social necessity or business as usual?

Before attempting to provide a response to the question posed about what could be a possible digitalisation agenda to guarantee the Human Right to education, and to enter into the specific subject of the relationship between digital technologies and education, it is necessary to outline the coordinates of the structure that subsumes this relationship.

By Javier Tolcachier

The name of this structure is known to everyone and everything, although the vision of the forest is often lost by detailing its trees, plants or fauna. It is called capitalism. Or to fit this era, its derivative, financialised capitalism.

The only logic of capital, its Aristotelian entelechy (active work towards the achievement of an end, intrinsic to the thing itself), is profit and accumulation.

Hence, the full attainment of the Human Right to education, like any other universal right and therefore not subject to alienation or appropriation, is in its essence incompatible with the capitalist system.

In the words of the thinker Silo: “Human rights do not have the universal validity that would be desirable because they do not depend on the universal power of the human being, but on the power of a part over the whole”[1].

Therefore, the demand for Human Rights in general and for the Human Right to education in particular, acquires meaning if its vindication includes overcoming the system itself, that is, the type of social organisation and values that prevent its full effectiveness.

On the other hand, education plays an important role if it helps to unveil and clarify the need to move to a more dignified phase of human history.

The process of capitalist accumulation

The speculative process of capital led to the accumulation of enormous sums, which by its very logic needed to be invested. Just to give an example, according to data from the consultancy firm Mc Kinsey “the productive economy, represented by world GDP, multiplied by 5.6 between 1980 and 2007, while the assets of the financial markets multiplied by 16.2, going from 12 trillion dollars in 1980 to 194 trillion dollars in 2007, to which should be added the operations with derivatives that exceeded 700 trillion dollars in 2007.”[2] Since then, very little has changed.

Since then, very little has changed, continuing the same trend of concentration, speculation and, on the other hand, the increase in poverty, inequality, indebtedness and the suffocation of vast social sectors.

This cycle of accumulation leads almost automatically to “speculative bubbles”, such as the one that burst in the crisis of the 1990s in Japan, in 2001 with the dot.coms and the most recent one, that of the subprime mortgages in 2007-2008. Central banking responds to the recessionary effects of these bursts by increasing liquidity, leading to new bubbles, as well as appropriation by fewer and fewer corporate actors.

The phenomenon of hyper-liquidity, associated with declining profitability of productive assets and the concentration of capital, is one of the main factors that have led capital to attempt to reconvert the system through digitalisation, accompanied by a profuse make-up of false ecological interest.

This process has dwarfed the internet’s original promise of distributing knowledge and increasing democracy, constricting the digital realm to a mercantilist, authoritarian and precarious logic in the hands of a few corporations. These corporations, whose flagships are known by the acronym GAMAM (google, amazon, meta, apple, microsoft), are in turn controlled by five major investment funds (Vanguard group, Blackrock, State Street corp, Price (T.Rowe) Associates and FMR).

Private economic and ideological co-optation of the public sphere

As happened in the 1980s, at the beginning of the supposedly universal neoliberal imposition called “globalisation”, capital is returning to its prey, the public spaces that it did not manage to capture.

It should be borne in mind that an addition to the phenomenon of concentrated hyper-liquidity is the widespread practice of tax evasion and avoidance. By means of this, a double wound is inflicted on the general welfare: on the one hand, by siphoning off resources that are essential to achieve greater investment in a level playing field, and on the other hand, by then using these same hitherto hidden or opaquely reinvested resources to raid public spaces for commercial purposes or to take invaluable assets away from states, under the deceitful label of “public-private partnership”.

Thus, institutions and spaces recognised for their staunch defence of capitalism, such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank or the World Economic Forum, have been developing a strong offensive to sell this ideology and place in the orbit of subjective conviction, the supposed need to count on these corporate actors, called in the same advertising jargon “stakeholders”, to solve the social problems in which they have been the main “parties involved”.

The concept of “stakeholders” would be plausible if “interested in their own profit” were added to it, removing from the concept any positive moral value that would legitimise transnational corporations to participate or influence decisions that only belong to the people, in their capacity as the sole depositary of sovereignty.

The mercantilist and competitive look of the recent report “Educational Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean”, by the IDB in conjunction with Holon IQ (a market intelligence company specialising in the development of conceptual platforms of digitalisation for education), is a faithful example of what we have been talking about.

