And here we come to the real crux of the matter: the less people who participate, the more people end up just becoming consumers, and if the only people producing things for these people to consume are corporate entities, then we’re subjected to an overwhelming quantity of spewed-out, predigested ‘culture’. People have stopped participating and are content just being present, and thats a problem and whoever thinks “oh shut up dude, this happens all the time” you’re wrong, the internet leaves nothing hidden, every fuck dick can copy and paste a personality they found on the internet, and thats never been possible before. But fuck it, who needs to actually go out and do something worthwhile IRL when you get the same chemical reaction from 100 internet strangers telling you your outfit is awesome. -Johnny Love, Subculture as we know it is dead, and its all the internets fault.
In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability. -Atul Gawande, Slow Ideas
Uncontrolled variability, as Gawande briefly illustrates is anathema to efficiency. However, the converse of messy and anachronistic communication through slow channels is not always the domain of the technologically disadvantaged, but it also a way to display privilege in a technologically obsessed world. Literally, to not care about efficiency in communication, to do something the old fashioned way is in some ways a projected indication of class. So, in the United States, we are what we buy. Consider the Molskine Notebook:
The reason for the brand’s success is its unique positioning, which combines identity and culture thanks to its high design and iconic content, as the product satisfies a sense of belonging to a community sharing common values, rather than just a function. This also justifies its premium positioning. -Chiara Rotelli & Emanuela Mazzoni, Moleskine: Initial Public Offering
Paper, especially a leather-bound notebook of blank paper, is a luxury. It stands opposed to the cheap xerox stock that overflows despite the birth of the digital age, and implies a non-work time suck of doodles, drawings, notes, and mental sketches. It also implies creativity, over, and over. The kinds of notebooks alone tell a tale of the creative class in mashed fibers: passion, city, reporter, professional, creativity, black page, cover art, limited edition. This is paper for the privileged. It is messy and anachronistic, but also private. These notebooks are places for mistakes, first drafts, and experiments, only to be communicated to a few, and almost never without revision. Privacy, silence, and a lack of communication are bound up nicely in pages, blank in a discreet black book that projects a quiet power as a brand object.
This takes me back to Illich (1983) and his call for the defense of the silent commons. This call, essentially a manifesto, declared silence to be a shared condition placed under threat by new technologies and their amplificatory functions. It functions as a critique of mass media, regarded as a deeply non–convivial technology in which communication ‘machines’ provide prostheses and do so selectively, so that certain dominant groups (those who get the equipment) become louder hailers with the power to silence others. -Caroline Bassett, Silence, Delirium, Lies?
Bassett is worried about people being silenced by loud hailers, and the 21st century has proven no different. But the inverse is also a problem. More often than not, we are encouraged to participate, to make ourselves seen and known. Now to have the quiet space, to communicate slowly or not at all, but to just jot some notes and doodles is the position of power.
We installed the ethos that pedigree was over and all money was now equally valuable. The mythology of Silicon Alley was forced to coalesce for good, with City Hall’s fervor behind it. The start-up culture wars—a fresh beef with the West Coast, except boring!—intentionally pitted us against the weirdo jerks of Palo Alto. The scrunchy-face foxy Foursquare co-founders appeared in Gap ads, clad in mediocre jeans but form-fitting venture capital. You were a good person if you were an entrepreneur. You were creating jobs, until you weren’t. The big floor-through lofts of Broadway between Houston and Spring filled up with inexpensive furniture and even less expensive young people, each with a bitter mouthful of Adderall, each office bright and identical. So far, we’ve disrupted a few things, mostly coffee-related. – Choire Sicha, Let Me Tell You About the Most Heartfelt $200 I Ever Made
6) The demand for new methods of teaching, such as flipped classrooms and blended learning, is coming from the students. Untrue.
Students are, for the most part, perfectly happy with traditional lecture courses. They know what to expect from and how to navigate courses that put no more demands on them but to reflect back the knowledge transmitted from the front of the room. -Joshua Kim, 10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning.
