Dr Callum McGregor (Lecturer in Education, University of Edinburgh) reports and reflects on a recent Edinburgh lecture on digital citizenship and digital education, funded by the Global Justice Academy’s Innovative Initiative Fund.
In collaboration with the Global Justice Academy, a number of people recently eschewed the rare evening sun in favour of assembling at Moray House School of Education for a public lecture entitled ‘Towards a radical digital citizenship in digital education.’ More noteworthy still, was the palpable enthusiasm in the room for striking up a sustained dialogue on social justice and digital education, across a range of standpoints and disciplines. This event, made possible with the support of the Global Justice Academy’s Innovative Initiative Fund[i], was organised by a small group of academics, tentatively titled the Forum for Digital Culture and Social Justice (DCSJ)[ii]. The DCSJ forum is at the initial stages of adumbrating a cross-disciplinary research agenda at the confluence of social justice, digital culture and education. The purpose of this event was to catalyse this process by creating space for an inclusive conversation about what digital citizenship is and what it might be, if re-framed as a political project for social justice.
The event was co-chaired by Dr Karen Gregory (Lecturer in Digital Sociology at the University of Edinburgh), and Dr Jen Ross (Senior Lecturer in Digital Education) who fielded questions and comments from participants using the hastag #deresearch, who were watching via the livestream (click here to watch the recording). Proceedings began with an input from members of the aforementioned DCSJ forum, Dr Akwugo Emejulu (Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick) and Dr Callum McGregor (Lecturer in Education, University of Edinburgh). They offered a polemical intervention that sought to disrupt the ways in which dominant cultural narratives construct digital citizenship, by explicating a concept of ‘radical digital citizenship’, and its implications for digital education. The arguments they advanced drew on a co-authored paper, published in Critical Studies in Education. Professor Emejulu and Dr McGregor argued that radical digital citizenship must push beyond ameliorative conceptions of digital citizenship, wherein the role of education is to bridge the ‘digital divide’ for the benefit of groups failing to be flexible enough to survive under the conditions of neoliberal techno-capitalism. They proposed that such an educational task involves two co-constitutive elements: (1) critical analysis of the political, economic and environmental consequences of digital technology in everyday life; (2) collective deliberation and action to build alternative and emancipatory techno-social practices.
This was followed by a response from Dr Emma Dowling[iii] (Senior Researcher, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Sociology at the University of Jena) and Dr Huw Davies[iv] (researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and Convener of the BSA’s Digital Sociology study group). These inputs acted as stimuli to a lively and convivial discussion with attendees over tea and coffee. Below, respondents Emma and Huw share their reflections:
“The crucial question Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor ask is what makes the digital possible, looking at the extraction of natural resources and gendered, racialised and classed human labour that the development of digital technologies is premised upon. Their analysis makes three core proposals that could orient a radical digital education. First of all they caution against the instrumentalisation of digital education for neoliberal ends and urge for an understanding of what global social relations constitute the digital and condition the effects that digitalisation has. Moreover, their approach signals a commitment to social justice that insists on a critical pedagogy with the capacity not just for an analysis of the power relations behind digitalisation, but a commitment to transforming them. Transforming these power relations requires the identification of key sites of transformation. Undoubtedly these are conflictual terrains of struggle about how the materiality of the digital is spoken about and organised. Naming forms of exploitation is part of the struggle to transform them. A recent example is the way in which critical voices have refused to settle on the term ‘sharing economy’ that makes invisible the hyper-exploited forms of work undertaken by people providing services such as driving, delivering food or cleaning houses in platform capitalism. The more recent term ‘gig economy’, while in and of itself not changing those conditions, nonetheless gives a name to these activities as work and draws attention to the precarious ways in which this work is organised. Making sense of the affective structures of precariousness is another way in which agencies for transformation can be unearthed, because this allows for subjective everyday experiences to be deindividualised and related to the social structures that produce them. Critical pedagogies for digital education must do so much more than provide mere skills to process information and compete in an ever-more precarious labour market. Instead, radical digital citizens committed to social justice must be able to question and challenge the forms of exploitation, expropriation and oppression that are entangled in today’s algorithms.”
“I found Emejulu & McGregor’s Towards a radical digital citizenship in digital education (2016) inspiring. Their paper shows some of the most cited scholarship on digital skills and literacies is ‘sociology-lite’. This literature draws-up taxonomies and descriptions of normatively defined skills and literacies which once translated into curriculum plans become part of the problem of digital inequality rather than its solution. Emejulu & McGregor argue we shouldn’t disengage ‘the digital’ from the all the historic and continuing struggles for equality because, despite the utopian rhetoric, digital technology is quickly maturing into another exclusionary and privileging technology of power.
For example, every child from years 1 to 9 in England is to study Computer Science before being offered it as an option at GCSE. However, there is growing concern that the digital economy–far from being the meritocracy that is suggested in the discourse about the 4th industrial revolution–is becoming a ‘ruthless stratifier’ (Posner, 2017). This is because the dominant mode of production for the digital economy is ‘platform capitalism’ (Srnicek, 2016): a winner takes all system (Kenney and Zysman 2016) that allows the owners of platforms to operate exploitative employment practices that harness the affordances and fragilities of immaterial labour (Friedman 2014; Hill 2015; Leyshon et al. 2016), such as the ability to code. One of the myths of anti-immigration discourse is that if we close our borders natives will no longer have to compete with foreigners for jobs. But platform capitalism’s use of immaterial labour to create a transnational playing field (so that jobs with digital outputs such as software engineering can be put out to tender to an international workforce) means young people will be competing in global market place while having to pay for local living expenses. Therefore, to avoid their exploitation we can’t just rely on teaching young people to code (or skills and literacies) they need to be thinking about they can use these skills to challenge the architectures of digital economy’s dominant socio-technical structures (Davies & Eynon, forthcoming).
As a respondent, I took the opportunity to argue the most constructive contribution I can make is to help transform Digital Sociology into a respected mainstream subject that can influence the content of curriculums for all ages and levels. I described Digital Sociology as the most effective discipline for challenging platform capitalism. I argued that sociologists are able to draw on strong traditions to challenge the ideologies behind platform capitalism, but to understand code and digital infrastructures and their relationship to the political economy we have some way to go. Then (Digital) Sociology can offer a critique, which can become the foundation ethical alternatives to platform capitalism’s monopolies.”
[i] The public lecture was also funded with the support of the Institute for Education, Community and Society and the Centre for Research in Digital Education. Also, thanks to Dr Karen Gregory and Dr Jen Ross, who acted as chair and digital chair, respectively. Finally, particular thanks to learning technologist Barrie Barreto for livestreaming and recording the event.
[ii] If you are interested in participating in this group and helping it to develop, please contact Karen Gregory (firstname.lastname@example.org), Callum McGregor (email@example.com), or Jen Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org).
[iii] Emma’s interests cover global social justice, feminist political economy and affective and emotional labour. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the Crisis of Care to be published by Verso Books.
[iv] Huw’s research combines social theory with mixed, digital and ethnographic, methods to help critically re-evaluate how we approach young people’s digital literacies.