Hack the textbook now!

The rumors were true.  On Thursday, Apple announced that it will enter the world of textbook publishing.  In typical fashion, Apple recognizes an emerging market, incorporates the market into its omnivorous platform, and applies a series of protocols and regulations to lock-down the synergies of convergence.  Less glitzy than music or video, the textbook market is an important, if somewhat rustic, branch of publishing.  College textbooks, for instance, generated $4.58 billion in sales last year, part of the broader $10 billion sales in textbooks.  That’s big money.

Several themes have emerged in the critical response to Apple’s initiative:

– – barriers: Apple’s iTexts will run on Apple’s iPads.  Can schools – – especially K12 systems – – afford to buy, maintain, manage, etc., iPads for all their students?  The logistics of mass iPad-ification are overwhelming.  The iPad-iText connection raises, however, another question: is the textbook initiative merely a way for Apple to extend the market for iPads?  Amazon, of course, uses its Kindle in the opposite direction: the device serves to support the market for content.  But, Apple remains a hardware company, and putting iPads into the hands of 55 million budding consumers must tempt.

– – control:  iText plus iPad plus Apple has raised fears that one company could control a pivotal element of school curriculum.  These fears are abetted by Apple’s notorious control over its App market.  (The assumption that curriculum depends on textbook is a sad indicator of how little we’ve changed our models of learning.) Curriculum control through textbook is nothing new in education, especially K12.  And, higher education textbooks already belong to a highly oligopolistic market dominated by less than a half-dozen companies, including Pearson, Thomson, Wiley, etc.  The real issue here is private, e.g. corporate, control of public education, but given the existing corporate penetration and domination of the textbook market Apple isn’t breaking any new ground here.

– – intellectual property.  As several glosses of Apple’s EULA have revealed, textbooks authored for profit within the app must be distributed through Apple.  As I read it, iTexts not authored for-profit aren’t restricted to Apple distribution.  To object to Apple’s initiative on these grounds is to buy into a whole system of monetization, and more particularly into a view shared by Apple, Pearson, Amazon, et al., that public eduction is in fact a market.  Once you see education as a source of profit, objecting to Apple’s EULA is really just quibbling about who gets what kind of cut from peddling commodities to a captive market, i.e. the nation’s 55 million public school students.  In short, this is really a political issue – – which side are you on?

So far, e-textbooks have not proven very popular with students or professors, and efforts to expand the e-textbook market within higher education have not zoomed off the launching pad.  However, new alliances between universities and publishers may change this.

To sum up, Apple’s new initiative isn’t really doing anything new.  Instead, Apple is trying to catch up with, reorganize, and cash-in on an emerging digital market.

Apple’s announcement is important, however, because it has turned the eyes of the digerati toward the textbook as technology, pedagogy, and commodity.  For those interested in alternative configurations of the textbook, this brief moment of visibility offers some important opportunities.  Now, more than ever, we need to start seriously thinking about and working toward an open-source textbook platform.

Textbooks are odd kinds of books – – they are assemblages of disciplinary commonsense rather than unique expressions of authorship.  As Audrey Waters has argued, this “assemblage” quality makes textbooks into prime candidates for the kind of remix and mashup practices that define today’s read-write web.  Mashup culture flourishes within open-source platforms.  And, a better way to greet Apple’s iTextbook initiative would be to really start developing the open-source platforms that allow teachers and students to hack “textbooks” together.

Not too long ago, Allen Lui asked the question: “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”  Developing open-source textbook platforms might not only put some critical edge back into digital humanities, it might also offer digital humanists a critical practice that takes direct aim at the social and economic forces that are reshaping education and the humanities: corporatization, commodification, marketization, etc.

Open-sourcing textbook platforms might produce better textbooks, but they might also remake the whole notion of the “textbook.”  Most digital textbooks – – even those available form more open-source producers like Flatworld or CK-12 – –  simply mimic print textbooks and reproduce the models of teaching and learning implicit in print textbooks.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, three basic principles for rethinking the digital textbook might help to hack together new learning environments that disrupt established models of teaching and learning: 1) harvest the commons; 2) submerge the textbook in remix culture; 3) disrupt the relationship between textbooks and pedagogy.