In this defense of educational technology, it appears that student demand isn’t driving classroom change. While being protective of educational technologists broadly, it tries to point out that educators are also driving the uptake of educational technology. Given the precarious lives of educators, the additional need to innovate, both pedagogically and technologically is important. Taken individually, pedagogical innovation is difficult, and requires a lot of work and support. What it does not necessarily include is an expanded budget for hardware, software, and associated staff. While Joshua Kim makes the argument that:
What is so important about this transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain. Technology folks are moving from server rooms to the classrooms, from provisioning and monitoring server applications to collaborating with faculty and librarians on flipped classrooms and blended learning. -Joshua Kim, 10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning.
The line of reasoning inextricably ties consumerism to technology and pedagogical innovation, which might free people up, but still ties up more money than if the connection between them was severed. The final and most curious point is this: if consumerism is the model, and students aren’t viewed as consumers, then why does this feel like marketing? While it is proposed that businesses are “consumer driven” and schools are “student driven” then why is demand for innovation not coming from students? Marketing, the art of tell others that they need something they didn’t know existed, is at the center of the pedagogy/technology coupling’s consumerist model. Even for the pedagogically well-intentioned, the inclusion of further goods and services on behalf of the students or the school means that we as educators are selling those products to students.
Such an outgrowth of the broader cultural imperative to sell is very much the Liberal Man’s Burden taken up by technology providers: everything is fixable by technology, which you are free to purchase, but it is not your right to that solution. Government, the cash-thirsty guarantor of hypothetical equality stands directly in the way:
Eric Schnuerer writes of a world where government literally is a product you can buy, an eventuality he sees foretold in the increase in private security forces and flight from public schools. In other words, “‘Government’ is, everywhere, an industry in serious trouble,” and his remedy is to “resize,” “redesign” the “products,” and “compete effectively against new competitors and in whole new markets.”
This misconception is at the heart of Silicon Valley’s approach to politics, both at home and abroad. In Packer’s words, technology “has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value.” -Kate Redburn, Google and The Liberal Man’s Burden.
The technologist approach is also marketing driven: it creates more needs than it solves in order to be financially profitable. Solving problems with existing tools, specifically through the application of pedagogy rather than pedagogy and technology, is less focused on consumption and more on hard-to-capitalize creation. The Liberal Man’s burden that technology has brought to bear in education is to make it profitable and condition the educational system to seek out profitable solutions to the human problem of educational values in the 21st century. Popular culture has a word for those who push back against the technological thrust in education based on such grounds: they are the hipsters of education:
Its zombie-like persistence in anti-hipster discourse must be recognized for what it is: an urbane, and socially acceptable, form of ideologically inflected shaming on the part of American elites who must delegitimize those segments of a largely white, college educated population who didn’t do the “acceptable thing.” -Anthony Galluzzo, The ‘Fucking Hipster’ Show.
Hipsters are the fixie-mounted, left-leaning, do-your-own-canning types who accept technology with reservations, but without Luddism. This is the analogy for those who question the efficacy of the technology/pedagogy pairing, and libraries, as places where older technologies sit comfortably beside newer ones, is hipsterism par excellence. Questioning the imperative to maximize one’s own economic advantage at one’s own expense runs counter to the “self-made” maximalist culture represented by the span of men from Carnegie to Zuckerberg. When a product is made, it bears the personality and values of its maker through and through. In education, we teach people to fit in or resist culture, so it has always been the site of contests for power. Defining educational institutions as site of “transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain” will teach students not to provide, but to consume.
Let’s talk about the innovation culture. Let’s talk about how to make something simple and beautiful into something ugly. The problem with many innovations is that they conflate innovation for specialization. There’s a great new skateboard that can easily ride down stairs, but you can do that and many other things with any deck. The tools of academic publishing have run into the same problem: we have specialized journals for everything, but few places that allow for broader participation, with Aaron Swartz’s death, a lot of discussions about this came up:
To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action. -Peter Ludlow, Aaron Swartz Was Right.
But Ludlow misses another important point: for good or bad, these costs have a hidden benefit for academics themselves:
With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it. -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.
Libraries and publishers have been in this system of exclusion for a long time, there’s no one side to blame. But Kendizor takes it one step further: even our language is to blame:
Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.
We are living in a time where the ability to access knowledge is at an all-time high. But the structure of publishing, of tenure and promotion and our language itself have given rise to new levels of defensiveness for academics. It’s time to get to the Harlem Shake of academia, something so obvious that anyone can do it. Many academics are trying things out, from open access journals to blogs to non-academic but thoughtful sites like thestate.ae. It’s time to really put everything out there because now more than ever, we’re hiding when we shouldn’t. Open access journals are the Stair Rover to HTMLgiant‘s firecracker and it’s clear that by creating something so functional, we’ve created something ugly.
