Graeber on labor and leisure; the perils of hipster economics; and the educational value of MOOCs

Right after my original bullshit jobs piece came out, I used to think that if I wanted, I could start a whole career in job counseling – because so many people were writing to me saying “I realize my job is pointless, but how can I support a family doing something that’s actually worthwhile?” A lot of people who worked the information desk at Zuccotti Park, and other occupations, told me the same thing: young Wall Street types would come up to them and say “I mean, I know you’re right, we’re not doing the world any good doing what we’re doing. But I don’t know how to live on less than a six figure income. I’d have to learn everything over. Could you teach me?”

But I don’t think we can solve the problem by mass individual defection. Or some kind of spiritual awakening. That’s what a lot of people tried in the ‘60s and the result was a savage counter-offensive which made the situation even worse. I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people’s lives worse and punish those who make them better. I’m thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we’ve already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

In the pedagogic trenches, MOOCs are considered a symptom of wider economic patterns which effectively vacuum resources up into the financial stratosphere, leaving those doing the actual work with many more responsibilities, and far less compensation. Basic questions about the sustainability of this model remain unanswered, but it is clear that there is little room for enfranchised, full-time, fully-compensated faculty. Instead, we find an army of adjuncts servicing thousands of students; a situation which brings to mind scenes from Metropolis rather than Dead Poets Society.

[…]

For companies pushing MOOCs, education is no different from entertainment: it is simply a question of delivering ‘content.’ But learning to think exclusively via modem is like learning to dance by watching YouTube videos. You may get a sense of it, but no-one is there to point out mistakes, deepen your understanding, contextualise the gestures, shake up your default perspective, and facilitate the process. The role of the professor or instructor is not simply the shepherd for the transmission of information from point A to point B, but the coforging of new types of knowledge, and critically testing these for various versions of soundness and feasibility. Wisdom may be eternal, but knowledge – both practical and theoretical – evolves over time, and especially exponentially in the last century, with all its accelerated technologies. Knowledge is always mediated, so we must consciously take the tools of mediation into account. Hence the need for a sensitive and responsive guide: someone students can bounce new notions off, rather than simply absorb information from. Without this element, distance learning all too often becomes distanced learning. Just as a class taken remotely usually leads to a sea of remote students.

[…]

Marshall McLuhan was half-right when he insisted that the electronic age is ushering in a post-literate society. But no matter how we like to talk of new audio-visual forms of literacy, there is still the ‘typographic man’ pulling the strings, encouraging us to express ourselves alphabetically. Indeed, the electronic and the literate are not mutually exclusive, much as people like to pit them against each other.

  • Pettman also quotes Ian Bogost’s comments on distance learning:

The more we buy into the efficiency argument, the more we cede ground to the technolibertarians who believe that a fusion of business and technology will solve all ills. But then again, I think that’s what the proponents of MOOCs want anyway. The issue isn’t online education per se, it’s the logics and rationales that come along with certain implementations of it.

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