How we feel about technology is, in part, wrapped up in questions of financing. Or, in the modern parlance, monetizing.
Will I get paid?
What will it cost me?
In this video, we see Microsoft present a dialogue-free vision of a Utopian future in which technology increasingly connects us, giving us more useful information and generally making our lives and work more efficient and convenient:
Then in this short film, we see a different, dystopian vision of a future technology (and company) called “Sight”:
In the first video, we have a company with a lot to gain from technology’s proliferation. Microsoft has monetized its products extensively, and looks to do more of the same; it is well positioned to do so.
In the second video, we have a corporation as invading privacy and individual authenticity in more disturbing ways. (It hits at least one of the common themes of science fiction marked by Annalee Newitz: “the privacy apocalypse.”) Naturally, the money-making company and its representative, the creepy man, are the baddies here. The individual–the woman thinking she’s out on a regular (if highly technologized) blind date–is the victim. She doesn’t stand to make money from the transaction. She stands to gain, or lose, a potential boyfriend. And maybe her dignity.
A Formula for Measuring Utopian Levels
Perhaps there is a partial formula here that could express our levels of optimism or pessimism about the advance of the digital revolution. I’ll call it the Technological Utopianism Rate.
TU = $/ax
Here, TU (your Technological Utopianism Rate, which expresses your level of positive, hopeful feelings about technology)…
…is a function of $ (the amount of money you stand to make from technology or digital environments)…
…divided by ax (on a scale of 1-100, your relative anxiety level about the personal or societal destabilizing effects of technology).
So let’s say you were a Microsoft executive making $200,000, and you had an anxiety level about technology of 10. Your TU would be 20,000 (with upward adjustments according to what opportunities for venture capital investment or start-up company potential or salary increases you anticipate.)
In contrast, let’s say you were, oh, a fusty old teacher whose salary was paid by a local school district, with no particular prospects or inclinations to earn money in a digital space (for your teaching or other services) except for your dividends from your retirement account’s investments in Microsoft. Let’s say that the latter amounts to $1,000, and also that you had a technological anxiety level of 71. Your TU would be about 14. This could go lower, even to zero, should your job be made redundant by advances in technology.
The examples and the formula oversimplify the case, but it’s certainly reasonable to say that the more economic stability or gains you stand to make from it, the more enthusiastic you’ll be about technology.
The Revolution Comes to Higher Ed
Now, picking up with that teacher and his ilk, let’s map this equation onto higher education. As Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr note in their contrasting discussions of MOOCs–Shirky embracing them, Carr advising skepticism–universities and colleges (including UC Berkeley, where I work) are anxious about what online learning means for them. Will higher education be the next industry to be radically changed? Depending on which individual at which university you’re talking to, the TU level is lower or higher, but in effect, the aggregated TU is currently at or near zero for most institutions, because the numerator in the equation is zero. The digital revolution in higher education has not been monetized. At least not for the schools or their teachers, by and large.
As Shirky and others argue, this may be a good thing. Traditional higher education is expensive, they note, and is getting more so; it benefits a limited audience; and the effectiveness of its methods of educating undergraduates is suspect. Universities are overdue for some major changes. Surely, the logic goes, there is a better, more efficient, more cost-effective, more widely accessible way of providing education by leveraging technology. Well-designed MOOCs, offered for free or for minimal cost, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, might be one such answer.
Three questions to tease out here. Two of them (and they’re important ones that both Shirky and Carr engage with) I’ll put to the side for now: first, what changes does higher education need to undergo to revitalize itself and better serve its mission to educate students? Second, might MOOCs offer an education as good or better than what a typical student might get in a series of university classrooms?
Let’s assume for the moment that MOOCs potentially could offer many of the same benefits, and ask the obvious money question: who is going to pay for them?
