Blog Post

If you think you're saving a dime on tech, you're wasting a dollar

PREAMBLE:   A huge thanks to Chair Len Tennehouse, Dean Srinivas Aravamudan, and Dean Lee Baker for allowing me to work with a Teaching Assistant in my experimental, peer-to-peer, technology intensive undergraduate classes.   This is a commitment to the pedagogy of the future, but it is definitely a commitment.   My thanks.   Now, the polemic . . .


Here is the equation you need to know to factor in technology costs:   If you think you are saving a dime by installing a lot of new technology into your classroom or your workplace, you are wasting a dollar.   You will eventually see that cost in your bottom line (I'm convinced a larger part of the general financial collapse is due to uncalculated costs of technology and outsourcing than we have begun to acocunt for, by the way).  If you factor in human time, the redistribution of leisure activities, contracted IT services, broadband and other infrastructure, labor costs, the actual costs of the Information Age are not only incalculable but compounded by our Industrial Age mentality which does not know how to calculate in an Information Age economy.   "Outsourcing" is merely one manifestation of this.   My back of the envelope is that is the ratio:  ten to one, in terms of "visible" costs versus the hidden ones that we do not yet know how to enter into our balance sheets but that can sink any enterprise.


I am writing this because on Friday I participated in a webcast Duke Office Hours and, first, was delighted to learn that our numbers were just through the roof.  We had more visitors on line--nearly 4000!---than anyone expected.   That's largely because the team, led by VP Michael Schoefeld and James Todd's impeccable crew, was so professional.  It went off without a hitch--how often does that happen with new technologies?  (Mistakes are part of my 10:1 calculation.)   Second, the topic of "Learning in a Digital Age" clearly has our attention.  Third, we advertised the event widely through our inestimable HASTAC network of networks.   (The time and energy of creating such a network, and the network's own energies, is another incalculable that needs to be calculated.  Information without a network isn't information in the digital age.)


Anway,  on these Office Hours someone wrote a question about their institution "saving money" by requiring a lot of technology.   Really?   Has that ever happened? 


Here's the short version of my polemic.   In the Industrial Age, it was believed that if you manufactured products on a very large scale, on an assembly line or its humanly-mechanized equivalent (sweatshop labor), using an entirely uniform method of production, that you would save money.   It was also believed that you needed to convince consumers to spend more money ("conspicuous consumption" is what Veblen called it) to be happy.  Note the hidden costs in that equation.  You make lots of goods to save money, but foster consumer consumption so people spend more.   Who is saving?  Who is spending?  Who pays?    A lot of economic treatises are based on the answers to those questions.


Now, in the DIY, remix, customizing open source Information Age, we've all been fed the bill-of-goods that a lot of things are "free."   Really?  Have you ever added up all the costs of all the data plans in your life, the ones at home and the ones at the office and the ones when you travel?   And the fury of conspicuous consumption is now a raging fire, with ever more delectable products available the moment you plunk down your $500 or $1000 for the hottest new toy out there.  We are overlaying an open source "information wants to be free" ideology on an ever-more rampant consumerism that operates partly by making its own costs invisible and partly by making conspicuous consumption (non-interoperability of platforms, technologies, systems) an "app" for virtually every product that is created.   Nothing has a stated shelf life.  No one knows what comes next.   And no one, that I know of, has begun to budget for these costs.


What often happens is that labor is outsourced, and often outsourced into what used to be called "leisure time."  


When I teach peer-to-peer pedagogies, when I use crowdsourced tactics in my classes, one thing we all discuss is how much labor and whose labor goes into making these pedagogies work.  I do this as one of the many life lessons my students learn about how to see how they are "spending" their time (such a great metaphor) and when that spending is volitional (one definition of leisure is freedom to decide how to spend one's time) and when it is required (that's the "outsourcing").   


I'm about to get on a plane to go to NY to film a documentary on collaborative enterprise, hosted by the string theorist and visionary and popular new media commentator Michio Kaku.   I'm up an hour earlier than I need to be writing this blog.  Is this outsourced labor?  Or leisure?   I enjoy this, it is not peer-reviewed required writing but something I want to do, so, for me, it's leisure.   But where is that line?  How do we know anymore?  What is the metric by which we calculate a "work day" when the line between "work" and "leisure" is blurred in all directions---leisure enters into the workplace whenever we turn on a computer and work bleeds into leisure whenever we go into our email to check out how our friend is doing and get caught up with a lot of traffic from a thorny issue at work.   The divide, so carefully maintained (and artificially created) by the Industrial Age has been breached . . . but we haven't really seen how thoroughly or figured out at what cost.   The consequence is that we are spending money we don't think we are, spending time we don't calculate as work time, and, worst of all, we are wasting enormous quantities of money (again, my ten::one ratio) by buying all kinds of technologies that we will never use to their capacities because we operate under the myth that we do not need humans to run, operate, teach, network, and make all of it work successfully, productively, creatively, and wisely.  


