes to intruding on our lives? Who are the people responsible for undermining this basic principle of civility, which endorses the inalienable right to a private life? After all if it’s good enough for royal families and celebrities to lay claim to, it is good enough for the majority too.
In the 21st century Google and Facebook in particular have produced technologies that have eroded our personal and private lives. Their invasive technologies marketed as de rigueur for 21st century youth and for 21st century living are a lie. Their products are troublesome if we are to learn anything from the recent NASA scandal. But the debate and argument about privacy is an old one.
During the trial of Sir Thomas More, in 1535, Cromwell asked him if he had anything else to say in his defence; More replied “‘What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road.” (Bolt, 1990) How true this prophecy has become.

The digital age has seduced people into disclaiming their hearts and selling out to the latest gadgetry and ignoring their rights, but embracing ‘terms and conditions’ of which they have very limited knowledge. Google’s latest techno product-Google glasses- allow its users to see through them darkly-they choose a sinister, augmented, constructed reality over what is real. In addition they are allowing companies and corporation to deny the basic dignity of an employee-treating them instead like robots. Google, along with Amazon and Facebook are among the IT corporations that regards themselves as people, and vociferously protect their privacy, yet promote the use of these invasive technologies, and in doing so prevent a global population from living lives that a full, experiential and free from surveillance.

Bolt, R. (1990). A Man For All Seasons. London: Vintage Books.

Those Not So Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines

On March 28th 2014 the United Nations requested that all nations using armed drones comply with and respect international law. The two countries most affected by this sinister type of weaponry, Pakistan and Yemen, in which hundreds of its citizens have been killed as innocent by-standers in the ‘global war on terror’ sponsored a resolution with the support of Switzerland, but didn’t single out the United States as the main culprit in this horrid and shameful daily ‘reality show’ played out in the covert war theaters of the post-modern world.
The Commander in Chief of the United States of America, a recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate argues that his country is committed to following domestic and international law with the greatest possible transparency, in its use of armed drones. The average person, and the international community knows that this just isn’t the case.
In a separate, but equally ‘brave new world’ development, Face book guru and profiteer Mark Zuckerberg has announced plans to connect two-thirds of the world which has no internet access using drones, satellites and lasers. His announcement follows on from Amazon’s desire to have drones flying around our heads as they deliver tens of thousands of customer deliveries on a daily basis and Google’s plan to have party balloons beaming the internet into our homes!
I wonder if it has ever occurred to Mark Zukerberg, and his confrères at Amazon and Google, that not everyone wants to be connected to the internet or have Wi-Fi access. Our day-to-day lives can and do exist outside of his sphere of influence and the ubiquitous influence of technology on our experiences of thinking and being.
Military use of armed drones to fight wars by proxy, and commercial use of drones as agents of advanced capitalism, both exploit people. In the former case they destroy lives, kill innocents and annihilate whole communities. In the latter case they are part of the wider agenda of the techno-evangelist cult to create a digital utopia in which everyone will be forced to endure the sane madness of those not so magnificent men and their flying machines!

