“It is obviously true that most bomber pilots are no better and no worse than other men. The majority of them given a can of petrol and told to pour it over a child of three and ignite it, would probably disobey the order. Yet, put a decent man in an aeroplane a few hundred feet above a village, and he will kill, without compunction, drop high explosives and napalm and inflict appalling pain and injury on men, women and children. The distance between him and the people he is bombing makes them into an impersonal target, no longer human beings like himself with whom he can identify” (Storr, 1968, p. 112).
This paper will examine the phenomenon of social “Othering” as it may arise from the use of information and communication technologies1 in educational settings (Mountz, 2009; Oztok, 2014). This inquiry is based on extant research literature and will, in some detail, look at social, discursive, and practical characteristics of information technologies, how these characteristics may extend hegemonic systems of power, and the relationships of that power to the educational enterprise. This inquiry will consider the various ways that Othering is enacted in educational settings compromised by the inequitable implementations of technology. It will also consider how Othering limits the agency and opportunities of learners who have been Othered. A number of recommendations will be addressed.
The opening quote in this paper, by Anthony Storr, presents an alarming metaphor that has occasionally been misattributed to media scholar Marshall McLuhan (2003, p. 286). Storr spoke solely in terms of human violence. McLuhan’s use of the metaphor, however, connects to this paper’s discussion regarding technology and Othering. In connecting Storr’s visualization to the sharing of electronic media, McLuhan draws attention to the distance between information technology and its users. An increased degree of distance, according to McLuhan, allows those who deploy information technology to decrease their regard for the humanity of the audience. Audience members become “impersonal targets” and their physical distance provides for a certain affective detachment. The power of electronic media, in McLuhan’s view, is such that it could level tragic effects upon an audience and that the “bomber pilots” of media and technology could well be unaware of those grievous consequences (2003; Storr, 1968, p. 112).
The Other and their production through Othering is evident in Storr’s narrative of a bomber pilot. There are various ways of understanding the Other and Othering: most are not as lethal as the one given by Storr but they still remain disruptive at best. For the purpose of this paper, a definition provided by Oztok clearly touches on the key points:
“The Other is a stereotypical form of identification and fixed mode of representation. Othering is a process by which societies form and sustain symbolic boundaries through cultural hegemony in order to exclude or segregate whom they want to subordinate. By marginalizing subordinate culture’s perspectives or extenuating their experiences, the dominant culture articulates its difference and reproduces cultural hegemony” (2014, p. 37).
Mountz (2009) provides a strong examination of how and why Othering occurs. What sets Oztok’s definition apart is his emphasis on the action of subjugation onto the Other and the entrenchment of the values and claims of dominant cultures. Similar understandings of Othering are articulated by McDermott and Varenne (1995) and by Sterzuk (2015).
This paper will start by identifying some of the characteristics of information technology, such as novelty, and the kinds of activity, such as the exercise of power, that set the stage for Othering.
Technology, Power, and Education
The Allure of the New
The rationale of information technology for education — or for other applications, for that matter — has not necessarily been that these technologies were designed for the given purposes. Many times, it may well be that a given technology is simply a solution seeking a problem to solve. A solution could well be shoe-horned to a particular problem — the fit may not be the best but contemporary faith in technology has been a driver for acceptance of these types of solutions. It would not be unusual that an engineering or technology project, as may be the case in research or academic contexts, is endeavoured simply to demonstrate a certain technical feat to be accomplished. On the one hand, there is a place and role for such discoveries and demonstrations. On the other hand, whether there is a practical application may be secondary to the endeavour. Contemporary society has valourized notions of progress and innovation without regard to what these packagings of newness may be offering, if anything. At the same time, questioning technological solutions has often been discouraged, even vilified. This, it would seem, stems from an unblinking “faith in science, in the positive benefits of technology, and in the belief [that] progress is inevitable and good” (Hlynka & Yeaman, 1992, p. 1). With little regard to its perils, this faith “has now become one of the sacred and unquestioned truths of our modern value system” (Francis, 2010, p. 14).
