In the latest collection of talks from Audrey Watters, The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, she addresses an uncomfortable issue in higher education: the unrealistic claims made about the transformative aspect of university attendance. From loc 397-413:

These questions get at what is an uncomfortable and largely unspoken truth about education. That is, education, for its own part, makes all sorts of claims—sometimes, let’s be honest, fairly wild and unsubstantiated claims—about amazement, achievement, and transformation. These promises may well reveal that our field is full of Sea Monkeys—colorful promises of becoming that we might not actually be able to or even intend to honor. As we reconstitute technology-enhanced learning, are we simply reconstituting Sea Monkeys?

This is one of those issues that fascinates me because I can’t help but see it in ambivalent terms. On the one hand, the relative advantage of a university degree is manifestly in decline due to credential inflation and opportunity hoarding, such that to deny this would be fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, this point is often made in a way that reduces the value of higher education to instrumental advantage accrued by individuals. On the one hand, the interventions of the Competition and Markets Authority within higher  education further the commodification of universities in a way which corrodes the intrinsic value that can be found through participating in them. On the other hand, it seems absurd to suggest that students don’t have a right to expect that the understanding upon which they took a university place is accurate, particularly as participation becomes ever more financially and personally onerous.

The more diffuse promises of education are even more thorny. My PhD was a study of personal change (and stasis) in the lives of 18 undergraduate students across a range of disciplines, during their first two years of university. One of the most important findings I took from this research was how rapidly the evaluation of our own lives and aspirations can change, particularly as we enter a new environment into which we have invested our hopes. My point is not to say that ‘false promises’ made concerning the university experience is necessarily a problematic category, only that it becomes ontologically rather messy once we move beyond the straight-forward level of what students were told about courses, facilities and workload etc.

But it is nonetheless crucial that we have these conversations. What is the value of an undergraduate degree? What expectations do students have of it?  What qualitative and quantitative evidence is there to support those expectations? If expectations are inflated, can we identify particular groups who are perpetuating these and the interests at work in their doing so? I can’t help but feel that Watters is correct, higher education is full of “colorful promises of becoming that we might not actually be able to or even intend to honor”. We urgently need to learn how to counteract this while still resisting the commodification and bureaucratisation which action taken in the interests of the consumer will likely entail.

When the Uber co-founders recount the story of their project, they stress the importance of the consumer to it. This might seem like familiar rhetoric but I want to suggest it reflects a deep (and problematic) commitment. In The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, we see how the early idea for Uber came to Garrett Camp when he was a young multi-millionaire living in San Francisco. After StumbleUpon was acquired by eBay, he found himself young, free and wealthy. From loc 617-632:

Camp continued to work at eBay after the sale, and he was now young, wealthy, and single, with a taste for getting out of the house more often. This is when he ran headlong into San Francisco’s feeble taxi industry. For decades, San Francisco had deliberately kept the number of taxi medallions capped at around fifteen hundred. Medallions in the city were relatively inexpensive and couldn’t be resold, and owners could keep the permit as long as they liked if they logged a minimum number of hours on the road every year. So new permits usually became available only when drivers died, and anyone who applied for one had to wait years to receive it. Stories abounded about a driver waiting for three decades to get a medallion, only to die soon after. The system guaranteed a healthy availability of passengers for the taxi companies even during slow times and ensured that full-time drivers could earn a living wage. But demand for cars greatly exceeded supply and so taxi service in San Francisco, famously, sucked. Trying to hail a cab in the outer neighborhoods near the ocean, or even downtown on a weekend night, was an exercise in futility. Getting a cab to take you to the airport was a stomach-churning gamble that could easily result in a missed flight.

