Back in 1978, Bob Seger sang “I Feel Like a Number.” Today, the zeroes and ones that pervade the data-driven culture of the tech sector are spilling over to the public education sphere…again. Not that it ever went away, and not that a technocratic society is a new phenomenon. Rather, the methods of scientific management Fredrick Taylor pioneered at the end of the 19th Century are at the foundation of the current technocratic culture. In the 1960s, Mario Savio at UC Berkeley spoke passionately against that culture by highlighting to his fellow students that they were the raw materials of the university machine; a machine so “odious” that he urged them to put their bodies “upon the gears and upon the wheels…to make it stop.” In 1999, the Wachowskis released the science fiction action film, “The Matrix.” The movie warns of the illusions created by technology to mask the slavish conditions of humans a la Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In these examples, the tug of war between the rigidity of technology-induced conformity and the yearning to feel fully free as a human expresses itself in more ways than one.
Today, we’re seeing version 4.0 of the rise of the technocrats. Leading the charge is Bill Gates – a billionaire education reformer who believes that a more rigid, “free-market,” and technocratic curriculum should replace what’s currently being taught in public schools. Certainly, the public school system has many technocratic processes in place like the testing, tracking, and segregation of students. However, it’s not that the quantitative metrics generated by something like standardized testing is inherently bad, the issue is that the preeminence of such – easily manipulated – metrics marginalizes critical and creative thought in the school system. And it’s the decentering of critical engagement that’s the focus of Adam Bessie and Dan Carino’s critique of the education reforms sought by Bill Gates and his ilk. Don’t be fooled into thinking Bessie and Carino’s project is an anti-technology screed. Rather than being the proverbial servants of technology, they use current technology and the genre of comic books to critically and creatively interrogate Gates’ educational reform movement to spur an informed counter-movement that can push back against those “free”-market ideas that engender what Henry Giroux calls the “dead zones of imagination.”