I was on a bus this afternoon, reading a section of 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary which includes this passage:
if and when such [hand-held, touch-based] devices are introduced (and no doubt labeled as revolutionary), they will simply be facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point. And they too will occupy only a brief interval of currency before their inevitable replacement and transit to the global waste piles of techno-trash. The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of economic exchange. (p. 40)
I was distracted for a moment by the bland-sounding techno bleeding through the earbuds of the guy sitting across the aisle for me. It started a train of thought which lead me to this: Technology enables privileged individuals to amplify their impact on the world. It was only possible for music to be distracting me then and there because of the ‘combinatorial evolution’ of technologies, in which
slowly over time, many technologies form from an initial few, and more complex ones form using simpler ones as components. The overall collection of technologies bootstraps itself upward from the few to the many and the simple to the complex. (W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, 2009, p. 22, in David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, 2014, p. 96)
During production of the music I was hearing on the bus, a (presumably) digital compression technology was used so that it could be played back loud enough to be heard a metre or two away. Later, a different kind of digital compression was used so that it could be stored and played on a smartphone. This is a literal kind of amplification of the music itself. It’s also an amplification of the (persona/efforts/work/talent/vision/etc of the) individuals who created the music. Finally, it’s an amplification of the persona of the guy playing the music on the bus, who is privileged in the sense that not every one has a smartphone.
This is a straightforward example of my ‘amplify’ statement above. Another way in which technologies amplify the impact of privileged individuals is captured in the words ‘scale’, ‘scalable’ and ‘scalability’. These words are used widely and frequently, often with no acknowledgement of the assumptions lying behind them. Three examples in reverse chronological order.
1. What startups want
On tonight’s 7:30, there a was an enthusiastic report about ‘what startups want’. What startups want is, apparently, more capital from venture capitalists (VCs) so they can scale. It seems, according to one of the innovators interviewed for the report, that,
In Australia, there’s a handful of VCs. There’s probably only realistically three or four that actually invest at the seed stage, which is the stage we’re at, so it makes your options quite limited, whereas in the US there’s hundreds.
However, according to reporter Hayden Cooper, “the nation Australia wants to emulate” is Israel: its “booming tech start-up sector reels in billions of dollars in investment every year.” Never mind where, what or who those billions go to – that probably wouldn’t be very exciting, even if the journalists had bothered to investigate (it’s enough, apparently, to just ask another innovative young person, the Israeli Chief Scientist and get a couple of photos of Wyatt Roy and Malcolm Turnbull smiling with some Israeli tech folk).
Towards the end of the report, Serafina Maiorano, whose company helps ‘Australians in the Valley’ find venture capital, said that what Australian startups need is (presumably publicly-funded) startup incubation/acceleration ‘programs to help them scale their companies’. She also said that there should be “the opportunity to do more programs and scale those programs.” That sounds like a lot of scaling. A lot of tiny tech companies, each employing only a tiny handful of people, all trying to get more people venturing them capital or paying for their products/services or both.
I don’t know anything about the VC scene in Israel, but if it’s anything like Silicon Valley, actual profit generated from the product/service may be irrelevant to a lot of these tiny tech companies – it wasn’t even alluded to in the 7:30 report. What was mentioned, and what seems to be foremost on their minds, is venture capital: people giving them money. If they can get heaps of VC, ‘scale’ quickly by ‘burning’ that capital so they can get a good valuation and then get more VC, scale some more and then finally sell their still tiny tech company, they may never need to be profitable. It’s a fantasy and some pundits think that this startup bubble is close to bursting.
And yet, both major parties in Australia see this kind of activity as providing our future prosperity. They’re worried that our kids aren’t developing the kinds of skills necessary to participate in it.
2. Advancing human potential
Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife yesterday published an open letter to their baby daughter. They write:
Your generation will set goals for what you want to become — like an engineer, health worker, writer or community leader. You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity. (my emphasis)
3. “Bend it, shape it, anyway you want it but at some point you have to scale it”
‘At some point you have to scale it’, wrote Donald Clark in a 2011 post titled ‘From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg – scale matters‘.
