Category: Political Economy

MISC Monday: MLK media literacy; social media stress; the attention economy, and more

Woman_reading_a_book_on_an_eReader

Examine the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement with hundreds of PBS LearningMedia resources.  Here is a sampling of resources from the extensive offering in PBS LearningMedia. Use these resources to explore media literacy from historical documentaries to media coverage of social movements.

Among the survey’s major findings is that women are much more likely than men to feel stressed after becoming aware of stressful events in the lives of others in their networks.

“Stress is kind of contagious in that way,” said Keith Hampton, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the chief author of the report. “There’s a circle of sharing and caring and stress.”

In a survey of 1,801 adults, Pew found that frequent engagement with digital services wasn’t directly correlated to increased stress. Women who used social media heavily even recorded lower stress. The survey relied on the Perceived Stress Scale, a widely used stress-measurement tool developed in the early 1980s.

“We began to work fully expecting that the conventional wisdom was right, that these technologies add to stress,” said Lee Rainie, the director of Internet, science, and technology research at Pew. “So it was a real shock when [we] first looked at the data and … there was no association between technology use, especially heavy technology use, and stress.”

The higher incidence of stress among the subset of technology users who are aware of stressful events in the lives of others is something that Hampton and his colleagues call “the cost of caring.”

“You can use these technologies and, as a woman, it’s probably going to be beneficial for your level of stress. But every now and then, bad things are going to happen to people you know, and there’s going to be a cost for that,” Hampton said.

The real danger we face from computer automation is dependency. Our inclination to assume that computers provide a sufficient substitute for our own intelligence has made us all too eager to hand important work over to software and accept a subservient role for ourselves. In designing automated systems, engineers and programmers also tend to put the interests of technology ahead of the interests of people. They transfer as much work as possible to the software, leaving us humans with passive and routine tasks, such as entering data and monitoring readouts. Recent studies of the effects of automation on work reveal how easily even very skilled people can develop a deadening reliance on computers. Trusting the software to handle any challenges that may arise, the workers fall victim to a phenomenon called “automation complacency”.

Should we be scared of the future?
I think we should be worried of the future. We are putting ourselves passively into the hands of those who design the systems. We need to think critically about that, even as we maintain our enthusiasm of the great inventions that are happening. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not saying we should trash our laptops and run off to the woods.

We’re basically living out Freud’s death drive, trying our best to turn ourselves into inorganic lumps.
Even before Freud, Marx made the point that the underlying desire of technology seemed to be to create animate technology and inanimate humans. If you look at the original radios, they were transmission as well as reception devices, but before long most people just stopped transmitting and started listening.

From an educational perspective, what we must understand is the relationship between information and meaning. Meaning is not an inevitable outcome of access to information but rather, emerges slowly when one has cultivated his or her abilities to incorporate that information in purposeful and ethical ways. Very often this process requires a slowdown rather than a speedup, the latter of which being a primary bias of many digital technologies. The most powerful educational experiences stem from the relationships formed between teacher and student, peer and peer. A smart classroom isn’t necessarily one that includes the latest technologies, but one that facilitates greater interaction among teachers and students, and responsibility for the environment within which one learns. A smart classroom is thus spatially, not primarily technologically, smart. While the two are certainly not mutually exclusive (and much has been written on both), we do ourselves a disservice when privileging the latter over the former.

  • Dowd’s argument here is similar to Carr’s thoughts on MOOCs:

In education, computers are also falling short of expectations. Just a couple of years ago, everyone thought that massive open online courses – Moocs – would revolutionise universities. Classrooms and teachers seemed horribly outdated when compared to the precision and efficiency of computerised lessons. And yet Moocs have largely been a flop. We seem to have underestimated the intangible benefits of bringing students together with a real teacher in a real place. Inspiration and learning don’t flow so well through fibre-optic cables.

  • MediaPost editor Steve Smith writes about his relationship with his iPhone, calling it life’s new remote:

The idea that the cell phone is an extension of the self is about as old as the device itself. We all recall the hackneyed “pass your phone to the person next to you” thought experiment at trade shows four or five years ago. It was designed to make the point of how “personally” we take these devices.

And now the extraordinary and unprecedented intimacy of these media devices is a part of legal precedent. The recent Supreme Court ruling limiting searches of cell phone contents grounded the unanimous opinion on an extraordinary observation. Chief Justice John Roberts described these devices as being “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

We are only beginning to understand the extent to which these devices are blending the functionality of media with that of real world tools. And it is in line with one of Marshall McLuhan’s core observations in his “Understanding Media” book decades ago.