Our Backs to the Future

In the modern corporate themed allegory ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ about adapting to a changing set of circumstances, Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw have to adapt to a sudden change in their environment when their ‘cheese’ or key resource disappears. Only one of the characters is able to adjust fully to the change or ‘disappearance of the cheese’ successfully-an interesting point to note. From this quaint fable about changing facets of life in the 20th and 21st century we are expected to come to the realisation that change is inevitable and those that do not adapt or ‘bend with the breeze’ will break or be left behind. The tale has been told often and is used as a kind of corporate mantra in the post-modern world. Yet, the type of change in the story which advocates and supporters of ‘Who Moved my Cheese’ promote isn’t like Cardinal John Henry Newman’s concept of change-that of inward spiritual growth which will lead us to become more fully aware and compassionate human beings; rather it’s based upon Frederick Taylor’s mechanistic view of the human being as outlined in his 1909 book “The Principles of Scientific Management.” This was one of the earliest studies in change management and an example of a mechanistic model of behaviourism which was used to manipulate people into becoming robot like and enabled them to be used merely as cogs in the servitude of the owners of the means of production.
And it is this model of change which futurists like Peter Diamondis promote. In a recent presentation in the city state of Dubai, Diamondis proclaimed his own doctrine of change arguing that it no longer happens every 100 years, but every year (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). He claims as his own, the somewhat paradoxical mantra that ‘change is a constant’ feature of 21st century life.
Well, yes and no. One could argue that there’s always change just as day turns into night and the seasons predictably come and go (perhaps less so these days due to climate change), and we are born, grow old and die. These kinds of ‘constants’ in change are founded upon the existential conditions in which humanity constantly strives to survive and where it appears we seem to have created such a mess of it all. We need to address with increasing urgency whether or not we want our species is to survive, and endure the kind of future predicted by Dr. Diamondis.
Among the kinds of changes he predicts are that high school students will have the ability to sequence their own DNA and that life will become more ‘like a manufacturing process” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I can already hear Marx and Engels chortling quite happily “we told you so”. He claims that today 100 years of age is the new 60. Well Dr. Diamondis, I’d prefer not to be alive at 100 as I’m damn sure I’m not going to feel much better than I do now at 60!
3D printing will develop to the extent we’ll be able to “print cement to build our houses and manufacturing will become “geography independent” and the mass of humanity will become ‘empowered’ (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). I’m not sure how this will work for the 99% who won’t be able to afford the printer, electricity or who may not even have a shelter in which to begin this great architectural innovation.
Artificial intelligence will gradually supersede our ability to make choices and privacy will be a “thing of the past” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Well, thanks to Edward Snowden, we already know this, and with Facebook buying the messaging app Whatsapp for $19bn it is all but confirmed.
In addition he predicts an even more gloomy ignominious future with more “jobs going to China to India to Robots” (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014). Not sure how the 1.3 billion Chinese will respond to this, but if Tiananmen Square is any indication of ‘moving the cheese’ in that country-I wouldn’t want to be Sniff, Scurry, Hem or Haw. However, they might fare better in India where the 1.27 billion might adjust given their reluctance to break out of their rigid case system, and where any kind of cheese is a welcome relief to the abject poverty and misery of their disenfranchised population.
President Obama will not be happy at all with Dr. Diamondis health care predications for the future, in which we will be able to ‘self-diagnose our own medical conditions’ and treat ‘most illnesses at home’. (Masudi & Nazzal, 2014) After all the delays and angst over ‘Obama Care’ it now seems the President would have been better advised to consult with Dr. Diamondis. He could have avoided the Supreme Court challenge and that awful public brawl with those ungrateful Republicans.
The point is futurists have their place in the world alongside Tarot card and Palm readers, who I often consult-well; so did Nancy Reagan! As for the future my money’s on the predictions of Rick Evans (Evans, 2013) as sung by Zager & Evans in 1969. They reflect a far greater and more urgent reality: the existential condition of humanity; whereas Peter Diamondis has his head buried in the lucrative and exclusive sands of Silicon Valley:

Evans, R. (2013). Zager & Evans Lyrics. Retrieved from Metro Lyrics:
Masudi, F., & Nazzal, N. (2014). 2050: The Shape of Things to Come. Dubai: Gulf News.
Johnson, S., Who Moved My Cheese, Putnam Books, (USA) 1998

