Distraction machine or learning utopia?

Debate Net theorist Geert Lovink and broadcaster Marianna Fridjonsdottir both make their living on the web but are worlds apart in their appreciation of social media’s learning potential. Elm challenged them to a debate


We spend countless moments immersed in social media, part of a digital, global herd. We also learn through social media – this is undeniable. Equally undeniable is the fact that social media is full of noise and opportunities to be distracted, yet entertained, and the platforms we use are giant conglomerates mining us for data.

Hence the question: social media – a distraction machine or a learning opportunity?

Geert Lovink is a media theorist, based in the Netherlands. He is a well-known Internet critic, active since the earliest days of the web. / Photo: Ziko van Dijk (top)

Marianna Fridjonsdottir, producer, writer, director, channel executive and web entrepreneur, has been in the media business for almost 45 years, active in television and web broadcasting and consulting and lecturing on web communications and social media. She is the founder of ToonTV, a non-violent children’s web channel.

Elm: What kind of learning space do you consider social media to be, especially for adults?

Marianna Fridjonsdottir: Social media is a pathway to digital learning materials that have important advantages over printed material. Digital material will always have the possibility of being updated with the newest information. It can come alive with interactive functions and moving pictures together with the use of sound.

Then there is the collaborative dimension: Students and teachers can add, change and work with the material together or as individuals. A printed page will always be a one-way medium!

Geert Lovink: Blogs can be used in the classroom, social media cannot. I hope I do not disappoint if I say that social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter) have got nothing to do with education and learning. Social media provide people with ‘news’ and updates from their own social circles. They are huge distraction machines that create shareholder value through a very narrow corporate lens, dominated by US-American cultural values. At best they are entertainment platforms.

What we should do is disassociate social media from the Internet and stimulate the use of dedicated research tools. The Internet has so many different layers and ways to use! Corporate social media monopolies deliberately limit net use to a few, very dumb aspects such as ‘friends’, ‘likes’, ‘trending’ and such.

For me, learning is deep learning, and that is opposite to the real-time social pressures of updating. My advice would be to focus on the slow tools of knowledge production such as databases, archives, wikis, search engines and so on. We need to un-hype social media urgently, ban the public conversations about them and urgently focus on the incredible diversity of collaborative online tools that is out there.

You mentioned blogs, databases and wikis as sound learning environments. Web 2.0 (the interactive, user-community Internet we know today, with social media) promises to bring learning for all in the form of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), e-learning and other resources. Isn’t this an advantage of social media?

GL: Again, let’s disassociate social media from ‘the web’. For instance, recordings of lectures and courses have existed for decades. E-learning is as old as the computer itself.

To limit discussion about learning to social media is really annoying as these are noise generators, news pointers, dating sites, infotainment. Why don’t we discuss ways of online learning, the politics of MOOCs, the current poverty of the online learning dashboards, the use of online video in the class rooms, and so on.

As for the hype around MOOCs, this has almost faded away. What I am interested in is the New Normal that will rule in a couple of years from now: Lifelong learning will further increase. All these e-learning services will grow substantially because literary billions more are seeking access to education. I bet the computer and smart phones will have a much bigger impact in ’developing’ parts of the world where large populations are seeking access to education.

In general it will be very wise to develop material that takes offline as default and see the online component as the interactive one in which email, chat and, yes, social media can have a role to foster debate.

Social media and the web are unavoidable and ubiquitous in people’s lives, and children are said to be born into this environment as “digital natives”. Are there real alternatives to living in a digital world?

MF: I guess we will have to take a look at the classical ways and traditions to learn – printed materials, writing by hand – and redefine them. What is necessary for a youngster born into the digital age to master? Some years ago we would have said that you didn´t need to learn how to divide manually, because you had access to calculators, a technical wonder machine of those times. But you would have to understand how adding a number to another or dividing a number worked to be able to use the calculator anyway and understand the outcome. The same counts for youngsters today.

But it is essential that they master the digital way of living, just as they learn the rules of traffic or to eat with fork and knife. We can not question that.

GL: We can only hope that technical literacy will become a core course in the curriculum. Programming skills should already be taught in primary schools. There is a gap in the Western educational model that somehow no one is responsible for computer training. Why hasn’t  IT become a core competence such as language and math?

The democratization of computing has not lead to a deeper understanding, quite the opposite. It is ironic that in Western society people knew more about computers and programming fifteen-twenty years ago. Web 2.0 has greatly contributed to this loss of literacy. We are ruled by algorithms but have no say about them.

MF: I agree. it is also a question of not being left behind. Adults simply have to use digital media for learning because the learning is going digital, whether we want it or not. Seniors of all societies have to be brought into the digital age so as not to lose their unique knowledge reserves.

Programming: a future must-have skill, argue Lovink and Fridjonsdottir. / Photo: Aza Toth


German researcher Manfred Spitzer has argued that young people are losing cognitive abilities as a result of use of digital media – falling victims to a “digital dementia”. What do you make of this argument?

