The Sublation of Digital Education


In this paper, I argue that teachers’ efforts to defend education against reactionary forms of digitalization and from complete automation should be supported by progressives. At the same time, efforts aimed at creatively transforming or sublating digitalization in non-deterministic ways to forge new pedagogical projects should also be enthusiastically engaged. Drawing on Marx’s conception of sublation is crucial since it represents the process through which an aspect of something is overcome while other aspects of it are preserved in an altered form. Because sublation occurs both within entities as they develop and out of entities as they are negated, I contend that sublating digitized education both within capitalism and beyond capitalism should be pursued simultaneously.

The digitalization of social and economic life has contributed significantly to capitalism’s internal drive to develop labor-saving technology (Noble 1995). The result is a tendency toward workless workers, deepening poverty, and a shift in policy discourse from articulating education as a means to economic growth to mediating disruption (Means 2019). These trends reflect the global capitalist economy’s ever-greater economic crisis and the broadest masses of workers’, especially the younger generations, movement toward the idea of socialism (Malott 2019). One set of indicators of the shifting mood of the people are public opinion polls that consistently report a majority of young adults in the USA in particular favoring socialism over capitalism (Palmer 2019).

In education, recent developments in algorithmic culture are creating the possibility of enacting an education with teacher automation, that is, without flesh and blood educators (Williamson 2017). In capitalist schooling, the not-so-new use of algorithms already tends to reinforce dominant ideologies, social control, and behaviorist pedagogies (Williamson 2017), and threatens to further deprofessionalize teaching as a result of trends such as greater neoliberal efficiency gains (i.e., reduce the amount of teacher labor hours required to educate a given quantity of students).

Digital education professor Siân Bayne (2015) has framed critiques of these detrimental trends in the digitalization of education (see, for example, Feenberg 2003; Haugsbakk and Nordkvelle 2007) as suffering from anthropocentrism. In the realm of digital education, anthropocentrism, for Bayne (Bayne 2015; Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 212), privileges disruptions to human relationships failing to 'pay serious attention to the' often progressive 'material connections between the human and the non-human.' Building on the emphasis of social justice and human agency within humanism, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 213) advances a critical posthumanism that explores 'what it means to be multiply connected both in ecological terms and in machinic-artificial terms, and how that may change what it means to teach, what it means to be an educator, and what it means to be a student.' In other words, Bayne (2015) maintains that anthropocentrism closes off the possibility of enacting a form of digitalization that is not driven by desires to increase productivity or replace human teachers but by a pedagogical search for creating new knowledge and ways of being.

This emphasis on educators thinking creatively about a social justice approach to digitalization within capitalism offers many important insights for an approach to digitalization connected to the revolutionary process against capitalism. However, my intention here is not to present an either/or scenario, but a more complex framework where social justice within capitalism and social justice beyond capitalism can and should be pursued simultaneously. That is, advances in a social justice-oriented digital education within capitalism can offer invaluable insights for the struggle against capitalism. In this way, what may appear as a difference in purpose (i.e., the old reform versus revolution cliché) can be thought of as part of the same interconnected process.

Considering resistance to the digitalization of education from this orientation, I therefore argue that the anthropocentric error pointed out by Bayne (2015) is at the same time a Luddite error (i.e., anti-machine sabotage). While many educators have embraced the digitalization of education uncritically, many have embraced it by pushing it in a progressive direction. At the same time, there is a trend among critical educators pushing back against new forms of digital social control and student manipulation and the prospects of losing their jobs to machines as a contemporary manifestation of the Luddite tradition. Following Marx, I argue that the source of insecurity and redundancy are not the machines per se, but the capitalist system they are situated in. This is an important corrective that brings to the surface a point of unity between revolutionary educators and critical digital educators.

In this essay, I argue that teachers’ efforts to defend education against reactionary forms of digitalization and from complete automation should be supported by progressives. At the same time, efforts to blur the boundaries between the human and the non-human in the forging of new pedagogical projects (Bayne 2015; Bayne and Jandrić 2017) should also be explored. Toward these ends, I revisit Marx’s critique of the Luddite movement. I argue that algorithms, like other technologies, hold progressive potential within capitalism, and in turn, contribute to a revolutionary process and the meeting of human needs in a post-revolutionary situation. Consequently, algorithms and other forms of digitalization should not be blindly sabotaged but should be considered for sublation.