Backyard Brains often Lack Intelligence

Backyards conjure up lots of images of recyclable materials and storage space or nicely cultivated lawns and gardens as a place to relax and enjoy the labors of the day. On the other hand Backyard Brains creates a mixed metaphor and one needs to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what’s hidden in the backyard to see if there’s anything of real value. A bit like treasures in the attic I suppose.
With the help of the BBC News I did discover something rather unusual about a company named Backyard Brains and there commercial exploitation of digital learning, along with the imprecise and often unequivocal area of neuroscience, and children’s vulnerability and fascination with how things work, at a time when they have a penchant to be masters of their own environment while being dependent upon it.
According to the BBC News report Backyard Brains has developed a very small electronic device which is glued to the back of a cockroach and a downloadable app from a mobile phone is able to control the movement of the creature. Interestingly on the same page of this news story the BBC ran an advertisement on a program detailing the legacy of the Nazi medical experiments inclusive of a picture of Hitler- ironic or not I thought the coincidence appropriate.
The company Backyard Brains (aptly named perhaps?) argues that through allowing children to dismember other creatures, place electronic devices into them and then control their movements they are giving them a 5 year head start on those in graduate schools studying neuroscience. They further argue that they are aware of the shortcomings of the kinds of experiments their bizarre equipment enables kids to perform on other creatures, but claim that they are justified due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age.
It is by all accounts a disingenuous and dishonest argument.
I learned a lot at primary school about neuroscience without being asked to dismember another creature. I recall a wonderful teacher who would take us for walks and lets us smell the earth, flowers, sea, and explain why we had such a painful reaction to standing on a broken shell, or nail or piece of glass-it was all quite wonderful, intriguing and followed up with diagrams and drawings of humans and other creatures on how the brain and central nervous system of sentient beings worked. It instilled in me a life long love of science and a mutual respect for all living creatures-even those I didn’t like-the cockroach, spider and ants to name a few. I learned their role in the wonderful complex eco-system called life along with the importance of a human being’s necessary moral relationship with other creatures.
It is the lack of concern shown by the Backyard Brains’ company to our moral relationship with other creatures which should worry parents, educators and children alike. The thinking which underpins the concept of Backyard Brains is based upon the myopic and disdainful thinking of early Western thinkers who claimed that humans lack any kind of contractual and ethical relationship with other creatures because they are not moral agents and they lack feelings, therefore if we do not perform experiments on them we are failing science. Such ideas have been used over the centuries to push some creatures to the edge of extinction through hunting and killing for body parts. The irrational arguments of Rousseau, Robert Boyle and Voltaire on race and the natural world often led to the justification of inequality and to enslave people of differing religions, politics, beliefs, color, and women and even to justify the oppression of children. According to the philosophy which underpins the work of Backyard Brains; Rousseau’s outrageous claim that “woman is especially made for man’s delight” would be acceptable today! We have after all inherited the imperfect irrationality of Rousseau and his ilk on our relationships with other creatures.
There are much more acceptable moral and ethical ways to teach neuroscience to children than having them turn defenseless and helpless creatures into electronic toys that may be controlled by a mobile phone application. Just as causing unnecessary pain and suffering to one another is unacceptable, it is unacceptable to cause pain and suffering to other creatures.
The study of neural circuitry is important in medical science and has been studied at the appropriate age and level for many years with wonderful success. To argue that allowing children to capture dismember, insert electrodes into the head and body of another creature will ‘create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists and physicians’ is disingenuous and dishonest.
The kinds of experiments designed to harm other creatures and marketed by Backyard Brains under the guise of human scientific endeavors runs counter to the idea that we live in a very fragile world, morally, ethically, environmentally and socially. Humans and other creatures have an equal interest in maintaining an eco-system which ensures the survival of all species-other creatures matter a lot. It is this key idea which children need to understand and learn to live with more, to counter the illusions of the digital age and the dishonest marketing ploys of companies like Backyard Brains.

Google Cuckolded

Google’s outrage over the voyeuristic antics of that spooky and sinister US snooping agency the NSA is comical and shouldn’t be taken all that serious. Google after all has been snooping on those of us who use their search engine, Gmail and other products for a very, very longtime. Google has manipulated our online activities for its corporate financial gain and shared this without our knowledge, as well as collected data about where we go, who we write to, what we buy and what we view. More recently Google announced that it had the right to use any of our created or uploaded data through Google+ despite our protestations. Furthermore the Google Chrome interface has a unique identifier that reveals its user. In addition they openly say they are spying on us online and we still hit the “I agree” button. Here are some of the more openly transparent ways they tell us they are snooping”:
“When you use our services or view content provided by Google, we may automatically collect and store certain information in server logs. This may include:

 Details of how you used our service, such as your search queries.

 Telephony log information, such as your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls.

 Internet protocol address.

 Device event information, such as crashes, system activity, hardware settings, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and referral URL.

 cookies that may uniquely identify your browser or your Google Account”
 We may use the name that you provide for your Google Profile across all of the services we offer that require a Google Account. In addition, we may replace past names associated with your Google Account, so that you are represented consistently across all our services. If other users already have your email or other information that identifies you, we may show them your publicly visible Google Profile information, such as your name and photo.
 We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example, to make it easier to share things with people you know. We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.
 Google processes personal information on our servers in many countries around the world. We may process your personal information on a server located outside the country where you live”
It is indeed unfortunate that we all live in “The Kingdom of Glass, where nothing is private” (Nazarian, 2013) anymore, but we all seem to hit the “I agree” button and choose to live this way!


Nazarian, V. (2013). The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration .

