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.