Drawing on the idea of sublation in this essay is crucial since it represents the process through which an aspect or aspects of something are overcome while other aspects or an aspect of it is preserved in an altered form. Sublation occurs both within systems and entities as they develop or are developed and between systems and entities as things develop out of things. For example, critical educators who overcome disruptive, labor-saving (i.e. efficient) aspects of digital online forms of education preserve them in an altered socially just form within capitalism. These new forms that create modes of being such as international collaboration and sensibilities are examples of sublation. Revolutionary educators adapting such sublated models of digitized education to build international solidarity and class consciousness can also be said to be engaged in the process of sublation. Following Ford (2018), it can be observed that in both instances the sublated outcome cannot be predetermined or completely known beforehand, therefore demanding a great deal of informed creativity.

Ford’s (2018) contributions to our thinking about sublation here are indispensable. Critiquing postdigital time, Ford (2018: 2) points out how it works to tether us 'to the present by making it so we have to constantly catch up to the present.' In response to this enclosure of time, Ford (2018: 1) suggests a form of refusal or negation allowing a 'detachment from the present' and the forging of something new through embracing a 'radical indeterminacy and potentiality.' By arguing that his conception of negation 'retains even that which is negated,' Ford (2018: 1) describes sublation. However, Ford (2018: 9) explores a critique of the conception of sublation arguing it locks the subject into altering pre-existing options or alternatives. The notion of exodus, on the other hand, opens up possibilities unimaged within the narrow limits of what is. For the purposes of this essay, the sublation of digital education can be understood as not necessarily predetermined. What we can say, following Ford (2018: 8), is that 'the possible,' in whatever way, 'always encompasses its own negation' (Ford 2018: 8). Operating within Ford’s pedagogy of not is the subject wielding the same programming and hacking knowledge used to create and fine tune algorithmic education to sublate it without the restrictions of predetermination.

What follows is an examination of Marx’s critique of the Luddite orientation and his insistence on sublation as an alternative to sabotage. I then explore relevant insights on sublation from contemporary scholars working in the area of Marxism and digitalization. After laying out this theoretical framework, I delve into various forms of digital education considering the possible ways they may be sublated. In the process, I also engage critical digital education scholars for insights regarding the sublation of digitalized education. To facilitate our thinking, I explore digital education policy projections and how they may be sublated. Finally, I turn to the idea of progressive hacking offered by Galloway’s (2006) work on gamic modification as part of a concrete guide to the action of sublation.

Marx on the Worker and the Machine in Capital

While 'the contest between the capitalist and the wage-laborer' can be traced to the beginning of the capitalist era, it was not until the development of machinery that workers began directing their struggle against the 'instruments of labor' as 'the material embodiment of capital' (Marx 1867/1967: 427). The labor-saving ribbon loom came to represent a ruthless competitor of workpeople during the seventeenth century. The rebellion against the ribbon loom therefore spread throughout Europe leading it to be either banned or tightly regulated in a number of regions. In the eighteenth century, a water-powered wool-shearing machine displaced around 100,000 workpeople in London who subsequently burned it to the ground and then petitioned Parliament to ban the technology. While the demand coming from new markets created through colonial expansion shielded many workpeople from the labor-displacing tendency of dramatic increases in productivity, by the nineteenth century, the power loom emerged as a new threat to job security and was attacked as such.

The enormous destruction of machinery that occurred in the English manufacturing districts…chiefly caused by the employment of the power-loom, and known as the Luddite movement, gave the…governments…a pretext for the most reactionary and forcible measures. (Marx 1867/1967: 429)

Marx is making an important point here regarding tactics. Destroying machinery would not end capitalism. Sabotage would only bring repression. Marx’s intention of highlighting two centuries of proletarian war waged on the means of production is therefore not to shower workpeople with praise for their efforts. Rather, it is to bring attention to a crucial corrective:

It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used. (Marx 1867/1967: 429)

Even though Marx is highly critical of the Luddite orientation, he does not attack the workpeople for their error but expresses solidarity in his explanation. That is, Marx (1867/1967: 430) explains that when 'the instrument of labor…takes the form of the machine' it 'immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself.' This stems from the premise that 'the whole system of capitalist production is based on the fact that the workman sells his labor-power as a commodity' (Marx 1867/1967: 430). The division of labor specializes workers in wielding specialized tools. Consequently, when the skills of operating a particular tool are transferred to a machine, both the use value and exchange value of the former handlers of those implements 'vanish' (Marx 1867/1967: 431). The flood of displaced workers into the labor market can intensify competition between workers for unskilled jobs thereby enabling capital to push the price of labor below its social value. In other words, 'when machinery seizes on an industry by degrees, it produces chronic misery among the operatives who compete with it' (Marx 1867/1967: 431).

