An average high school classroom, on an average weekday morning. Students fumbling around, threading through papers, looking for last evening’s assignment. One of them comes up empty handed — he hasn’t even looked.
The teacher, quick to notice this student’s poor performance – far from the first time this has happened – walks over to his desk, stands over him, leans in a bit, and begins to let him have it. This storm has been brewing for a while, and has found the perfect opportunity to let fly.
In the midst of the tirade, underneath the stream of invective, the student reaches into his backpack, fishes around a bit, withdraws a mobile, taps a few buttons, waits a moment, and then – once the connection has been made – says, “Hey. You listen to the bitch,” then holds the mobile out, capturing every calumny heaped upon him by his teacher.
The classroom as we know it, invented by the Prussians a hundred and fifty years ago, and adopted across Europe and America as Germany rose to world power status, features a teacher sitting before a chalkboard while the pupils sit and face the teacher. As the center of attention – and the master of the environment – the teacher has absolute power, controlling, containing and managing the behavior of the students under supervision. This close control ensured the classroom did not descend into chaos. Order created the space for learning.
As the seat of all authority, the teacher not only mastered the classroom, but possessed an acknowledged mastery of the material. Students did not question the teacher. But they do, now. Science teachers regularly confront students who (from perches safe in the back row of the classroom) consult Wikipedia or Wolfram Alpha, correcting all of the instructor’s mistakes, in real-time. The know-it-all teacher, center of the pedagogical universe, has been stripped of all power, revealed as the know-nothing.
Both of these examples show how the mobile can rapidly destabilize any environment reliant upon isolation as a technique of control. The kind of abuse teachers regularly deliver to students had never had an audience outside the walls of the classroom. Suddenly, every student walks through the door with parents in their pocket, and those walls no longer exist. The teacher no longer faces a younger, smaller, and weaker student, but the whole set of connections that student brings with them, via mobile omnipresence.
The power relations of education have reversed. The student can instantly summon parents – or any professional – to support any efforts to resist the teacher’s negativity. Teachers can’t throw their weight around anymore, because students can now hold those power games in check with powers of their own.
Where a teacher is trying to hector a student into learning, but encounters resistance – as might be the case with that underperforming student – this new balance of powers brings the educational process to a halt. The teacher has lost any ability to coerce, which means the student could now freely revel in ignorance. This deadlock persists for as long as the student’s relations are willing to countenance that state of affairs. We can be dumb with power.
Conversely, teachers can no longer pass their own ignorance off as truth. Another set of relations connects students to bodies of knowledge far greater than those which any teacher could ever hope to encompass, the collected wisdom of the species.
Omnipresence veers close to partial omniscience.
Inside the confines of the classroom, with a restricted range of curriculum material under study, it has become possible for a student to be at least as well informed, moment-to-moment, as the teacher. “All knowing is doing, and all doing knowing.” A student who knows more than the teacher will inevitably act on that knowledge, pulling aside the curtain of pretense, revealing the small and frightened Wizard of Oz beneath.
The classroom is microcosm and rehearsal for all of the power relations of public authority. Employers, police officers and religious leaders each embody different aspects of this power relation. Although these power relations are generally less obvious than the alpha-male / alpha-female of other hominids, they are no less significant. We like to know where we stand in relation to others, so we can present ourselves accordingly.
The instant omnipresence of the mobile has scrambled all our power relations, overthrowing some while rewriting others. Since the broadcast of the video of Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD, all police have evinced a hostility to videography, because revealing power undermines its authority. Connection pierces the veil of power, removing its mystery, rendering it impotent.
The new power relations of the classroom already extend throughout the entire world. Now that perhaps a billion and a half people carry networked video cameras in their pockets, the opportunities for a sudden turning of the tables have multiplied furiously. Each connection holds within it the possibility of a challenge to authority. The mobile provides a lever long enough to move the world.
This fundamental reconfiguration of power relations has been even less remarked upon than the sudden upswing in human connectivity. This redistribution of power comes as the inevitable consequence of our sudden omnipresence. The teacher can not control the students; the dictator can control the restive populace; no one will do as they are told. There is no control anywhere. When we picked up the mobile we had to surrender the cudgel.
We want to believe our power relations have remained as they always have, unchanged for many thousands of years. Top and bottom. Inside and outside. Elect and damned. A mobile, transmitting a faithful reproduction of a teacher’s angry words, tells us everything has already changed.