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Audrey Watters

Ed-Tech and Neo-Feudalism

7 min read

I'm posting my responses here to a friend that's working on a story on neo-feudalism. I think there are some interesting ideas here that could be developed more...


One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because it occurs to me that this use of the term ‘neofuedalism’ seems to represent an acceptance of (or fear that) the myth of meritocracy has finally failed, and that class structures are being ‘firmed up’, or even formalised. As such it feels a little like an admittance that large scale social mobility has ended, Considering your research interests - especially in relation to education and technology - what are your thoughts on this?

In some circles, education has long been touted as “the silver bullet.” (I think there’s a famous quotation from The West Wing that makes such a claim. I dunno. I’ve never watched the show.) If we just improve access to a good education – to higher education in particular – then all sorts of other problems will be ameliorated. Poverty, for example. Bigotry. Ignorance.

Education isn’t the fix for inequality. It does not address structural issues like racism. It does not redistribute wealth. Black people are paid less than whites at every education level. A college degree is clearly not enough.

A college degree is, of course, a signaling mechanism. It’s not just about what you know. It’s about where you went. Higher education is very bunch bound up in our notions of prestige and social hierarchy.

But many in Silicon Valley – and that’s are the stories I pay closest attention to – claim that one needn’t go to college. They point to Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs as college dropouts. Those in Silicon Valley like to suggest one can simply take a MOOC (a massive open online class) or get a badge or attend a coding bootcamp instead. As long as one can demonstrate “skills,” one can do anything. It’s the classic meritocracy mythology, and I see the tech sector as one of the myth’s greatest promoters. But if we look more closely at the powerful entrepreneurs and powerful investors and powerful companies in the tech industry, we can see there are powerful networks. And these networks often involve where people went to college: Stanford. MIT. Harvard. Even the famous dropouts – Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs – had wealth and, of course, their whiteness to connect them to these networks.

The tech industry remains overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, and yet it insists that it’s a meritocracy. This insistence allows Silicon Valley to continue to ignore the structural inequalities at play – who gets hired, who gets funded, what technologies get built, and so on. This has grave implications for the future, no doubt, as computing technologies are increasingly central to all aspects of our lives – professional, personal, political.

Again a very wide, general question - sorry! - but in what ways are you observing a transfer of power and decision making when it comes to education from government to private corporations? And is that leading to a two (or more) tier model for education? How is technology accelerating this?

Schools have always relied on private companies to supply things like desks and chalkboards and textbooks. So in some ways, new computing technologies are no different. But if we think of these technologies as simply upgrades to textbooks, we might be able to recognize the ways in which textbooks have long served to diminish the expertise of the classroom teacher. That is, content expertise resides outside the teacher. It’s in the authors of the textbooks, perhaps. It’s in the publisher itself. With new technologies, we see expertise – content expertise, technical expertise – increasingly moving outside of the school. Schools readily outsource all sorts of administrative and pedagogical functions to companies.

One of the most important transfers of power involves the role of technology entrepreneurs as education philanthropists. The Gates Foundation, for example, is a $44 billion endowment. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the venture philanthropy firm founded by Mark Zuckerberg, was started with $1 billion worth of Facebook shares. Both of these organizations have a vast, and I’d argue incredibly anti-democratic, influence on US education policy. These organizations help shape the narratives about “the future of education” – which of course will by highly mediated and monitored by computer technologies (unless you attend an elite private school as Bill Gates’ children do or Gates and Zuckerberg did). We can see this currently with calls to “personalize learning” – this isn’t so much about the adoption of progressive pedagogical practices, but rather the adoption of data-driven teaching machines.

Our historical concept of feudalism is always tied to relationships to land - and digital platforms and data are often referred to as a new form of real estate. In what ways do you see platforms (and the control/ownership of data) the new land of neofeudalism? In the same way that serfs worked on land they didn’t own, are we producing data we don’t own in spaces we don’t control? Are we being locked in to feudal relationships with those that own and control the online spaces we inhabit and the data we produce?

We do use the language of labor to talk about learning – schoolwork, homework – but students have never really had much control over that process at all. They have – arguably – been able to “own” their work. That is to say, at the end of the school year, they could walk away with a manilla envelope containing the worksheets they’d filled out and the essays they’d written and the pictures they’d drawn. But as school work becomes digital, there’s no manila envelope. Often what students do is trapped in a piece of proprietary software. And these software systems don’t just administer and store assignments and grades; they track all sorts of additional data: what time the student used the software and for how long; where the student was located when she used the software; what other applications are on her computer. All this data feeds the narrative of “personalized learning” that Zuckerberg and Gates and other technology investors like to push. But this data also feeds the algorithms and the knowledge base of these software makers. Students see no remuneration for this work. Nor do the schools that buy or license the software. And often, students and schools seem quite unaware that their data is being harvested and mined this way.

We’ve long been threatened in school with the saying “this will go down on your permanent record.” But now, with this massive data collection, it just might. We don’t have a lot of insight into how decisions are made based on this data – how algorithms are designed and implemented, how algorithmic decision-making in education is made. It’s a “black box,” as Frank Pasquale calls it – a “black box society.” Rather than being a silver bullet, this might make our education-related data trail precisely the thing that maintains social inequalities, but in ways that are even more opaque.

Finally: what’s your job title/how would you like to be described?

Writer and scholar who focuses on technology and education. Spencer Fellow at Columbia University School of Journalism. (Gotta take advantage of that prestigious title while I can.)