"Whatever we do to shut down this global free-trade world won’t stop people from all over the world sharing their knowledge and passion with each other", says Professor James Paul Gee / Photo: Professors own archives

Affinity for Learning

Interview. Do Brexit and Trump’s electoral victory really signal a rejection of transnationalism? Elm Magazine spoke with James Paul Gee. How may the digital communication and interest-driven learning provide the foundation for a more equitable and open world?


From the perspective of education and digital media studies, would it be fair to say that transnationalism is in retreat?

“You need to distinguish between two things. One is really against free trade, or neoliberalism, that has impoverished the lower and middle class and has led to high inequality. That kind of transnationalism is in retreat, yes. But the fact that people are gathering together on the Internet, across borders, to do things that they have a shared interest in, whether that’s video gaming or gardening or activism or science or anything you want to name is far from in retreat. It’s proliferating hugely.”

In your book Language and Learning in the Digital Age you point out that the issue of strangers has become more complex in the digital age. Could you give a sense of this complexity and whether it inspires a resistance to transnationalism?

“The notion of stranger is different once you understand the nature of Internet. The stranger in standard sociological theory is both a source of news and a possible source of tension. Now, again, it’s really important to distinguish [with regards to this question] between everyday people, who are organising around a shared interest, like gaming or anime or environmentalists and are dealing with people across the world and people acting as representatives of their nation or their ethnic group. When that same person is going to vote in their country, or reacting to economic issues, they’re now in a different identity, they’re now not in [their online] identity, they’re now voting as members of this particular country. People are not consistent. They have different identities and different roles. And you’ll probably get a lot more peace at the level [ where people organise around shared interest]. Why? Because people chose to be there.”

Is there any potential for having those more open identities from shared interests moving into people’s real life or offline life?

“The real part of your question is if we think these cosmopolitan engagements – though cosmopolitan is a term I don’t like – that cross boundaries and localities are important. If we think they are important, do we provide access to people who are locked out? That’s what we would hope schools and other institutions would do, right? And now with the Internet we can.”

What role should society or governments have in shaping online exchanges, or as you call them affinity spaces?

“Affinity spaces are a way of organising people to do deep teaching and learning in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean they’re all good. If you go to the dark web you’ll find affinity spaces which will teach you how to be an excellent identity thief, for example. So you’re point is right on, governments, schools and social groups have to say, ‘How do we encourage the proliferation of good affinity spaces and how do we give access to people who haven’t got access?’”

Criminality aside, this decentralisation of knowledge can run counter to science or common-sense. How do we allow for freedom of ideas but still retain rigour?

“Right, good question. We do know from research what are the conditions necessary for collective intelligence and one of them is that you must have diverse viewpoints because it allows the so-called wisdom of the crowds.

We have to trust that as people see a diversity of viewpoints they will converge somewhat toward something which is truer than if they are in a ghetto [full of similar viewpoints].”

The view of affinity spaces you present contradicts the running narrative that the Internet is a sea of echo chambers.

“It’s a sea of echo chambers and non-echo chambers. Any technological gain can do bad or good.  A society has to somehow have the social will to do good. If we think doing good is getting people connected to diversity across the globe in the interest of passions which make the world better and which make them feel like they count, then as a society we have to value that.”

So for you these affinity spaces or this collective intelligence would be the foundation for a transnational world?

“Whatever we do to shut down this global free-trade world won’t stop people from all over the world sharing their knowledge and passion with each other. It won’t shut down citizen science or people doing astronomy across the globe. It won’t shut down any of the actual collaboration of real people. The biggest disaster will be that it will give the less cosmopolitan people a chance to join that world and then they become dangerous.

When we shut people out of true participation in the global world as a global citizen – for example by denying them the sorts of educations and jobs that would give them the desire and resources to contribute positively to the wider world – they can still get on the Internet and join with others around the world just like themselves to engage in activities like terrorism, crime, spreading false news and hatred, that are intended to bring down national and global spaces of human diversity. The Internet allows people who want to combat AIDS or people who want to demonize gays to get together just as readily. The former may be more cosmopolitan than the latter, but they can both go global thanks to the Internet.”

So, the solution seems to be one of access?

“Choice and access. People coming together with the ultimate goal of being that each human being feel that they not only participate but they count in their country and in the world then all sorts of structures we have will begin to change.”

Note: Prof. Gee’s answers have been edited down for space.

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