Apple wants to own the textbook.  To paraphrase the famous words of Wobblie extraordinaire, Joe Hill:  don’t mourn (or whine or kvetch or quibble), organize!

 

beware of geeks bearing revolution

Today, the revolution has finally come to education.  “It’s hardly revolutionary to say we’re living through revolutionary times,” proclaims an article titled, “Recoding the Classroom,” in the most recent issue of Google’s online journal, ThinkWithGoogle: “How we work, communicate, live, and learn has been transformed by the information age spawned by the internet.  [H]ere’s the thing, if the world we live in looks nothing like it did three decades ago, and even less like it will three decades hence, is it right that the classroom of today would be instantly recognizable to your mother, your mother’s mother, or your constantly networking, cell phone-obsessed daughter?”  In this showdown between “the world” and “the classroom,” technology is pushing the world to the speed of thought, and education either catches up or loses out.

This “logic” of modernization has become so natural these days as to beg a modicum of skepticism.  How “revolutionary” are these revolutionary times?  And, who are the revolutionary we’s and you’s conjured up by this rhetoric?

As for the first question: yes, we have smartphones, iPads, super-sized LCD televisions, networks, collaboration platforms, and convergence, but can we has revolution?  In 2010, there were 46.2 million Americans in poverty, the fourth consecutive year the rate went up and the largest number in the fifty-two years since poverty estimates were first published.  Since 1980, income inequality has accelerated. A study by University of California, Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez found that, as of 2007, the top decile of American earners pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917.”  As the Congressional Budget Office recently opined: “the distribution of after-tax household income in the United States was substantially more unequal in 2007 than in 1979.”  Ironically, 1979 was the same year the Microsoft entered the OS business.  Apple was incorporated in 1977.

In some very important ways the world looks a lot like it did in 1982.  In fact, the “revolution” looks a lot more like a counter-revolution – – class structures harden, opportunity evaporates, power consolidates.   As a quartet of English philosophers declaimed in 1971: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The rhetoric of revolution requires change and stasis.  And if the “world” isn’t quite moving at the speed of light, perhaps we can still count on the “classroom” as a bastion of permanence, the kind of place “you,” your grandmother, and your daughter have in common.  When “you” or your grandmother attended K-12 school, you probably had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, play a sport, or enjoy recess.  Your daughter most likely doesn’t.  High schools built to accommodate 1,400 students now host 4,000.  One advocacy group reports that 48% of New York City schoolkids are enrolled in overcrowded schools.  (Shortly before resigning, NYC Schools chancellor and former Hearst Magazine chairman, Cathie Black offered her solution to school overcrowding: “Could we just have some birth control?”)  Higher ed seems to be changing pretty fast as well: rocketing student debt, supersonic tuition hikes, a disappearing professoriate, and of course overcrowded classrooms.  Obviously, this ain’t your grandma’s classroom; given the speed of its decomposition, education hardly functions as the turtle to technology’s hare.

So, if the revolution isn’t quite so “revolutionary” and the “classroom” isn’t quite so time-bound – – why is the millenial rhetoric of technology so common in education these days?

One obvious reason is that much of this rhetoric mistakes things for relations: more  devices – –  iPads, smartphones, apps – –  don’t equal more or better schools or learning.  This is a technological determinism shared by many progressives and conservatives.  For instance, a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation recently argued that the presence of air conditioning, cable t.v., and Xboxes in low-income households proves that poor people aren’t really “poor” at all.  (Following this logic – – thanks to electric lighting, today’s poor are a lot richer than Andrew Carnegie!)  Focusing on things, the Heritage Foundation cheekily misses more important measures of poverty like  powerlessness, inequality, and marginalization.  The educational version of this reasoning is apparent: more things – – cell phones, computers, iPads, etc. – – will revolutionize education despite deteriorating environments, greater inequalities,  and massive disinvestment in public schools and universities.