Burbules provides an incisive discussion of the seductive nature of novelty and newness surrounding information technology (2016). As a characteristic, the new simply displaces the old. Newness is fetishized: it is fresh, young, and full of promise. But it is illusory and it is inherently divisive. From the standpoint of technology, newness is the beginning of Othering. The new reveals the old, stale, and the exhausted. The heralding of newness implies shortcomings in existing situations — or persons. The new has come to imply improvement and has been uncritically accepted as such. Newness should be seen as “an artifact of our imaginations and… not a characteristic of things” (Burbules, 2016, p. 16). Therefore, newness of technology is inadequate as a feature for any practical use. Newness is transitory. After a time, what was at one time new is no longer new. Despite the enduring trope of “new and improved,” the new may provide a replacement but it is not synonymous with any kind of improvement (Burbules, 2016, p. 9). Fixation on the new or on innovation for their own sake becomes an impediment to actual improvement. Due to the seductive nature of the new and faith in innovation, those who are passionate about educational technologies and perhaps dependent on them are likely to find the critical examination of these technologies to be difficult (Selwyn, 2011). Without critically challenging the introduction of new technologies, proponents may come across “unintended consequences and unanticipated (and often contradictory) effects” (Wajcman, 2008, p. 70).
Meaning and Power
From the outset, social characteristics of technology allow for in-groups to form and for social exclusion to be activated. According to Dusek and others (2006; Selwyn, 2011; Verenikina, 2010), technology is given meaning and purpose through socially negotiated interactions. As already discussed, newness is one of these negotiated meanings. Whether we agree that a technology is new or not depends on a number of factors and contexts, among them our conception of “new.” Our interactions with technology are socially mediated. Culture gives technology meaning through established cultural values, traditions, and even linguistic attributes. The purposes to which technology is applied are culturally mediated. Part of this negotiation is the meaning ascribed by the originators of a given technology through capabilities made manifest through affordances. Affordances can be obvious, much like a doorknob, or obscured, as in particular types of electrical wiring and connectors. The decisions in the design of these affordances grants the technology creators a certain degree of power over how a technology may be used. This power is culturally informed and it may or may not align with the culture of the user. In some cases, meanings and affordances may be deliberately, or even maliciously, obscured by technology creators (Bösch, Erb, Kargl, Kopp, & Pfattheicher, 2016). In the course of negotiating a meaning or purpose to the technology, users may find alternative practical applications — or perhaps none at all — depending on how the users’ cultural norms inform their understanding of the affordances. Utility may be communicated in some way from the creators to the users, for example, through marketing messages or instruction manuals. Utility can also be passed along through user cohorts, where in-group users share their knowledge with out-group users. In all cases, culture and technology interact in a process of “social construction of technology” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 87). “Intersubjectivity” becomes the locus of these shared meanings (Verenikina, 2010, p. 18). Vygotsky claims that the mastery of technology, through social processes and with the technological tool acting as a mediator of activities, is more correctly understood as a mastering of one’s self (1978, p. 55) rather than a mastering of the technology, per se. Because culture plays a role in this process, through perception and cognition, technical mastery resides in the user and this mastery may leverage or compromise one’s cultural values.
The negotiation of technical meaning and purpose raises a linguistic aspect of this process. In the process of creating a technology a cultural encoding takes place. This encoding is then decoded using cultural constructs of meaning. In Vygotsky’s view, this is akin to how spoken language is transformed into written form. The written form then gives way to more complex or abstract conceptions that can be encoded using those forms (1978, p. 106). Later theorists have characterized this process as one of writing, or configuring, and then reading, or interpreting, a text, equating any technology to a text that could be read (Hlynka & Yeaman, 1992; Selwyn, 2011; Woolgar, 1991). In this analysis, language and culture are recognized as outward manifestations of technology. These manifestations of technology define an arena in which belonging and identity may be contested.
The social negotiation of meaning within information technology may not be equitable or fair. The creation, selection, and implementation of technology can be manipulated by dominant interests and, more critically, may reproduce and magnify social and political power (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86). Technocracies exist wherever power is leveraged through information technology (Dusek, 2006). Technocracies privilege information technology and, in the context of societal challenges, Feenberg argues that such privileging is “politically and morally significant” (2010, p. 2). Feenberg also states that:
“Technology is a two-sided phenomenon: on the one hand the operator, on the other the object. Where both operator and object are human beings, technical action is an exercise of power. Where, further, society is organized around technology, technological power is the principle form of power in the society” (2010, p. 2).
