Reviewing a critique presented by Dr. Michael Olneck at the pre-conference event on Open Badges at the Learning Analytics 2015 Conference, I was reminded of a 2012 quote from Tim O’Reilly, something that haunts me because I know it to be true with technology after technology over the past 200 years. Before I share the quote, I’ll set it up with a short introduction.
There is democratizing technology and authoritarian technology. I’ve written about that in the past. However, there is more than one way to approach this. You can look at the technology itself, its inherent features and how they are likely to lead one toward more authoritarian or democratizing structures. That, for example, is present in debates about gun control. Some argue that guns, by their nature, are designed to shoot things, including people. As such, people might push for more regulation and control around them, resulting in a more authoritarian ecosystem within which guns reside. Others look at the social landscape and argue that there are plenty of examples where guns are present, but violence with guns is low or absent. They are not necessarily looking at the affordances and limitations of the technology directly, but they are instead examining how it developed in a give context. As a result of their approach, they may argue for maintaining a larger democratizing ecosystem for the technology of guns. In reality, both of these factors are constantly at work with the assimilation of a technology in a new context. There are inherent affordances and limitations to the technology that make some things possible and other things more likely. At the same time, there are complex individual and societal forces that impact how it develops, especially the power structures that develop alongside a given technology.
As such, what happens if we shift the conversation, not looking at the technology, but examining the technologists themselves and the organizations that offer or benefit from the technologies? With this question in mind, consider the previously mentioned quote from Tim O’Reilly.
So many technologies start out with a burst of idealism, democratization, and opportunity, and over time they close down and become less friendly to entrepreneurship, to innovation, to new ideas. Over time the companies that become dominant take more out of the ecosystem than they put back in. – http://www.wired.com/2012/12/mf-tim-oreilly-qa/2/
As we commoditize technologies, there is a competitive lever that starts to shape the ecosystem around that technology. As there become winners in the marketplace, companies that maintain control over a technology’s development and implementation begin to shape it in ways that amplify the company’s control and benefits. In the extreme, this is what we get with a monopoly, but there are less radical examples as well. Consider that there are largely two dominant operating systems in the computer ecosystem today. In the same article cited above, O’ Reilly stated,
We saw this happen with Microsoft. It started out with a big vision: How do we get a PC on every desk and in every home? It was profoundly democratizing. But when Microsoft got on top, it slowly started choking off the pathways to success for everybody else. It stopped creating more value than it captured.
Is or was Microsoft a monopoly? That has certainly been debated in and out of the courtroom. It started with a grand democratization of access to computers and eventually the Internet. Over time, it turned into two main companies controlling the system used on those devices. There remain democratizing affordances of these devices and the associated connectivity, but now people are largely compelled to comply with the standards and interface established by a couple of key players.
In his introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote about two possible futures. One grew out of Orwell’s 1984, where we become oppressed due to our fears. The other came from Huxley’s Brave New World, a future where we are oppressed by our pleasures. Either can lead to similar ends, more authoritarian control with the promise of some other value: safety, pleasure, efficiency, etc.
How do we resist such a future on a smaller level as we see the development of new and potentially disruptive concepts like micro-credentials? O’ Reilly continues by arguing for ecosystems of innovation where participants “create more value than [they] capture.” He explained,
Everybody wants to foster entrepreneurship, but we have to think about the preconditions for entrepreneurship. You grow great crops in great soil. And the soil is the commons. Increasingly, we have monopolistic companies that try to take as much as they can for themselves. And we have a patent and copyright regime that makes sure that nothing goes back into the commons unless by an extraordinary act of generosity. This is not fertile soil for innovation.
This is easier said than done. Open Badges are open and that feeds the commons. However, maintaining a commons requires commitments from those in the commons. It seems to me that as badges expand, there are a growing number of emergent and maturing business models that will either feed this openness and spirit of innovation or will seek to control it for market share and financial gain. Business models obviously need to include consideration about such things, but for this openness to continue, ROI has to be about more than financial, especially in the education sector. It is an interesting challenge to navigate because we likely need scalable and robust solution to grow the badge ecosystem, but we also need the leads of those scalable solutions to commit to a spirit of openness and cooperation as much as competition. One thing seems clear to me at this point in the development. There will be winners and losers, and the losers may not even recognize when or what they have lost until later.
This does not mean that I lack hope about the open badge and micro-credential movement. I see great promise, possibility and opportunity. Yet, these are not certain, and the future of the ecosystem as I hope to shape it depends upon a growing core of influencers who are genuinely committed to and uncompromising about the value of the commons.