Until we truly understand scalability, education and training will remain the world’s biggest cottage industry. Teachers are not scalable. Classrooms are not scalable. When good practice is tied to both of these, it is prevented from becoming scalable. Tied to the tyranny of location and time, learning’s stuck in non-scalable boxes. But guess what, technology is scalable.
What ‘scale’ really means
‘Scale’ and its derivations exemplify ‘bullshit’: “language that is excessive, phony and generally “repeat[ed] quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are”” (Selwyn, 2015 citing Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit, 2005). Following in this inglorious tradition, a Forbes contributor has written that ‘scalability’ means
that your business has the potential to multiply revenue with minimal incremental cost. Ready to scale is when you have a proven product and a proven business model, about to expand to new geographies and markets.
What social realities are obscured in this definition and the uses of ‘scale’ mentioned above? To start with, it’s a 21st century version of ‘economy of scale’ but that has an unsavoury ring to it when you’re trying to ‘advance human potential’.
In their recent critique ($) of the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’, Andrew A. King and Baljir Baartartogtokh discuss the ‘disruptive’ implications of scale. They analysed 77 cases of supposed of ‘disruptive innovation’ and found that, in at least 40% of them,
changing business conditions increased the economic advantages of scale and thereby limited the number of businesses that could profitably serve the market. The resulting “disruption” was really a well-known economic process that selected for a few well-placed businesses, incumbents and entrants alike, that could best leverage scale economies. For example…the expansion of national railroads allowed a few meatpacking plants to harness economies of scale and drive down costs. Previously, such scale advantages had been constrained by the inability to ship meat long distances, but the expansion of railroads and the availability of railcars with ice removed these barriers. These developments allowed meatpackers near rail hubs to harness massive scale economies and distribute inexpensive meat to broad regions of the country.
In recent decades, the development of the Internet and reliable parcel delivery has created similar scale challenges for brick-and-mortar bookstores. Before the tremendous growth of e-commerce, Borders Group Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc. leveraged economies created by the superstore format to gain a competitive advantage over smaller bookstores and mall-based chains. Online technologies meant that the assets represented by superstores could be trumped by an enormous, largely centralized distribution system. Because online sales costs continually fell with volume, whoever gained an initial advantage was likely to take the entire market; it didn’t matter whether it was a startup or an incumbent. (my emphasis)
Important though this analysis is, it does obscure the social implications for the meatpackers who weren’t near rail hubs: what happened to them and their families? Did they get different jobs in the same location? Did they relocate and, if so, what were the social impacts of their relocation? Were their liveilhoods permanently ‘disrupted’?
Scaling in education
In education, ‘an enormous, largely centralized distribution system’ could be Google, Facebook, Udacity, Coursera, or Pearson. Is this the kind of ‘scalability’ that Donald Clark had in mind when he said the following during his ‘Wake Up Plenary’ at this year’s European Association of International Education conference?
“I would like everybody to get a degree but I would like it to be cheap. I’d like it to be free. The only way you get that scalability beyond the rich developed world is through technology,” he said. “There aren’t enough human beings on the planet to solve this problem by paying teachers money.” (cited by Sara Custer)
Indeed. There is a finite number of human beings/students/paying customers so as one education provider scales up, others must inevitably scale down. Some of these education providers and their employees will go the way of the unfortunate meatpackers and booksellers described above. What this also means is the accelerated accumulation of wealth in the hands of an ever-dwindling number of individuals. As one privileged individual amplifies his or her impact on the world, other less privileged individuals may have theirs further diminished. But maybe that’s just the cost of ‘advancing human potential’? You can’t make an omelette without destroying the livelihoods of a few million people**.
We should be suspicious of governments providing funding to help startups ‘scale’ and talking incessantly about ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, ‘agility’ and the desperate need to teach every single child how to code while at the same time crying poor when it comes to funding public education more generally.