Selwyn goes on to observe that in a technocracy, “issues such as gender, race, social class, identity, power, inequality and so on are all sidelined in favour of the technological” (2011, p. 83). Technology becomes a tool of control, inverting relationships and placing human individuals in the service of technology “not in their full right as… human beings, but as cogs and levers…” (Weiner, as cited in Francis, 2010, p. 26). This extends to temporal demands where “constant availability” is extracted through various information technologies (Wajcman, 2008, p. 68).
Through the social construction of meaning and the application of technical, social, political power, a technological Other is created. Separate from the creators and administrators of the technologies, the technological Other — known as a user — is subject to the affordances and limitations that have been incorporated into a given technology. The technological tool through technocratic power is privileged in contradistinction from its user. Feenberg laments that “users are decontextualized in the sense that they are stripped of body and community in front of the terminal and positioned as detached technical subjects. At the same time, a highly simplified world is disclosed to the user” (2010, p. 9).
Technology in Education
Despite the criticisms levelled so far, many instances of information technology have been incorporated into educational settings with some degree of success. It has been conceded that with technology, teachers may “no longer [need be] the source of data but of insight” (H. M. McLuhan, 2003, p. 10). Jonassen and Reeves identify implementations of educational technologies as “cognitive tools” (1996, p. 695). Ally (2008) provides an extensive analysis of learning contexts in which technology may excel as a support. Some acknowledge the need for “advanced pedagogies” when implementing educational technologies (Verenikina, 2010, p. 24). Burbules summarizes that “new technologies are neither the key to solving education’s problems, nor a blight that will make those problems worse” (2016, p. 14).
With these words of caution, a number of challenges must be pointed out. Contemporary risks of information technology in the classroom include learner safety and privacy with social media and other online communications. Technologies in various forms have increased levels of stress on teachers. In many cases, there has been no significant improvements to teacher workloads. Online technologies have also presented challenges to boundaries between students’ in-class, extra-curricular, and personal communications (Seaman & Tinti-Kane, 2013).
Selwyn argues for studies “to address questions of how digital technologies (re)produce social relations and whose interests they serve” (2011, p. 93). Despite best efforts, educational technology by its very nature may decontextualize time, geography, and social connections from learning activities (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996). The research of Nichols and Allen-Brown suggests that certain approaches with educational technology “may fail to engage many learners’ emotions and cultural experiences” (1996, p. 245). Nichols and Allen-Brown also warn how:
“Educational technology includes the ways in which technology gets into learning and schooling without anyone taking much formal notice. A number of authors… argue that infusions of technology into learning and schooling are not guided so much by conscious, empirical, theoretical knowledge about learning… [and] have many deleterious and often hidden effects” (1996, p. 226).
Clearly, the domain of educational technology is claimed by competing pedagogies (or lack thereof), politics, technologists, and other interests. It should be no wonder, then, that values that are not education-centred enter into this sphere, various forms of turf are being contested, and rather than taking captives, the dominant forces choose to strip power from Others, place the Others on the periphery, and then further entrench their own dominant cultural stakes.
Freire (2000) had already described these types of conflicts. The brokers of corporate and nation-state power hope to maintain their power and today are able to replicate cultural hegemony more efficiently through electronic media. Information technology in the classroom may not be entirely neutral in how it could position and marginalize certain classes of users through the social discourses surrounding technology. A program of Othering moves dissenters outside the critical circle of discourse.
More recently, researchers have warned of the incursion of neoliberalism into schools. Giroux warns of technocratic control where “the substitution of technology for pedagogy… [offers] a dehumanizing pedagogy for students” (2015,”Marketing the University,” para. 28). To some, “schools and colleges have… become sites for branding and the targets of corporate expansion” with the goal being “the creation of the neoliberal subject” whose only value is economic and consumerist (Blum & Ullman, 2012, p. 368). Left outside the interests of democratic communities, the entire scholastic enterprise can be seen as a frontline for Othering.