In its introductory paragraphs the text underlines the appetizing offer, indicating that Latin America and the Caribbean are home to just under 500 million people who “demand innovation in reading, writing, arithmetic and the acquisition of skills and knowledge”, while pointing out, a little further on, that the IDB has created a laboratory (IDB Lab) whose function is to “invest in or co-create market-based solutions that leverage technology and entrepreneurship to achieve social impact at scale”.

To complete the previous sentence in their presentation, as a worrying threat of public sector entrepreneurial co-optation, they add: “Within the IDB, both the IDB Lab and the education division are working collaboratively to develop the EdTech ecosystem in the region in areas that address key public sector challenges.”

Given the current direction of the IDB, it could not turn out otherwise. The bank, since October 2020, has been chaired by Mauricio Claver-Carone, under pressure from then US president Trump and against the tradition of reserving this post for a national of a borrowing country. Before occupying this position, Claver-Carone was the US representative at the IMF, senior director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, and one of the key players in the US strategy of aggression against Cuba and Venezuela. With this background, the launch in February 2021 of a ‘Private Sector Partners Roundtable on the Future of Latin America and the Caribbean’, a meeting attended by 40 executives from global technology, business and financial emporiums with the aim of forging an alliance with the IDB, comes as no surprise.[3] What can be expected from this alliance but business and more business?

In turn, the World Bank, as a report by Luis Bonilla Molina of the International Research Centre “Other Voices in Education” points out, aims in its policies to frame education as a service, to emphasise a graduate profile with a mastery of STEM competencies, to prioritise short technical careers for popular sectors, and to rely on standardisation and a culture of evaluation. In other words, the focus on systemic functionality and a radical negation of any hint of educational humanisation.

For their part, the priorities emanating from the World Economic Forum, place innovation, entrepreneurship, digitalisation, unrestricted adherence to the capitalist model, now proposed as “multi-stakeholder capitalism”, covered by a patina of appealing marketing on the need for sustainable development and respect for human rights.

Of further concern is the high level of co-optation of the international relations sphere and the United Nations, through joint programmes and projects with the private sector, in which corporations acquire a dominant voice.

In the book “The Big Catch: Mapping Multi-Stakeholderism in Global Governance”, researchers Mary Ann Manahan and Madhuresh Kumar detail 103 such initiatives in the fields of education, health, environment, food/agriculture, and data and the internet. Twelve of these initiatives relate to the field of education, with digitalisation and large corporations and philanthropic foundations being promoted as the main sources of educational investment and advancement.

From this very brief outline, we can see the orientation that is intended to be given to the much-mentioned “eco-system” to digitalise education in the region and the world, which could also be called, in keeping with the environmentalist vocabulary so in vogue at the highest levels of business, the “jungle of digital business with education”.

Long live the students, or the consumers?

There are 180 million students in Latin America and the Caribbean, including all levels of formal education. An appetising market for investors thirsty for new business niches, also captive due to the compulsory nature of basic education.

However, there are some difficulties. The first problem is that 266 million people do not have access to the internet and many more lack quality connections or equipment that would allow for the kind of fluid and permanent contact that the techno-educational business requires.

So, as the IDB report cited above points out: “The main support EdTech seeks is for the government to launch and support initiatives, as well as provide incentives for the use of EdTech in schools, universities and workplaces”. In other words, that the government, in a subtle “revival” of the privatisation wave of the 1980s, serves as a bridge for the technology businesses, under the excellent excuse of promoting universal connectivity and, supposedly, updating the educational offer under the parameters of digitalisation.

Another problem is obviously that 70 million people (12.5% of the region’s population) live on less than two dollars a day, which makes it difficult for them to be “high-end” customers.

In this context, given the much-publicised naturalistic mechanics of demand, supply and profit as the basis of capitalist economic theory, it is obvious that the technologies aim to do business with the middle and upper socio-economic segments and in urban areas, leaving social investment to the state.

Connectivity, a necessary but not sufficient condition

In Latin America, 57% of primary schools and around 40% of secondary schools did not have access to the Internet for pedagogical purposes before COVID-19 (World Bank, 2021).

Not only the lack of connectivity and the quality of connectivity, but also the costs of fees and electronic devices are a privilege that few students from vulnerable populations in Latin America can access. In addition, a large number of educators also find it difficult to cope with the additional charge this represents for their pedagogical work.

