The Blue Flower in the Land of .edu: Automation, Education, Augmentation

A few weeks ago I received a cold call from a pleasant sounding lady, who worked for the mobile phone company O2, promising to save me money. Trying to head off a lengthy conversation as quickly and politely as possible, I refused to give her any requested information until she had answered a couple of my questions about what they were trying to sell me. The conversation took a strange turn. The lady kept answering my questions with questions of her own or replied with generic information that didn’t seem to comprehend what I was asking. Exasperated, I finally asked, “Are you a real person or a robot?” This was my first experience of what Alexis Madrigal has called “cyborg telemarketing”, where different pre-recorded messages are operated by a live agent using a hotkey interface, sometimes working two or three calls at a time.

1. Blacker: Automation and Elimination

I’m interested in this phenomenon because a few years back, in a review of David Blacker’s excellent The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, I suggested that:

…with the growth of service work and new forms of control an increasingly moribund and desperate system is forced to repurpose ‘living labour’ as it becomes increasingly reliant on human qualities such as social intelligence, imagination and resourceful initiative. Contra shifts towards automating call centres or relocating them abroad, for example, it is feasible that we will witness a new trend to rehumanize (and re-localize) the worker on the end of the line, encouraging them to be more charismatic, spontaneous and off-script in order to better sell their services …it is also possible that the social, creative and critical thinking skills of traditionally ‘non-vocational’ types of education – most obviously, the humanities – will be re-evaluated for this purpose, and not just in the worst-paid jobs…

This was part of a response to the book’s central hypothesis that technological automation would lead to a process of educational eliminationism. Blacker’s argument, that ‘the higher the tech, the dumber the worker can be and, ultimately, in the best case neoliberal scenario, phased out altogether where possible,’ was distinct from the Marxist concept of a reserve army of labour in that it predicted that automation meant this reserve army was no longer required or desired. As a consequence, he argued, national systems of modern education that supplied this workforce could also be eliminated.

Against my argument, a quick bit of research about my call from O2 revealed that its parent company Telefonica have recently invested in an artificial intelligence-voice recognition system called Aura, which it developed in conjunction with Microsoft and Facebook, to handle customer service calls (currently this seem to be used only to field basic inquiries from existing customers rather than to conduct the kind of telemarketing I experienced). One obvious advantage of artificial intelligence would be to allow companies to eliminate human operators almost entirely. Sarah Guo, who speaks of an emergent “conversational economy,” describes the basic plan of such an economy as “delivering an abstract service to the end customer using human agents …collecting data on the interactions to do smart routing / agent matching / super-agent enablement” and “possibly progress to some level of AI replacing the agent workforce.” Although Guo suggests that this process might be “bidirectional,” her own example only emphasizes that “ while some services will progress rightward in their automation and lower their cost to serve, others will remain only marginally impacted,” and doesn’t suggest AI being replaced by human agents.

Similarly, Chris Messina, an open source advocate previously employed by Google and Uber, describes companies increasing attempting to utilize “chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice),” such as Facebook Messenger, WhatasApp and, indeed phone calls, “to interact with people, brands, or services and bots” as part of a new form of “conversational commerce”. His point is that such informal conversations will become the standard and generic medium of commercial interaction (as opposed to switching to formal and specific sites for commercial exchange). Telefonica’s interest in investing in systems like Aura is therefore also linked to this bigger economic incentive: the opportunity for phone companies such as Telefonica to find new ways to generate income through the collecting, control and selling of user data, in a similar way to online media, and in conjunction with the rise of voice-controlled, as opposed to text-controlled, devices.

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While Messina claims to deliberately use the terms “human, bot, or some combination thereof …interchangeably” because “over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm,” his assumption is that this interchangeability depends on slowly training users “to think and type more like programmers …the more that users get frustrated expressing themselves in complete sentences, and the more technically sophisticated they become, the more likely they are to warm to the efficiencies of the command line.” In other words, while bots learns to become more human by interacting with us, the limitations of these interactions (especially when spoken) will train us to communicate more like the programs of bots (as anyone with prolonged experience of Siri, Cortana or Alexa will testify).

Could these initiatives support Blacker’s more general thesis of technological eliminationism? Might the advent of technological automation and the attendant reduction of skills agree with Blacker’s more specific prediction of an educational eliminationism: the abandonment of the mass systems of public education that accompanied the advent of high capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries?