Culture and Othering
Dimensions of Othering
In order to frame the larger discussion of social Othering this paper has considered the perceived novelty of information technology, how technology is understood and negotiated through social discourse, how hegemonic power enters into technological control, and how technology is introduced into educational settings. A number of challenges arise in all these areas. Key among those challenges, especially in a discussion about Othering, is how technology is cast as a cultural product. As a cultural product, certain cultures are privileged over others and through this privileging, certain values come to the fore. These values may then be imposed upon the technological space and individuals may then be judged using those values. This section elaborates on the kinds of Othering that appear within contexts of technology and education.
The stereotypical forms used in Othering arise in language. According to McDermott and Varenne, most of the almost 30,000 English-language descriptors for individual persons are set up as binary pairs, “usually one with a positive and one with a negative connotation” (1995, p. 345). Othering becomes an exercise in choosing a desired binary differentiation and then applying the pejorative form — often “deviant or non-normative” — to an individual who does not fit the valued characteristic (Mountz, 2009, p. 328). The newness or novelty ascribed to information technologies imply characteristics such as better, improved, or advanced (Burbules, 2016, p. 9) — these, in turn, are cast as values against to which individuals may or may not subscribe. One’s rejection of these dominant values provides a target for Othering.
Thus, newness and novelty are a cultural value from which Others are constructed. The very choice of adopting any technology at all may become a value expression around which Othering may occur. The binary negative characteristics of these values may be “out-of-date,” “antique,” or perhaps even “Luddite” (Hlynka, 2014).
Technological competence may be another arena in which values are contested. Competence of any sort if a cultural construct, even more so when organized around another cultural construct such as technology. A dominant group may make competence claims around technology where those displaying inadequate skill are deemed the Other. Negative labels may well call into question the Others’ overall intellectual abilities when technological knowledge is the only one of those which is valued (McDermott & Varenne, 1995).
Nonconformity to dominant power structures and values may be used to initiate Othering. The social negotiation of meaning around educational technology has been seen to be dominated by corporate, nation-state, and cultural hegemonic power (Blum & Ullman, 2012; Giroux, 2015; Oztok, 2014). Negative labels that may be ascribed to such dissenters may include pejoratives such as “paranoid,” “trouble-maker,” or some political marker depending on circumstances.
A type of Othering particular to contemporary information technologies stems from a widely-held concept of the “digital divide” (Britz, 2004; McMahon, 2013; Oztok, 2014; E. M. Rogers, 2003, p. 468). The digital divide establishes a frontier between the technological endowed and the technologically impoverished. The focus is on access to information technology and not on people’s actual human needs or even on underlying social conditions or challenges. The digital divide assumes acceptance of a particular value and desire, that being technological. It can be seen to venerate technology before people (Britz, 2004). By articulating a particular kind of “divide” other forms of division are seen as less worthy of attention (Selwyn, 2011). A very particular negative label has been ascribed for this type of Other: the “techno-peasant” (Hlynka, 2014, p. 35).
The values articulated here are cultural and social construals. They are raised as barriers by individuals in social discourse. In order to protect the belief of the positivity of modernity and its creations, such as technology, these barriers construct Others who might not share the same values, who may not fit the expectations of the in-group, and who do not — by some arbitrary measure — belong. In short, Othering is an ongoing social project in which many people collude, even within the supposedly rational realm of information technology. Dividing points have been set up, as arbitrary as any. The dominant proponents protecting their faith in technology become “disablers” of those who are outside that group, the “disabled” (McDermott & Varenne, 1995, p. 327).
Identity, Privilege, and Colonialism
This final section elaborates on forms of Othering that stem from racism, colonialism, and identity politics but also intersect with information technology in education. These are particularly powerful and contested areas of conflict, even outside the realms of information technology and educational technology.
