Friday, 31 May 2013

You can't come in

Facebook have agreed to tighten-up their admin regarding pages that glorify misogyny, which shows you how far Mark Zuckerberg has come since Facemash, the "hot or not" site he constructed at Harvard using online student photos. It also shows you the negligible difference that having a self-proclaimed feminist as COO makes. Sheryl Sandberg is a business-woman with political ambitions, which means she is more interested in PR exercises, such as exhorting other women to "lean in" and emulate her, than in the dirty but necessary job of initiating an ethical purge within her own organisation.

In the film based on the rise of Facebook, The Social Network, the Facemash episode provides one of the more risible moments of techno-nonsense, when the popularity of the site causes the university network to crash (OMG!). Excessive demand may cause a server to crash, but it has no impact on a network. In this case, the server was Zuckerberg's own PC, which apparently ground to a near-halt. The reason he got carpeted by the university authorities was not trashing the network but invasion of privacy, having hacked access to the photos. How times change.

The real hero of that film was Harvard itself. Despite the Winkelvoss twins accentuating the Horse Feathers-like absurdities of elite education, the university is shown in flattering terms as the gathering of the brightest minds and an incubator of talent. The slapdown of the twins by Larry Summers, the President of Harvard and later Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary, is presented as evidence of the university's integrity and independence (Summers, by the way, was a mentor of Sandberg at Harvard and later appointed her to a role at the Treasury). This positive image doesn't extend to the female characters, most of whom are portrayed as eye-candy or bunny-boilers, with even the independently-minded girlfriend who dumps Zuckerberg due to his instrumental attitude being little more than a plot hinge, though this in turns suggests a compensatory fantasy in which Facebook is one man's revenge on womankind.

The other hero of the film is property, though this is so taken for granted that our sympathies are torn between different forms of property claim, with no real questioning of the paradigm. Even the lawyers are presented sympathetically. You can see the neoliberal arc in the transformation of stylised justice on film from 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird to a dispute over stock dilution and intellectual property rights. What The Social Network does reflect is the degree to which the success of Facebook was based on exclusivity, initially that of Harvard, then of Ivy League universities more generally, and finally of the wider community of "cool" people. The slow collapse into uncoolness post-IPO was always inevitable. What's interesting is the role that elite education has played in this heroic trajectory. Though the Internet grew out of academia, both in terms of where it was developed and the paradigms it employs (Google's famous Page Rank algorithm is essentially peer review), few anticipated the degree to which it's social media incarnation would turbo-charge the snobbery and bullying that the geeks spent their time trying to avoid.

The online medium is thought to be inherently disruptive, but actually it reinforces existing power relationships, hence the pervasive sexism and trolling. This reinforcement is increasingly apparent in the case of MOOCs, massively open online courses, which are routinely described as revolutionary despite the evidence pointing in precisely the opposite direction, i.e. they are reactionary. After decades of expanding higher education, justified as the need to upskill labour as we "compete in the global race", we have reached an inflexion point and are starting to see college rolls decline as costs become prohibitive and state support for the disadvantaged is whittled away. The anxiety over Oxbridge admission bias in recent years is not a sign that we are democratising elite education, but that we highly value privilege. We want to make sure the worthy gain admittance, but we don't question the basis of such exclusivity.

During the period of expansion, elite colleges were able to maintain discretion over admission policies and so limit supply, which meant that increased capacity was met through marginal growth - i.e. converting polytechnics and other higher education colleges to universities. As this process reverses, MOOCs aren't going to supplant Oxbridge or Ivy League colleges that offer a positional good, they're going to erode the marginal sector. This means increasingly hard times for UK polyversities and US community colleges. In this context, the lead taken by elite institutions in developing MOOCs should be seen less as an altruistic desire to spread knowledge and more an attempt to reinforce the boundary between the best and the rest (completion rates are very low and persevering with a Harvard MOOC will not get you a Harvard degree). It is possible that elite MOOCs may become acceptable as credits for non-elite colleges, but it's equally likely they will remain as nothing more than glossy advertising for elite values. The unironic Boris Johnson's cry of "Buller, Buller, Buller!" is the emblem of our times.

The real disruption is likely to be further down the food-chain, where MOOCs become a viable substitute for non-elite higher education and professional training. If you think of education in practical terms as providing capital with skilled labour, then the medieval model of years spent studying non-vocational courses in an expensive college looks very inefficient when extended beyond a rentier elite. Online courses can provide capital with access to a larger pool of trained labour, with shorter lead times for new skills, at a fraction of the cost. As more and more work moves online and becomes highly standardised, location and wider social knowledge becomes increasingly irrelevant. British kids whose only qualification might be an online diploma will be in competition with similarly qualified kids from all over the world, which will inevitably drive down wages.

The combination of online access and the high cost of a bricks-n-mortar education will result in the university experience reducing back to a small social elite, while the majority make do with what are essentially vocational correspondence courses. The future looks very much like a reversion to the late Victorian era. One consequence of this is that access to scientific and academic careers will increasingly be reserved for the well-off who can afford the higher up-front costs required to get on the career ladder via post-graduate work, much as the way that careers in music and the arts have migrated up the class hierarchy in recent years. Art schools open to all are now as rare as working class pop groups outside of TV talent shows. The consequence of this, across science and the arts, will be a decline in innovation, because you're dependent on a smaller "gene pool" with an inbuilt establishment bias.

One thing omitted in The Social Network was Zuckerberg's background. The son of wealthy parents, he went to an elite preparatory school and was privately tutored on software development in his teens. He had a few advantages, over and above access to Harvard's campus LAN. From his earliest days, he knew the password, and it wasn't swordfish. The elite MOOC is an aspirational commodity. You can look, but you can't come in.

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