Will the Internet Replace College?

John Maguire

Review:  Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
               To Save Everything Click Here by Evegeny Morozov 

Perhaps the summer of 2013 will be remembered as the season when Americans began to wonder about the Internet and to get suspicious about it. In May, Edward Snowden went public with his revelations that the NSA can track our emails and probably much more. Snowden’s story stayed on the front pages all summer, as he fled from country to country before entering Russia on August 1.

In this same season, American publishers put out two powerful anti-Internet books: Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? and Evegeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here. Each makes broad comments about the Internet and specific comments about education that are worth paying attention to. 

For most, the Internet is a nearly miraculous and benign utility that, for the monthly cost of connection, brings all kinds of services to our homes. Not benign for Lanier and Morozov, however.

Who Owns the Future? can only be called a prophecy of Internet-catalyzed economic doom. Lanier is a top-drawer computer geek—he knows and knew Gates and Jobs and everyone else at the top in Silicon Valley. He’s also a musician. He’s not much of an economist but he knows that as the Internet arose, the music industry collapsed. File-sharing and copying and Napster ruined the ability of many people to make a living at music.

One can’t dismiss out of hand Lanier’s anguish about the damage done to his musician friends by his own pals in Silicon Valley. Lanier goes further—he asserts that the music-industry-collapse was not a freak accident, but a forecast.  He thinks the Internet is going to collapse more and more parts of the economy. As the Internet’s huge software machines provide more and more of the things we need, he says, the real economy where people do jobs and earn wages is going to shrink. 

Lanier sees a grim new world where only the owners of gigantic computer services will prosper and the former middle class will decline toward serfdom. The owners will make money by appropriating the work of others and serving it up for “free” on our computer screens.  Google’s so-called free translation service now uses computers to interpret and mash-up the recorded work of prior human translators. Now translators are not needed so much, and an earlier generation of translators (many probably are still alive) are simply having their work stolen.  If the creative work of musicians and translators can be stolen and turned into electronic products, why not the work of educators? Lanier puts it in a typically pungent sentence:

Higher education could be Napsterised and vaporized in a matter of a few short years.

He does not say how it will happen, because he can’t know, but he wants us to see it coming. “Everyone in the high-tech world appreciates the universities deeply. Yet we are happy to rush headlong into flattening the levees [he means property rights] that sustain them, just as we did with music journalism and photography. Will the result be any different this time?”

Higher education is a people-heavy business. If some kind of online service could educate and award college degrees for a tenth of what they now cost, a whole world of fulltime jobs with steady paychecks would die, Lanier says. Sure, no one has yet produced the “killer app” that will run on gigantic servers and liquefy colleges (the Khan Academy, MOOCs and Udacity notwithstanding). But just as surely, very well-paid minds in Silicon Valley are working on it.

Lanier asserts that MIT and Stanford will always remain (because Silicon Valley needs them!) but thinks the prospects for liberal arts professors at such places as state colleges are grim: 

A decade or two from now, if nothing changes, the outlook [for higher education] will recall the present state of recorded music…. The lure of free will beckon. Get educated for free now! But don’t plan on a job as an educator.

Evegeny Morozov’s much more erudite To Save Everything, Click Here has a similar theme but offers a broader and deeper analysis of what’s going on. He too thinks the Internet is bad news that’s going to get worse, and like Lanier he accuses the Internet barons of dishonesty, self-delusion and greed. He’s concerned that the gigantic internet companies are swallowing huge swathes of the culture, and that no one is discussing what this means for the future.

A mere 29 years old, Morozov is a classic anti-technocrat like Jane Jacobs or Friedrich Hayek, and he’s annoyed that the American people are buying the line that the Internet has to be this way—it’s an organic thing—it has its own laws of nature. He takes aim at two targets: first, the Internet itself, and second, the technocratic idea that everything can be fixed and everything made efficient and friction-free. He calls this the folly of technological solutionism.

Morozov writes “the Internet” only inside quotes. There are many electronic networks, he says, and they are different and do very different things. Pretending there is something called “the Internet” blinds us to the need to study these technologies in detail.

Morozov the non-geek does pay close attention to the actual behavior of network software.  In his riveting fifth chapter, on “algorithmic gatekeeping,” he demolishes a dozen glib arguments used by Internet moguls and boosters. 

Morozov is in some ways better educated than Lanier, who did not finish college, and Morozov understands that education is not merely about the transmission of facts.  So he is less concerned about an immediate collapse in higher ed.   He approvingly quotes Pamela Hieronymi, a professor at UCLA, who wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Education is not the transmission of information or ideas.  Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. As information breaks loose from bookstores and libraries and floods onto computers and mobile devices, that training becomes more important, not less.

For Morozov, colleges and universities fully participate in Internet infatuation, oblivious to the fact that the Internet is a straitjacket more than an open door:   

Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straitjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection – and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity, and imperfection – will prove to be prohibitively expensive in the long run…. This high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of “the Internet.”

Both these writers are driven in their mission to puncture the uncritical acceptance of the blather of Internet promoters.  Jaron Lanier’s main fear is economic decline, that the Internet barons, the owners of the Siren Servers like Google and Amazon, will keep sucking the marrow out of the middle class economy.

Morozov looks deeper and feels rage that we may be losing our democratic culture as we yield to techno-bunkum from Silicon Valley promoters. He wants us to stay human, to value friction and gravity and inertia in society, and to resist the worldview of the techno-barons.

Both books are substantial and bright. The Morozov one is especially worthwhile. These writers are not happy with the status quo—some might call them disaffected outliers—but then really new ideas never show up from the get-along-go-along crowd. 

John Maguire teaches writing at Middlesex Community College, Bedford, Mass. He is author of the Newsweek College Writing Guide. His website is www.readablewriting.com.

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