Still, a little debunking probably won’t put a stake through the tech-as-revolution rhetoric because its power hardly rests on ordeals of truth or falsehood.  Like much of the talk surrounding technology, this “revolutionary” rhetoric is mythical.  More particularly, it belongs to a long tradition of the technological sublime.

The sublime is that which astonishes us, which elicits wonder and amazement and seems to baffle rationality.  The sublime instills awe and intimates power.  Romanticism celebrated the sublime experience of nature, but Americans have an equally deep history of investing technology with the sublime.   Perhaps the most famous scene of the American technological sublime is Henry Adams’ encounter with the dynamo at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Gazing up at the huge machine, Adams recognizes the dynamo as a “symbol of infinity” and feels the humming machine as “a moral force.”  “Before the end,” Adams records, “one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”  The scion of America’s republican past bowing down before the machine: this image sums up the inauguration of a new political, economic, and cultural order.

Railroads, bridges, factories, electricity – –  in the late 19th century each of these new   wonders testified to American exceptionalism – – the nation’s occult but powerful connection to forces of change and progress.  Yet, technology’s charisma depended, as David Nye chronicles, on the power of myth to obscure, evade, and confuse.  Con Edison’s contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair, the famous City of Light, re-presented New York City “as an already-realized utopia – – a splendid human achievement rather than a city plagued by poverty, unemployment, racial tensions, crime, and class conflict”  As Nye exhaustively documents, the technological sublime – – the way technology was represented and experienced through images and narratives – –  “defamiliarized a known landscape and invested it with new meanings. . . In each case, the human cost of achieving that power was literally invisible to the inhabitants of the new technological structure.”   Myth’s alluring visions rest on its amazing capacities for blindness.

Myth is history’s great opponent, and the compulsive pleasures of the technological sublime follow from its sublimation of history.  As Vincent Mosco argues in his update of Nye’s work: “we want to believe that our era is unique in transforming the world as we have known it.  The end is preferred to more of the same; the transcendent to the routine; the sublime to the banal. ”  The technological sublime exempts us from history and catapults us into a magical kingdom unburdened by the plagues of social fact, a kingdom of new, fungible relations, identities, and possibilities.  In this way, “revolution” becomes the opiate of the smart mob, consigning uncomfortable, obdurate realities – – of class, power, inequality – – to the ash heap of memory.

Yet, this takes us back to the “we” who enjoy these “revolutionary times.”  One of the more unremarked motifs in Nye’s account of the technological sublime is the way in which the temporal discontinuities (that was then; this is now) of the sublime also work to shore up collective identities.  “A powerful technological synthesis,” Nye writes, “creates a temporary community, investing the spectators with a sense of personal and national transcendence.” The technological sublime isn’t so concerned to elaborate this community; instead, it relentlessly asserts a difference that defines this community.  Like your grandmother, “they” live in the past; “we” live in the future.   The “we” that proliferates in the language of the technological sublime insistently marks and re-marks the the elite from the preterite.  In this way, the “revolutionary” rhetoric of technology nourishes and refreshes the class consciousness of an ever-fretful professional-managerial class.  The terrible beauty of the future depends on re-inscribing the same old differences of the past.

Capitalism survives by the vaccine of revolution.  Change, novelty, innovation, even disruption: these avatars of difference create the restlessness and desire that churn  markets and, in turn, drive the creation of value.  Pound’s “make it new” just as well underscores the avant-garde’s importance to consumer capitalism as to literary modernism.  Technology has always played an important role in this revolutionary fix: the “new” that refreshes is routinely identified with gadgets, buttons, knobs, diodes, tubes – – the magical accoutrements of the machine.  More recently, technology’s revolutionary promise has migrated from the commodity and the factory to the heart of the business enterprise itself.   Companies that embrace the disruptions of information technology will enjoy “business at the speed of thought,” those that don’t will have to enjoy eating dust.