Despite this logical and compelling case against machines, Marx demonstrates that those same machines used to destroy the working class under capitalism can liberate workpeople from the need to labor under socialism. Since new value created capitalistically is based on unpaid labor hours, labor-saving technology, over time, which reduces the total number of labor hours set in motion, contributes to falling rates of profit. To compensate for this tendency, the capitalist class, historically and currently, has found ways to capture ever-larger sums of surplus value. This is done in many different ways from reducing the price of labor, to redistributing tax dollars from social programs to corporate giveaways. The capitalist has also increased the intensity of work by measures such as speeding up machines or increasing workload in other ways. Attacking the instruments of labor is therefore an understandable proletarian response.

However, if production is planned and driven by human need, as is the case under socialism, then labor-saving machines can actually reduce the number of labor hours society has to commit to the production of needs such as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and education. Rather than destroy the instruments of labor, they should be sublated and converted into the common property of the broadest masses of workers.

Collaborating with Marisol Sandoval on the second chapter of Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media (Fuchs 2015), the pair draw on Marx to push back against the contemporary Luddite-inspired anti-work movement. While they correctly identify sublation as the process through which the coercive and exploitative consequences of increasing productivity under capitalism are overcome and transformed into benefits for the producers, they do not specifically consider the way the shift from capitalist to socialist purposes and values might sublate the content and structure of digitalization itself. In other words, they address how the labor-saving properties of technologies will be preserved from capitalism to socialism with the benefits transferred from the capitalist class to the working class. However, they do not directly address how the underlying values and content of digitalization, for example, will be overcome, transformed, or replaced. While skipping the gap between or how to get from here to there, Fuchs and Sandoval (2015) do allude to a sublated totality that might be called a communist destination, however opaque it may be prior to its arrival. This sublated reality is defined as capitalism’s beautiful opposite where it is not just the products of labor that are beautiful, but the process itself is beautiful. Following Marcuse here, Fuchs and Sandoval (2015: 43) conclude that this sublated society has the potential to become a 'work of art.' Unfortunately, however, Fuchs’ (2015) vision of what he calls a free society is wrought with the same anticommunist clichés aimed at China and the former Soviet Union common within critical pedagogy (for a Marxist critique of critical pedagogy, see Malott 2016; Ford 2017). Nevertheless, Fuchs’ body of work offers many valuable insights regarding Marxism and digitalization too important to ignore.

For example, even though they do not address how certain elements of production might be transformed, Fuchs and Sandoval (2015) briefly address the issue of unnecessary labor as a fundamental piece of sublation. Fuchs and Sandoval offer a very general overview of the types of labor dominant in capitalism that might be unnecessary without the very specific process of producing value capitalistically from managers, executives, the military, marketers, entertainers, professional athletes, and so on. This is a much bigger issue revolving around debates between Marxism-Leninism and anarchism/autonomist Marxism concerning the role of the state in the sublation of capitalist production relations and capitalist society more generally, which is beyond the scope of this essay. However, Fuchs and Sandoval (2015: 52) do offer a glimpse into their view of the digitalization of education when they note that, 'there is work that produces commons that cannot be automated if we want to preserve the human character of society' including 'education.' Perhaps unconsciously invoking the Luddite spirit, they maintain that automating education will result in terrible human costs for society. It is assumed here that authentic and effective education (i.e., socialization) must happen in-person.

To explore more deeply what this conception of sublation that is not premised on predetermined outcomes looks like, I now turn to an examination of various aspects of digitalization beginning with algorithmic culture.

