Why we don’t want to grow up.

There’s still a lot of daily hoopla over the shallows. It seems more and more that these discussions are really missing the point. Over at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub of the University of California, David Theo Goldberg touched on a Duke University study, in which the researchers acknowledge the one advantage of computer-oriented learning:

“The Duke researchers do acknowledge improved computing skills—the capacity to negotiate software and to find their way around the Internet—that are useful for future employability in the contemporary economy.  But these findings are overshadowed by the stress on what they identify as the computer related failings.”

Sure. Kids are now learning to be more open, collaborative and engage in participatory culture. Computers have helped enable that. Even we adults are starting to do that more as well. I also liked the way that Goldberg broke down the “internet versus books” dilemma, although I would urge him to reconsider the nature of the library: no longer “wooden shelves in a room with pages gathering dust” but instead a place where people outside of schools can access the information they need, and produce the creative and work objects the have to, should they not be privileged with blazing-fast, income-sucking internet connections at home.

But no, what really got my attention that the notion that being open, collaborative and engaging in participatory culture were not ends in themselves, but rather that the most important thing about them was that they “…are useful for employability in the contemporary economy.” The economy that is failing us? Is it the best idea to premise education on that? It looks like those of us who are done with our formal education are somewhat trapped, and it is all our fault, lazy as we are despite the enormous amounts of hustle that many young people engage in to honor that same economy, and end up working for free. Is it no wonder that some people are not excited to go out and hustle any more.

Carl Hegelman at The Awl put it very nicely.

“Patents are filed. The machines get built. Productivity goes up. A couple of guys get rich. For the rest, life stays the same, except for the ones who got laid off because of the super-efficient new machine. So it turns out Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is, after all, attached to a pickpocket. To put it a bit more formally: the benefits of increased productivity go to capital, not labor.”

These same mechanics work in the digital age, now moving us further into a post-industrial twilight. And now we have to deal with something else: crowd-sourced labor, where ” there are entire swaths of work that can be accomplished by anyone, anywhere.” The implication is that we are all now temps, to be assembled at the needs of businesses, and let go when we are no  longer needed. As the author, Mac Slocum points out: “What’s really surprising is that many of the groups CrowdFlower turns to would never define themselves as formal workforces.” The ability to complete school and become financially independent are what New York Times writer Robin Marantz Heing and her source, sociologist Jeffery Jensen Arnett define as part of a set of traditional milestones used to mark an individuals march to adulthood. Look at Hegelman’s point from this perspective. Crowd-sourced labor increase the productivity of companies, not the stability of the workforce (being in the same place, having a regular paycheck). It is software designed to harness collaborative spirit to the benefit of the company in question and the questionably named middleman, Crowdflower. If you’re a temp, it is pretty hard to make long-term commitments in the rest of your life.

 

So yes, let us be more collaborative and participate by learning on computers. We will gain the skills needed, along with the mindset that we are all little interchangeable parts, as easily moved around as bits of information. The 20-something doldrums of the late-20th and early-21st centuries is the digging-in-the-heels of a generation that realization that the big, bright future is really a selling point by people who want to take advantage of our willingness to play nice with others. What Nicholas Carr nearly hits and what David Theo Goldberg somewhat misses is that the learning that comes from deep engagement over extended periods of time is the ability to be more critical of what is being asked of you, as a student or as a worker.

So check out a library book. Read a lot online. Make artwork with MS Office. Write a Blog. Go fly a kite. Je Refuse.

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