Yet, capitalism’s revolutions are revolutions in service to the same.  Technology doesn’t  announce, embody, or establish the new; within capitalism, the sanctioned use of technology and its “revolutions” is to preserve, extend, and deepen existing realities.  Unless and until technology serves the movement to dismantle power and remake society, we’ll always be trapped in our grandmother’s classroom.

Theme Song for Our Time: SLF, OWS, CUNY AC

Serendipity.  Not too long ago, I’m reading through an email about OccupySFSU, a local OWS-inspired student action, and listening to my Old Skool playlist on iTunes when a tweet burps onto my desktop: CUNY Academic Commons is preparing to release their “Commons in a Box,” a quick, easy installation of their free, open-source collaboration platform.   As I click on my “save to delicious” bookmark, the chorus of Stiff Little Fingers’ punk anthem thrashes through my computer speakers.  Like the chance encounter on a dissecting-table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, Jake Burns’ raw, desperate voice brings into constellation, briefly, the logics that might connect these three envoys of culture, politics, and technology.

Alternative/”Is this the only life we’re gonna have?”

It all begins with negation.  1977.  The Troubles twist their stranglehold tighter around life in Northern Ireland.  The Provisional IRA launches its “Long War” against the British.  Protestant paramilitaries – – the UVA and UDF – – restart their random assassination campaigns.  The collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement revives political stalemate.  British pacification efforts – –  – – a post-colonial version of urban renewal – – transform Belfast and Londonderry into concrete-walled, graffiti-scarred mazes of “no-go” zones.  The Belfast working-classes are drowning in the wake of Britain’s economic collapse.  In the streets of Ulster, the 20th century isn’t just falling apart, it’s already a shipwreck.  The angel of history left the building long ago.

“Nothing for us in Belfast,” the song begins, invoking punk’s master-emotion of boredom but gesturing toward Belfast’s peculiar incitements to nihilism: “Take a look at where you’re livin’/You the got the Army on the street/And the RUC dog of repression/Is barking at your feet.”  Yet as the chorus makes clear, the song is less about anarchy or destruction than about resisting nihilism:  “An Alternative Ulster/Grab it, change it, it’s yours/Get an Alternative Ulster/Ignore the bores, their laws.”  “Be an anti-security force,” Burns yelps in the chorus, “Alter your native Ulster/ Alter your native land.” The intensity of the music – – it’s speed, it’s lack of polish, the strangled urgency in Burns’ voice – – testifies to hidden resources, creates a moment of possibility, bursts through the world-as-it-is and subsumes the listener, even if briefly, into some “Alternative Ulster”.

Another world is possible: this is the desperate hope that fuels the song’s anger.  It’s also the hope that fuels the Occupy movement.  As in “Alternative Ulster,” to grasp that possibility is not to spark a revolution, but to create a situation – – to imagine, assemble, and hack together “a new world within the shell of the old.”  Occupy will not become the “liberal” Tea Party.  It won’t molt into candidates, campaigns, and “capitol” gangs.   Its participants are neither naïve, nor dumb, nor recalcitrant.  For Occupy, the means are the ends and the process is the product.  Enacting an alternative world now supersedes planning or preparing for its incarnation later.  Like the Zapatistas who proclaim, “preguntando caminamos,” Occupy embraces history as performance rather than plotted narrative.  This negation of fatal time unfolds a radically alternative space.

Some might equate this kind of refusal with chaos or irresponsibility.  CUNY Academic Commons (CAC) instructs us otherwise.  CAC began with a similar refusal. Recognizing a need for community within and across CUNY’s 17 campuses, CAC chose the model of a “social network” over a “static archive.”  This decision, however, was really a decision about ends and means.  “An early suggestion was that the taxonomic structure of site resources had to be determined before the site itself could be built,” write George Otte and Matt Gold.  “This was tabled in favor of a design that would allow folksonomic structures of organization to emerge from the community itself, primarily through acts of tagging and categorizing.”  Like Occupy, CAC abandoned the a priori – – organization depends on self-activity and not on blueprints or org charts.  “Organizando caminamos”: we organize as we go along.   Taxonomies which direct and contain action give way to folksonomies – – mobile, dissipative structures of meaning created through participation.  CAC becomes a machine for generating alternative spaces.