The Decline of the Open Society

The ex-CIA employee, Edward Snowden who exposed the extent to which the security agencies of the United States of America and her allies intrude on the lives of their citizens raises the specter of the decline of the open society as we know it. But, it’s been a gradual decline-one that has slowly crept upon us with all the stealth and acuity of a spy coming in from the cold. Snowden’s exposure of governmental surveillance of ordinary people indicates they were gathering millions upon millions of data relating to personal phone calls and internet activities for years. Mobile phones were/are tapped, internet surveillance and snooping through Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo was/is de rigueur, and a secret court once ordered phone companies to hand over millions of its confidential records.
These governmental agencies hunt through the electronic communications of their citizenry like the vast fleets of illegal fishing vessels which trawl our deep-seas, reaping havoc in their attempts to gain a few choice species of fish for the tables of those fortunate enough to be able to afford to pay for them. Often tens of thousands of species are killed and thrown back into our oceans to rot and further pollute our once abundant, pristine oceans.
Western democratic governments argue a case for National Security and the avoidance of terrorist attacks as a justification for these extraordinary breaches of privacy through electronic surveillance. Unlike their totalitarian and pseudo-democratic counter-parts, who just invade the privacy and rights of their citizens on a daily basis-the West attempts to take the high moral ground arguing that in monitoring everyone, everyone will be safer. But how much truth and validity is there in this kind of reasoning?

Aldous Huxley’s prophetic novel Brave New World foresaw much of how we are ‘managed’ by governments today. Psychological manipulation, electronic surveillance through accessing our mobile communications and online edutainment, and reproductive technologies are several developments Huxley outlines in his novel. He feared we would lose our individual rights and identity in the world of the future. Huxley eschewed a youthful, narcissistic culture which was inward looking, self-serving, sexually promiscuous and avoided any ethical and moral arguments on some of the tough issue facing emerging civilizations in the early part of the 20th century. Sound familiar? It should as it succinctly describes the kind of self-absorbed culture the West holds up as an ideal in the early years of the 21st century. One which is open to the kinds of managed manipulation which characterizes say China, North Korea and the Russian Federation. The Chinese must look on the current furor caused by Snowden with a kind of bemused incredulity, asking ‘what’s all the fuss about-privacy what kind of illusory concept is that?

Is it an illusory concept in the West in the 21st century? Ruebhausen and Brim (1965) argue that a successful open society must contain the tensions which exist between competing forces. They assert that by tradition the West’s quite specific forms of democracy protect the individual from excessive accumulation of power by their elected representatives. They cite the separation of Church and State, the secular control of the military and the laws which regulate corporations and protect workers as key examples of hard won laws and freedoms in an open society. Moreover they specifically cite the “familiar and constructive tensions which exists” between science and technology and its needs for restrictions on individual freedoms. (Ruebhausen & Brim, Jr., 1965). They argue that the “conflict of secrecy for purposes of national security with the free dissemination of knowledge” will create ongoing tensions in open societies, and such a conflict is complex. To some extent they are right, but their arguments lack an ethical or moral basis on which to draw any conclusions. However, history provides some guidance here, firstly through the insights and wisdom of Sir Thomas More, as he stood trial for treason against a rapacious, syphilitic King Henry VIII, hell bent on ruling women and the world:

“What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart.
It is a long road you have opened. For, first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen
walk your road” (Bolt, 1996)

Whatever disguises our elected leaders wear today, whether they be the Barrack Obamas, George, W Bushes, Tony Blairs, or Julia Gillards of this world; it is indeed their roads we walk. And God help us all.

But, the last word on privacy in the 21st century must go to a leading, yet controversial figure from the 20th century, Pope Pius XII:

“There is a large portion of his inner world which the person discloses to a few confidential friends and shields against the intrusion of others. Certain (other) matters are kept secret at any price, and in regard to anyone. Finally there are matters which the person is unable to consider…and just as it is illicit to appropriate another’s goods or to make an attempt on his bodily integrity, without his consent, so it is not permissible to enter into his inner domain against his will, whatever the technique or method used” (XII Pius, 1958)

Regardless of the tensions which exist between individual freedoms and a government’s right to secure the safety of its citizenry, and to safeguard and maintain its own vested interests, Edward Snowden has shown us how the hard won freedoms of the Enlightenment and our open societies are slipping away. They are being usurped in the new Dark Ages of technological surveillance and compliance, along with an uncritical and unquestioning deference to the madness of the men in suits and their electronic machines.