Algorithmic Culture in Education

In their many decades of existence, algorithms have become increasingly central to the cutting edge of digitalization. The term is familiar but what exactly is an algorithm? For Alexander Galloway (2006: xi), in his study of algorithmic culture in video gaming, an algorithm is nothing more than 'a machine for the motion of parts.' Like every other machine, algorithmic machines 'function through specific, codified rules of operation' (Galloway 2006: 5). The operators engage the machine according to its language or code. 'At runtime,' Galloway (2006: 6) explains, 'code moves' calling upon and responding to the operators’ input.

The idea that the algorithm as action is transforming culture stems from its qualitative distinction from the text or image as static. In the case of an image or text, the action occurs during its production. Even though videogames and other algorithmic machines are also products of labor, they are unique in that they 'come into being when the machine is powered up and the software is executed; they exist when enacted' (Galloway 2006: 2). Videogames are therefore both object and process whereas texts and images are only objects. The code cannot be read like a text, it must be played. The sublation of algorithmic machines therefore offers exciting possibilities.

Galloway (2006) is clear that what he is describing is not what is commonly referred to as interactive where the audience or reader brings their own interpretation or response to a motionless text or image. Rather, for Galloway (2006: 6), 'an active medium is one whose very materiality moves and restructures itself—pixels turning on and off, bits shifting in hardware registers, disks spinning up and spinning down.' However, just as the meaning of a text is limited but not fully predetermined by its own content, the outcome of a videogame is also limited by its own internal logic or code. The algorithm, in other words, does not facilitate a purely creative process but orients the operator in a particular direction relatively fixed by its coded language. Part of the challenge for sublating an algorithm is therefore to edit or rewrite the machines’ internal logic or code. The algorithm can therefore be preserved but in an altered form with the aspects conductive to capitalism overcome.

Algorithms in Education

Algorithms in education function in a similar way through a process of action. As we will see, these properties render the algorithm particularly adept at making the use value and exchange value of teachers vanish. Under socialism, however, algorithms offer the possibility of reducing the time teachers must spend with predetermined knowledge opening time for the creation of new knowledge. However, the use of algorithms in capitalism will likely become increasingly significant since 'more and more aspects of education…are being conducted through software programs that have been written in code, and that rely on algorithms for their functioning' (Williamson 2017: xv). Because algorithms rely on an immense amount of 'machine-readable digital data' about students and their schooling, Williamson (2017: xv) describes the outcome of this process as the datafication of education.

For example, test scores, attendance records, inspection reports, and 'clickstream data from online courses' are easily converted into digital data that can be inserted into algorithmic programs, contributing to the digitization of education (Williamson 2017: 5). Education at all levels is being digitized from 'classroom practice, pedagogy and assessment' to 'policy, leadership, management and administration' (Williamson 2017: 5). Consequently, the idea of a predetermined curriculum is being 'disrupted.' 'Adaptive learning' (Williamson 2017: 7) algorithms are being created that promise to produce individualized curricula based on students’ unique data profiles. The idea is that the algorithm, functioning as a labor-saving 'teacher bot,' is not only pre-loaded with student data, but processes additional data from test scores and other inputs providing individualized curriculum and instruction in real time. Like videogame algorithms, adaptive learning algorithms are both object and process. However, individualized curricular models do not equate to the subversion of predetermined learning outcomes.

The processes of teacher recruitment, hiring, placing, professional development, and promotion are also being digitized. Facilitating this process, corporate data brokers are emerging that collect, sort, and package educational data selling it back to so-called educational stakeholders to run their algorithms. Since around 2010, investors from Silicon Valley have been pouring unprecedented sums of money (i.e., capital) into educational technology ventures. The sublation of this particular use of algorithms might be preserved in a relatively unaltered form under socialism. That is, in a planned economy, labor-sorting algorithms may contribute to the meeting of needs.

In 2015 a number of technology corporations from IBM, Google, Uber, PayPal, to Automatic and a few of the leading educational technology enterprises like Chegg and EdModo, supported a 3-day hackathon in San Francisco, HackingEDU. Over one thousand of mostly student hackers attended the event hacking educational algorithms in competition for a US$ 100,000 prize. The goal of the hackathon was to disrupt and revolutionize education, which is based on the old cliché that education is broken. The investor class behind technological entrepreneurialism 'proposes that the solution is in the hands of software developers and hackers who can write code' (Williamson 2017: 3). The assumption is that with access to mountains of education data once hidden insights regarding the so-called problems of education can be uncovered and then fixed. Summarizing this model of development, Williamson (2017: 3) explains how 'incubators and accelerators such as Imagine K12 and Y Combinator' function as funded workshops where hackers/programmers 'fine-tune the code and algorithms required to make their product run…and push it out into practice.' This incubator model, of course, is not limited to serving the interests of capital and holds great potential for sublation within and beyond capital.

