About technical objects, technology and ideology – Rebuttal of @hackeducation on blockchains (Part 3) #BadgeChain

Audrey Watters recently published a series of posts in the hope “of writing a clear explanation […] of what blockchain is”: The Blockchain in Education: Questions, The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction, and The Ideology of the Blockchain (for Education)

Part 1 challenged the author’s understanding of “trust” and the use of non sequitur, part 2 challenged the author’s understanding of the complexity of the relationship between technical objects, technology and ideology and the use of non-refutable statements (like the one quoted below). This part will challenge further the understanding of the author and her capacity to construct well structured arguments.

To elicit Audrey Watters’ sense of argumentation, let’s take the following statement:

Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology

While this might sound like a profound insight to the casual reader, the problem is that it fails the most elementary falsification test — being able to refute its contents. For that we suggest the following questions:

  • What technologies have not reinforced the “dominant ideology”?
  • Did computer and communications technologies only profit the “dominant ideology”?

Further on Audrey Watters writes:

To suggest that the blockchain is ideology-free is folly. […] what are the ideological underpinnings of these technologies? 

When I refer to the dictionary on my MacBook Air, I read:

underpinning |ˈʌndəpɪnɪŋ|
1 a solid foundation laid below ground level to support or strengthen a building.
2 a set of ideas, motives, or devices which justify or form the basis for something: the theoretical underpinning for free-market economics.”

Based on the common understanding of “underpinning,” the question of the author could be reformulated as:

  • what are the ideological foundations of these technologies? or
  • what are the ideological ideas, motives, or devices which justify or form the basis of these technologies?

From this question, one would assume that the position of the author is that the causal relationship goes from “ideology” (the “underpinning” force)” to technologies (the “underpinned”). This might also be a typo or an involuntary misuse of a noun, but the reading of the three posts would tend to indicate that, for the author, ideology is a cause rather than a post-rationalisation of technologies.

Ideology and technology

The history of technological innovations is a long succession of :

  • Wrong science: “”Heavier than air flying machines are impossible” Lord Kelvin (1895)
  • Over-expectations: “The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” Guglielmo Marconi (1912)
  • Under-expectations: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (1977)
  • Denial : “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO (2007)

If there is one lesson to be retained from the history of technological innovations, it is that innovation generally comes as a surprise, including to the “dominant ideology.” One of the key qualities of a “dominant ideology” is… its capacity to absorb innovation into its narrative rather that its capacity to create an innovation at its service.   To illustrate that point, I will refer to the academic debate about the Stirrup Thesis, “the theory that feudalism in Europe was largely the result of the introduction of the stirrup to cavalry” (link). While this thesis has been challenged, what is clear whether one supports the theory developed by Lynn Townsend White Jr. in his 1962 book, Medieval Technology and Social Change, or his critics, the stirrup might be a cause (White), or not (White’s critics), but certainly not the product of the feudal ideology.

A more recent study of the relationships between technical innovation and ideology is James W. Carey’s book Communication As Culture, and more specifically Chapter 8 entitled “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph” (link).

For Carey:

There are three relationships between the telegraph and ideology. […]

The first is the relationship between the telegraph and monopoly capitalism […] that is, the telegraph was a new and distinctively different force of production that demanded a new body of law, economic theory, political arrangements, management techniques, organizational structures, and scientific rationales with which to justify and make effective the development of a privately owned and controlled monopolistic corporation. […]

Second, the telegraph was the first product—really the foundation—of the electrical goods industry and thus the first of the science- and engineering-based industries. […]

Third, the telegraph brought about changes in the nature of language, of ordinary knowledge, of the very structures of awareness. Although in its early days the telegraph was used as a toy—as was the computer, which it prefigured—for playing long-distance chess, its implications for human knowledge were the subject of extended, often euphoric, and often pessimistic debate.”

This long quotation is important in order to understand the complexity of the relationships between technology and ideology. While studying this relationship Carey elicits the nature of the technological innovation:

The most important fact about the telegraph is at once the most obvious and innocent: It permitted for the first time the effective separation of communication from transportation. […]

Before the telegraph, “communication” was used to describe transportation as well as message transmittal for the simple reason that the movement of messages was dependent on their being carried on foot or horseback or by rail. The telegraph, by ending the identity, allowed symbols to move independently of and faster than transportation.

If one was to follow Carey’s steps when analysing the blockchain, one might be tempted to write something like:

The most important fact about the blockchain is at once the most obvious and innocent: It permitted for the first time the effective integration of trust and security […]

Before the blockchain, security was extrinsic to trust: information systems were designed with the idea that thicker and higher digital walls (security) were the means to establishing trust. The “trustworthiness” was dependent on the level of “security.” The blockchain, by making security* intrinsic to trust, allows trustworthy transactions to be established between entities that do not trust each other without the need for a central authority.

* through a clean separation between the record of a transaction and its details obfuscated through encryption.

While some, like me, foresee the “disruptive power” underpinned by the blockchain technology, I know that it is just a “potential” that is likely to be suppressed by the current system to be integrated into the status quo (c.f. The law of the suppression of radical potential, an idea described by Brian Winston in his book, Misunderstanding Media).

So, if there is something one should fear, that is if one is a shaker and mover, it is more the inertia and absorbent capacity of the system than the possible unsavoury disruptions imagined by A. Watters:

Arguably, the blockchain and its potential applicability to education is much more obviously “ideologically freighted,” because of its connections to the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

According to A. Watters, the blockchain is not just “ideologically freighted” but “much more” because of its unsavoury connections. This kind of argument is part of the fallacies named “ad hominem” also called “guilt by association” and “association fallacy.”

Ad hominem, short for argumentum ad hominem, is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. Wikipedia

The form of the argument is as follows (c.f. Wikipedia):

  • Source S makes claim CI want to use the blockchain in education
  • Group G, which is currently viewed negatively by the recipient, also makes claim C. — Bitcoin people (very unsavoury people!) want to use the blockchain in education
  • Therefore, source S is viewed by the recipient of the claim as associated to the group G and inherits how negatively viewed it is — you suck!

Let’s recognize, of course, that there might be competing and even incompatible interests at play here

Casually adding this remark in the last paragraph of a post that is supposed to explore ideology is beyond perfunctory. As is the use of non-sequitur, non-refutable arguments and ad hominem. Had A. Watters explored “blockchain and ideology” (the “and” makes the whole difference) she might have recognised the diversity of “ideologies” that are making use of the technical object named blockchain. By ignoring the possibility of the “and” as connector between ideology-technology, the study of “The Ideology of the Blockchain” (the title of her last post) could only lead to a dead end.

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