Essay

Simulated learning

Big tech and the teaching takeover

IN GILLES DELEUZE’S ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, the philosopher compares a discipline society in which one is always ‘starting again’ to a control society in which ‘one is never finished with anything’. In a control society, graduation is always deferred. We have become lifelong students in the School of Life, whose only prospects for graduation will be to someday enter into that great big gig economy in the sky. What makes a good employee, we are told, is adaptability, flexibility and a willingness to participate in a never-ending regime of micro-credentialling. It pays less these days to market yourself as highly specialised in any given field than to market yourself as highly specialised in your ability to re-specialise. Today, where 88 per cent of Australians believe that job security is a problem, and where 27 per cent believe they may lose their job in the next twelve months, education and career are not so much separate institutional forces whose boundaries occasionally meet as they are nodes of the same chaotic infosphere, self-modulating according to the demands of the market.

In 2020, Google launched its own subsidiary degree program, Google Career Certificates (GCC). For around US$49 per month, Google’s online training program allows students to upskill in IT support, data analytics, project management, user-experience design and Android development. Likewise you can become a social media marketing professional with a certificate from Facebook or a data-science professional with certification from IBM. It is feasible that at some point in the near future all of life’s mile- stones, from the cradle to the grave, will be chaperoned by the corporate Memphis infographics of big tech as your benevolent mother, your disciplinary father, your educator, your employer, your sexual partner and your therapist. The GCC’s YouTube channel features success stories from the program’s graduates. Melinda Williams, for instance, was a cosmetologist by trade who ran her own salon for forty years as well as teaching at the local centre for adult education. When the auto plant in her town suddenly closed, Melinda says that many of her clients were transferred elsewhere, and those who remained were unable to afford beauty services. She decided she needed to upskill as an IT specialist with a GCC. ‘Wherever I had my phone, my laptop, I could squeeze in a few minutes of studying,’ she explains as she jump cuts between washing the soapy suds out of a customer’s hair and taking an online class in the corner of the salon on her iPhone. The advertisement provides a three-minute insight into the dissolution of Middle America, its complex dependence on corporate conglomerates and the financial instability of the working class. In the same vein as Uber’s ‘Olivia chooses flexibility’ advert – where a mother with multiple sclerosis tells how she chooses to drive an Uber because it gives her the ‘flexibility’ to focus on her health – the prevailing commandment of big tech is that precarity is an entrepreneurial opportunity for those that are cunning enough to pivot by educating them- selves when universal healthcare is not available or when the industrial centre of their home town outsources its labour force to an overseas market.

 

IN CONTRAST WITH the repressive, paternalistic super-ego of discipline societies, the injunction to enjoy has become the ruling ideology of our times. It is not sufficient to upskill ambivalently – you must also enjoy optimising your spare time towards maintaining an aura of employability. As Melinda puts it, ‘I’d be up in bed with my computer and my husband would be like “Isn’t that gruelling?” I’m like, “No, I’m interested!”’ while her Google professor explains how ‘finding your cause is a critical concept in IT support’. Leisure time has been co-opted as an opportunity to educate yourself. From gender and racial injustices to the Wim Hof Method, ‘to educate oneself’ has become less about learning and more about cultivating the affectations of a lifelong learner – flexibility, ability to adapt to new technologies and so on – the overall goal of which is to craft a brand identity as an entrepreneur whose sole output is the reproduction of one’s own persona. The systematic dismantling of all forms of social solidarity, the increasing privatisation of the public sphere, the demand to express one’s individuality through habits of consumption, the shift towards casual contracts, gig work and freelancing as the dominant modes of employment have fostered an environment that rewards grind-and-shine posturing. As is the case with Melinda and Olivia, the responsibility rests with the individual. Those unable to enjoy are encouraged to defer blame to their own moral failing, lack of motivation or neurobiological chemistry. The hope is that you can simply hustle till the haters ask if you’re hiring, but the reality, to paraphrase Deleuze, is that an ever-greater percentage of the labour force is simply being mustered from the Google school to the Google barracks, from the Google barracks to the Google factories and back again.

 

SILICON VALLEY’S MOVE-FAST-AND-BREAK-THINGS ethos has promised to be the great equaliser: to democratise access to the ivory towers of academia (once reserved only for a cabal of privileged elites). You need only log on to find it everywhere you look. The info-sphere presents its users with the premasticated secrets to self-actualisation. In so doing it has sanitised the learning experience of all the muss and chaos that constitutes a human life.

MasterClass is an online education platform where celebrities from David Lynch to Margaret Atwood to Gordon Ramsay prerecord lectures to be accessed by a user base of subscribers. On the website’s sleek interface, students can search for classes by category – Science & Tech, Design & Style, Writing – or by ‘what’s trending’ (Daniel Pink teaches Sales and Persuasion, or Bobbi Brown teaches Make-up and Beauty). The selling point is that creative genius is a skill that can be absorbed via the same processes of passive consumption with which a television series can be binge-watched.