In a recent review of Williamson’s text, Anna Hogan (2019) places special emphasis on the book’s discussion of fine-tuned digital products designed to modify student behavior. Such products such as ClassDojo run on data generated from the digitalization of student mood and emotion allowing it to be tracked and, they intend, modified. In a digitizing capitalist economy that is rendering more and more workers workless and impoverished and therefore turning more and more to socialism/communism as the only rational solution to their suffering, it is not surprising that technologies of social control are being supported by capitalist interests with growing enthusiasm.

Williamson (2017: 124) begins his discussion of this part of his exploration noting that the goal of what he calls the computational psychology complex (i.e., CompPsy complex) is to 'reshape the behaviors of citizens as governable subjects of digital capitalism.' What this so-called field has 'ascertained' is that 'humans are susceptible to unconscious emotions and sentiments, and can therefore be "nudged" to change their behaviors, choices, and decision-making…' (Williamson 2017: 126). Of course, this view is based on the assumption that individuals tend to make bad decisions so nudging them in what is viewed as a correct direction is done for their own good.

These technologies are therefore not just designed to detect particular emotions, but when executed they are also supposed to respond to undesirable ones by eliciting particular responses through algorithmically determined suggestions. Like videogames and teacher bots, behavior modification algorithms such as ClassDojo are both object and process. Sublating such technologies to overcome various forms of bigotry such as white supremacy in either a capitalist or socialist context would likely generate substantial controversy. However, the sublation of these machines might aim to overcome the unethical, manipulative aspects while preserving in an altered form the features conducive to subverting bigotry. However, a major limitation of such prospects is that the ClassDojo algorithmic model is limited to predetermined responses and the process of ideological transformation is complex and nuanced dependent upon the active involvement of participants. At the same time, the technology might play some supportive role in identifying bigotry and offering an initial low-level engagement.

Posthuman Sublation

Offering many important contributions to the sublation of digital education, Siân Bayne (2015) argues that in addition to its restrictive, exploitative capitalist trajectories digitized education, 'also carries some of the more creative, generative potentials such as the ability to reach new kinds of students, design creative pedagogies, re-work entrenched relations between students and teachers' (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 211) and so on. Realizing this vision, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 211) insists that educators should stop simply reacting to the corporate-driven process of digitalization but must think hard about and fight for 'what we want digital technology to do and to achieve.' For example, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 211) discusses massive open online classrooms (MOOCs) that, on one hand, pose a still unrealized threat to universities by dramatically decreasing the number of professors and teachers needed to educate a given quantity of students. On the other hand, Bayne has been involved in experiments with MOOCs at her university, the University of Edinburgh, where professors were able to share their research and expertise with over two million participants.

This purpose of the MOOC might find sublated use value in the coming months or years as progressive organizations continue to grow. For example, after the following events, progressive organizations in the USA experienced surges in membership: the 2008 housing market crash, the end of the Occupy movement around 2012, the betrayal of Bernie Sanders by the Democratic Party in 2016, and the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Another, deeper economic crisis is now on the horizon, which is expected to push many more workers to progressive organizations. The 2020 Presidential election, regardless of its outcome, is also expected to be followed by a surge in interest in progressive politics (as is the case with every recent president election in the USA). Some progressive organizations include a lengthy candidacy class process for new members. If these organizations experience massive influxes, then they may need to adopt a MOOC model to accommodate them. If this real possibility were to materialize, then the sublation of the MOOC would become part of the larger process of the sublation of capitalism.

More specifically, Bayne’s work on the posthuman offers a number of important insights regarding the use of algorithms (i.e., teacher bots) potentially instructive when considering sublation. In making her case against 'the assumption that presence is the privileged mode' and the most 'authentic' mode of higher education, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 201) maintains that 'we should think about what it means to have a global campus' extending 'beyond the material into the digital.' In the context of developing international working-class solidarity, Bayne’s challenge here is quite compelling.

