“I want to be a machine.”

13 02 2013

 “The reason I’m painting this way is because I want to be a machine. Whatever I do, and do machine-like, is because it is what I want to do.”

Andy Warhol.

If there’s a decent book about the connection between the counterculture of the 1960s and the emergence of Silicon Valley as a tech hub, I’d love to read it.  If you don’t believe the connection exists, just look at the life and career of Stewart Brand.  I saw Timothy Leary speak when I was in college, and he told us that computers had become more important to him than drugs.  I swear to God every third word out of his mouth was “interface.”  The rest of the evidence is probably a fascinating story.

While it’s hardly my field of specialty, I have an argument that I picked up someplace or another which I use to teach the Sixties in my survey class.  I describe that decade’s Left as being made up of two factions:  the political and the cultural.  Sure there’s overlap between the two factions, but the tensions between those two groups goes a long way to explaining why things didn’t turn out better in America.

I thought of that split again while I was reading the latest installment of the great Shirky-Bady MOOC debate.  Aaron writes:

Shirky’s position—and that of most MOOC-boosters—does not seem consistent or coherent to me. There is a pulsing drumbeat of desire for a world in which self-directed learners direct their own learning, in which young people volunteer to learn whatever it is that they are supposed to learn, and in which the pedagogical labor of directing, encouraging, structuring, and disciplining the learning process is totally unnecessary, and need not be paid for. It is a fantasy.

So was stopping the war by levitating the Pentagon, and both results just as likely.  Indeed, fantasy is fairly common in edtech circles.  Here’s a piece of a really interesting article in Dissent on this subject:

But most MOOC-boosters do not talk about privatization of public services or the insertion of competition and profit into the mainstream of higher education; instead, they consistently present MOOCs and the companies that offer them as a “democratizing” force that will, in MOOC enthusiast Nathan Harden’s words, allow us to educate “as many students as possible, as well as possible, as affordably as possible.”

Just like stopping the war, it’s really hard to argue with that goal…at least until it descends into self-parody.

Just look at the example of Andy Warhol, perhaps the member of the Sixties cultural Left who sold out the fastest.  I happen to love much of his work, especially his early paintings which can easily be read as parodies of the no-longer creeping corporatization of the Kennedy years.  However, by the time he set up his famous studio (called, not coincidentally, “The Factory”)  all he basically did was take drugs, shoot excruciatingly dull films and pay people to crank out prints for him.  It became easy for Andy to dream of becoming a machine because he for all intents and purposes had already become one early on.  Even that machine produced some really cool work, but it wasn’t exactly art in the classic sense of that word.

To me, saying that MOOCs represent the next step in higher education is like saying finger-painting represents the next step in the evolution of art.  Perhaps students teaching themselves can produce art that’s good enough to hang on a wall in a Holiday Inn somewhere, but higher education is capable of so much better than what machines can do.  Yet outside of Cathy Davidson, we never hear about how technology can make people better professors.  Instead, the MOOC rhetoric is all about how once all the big, mean authoritarian proffies of the world go the way of the dodo we can all reach Nirvana together.

I consider my part of the reality-based higher education community.  I know that the children of the cultural left mean well, but by asking us to become education machines they are playing right into the hands of the higher education industrial complex.  Unfortunately, too many of my colleagues in academia are ready to play along.

Perhaps it’s for idealistic reasons. Maybe it’s the money or perhaps it’s for the fame that being a superprofessor will bring.  Of course, Andy’s better-known quote is:

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

Maybe everybody everywhere could have their own MOOCs!  I think Andy would have liked that, especially the later Andy who became a self-parody.  Since MOOCs jumped the shark sometime last year, 15 minutes of superprofessordom for all is probably just weeks away.  Maybe one of today’s early superprofessors can teach a MOOC about how to be a superprofessor in order to better prepare us all for the End of Times.



7 responses

13 02 2013
Audrey Watters

“What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry” by John Markoff

13 02 2013
Jonathan Rees

The two that came through Aaron’s Twitter followers are Steven Levy’s “Hackers” and Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.”

13 02 2013
Scott Johnson

You teach history, including a survey course on the 60’s, plus run people down for teaching themselves and expect your reader to conclude that professors are the single true source of learning in the universe today? Really?

13 02 2013
Jonathan Rees


I do not run people down for teaching themselves. I simply argue that people will learn more history (as well as aspects of history that are not readily apparent to anyone who isn’t trained in it) if they actually have guidance.

13 02 2013
Scott Johnson

Understood. What worries me are people taking positions that push each other apart and waste energy on blaming. Living in Alberta I know all about the conservative fixation on reducing “costs” by making education more “efficient”, especially by “eliminating duplication.” Also know that students at our community college are going to lose access to any voice of guidance should the government cut their funding and we do what we can to deliver the best we have online knowing full well that most are not self-directed.

Somewhere along the line the whole concept of accessible public education got turned into what from the outside appears to be a private club interested only in perpetuating itself. To an large extent this situation has driven the popularity of the original cMOOCs which in turn tend to bias towards self learners who may of may not have been turned away from mainstream institutions.

I don’t support the diminishing of education in society for any reason but I do claim the right to learn as it suits me without being hammered by both sides as the damn ship sinks. If you are interested in history read the edit history at the MOOC entry on Wikipedia.

14 02 2013
David Golumbia

here’s a piece i wrote on the “democratization” rhetoric in MOOCs:


18 02 2013
MOOCalicious « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

[…] Jonathan Rees, professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo, is my go-to source for MOOCs. His post at More or Less Bunk are entertaining and spot-on, such as this gem: […]

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