Even though the cost of producing information is falling, information as a whole is becoming more expensive. Identifying the cause of the rising cost of information is simple: Information is becoming less, not more, of a public good in our economy. – Michael Perelman (1998), Class Warfare in the Information Age, p. 91.
There is nothing about the mixing of peer culture, personal interests, and education that require the following:
“Digital tools provide opportunities for producing and creating a wide variety of media, knowledge, and cultural content in experimental and active ways.”
“Social media and web-based communities provide unprecedented opportunities for cross-generational and cross-cultural learning and connection to unfold and thrive around common goals and interests.”
“Online platforms and digital tools can make learning resources abundant, accessible, and visible across all learner settings.”
– Mizuko Ito, et al. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, p.74
They are certainly integral to the case studies that were presented: Massive Multi-Player Online Games, Screenwriting, Webcomics, Hip-Hop Production, programs at magnet schools in New York City, Minecraft, The Harry Potter Alliance, and afterschool programs backed by major research universities. Which is to say this: they are thoughtful and well-meaning, but still interventions which rely on the cultures and models of the dominant and elite in the United States, and with the exception of hip-hop, they tend to valorize silicon valley’s geek culture, and integrate it into a continually worsening economic system.
But “information” was never enough. Information is only intelligible given the proper knowledge, context, and opportunity. Likewise, knowledge is produced and shared within a complex infrastructure supported by a web of different agencies and organizations. Even if made cheap or free for consumers, that knowledge still requires other, more foundational knowledge, community affiliation, and economic freedom to convert into meaningful use.
Education, particularly the education of populations that most need it to improve their lot, is tied up with a political and economic situation that is not sufficiently addressed by merely connecting some of its output to the Internet, or by abdicating public responsibility to do otherwise to the first salesman who offers a sort-of viable alternative, no more than better night travel by car in Atlanta would be sufficiently supported by allowing private companies to connect to the electrical grid, or by providing government subsidies to flashlight manufacturers.
Although the examples provided by the Connected Learning group do provide plenty of knowledge, context, and opportunity, they largely reproduce their own subculture’s knowledge, context, and opportunities, and even the name “connected leaning” leans heavily enough on a computer network analogy that you can hear the cooling fans humming. Jocks and other non-geeks need not apply.
To summarize: the answer to underfunded, lower effectiveness primary and secondary education requires subsidizing a private, VC-funded bet made on a roulette wheel fashioned from the already precarious prospects of a disadvantaged population.
As TechCrunch’s gleefully apocalyptic article demonstrates, Silicon Valley culture loves to celebrate the end of institutions merely to bask in the spectacle of falling rubble. That works for summer popcorn flicks, but in the real world, eventually we have to live among that rubble. Or, I suppose, we have to be able to afford the cost of the private rubble-clearing services that would allow us to persist in their wake. -Ian Bogost, Inequality in American Education Will not be Solved Online
Tying your library to something like a 3D printer moves you in the wrong direction. It moves you towards manufacturing physical products. It leads you to the tangible – that’s not your job. It is the concept of the intangible that connects all the objects librarians have traditionally dealt with- books, records, photographs, magnetic tape and compact discs. It is this tradition of dealing with the intangible that makes librarianship such an exciting profession right now. -Hugh Rundle, Misson Creep: A 3D Printer Will Not Save Your Library
I really liked Hugh Rundle’s post on the “intangibles” which make up our professional bread and butter, where the tangible and intangible meet, but the heart of the thing is that libraries primarily provide access to the information, the creation of physical objects, however, is of very little import to Rundle. The proposition seems sensible, but David Lankes took issue with it:
Some librarian brought in the first game, and the first scroll, and the first illuminated manuscript. They did this to enhance access, yes, but also to expand the capabilities of the communities they served. They did so not because it was text and therefore OK, but because they were tools that could help. Help, not document the world, but to change it. -David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Missing the Point and 3D Printing
The question I put to Lankes (and he graciously answered) was that at what point are those intangible things not tools? Ideas are some of the most powerful tools we have for Librarians change the world, as do many people, with texts and other tools. And yes, they loan and provide access to tools, but more importantly, they provide access to tools that not only help people participate in their communities, but also to escape or change their community and their circumstances, by evasion or critique. Language is one of the most powerful means we have of shaping and re-shaping our world, and libraries excel at helping people navigate language and its tools.
