‘Disruption’ as the last refuge of the Third Way

A couple of months ago, The New Statesman carried an interview with Tony Blair for the first time in a long time. Leaving aside how haunted the man looked in the portrait accompanying it, what stood out to me about it was how readily he had incorporated techno-speak into the language of the third way. Here are some examples:

One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.-

I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.-

I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.

This reflects something I’ve been noticing for some time: the similarity of 90s globalisation discourse to contemporary technology discourse. In fact, in many cases you can replace the word ‘globalisation’, from these 90s accounts, with ‘technology’ and there’s no semantic loss whatsoever. This is why we need to be deeply sceptical about, for instance, the automation debate. There’s clearly a real change underway, but it’s framed in a manner which sees the unfolding of technology as an inexorable process, one which offers the possibility of adaptation or displacement. What Morozov calls solutionism (“The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature”) can be seen as a particular kind of cultural response to this view of technology.

Amongst political actors, we should understand this rhetoric as emerging against a long-term trend towards depoliticisation. It discursively unites the ‘centre ground’ of career politicians, members of what George Osborne calls ‘the guild’, concerned with winning power in order to manage the unfolding of technological change. Amongst economic actors, we should understand this rhetoric as a way of legitimising one’s own work, deployed to win venture capital and to narrate the increasingly hegemonic character of the technology sector within capitalism as a whole. In the interaction between politics and economics, we should see this as a class project, as Thomas Frank argues in his Listen Liberal. From loc 2918-2934:

By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”

My argument is that we need to see the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ in systemic terms. We need to historicise these cultural forms and link their claims to the core questions of sociology inquiry. We need to update our theories of social change to better take account of socio-technical ‘innovation’. For instance, if we accept the construct of ‘late modernity’, are we seeing a radicalisation of it or are we in the process of transcending it? Should we dispense with ‘modernity’ talk altogether, however qualified, instead moving to talk of ‘platform capitalism’ or ‘digital capitalism’? These are key questions for social theory and ones which I’m increasingly gripped by.

A useful way to approach these is to scale down from the system level and look at particular spheres of life in which innovation talk is at its most pronounced. I’m currently reading a book of keynotes by the education writer Audrey Watters which reflects on these issues in terms of educational technology. One of her foremost concerns is the tendency of educational technology start-ups to exhibit a studied ignorance of the history of educational technology. Each putative innovation is presented as ungrounded, emerging from outside education to disrupt a fundamentally broken system, with only the recalcitrance of educators standing in its way:

And okay, in fairness, these folks are not historians. They’re computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, software engineers. They’re entrepreneurs. But their lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matters. It matters because it supports a prevailing narrative about innovation – where innovation comes from (according to this narrative, it comes from private industry, and not from public institutions; from Silicon Valley, that is, not from elsewhere in the world) and when it comes (there’s this fiercely myopic fixation on the future). The lack of knowledge about history matters too because it reflects and even enables a powerful strain in American ideology and in the ideology of the technology industry: that the past is irrelevant, that the past is a monolithic block of brokenness –unchanged and unchanging until it’s disrupted by technological innovation, or by the promise of technological innovation, by the future itself. (loc 326)

However, as she argues, this isn’t simply a forgetting of the history of education or the history of educational technology. Rather “It’s a rewriting of history, whether you see it as activist or accidental” (loc 351) and one which serves private interests. When history is reluctantly allowed on stage, it is inevitably couched in narrowly technological terms. Reflecting on the failure of the largely forgotten AllLearn initiative, opened in 2001 and closed in 2006, the economist Richard Levin, ascribed the problem to a lack of bandwidth:

It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience. (loc 471)

The reality is that broadband penetration had only increased by 8% between the end of AllLearn and the time of this interview. It was also the case that AllLearn sought to distribute materials via CD, as well as allowing users to switch off streaming video content that might be overly-testing for their internet connections. Given he was now speaking as Coursera’s CEO, presiding over a comparable initiative which had failed under his stewardship as Chair, we could perhaps see this as simply self-serving. Not unlike the erasure from history of past educational technology initiatives by start-up founders eagerly touting the ‘next big thing’. But I think Watters is right that this reflects something deeper about contemporary ideologies of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’.

Could we build up a systemic account of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ by looking at the particular discursive strategies used across a number of domains, as well as the material implications of their use. What would these other domains be?

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