Larsen describes historically marginalized individuals who may never even enter into consideration for participation or involvement with information technology. They are subject to characterizations as “low ranking, subjugated, or disqualified” (2015, p. 115). Spivak identifies “subaltern” individuals, created through systemic oppression, as ones unable to represent themselves at all due to systemic, social relations that have been cast upon them (1988). The exclusion of the subaltern extends to all areas of life, not just to the realm of information technology. As Others within the realm of information technology, these individuals would not necessarily be named but they may be excluded from any meaningful decision-making. They would be invisible in their Otherness.
Individuals whose cultures do not conform to dominant cultures embodied in technology may be Othered. The expression of non-dominant cultural values and behaviours may be construed as disabilities (McDermott & Varenne, 1995; Zhao, 2001). At best, a negative label assigned to these Others may be “different.” Without an effort to understand the cultural differences, the dominant culture may exclude these Others either simply out-of-hand or with hostility, depending on the degree of misunderstanding between cultures.
Medical conditions construed as disabilities are best understood as cultural fabrications. The terminology used to describe the various characteristics of individuals with such conditions varies widely. Historically, individuals with “disabilities” were treated differently but not in ways necessarily to their benefit. Today, exclusion of these Others in the realm of information technology will vary depending on the medical conditions. Fortunately, contemporary information technologies may be enabling devices in many cases. However, such supports ought not be taken for granted (McDermott & Varenne, 1995).
As a core component of culture, language is a vigorously contested area in educational technologies. Language is a cultural yardstick that includes not just vocabularies and grammars, but also accents and notions about race, nationality, and belonging. Thus, Others are created according to the extent of their vocabulary in a given language, their command of grammar, and the degree of differentiating accent which may differ from dominant speakers in a group, all as perceived through the lens of a dominant linguistic group. The ephemeral notion of the “native” speaker of a language is contested and measures of language “proficiency” are socially constructed (Sterzuk, 2015, pp. 60, 62). Language and its facets may be used to determine nation-state affiliation and to arbitrarily exclude those who do not fit some notion of “correct” language usage (Sterzuk, 2015, p. 61). Linguistic Othering can be seen to reinforce a “racial hierarchy” (Sterzuk, 2015, p. 56). Fleming (2003) raises questions concerning nation-state versus personal conceptions of identity, all the while tied to language. Delpit and Dowdy (2002) at the same time challenge any linguistic lines that are drawn at all. Despite the flourishing of debate in the space of interpersonal language and identity, information technology is constrained. Only a small subset of languages are generally available within educational technologies, with English being by far the most privileged. There are language projects that aim to revitalize Canadian Indigenous languages, for example, but they are still designed to be installed on systems that privilege other languages (Brand, Herbert, & Boechler, 2016). Thus speakers of non-dominant languages are Othered.
Stemming from language is literacy. It is similar in many respects to technological competence, mentioned earlier. Literacy is a culturally constructed metric around the cultural construct of written language. It is a highly valued skill in many societies but societies may define this skill in different ways. Just as for language, contemporary information technology is limited in the varieties of literacies it can accommodate. Thus, certain individuals who are literate in one way may not be literate in the way that the information technology has been made to expect. These alternate literacies create yet another vector for Othering (McDermott & Varenne, 1995).
Epistemologies — or ways-of-knowing — are also an area of Othering within society at large. Unfortunately, the design of contemporary information technology, much as it does for language and literacy, falls short in recognizing non-dominant epistemologies. Furthermore, not only are certain ways of knowing privileged, but so are certain kinds of knowledge. Information technology and its application in education — at least in Canada — would simply replicate “the process of cognitive imperialism” that had been part of its history (Battiste, 2004, p. 120). Canadian Indigenous peoples maintain traditions of knowledge-keepers, sacred knowledge, and other knowledge practices — concepts that are excluded by default in contemporary technologies (Battiste, 2004; Cowden & Singh, 2013; Larsen, 2015). In general, according to Francis, information technology “is only one form of knowledge and not necessarily the best at coming to terms with complex social problems arising out of the very technology that needs to be studied and addressed” (2010, p. 16). Exclusion of specialized knowledge and epistemologies construct another unnamed Othering.