2. Adkins and Deleuze: Post-Fordist Money, Wages and Education

In my review I questioned Blacker’s hypothesis on the grounds that the book seemed ambiguous whether it was education tout court or a certain – public and humanistconception of education that was in the process of being eliminated: does eliminationism imply no edu or new edu? I suggested that his own claim that ‘the financialized drive to commodify education ultimately resolves itself into a commodification of oneself ‘ ultimately necessitated the continuation of a minimal economic function for such indebted students, because the education in which students have invested resources is (unlike other property) alienable, produced ‘existentially indebted’ students (unemployed students who cannot repay debts potentially threaten capitalism with the equivalent of a subprime education crisis).

I’d like to expand on these issues by connecting them more generally to what Lisa Adkins and others have argued concerning “the socioeconomic formations and processes associated with post-Fordist capitalist accumulation” and the financialized transformation of money, specifically in relation to the dynamics of financial derivatives. (A derivative is a financial agreement whose value derives from the expected future price movements of the asset linked to). Adkins suggests that in contemporary “financial markets …money does not simply act as the medium and measure of exchange for assets but is exchangeable in and of itself,” arguing that a key “feature of financialization …is that money is now a pervasive commodity or a product,” and not just any commodity but one who value resides precisely in its capacity for the transference of risk. As a consequence of this transformation, money has lost its function as a measure of value and so its own value has become uncertain and predictable. This financialization also involves the transformation of money paid as wages, since money becomes “an unstable and unpredictable measure of any value that may, or may not, be constituted via labour.” Consequently, just as “derivatives are separated out from any underlying asset or set of assets,” Adkins argues, “post-Fordist wages must be understood as separated out from labor power.”

This separation accounts for a key characteristic of post-Fordist wages, according to Adkins: a rising debt-to-income ratio that take on the highly specific form of financialized debt, entangling workers in “processes of financialization including the exposure to risk that such an entanglement entails” and the “extraction” of profits from the wages of workers by financial institutions in the form of interest accruing on securitized credit debt. Employment contracts that “compensate workers with securitized assets (such as shares)” frame wages “less as a form of remuneration or compensation for the exchange of labor power than as the right to access trade in the unrealized potential of money, that is, as the right to access what money might put in motion,” an frame “the ideal worker” as one “who actively compensates for repressed wages by putting money in motion, that is, by becoming an asset-owning and interest-earning investor subject.” When “indebted workers put their wages to work in securitized loans, mortgages, bills, and credit, they are necessarily putting money to work as a value …trading wages not as a medium of exchange or as a measure of value but as a value in and of itself whose productive force may be—although is not necessarily—put to work to set things in motion”. Other more familiar characteristics of post-Fordist wages, such wage stagnation and repression, a pervasive gap between earning and the cost of social reproduction, and the “precarious nature of the reproduction of life,” illustrated by forms of waged employment such as zero-hero contacts, are connected to this.

In a more speculative and ambiguous way, Gilles Deleuze draws a distinction between the function of money in the disciplinary societies of modernity, which “locks gold in as numerical standard,” and the move away from this (enacted with the “Nixon shock” of 1971) in societies of control, in which money acts as “floating rates of exchange, modulated according to a rate establish by a set of standard currencies” and extends this difference to the transformation of salaried wages: the factory wage revolved around the relationship of the individual and the mass (the demand for the highest possible production for the lowest possible wages organized “individuals as a single body”), whereas the corporate system has “new ways of handling money, profits, and humans, organizing the wage around the relationship between the “dividual” and “data, markets, or ‘banks'” (by imposing a “modulation of each salary, in states of perpetual metastability …the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within”). As Deleuze suggests, this universal modulation between the dividual and big data is effected by the computer, characterizing the place of humans within social institutions as “no longer ….enclosed, but …in debt”.

Importantly, this modulating principle of the corporate wage has “not failed to tempt national education itself,” Deleuze announces: “For the school system: continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the “corporation” at all levels of schooling …Many young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve…” Deleuze is describing the emergence of the idea of the “learning society” in the 1970s, which promoted the need for lifelong learning in response to economic shifts brought about by communications technology and automation. Beyond the traditional educational process of individuation, the cultivation of individual subjects through education, the learning society also aims at a process of dividuationWilliam Bogard has described the process of dividuation in more general terms as “the internal division of entities into measurable and adjustable parameters” through “modulations of coded information”. Thisparametric modulation …breaks down life into measures of information, and populations into databases,” serving the “demands of postmodern global Capital for flexible modes of production and consumption”. Arjun Appadurai has, in a different context, described how the role of derivatives in processes of “financialization produces ‘dividual’ forms that ‘slice and dice’ people into quantified risk categories that are held together by their relationship to risk and uncertainty”.

