Resisting techno-solutionism, resisting the Pied Piper, reclaiming the story: A personal reflection on Audrey Watter’s keynote at ICDE2015

Listening to Audrey Watters at the recently held ICDE2015 in which she provided a radical and critical interrogation of the Silicon Valley narrative, I could not help but think about the legend/myth of the Pied Piper. It is said that in 1284 the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation. As if called, a piper, claiming to be a rat-catcher, appeared. With the mayor being at the end of his wits with the plague, the piper promised to rid the town of the rats for a sum of 1000 guilders. After the mayor agreed, the piper fulfilled his side of the contract by luring the rats into the river by playing on his pipe. On return to claim his payment for services rendered, the mayor reneged on his promise and only paid half of the promised sum. The piper swore to take revenge, left the town in anger only to return later. While the villagers were in church, the piper lured the town’s children into a cave by playing on his pipe. The children were never seen again. According to the legend, three children survived the ordeal – a lame child that could not follow quickly enough, a deaf child that did not hear the music, and a blind child that was unable to see where the rest of the children were going.

In my own version of the story I would imagine there was a fourth child that survived the ordeal – a girl with the name of Audrey – who recognized the piper for who he was and like a modern-day Cassandra warned the children not to follow the Pied Piper but the children did not believe her…

It is difficult to underestimate the impact the work of Audrey Watters had on my personal understanding of #edtech in the context of higher education. Audrey’s passion, incisive analysis and critical scholarship is a breathe of fresh air in the often incestuous discourses on technology, the latest disruption, the latest claims and products of venture capitalists and the captive gaze of technology as Medusa on higher education management and governments.

It was therefore an immense privilege for Audrey to have been invited as the second keynote to ICDE2015. The title of her keynote was “Technology imperialism, the Californian ideology, and the future of Higher education” focusing on “the future of edtech as imagined and narrated by Silicon Valley.” Her keynote was especially important in the context of education on the African continent where “Africa” is often the code for ‘new markets’ in the narratives of Silicon Valley. Examples include “Facebook satellite to beam internet to remote regions in Africa”, “Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Invests $10M In E. Africa’s Low Cost Private Schools Firm”, Mark Zuckerberg launching in Ghana, and “Zuckerberg: Facebook’s mission is to ‘connect the world.”

Despite being very critical, (if not skeptical) about the different claims Silicon Valley (and specifically Mark Zuckerberg) makes with regard to education, Audrey agrees with the sentiments expressed by Neil Selwyn (2014) – “While undoubtedly of great potential benefit, it is clear that educational technology is a value-laden site of profound struggle that some people benefit more than others – most probably in terms of power and profit” (p. 2). What makes Audrey and Neil’s voices so important is the fact that many (most?) academics and managers in higher education have an apparent “blind spot” for the ideological, political and economic nature and even possibly basis of educational technology. We are sleepwalking through our mediations with technology – a phenomenon called “technological somnambulism” (Winner, 2004, in Selwyn, 2014, p. 3). [Or blindly following the Silicon Valley Pied Piper].

It is easy to think of educational technology just in terms of platforms and tools we need to understand educational technology “as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that are riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 6).

Scholars like Watters and Selwyn may be accused of being over-critical or even pessimistic. In defense of them it can be stated that “there is little to be gained from maintaining a Pollyannaish stance towards technology use in education”, especially in the light of the fact that educational technology is not bringing about the changes and transformations that many people would like to believe” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 15). Selwyn (2014) actually suggests a “purposeful pursuit of pessimism” (p. 15) – not as resignation to a fate determined by others, but “as an active engagement with continuous alternatives” (p. 16). In doing so the intention is to “slow down the pace of our discussions in the face of fast-moving, rapidly changing and often ephemeral nature” of educational technology (p. 17).

In her keynote, Audrey, so to speak, unmasked the Pied Piper as the captains of technology and more specifically educational technologies in Silicon Valley. So why Silicon Valley?

What became the Internet originated in California in 1969 and since then the discourses about the Internet were imagined, shaped and told by Silicon Valley. The main tenets of this narrative are how the Internet and access to the Internet will benefit all, how access to the Internet is a human right – but not in the sense of having freedom of expression, or freedom of association, or a passion for social justice, or resulting in a more equitable and just society. Connectivity, and access to the Internet is, according to Audrey, Silicon Valley’s shorthand for new markets as well as the extraction and monetization of personal data…

As such Silicon Valley presents the Internet as master narrative in which the Internet will change and fix everything. Audrey pointed how Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is, for many, equivalent to the Internet (not that Mark minds). In fact, Mark founded – a technological octopus comprising of a partnership between Facebook and six telecommunications and technology role-players. Facebook is the Internet. Facebook wants to be the Internet for everyone. At least, for the poor. And not the whole Internet – but selected services…

Why does this matter? Why should we be worried? Why should we pause for a moment and exit the crowd of excited governments and education institutions dancing to the tune of the Pied Piper?