The Netflixification of the learning experience comes as no surprise when the objective is not to learn. The objective, in Lacanian terms, is to pantomime to the symbolic big Other that you are never not learning. Most online learning platforms allow the attention of their students to dip in and out of focus precisely because, more often than not, they are multitasking in the process. Listening to an audiobook on the way to work or a podcast while making dinner is done less out of a desire to learn than a desire to substantiate the self-mythology of an ideal neoliberal subject. This was made all the more obvious during the Black Lives Matter protests in which participants were told to ‘do the work’. An informal syllabus was created from composite online listicles about what books, music and movies to consume in order to ‘do the work’. The work, as it turns out, is really an exercise in signalling one’s compliance with the non-secular virtues of the professional managerial class. In another Google certificate ad, the narrator tells us that it’s time to ‘put your skills to work’ precisely because you are not the one who is doing the learning – it is your disembodied skill set that acts as a surrogate student. So long as the podcast or MasterClass or TED Talk drones on in the background, the education machine effectively does the job of learning for us.

During the pandemic, online learning platforms for children proliferated, creating a new kind of digital worker – the teacherpreneur whose work schedule depends on their ability to market themselves and maintain a positive rating. WhiteHat Jr, a live learning platform for coding aimed at children, is centred around the central tenets of logic, structure, creative thinking, sequencing and algorithmic thinking. Examples of student work include the creation of a ‘safe zone’ app that marks zones on a map that are not safe for children and sends alerts when someone enters the area, an ‘anti-bullying’ app that allows children to report incidents of bullying in a ‘quick and standardised way’, and a ‘slack for school’ app allowing teachers and students to communicate with each other. WhiteHat Jr’s website claims that ‘the real promise of coding is not that kids will become computer engineers. Coding is a fun tool for kids to exercise their desire to build, curiosity to question, imagination to explore…’ While all this may be true, what it circumvents is the real function for teaching a ten-year-old child how to code: it acclimatises them to an environment in which the deferral of personal responsibility to the mediation of tech seems not only normal and natural, but preferable; and it prepares children for a possible future in which the whole of their capacity as a human being will be submitted to the servicing and maintenance of the very machinery that it seeks to create. Ultimately it couches its agenda – to promote tech-bro culture as a virtue – in the kind of buzzwords that appeal to parents fearful that their children will lag behind lest they wholeheartedly embrace the technologies of the future. The board-book section of my local bookstore – aimed at babies who are not capable of reading, but who delight in the mental stimulation of turning cardboard pages – stocks titles such as Quantum Entanglement for Babies, My First Coding Book and Once Upon An Algorithm. These books make for a popular photo opportunity, the punchline being that the baby ends up chewing on the pages, completely indifferent to the complexities of its subject matter. What belies the image, of course, is that the baby is already developing the pretensions of a lifelong learner, one in which the representative image of learning is more advantageous than the act of learning itself.

 

THE UNIVERSITY DOESN’T fare much better than the primary school in adapting to a post-disciplinary society. It was 1971 when Ivan Illich noted that the school system ‘perverts the natural inclination to grow and learn into the demand for instruction’. If, like myself, you have found yourself as a university student in Australia within the past decade, demanding instruction already feels overly earnest. The modern student knows intuitively that ‘P’s get degrees’ and that the greatest lessons are learnt by oneself rather than taught – namely, the art of coasting by, of knowing how to fulfil the minimum requirements necessary for graduation. This is just as true for high achievers whose revolving door of internships and extracurricular clubs amount to a box-ticking exercise for postgraduate applications. The tutors, often on casual contracts, are discouraged from rocking the boat ideologically lest their tenuous employment be endangered. Unable to reprimand students for mediocrity, the tutors must simply navigate a classroom of students who are unwilling to participate in group discussion and incapable of finishing the required readings because of what Mark Fisher terms their post-lexia. ‘Teachers are now put under intolerable pressure to mediate between the post-literate subjectivity of the late-capitalist consumer and the demands of the disciplinary regime (to pass examinations etc.).’ The result is an elaborate theatre of appearances, played out for the imaginary powers that be, in which each subject acts to perpetuate the myth of their own self-importance.

Education is in a permanent state of crisis. Its spurts and sputters constitute the growing pains of an institution that is attempting to come to terms with ever newer modes of inter-relating. The final vestiges of the old system (disciplinary structures, rote learning, standardised testing) remain only for the purposes of pageantry and tradition, and teachers and students alike are beginning to navigate the liminal distance between one way of learning and the next. One can only hope that the looming spectre of big-tech certificates will mean that universities may no longer be beholden to prioritising everything by its use value in the job market. Never before has education been so ubiquitous and yet never before has the need to ask ourselves why we feel interpellated to re-educate been so critical. It is necessary, as Illich describes, to de-school society – to uncouple it from the system that has taught us to ‘confuse process with substance’. For every panel of credentialed experts that attempts to diagnose what the problem is, we require another conversation about what education is for. It is only in moments of total system failure that we are able to question the true purpose of any smooth-functioning machine. It is through this first inquiry that our true education can begin to unfold.

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