Phil Wood has charted the ways in which data is used to manage schools, pupils and teachers, although it is also important, I think, to recognize how much of this management currently continues to conform to modes of discipline, focused on the enclosure of schools as comparable units and the (competitive) relationship between the individual student and the mass of students. The shift towards more extreme forms of control and dividuation would, presumably, move beyond the narrow focus on the individual school pupil in relation to the mass and towards what Foucault, in his 1979 lectures on neoliberalism, calls “not so much the individual, or processes and mechanisms, but enterprises …enterprise-units,” with an emphasis “on the fact that what could be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital” (including “time parents devote to their children outside of simple educational activities strictly speaking …giving them affection as investment which can form human capital” and extending to the emotional resilience for flexible working conditions and cognitive adaptability for constant retraining).

What is significant here is that it would not be as monolithic institutions and individuals education will be evaluated but as enterprise-units broken down in accordance with qualification, background, course, etc. As a consequence of the Post-Fordist transformation of money discussed by Adkins above, post-Fordist education could increasingly come to involve the transference of risk form the state to a greater and greater number of private enterprise units, not as individuals but collections of categories of risk linked to background, qualification and subject. Of course, the risk remains for the state that the investment is not repaid (and this risk itself relates, if Adkins is correct, to the instability of the value of money paid as wages as separated from labour power), but, in time, this risk will be less than immediate state funding with no direct financial return.

Although nowhere near as complex as the derivatives trading involved in the subprime mortgage crash, speculators in the US already bundle student loans into trading investments known as student loan asset-backed securities (SLABS) and McGettigan has pointed to the potentials for derivative trading in relation to English and Welsh student loans. McGettigan has anticipated the outcome of such a logic of financialisation, within the specific context of higher education, in terms of creditworthiness: “Benefit now walks forward redefined in monetary terms as creditworthiness – of institutions and individuals. ‘If this student with these qualifications from this background does this course, how much should we lend them towards fees’ …New data [such as employment, earnings and loan repayment data] on the performance of institutions would then help those making investment decisions in a market currently saturated with proxy information and hundreds of rival institutions.”

The two central claims I am circling around here are:

(i) that the financialization of education described by Blacker is symptomatic of a much broader economic shift, tied to what Adkins describes as in terms of the post-Fordist transformation of money, wages and work (one that is distinct from – Fordist – conceptions of the “commodification” of education still understood in relation to the individual under conditions of mass production and consumption). If this is correct, this transformation is still to come for many forms of work and education and, contra Blacker, will constitute new forms of exploitation connected to debt and credit, rather than the eliminationist prediction of an absence of exploitation (because no longer reliant on a human labour force).

(ii) one of the consequences of the financialized transformation of education, as I suggested in the review mentioned above, will nonetheless be the necessity of residual educational ideals of individuation traditionally associated with unifying notions of Bildung and connected to the liberal arts or humanities, precisely as a therapeutic, albeit now in a cynical ideological form, response to increasingly frustrating experiences of control and dividuation, i.e. division, displacement and deferment. Peter Mandler has pointed out that far from there being a crisis in the humanities, as commonly claimed, ‘the proportion of students studying humanities at university has hardly changed… [a]nd, very importantly, the rapid expansion of higher education in the world over the past couple of generations means that, in absolute numbers, more people are studying the humanities than ever before.’ As I argued in a recent post, the ongoing fascination with “learning communities” from the 1980s onward can be seen as a similar response to anxieties over automation and social fragmentation that produced the demand for the “learning society” and is partly tied to a similar idealistic attempt to promote an individualistic conception of learning (i.e. a community of individuals) undermined by such trends.

In that discussion, I suggested there that the rise of new forms of digital social media might be more usefully seen not only as one among other causes of contemporary fragmentation within contemporary education but also an effect of those same educational divisions: that some developments in social media might be regarded as originating within a certain historical form of educational culture emerging in the last three decades. This not only points to both the continued importance of (a certain kind of) higher education – to at least “drop-out” off once ideas, contacts and possibly investment has been procured – to (certain kinds of) entrepreneurs working within post-Fordist economies, but also to the relevance of a transformation of technology in relation to the link between humans, technology and education.

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3. Simmel and Benjamin: The Slave Revolt of Technology

In her discussion of financialization, Adkins argues that the transformed function of money has an “extraordinary resonance” with the sociologist Georg Simmel’s idea that “the importance of money lies not in the fact that it represents, measures, or has (or should have) equivalence with one source of value but that it is ‘clothed in [a] plurality of values'”. For Adkins, “Simmel’s social theory has increasing relevance for the contemporary world, especially for the socioeconomic formations and processes associated with post-Fordist capitalist accumulation”.