Beyond the obvious need to close the digital divide in order to begin to alleviate these inequalities in the area of access to knowledge through the internet, it should be pointed out that this is not enough, as universal connectivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for advancing in equitable formation with quality content. This requires public policies that go beyond universal access, limiting the actions of corporations, so that guaranteeing internet connectivity does not simply mean rolling out a golden carpet for their businesses.

Another digitalisation, another education is possible

What then are the alternatives for a digitalisation that helps human development?

In this section, I would like to quote some of the conclusions and proposals reached by the Working Group on Education in the framework of the Conference “Utopias or Dystopias. The peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean in the digital era”, a process organised by the Latin American-Caribbean space Internet Ciudadana.

I quote: “The role of new technologies in the current educational panorama tends to be largely instrumental. Due to the strong presence of certain companies and corporate products, education tends to produce passive students, consumers, clients of certain companies”.

It is necessary to change this approach from the social dimension of education, which implies a vision that is inclusive, equitable, sovereign and connected to the human being. It is therefore necessary for communities to regain control over what technologies they use, how, for what purpose and under what conditions.

To form people who are autonomous and critical about technologies; actors and not spectators; people who learn to produce and maintain technology, and not only to consume it.

In line with this, making critical digital literacy a cross-cutting element in education, integrating formation in technology with other subjects, connected to human needs, motivations and activities.

Furthermore, to promote teacher training processes that consolidate the pedagogical use of information and knowledge technologies (ICT). Beyond their instrumental nature, the aim is to use them to promote the production of knowledge, collaborative work, peer-to-peer work and the development of new forms of formative evaluation.

At the same time, it is essential, beyond the educational field, to understand the transversality of principles that help to build new realities in the digital world and its implications far beyond it.

Among these basic postulates, the Internet must be defended as a collective historical human construction, as a Human Right, as a common good with universal access, while respecting the option for those who choose not to connect voluntarily to do so without suffering any discrimination or prejudice.

To achieve digital sovereignty, defending individual and collective rights from the public sphere and promoting equity through State programmes and community administration initiatives, which are happily proliferating in many places today, while favouring the generation of technology and development through the cooperative economy.

In order to avoid undue monopolistic positions, it is essential to regulate the actions of the private sector, preventing its intrusion in the public sphere and in the education sector in particular. Similarly, it is very important to elaborate legislation on data, placing it as an individual or common good, as the case may be, and preventing its use for commercial purposes.

It is also important to promote the autonomy of all through free tools, decentralised and federated platforms, with maximum protection of integrity and privacy.

Finally, it is not only mediation and technological gadgetry that is under debate, but the very foundations of education. The dilemma is not digitalisation yes or digitalisation no, but whether the most elementary criteria of educational construction will be aimed at adaptation and functionality in the system or whether they will be at the service of transformative critique.

The central dilemma is whether education for the market will continue, a mere form of illustration slavery, or whether it will open up the possibility of education for unlimited human development, towards freedom, towards the real world of the future, with everyone and for everyone.


(*) The text is the content of the paper presented at the webinar “Education in contexts of emergencies in Latin America and the Caribbean – gender, indebtedness and digitalisation”, organised by the Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education (CLADE) in the context of the Global Action Week for Education (SAME).

(*) Javier Tolcachier is a researcher at the World Centre for Humanist Studies and a communicator at the international news agency Pressenza.

  1. Silo. Letters to my friends. Collected Works. Volume I
  2. Zabalo, Patxi. Financiarización. OMAL. Retrieved from https://omal.info/spip.php?article4821
  3. According to IDB information, the meeting was attended by representatives of AB InBev, AES, Amazon, AT&T, Banco Santander, Bayer, BNP Paribas, Brookfield, Cabify, Cargill, Central America Bottling Corporation, Cintra, Citibank, Coca-Cola FEMSA, Copa Airlines, DOW, Engie, Google, Grupo Sura, IBM, Itaú Latam, JP Morgan, Mastercard, Mercado Libre, MetLife, Microsoft, Millicom, NEC Corp, NTT Data everis, PepsiCo, Pimco, Salesforce, Sacyr, Scotiabank, SoftBank, Softtek, Telefónica, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Visa and Walmart.

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