Archive for November, 2013

UMART: The Commoditization of Knowledge. Part 1.

November 1, 2013

Once upon a time

When the internet first exploded into our consciousness, it was this incredible cacophony of voices speaking in so many tongues. Yes, a lot of it was garbage, but so what? Most TV is garbage too. Why should elite garbage get airtime while we complain about plebeian garbage?

When you look at the internet now, it’s clearly a monopolistic force that’s been captured by a few very large interests. Most of the traffic in the web is done within a few properties: google, facebook and other walled gardens that want us to spend all our time, attention (and since time and attention are the scarcest commodities) and money within spaces controlled by them. Add the ubiquity of intrusion and monitoring online and you have a dystopia waiting to happen.

In other words, a bottom-up network has mostly been replaced by a few top-down networks. Now that large interests have learned how to take over the internet, they are training their guns on new targets. Education (and health as well, though I don’t know much about the details there) is the most prominent example of a sector that’s about to be “disrupted.” Not surprisingly, there’s a concerted effort to take over higher education by some of the most prominent and well funded players in that space such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford, with assistance from nation states (the state department no less!) and venture capital. Of course, these large interests are competing fiercely with each other since they want to capture the entire space for themselves. What’s interesting is that the interests and values of the nerd elite are being unabashedly promoted in the name of the public good:

  1. Free education of the highest quality!
  2. Poor people in India and Africa get access to the smartest people on the planet!

I am not saying that the nerd elite is the same as the oil, energy or finance elite. The nerd elite is socially liberal and arguably genuine in it’s belief that it’s actions are in the interests of all. That said, they are as (structurally) blind to their own self-interest as any other elite, which allows them to honestly claim that they are acting in everyone’s interest.

A new intellectual monoculture is being formed as we speak, with the inevitable narrowing of options and interests that comes with monocultures wherever they arise. The monoculture rhetoric was particularly high a year ago. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who was the first off the block in this race to disrupt education, said that in fifty years there will only be ten institutions of higher education — and Udacity will be one of them of course. Imagine a world in which there are only ten universities. How narrow do you think they will be in every sense of that term: intellectual, moral and spiritual? How much pressure do you think faculty, whether tenured, tenure track or adjunct will face to conform?

If you think tenure track faculty and adjuncts face pressure to be compliant now, just wait!

UMart: Walmart for knowledge

The fundamental reason is simple: knowledge has become a commodity. The commoditization of knowledge is a two step procedure:

  1. First knowledge becomes a product, i.e., something primarily to be bought and sold. Once knowledge becomes a product, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a commodity, for that’s the logic of mass production these days.

  2. As more and more knowledge is produced at a cheaper and cheaper price, knowledge becomes a commidity. That knowledge doesn’t have any individuality, it’s essentially mechanical. Knowledge that you can use and throw. That logic will extend to the providers of knowledge, i.e., teachers and professors.

The new logic of learning and knowledge is just the educational avatar of a well understood neoliberal logic that has taken over consumer economies in general and retail in particular.

An economy in which knowledge is produced elsewhere and delivered online is a consumer retail economy

Walmart is the poster boy for that retail economy, though Amazon is probably giving Walmart a run for it’s money. If there are ten universities left in the world, they will all behave like Walmart, which to say:

  1. Destruction of local knowledge communities. Most communities will have far fewer knowledge workers. There might be a political agenda as well: teachers and educators are among the biggest constituents of progressive middle classes throughout the world. They are also often the people who (ideally, if not in practice) encourage free thinking. That class will be denuded.

  2. Enormous downward pressure on wages. If knowledge is primarily created elsewhere and delivered on a screen, and the classroom is “flipped” the professor is effectively a TA. She will be paid as such. It doesn’t matter if those ten universities employ a million or ten million people each, for we will sacrifice genuine flourishing for the dubious luxury of being treated as widgets.

  3. Intellectual monocultures. There’s already pressure to stick to the beaten path, to research topics that bring money and that pays obeisance to senior scholars, donors and funding agencies. Any tenure track professor will testify
    to that trend. Just imagine if that trend intensifies by two orders of magnitude.

U-Mart will be worse for knowledge than Walmart was for retail

Are we all doomed?

If the current trend continues, yes. The first to go will be the vast majority of school teachers, college educators and other pedagogues who will be replaced by a combination of machines and TA’s.

Note that I am not saying their jobs will vanish; instead, reasonably well paid and well-respected positions will be replaced with poorly paid, adjunct and socially lower positions.

Of course, these cuts will be justified by invoking the usual bogeyman, the exploding cost of education. That scare tactic never acknowledges the underlying reason for rising costs, namely, disappearing political support for public education. In other words:

  • First make education expensive for learners and their families by removing subsidies and then
  • Put pressure on knowledge workers by outsourcing their jobs to machines, adjuncts and assistants.

It’s a classic neoliberal move. The archetypal neoliberal organizations from the World-bank to Bain Capital have successfully restructured other industries using this logic. They are salivating at the thought of doing the same for education, which, after all is one of the largest industries in the world. Again, not surprising that the Worldbank has invested in Coursera.

Let’s go back to Walmart once again. The repeated claim by the political and intellectual backers of Walmart is that mass consumption of cheap goods is a good thing for almost everyone. Here’s a quick summary of that argument:

  1. Consumption is good.
  2. Consumption depends on plenty of products at a cheap price.
  3. Walmart sells goods at the cheapest price you can imagine. Therefore, it makes it easy for you to consume those goods even if you are poor.

In my next essay on this topic, I will dissect the obvious flaws in the Walmart argument and see what that means for knowledge networks.