Are the esteemed lecturers from the University of Edinburgh who are facilitating the MOOC I’m currently taking on e-learning and digital cultures being paid by someone other than their home institution? Clearly their research interests dovetail with the content of the course, so they are getting some benefit from designing the course and helping guide us 41,000 “students” through it, even if they’re doing it pro bono. But if they were to offer this or other MOOCs in the future, would they be paid? Would the U of Edinburgh pay them to subsidize the education of us 41,000 free riders? Or would the instructors primarily rely on what Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, has called “psychic income” for sustenance?
It’s not sustainable. If good teachers aren’t paid a living wage, if we students don’t pay something, or if the public doesn’t subsidize that free/affordable education, then MOOCs, whatever their virtues, will wither or else be run by hacks looking to make a buck. It’s the hacks who worry me.
In his brilliant critique of Shirky’s commentary on MOOCs, Aaron Bady notes the ongoing dis-investment in public education here in the U.S. He also writes:
“Since there is a lot of unmet desire for education out there, and since that desire is glad to have the thing it wants when it finds it for free, it seems all to the good that students can find courses for free. But while we should ask questions about why venture capitalists are investing so heavily in educational philanthropy, we also need to think more carefully about why there is so much unmet desire in the first place, and why so many people want education without, apparently, being able to pay for it. Why hasn’t that desire already found a way to become demand, such that it must wait until Silicon Valley venture capitalists show up, benevolently bearing the future in their arms?”
The venture capitalists are there, as Bady notes, because with the gaps in public investment in higher education they see an opportunity to “speculate.” They see the potential for the revolution in online education to be monetized. And they want to be in a position to collect if the cash starts to flow.
In Which the Bank Teaches Us a Lesson
There once was a young man, just out of college, looking for a job during a recession. He searched and searched, and one day, the public relations department of a major bank pulled his resume out of a pile and offered him a job as a writer. The young man wasn’t too keen on working at a bank, but a job was a job in those recessionary times, and so he took it. The pay was quite good.
They spoke a different language, these bankers. They spoke of “leverage” and “cash flow” and returns on equity and investment. The young man listened, and learned the language. He wrote their press releases and brochures, he wrote speeches and jokes for the CEO to tell at luncheons.
In public statements and interviews, the CEO was constantly noting his laser-like focus on serving the bank’s shareholders. Not the customers or the employees–of course the bank was serving those. But his primary focus was on increasing the value of the shareholders’ investment. At the time, the naive young man found this a little weird. Sure banks want to generate profits, he thought, and shareholders are technically the owners, but isn’t the idea to balance a desire for a profitable business with good service to customers and good jobs for hardworking employees? Well, yes, but only if it serves the bottom line: driving up that stock price, increasing the market capitalization of the company, for those shareholders.
The bank was about increasing profits at all costs. The bank demanded logic of the following sort that the young man was once asked to explain to any journalist who cared to call: “Yes, the bank is raising fees on checking accounts, but only so we can better serve our customers.”
“What the hell do you mean?” the young man imagined reporters asking. And he supposed there was a certain kind of logic to it: if the bank collected more fees from its customers, it would have more funds with which it could potentially hire more employees to work in the call centers, who could take more phone calls from those customers who would otherwise have been kept on hold waiting for an explanation of why their fees were going up. See? Doesn’t the bank have its customers’ best interests at heart?
You could almost believe you weren’t being spun if the dizziness stopped for long enough.
The young man, of course, was me, and I share this recollection because I find it instructive. A bank is not a university–its purposes and functions are different. But in looking at a bank–a kind of meta-monitizer with a relentless focus on profit–we see something to be cautious of in education.
A school doesn’t need to focus on profit in the same way that bank did (and still does), but it does need to operate in a way that is economically sustainable for both teachers and students and the larger community. MOOCs as they’re currently structured are not sustainable, no matter how engaging they are (as this MOOC has been) or how poorly run they are, which is why some in academia take a look at them and see a future dystopia in higher ed.
If we can find a way to make them sustainable, and not merely monetizable in the Silicon Valley sense of the word, then maybe, just maybe, we might end up with a useful supplement to university instruction that could help foster a higher higher education that all of us presumably want.
In the meantime, I’ve got a high-fee checking account that might be right up your alley.