As early as 1971 Herbert Simon observed that “what information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”. Thus instead of reaping the benefits of the digital revolution we are intellectually deprived by our inability to filter out sensory junk in order to translate information into knowledge. As a result, we are collectively wiser, in that we can retrieve all the wisdom of the world in a few minutes, but individually more ignorant, because we lack the time, self-control, or curiosity to do it.

There are also psychological consequences of the distraction economy. Although it is too soon to observe any significant effects from technology on our brains, it is plausible to imagine that long-term effects will occur. As Nicholas Carr noted in The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains, repeated exposure to online media demands a cognitive change from deeper intellectual processing, such as focused and critical thinking, to fast autopilot processes, such as skimming and scanning, shifting neural activity from the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in deep thinking) to the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain engaged in rapid, subconscious transactions). In other words, we are trading speed for accuracy and prioritise impulsive decision-making over deliberate judgment. In the words of Carr: “The internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it”.

The research carried out by the Harvard Medical School and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences studied the sleeping patterns of 12 volunteers over a two-week period. Each individual read a book before their strict 10PM bedtime — spending five days with an iPad and five days with a paper book. The scientists found that when reading on a lit screen, volunteers took an average of 10 minutes longer to fall asleep and received 10 minutes less REM sleep. Regular blood samples showed they also had lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin consistent with a circadian cycle delayed by one and a half hour.

Ever since the frequent cocaine user and hater of sleep Thomas Edison flicked on the first commercially-viable electric lightbulb, a process has taken hold through which the darkness of sleep time has been systematically deconstructed and illuminated.

Most of us now live in insomniac cities with starless skies, full of twinkling neon signage and flickering gadgets that beg us to stay awake longer and longer. But for all this technological innovation, we still must submit to our diurnal rhythm if we want to stay alive.

And even though sleep may “frustrate and confound strategies to exploit and reshape it,” as Crary says, it, like anything, remains a target of exploitation and reshaping – and in some cases, all-out elimination.

What is striking about this corporate monopolization of the internet is that all the wealth and power has gone to a small number of absolutely enormous firms. As we enter 2015, 13 of the 33 most valuable corporations in the United States are internet firms, and nearly all of them enjoy monopolistic market power as economists have traditionally used the term. If you continue to scan down the list there are precious few internet firms to be found. There is not much of a middle class or even an upper-middle class of internet corporations to be found.

This poses a fundamental problem for democracy, though it is one that mainstream commentators and scholars appear reluctant to acknowledge: If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy. Concentrated economic power invariably overwhelms the political equality democracy requires, leading to routinized corruption and an end of the rule of law. That is where we are today in the United States.

The short answer is technology. Yes, Facebook really did ruin everything. The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.

Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that it would be just as difficult to not believe in God in 1500 as it is to believe in God in the year 2000. Obviously, most of humanity believes in God today, but it’s certainly become a much more complicated endeavor. With the emergence of modern science, evolution, liberal democracy, and worldwide 24-hour news coverage of corruption, atrocities, war and religious hypocrisy, today a person of faith has their beliefs challenged more in a week than a person a few generations ago would have in half a lifetime.

Advertisements

POTUS on Net Neutrality: Treat Internet as a utility

  • Yesterday President Barack Obama released a statement on the future of the Internet. In a written statement and accompanying 2-minute video, Obama outlined an approach to Internet policy that supports net neutrality provisions and suggests reclassifying the Internet as a utility. It’s an encouraging show of support for net neutrality advocates, but as Obama makes clear in the statement, it is ultimately up to the FCC as an independent regulatory agency to decide the future of Internet regulation. From Don Reisinger and Roger Cheng’s CNET writeup:

Obama wades into a contentious debate that has raged over how to treat Internet traffic, which has only heated up as the FCC works to prepare an official guideline. Those rules were expected to be made available later this year, though reports now claim they may be delayed until early 2015. The debate has centered on whether broadband should be placed under Title II regulation under the Telecommunications Act, which already tightly controls phone services.

Proponents believes Title II regulation would ensure the free and fair flow of traffic across the Internet. Opponents, however, believe the onerous rules would limit investment in the infrastructure and new services, and that toll roads of sorts would provide better service to companies that can support their higher traffic volumes. That has created widespread concern that ISPs could throttle service in some instance, intentionally slowing down some content streams and speeding up others.

In a statement outlining what he’d like internet service to look like, Obama highlights four major points: internet providers wouldn’t be allowed to block websites offering legal content, they wouldn’t be allowed to intentionally slow down or speed up certain websites or services based on their own preferences, and they wouldn’t be able to offer paid fast lanes. Obama also asks that the FCC investigate and potentially apply net neutrality rules to the interconnect points that sit between service providers, like Comcast and Verizon, and content providers, like Netflix. That’s potentially huge news for Netflix, which has been arguing that this area of the internet should be covered by net neutrality all year.

