A review of Now You See It, by Cathy Davidson

The full title of this book will make it clearer what it is about: Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. At first, I was a bit worried I was reading something out of a think tank or workplace-organizing consultant. However, it did strike me as interesting in a number of ways, mainly, in the way it deals with cognitive science, transhumanism and handicap, or at least so I hoped. Actually, there is very little science in this book, although the bits there are are interesting.

I agree with her views on education, and so would pretty much anyone, but I remain unconvinced with her idea that it is somehow the Digital Age that makes these teaching methods irrelevant or ineffective. Multiple-choice tests are a terrible way of evaluating anything. All the women in my family are teachers, pretty much, and they could explain all of the points about the wrong and right ways to truly teach someone something, and most of them are terrified of the Digital Age. In Britain, it is no secret that the schools for the elite favour personal initiative and free-thinking, as they are meant to form leaders, whereas being a free spirit in a normal school will get you some sad sympathy from your teacher if they are any good, but that is about it.

Cathy Davidson re-hashes basic education theory and pretend to discover things that anyone who has been through school or university could have told her. For example, after a long development, she exclaims:

“What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledegook?”

No kidding. My grandmother, her own mother and her three daughters are all teachers, and their view on education policy over the diner table was more thorough than what is presented in this book, which focuses on a few individual cases. All teachers have those stories about teaching methods, weird kids and stupid education bureaucracy deciding what is the right and only way to teach in schools. Thinking about it, there is precious little science at all in this book, it mainly stays at the level of these anecdotes.

In many ways, Cathy Davidson is trying to wish a better world into its own realisation: when I hear something like

“65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t been invented yet”,

my first thought is a lot of these children will be entirely disposable, the growing human waste of capital, it is surprising they are schooled at all, as compulsory schooling went hand in hand with the need to create a workforce. For Cathy Davidson though, it means that 65% of these children will all have a super creative job (crowdsourced in the Cloud, no doubt, as her discussion of crowdsourcing fails to address the economic reality of it as free outsourced labour and sees it as un-hierarchical… her treatment of open source and free software are likewise devoid of any economic and political gaze) and therefore these children need to be taught in a way that does not stifle their creativity to make them obedient industrial workers. Sadly, the only reason people might want not to stifle creativity are moral ones, as capitalism crashes, there is no incentive for it to give us a better education. Obedience is still very much needed, although it is true that the modern workplace has a different sperficial form of getting people to obey. In one of the alternative school Davidson visits the teacher asks:

“”What’s your specific role in your group today? (…)” They take turns grabbing markers and they scrawl answers on the board, initialing what they write”

I was made to do exactly the same thing when I worked in a fastfood restaurant, and I had never thought of seeing it as liberating or fun or preparing me for the Digital Age.

This rose-tinted optimism ends up sounding disturbingly dystopian, as her utopia is your nightmare (quite a good illustration of how by paying attention to different things, you construct a very different reality, by the way). For example:

It is possible that within a decade, each learner—whether a schoolchild or a lifelong learner—could be building up his own private ePortfolio, with badges and credentialing built in, of all learning, all challenges, all there to measure accomplishments at the end of a school grade and still there several years later to help refresh a memory or to be shown to a future employer, all indexed and sortable at will.

That existed before the French revolution, and was reestablished by Napoleon. Nowadays, only gypsies have to have one though. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employment_Record_Book But at least that is not something she directly promotes. This second excerpt is from her visit to an alternative school and it literally made me shiver:

“Another girl has written “Leading the group” as her answer. “That’s the hardest job of all. You know that, right?” Mr. Germain asks the tall, blond girl who has taken on that leadership role for her group. She nods seriously as her eyes slide in the direction of a boy in her group who is stretched out as far as possible while still sitting on a chair, his arms raised, his legs straight, his toes pointing. He’s yawning. Mr. Germain’s eyes follow her gaze toward the boy and then looks back at her. “You can do it. I’ll help,” he says, his voice quiet and calm.”

What are they going to do after this condidential management meeting? Kneecap him? Send him to Siberia for yawning? Notify him that his performance has been substandard and he will not be needed anymore? Davidson’s outlook is one in which any attempt to respond to the challenges to hierarchies presented by new technologies conduces to a reinforcement of hierarchies. It is not surprising when she can write things like

“Liebe und arbeit (sic), as Freud said, “love and work,”the keys to a successful life. In any century.”

So much for visionnary thinking. We are stuck with work for all centuries to come, and retrospectively, even in centuries gone which did not even have a concept of work.

There is one of her stories that inspired my sympathy though, it is when Davidson challenges the sacrosanctity of grades and gets quite a violent reaction. I was a member of a student union which was against grades, and claimed there was possibly more to admire in an ingenuous cheater at an exam than in a docile regurgitator, and I observed that fact. Grading, like voting, have an aura around them that make people irrationally angry when you attack them, even as lightly as Davidson did (‘crowdsourcing’ part of the assessment of one of her course). Probably something to do with the way we are told they allow some fairness and equality in the social order.

Neurology is fascinating, how our minds are shaped by capitalism, in school and in the workplace, is fascinating and something any revolutionary should consider, but the point of view of the author is so oblivious of political issues that this book can be quite irritating, or even scary.