Bolt, R. (1996). A Man For All Seasons. London: Heinemann.
Ruebhausen, O., & Brim, Jr., O. G. (1965). Privacy and Behavioral Research. Colombia Law Review, Vol. 65, No.7, 1184-1211.
XII Pius, P. (1958, April 10). Address to the Congress of the International Association of Applied Psychology. International Congress of Applied Psychology. Rome, Italy, 1958

The Mad Men and their 21st Century Skills mantra

One of my favourite USA produced TV soap melodramas is Mad Men. It’s a fun, but tacky fast paced series set in the 1960s, about the Freudian manipulation of the consumer market place by Madison Avenue advertising executives. They actually coined the term Mad Men for themselves. No self-deception there-just the irony of their in your face honesty of how deceptive their practices were to sell stuff that most people didn’t want or need to lead fulfilled lives. Many decades later not a lot has changed. The Mad Men are still with us in a new disguise similar to iRobot, selling electronic stuff that we don’t need while trying to prop up an ailing almost dead world economy.
However, there is one significant difference in the pernicious strategy of today’s Mad Men-the use of technology and the marketing of it as an essential aspect of 21st century living. The Mad Men of the corporate IT world would have us believe that we cannot live without gadgetry, mobile devices and the like. They would further suggest that information technologies, along with online activities, social networking and educational technologies have spawned a new kind of human being: homo-digitalis. These new creatures of humanity often referred to as digital natives, because of their unique ability to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, have developed remarkable skills akin to the symbiotic relationship which is presumed to exist between Kyle XY and Spiderman. I attended a conference once, where one of the Mad Men claimed that through the use of electronic gadgetry, mobile devices, online activities and social networking interaction, the human brain of homo-digitalis was ‘rewiring’ itself to keep up with the incredible frenetic speed of evolutionary changes that these creatures are presumed to be undergoing. But there is no truth or scientific evidence in such a claim-it is simply a marketing ploy to encourage fear ridden parents and educators that they need to keep up with the madness in electronic gadgetry, otherwise their children or students will become part of the great unconnected, unplugged underclasses of the future-inept in everything IT skill except the old 20th century social skills of civility, politeness, humility, compassion, empathy, honesty and genuine concerns for other people.
More recently some remarkable empirical evidence has emerged suggesting that the rapid tsunamic development of homo-digitalis is not permanent, and like the fate of Dolly the sheep, could result in premature aging, and the onset of short-term memory loss and the debilitating psycho-cognitive disease dementia-electronicus.
Whilst driving my car yesterday, I thought the driver in the vehicle ahead of me was drunk, so I immediately went into defensive driving mode, overtook her and noted that she was texting on her mobile phone. Later that day, while walking along the corridor of a College I was visiting, a student fell down the stairs while he was texting. In my class the following day, a student said she couldn’t hear my lecture. I suggested she take the headphones out of her ears and concentrate a bit more as this would help. While these are isolated cases, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence which suggests that multi-tasking is a myth. The only rewiring of the brain which is going to take place in the near future is when one is hooked up to a life-support system, after suffering a near fatal accident of some kind while multi-tasking with a 21st century interactive mobile device.
The partnership for 21st century skills argue that their unified, collective vision for learning known as the Framework for 21st Century Learning is a prerequisite for students to be able to prosper in the interconnected world of the 21st century. They identify critical thinking, collaboration, communication and problem solving among the key 21st century skills which must be embedded into school and higher education curricula. They further argue that “students are more engaged in the learning process and graduate better prepared to thrive in today’s global economy” (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).
Notwithstanding the current global youth unemployment rate of around 12.7% or 74 million young people; it seems naïve to suggest that thriving is an option for anyone between the ages of 15-24 who is out of work in the 21st century. While the Framework for 21st Century Learning covers some of the essential cognitive development of an individual and how they should be using digital tools in their lives, it doesn’t consider how to be resourceful and adaptable when you cannot get a job after 12 years of schooling, and after graduating with a degree from a College or University. None of the most up-to-date gadgetry and technology in the world is going to feed you if you cannot work and earn a living.
Those of us educated in the 20th century could argue out a case that this very same skill set now rebranded as 21st century skills was to be found in the curricula of our respective eras. For example, a constructivist approach to teaching and learning formed an essential part of my experience as a learner in the 1960s. Furthermore, we could go back to antiquity and find subjects like logic, rhetoric, mathematics, philosophy and science essential subjects and disciplines which ensured that critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration were required of an educated person. Socrates would certainly defer to this assertion.