What struck me as the main issue is an underlying ethos of a “innovation” culture. I think it is central to Lankes’ mission, but as I’ve argued before, it also runs against the conservative grain of librarianship and community. While admirable, in the post-2008 world, I harbor a deep skepticism towards “innovation.” To that end:
“I think it’s great that some libraries are able to lend out items other than books, because it shows that they are responding to the needs of their particular community. But again, I do not see it as a desperate move to stay relevant…. We’ve got relevancy coming out of our ears.” -Jen Doll, Ask a Librarian About the Odd Things Happening at Libraries
There is a tension between “things” and “non-things” and how it affects our relevancy to our communities, but it really sidesteps a larger issue. The “thingness” part is also tied up with “maker culture,” which to a large extent has been adopted by the culture at large, and has frankly commodified. The 3D printer, is arguably a different beast, but the same culture promotes their use: without extensive software and hardware, there is no way to make anything with them, thus continuing to reify a digitally driven “innovation” culture, which may or may not have anything to do with one’s community. Lankes acknowledges the point about 3D printers not being the best fit, but his overall program of innovation comes from the 21st century mindset of constant innovation.
There are a lot of parallels to an ongoing discussion in the Digital Humanities community, where the creation of digital tools is see as an artisanal and constructivist practice:
No matter the type, our tools had one thing in common: overwhelmingly, their own users had made ’em, and understood the continual and collective re-making of them, in response to various resistances encountered and discovered, as a natural part of the process of their use. In fact, this constructivist and responsive maker’s circle was so easily and unavoidably experienced as the new, collaborative hermeneutic of humanities computing, as the work itself that—within or beyond our small community—we too rarely bothered to say so.
“In the Middle Ages,” he tells us, in Art and Labor, “everything that man made was beautiful, just as everything that nature makes is always beautiful; and I must again impress upon you the fact that this was because they were made mainly for use, instead of mainly to be bought and sold… The beauty of the handicrafts of the Middle Ages came from this, that the workman had control over his material, tools, and time.” -Bethany Nowviskie, Resistance in the Materials
Nowviskie tries to separate the hand-coded tools of the digital humanist from their mundane context of personal-computer drudgery and place them in the rarified air of the middle ages, ringing of individual craftsmanship that has little to do with the gross commodification of the 21st century. But the middle ages also were a place of tight guild control of production, a rigorous exclusivity of creation. In reality, there is a part of the digitally-fueled discursive regimes of code/space which still takes hold. In some ways, it feels like the digitally-driven innovation culture nudging its way into the branding of craftsmanship, much like the innovation culture is finding its way into community discourse. Neither of these are bad in-and-of themselves, but they are, effectively, branding operations to make one thing seem more like another.
Like Nowviskie, Lankes, and Rundle, we all participate in the discursive regimes of code/space, in some form or fashion. But Rundle puts the brakes on the innovation culture which calls for continually promoting making and participating in community, because it can no longer uncritically be accepted as “good” for a community. Here’s a solid list of reasons not to innovate post by Gijs Van Wulfen, who is LinkedIn’s innovation expert:
21 Situations when you should not innovate:
- When you are sure your market is not changing in the coming five years.
- When your clients are even more conservative than you are.
- When your old formulas are still giving great risk-free results for the coming years.
- When brand and line extensions bring you a lot of extra turnover and profits.
- When the urgency to innovate is completely absent.
- When you don’t receive enough money and manpower to do it.
- When your company is in a short-term crisis.
- When your organization is working at full capacity to meet the current huge demand.
- When everybody says: “Innovate!”, but no one wants to be responsible.
- When you´re clueless about what you´re looking for.
- When there is no real business need and it’s only nice to have.
- When you can’t form a capable harmonious team that really goes for it.
- When there is no support at the top.
- When the people in your organization are not (yet) prepared to break their habits.
- When people in your company are lazy; content to copy from others.
- When the organization doesn’t have any kind of vision about its future course.
- When long term planning means looking three months ahead.
- When everyone fears failure.