Adkins’ argument for the renewed relevance of Simmel’s philosophy within the context of post-Fordist capitalist accumulation might also be useful for an area of contemporary culture that she doesn’t directly discuss: post-Fordist technology. If, as Adkins suggests, the “intellectualization of money” upon the stock exchange represents the post-Fordist transformation of money, then Simmel’s understanding of money as “the purest form of the tool” may also be useful in articulating a contemporary account of the transformation of technology via the financialization of money, which takes on a particularly acute form in digital social media. As others have pointed out (cf. Zeena Feldman’s ‘Simmel in Cyberspace’), Simmel provides a kind of phenomenology of the contemporary experience of new media, highlighting the close relationship between “the money economy, individualization and the enlargement of the circle of social relationships” (348). Charalambos Tsekeris suggests that although Simmel, “never directly used the phrase ‘social networks’ …[he] systematically focused on how social communicative interactions are influenced by the multiple ways in which people get connected to one another, and argued that the societal forms “are conceived as constituting society (and societies) out of the mere sum of living men. The study of this second area may be called ‘pure sociology’, which abstracts the mere element of sociation.” More significantly, as Adkins discussion of labour suggests, Simmel’s philosophy perhaps also allows us to conceptualize a transformation in the nature of production within the contemporary monetary economy: the extension of the productive power of labour into the sphere of consumption (the rise of productive forms of consumption, characterized in terms of the idea of “prosumption” but also theories of human capital more generally, that connect human investment of time and financial resources to increases in future productivity) to increasing members of society, most obviously in the use of social media itself. The economy of social media not only emerges out of the speculative forms of finance capital investment Adkins discusses but for the time being are sustained by the kind of productive consumption (data generation, captured and sold by corporations) also deeply implicated in speculative forms of the transference of values and risk made possible by digital technology.

According to Simmel, the purposive behaviour of humans, teleologically drawn to attain satisfaction from the achievement of consciously represented ends, is always mediated by means in a way that involves “the conscious interweaving of our subjective energies and the objective world” (206). This mediation of means over ends becomes mistaken as a value in itself with the predominance of money as a “purely abstract means” and so “the purest form of the tool,” one that “embodies and sublimates the practical relation of man to the objects of his will, his power and his impotence” (210-211). In the money economy, Simmel suggests, tools, as the mediation of subject and objective means and ends, become an “absolute means” within “the chain of purposive action” (209). “The greater the role of money becomes in concentrating values [representing and consolidating more, more diverse, and more mutable objects and values] …the less it will need to be tied to a material substance” (197), leading to the “spiritualization [or intellectualization, Vergeistigung] of money” (198). It is the stock exchange that “raises the essence of money to its purest form,” in doing so creating the “general and objective concept of being ‘creditworthy'” (294): ever “since a considerable amount of working capital, mostly in terms of mortgages, had to be sunk into the soil in order to wrest from it the required yield,” the monetary economy has tended towards “a series of previously unknown obligations” to “third persons” (295).

This tendency for money to perform a teleological displacement, sliding “in front of the inner and final ends” and displacing them, is “only the highest point on the scale” of many other kinds of technical mediating elements (490). The “origins and progress of machine technology are,” for Simmel, “connected with the monetary system” and the development of the “monetary economy” (197).  According to Simmel, the “preponderance of technology […] weaves the energies and materials of nature into our life” in such a way that “spirituality and contemplation, stunned by the clamorous splendour of the scientific-technological age, have to suffer for it by a faint sense of tension and vague longing,” becoming “fetters that tie us down and make many things indispensable which could and even ought to be dispensed with as far as the essence of life is concerned” (489-490). This situation culminates in a situation in which “the control of nature by technology is possible only at the price of being enslaved in it”:

It is quite erroneous to believe that the significance and intellectual potential of modern life has been transferred from the form of the individual to that of the masses. Rather, it has been transferred to the form of the objects: it lives in the immense abundance, the marvellous expediency and the complicated precision of machines, products and the supra-individual organizations of contemporary culture. Correspondingly, the ‘revolt of the slaves’ that threatens to dethrone the autocracy and the normative independence of strong individuals is not the revolt of the masses, but the revolt of objects. Just as, on the one hand, we have become slaves of the production process, so, on the other, we have become the slaves of the products. That is, what nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs. Thus, the domination of the means has taken possession not only of specific ends but of the very centre of ends, of the point at which all purposes converge and from which they originate as final purposes. (489)

The critical theorist Walter Benjamin was not only “particularly struck by the critique of Marx’s theory of value” in Simmel’s Philosophy of Money but also by Simmel’s associated account of technology: writing on fascism in 1930, Benjamin declared that the economic inability to incorporate the technological into the spiritual and social spheres implies that “any future war will also be a slave revolt of technology”. This “bungled reception of technology” resulted, Benjamin suggests, from a restricted concept of material and productive labour that itself derived from a impoverished misunderstanding of nature. In numerous places, as I have discussed in more detail elsewhere, Benjamin compares this bungled reception of technology with the bungled education of children:

The mastery of nature (so the imperialists teach) is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery (if we are to use this term) of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man.

