Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University III: The Freelance Microentrepreneur To Come That I Am
(Post-Welfare Capitalism and the Uberfication of the University is a series of 3 posts. Together they constitute the draft of an essay, which is itself the first part of a larger project on capitalism and inhumanism)
All my previous post's concerns about the sharing economy are of course only too easy to push to the back of our minds when we’re trying to find an inexpensive place to stay for a weekend break, or booking a taxi to take us back home from a friend’s place late at night. Many women consider Uber to be safer than a minicab, with its unknown driver (although there have been complaints that Uber could do more to ensure the safety of female passengers), while having the additional advantages of costing less than a licensed black cab, and being easier and more convenient than both. With Uber you can track your vehicle as it approaches, for instance. Others appreciate the freedom from having to deal with cash that Uber’s frictionless digital payment system provides. In fact, it’s perhaps only when we begin to think about these information and data management intermediaries from the point of view of a worker rather than a user, and consider their potential to disrupt our own sphere of employment (whatever that may be), with the associated consequences for our job security, sick pay, retirement benefits and pensions, that the full implications of the shift to a post-welfare form of capitalism they are helping to enact are really brought home. I don’t want to get into the kind of hype cycle that is still being worked through around open education and MOOCs. But since many readers of this piece are likely to be academics, researchers and students (and if not, then to have been a university student at some point in the past) let’s take Higher Education as an example.
LinkedIn, the social networking platform for professionals, recently spent £1.5 billion purchasing Lynda.com, a supplier of online consumer-focused courses. Although it doesn't address the sharing economy specifically, a report of this acquisition by Goldie Blumenstyk published earlier this month in the Chronicle of Higher Education is very effective in drawing attention to some of the implications of this deal for Higher Education. Of course, with its University Pages and University Rankings Based on Career Outcomes, LinkedIn already has enough data to be able to provide the kind of detailed analysis of which institutions and courses are launching graduates into which jobs and long-term career trajectories that no traditional university can match. And that’s before its purchase of Lynda.com. But what Blumenstyk’s piece in The Chronicle makes clear is that, with its immanent transition into being both a social network and an actual provider of education, it doesn’t require a huge a stretch of the imagination to appreciate how such data could now be used to develop a very successful data and information intermediary business model for Higher Education - if not next year then certainly in the near future, and if not by LinkedIn then by some other platform capitalist company. Such a model would be based on providing ‘transparent’ information on a fine-grained basis to employers, students, funding agencies, governments and policy-makers. This information would indicate which of the courses, classes and possibly even teachers on any such educational ‘sharing economy’ platform are better at enabling students to obtain a particular academic degree classification or other educational credential or qualification, make the successful transition to a desirable job or career, reach the top of a given profession in a particular town, city or country, and so achieve a high level of job satisfaction, security, salary, income and earning capacity over a specific period or even a lifetime.
But it doesn’t end there. The Chronicle article also details how LinkedIn bought a company called Bright in 2014. Bright has developed algorithms enabling it to match posts with applicants according to their particular achievements, competencies and skill sets. And, of course, it would not be difficult for a for-profit business with the kind of data LinkedIn now has the potential to gather to do much the same for employers and students - right down to the level of their salary expectations, extracurricular activities, ‘likes’, or even their reputational standing and degree of trustworthiness. This business could charge a fee for doing so, just as many online dating agencies are able to make a profit from introducing people with compatible interests and personalities as deduced by algorithms. They could then charge a further fee for making this information and data available on a live basis in real time – something that would no doubt be highly desirable in today’s ‘flexible’ economy, where many employers want to be able to draw from a pool of part-time, hourly paid and zero hours workers who are available to them ‘on tap’, often at extremely short notice. Moreover, feeding all the data gathered back into the system would mean the courses, curricula and class content of any such educational data and information intermediary could be continually refined and so made highly responsive to student and employer needs at a local, national and international level.
More ominous still, given that it would be able to control the platform, software, data and the associated ecosystem, such a platform capitalist HE business would also have the power to decide who could be most easily seen and found in any such alternative market for education (much as Google’s does with its page ranking, the European commission having decided this month that Google actually has a case to answer regarding possible abuse of its dominance of search through ‘systematically’ awarding greater prominence to its own ads). Understandably, perhaps, following as it does on the heels of the 2012/2013 clamour about xMOOCs, Blumenstyk’s analysis of LinkedIn’s acquisition of Lynda.com shies away from arriving at any overly exaggerated or pessimistic conclusions as to what all this may mean for Higher Education and its system of certification and credentialing. Nevertheless, if a company like LinkedIn took the decision to provide this level of fine-grained data and information for its own unbundled, relatively inexpensive online courses, but not for those offered by its more expensive market competitors in the public sector, it would surely have the potential to be at least as disruptive as Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn and co. have proven to be to date, if not considerably more so. For the kind of information about degrees and student final destinations, as well as the ability to react to market changes, that any traditional university is capable of providing on its own would appear extremely limited, unsophisticated and slow to compile and deliver by comparison. And, lest the adoption by a for-profit sharing economy business of such a hostile and aggressive stance toward the public university seems unlikely, it’s worth remembering that Google maintains its dominance of search in much the same way. In the words of its chief research guru, Peter Norvig, the reason Google has a 90-95% share of the European market for search is not because it has better algorithms than Yahoo and Bing, ‘it just has more data’. Indeed, one of the great myths about neoliberalism is that it strives to create competition on an open market. As the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, co-founder of Pay-Pal and early Facebook investor, emphasizes in his book Zero to One, what neoliberal businesses actually want is to be a monopoly: to be so dominant in their area of operation that they in fact escape the competition and become a market of one.
Of course, as a consequence of neoliberalism’s programme of privatisation, deregulation, reduction to a minimum of the state and public sector, and insistence that the university operate increasingly like a business, many of those who work in HE already have fixed-term, part-time, hourly-paid, zero-hour, temporary and other forms of contingent positions. Yet if something along the lines of the above scenario does come to pass, it will surely have the effect of disrupting the public university by means of a profit-driven business operating according to a post-welfare state model, much as Airbnb is currently disrupting the state regulated hotel industry, and Uber state regulated taxi companies. Increasing numbers of university workers will thus find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that facing many cab drivers today. Instead of operating in a sector regulated by the state, they will have little choice but to sell their cheap and easy-to-access courses to whoever is prepared to pay for them in the ‘alternative’ sharing economy education market created by platform capitalism. They too will become atomised, precarious, freelance microentrepreneurs. And as such, they will experience all the problems of deprofessionalisation, intensification, precarity and surveillance such a post-welfare capitalist economy brings.
(To be continued… and in a more optimistic vein. For the university is also one of the places where the neoliberal forces I have described above are being opposed. The university is where we can create new ideas. It is also where we can help to build a sense of solidarity and common struggle.)