We need to ask a number of critical questions such as – Who controls the network? Who controls [and have access to] the data? Who controls the servers? Who controls the software? We need to expose, that behind the philanthropy and hype, there are new markets, captive audiences, consumers, customer and data. Big Data. Enter surveillance capitalism. Big time. (See Danaher, 2015; Fuchs, 2010). Enter “algorithmic personalization” (Koponen, 2015) and a “scored society” (Citron and Pasquale, 2014; Pasquale, 2015).

We presume that the Internet is neutral and we forget that the inherent political, economical and cultural infrastructure of the Internet. In selling the Internet to African governments and educational institutions we forget (at our own peril) that the Internet (aka Facebook) does not share or serve our commitment to social justice and less inequality…

Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a location. This mindset celebrates heroes, inventors, smart risk taking, and of course, being white and male. Silicon-speak includes words such as innovation, disruption, and destruction. It privileges “new”, and everything it deems as old is doomed to be classified as obsolete. Everything is perpetually in need of an upgrade. “The Silicon Valley narrative has no memory, no history, unless it inverts one to suit its own purposes. “It celebrates the individual at all costs and calls this ‘personalization.’

The Silicon Valley narrative does not neatly co-exist with public education – and we forget this at our own peril.

Audrey asked: “What it Edtech was supportive and not exploitative? Open instead of foreclosed? About rethinking teaching and learning and not simply about expanding markets? What if Edtech was about meeting individual, institutional and community goals?” But educational technologies as designed, narrated and sold by Silicon Valley believes that education is broken and that technology (aka Mark Zuckerberg et al) can and will fix it. Enter the Pied Piper to rid the city of the rats.

Audrey also referred to the work by Neil Selwyn who said that technology is “a site of social struggle through which hegemonic positions are developed, legitimated, replicated and challenged.” We forget technology’s roles in and connections to neoliberalism and neo-imperialism, global capitalism and the Empire. The Internet and ‘being connected’ equates to being “hip and rich” ignoring race labor, gender and structural inequalities and white supremacy. The Internet as designed and narrated by Silicon Valley does not serve justice and equity but serves venture capital and is imperialisms latest form…

It is our responsibility to push back and to resist. It is not inevitable that we must follow the Pied Piper. We can resist, not because we do not want things to change… We must resist in the name of freedom and justice and not in the name of wealthy white men looking for new markets. “Silicon Valley does not have to be our dream machine. We can do better. And we must.”

Scholars like Audrey Watters and Neil Selwyn are, in the words of Popkewitz (1987, p. 350) doing “critical intellectual work.” “Being ‘critical’ … implies taking a skeptical view of the claims surrounding educational technology in terms of fairness and efficiency, and rejecting the notion that this is an inevitable process that is beyond challenge or change” (Selwyn, 2014, p. 12).

Audrey Watters, in delivering her keynote at ICDE2015 – was not a young girl running alongside the throngs of kids following the Pied Piper. She is a formidable scholar. We ignore her at our own peril.

Image credit

“Study for the Pied Piper of Hamelin – The children” (c. 1871) by George John Pinwell


Citron, D. K., & Pasquale, F. A. (2014). The scored society: due process for automated predictions. Washington Law Review, 89, 1-33.

Koponen, J. M. (2015, June 25). The future of algorithmic personalization. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Pasquale, F. A. (2015, October 14). Scores of scores: How companies are reducing consumers to single numbers. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Popkewitz, T. (1987). Critical studies in teacher education: Its folklore, theory and practice. Brighton, UK: Falmer Press.

Fuchs, C. (2010). Web 2.0, prosumption, and surveillance. Surveillance & Society, 8(3), 288-309.

Selwyn, N. (2014). Distrusting educational technology. Critical questions for changing times. London, UK: Routledge.

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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1 Response to Resisting techno-solutionism, resisting the Pied Piper, reclaiming the story: A personal reflection on Audrey Watter’s keynote at ICDE2015

  1. Pingback: Book review: The Internet is not the answer (Andrew Keen, 2015) | opendistanceteachingandlearning

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