The Penal Colony

by Misha Lepetic

“Facts all come with points of view/
Facts don't do what I want them to.”
~ Talking Heads

Let-the-music-be-your-master-02What is it with Silicon Valley and the “disruption” of education? Is it just another sector of public life that is moribund and therefore in need of a serious intervention, as if it were ‘that friend’ who used to be fun and successful but is now just depressed and drinking too much? Or do Silicon Valley types have a chip on their shoulder – perhaps they were forced to sit through one too many pointless lectures on Kant or Amazonian tribes or feminist critiques of Florentine art, and now that they’re calling the shots they’re going to fix this giant mess that’s called higher education once and for all? (Trigger warning: the only people mentioned in this post are venture capitalists).

In any case, into the ever-narrowing sweepstakes of who can make the absolutely dumbest assertions about the value of education steps Vinod Khosla, elder statesman and patron saint of tech bros in Silicon Valley and beyond. Khosla, a fabulously successful venture capitalist, has waded into the education wars with a broadside so breathtaking in its myopia that you would be forgiven for thinking that it was lifted from the satirical pages of The Onion. But before getting into Khosla’s piece, let’s set the stage with a look at a fellow-disruptor’s contribution to the debate.

Libertarian investor Peter Thiel, also fabulously successful, has put forward $100,000 scholarships fellowships for “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”. Thiel’s mission is to pluck potential John Galts out of the stream of college-bound lemmings and give them the latitude to realize their entrepreneurial potential. He believes that college, as it is currently constituted, leads to stagnant thinking and a narrowing of one’s horizons and potential. Which is odd, considering that most people go to college to have exactly the opposite experience. Be that as it may, anyone under the age of 22 is welcome to apply, which is a fairly dramatic, late-capitalist re-write of the countercultural edict to “not trust anyone over 30.”

I actually don’t have much of a problem with this, because Thiel is not trying to rewire the university system. He is providing more options for a vanishingly small group of people (104 so far since the fellowship’s 2010 inception), and I’ve always been convinced that college – or more specifically, a liberal arts education – is not for everyone. It never has been, and it never will be. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be available for anyone who wants it. But it is a prime example of overreach when the system screws into people’s heads that “everyone needs a college degree” and that subsequently people waste their money getting a BA in communications, whatever that is. There are certainly people who don’t need to go to college, and I like the fact that Thiel is providing more options, not less.

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Compare this fairly surgical intervention with the opening klaxon of Khosla’s essay: “If luck favors the prepared mind, as Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, we’re in danger of becoming a very unlucky nation. Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future.” If there’s one thing I like about Silicon Valley types, it’s that they never leave you to wonder what they’re thinking. Unfortunately, further reading may give rise to the concern of whether they are thinking at all.

Now I could be pedantic and, in a classically vindictive fashion that we liberal arts types allegedly enjoy, just grab an editor’s red pen and start marking up his essay, eg: ‘Doesn’t luck just happen, regardless of whether you are prepared? So how does a lack of preparation make one less lucky? Pasteur was referring to “the fields of observation” in his quote. How does that change the quote’s meaning? Also, passive voice’. But I will leave such pedantry aside. It’s clear that Khosla’s beef is with the system itself, which is in need of some serious re-jiggering. So let’s move past the opening gambit and go to the second sentence – “Little of the material taught in Liberal Arts programs today is relevant to the future”.

Like what? Literature and history, for example. History especially is for chumps:

Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way that physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory basic physics study along with the other sciences). And one needs the ability to think through many, if not most, of the social issues we face (which the softer liberal arts subjects ill-prepare one for in my view)…I’d like to teach people how to understand history but not to spend time getting the knowledge of history, which can be done after graduation.

Now, I’m not going to meet Khosla’s arguments head on. I’m sure more qualified, more eloquent people have already done so. What I’m more interested in looking at are the consequences of this kind of thinking, or of what emerges when there is a collective bubble of this kind of thinking going on.

A pretty good example of the fruits of an ahistorical worldview happened right about the time Khosla’s essay bubbled up to the surface. Marc Andreessen, inventor of first truly successful web browser and once-scrappy underdog who fought Microsoft (and lost, forever enshrining his scrappiness), has since also become a very successful tech investor. In fact, as an investor in and board member of Facebook, he’s really no longer much of an underdog at all. So when Free Basics, Facebook’s initiative to bring free Internet access to India, was blocked, Andreessen tweeted in frustration “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

Pmarca_colonialism_tweetOh, dear. Despite deleting the tweet, issuing an apology, as well as receiving a rebuke from Mark Zuckerberg himself, the Internet went nuts. It wasn’t hard to spin out an analysis positing how what Facebook was doing in India with Free Basics was textbook colonialism. I think there is a fair amount of justification here, and no critic in his or her right mind would fail to take advantage of such a gorgeous faux pas as the one Andreessen served up. But let’s keep things simple.

It’s all well and good to look at Andreessen’s quote as emblematic or symptomatic of a larger system of power or encroachment – after all, that’s what good liberal arts thinking does (cough). What leads a person to write that in the first place? I mean, how do you – and I am being generous here – confuse ‘colonialism’ with ‘anti-colonialism’? And even if you were to substitute one for the other, the comment still doesn’t make sense, except in some uber-sarcastic manner. Maybe he meant ‘capitalism’, as in: “Anti-capitalism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?” This would demonstrate some familiarity of Indian history, at least during a few decades of the 20th century. But it still displays a fairly shocking ignorance of the country that India is today, and has been for a while.