He was, as Brad Stone puts it, “habitually restless, frustrated by inefficiencies, and armed with a willingness to challenge authority”. He contrived an initial solution of calling all yellow taxi companies when he needed a cab, in order to take the first one that arrived. He quickly found himself blacklisted (loc 647). He further explored how to game the existing system, learning about the mechanisms which frustrated him in the process. He developed an extensive working knowledge of how the collective interests of taxi drivers frustrated his interests as a wealthy young consumer. This generic propensity of the taxi industry to frustrate was coupled with the capacity of individual taxi drivers to fail to show such young consumers the respect they felt they deserved. From loc 771-786:

On a separate night in Paris, the group went for drinks on the Champs-Élysées and then to an elegant late-night dinner that included wine and foie gras. At 2: 00 a.m., somewhat intoxicated after a night of revelry, they hailed a cab on the street. Apparently they were speaking too boisterously, because halfway through the ride home, the driver started yelling at them. McCloskey was sitting in the middle of the backseat, and, at five feet ten inches tall, she’d had to prop her high heels on the cushion between the two front seats. The driver cursed at them in French and threatened to kick them out of the car if they didn’t quiet down and if McCloskey didn’t move her feet. She spoke French and translated; Kalanick reacted furiously and suggested they get out of the car. The experience seemed to harden their resolve. “It definitely lit a fire,” McCloskey says. “When you are put in a situation where you feel like there’s an injustice, that pisses Travis off more than anything. He couldn’t get over it. People shouldn’t have to sit in urine-filled cabs after a wonderful night and be yelled at.” That cantankerous Paris taxicab driver may have left an indelible mark on transportation history.

The instinct here is framed in terms of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ when it is articulated. But the basic moral sentiment is how dare they put their interests over ours? It’s a consumerist entitlement rooted in the extremely specific experience of affluent young consumers. Once embedded, every attempt to preserve the status quo can be experienced as an extension of this basic affront to self-importance. What appears to regulators as an incomprehensible disregard for legality (“You can’t just open a restaurant and say you are going to ignore the health department” as they were told in an early clash, reported on loc 1693) is experienced by ‘the upstarts’ as a commendable failure to be bullied, a refusal to take shit from anyone, whether it’s haughty French taxi drivers or municipal bureaucrats serving their interests. Their professed concern for regulation can be explained away as an allegiance to taxi drivers who don’t know their place. From loc 2348:

Still embittered by his experience with Christiane Hayashi and the SFMTA, Kalanick instructed Kochman to ignore New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and its rules, reasoning that its regulations, under the guise of consumer safety, were really there to protect entrenched taxi interests.

What I’m describing as a moral project operates on two levels: an intellectual critique of entrenched interests and their failure to adequately serve consumers, as well as an underlying affectivity generated when entrenched privilege meets perceived wrong-doing. The former derives its shoving power from the latter. This is why I suspect the Uber co-founders might not simply be driving towards automation out of economic interest, but rather actually be able to take some perverse delight in rendering taxi drivers redundant as a category. As the Uber CEO excitedly put it when presented with a self-driving car for the first time: “The minute your car becomes real, I can take the dude out of the front seat” (loc 3657).

And this moral project is one it’s demonstrably possible to enlist others into. From loc 2467:

After Tusk joined as a consultant, Uber executives started meeting regularly with Ashwini Chhabra and his boss, David Yassky, chairman of the TLC. Officials in Bloomberg’s business-friendly administration, it turned out, were inclined to look favorably on a technology startup trying to change New York’s crusty taxi industry, which had resisted modernizing its vehicles and installing electronic credit card readers. 4 But Uber first needed to play by the rules. To truly appeal to New York drivers, Uber was going to have to register as a base.

Pity those who find themselves on the wrong side of the great disruptive project:

When asked about driverless cars, he said that he was excited for the technology because it could bring prices down, but he didn’t express concern about unemployment for drivers. “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car, you’re paying for the other dude in the car,” Kalanick said. As for the tens of thousands of drivers who relied on his company to support their families, he shrugged. “This is the way of the world,” he said, “and the world isn’t always great. We all have to find ways to change.”

I love this old Ikea advert. I’m contemplating playing it in my lecture on social change later this week to illustrate the point that Harmut Rosa is making about the acceleration of production and the implications of intensified disposability for our sense of security and continuity. It also shows what I dislike about Rosa’s account: specific groups with vested interests deliberately sought to inculcate dispositions towards disposability in the population. It wasn’t the inexorable unfolding of an historical process. People made it happen. I don’t doubt that Rosa accepts this but he sets up his theoretical framework in a way which marginalises the specific questions (who did whatwhen and why) that I’d see as integral to sociological inquiry.