GL:  I am not a fan of the moral panic that Spitzer and others spread. I want to debate the future architectures of networks, and not be over-determined by the medical profession claiming declining brain capacity because of our social media addiction. A much more sovereign attitude is desirable. I prefer the concept of ‘neuroplasticicity’, which usually is not read in the direction of recovery: we can read this concept also in the reverse way. Yes, there is hope after the mass addiction for humankind. We can forget social media. People of planet earth, do not despair, our brains will bounce back!

MF: I totally disagree with Spitzer. Some researchers imply that the best way to avoid Alzheimer’s is to learn Chinese or to take a new route to work every day to get stimulated. The same accounts for the digital revolution, it never stands still. You have to learn new skills every day to follow with the changes in devices, the ways and the means. I really think that some parts of our brains will overdevelop, that is called evolution and has been seen prior to the digital age.

Elm: Who has the power in Web 2.0?

GL: We have been talking about Web 2.0 for a while now but I am sorry to say that Web 2.0 no longer exists. The term came up in the aftermath of the dotcom crash when Silicon Valley had to forget the huge drama of the crash with its immense capital destruction and mass unemployment. The ‘blogosphere’, Second Life and national social networks such as Hyves, Bibo and such were soon overrun by Google and Facebook.

These days we speak of ‘the stacks’. This concept was introduced by Bruce Sterling in 2012 and summarizes the oligopoly of IT giants such as Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook. It is indeed a conglomerate, if not a mafia that is known to make secret deals in Bay Area cafes where they set prices, discuss salary caps and take-overs. What unites these corporations is not just their wish to create monopolies (and eliminate markets) but also their inherent tendency to become invisible, to disappear in the background as quasi-public infrastructure.

How would you describe yourself as a learner on the web?

MF: I am omnivorous: online, interactive, video courses. I am learning something new all the time and with learning platforms like Udemy and Coursera, Ted and Khan Academy I can always find something exciting to learn.

In the digital age education never stops. You cannot live and work fruitfully for the next 45-50 years with only one degree from a university. You have to learn continuously and it means that you can have three or four careers – that is the future of digital learning.

GL: Over the decades I have gotten used to the fact that I have to learn so many new things from young people. It doesn’t mean you have to adapt to everything they like but at least one has to maintain a basic curiosity how all these things operate, and what the cultural logic of the moment entails. You have to shut up and listen, be patient and observe carefully, and then judge for yourself what you want to get out of their stories – and attack them mercilessly if need be.

But think about it: Where are the wise old people that can guide us in this computerized society? Hello, baby boomers! You hippies really let us down. Either you are clueless or guilty for today’s mess!

Tactical media in a contemporary Europe?

Geert Lovink is known as a pioneer and main theorist of “tactical media”, referring to a strand of political-economic critique using media means. Bearing much resemblance to performance art, a tactical media act “hijacks” the outward appearance of a particular media to create a critique or a satire.

A well-known example from the year 1998 is the GWbush.com website, a replica of the official site of US President George W. Bush, conceived by activist Zack Exley. A visitor to the site would at first think the site was authentic, until they paid attention to the details in text and image, criticising the Bush government.

At the moment Europe is facing a mighty array of woes: a refugee crisis, austerity almost across the continent and geopolitical instability following from Russia’s actions in the Ukraine.

Elm: What kind of tactical media actions would Europe need at this moment, Geert Lovink?

GL: I’d wish to see a move away from the centralized, manipulative and limiting possibilities of Facebook and Twitter, moving towards ‘federated’ collaborative tools that do not address us as ‘friends’ who are forced to ‘like’ the shocking image of the young Kobani boy who is washed ashore to show our rage about the current migration policies and to show our solidarity with refugees.

There are so many ways to engage in self-organization. Retweeting the news is a nonsense gesture. Being tactical these days is about setting up groups, contacting locals, and getting involved in unpopular struggles. Responding to the agenda of the world news manufacturers is not something for activists. We need to look ahead and define tomorrow’s agenda.

Elm: Assuming that people’s media literacy is growing all the time, do tactical media actions still have the potential to shock and make us think or does tactical media need to update itself?

GL: Tactical media is a historical term from the early-mid nineties that tried to capture that opening possibilities at the time, from camcorders, free radio to email and the early web. This was combined with a decline of the traditional left and a rise of NGOs and a growing involvement in media activism of artists and designers. Hackers were also part of the gang. The diversity sketched here no longer exists.

We do not feel we’re part of a ‘smart phone spring’. Digital technologies and the internet are now the default. There is hardly anything outside of it. Young artists these days are fascinated by old analogue technologies but usually they are without any audience, unlike the selfie you post on Facebook that receives 428 likes in a few minutes. Tactical media these days resists the logic of instant self-gratification.

Of what tactical use are our digital tools today? This is an interesting question. In my understanding we need to look for direct connections, beyond the broadcasting and networking metaphors. In the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe we see that the most impact is made by those groups and individuals that manage to create direct solidarity links with the refugees and migrants.

Our future lies in offline digital networks. As we all know, the internet is broken and we will not be able to fix it any time soon if the circumstances do not radically change. With the stacks in charge, it is inevitable that the collective imagination will leave the internet context and migrate elsewhere. The education sector needs to be aware of this tendency. Sooner than later, the digital will become boring, if not repressive. This will inevitably put the ‘distraction’ controversy in another light.

In Debate, two experts meet over a common topic.

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