Obama also asks that the commission apply these rules to mobile internet service. That would be a significant change as well, as mobile service hasn’t previously been subject to the same net neutrality rules that wired connections have been. That said, Obama does leave a significant amount of room for exceptions in the wireless space, potentially allowing some amount of throttling so that providers can manage their networks when under heavy use. Notably, his proposal also asks the FCC not to enforce rate regulations on internet service.

The president said broadband service was “of the same importance, and must carry the same obligations” as services such as the telephone network, and asked the FCC to classify it as such. For proponents of net neutrality in Britain and elsewhere, having such a powerful supporter to point to is important.

It also bolsters the case for considering internet access as a right that should be safeguarded by government, something suggested by Britain’s Labour Digital group, which proposed that “government should assess the viability of providing free basic internet access to all citizens, possibly as a requirement for participation in 5G auctions, or targeted at children eligible for free school meals”.

If money is speech, then the poor have the softest voices. A deregulated Internet extends this logic, and cultural logic is what is at stake. The maintenance of net neutrality would exist in tension with the SCOTUS election campaign decision, maintaining a battleground on which the speech-money relationship remains fraught. Net non-neutrality, in whatever form, would combine with the SCOTUS decision, tipping the cultural scales in a sharply capitalistic direction; A direction in which the economic system drives the political system, and rights are things to be earned, bought, and sold.

Political Economy in Mumford’s “Technics & Civilization”

technics

I’ve written about the media ecology tradition, attended the Media Ecology Association’s conferences and had an article published in their journal, but up to now Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death are the only primary texts associated with the tradition that I’ve read. To broaden my knowledge of the tradition I’m reading some of the books considered foundational in the media ecology canon, beginning with Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization. I paid special attention to Mumford’s references to capitalism in Technics & Civilization because I have an abiding interest in the marriage of critical/Marxian analysis and media ecological perspectives. One of the most common criticisms of McLuhan’s writings on media is the charge of technological determinism, and that McLuhan’s media theory focuses on wide-reaching social and psychological effects while ignoring the historical, political, and economic factors involved in the development and dissemination of technologies. Although this is a valid criticism, as McLuhan’s approach did not emphasize the political economy of media, a number of scholars have re-evaluated McLuhan and other media ecologists to identify parallels in their work with critical theory and the Marxian critique of capitalism. The same criticisms cannot be legitimately levied against Mumford, whose account of successive technological complexes demonstrates careful consideration of the historical, political, and economic situations in which these complexes developed. Technics & Civilization makes clear that a media ecology perspective can incorporate a pronounced political orientation and an analysis of political economy.

Reading through Mumford’s account of the phases of technological complexes, I noted how the capitalist mode of economics is heavily dependent on technology. The interdependence seemed so crucial to both that it almost seemed that the history of capitalism is the history of technological development. Though Mumford does distinguish technics and capitalism as separate but interrelated forces. In the conclusion of the final chapter, “Orientation,” Mumford writes “we have advanced as far as seems possible in considering mechanical civilization as an isolated system” (p. 434). Technics & Civilization was first published in 1934; a contemporary reader will likely extend Mumford’s analysis to account for the last 80 years of technological progress, particularly in consideration of the information and telecommunications revolutions (an editorial note before the main text states that Mumford “would have loved” the Internet). Such an extension must account for the associated developments in capitalism. Scholars have used terms like “hypercapitalism” and “network and informational capitalism” to describe the new outlets of capital accumulation made possible by the global telecommunications infrastructure. Mumford wrote that “we are now entering a phase of dissociation between capitalism and technics” (p. 366), due in part to the over-working of “the machine”. Hypercapitalism has seen new forms of over-exploitation, and the continued commodification of intangibles such as information and attention, calling into question the dissociation of capitalism and technics. Mumford’s warning of the capitalist threat to physical resources, however, remains pertinent today.

The attention Mumford gives to the psychological effects of technics is a fascinating component of his analysis that prefigures McLuhan’s observations on technology as extensions of the human organism. The introduction of introspection and self-reflection instigated by the mirror’s effect on the individual ego; the metamorphosis of thought from flowing and organic to verbal and categorical brought on by print and paper; the shift from self-examination to self-exposure ushered in by the introduction of cameras; these are just some of the examples cited by Mumford to establish that the technological complexes built up from every individual innovation are not constrained to the obvious external manifestations but involve dramatic internal changes as well. In fact, the psychological and material transformations are not distinct processes, but are necessarily interlinked, two sides of the same coin.

