Progressive EdTech and 'Move Fast and Break Things’

Connecting critiques of the dominant corporate paradigms.

July 12, 2017

Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin

Published in April of 2017.

Where does the progressive wing of the edtech discipline fit in with the larger technology business and economic change stories?

This is a question that I kept asking myself while reading Jonathan Taplin’s smart and provocative new book, Move Fast and Break Things.

The progressive edtech movement has connections to the Indie Edtech crowd, and has roots in an earlier coalescing of anti-corporate edtech movement under the EduPunk banner.

Progressive edtech has many variations and strands of thought, but I’d argue that a unifying theme is a deep critique of for-profit educational technology industry. Within progressive edtech circles one finds champions of open educational resources (OER), open software, and the ownership and control of one’s own digital digital identity.

The progressive edtech is both part of, and runs in parallel to, a larger alt-ac (alternative academic) community. The values of progressive edtech practitioners tend to align with support for contingent faculty and other groups that are marginalized by the dominant status hierarchy and caste system of modern postsecondary education.

In Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin offers a critique of the dominant tech industry that I think may resonate with progressive edtech scholars and practitioners.

Taplin argues that dominant strain of thinking to be found in today’s dominant technology platform companies - such as Google, Amazon, Airbnb, and Uber - is one of extreme libertarianism.  Within this worldview, there is no room for regulations or rules to protect workers or creators, as any check on the power of the platform providers is viewed as suppressing political freedom and autonomy.

The company that comes in for the most criticism in Move Fast and Break Things is Google, mostly through it actions with YouTube. According to Taplin, it is the largely the illegal streaming of music on YouTube - and on other legal music streaming platforms such as Spotify - that has hastened a corporate control of the music business that is fundamentally unfriendly to artists.

Taplin, who has had an incredibly varied and interesting career in everything from music to film to technology to academia, started out as the tour manager for The Band. He makes the point that in the pre-digital era that musicians could expect to earn a reasonably good living on royalties from recorded music. This ended, however, when downloads and then streaming replaced physical music sales.

Today, almost no artist can survive on streaming royalties - and therefore must rely on live performances and merchandising to make a living.

For Taplin, the fate of musicians is replicated across every category of creators. The digital economy, powered by digital platforms such as Google and Facebook, is a winner-take-all system.  A few very famous authors, journalists, and musicians can make outstanding amounts of money - while the large majority of non super-star creators must get by on digital scraps.

The connections between Taplin’s anti-corporate technology establishment argument, and the critique of corporate influence in education amongst the progressive wing of the edtech discipline, is interesting - if not quite totally clear.

My sense is that the progressive edtech crowd is also pro-creator, and is worried about the concentration of wealth and influence that the dominant technology platform companies seem to be accelerating.

As for me, I found Move Fast and Break Things to be compelling - if not quite convincing.

I’m not sure that there really existed a golden age for creators before the internet, and before Google and Facebook and Amazon.

As a consumer of media, I have benefited from the new digital platforms that I rely on to find and consume content. For example, I purchased Move Fast and Break Things through Audible (owned by Amazon), and listened to the digital audio file on my iPhone.

Still, Move Fast and Break Things made me think more critically about the digital platforms - and the companies behind them - that so fully mediate my media diet.

With edtech, I might not always fully agree with the progressive critique, but I think that the most thoughtful and interesting scholarship is coming from this wing of our discipline.

With Move Fast and Break Things, I might not fully agree with Taplin’s conclusions, but I find his arguments to be well-crafted and thought provoking.

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