The attempt to seize control of technology aims not only at the liberation of humanity under industrial capitalism but, simultaneously, the liberation of technology and so both the “second nature” that characterizes the habits of technological modernity and “first nature” of the organic body. Benjamin’s description of this liberation is significant here: it involves the transformation of technology away from “the maximum possible use of human beings” to the reduction of “their use to the minimum”.

If there is a utopianism in Benjamin’s work, then, it involves the technological liberation and transformation of humanity to be freed from an enslavement to technology. The primal image of such a utopia is presented to us in cinema:

In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of equipment is the result of a special procedure – namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted photographic device and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The equipment-free aspect of reality has here become the height of artifice, and the vision of immediate reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology.

The blue flower, in Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen the symbol of the reconciliation of humanity and natureis here presented as a vision of reality free from technological equipment; this vision is only made possible by the intrusion of equipment (“the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew, and so forth”) to such an extent it prevents any spectator a “viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment” but enables, through techniques of editing made possibly by such technology, the vision of a reality in which such technology has disappeared. The educational equivalent, as I have begun to discuss elsewhere, would be the use of technological software to manage and administer all the necessary bureaucratic and pedagogic functions of teaching and learning in order to better open up the space for face-to-face learning as such.

To move beyond a simplistic understanding of new technology as either positive or negative, what is significant about digital technology and social media is the extent to which certain aspects move not towards automation but rather augmentation: the maximal possible use of human beings. Reports since 2014 have suggested that the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs may decline, partly because of rising overseas labour costs and partly because of falling domestic labour costs facilitated by the growing “taskification” or “Uber-ization” of work, facilitated by web-based platforms. As Tom Davenport has observed, labour processes transformed by “robotic process automation” have tended to involve:

…reductions in headcount—but headcount owned by offshore outsourcing firms. It’s a logical trend; the processes that were structured and codifiable enough to move to services outsourcers are the same ones that will be automated. Many outsourcers have realized this and now offer either their own proprietary RPA solutions or “white-labeled” versions from other vendors …in countries like the United States, it’s likely that increased use of cognitive automation technologies will bring back at least some jobs from offshoring locations. Almost all automation systems require some degree of human configuration, oversight, and maintenance …the fact that there will still be humans involved in almost every process suggests that “augmentation” may be a better term than automation.

The “cyborg telemarketing” I experienced is an example of such augmentation: the use of pre-recorded messages is regarded as more effective in terms of manipulating the prejudices of the customer in terms of language, accent and tone, more efficient in terms of avoiding human error in the message conveyed, and more productive in terms of enabling human agents to handle several conversations simultaneously. Technological augmentation may therefore contribute to decreased wages and increased productivity in such a way that in some sectors there could be a reversal of outsourcing and offshoring, especially if combined with some kind of resurgence of political and economic nationalism (although it is likely that such technology will simply be used, in turn, to further drive down costs overseas). While automation directly threatens jobs, the focus on augmentation points to the continued involvement of human operators in ways that complicate any suggestion of economic eliminationism and the reduction of skills required suggests the advantages (in terms of responding to rapid staff turnover and keeping wages low) of maintaining – rather than eliminating – the reserve army of labour.

As my own experience of cyborg or augmented telemarketing demonstrated, however, the technology used is currently nowhere near as effective as the communicative, cognitive and emotional skills of a human being. Rather than seeing automation as the elimination of human jobs, then, perhaps technological augmentation suggests a more sinister way in which new kinds of automation within the growth sectors of industry will maintain a symbiotic link with living labour. Under such conditions, it is conceivable that some of the seemingly “soft” functions of education, beyond the transmission of knowledge and training in skills, such as socialization and humanization, become increasingly necessary not merely for training  human beings for a world increasingly mediated by and enmeshed with machines but also for the resilience to endure in such a world: not in order to resist such augmentation but to better serve it for the interests of capital. If technology has the capacity to educate or train us against this, it must do so by providing a perception of our technological liberation from technology.

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