Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fear and education: some slightly disorganized thinking about the big picture

 Will . . . computing once again become a task for underpaid young women like those who were the first "computers"?

History is a mosaic of biographies. No one piece will give you the whole picture, but a dataset can. Google the search term "social history" and you'll see what I mean. Look up Surviving Poverty In Medieval Paris (that I am very pleased to see, unusually for an academic book, is still in print and has gone into paperback), and explore how it draws comparisons between the lives of families struggling on "workfare" in 1990s America and those of the children, people with disabilities,  and women supporting each other in the fourteenth century. Or see how economic mobility was crushed by the rise of the guilds and the disempowerment of wives and journeymen in Women And Gender in Early Modern Europe (ed. Merry Wiesner, 2nd ed).

Promo ad for The Tudors, a series on HBO

But if history is entertainment, merely a market sector created to churn out meticulous accounts of five-hundred-year-old martial infidelities, duels, and weddings that could, with a few changes, just as easily appear in People magazine today, who gains?

Those who benefit from a population without critical thinking skills.


This past September on Metafilter I heard about a program in the category of educational experiences now referred to as a "hack school" or "dev bootcamp".
It is called Hackbright Academy, and is open only to women.

Ensemble, repensons le monde. Croisons l'art avec la technologie. La recherche culturelle avec la consience sociale. (Together, rethinking the world. Crossing art with technology. Cultural research with a social conscience.) Technology as pretext for art and pathway to solving social problems. Note the video game controllers in the figures' hands. An advertisement for Concordia University in Montreal's Design and Computation Arts Program from the Montreal metro, November 2013.
 I asked some of my multitude of friends who are actually working developers what they thought of the idea and they said it was laughable and not a good investment.

Two other students (both women) who I spoke with at the Ruby training I attended last year were telling me about how they yearned for geographic flexibility and a level of self-sufficiency that non-technical workers are less able to cultivate in a tight job market.

Around the same time I heard about Hackbright last fall, the New York Times covered a similar school founded in Paris, 42, this one aimed at students who don't have access to the lycées that, to make a gross oversimplification, are something like France's equivalent of Ivy League universities.

It is old news (or ought to be) that there is a tiered system of education in the United States too; community colleges and for-profit vocational schools like DeVry and ITT Tech versus state schools and "safety schools" versus the selective liberal arts colleges and research universities that always seem to rise to the top of the rankings in US News and World Report.


Did you know that folks going to school on the GI Bill after the Korean War could end up studying at places like Duke University, and go from being the sons of machinists and policemen who work in box and glue factories to being tenured philosophy professors?

Did you know that the children of immigrants, the first in their families to go to college, could attend a public university in California for a mere $75 a semester, come in being told to be lawyers and come out anthropologists?

I'm pleased to see that a critique of the rising inequality of the United States has finally made it into the likes of Newsweek . . .


Six months after I learned about 42 and Hackbright, reports that California is requiring that the "hack schools" in its jurisdiction be regulated to prevent fraud raised ire from the same kinds of folks who vote ambitious venture capitalists just graduating from business school onto town councils of places where moneyed transplants and large corporations are remaking the landscape.

And perhaps licensing money motivates California, but to say that money, or the beckoning spectre of it, doesn't motivate those who cry foul would be a libertarian bedtime story. It certainly motivated those defending Bush-era tax cuts they would never benefit from. Complicated relationships between money and governance go back to the days of the gonfaloniere and before.

What I don't see discussed in the business and tech articles now covering this phenomenon is the economic impact of all of these "hack schools", as some stories call them.

People come in with dreams -- not just of paying jobs where those are scarce on the ground, but of economic security in an era of adjuncthood, of contracting, outsourcing, downsizing, and stagnant real wages that began around the time I was born and has lasted for my entire life, an era that lasted through the dot-com boom for all workers except tech workers, who only after the crash began to feel the pinch.

People come into the "hack schools" dreaming of choice. They want a choice of where to live and who to work for, a choice that comes of having skills in demand. They want to be free of abusive bosses and demeaning work environments. They want self-respect and good treatment that will be reinforced by society's view of them as intelligent people, as worthwhile citizens. Often they want to be in a position to give back, to save the world, to change the world, to create, too. All of these dreams are caught up in computers, in access to technology and choice, agency and respect.

Will the "hack schools" merely accelerate the deskilling of a still comparatively well-paid and secure occupation, assisted by new tools, frameworks, libraries, CMSes, and similar? Will the dawn of personal computing, when the young white male "geniuses" of Silicon Valley emerged from their mythical garages to cries of adulation from the press, come to seem ridiculous as computing becomes once again a task for underpaid young women like those who were some of the first "computers", assisting at Bletchley Park and BRL during the Second World War?

After all, this is a field already threatened by outsourcing, historically occupied (and ferociously defended with the the tools of sexism and racism) by middle class white men. It is becoming even in the US a poorly paid occupation for guest workers with few rights, or locals who fill up A+ Certification classes at for-profits like ITT Tech, and don't have the luxury of time and money to spend on learning concepts as well as specific technologies. 

Several "hack school" programs have said things along the lines of expecting 60 to 90 hour weeks of their students. Perhaps this is not just a requirement of a time-constricted curriculum, but a preparation for a caffeinated culture and the all-or-nothing, crunchtime or layoff world of the tech workplace, seen especially in game development, for example? The kind of brutal intitation experienced by medical students and engineers, a way to weed out the women, people with disabilities, and anyone considered "unworthy" to earn a decent wage?

A worker with freedom of choice is threatening to most employers. Pay is not just about scarcity or complexity of skills but prestige. The framing of work and workflows shape how workers move in the marketplace. Control prestige, supply, and framing and you control your workforce.

I am not a student of the history of architecture, but I wonder if it is significant that minimalist design came in after the revolution in Russia, after a first Gilded Age (we are now in the second) marked by violent strikes, as labor movements grew strong and union jobs became a reality for at least white male workers in the vocations . . . for a time. Perhaps the intricate architectural ornamentation of 19th century buildings was a factor of the powerlessness of journeymen as much as any design trend. I'm sure someone has written a thesis on this topic . . .

The computer changes labor because telepresence and communication at a distance are possible, automation is possible, easy access to information is possible, detailed statistics are possible. And as knowledge becomes disposable, either quantifiable and thus crystalizable, or unquantifiable and thus uncapturable, the worker becomes disposable as well. The worker becomes an interchangeable part, just like the parts of the Model T (cf the essay "The Spectre of Uselessness" by Richard Sennett in The Culture of the New Capitalism).

Perhaps all the gold miners all rushing to Alaska are signs of an end, rather than a beginning.

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