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Deschooling and the blockchain

Jared Pereira


Illich proposed a bunch of practical systems for building the educational networks he describes. For example, he described a matchmaking systems, to facilliate incidental learning among peers.

Educational Registries

Each man, at any given moment and at a minimum price, could identify himself to a computer with his address and telephone number, indicating the book, article, film, or recording on which he seeks a partner for discussion. Within days he could receive by mail the list of others who recently had taken the same initiative. This list would enable him by telephone to arrange for a meeting with persons who initially would be known exclusively by the fact that they requested a dialogue about the same subject.

This is a simple powerful idea. It’s a system to enable individuals to “share an issue which for them, at the moment, is socially, intellectually, and emotionally important”, as Illich put it, and to grow from it as a result.

An important aspect of this, and many of Illich’s proposals in general, is the scale. Such systems are only valuable in large communities, and only at such a point that the network effects kick in. No one would want to, or rather no one would, participate in a matchmaking service that no one else was on, nor buy into a road system that didn’t lead everywhere.

How can it be built?

The normal answer would be the government, but here the result of the government’s work is exactly what Illich is so critical towards. Having it in control of such a system would at best be a huge privacy concern and at worst a little more insidious.

The dotcom age that was just emerging with network systems in the 70s could provide a different answer. Why couldn’t a startup, or some hackers, build this service? ->the matchmaking, not the public trans service

Well firstly I think the internet did improve the situation. It led to an explosion of niche social spaces, for people to congregate around ideas and interests, and to learn from each other without any central authority controlling their topics or experiences. However, these niches could never scale.

Though the system works in small communities, as soon as it grows the self-enforcing cultural norms fall apart. Individuals need to have trust in the experiences of their peers in order to engage with them. So why can’t we have that in large systems?

I think the answer is why blockchain systems are so useful. The internet enabled wide spread communication, but not coordination. The large scale social networks that emerged are generally information dumps, not the kind of rule-based social environments Illich needed for learning webs.

Enter Blockchains

It’s fascinating to notice the connections between the criticisms that Illich forwards and blockchain systems in general.

Specifically he talks about the idea of “conviviality”:

autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; … in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.

And the question comes to mind, are blockchains convivial systems? I can see both elements present in them. The transactional freedom they provide enables direct communication and coordination between individuals. But also surely the ideas of conditioned responses and external demands are present in the incentive systems and singletons we’re building.

I think this tension between freedom and constrait is central to the system, it’s what gives rise to strong social structures. And blockchain systems, with their technological basis of individual agency and emergent property of strong consensus, are poised to present a new paradigm here, one that’s unclear and under construction.

How does this relate to learning?

A learner individually has almost complete freedom. They can build their own experience however they want and shape themselves into the person they want to be. But as soon as that individual’s learning processs involves others they have to subscribe to a larger system, so that they can be trusted, and so that they can coordinate.

Illich desires one where the individual freedom is maintained, and extended into social contexts, not (negatively) influenced by the system facillitating, rejecting the “conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others”. This is really hard.

But blockchains are promising. If learners have the freedom to build their own pedagogical practices that all connect to a singular source of trust, they can greatly lower coordination costs while still maintaining their freedom. This is what we’re trying to build.

Playing around

But I think the relationship between Illich and this technology is more fundamental than just fathom, or just education. He was essentially a visionary societal architect, without the tools to construct that vision. And like him there have been a lot of thinkers throughout the years who explored the role of institutions, and imagined varied and diverse systems.

Perhaps the decentralized systems we have today will be finally let us try some of them out. It’s going to be exciting to play. We definitely need to read and learn more.