Part of the elegance of any analysis is knowing when to stop, and the older I get the more I favor brevity. So I will say this: Andreessen wrote what he did because he is ignorant. He is ignorant of the world around him, and we can go find the root of this steadfast ignorance in Khosla’s exhortation that history is something to learn on your own time. Except when your temper tantrum exposes your ignorance of history, and for a brief moment we all get to wonder, “Who the hell is this guy, and how did he get to such a powerful place in society?” And, fortunately or unfortunately, that’s all there is to it.

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But the rot goes deeper still. Here’s a much better example.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to judge a few business plan competitions. This is actually more interesting than it sounds. Business plans, after all, are a form of literature, or at least a form of text. And like any text, one learns to read the genre for the hopes and fears of its authors. The hopes are writ large: products and services that promise to transform markets and better the lives of millions. The fears are smaller and require a bit more experience to ferret out, as they usually take the form of the financial assumptions that constitute an essential part of any business plan. But what one gets exceptionally sensitized to is the way a plan defines a problem space. Because the way one thinks about the problem has great bearing on the proposed solution. In fact, most business plans fail – both as real plans and as closely reasoned arguments – because the authors failed to think deeply enough about the problem.

I was reminded of these business plans when a friend forwarded me an article on the disruption of prisons (in response to my most recent 3QD piece, on how technology will come to service various sectors of society that we’d rather not spend time on). Much like Khosla’s piece, this article at first seems like a parody. Enouragingly entitled “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix The Prison System” it is nothing less than the reductio ad absurdum to “solving the problem” of prison. For example, prison violence is solved by virtual reality:

By equipping every inmate with an Oculus Rift headset in his or her own cell, you could isolate prisoners from violence without isolating them from people. Put all the prisoners inside Second Life, Prison Edition, give them all a headset, and let them build virtual characters. You could design an awesome [sic] system for rehabilitation, give access to e-learning tools, Kindle books, Minecraft and other digital tools for creativity (prison is boring), psychologist sessions (the psychologist could log in remotely from anywhere in the world), and even handle all correspondence and prison visits from relatives and friends electronically.

As the author enthuses, “What this eliminates: prison yards, prison libraries, packages and letters secretly containing drugs or shanks.” By using a carceral version of Second Life, gamification would teach them to be better citizens (think: badges!). Helpfully, “a huge benefit is we could track everything that prisoners do.” Once you’ve made your way through the whole post – which is written with the utmost sincerity, as it includes cost breakdowns for everything – you’ll consider Khosla to be a thinker of profound subtlety.

BM_S1E1Because when you leave prison, the years or decades spent in a virtual reality simulation will equip you just fine for living in the real world. The author’s concern is actually with creating a smooth, hassle-free and economical prison stay. People fight? Ok, don’t let them interact. Food is expensive? Feed them Soylent. Problem solved. It’s almost as if the airlines hit upon their final solution for air travel – just put everyone under general anesthesia from check-in until baggage claim (actually I have been hoping for this for some time). There is really no concern with what people actually do, whether it’s in prison or outside it. And understanding why people wind up in prison, well that would require history. In business plan parlance, this would be dismissed as “out of scope”.

Now, if this had been a business plan submitted to me in competition, the first question for the author would have been, “What’s the real problem here? Is it that prison is expensive, or is it that people keep returning to prison?” Understanding the problem determines the contours of the solution. And if we agree that the purpose of doing prison differently is to lessen recidivism rates, then we have to ask ourselves, how do we prepare people to not come back into the system? I somehow doubt that teaching them to be really good at some dumbed-down version of Second Life is going to help them there.

I suspect the answer is closer to providing some kind of socialization and support structure that is radically different from the structures that landed the inmates there in the first place. Interestingly enough, and just to prove that I’m not some monomaniacally judgmental person, Chris Redlitz, another Bay area venture capitalist, has been taking the opposite tack: five years ago he founded The Last Mile, which started as a business and entrepreneurship program taught within the confines of San Quentin State Prison, and has since diversified into teaching inmates computer programming skills as well. It is the first program in the nation to do so, and so far none of its graduates have been reincarcerated.

Now, just as not everyone should go out and get a liberal arts degree, I’m sure that not every inmate who goes through the program is cut out to be an entrepreneur or a coder. But that is not really the point. The point is to offer the inmates a different social structure, a viable way of being in the world that was likely not open to them before. And this requires hard work, teaching, and human contact. It creates risk and uncertainty, which is something that the previous, ‘virtual reality’ model seeks to eliminate entirely. In fact, it's kind of like the process of getting a liberal arts education. Huh!

So I am curious: if these two ideas were to be presented to Khosla as competing business plans, which one would he fund? Because while Khosla might maintain that “it’s not that history or Kafka are not important…” I would say that the mettle it takes to come up with an understanding of the problem, and any possible solution, is only possible if you have read history, and especially if you have read Kafka. Otherwise, we create a society where Soylent and Oculus VR will be good enough, and probably not just for prisoners, either.

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