Author, professor, and ethnographic research designer Christo Sims discusses his book, Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism (Princeton 2017).
As historians of science and technology have shown, the philanthropic possibilities of new media technologies are repeatedly idealized even though actual interventions routinely fall short of reformers’ good intentions – often dramatically so. Given this track record, how does enthusiasm for techno-philanthropism manage to faithful renew and what does a given intervention or movement accomplish even as it is largely unable to make good on its aims?
This book talk addresses these questions by drawing on an ethnographic case study of a recent attempt to reinvent schooling for the digital age. Sims argues that projects of idealistic tech-reform move through “cycles of disruptive fixation” that tend to remake and extend many of the social predicaments that reformers aim to fix. By looking at these issues ethnographically, he draws attention to the nuanced roles that elites, experts, the media, and the intended beneficiaries of reform―in this case, the students and their parents―play in perpetuating the cycle. The talk concludes by arguing that “failed” cycles of reform are nevertheless effective at channeling and absorbing unwieldy political currents, in large part because they offer structurally unthreatening ways for people to affirm and experience commitments to unmet moral and political ideals.
Christo Sims is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and an affiliated faculty member in the Science Studies Program and the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, San Diego. Most broadly, his scholarship focuses on technological change, equity, learning, and social practice. Having worked as both an ethnographer and a designer, he is also interested in how ethnography and design can and do play a role in making and shaping public life. In that vein, he is a founding member of both the Studio for Ethnographic Design at UCSD and the University of California Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design.
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