I’ve started working on my annual review of the year in ed-tech, something I’ve done for the past six years. It’s an intensive project – I will write some 75,000 words between now and the end of December – that forces me to go back through all the events and announcements of the previous twelve months. I don’t do so to make predictions about the future. But rather I look for patterns so that I can better understand how the past might orient us towards certain futures. I listen closely to the stories that we have told ourselves about education and technology, about the various possible futures in which these two systems (these two sets of practices, these two sets of ideologies) are so deeply intertwined. I pay attention to who tells the stories, who shares the stories, who believes the stories. In thinking about the past, I am always thinking about the future; in thinking about the future, we are always talking about the past.
That’s what’s at the core of a slogan like “Make America Great Again,” of course. It invokes a nostalgic longing for a largely invented past as it gestures towards a future that promises “greatness” once again.
Last week – and it feels so long right now – I gave a talk titled “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Issue a Press Release.” I argued there’s something frighteningly insidious about the ways in which predictions about the future of education and technology are formulated and spread. These predictions are predicated on a destabilization or disruption of our public institutions and an entrenchment of commodification and capitalism.
These predictions don’t have to be believable or right; indeed, they rarely are. But even when wrong, they push the future in a certain direction. And they reveal the shape that the storytellers want the future to take.
In my talk, I called these predictions a form of “truthiness.” I’d add to that, an observation that sociologist Nathan Jurgenson made last night about “factiness”:
On the right, they have what Stephan Colbert called “truthiness,” which we might define as ignoring facts in the name of some larger truth. The facts of Obama’s birthplace mattered less for them than their own racist “truth” of white superiority. Perhaps we need to start articulating a left-wing version of truthiness: let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientism of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.
“Factiness” connects to a lot of what we saw in this election, to be sure – this faith, as Jurgenson points out, in polling despite polling being wrong repeatedly, all along. It connects to a lot of what we hear in technology circles too – that we can build intelligent systems that model and adapt and learn and predict complex human behaviors. And that, in turn, is connected to education’s long-standing obsession with data: that we can harness elaborate analytics and measurement tools to identify who’s learning and who’s not.
I don’t believe that answers are found in “data” (that is, in “data” as this pure objective essence of “fact” or “truth”). Rather, I believe answers – muddier and more mutable and not really answers at all – live in stories. It is, after all, in stories where we find what underpins and extends both “truthiness” and “factiness.” Stories are crafted and carried in different ways, no doubt, than “data,” even when they serve the same impulse – to control, to direct.
Stories are everywhere, and yet stories can be incredibly easy to dismiss.
We do not listen.
Sometimes I joke that I’ve been described as “ed-tech’s Cassandra.” Mostly, it’s unfunny – not much of a joke at all considering how things worked out for poor Cassandra. But I do listen closely to the stories being told about the future of education and technology, and all I can do is to caution people that these stories rely on some fairly dystopian motifs and outcomes.
I’m also a folklorist, an ethnographer. I approach education technology with that disciplinary training. I listen to the stories. I observe the practices. I talk to people.
I’m not sure how to move forward after last night’s election results. For now, all I have is this: I want to remind people of the importance of stories – that stories might be better to turn to for understanding the future people want, better than the data we’ve been so obsessed with watching as a proxy for actually talking or listening to them.