- When everyone will attack and ridicule the newness of an idea.
- When important stakeholders will block it at any time.
- When your latest innovations are so successful and still need further exploitation.
-Gijs Van Wulfen, When Should you NOT innovate?
I think Rundle sees libraries in a number of these points, and calling it out in the midst of an “innovation” culture will certainly raise some eyebrows.
Many hackles are rightly raised by the ubiquity of this word “disruption”, and its implications for the business of higher education; but the best MOOCs do not deal in the bourgeois concept of disruption, they deal in a very real rupture that is confusing to us all. Something convulsive. A monstrous birth.If the best MOOCs show us that learning is networked, and that it has always been, then learning is more rampant than we’ve accounted for.
-Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel, A MOOC is not a Thing: Emergence, Disruption, and Higher Education
Morris and Sommel rightly point out that learning has always been more ubiquitous than many in our industry have supposed, and admirably aim to break down the distinction between formal and informal learning. But I’m concerned that nothing so radical has been born, rather, the MOOC-as-technology is a bourgeois, technologically-enabled system designed to “capture” learning, and to try and contain it. Roger Whitson wrote that “There is no-outside MOOC, or there is nothing outside the MOOC,” which illuminates the point that, if not for the enclosure of learning by institutions of education (in most cases, higher education), then there’s no sense in going to such great lengths to define and theorize the MOOC. Instead, by supporting the idea that there is nothing outside of the thing, it grants domain of all learning to the MOOC, and more importantly, to the institution in control of it. The MOOC, both as a concept and as a technological product,seems to be a very big enclosure designed to broaden the perceived role of education in learning. Fundamentally, education is a discursive regime, and the MOOC will continue to contribute to it, rather than disrupt it. Still, harnessing the interest that many people have in learning new things is a very broad-minded ideal, and the people who have built these systems are equally high-minded and considerate of that social good:
The question we should ask ourselves isn’t whether we’re going to achieve equality between students at the University of Pennsylvania and students in the general public. Instead we should ask if, through the use of technology, we have improved the quality of the experience for each of these students separately. We want all students to be better off than they were before. -Daphne Koller, MOOCs on the Move: How Coursera Is Disrupting the Traditional Classroom
But the more concrete issue is that the MOOC-as-technology and the MOOC-as-concept are not easily separated, because one enables the other. The thinking here follows from thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu, from whom already existing relationships will continue to define the structure of cultural (and therefore institutional) codes. MOOCs will continue to be designed to trace and map out previously “informal” modes of learning that will become a template to be enforced in the future, to capture the feral in the hope of making it more useful for educators, for better or worse.
I’m hoping it is for the better, although my chief reservation as a champion of the feral is this: the MOOC-as-concept still acts as an enclosure which educators can use for the “invention, metamorphosis, deformation, and reinvention” of learning, and the relationship between student and educator won’t be dialectically resolved. The power is still in the hands of the educator while the student is still acted upon, no mediated through the form of an ever-expanding enclosure. Many people take on a feral state in their interactions with formal education, as it constantly shifts its boundaries, its cities and deserts. MOOCS are only useful to the domesticated to promote their efficient and purposeful use of the educational system, which is the expectation placed on individuals as they enter into educational space as students. Already, it has been noted that the MOOC-as-technology is already in danger of failing to meet even the defined role of “student,” not even because it provides too much structure, but because through a lack of communication, it doesn’t provide enough:
The primary issue is the almost complete lack of personal interaction. This dearth of connectivity applies to both troubleshooting and to the actually class experience. -Andrew Smyser, A Student’s Perspective on MOOCs
The truth is that most people do not experience the our institutions as a city, but rather as a wilderness on the edge of civilization. Complex systems intermingle, sometimes fluidly, and in this case, sometimes not. The main problem is that there needs to be much more unstructured ineraction, but instead, there’s very little interaction whatsoever. The theorizing and designing of technological and conceptual systems like MOOCs aim to provide more space for feral interaction, but given the structure of “one-teaching-to-many” and the control it requires, it still maintains the student/non-student structure of an educational institution while failing to meet that standard. My hope is that more than the educators, the students will (and should) do those things in any class setting, and the MOOC-as-technology and MOOC-as-concept will prove to be yet another enclosure for educators and students to be navigate in, and ultimately around.