To invest in "technology" without investing in humans to think the use and applicaiton of technology wisely is to apply an Industrial Age solution to an Information Age problem---and the solution didn't even work for the Industrial Age, which artificially manufactured consumerism in order to balance the budget on automated efficiencies.   Remember "labor saving devices" that required upp'ing the ante on the desired result that you were supposedly saving labor on achieving?  You didn't even need that result before in human history.   Example:   a colonial house had drawers and hooks, not walk-in closets because you wore the same clothes over and over.  Deconstruct that example and you have the roots of consumerism and the overworked, unaccounted form of "labor-saving"  it requires.   An awful lot of investments in cost-saving technology works by that same (il)logic.


These are the kinds of questions that we ask in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet."   I am so grateful that I will have the opportunity to work with a Teaching Assistant so that we can ask these questions while finding the right (i.e. labor intensive) method for doing so.  






Meredith gavem me permission to cut and paste this from our Facebook exchange where I reblogged this post.  Perfect!  All the right issues.


Meredith McGill Great screed, Cathy. We know from personal experience how labor intensive new tech/ a new gadget can be; hence many colleagues' resistance to the exhortation to experiment with new systems/ platforms/ pedagogies. There are books to read,... papers to grade, students to teach! I think Stanford got it right -- placing a new media specialist (with a Ph.D. in the discipline) in any humanities department that wanted one. Introducing faculty and graduate students to the potential uses of new media -- from inside, as it were -- is crucial. It can all look like a giant scam at times -- stop buying books for the library, replace with prohibitively costly digital subscriptions; find the money for shiny new machines, but hire no new colleagues; add responsibility, and pressure to keep up with ever-shifting standards, but offer no substantive training. We need a critical account of the uneven digital present to go along with our projections about / work toward transforming the future of the humanities.


Great post Meredith.These issues really need discussing, and I think it's important we don't rush to assume technology will always be the cheaper option. It's also important to realise, though, that cost-benefit analysis of technology investment is a reasonably mature discipline (even if it can be as much art as science, and tech budget blowouts remain legendary). It's quite possible to calculate fixed and variable as well as depreciation and opportunity / human costs, and  - assuming the need for a margin of error - feel reasonably in control of any deployment. As you suggest, the key is to take a systems-oriented approach that includes humans as part of the system: it's the same approach taken by engineers building urban spaces, and focuses on engineering or architecting technological options for discussion by stakeholders, rather than blindly rolling out 'new IT stuff'. We also, of course, need to analyse specific instances, and deploy solutions based on context rather than general precepts. A small press spending 10,000 / year on hardcopy publishing will undoubtedly save if they shift to an online model that costs them 2000/year in training / hosting / domain reg etc, and say, 2000 every 5 years on hardware. In some cases, too, outsourcing the hardware to a serviced hosting platform, where costs are spread across various clients, could make real sense. Your 10-1 rule of thumb, therefore, is useful as a general warning and a reminder to check your sums, but could be misleading too: I'm not sure it makes sense to replace general denial of possible unseen costs with a general assumption of exponential costs. I'd recommend the UK Green Book as a place to start. It offers advice on how to calculate human and social as well as economic factors. My central point? We need to be careful not to try to reinvent the wheel in the digital humanities. Commercial and public sector knowledge is often reflexively ignored in our disciplines, but it's sitting there ready to use. And finally, although I too have an innate aversion to the kind of accounting-speak used in my comment, I'd suggest that some of our students won't, and those that enjoy this kind of analysis could have careers ahead in either the public or private sectors as policy analysts or project managers. It could also provide the digital humanities with an opportunity to broaden their appeal to students in different disciplines.


These are exactly the complex kinds of issues we will be addressing with our proposed new preprofessional Master's in Knowledge and Networks.  The idea is that you need deep knowledge of the humanities AND great experience in real-life business and nonprofit learning and communications institutions to decide wisely, rather than reactively, to the demands of a changing information ecology in our communities and in our worlds of business too.    We hope to be posting the MAKN on Comment Press in a few weeks and will be very happy for feedback from all.  


There's a quote from Marx (K, not G) "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce".

Consider the move from chalk & talk to Powerpoint as an earlier example. Given that one had expertise in a subject one was about to lecture on, all one had to do was to put a few pages together on paper (handwritten!) then go and deliver the lecture. The thinking was done during the lecture. Then along came the new age of digital delivery, we all had to get projectors installed, sort out all the intricacies of interconnection, and put together the material as slides, with nice pictures as well. The thinking then took place before the lecture. And the preparation took considerably longer (first time - thereafter, the danger was giving the lecture without any thinking at all!).

I'd suggest that this is another example of wasting academics' time by using technology. 

[It's also worth noting that a lecturer can be just a tedious and boring using powerpoint or (insert leading-edge technology of choice here) as using chalk and talk: it's not the delivery mechanism that makes for good pedagogy, but the personality and enthusiasm of the lecturer]