Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Scarcity and Abundance on Social Media and Formal Education

Education declares knowledge to be scarce. That it shouldn't do this is the fundamental message in Illich's work on education. Illich attacked "regimes of scarcity" wherever he saw them: in health, energy, employment, religion and in the relations between the sexes.

Illich's recipe for avoiding scarcity in education is what he calls "institutional inversion", where he (apparently presciently) visualised "learning webs". When we got Social media and wikipedia, it seemed to fit Illich's description. But does it?

I wrote about the passage in Deschooling Society a few years ago where Illich speaks of his "education webs" (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/personalisation-and-illichs-learning.html) but then qualifies it with "which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring". Learning, sharing and caring. Is this Facebook?

Despite Illich's ambivalent attitude towards the church, he remained on the one hand deeply catholic and on the other communitarian. Like other Catholic thinkers (Jaques Ellul, Marshal McLuhan, Jean Vanier) there is a deep sense of what it means for people to be together. It's the togetherness of the Mass which influences these people: the experience of being and acting together, singing together, sharing communion, and so on. The ontology of community is not reducible to the exchange of messages. It is the ontology which interests Illich, not the mechanics.

So really we have to go further and explore the ontology. Illich's "institutional inversion" needs unpacking. "Institution" is a problematic concept. The sociological definition typically sees it as a complex of norms and practices. New Institutionalism sees it as focus of transactions which are conducted through it by its members. At some level, these descriptions are related. But Facebook and Twitter are institutions, and the principal existential mechanisms whereby social media has come into being is through facilitating transactions with customers. The trick for social media corporations is to drive their mechanisms of maintaining and increasing transactions with customers by harvesting the transactions that customers have already made.

In more traditional institutions, the work of attracting and maintaining transactions is separate from the transactions of customers. It is the marketing and manufacturing departments which create the opportunities for customer transactions. The marketing and manufacturing departments engage in their own kind of internal transaction, but this is separate from those produced by customers: one is a cost, the other is income.

The mechanism of driving up the number of transactions is a process of creating scarcity. Being on Twitter has to be seen to be better than not being on it; only by being on Facebook can one hope to remain "in the loop" (Dave Elder-Vass writes well about this in his recent book "Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy").  Formal education drives its customer transactions not only by declaring knowledge to be scarce, but by declaring status to be tied to certification from prestigious institutions. At the root of these mechanisms is the creation of the risk of not being on Twitter, not having a degree, and so. At the root of this risk is existential fear about the future. The other side of the risk equation is the supposed trust in institutional qualifications.

Illich didn't go this far. But we should now - partly because it's more obvious what is happening. The issue of scarcity is tied-up with risk and worries about a future which nobody can be sure about. That this has become a fundamental mechanism of capitalism is a pathology which should worry all of us.

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