Gentrification and ‘the fucking hipster show’; hostile architercure and defensive urban design

Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Linda Nylind for the Guardian

[Marxist geographer Neil] Smith offers a dry, but emphatically structural account of this process, which he first theorized in the late eighties with Soho and the Lower East Side in mind. Gentrification has since become central to neoliberal urbanization generally, and New York City in particular, under the developer-driven Bloomberg administration.

But why bother with “dry” and “structural” when you can tune-in to the “fucking hipster” show?

Unlike Smith’s rigorous Marxian analysis, most popular accounts from the spurious creative class mystifications of Richard Florida to standard issue conservative populist diatribes forget the larger forces and primary movers in this process, which is instead reduced, metonymically, to the catchall figure of the hipster.

[…]

On topics ranging from the capitalist dynamics of gentrification to the casualization of employment among ostensibly middle class Millennials, the “fucking hipster” show beats staid structural analysis every time — even for many members of the self-identified Left.

[…]

We should retire “hipster” as a term without referent or political salience. 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.”

The anti-hipster censure here includes a healthy dose of typically American anti-intellectualism, decked out in liberal bunting, subtle homophobia, and recognizably manipulative appeals to white, middle class resentment, now aimed at the lazy hipster, who either lives on his trust fund or, more perniciously, abuses public assistance, proving how racist templates are multi-use tools.

Our power elites’ rhetorical police action becomes increasingly necessary as large swaths of the people lumped under the hipster taxon slip into the ranks of the long-term un- and underemployed. Once innocuous alternative lifestyles could potentially metamorphosize into something else altogether. Better to frame “alternative lifestyle” in terms of avant-garde trend setting without remainder, providing suitably rarefied consumption options for Bloomberg’s new bourgeoisie, as they buy locally sourced creativity on Bedford Ave.

Metal spikes designed to stop homeless people sleeping in the doorway of a London apartment block have been removed, after almost 130,000 people signed a petition calling for them to be taken out.

Pictures of the metal studs outside flats in Southwark Bridge Road were widely shared online last weekend, sparking outrage on social media.

Many criticised the spikes as inhumane, and compared them to those used to stop pigeons landing on buildings.

It has been encouraging to see the outrage over the London spikes. But the spikes that caused the uproar are by no means the only form of homeless-deterrent technology; they are simply the most conspicuous. Will public concern over the spikes extend to other less obvious instances of anti-homeless design? Perhaps the first step lies in recognizing the political character of the devices all around us.

An example of an everyday technology that’s used to forbid certain activities is “skateboard deterrents,” that is, those little studs added to handrails and ledges.  These devices, sometimes also called “skatestoppers” or “pig ears,” prevent skateboarders from performing sliding—or “grinding”—tricks across horizontal edges. A small skateboard deterrence industry has developed, with vendors with names like “stopagrind.com” and “grindtoahault.com.”

[…]

An example of a pervasive homeless deterrence technology is benches designed to discourage sleeping. These include benches with vertical slats between each seat, individual bucket seats, large armrests between seats, and wall railings which enable leaning but not sitting or lying, among many other designs. There are even benches made to be slightly uncomfortable in order to dissuade people from sitting too long. Sadly, such designs are particularly common in subway, bus stops, and parks that present the homeless with the prospect of a safely public place to sleep.

[..]

The London spikes provide an opportunity to put a finger on our own intuitions about issues of homelessness and the design of open space. Ask yourself if you were appalled by the idea of the anti-homeless spikes. If so, then by implication you should have the same problems with other less obvious homeless deterrence designs like the sleep-prevention benches and the anti-loitering policies that target homeless people.

In addition to anti-skateboard devices, with names such as “pig’s ears” and “skate stoppers”, ground-level window ledges are increasingly studded to prevent sitting, slanting seats at bus stops deter loitering and public benches are divided up with armrests to prevent lying down.

To that list, add jagged, uncomfortable paving areas, CCTV cameras with speakers and “anti-teenager” sound deterrents, such as the playing of classical music at stations and so-called Mosquito devices, which emit irritatingly high-pitched sounds that only teenagers can hear.

[…]

The architectural historian Iain Borden says the emergence of hostile architecture has its roots in 1990s urban design and public-space management. The emergence, he said, “suggested we are only republic citizens to the degree that we are either working or consuming goods directly.

“So it’s OK, for example, to sit around as long as you are in a cafe or in a designated place where certain restful activities such as drinking a frappucino should take place but not activities like busking, protesting or skateboarding. It’s what some call the ‘mallification’ of public space, where everything becomes like a shopping mall.”