DIY/”Grab it, change it, it’s yours.”

Stiff Little Fingers stole the chorus of their song from a Belfast punk fanzine.  Assembled by Gavin Martin and photocopied

Alternative Ulster 1977

by a friend with an office job, Alternative Ulster epitomized the DIY (“Do It Yourself”) ethic that powered punk’s subculture.  Handwritten, collaged, Xeroxed, slang-saturated, partisan: zines like Punk, Sniffin’ Glue, Negative Reaction, and countless others challenged the authenticity of the established music press and put the fan’s voice and experience at the center of pop music.  The cut-up, remix aesthetic of the zine asserted both the creativity of fans and a certain stance toward culture: mass culture wasn’t something to be consumed, it supplied the lexicon of signs and symbols to make a new kind of speech, a new mode of communication and confusion.

 

Sideburns 1977

Zines exemplify the ways that punk democratized culture and the means of mechanical reproduction.  But, musicianship itself was also redefined by punk.  The Adverts celebrated their status as “One Chord Wonders.”  Expertise and all its trappings became a vice.  Not playing “well” testified to authenticity, collapsed the distance between performer and audience, and kicked open the doors to participation.  New labels like Stiff and Rough Trade took the lessons of DIY into the music business itself.  Everywhere, punk violently and joyously transferred authority and expertise to the mosh pit, the fan, and the geezer.

Today we can recognize these assertions of access and participation as central elements of the open-source movement.  Take CAC. Starting with the ubiquitous WordPress platform, CAC added BuddyPress, another open-source project, and then mixed in MediaWiki, the platform that powers today’s most audacious example of “punk” knowledge – – Wikipedia.   Like the stitched together textuality of punk fanzines, open-source lives and dies by the hack, the ability to bricolage at-hand materials – – codes, modules, widgets, and plug-ins – – for local purposes.

The success of CAC’s particular hack depends on “its participation in the broader community of open-source developers.”  Rethinking application development as collaboration, CAC opens up new modes and intensities of participation.   Punk imploded the distance between stage and audience, performer and fan.   Open-source encourages similar erasures.  “It was important,” Gold and Otte write, “to help members help themselves.   Given a small support staff, the project had to disrupt the typical client-service model of academic technology.”  As participants problem-solve together, “top-down” authority is replaced by “peer-to-peer interactions.”  DIY cultures, built on access and participation, redistribute agency, creativity, and expertise.

At least one possible motto for CUNY AC might be: Occupy the help desk!  And, though Zuccotti Park may be many blocks south of CUNY AC’s servers, we can see the same DIY ethic at work there.  From its origins to its ideologies and its (dis)organization to its global proliferation, the Occupy movement replicates from DIY genetic code.

To focus on one tiny moment in this process, take the typical Occupation campsite. Volunteers assemble a kitchen, which requires some to cook, some to serve, some to wash-up, and others to solicit food and water.  A People’s Library is assembled – – books are collected and distributed and, often, wi-fi service is established.  Sometimes, electricity for the camp comes from generators; sometimes, it comes from bicycle-charged batteries.  Originally devised to evade bans on sound systems, the “mic check” transforms listeners into participants and speechmaking into collective activity.  OWS participants hack an encampment out of available resources, people, and possibilities.  As one possible OWS manifesto declares: “Implement FLO (free libre open-source) solutions for everything.”