Contributing to the challenge against privileging so-called in-person education, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 205) mobilizes a number of useful concepts: 'bounded space, networked space, fluid space, and space of fire.' The idea of bounded space emphasizes the physical limitations of being at a college or university setting. Networked space is conceived in a fairly traditional way when thinking of online education. Pushing beyond the dichotomies between bounded and networked spaces, fluid space 'is where boundaries and network nodes are constantly shifting' (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 205). Moving even further away from binary thinking is the space of fire 'characterized by the flickering of presence and absence' where 'there and not-there' occur 'simultaneously' (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 205). Without dismissing the usefulness of the concept of the network, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 205) stresses that 'the network is not enough, so we need to think how it relates to other kinds of connections which may be more fluid, flickering, and volatile.' What is more, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017) has consciously and repeatedly pushed back against the assumption that distance education is inferior to on-campus education. Again, reflecting on the challenges of building connections and solidarity across vast regions and differences, the idea of distance emerges as indispensable in the project of sublation.

Thinking about how this digitalization might be developed, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 203) argues that 'science fiction has been very useful in preparing us for answering some of the difficult questions about posthumanism.' More specifically, Bayne (Bayne and Jandrić 2017: 203) notes how science fiction is helpful in grappling with 'how the politics of algorithms might work for—or against—our students’ interests.'

Creativity as Resistance

The immediate demand for the creative use of digitalization as a form of resisting its more disruptive tendencies is underscored by Ben Williamson (2017: 8), stating that 'we need to be at the very least cautious about many of the claims made about the transformative and revolutionary potential of many new developments, if not downright skeptical –and, indeed, a little resistant.' Because 'seriously powerful organizations,' corporations and governments in particular, are investing in and driving these trends in education according to their own interests, Williamson (2017: 8) correctly suggests that the current trajectory of algorithmic education is not oriented toward the interests of those who are not the direct beneficiaries of 'seriously powerful organizations.

In this way, creatively resisting the mainstream employment of digital learning technologies makes practical sense. The tendency within the education community to view digital learning with skepticism and caution could be an issue that drives teachers to push their unions not in a more Luddite direction, but in a more radical, creative direction. Given the state-wide wildcat strike of West Virginia teachers in 2018 and the resulting nationwide wave of strikes, such considerations are not farfetched (Malott 2019). The position here is that the teachers’ struggle should be enthusiastically supported by all progressive forces while the larger goal and movement for of a sublated digitized capitalist society and education should simultaneously be advocated for and organized around.

Jeremy Knox (2019: 358) contributes to the calls for creatively transforming digital education by challenging the long-held anthropocentric assumption that 'authentic education has tended to be understood in terms of "pure" human relationships between teachers and their students.' Knox (2019) points to three broad areas of the digitalization of education in need of creative transformation: the move to enclose an open web to a platform model using closed apps more conducive for capturing surplus value; the impact of the datafication of education leading administrators, for example, to focus on the narrow data inputted in algorithms to boost their rankings; and the environmental and labor costs of creating the technological infrastructure thereby challenging the myth that immaterial production is paving the way for an environmentally sustainable, exploitation-free capitalism. Because digitalization is no longer supplemental or marginal, but is now at the driving center of education, such issues are central. Knox (2019) contributes here to the thinking about technology against and after capitalism.

As such, Knox (2019: 368) argues against focusing critique on 'technology as an isolated category,' but on the purposes of digital education itself. Pushing back not against technology, but against its specific use under capitalism, Knox takes up the call for a radical digital citizenship focused on building alternative and emancipatory technologies. Given the mass mobilizations of working people and the prospects for even larger mobilizations, what we might call a peoples’ digital education is likely to gain traction despite the 'immense power of the technology industry' (Knox 2019: 368). Knox’s (2019: 368) calls for the 'ongoing struggle' to build on what has already been forged and reclaim 'an affirmative form of the digital' are therefore welcome.

Sublating Policy Projections

Considering capitals’ educational policy projections as responses to the way they frame looming disruptions in employment stemming from labor-saving digitalization offers further insight into possible future contours of a sublated digital education.

