I think there’s a lot to say about machine learning and the push for “personalization” in education. And the historian in me cannot help but add that folks have trying to “personalize” education using machines for about a century now. The folks building these machines have, for a very long time, believed that collecting the student data generated while using the machines will help them improve their “programmed instruction” – this decades before Mark Zuckerberg was born.
I think we can talk about the labor issues – how this continues to shift expertise and decision making in the classroom, for starters, but also how students’ data and students’ work is being utilized for commercial purposes. I think we can talk about privacy and security issues – how sloppily we know that these companies, and unfortunately our schools as well, handle student and teacher information.
It is only now, a decade after the financial crisis, that the American public seems to appreciate that what we thought was disruption worked more like extraction—of our data, our attention, our time, our creativity, our content, our DNA, our homes, our cities, our relationships. The tech visionaries’ predictions did not usher us into the future, but rather a future where they are kings.
They promised the open web, we got walled gardens. They promised individual liberty, then broke democracy—and now they’ve appointed themselves the right men to fix it.
But did the digital revolution have to end in an oligopoly? In our fog of resentment, three recent books argue that the current state of rising inequality was not a technological inevitability. Rather the narrative of disruption duped us into thinking this was a new kind of capitalism. The authors argue that tech companies conquered the world not with software, but via the usual route to power: ducking regulation, squeezing workers, strangling competitors, consolidating power, raising rents, and riding the wave of an economic shift already well underway.
In a winners-take-all economy, it’s hard to prove the rulers wrong. But if the tech backlash wants to become more than just the next chapter in their myth, we have to question the fitness of the companies that survived.
The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.
There is something dangerous about a commitment to funding education, but it has nothing to do with reducing it’s value by making it widely available. Rather as Noam Chomsky has argued, a commitment to funding education and social services is dangerous because it means promoting the value that we care about each other. If neoliberalism is ‘lovelessness as policy’ (Naomi Klein), then any challenge in the form of a social commitment to the least well off is the truly radical alternative to our current system. In an argument for publicly funding higher education, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom argues, “It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse-a concept that fifty years of individuation, efficiency fetishes, and a rightward drift in politics have nearly pummeled out of higher education altogether. We no longer have a way to talk about public education as a collective good because even we defenders have adopted the language of competition.”
How would human capital theory put a value on vastly underpaid care labor that is essential to the functioning of the economy, or all of the unpaid work without which society would not function? In her conceptual critique of Becker’s human capital theory, Antonia Kupfer argues that schools do not simply produce human capital in a linear relation because unpaid work is “a precondition of education taking place.” Most of the work that goes into getting a child ready to attend school and to support them throughout their educational careers is unpaid and not counted as productive uses of human capital: from giving birth, to feeding children, washing their clothes, and getting them to school, the feminized work that readies children for education is truly massive. Kupfer asks, “How could ‘productivity’ be measured in the increasing service sector such as care of elderly, counseling or management? In fact, productivity is highly culturally conceptualized and impacted.”
According to Kupfer, the human capital “concept abolishes the difference between labour and capital by conceptualizing all people as capitalists through their capitalized work force.” The idea of human capital seems to democratize potential, when in fact financial capital is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. Piketty outright rejects the idea of human capital because “human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market (not permanently, at any rate)… In slave societies, of course, this is obviously not true.” (p. 46) If human capital theory was at some point during the mid 20th century kept in balance by a growing international commitment to human rights, Maren Elfert argues that it has “come out of equilibrium when neoliberal conservative governments came into power in the late 1970s which put the human capital approach at the service of an excessive market ideology, under which profit considerations dominated.”
Like so much of our lives under late capitalism, education has been subjected to an “excessive market ideology” for at least the last 50 years. Under human capital theory,“the role of the state could be limited to improving educational standards, expanding access to higher education, and creating flexible job markets that reward talent, ambition, and enterprise.”8 If we want to get to the root causes of why the education system is broken and what can be done to fix it, we need to free ourselves from the ideology that makes Caplan’s calculations all but inevitable.
we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes more workers vulnerable.
“Apart from light on such specific questions, I am regretfully forced to the conclusion that the difference between us is not so much narrowly educational as it is profoundly political and social. The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that. It seems to me that the business of all who would not be educational time-servers is to resist every move in this direction, and to strive for a kind of vocational education which will first alter the existing industrial regime, and ultimately transform it.” (p. 38-9)
What bearing does this have on institutional racism and its causes? The neo-colonial economic model is about coercing labor apart from whatever racial and / or national animosity might exist. American industries could have offered market wages to the Mexican peasants that NAFTA targeted until they agreed to work for them- this is the way that labor ‘markets’ work. But instead they chose to ‘free’ several million people from subsistence economies to compete with previously displaced Mexican labor and American industrial workers with the result that wages were lowered all around.
As uncompensated labor, slavery reduces employment and wages for the non-chattel working class. Without slavery, plantations and factories hire labor and pay it the prevailing wage. But doing so reduces profits. Then consider: this dynamic places the working class in direct competition with more deeply exploited classes, be they slaves, descendants of slaves or displaced peasants. This economic relationship of competition is (1) imposed from above and (2) socially divisive by being economically divisive.
From slavery through convict leasing, Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, the economic lots of American blacks were never left to market forces. Each of these institutions were used to expropriate the product of black labor outside of market forces. And this racialized economic ‘management’ impacted labor markets more broadly through controlling the supply of labor. What this means is that ‘management’ of black labor was to manage the supply, and with it the price, of the entire working class, not just blacks.
In human terms, unless the source of this systematic exploitation is made visible, the class dynamic that it establishes is to make the most deeply exploited the most blameworthy. Slaves, descendants of slaves and displaced immigrants were never the creators of the circumstances of their exploitation. The fallacy of ‘takers’ that unites white racist chatter confuses state strategies to maintain relative class positions for employers with the power to expropriate social resources. The class that largely controls economic outcomes remains well-hidden in this ruse.