White privilege in countries such as Canada provide for the construction of the non-white Other. It is invisible to those carrying the privilege because it is the subjugation, suspicion, and daily indignities that they do not experience which make up this particular privilege. Along with white privilege comes white entitlement: an expectation of continuing privilege; white resentment: when the privilege is pointed out or removed; and white supremacy: that white people possess the best of individual characteristics. Through its invisibility to the possessors of this privilege, this form of racism is covert and systemic. As are many if not all of the earlier starting points for Othering, this one, too, is a cultural construct (Larsen, 2015; Schick, 2014). It is enacted in many ways, from competition for resources such as jobs, to identity claims surrounding language (Fleming, 2003; Sterzuk, 2015). Information technology may provide some respite from this particular Othering by providing a shield of anonymity. However, this strategy would make the Other invisible in different manner.
Parallel to white privilege and similar to nonconformity, discussed earlier, Othering can occur when individuals choose to reject social systems they perceive as racist. Those who accept the system may construct the dissident as an Other. The particular issue for this example is a culture’s attitudes with regard to tradition and teachings. The dominant Canadian culture, for example, keeps written records and transmits information with little or no regard for its origins. Indigenous Canadian culture, on the other hand, values the origins of narratives, relationships among kin, clan, and beyond, and, in general, has a more holistic ethic in its handling of its traditional and historic narratives and relations. Protocols, particular to the people of a given Indigenous community, must be followed. This is not to say that dominant Canadian culture does not have its own protocols. Rather, they are different and they conflict with others’. Information technology, in this case, is of little help. Dusek observes that technology likely “undermines traditional nationalities and local cultures” (2006, p. 101). Sarkar and Lavoie (2014) share similar concerns regarding traditional cultures and technology. In defending holistic and integral cultural traditions in the way of Indigenous peoples, Gunn Allen demands: “If people die as a result of preserving tradition in the white way of preservation, for whom will the tradition be preserved?” (1990, pp. 380–381).
Oztok cautions that “online learning environments can reproduce inequitable learning conditions when the context requires certain individuals to assimilate mainstream beliefs and values at the expense of their own identities” (2014, pp. ii–iii). Rejecting this concern commences the process of Othering.
There may be several ways to remediate Othering at the juncture of information technology and education. Garmon (2005) provides a perspective that addresses the educational frontline. In Garmon’s view, there are teacher characteristics — “dispositional factors” — that would have significant positive influence on learners’ own perspectives about diversity: “openness, self-awareness/self-reflectiveness, and commitment to social justice” (2005, p. 276). In addition, Garmon lists “experiential factors” — “intercultural experiences, educational experiences, and support group experiences” (2005, p. 276). These characteristics equip teachers to model and provide appropriate responses to learners in their inquiries of cultural difference. These may be innate or they may be provided through training.
The role for instructional designers is to address appropriate selection and use of technologies in education (P. C. Rogers, Graham, & Mayes, 2007). This would require the careful consideration of cultural communities and probably their active involvement. Information technologies are likely to continue to be created and introduced in much the same way to schools as to society at large. Capitulation to this tsunami would never be an appropriate pedagogical response.
Molnar (2012) discusses social Othering more broadly, outside the realm of education, and provides some general guidance for its remediation. Molnar encourages the welcoming of the “uniqueness of others” (2012, p. 39). This goes beyond mere tolerance and diversity sensitivity — Molnar urges openness to the point of vulnerability in the act of welcoming. This requires ethics, face-to-face presence, and responsibility. Molnar claims that “our subjectivity and ethical reality emerge in the presence of others and [we become] indebted to them” (2012, p. 40). Such a process allows one to not only witness another culture but to inform one’s own culture with a new world-view.
Continued Othering is not a desirable state. Differences among people will always remain. An understanding that differences inform the educational experience rather than detract from it may be a critical insight for teachers and learners alike. In the longer term, “studies of race and sexuality, gender and class, ability and disability will not be cast off to the margins of [learning] but will infuse and inform them” (Mountz, 2009, p. 338).
Finally, Applebaum (2012) frames white privilege — and, in a way, any kind of privilege — not as a source of blame. Rather, she frames it within an ethic of critique. In this way, the world is addressed and accepted as it is, where it is, with honesty, for the betterment of all.
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