So what’s the difference in the early years of the 21st century? Why the constant, repetitive almost ad nauseam reference to 21st century skills by the Mad Men? The answer is simple: technology. The multi-billion dollar corporate IT industry along with the Partnership for 21st century skills has the global reform of education in its sight-in fact it has well and truly begun.
Embedded in their all encompassing curriculum model is the concept of multiple literacies. This is a highly questionable term which probably doesn’t exist in its own right. It is more about developing a skill set or competencies to use a machine or device rather than a specific psycho-cognitive process such as to be found in the foundations of literacy-reading, writing, listening, speaking and numeracy. It is a mis-leading term which covers anything from politically correct understandings of the ‘other’ to business as practiced through the ruthlessness of 21st century advanced capitalism.
The idealism is in this model mirrors other more comprehensive curriculum models like the International Baccalaureate’s PYP, MYP and Diploma program. However the comparison stops there, because the curricula of the IBO have no corporate IT agenda and encourage a critical appraisal of their own learning culture along with its content. The kind of curriculum model proposed by the IT corporate world and their 21st Century partners doesn’t allow for this, and is based on conformity and compliance to a corporate global model of teaching and learning and deference to its compulsory inclusion of technological gadgetry. These include but are not limited to mobile learning, online learning, blended learning, social media, like twitter, Facebook, yammer, and so on, various multi-media platforms like padlet, OneNote, iPads, and the plethora of other educational technologies which are competing for a place in the world’s burgeoning IT educational sector.
The jury is still out on the extent to which any kind of educational technologies are producing brighter, more adaptable, more flexible, compassionate, caring, multi-skilled graduates from primary, middle and high schools, colleges and universities, who will contribute to more peaceful, just and socially cohesive societies.
Notwithstanding this fact, the Mad Men peddle the myth that digital and mobile learning will create the iRobot equivalent of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and without the inclusion of branded educational technologies in teaching and learning all educational institutions are failing themselves and their students.
This is clear in the ITL research group’s recent report on innovative teaching and learning (2011) 95% of the report condemns schools and learning institutions for not using the latest products and gadgetry, there is no informed, clear critical research on how their products perform or affect learners cognitively or how they define the methodological and pedagogical processes in a constructive way. It is one thing to argue for every child having an iPad to reduce heavy back packs with lots of books, and quite another to pursue the argument that IT will increase knowledge gains for learners.
Traditional classroom style learning with its essential socialization and communicative processes along with the lecture theater are also targets of the corporate IT sector and some educators too.The CEO of AISH (Academy for International School Heads) Bambi Betts recently argued that it is ‘game over’ for education as we know it today through the flooding of the educational sector with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Her carefully chosen description of these courses as ‘disruptive innovations” in mainstream education highlights the willfulness of forceful change being imposed on teachers, students, parents and some administrators who question the efficacy and legitimacy of MOOCs and other kinds of educational technologies. The assumption that formal learning is an option which can take place anywhere and at any time is false and based on erroneous understandings about how we learn, why we learn, what we need to learn and how we measure and evaluate successful teaching and learning. An avatar lecturer or a video clip of a lesson hardly qualifies as innovate in terms of teaching and learning, but may well be disruptive to genuine critical enquiry, the acquisition of knowledge, and becoming a life long learner.
Teaching and learning is a highly sociable process. It is built on a fundamental axiom of clear inter-personal communication. Moreover, schooling and tertiary studies is a highly controlled social process as well as an intellectual one. We require those who graduate from our high schools and universities to be civil to others and to have good manners and treat people respectfully and contribute to the development of a more peaceful, just, fair and equitable world. Working in the isolated vacuum of virtual realities where “I am my screen” and “I do not have to compete to share my thoughts and ideas” does not contribute to positive social learning outcomes at all. I’m all for rethinking education and embracing technology and 21st century skills (whatever they are or will become); but the core principles at the heart of any future developmental plans in education should embrace sound pedagogy and how students learn, not what they like using and doing best.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009). P21 Framework Definitions. Washington D.C: Partnership for 21st Century Skills.