Blog Post

Questioning the valorization of labor of "low-income" students for Sony

In our e-mail inboxes this morning were no less than three messages announcing the new Educate to Innovate initiative in which HASTAC is a member. While I do not want to discount the obvious amount of work that went into the development and marketing of an event like this, I have serious reservations about the entire project that I think are important for us, as scholars in the humanities, to raise.

Anytime there is a public call for more "investment" in "science and technology" "education", we should be very wary of the political implications of each of those terms. As someone who is engaged with science and technology studies (STS) scholarship, I have learned to be suspicious of any attempts to pass off reified notions of "science" or "technology" as closed categories. Investigation of the STS literature will show that time and again science and technology, especially when presented in institutional contexts, a) are not practices that follow a precise "scientific method", but rather involve a host of negotiations that enable scientific facts and technological devices to be constructed; b) are often elements of constructing hegemonic power, and, in the US context, part of creating the relationship between the military, industry, academia, and entertainment; c) are used as a way of constructing certain societies as being "forward" by way of being "industrialized" and engaged with Western "scientific" practices; d) are used to diminish the importance of the humanities and social sciences (in the sense of Geisteswissenschaft) in order to bolster the status of the sciences; e) and we could go on and on. Thus, I worry about what such a call as Obama's means for the importance of other ways of knowing that are not subsumed to market pressures or defined by creation of "scientific" knowledge. What does this mean for the commodification of knowledge under the "science" commodity? As John Law and Annemarie Mol have written about extensively, the methodologies that we use are ways of creating different types of ontologies in the world--meaning they are about creating the different types of worlds that we might want. What does the methodology of "science and technology" education put forth by this call mean for the development of different, more socially just ontologies?

But more disturbing to me is the valorization of links between the government, academia, and industry. We are supposed to be proud that this initiative allows Sony to deposit their proprietary, closed gaming consoles in public libraries in "low-income" areas? I find this disgusting. We are supposed to be proud that students can now become labor for Sony in the creation of levels for their game? Emphatically no. We are supposed to be proud that this initiative partners with a trade organization that exists in order to drive consumers to their games and gaming consoles? No way. I refuse to give my assent to this sort of a project. The word "open" gets thrown around a lot these days with respect to digital technology. But what about this is "open"? Is it "open" merely because the new levels are available "for free"? Is it "open" because it is produced on a closed, proprietary, expensive system, but the levels are available to others who have access to these closed, proprietary, and expensive systems? Is it "open" because students are freely giving their labor, with vastly imbalanced recompense, to a multinational corporation? (See the recent conference on digital labor for more on the exploitation of so-called "play" and "free" labor online and off.) What are the rhetorical reasons for using this word "open"?

I believe we can do much better. There was a time--when I was in elementary and middle school--that students had to learn how to program. How could they do this? The computers we used, old and, yes, expensive, Apple IIes, at least allowed one to immediately drop to a programming prompt on the pressing of a certain key combination on bootup. The system was "open" in the sense that one can look inside, both in terms of the programming as well as the hardware. Today we have that possibility as well. Free and open source software allows one to inspect source code. The progress of initiatives like Ubuntu and Debian has made Linux a viable alternative to more mainstream operating systems. With Linux we can immediately move into the process of programming, using general purpose languages like Python, or more specific languages like Processing or Squeak. With platforms like Arduino we can encourage students to play with hardware. As well, most of the necessary hardware exists in storage rooms throughout the country, waiting to be "recycled" somewhere else in the world (see the work of Edward Burtynsky to understand what I mean), rather than "recycled" closer to home. Where is the call for these sorts of projects from the Obama administration? The technology and material is there; it is not a matter of having to start from scratch, of having to create a whole new infrastructure. Rather, my cynical outlook suggests that the real reason is that the desire is not to create creative thinkers that would challenge the status quo, but rather train "creatives" (note the difference) that can be engaged with global capitalism. Indeed, as Marc Bousquet has detailed in not only his own book but his series of postings on his blog, contemporary education is big business. And, according to Bousquet's reading of things, increasing that relationship--the one between academia and business--is key on the agenda of Education Secretary Arne Duncan . Like in Europe, America is assenting to the Bologna Process without even being required to, through the raising of fees, the privatization of education, and the creation of more precarious situations for your labor. Have we already forgotten the struggles and occupations at the University of California from last week?

All of this makes me sad. We have the ability to do better. We have the ability to not only imagine, but implement alternatives to a market-based education. We have the ability to teach students to be critical about the claims of science and technology. We have the ability to create "another world" through the use of different methodologies that would create different ontologies and different objects in the world. We have the ability to value different ways of knowing about the world. We have the ability to understand sustainability using a more expansive concept, such as that of the "ecosophy" of Felix Guattari. We have the ability to encourage students from the bottom-up, to enable them to work sustainably with existing materials rather than needing more devices with more coltan mined in order to raise money for civil wars that have killed millions of people. We have the ability to do all of these things. What we seem to lack is the overarching, overwhelming desire to see it through the inevitable struggles.


1 comment

As I have been thinking about my current direction in my studies I come to points similar to this in regard to how digital labor can cause problems. My focus is on attempting to develop a way in which people can participate in contributing narrative in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games formatted environment. I look at recent additions to games such as City of Heroes and Star Wars Galaxies that allow players to generate content for other players to consume. This is a thinly disguised method of free content development via under compensated laborers.

Enabling such an activity in these environments in a fair and compensatory manner is very difficult to balance. No one has actually been able to do it well and effectively just yet with the exception of early first person shooter and real time strategy mods where in the compensation was, on one hand, being able to engage in competitive game play with friends on limited access networks or, on the other hand, as a resume piece for application to game development companies.

The current trend is pretty blatantly exploitive and is capitalizing on brand recognition/establishment as you have pointed out with the Sony initiative. Ideally, we can, as you say, do better than we are with such initiatives. The problem, as always, is money. From where can we get funding to create access points to open source projects that are more than just token. This question points to fundamental flaws in the confining and manipulative multinational capitalistic model we have all but moved into, globally.

Even philanthropic sources of funding have strings attached, benchmarks that must be reached to qualify continued support based on business models rather than attending the unquantifiable need for exposing young people to the concepts of critical thinking and choice. Who loses as a result of this profit oriented schema of nonprofit support? First, the world’s youth. They are trained to further support capitalism. Second, the world in general. There is no transferable of internet gifting culture (which is the guise often adopted in such activities) to the material physical world. This is a problem that must be attended to but the market forces acting against it are, to say the least, huge.