How would John Dewey have understood the socialising influence of digital platforms?

How would John Dewey have understood the influence of social platforms on adolescents? I found myself wondering this because of the central role which transmission plays in his understanding of socialisation. As he puts it on loc 67 of Democracy and Education:

Society exists through a process of transmission quite as much as biological life. This transmission occurs by means of communication of habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive.

In this sense he saw socialisation as a process of communication. As he put it on loc 81, “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication“. It is only through this communication that “similar emotional and intellectual dispositions—like ways of responding to expectations and requirements” (loc 94) in what I take to be a parallel to Durkheim’s conception of education in the sense that it frames education as the means by which society can continue as society through the reproduction of the conditions for sociality in the next generation. There’s an Archerian critique to be made here about the centrality that social integration (what Dewey describes as the similar dispositions) plays in such a framing but that’s a topic for another post.

If I understand correctly Dewey draws an analytical distinction between informal and formal learning. The former arises in everyday experience: “our powers of observation, recollection, and imagination do not work spontaneously, but are set in motion by the demands set up by current social occupations”. The kind of social environment we encounter necessitates certain responses rather than others, inclining our capacities to develop in certain directions, such that the “main texture of disposition is formed, independently of schooling, by such influences” (loc 295). There’s always learning going on in the environment, by simple virtue of the practical relationship which a learner has entered into within that environment and the manner in which it is shared with others who have already undergone such learning. What distinguishes formal education is its capacity “to free the capacities thus formed for fuller exercise, to purge them of some of their grossness, and to furnish objects which make their activity more productive of meaning” (loc 295).

This generates a potential tension between informal and formal learning, as he explained on loc 150. The former is richly meaningful and charged with immediate purpose but would leave learners restricted within the horizons of the everyday experience. The latter provides the means through which the full inheritance of past society can be accessed but does so at the risk of a cold and clinical distance from the exigencies of existence. Informal learning is too narrow to transmit the resources of a complex society but formal learning risks robbing what’s transmitted of its meaning and vitality:

Without such formal education, it is not possible to transmit all the resources and achievements of a complex society. It also opens a way to a kind of experience which would not be accessible to the young, if they were left to pick up their training in informal association with others, since books and the symbols of knowledge are mastered. But there are conspicuous dangers attendant upon the transition from indirect to formal education. Sharing in actual pursuit, whether directly or vicariously in play, is at least personal and vital. These qualities compensate, in some measure, for the narrowness of available opportunities. Formal instruction, on the contrary, easily becomes remote and dead—abstract and bookish, to use the ordinary words of depreciation. What accumulated knowledge exists in low grade societies is at least put into practice; it is transmuted into character; it exists with the depth of meaning that attaches to its coming within urgent daily interests.

Formal learning becomes crucial in complex societies because knowledge has been accumulated across an increasingly differentiated society which entails divergent experiences of everyday life. There’s no one shared* experience of everyday life which can be the locus for informal learning. Furthermore, this relating is mediated by language which facilitates access into the learning of others but also entails a distance from the experience underlying this learning. As he puts it on loc 336, this complex inheritance has to be “broken up into portions, as it were, and assimilated piecemeal, in a gradual and graded way”. This frames formal education as filtering, selecting and simplifying while making judgements about what ought to be transmitted and what should be excluded to the extent which is possible given the experiential primacy of informal learning. He frames formal learning as in this sense arising a fundamental challenge which follows from increasing social complexity, as indicated by my bold in this quote from loc 67:

With the growth of civilization, the gap between the original capacities of the immature and the standards and customs of the elders increases. Mere physical growing up, mere mastery of the bare necessities of subsistence will not suffice to reproduce the life of the group. Deliberate effort and the taking of thoughtful pains are required. Beings who are born not only unaware of, but quite indifferent to, the aims and habits of the social group have to be rendered cognizant of them and actively interested. Education, and education alone, spans the gap.

In this sense the need for socialisation is universal but the need for formal education is not. As he writes on loc 52: “there is the contrast between the immaturity of the new-born members of the group—its future sole representatives—and the maturity of the adult members who possess the knowledge and customs of the group“. If I understand correctly what distinguishes complex societies is the complex challenge involved in the next generation being “initiated into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature members”. I thought this was a really powerful summary on loc 185:

Education is thus a fostering, a nurturing, a cultivating, process. All of these words mean that it implies attention to the conditions of growth. We also speak of rearing, raising, bringing up—words which express the difference of level which education aims to cover. Etymologically, the word education means just a process of leading or bringing up. When we have the outcome of the process in mind, we speak of education as shaping, forming, molding activity—that is, a shaping into the standard form of social activity.

What are the conditions of growth which adolescents confront in a world where social platforms are ubiquitous? How are the incitements and promptings of platforms contributing to this “shaping, forming, molding” of adolescents? What does this mean for their relationship to their everyday experience, given platforms facilitate what Giddens calls time-space distanciation (i.e. they stretch social relations over time and space) in a manner which massively increases potential encounters with social variety (things to do, places to go, people to be) alongside powerful centripetal pressures driven by the value economy of social platforms (likes, shares, follows) which creates clusters of consensus and conformity? How could we cast this platformised lifeworld in relation to formal education in Dewey’s sense? I think this is a really interesting question, building on a forthcoming paper I’ve written about platform socialisation (happy to send to anyone who wants an early copy) which i intend to pursue over the coming months.

*I’m not sure if I’m imputing this point onto Dewey or reading between the lines. I think it’s implicit in his framing of commonality as something to be achieved rather than something which is simply given.

2 responses to “How would John Dewey have understood the socialising influence of digital platforms?”

  1. Very interesting post for me – Dewey’s thinking about education and society seems to me to be ageing far better than many of his contemporaries’. I’m interested in informal learning as a critical dimension of all work, and indeed all practice situations too, and I see it as mixed up with formal learning in ways dependent on context and very difficult to research and analyse. Treating them as distinct seems to me problematic.

    I agree with your that platform capitalism is raising critical questions about the relation between education and socialisation, and would add AI and machine learning into the mix. Thanks for this and many other reflective posts!

  2. I agree it’s problematic and I’m curious what Dewey would think about this. He seems to suggest that we can disentangle these things in principle even if they’re overlapping in practice. But particularly if we’re thinking about the current context of remote learning, it’s really hard to see how to prise them apart! What I really like about Dewey is that I don’t think this is in any way a contradiction to his account, just a development of the dynamics he’s identifying in a new stage. Agree with you that he’s ageing so well! I think the same is true of Fromm as well though, who I’ve gone back to recently (partly because I’ve discovered they’ve all been made into audiobooks) and am really enjoying having read a heap of his books about a decade ago.

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