“Where are your demands?”  “Where are your leaders?”  This is how the “establishment” makes itself most visible today – – trapped obsessively-compulsively in questions that enact its own limits.  OWS spreads unease amongst pundits and professionals because the specter of popular agency indicates their own redundancy; Occupy’s steady, effective, exuberant self-management underscores the establishment’s lazy reliance on an inadequate map of reality.  The media’s hysterical fascination with punk in the late 70s.  The monthly alerts – – issued by publishers, educators, et al. – – about the dangers and seductions of Wikipedia.  OWS’s ability to baffle the talking-heads and columnists.  Open-sourced movements reveal the contingency of “normal/ized” social roles – – performer/audience, administrator/user, expert/amateur, producer/consumer.   In those moments when DIY becomes a viable alternative, the true vampire catches an unnerving glimpse of itself in the mirror.

Communalization/”They say you’ll never be free”

Punk was always more than defiant refusals and anti-culture bombs.  Punk changed social relations.  Trapped by decomposing identities – – youth, Englishness, whiteness, class, religion – – and interred in the ruins of the modernity – – the suburb, forsaken cities, sterile malls – – punks forged new ways of belonging.

When The Clash cancelled a 1977 Belfast appearance, punks from all over Ireland rioted.  But, Gavin Martin describes how this riot exposed a new, secret geography of solidarity: “the cancellation was pivotal. This was no ordinary Ulster riot based on political allegiance or religious affiliation. This was a riot that united people looking for a good time against the forces of repression.”   Newly experienced forms of collectivity revealed the beach beneath the streets: “This was how punk began to open Belfast – the city where I had been born – back up to me. Closed off by security gates, scarred, shocked, pockmarked by shooting, bomb blasts and the pervasive thrall of terror Belfast was shaken alive, crowbarred open – by punk.”  The graveyard of the 20th century becomes a space occupied, controlled, and recreated by those who had been condemned to death row.

It would be too irresponsible and inadequate to talk of a punk “community.”  Instead, we should talk about punk as a moment of “communalization,” the hacking open of a redemptive, shared, autonomous space through what Raul Zibechi sees as a double movement: a “dispersion of power plus social cooperation.  A positive productive force and a negative dispersive force” (141).  The most radical alternative offered by punk or OWS or CUNY AC is a life without bosses or institutions.  The communalization dynamic generates collectivities powered by cooperation without coercion, ownership without property, and freedom with solidarity.

Communalization helps to explain the astounding viral qualities of the Occupy movement.  Obviously, from Tahir Square to OccupySantaRosa, social media – – twitter, facebook, global square – – played a central role in disseminating the movement.  But, there’s nothing magical about social media; instead, twitter et al. provide a platform for communalization.  Blogs like wearethe99percent cultivate solidarities because they disperse control and de-centralize authority while inviting everyone to become authors and experts.  They don’t build or represent community; they host the communalization process.

As two of the instigators of CAC comment: CAC works by eschewing “a work culture defined by rank and position” so that “authority, once characterized by increasingly limited access, is now forged by responsiveness in open forums; leadership is gauged by helpfulness, not determined by a chain of command; expertise is demonstrated by active public engagement.”  The dialectic of dispersion and cooperation encourages academic workers to “to regroup and reconfigure themselves, to use the serendipity of searches to realign themselves.”  Communalization proposes a radical redefinition of freedom: freedom from authority depends on freedom of association and, vice versa, freedom of association depends on freedom from authority.

Grave-diggers

Already, there are too many inducements to escape from the 21st century: violence, inequality, hypocrisy, corruption, eco-cide.  But as an old German once quipped:  “The development of modern industry . . . cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products.  What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”  Seeking new consumers, capitalism continually reduces the cost of technology – – electric guitars, smartphones, servers.  Sadly for capitalism, once these commodities are released into the “sea of the people,” all bets are off.  Angry working-class Irish kids start making noise and creating new scenes.  De-classed petit-bourgeois types start tweeting tent cities into being. Those who grease the gears of social reproduction – – teachers – – start hacking an idealized academic community into reality.  Beneath the streets, squares, and institutions of late capitalism, the old mole of freedom burrows its alternative routes and warrens, waiting for the grave-digger’s spade to sink into gravelly ground.