Alexander Means (2019), for example, examines three major policy and research organizations’ framing of future risks or disruptions in employment as a direct result of digitalization. While there is considerable debate around the numbers, it is predicted that the magnitude of job displacement in the next several decades will be so enormous that the new technology, for the first time, will displace far more jobs than the revolution in production will generate. As a result, policy institutes are changing their discourse from framing education as the path to growth and development to framing it as mitigating or countering future disruption. Means (2019) notes how corporate policy projections convey both a sense of fear regarding disruptions to social stability and profitability and a sense of optimism for the economic promises attached to algorithmic culture specifically and labor-displacing digitalization more generally. The policy solutions offered, argues Means (2019), are presented as self-evident and thus closed off to underlying causes and alternatives. In other words, uncovering underlying causes and motivations of policies and policy suggestions offers yet another angel to consider the creative sublation of digitalization.

The first policy suggestion Means (2019: 9) reports on is the call for what major policy think tanks call 'flexible skills strategy.' The purpose here is to provide the worker with agility in a world no longer dominated by 'linear careers' but constant turnover. The old format of narrow certificates and credentials is no longer sufficient according to this narrative. According to Means (2019: 10), 'skills are imagined here as a common currency, that will be acquired within decentralized digital networks of training and micro-credentializing with learning connected directly to skills taxonomies required for shifting job requirements.' This process will be facilitated by educational algorithms that can micro-fine-tune individualized instruction in real time. Similarly, community activists and organizers, including leaders of teacher unions, responding to the deepening poverty and contingency driven by the digitalization of the economy, have been escalating their activities requiring more and more of their members to develop a similar level of flexibility and competency in many skills from doing community and member outreach, leading marches and demonstrations, creating slogans and aesthetics, explaining theory and history in study groups, giving inspiring speeches, etc. Rather than sabotage or refuse the flexible skills strategy employed to advance the profitability of capital, educational activists might consider how to creatively overcome, preserve, and digitize it to advance the process of educational and capitalist sublation.

This is not so farfetched even within the current logics of capitalist policy institutes. Means (2019), for example, notes that some institutes argue that algorithms designed to respond to rapidly changing conditions from environmental catastrophe to social disruptions are crucial to most effectively mitigate against such crises. However, Means (2019) points out that even the most socially conscious policy institutes do not engage the root causes of crises, such as environmental destruction. Consequently, such disruptions are treated as inevitabilities that can only be responded to with a 'future-ready education' that produces 'agile learners' with 'malleable and adaptive skills' (Means 2019: 11). Offering a way to deepen our thinking about sublation, Means (2019: 14) argues that one necessary task is to 'identify emergent policy mutations and track their logics and trajectories, and in doing so open up a space for alternatives.'

Hacking: a Method to Sublate

If our assignment is to think creatively about sublating digitized education, then it makes sense to explore the transformative methods that have already been developed. The term arguably most associated with altering the digitized world is hacking. Acknowledging the wide array of actions identified as hacking, some encouraged by corporations and others subversive and often illegal, digital anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (Coleman and Jandrić 2019: 526) offers a useful definition.

Hacking is learning and building technology, combined to either push the envelope of what’s possible, or undermine existing technological or social systems, in order to create something new.

Coleman pushes back against 'framing the hacker…as the male hero-technologist who conquers the electronic frontier' (Coleman and Jandrić 2019: 527) as the contemporary frontiersman or Christopher Columbus. Reporting a more realistic picture, Coleman refutes the image of the isolated, social outcast hacking against the system. At the same time, many hacker collectives reject the Mark Zuckerberg image of the Silicon Valley hack 'pushing boundaries' because they tend to be pushed 'in ways that have pretty negative consequences' even though they 'are dressed in the clothing of a progressive political project' (Coleman and Jandrić 2019: 529).

At its core then, the progressive hacking of algorithmic education is about developing education in a way that would make it better suited to meet the people’s learning needs. Within the conception of sublation deployed here, I retain Ford’s insistence on indeterminacy and creativity in negating that which is. Simultaneously, however, we do not need to start from scratch, as it were, which opens up a whole body of work focused on the critical transformation of digital education (see, for example, Bayne 2015; Bayne and Jandrić 2017; Coleman and Jandrić 2019; Fuller and Jandrić 2019; Knox 2019; Peters and Jandrić 2018). There is a relatively old tradition of hacking videogame algorithms that offer important insights to consider for approaching the sublation of the internal logic or code of algorithmic education.