Fukuyama: 25 years after the “End of History”

I argued that History (in the grand philosophical sense) was turning out very differently from what thinkers on the left had imagined. The process of economic and political modernization was leading not to communism, as the Marxists had asserted and the Soviet Union had avowed, but to some form of liberal democracy and a market economy. History, I wrote, appeared to culminate in liberty: elected governments, individual rights, an economic system in which capital and labor circulated with relatively modest state oversight.

[…]

So has my end-of-history hypothesis been proven wrong, or if not wrong, in need of serious revision? I believe that the underlying idea remains essentially correct, but I also now understand many things about the nature of political development that I saw less clearly during the heady days of 1989.

[…]

Twenty-five years later, the most serious threat to the end-of-history hypothesis isn’t that there is a higher, better model out there that will someday supersede liberal democracy; neither Islamist theocracy nor Chinese capitalism cuts it. Once societies get on the up escalator of industrialization, their social structure begins to change in ways that increase demands for political participation. If political elites accommodate these demands, we arrive at some version of democracy.

When he wrote “The End of History?”, Fukuyama was a neocon. He was taught by Leo Strauss’s protege Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind; he was a researcher for the Rand Corporation, the thinktank for the American military-industrial complex; and he followed his mentor Paul Wolfowitz into the Reagan administration. He showed his true political colours when he wrote that “the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the west … the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.” This was a highly tendentious claim even in 1989.

[…]

Fukuyama distinguished his own position from that of the sociologist Daniel Bell, who published a collection of essays in 1960 titled The End of Ideology. Bell had found himself, at the end of the 1950s, at a “disconcerting caesura”. Political society had rejected “the old apocalyptic and chiliastic visions”, he wrote, and “in the west, among the intellectuals, the old passions are spent.” Bell also had ties to neocons but denied an affiliation to any ideology. Fukuyama claimed not that ideology per se was finished, but that the best possible ideology had evolved. Yet the “end of history” and the “end of ideology” arguments have the same effect: they conceal and naturalise the dominance of the right, and erase the rationale for debate.

While I recognise the ideological subterfuge (the markets as “natural”), there is a broader aspect to Fukuyama’s essay that I admire, and cannot analyse away. It ends with a surprisingly poignant passage: “The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”

In an article that went viral in 1989, Francis Fukuyama advanced the notion that with the death of communism history had come to an end in the sense that liberalism — democracy and market capitalism — had triumphed as an ideology. Fukuyama will be joined by other scholars to examine this proposition in the light of experience during the subsequent quarter century.

Featuring Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History?”; Michael Mandelbaum, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; Marian Tupy, Cato Institute; Adam Garfinkle, editor, American Interest; Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution; and John Mueller, Ohio State University and Cato Institute.

Critical Pedagogy and Imperialism; social media and commodity fetishism

Gramsci has had a huge impact on critical pedagogy especially because of the importance he attached to the role of culture, in both its highbrow and popular forms, in the process of hegemony which combines rule by force with rule by consent. His discussion on the role of intellectuals in this process also infuenced discussions centering around educators as cultural workers in the critical pedagogy field. Henry Giroux has been particularly influential here. One issue which deserves greater treatment in critical pedagogy, in my view, is that of ‘powerful knowledge’ which, though not necessarily popular knowledge and also needs to be problematised, should still be mastered for one not to remain at the margins of political life.

[…]

Following Freire, I would say: the commitment to teaching is a political commitment because education is a political act. There is no such thing as a neutral educaton. We must always ask on whose side are we when we teach?  More importantly we should ask, with whom are we educating and learning? I ask this question in the spirit of Freire’s emphasis on working with rather than for  the oppressed.

In tying Marxist ideology to social media, there are a number of things to clarify, as the comparison is not a perfect one. Perhaps the most questionable caveat is the ownership of the modes of production. In the social media model, it can be said that the proletariat themselves own the modes of productions since they typically own the computer or devices that they are using to channel their intellectual labor through. Additionally, almost all popular social media networks today allow users to retain the copyright of the content that they post  (Facebook, a; MySpace, n.d.; Twitter, n.d.). Thus, it would seem that making the argument that users are alienated from the results of their intellectual labor power is a moot point.

[…]

I humbly suggest that in the social media model, owning the output or product of intellectual labor power has little if anything to do with Marx’s species being. Instead, I feel that it is the social connections created, broken, strengthened, or weakened that feed directly to the worker’s species being. Since the output of the intellectual labor power in this case is not a tangible good, the only “finished product” that the worker can place value in and not be alienated from is the actual social connection that their output generates; not the actual output itself. This allows for a supra or meta level of social connection above that of the social connections embodied in physical outputs outlined by Marx.

 

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.