Gamic Modifications

In the final chapter of his book, Alexander Galloway (2006) identifies three ways that videogames can be modified or hacked. Galloway’s (2006: 107–108) categorization offers a useful framework for considering the sublation of algorithmic approaches to education:

…at the level of its visual design, substituting new level maps, new artwork, new character models, and so on; (2) at the level of the rules of the game, changing how gameplay unfolds—who wins, who loses, and what the repercussions of various gamic acts are; or (3) at the level of its software technology, changing character behavior, game physics, lighting techniques, and so on.

Drawing out some of the nuances of modification, Galloway (2006:108) explains that while some only adjust 'a few key aspects of the game,' others 'contradict the source game almost entirely, changing the core interactivity of the game as well as its visual aesthetic.' In other words, while some tinker with reforming games, others work to sublate them entirely. Galloway (2006: 111), seemingly in tune with how change and development occur, even offers a disclaimer making it clear that there is always continuity between the modified game and the original version it was developed out of:

I said in the beginning that artist-made video game mods undercut themselves to such a degree that they almost cease being games. Of course, this is not altogether true, for important links remain between countergaming and the gaming industry, between mods and their sources.

Just as capitalism developed out of feudalism and not separate from it, the modified game is developed out of an existing game and not separate from one. However, what is missing from the form of sublation we can see within Galloway’s description is a political orientation. In the context of Galloway’s countergaming, difference or transgression seems to be pursued for the sake of difference or transgression itself. A progressive sublation, on the other hand, desires a difference that is more just.

Applied to algorithmic education, gamic modification, endowed with a progressive political orientation, presents itself as a useful framework for reflecting on the possibilities of how sublation might be enacted. For instance, one of the tendencies of modified videogames is that the hackers often make the internal apparatus visible bringing it to the foreground (Galloway 2006: 114). In algorithmic education, we might take the previously explored behavior modification software, ClassDojo, to forge an equivalent example. While ClassDojo is framed as a way to assist students in making 'good' decisions, bringing its behaviorist orientation to the surface can reveal the corporate interests behind its definition of 'good.'

Similarly, gamic modification also includes the tendency to disport the laws of physics so dramatically that they become unintelligible. If sublating the laws of capitalist accumulation into their socialist opposite would render production unintelligible to capitalist sensibilities unable to detect a profit rate (i.e., a rate of exploitation), then the logic of algorithmic education might be similarly sublated. Galloway himself offers an intervention in the apolitical orientation of gamic modification.

Galloway (2006:125) argues that 'artists should create new grammars of action, not simply new grammars of visuality.' Enacting 'radical action,' the 'game’s position in the world' (Galloway 2006: 125) is somehow transformed. However, Galloway does not elaborate on what this radical action might look like in practice. What we can say is that sublation must be more than making online education tuition free. It must remove algorithmic education from the dictates of capital as part of a larger collective movement sublating capitalism itself. For example, how can algorithms free up teachers’ time while simultaneously facilitating the development of new subjectivities liberated from the bigotries and choices handed down by capital? This essay has provided some suggestions but much more work is needed.


To take a non-deterministic form of educational sublation as a serious consideration is to not only acknowledge the need for more social justice within capitalism, but it is also to acknowledge the need to transcend capitalism more completely. Joining digital educators’ call for the creative, indeterminate, progressive transformation of algorithmic education is a step toward building a mass education movement needed to create change.

As I have argued, Marx’s critique of the Luddite orientation and his insistence on sublation as an alternative to sabotage remains a relevant imperative. The various forms of digital education explored in this essay and considering the possible ways they may be sublated offer suggestions for moving forward. What is more, the critical digital education scholars’ many insights regarding the sublation of digitalized education demonstrate what can be achieved within capitalism as a place of departure to think beyond capitalism. To facilitate this thinking, an ongoing engagement with digital education policy projections and how they may be sublated seems to be a potentially fruitful endeavor.

As activist scholars continue their sublating work, insights from gamic modification might serve as part of a concrete guide to action. Such actions can contribute to our sense of collective power and ability to imagine what life unrestrained by capitalism might look like, which can inspire and motivate the struggle for such a future.


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Malott, C. The Sublation of Digital Education. Postdigit Sci Educ 2, 365–379 (2020).

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  • Digitalization
  • Education
  • Sublation
  • Marx