Silicon Valley – Open Up

“I can tell you what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like. Terrible food, worse style, and no sex. And lots of apps”


Umair Haque, Harvard Business Review


Apple, Google, Facebook. These and other corporate religions from Silicon Valley exert a disproportionate amount of influence on our civil society yet are unaccountable, unelected, undemocratic and rarely questioned. What does this mean for the world of education?


Be Ready

As if irony knows no bounds we spent 2 days in Silicon Valley during the US leg of our world tour to discover innovation in learning but didn’t meet with a single technology company.


One might think that for the Learning {RE}imagined project to deliver a book and digital media about the impact of digital technology on learning this might be an oversight but it wasn’t. It was expected.


Over a period of many months prior to our trip I invited Apple, Google and Facebook to participate in the project by way of granting a short interview. Invitations were sent at the highest level I could muster, after all I hobnob with CEO’s, Vice-Presidents and PR bunnies, but despite my silver tongue and persuasive charm I was politely declined. I even invited celebrity educator Salman Khan to an interview but unfortunately the not for profit superstar, who will charge $75,000 to speak at your next conference, was unavailable for the 20 minutes it takes to go in front of my teams camera.


So what happened here?


Well, normally when I meet with these companies it’s 100% on their terms. It is a carefully constructed experience that is designed to deliver “The Message“. Absolutely no deviation from “The Message” will be tolerated, none of the individuals within these organisations are allowed to speak to the mortals outside their fiefdoms without ensuring that they are completely on “The Message” of “The Brand“. Critical thinking is regarded as a mortal sin that will ensure that invitations to future gatherings that celebrate “The Message” according to “The Brand” will be withdrawn. They also like to ensure that “on the record” meetings are so rare that even respected members of the mass media will prostrate themselves before them. One only has to read the fawning non-stories splashed across the planets mainstream media when one of them hosts an “Event” to launch a piece of unapologetic plastic to realise that something has got seriously out of hand here. If an alien species visited Earth during a product launch they would assume we’d discovered the cure for cancer.


The level of control that these organisations have over “The Message” makes the Jesuit movement seem like party.


The reality is that I knew these organisations would decline the opportunity to participate in this book but I wanted them to have the chance just in case. Now, before you go thinking that I’m suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder (do you know who I am?) I realise that it could just be that the WISE book and community just isn’t important enough for them in the grand scheme of things and perhaps I just don’t have enough pull. So go ask any technology or political journalist when was the last time they got a senior representative from these organisations to speak on the record about something that wasn’t to do with a new product and that wasn’t 100% managed by a member of the Marketing Communication Stormtroopers.


These are private companies who, in theory, have only to answer to their shareholders so why do I think it’s important?


Well, for a start these companies manage communities. that have populations the size of continents. They also have revenues that dwarf the GDP of many nations as the untaxed income from overseas and the money that used to go to the physical economy fills their offshore banking arrangements. The world it seems is becoming a smaller place and the wealth being distributed to an even smaller number of organisations and individuals. But these aren’t really my chief concerns.


AppleWhat I’m concerned about is the influence, intended or otherwise, that these corporations have on the way we as a society learn about our world for we have unwittingly allowed this world to be mediated by algorithms designed by a handful of computer programmers that dwell in the Valley of the Digital Gods.


Excuse my act of heresy but I suggest that these algorithms are not pure and that they are not democratic. I would also suggest that whilst the Internet brings us together it is also driving us apart.


If we are to assume that children of today and tomorrow will increasingly gain knowledge from digital devices then I believe we need a greater understanding and awareness of how this knowledge is mediated and the biases these algorithms hold.


What do I mean by bias?


There’s a common belief that “The Internet” has a culture and that its rules of apparent openness and ways of working are sacrosanct and should now be applied to nearly all aspects of human society. But my gambit is that we should start questioning this and practice some much needed critical thinking.


Some simple examples to illustrate my point.


Today’s search engines have lost the notion of metaphor and thus we title or books and reports in such a way to reflect this in order that they might be more advantaged towards discovery. Journalists, writers and publishers engage digital manipulators to game search engine algorithms to optimise their articles to appear at the top of search engines with the result that whilst the internet is in theory a window to all of the worlds information and knowledge the majority is obscured. Commercial digital publishing is typically supported either by paid wall gardens or advertising that is paid on a per click or impressions basis. As we move to a world of intense personalisation where information is held in content farms matched to relevant advertising, stories that would typically appear in the general public in what the digerati would consider as the inefficient publishing of print no longer appear thus our news becomes increasingly superficial.


Likewise the things that we think are news, for example, on Twitter are more like the reporting that we might expect from the Fox News network. Twitter use their own proprietary algorithms to determine what “trends”. Trending doesn’t mean that something is the most talked about rather it is a spike across a community that is wider than your own. Once something begins to trend the fact that Twitter’s algorithm identifies it as trending effectively makes it trend. Thus the algorithm is effecting the outcome. Additionally Twitter’s algorithm is optimised for these spikes rather than something that is discussed by an equal or greater number of people over a longer period of time so it favours spikes over consistency.


All of these algorithms can be gamed. It is now relatively straight forward for marketing agencies or other forces to hire low cost labour through, for example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to enter enough search terms, back links or mention certain subjects to encourage them to trend or appear in search requests.



Memes, those things that seem to appear spontaneously as a result of the crowd are more often than not manipulated by advertising and marketing agencies who leak information to smaller blog writers and then social media before it is eventually picked up by the mainstream.


For more information on the manipulation of search engines, social media and memes read Ryan Holiday’s “Trust me, I’m Lying“.


I did this myself last week, albeit with good cause, when I published an accurate screen shot of cigarette advertising on a child’s iPad game with the result that British American Tobacco pulled their entire online advertising.


If any of this interests you I urge you to read Evgeny Morozov’s latest book “To Save Everything, Click Here” which takes a long and overdue critical look at the technoutopia prescribed by the technosolutionists of Silicon Valley.


One of the mantras of the Internet-centrists, as Morozov call’s them, is the notion of “openness” in fact it’s a founding tenet of Web 2.0 from open government to open education but we should ask what this really means when the very architects of this new digital world remain closed to our questions.


In our quest for efficiency and our fetish for digital innovation we might consider what the unintended consequences of MOOCs and flipped classrooms will be. What would happen, for example, if a dominant provider of MOOCs appears like the equivalent of iTunes in the music industry where ultimately all of our information, media and learning comes from a single mediated source governed and tracked by algorithms? What does an algorithmic society look like and will this ultimately slow down innovation and obstruct creativity.


With this in mind why has there been so little dissent from the educational community? Could it be that our educational evangelists are so reliant on the crumbs that fall from the masters table that they are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds? It appears that we lack the very thing we are trying to instil in our children and charges, to critically think and question the status quo.


Now before I burn all my bridges with the digital companies with whom I’ve spent a career nurturing relationships with I should point out that I am not suggesting that they are malicious however neither am I saying that they are neutral. The suggestion that digital technology is merely a tool and is neutral is a dangerous fallacy. Unlike a hammer these platforms have unconscious biases that have the potential to impact human consciousness and the ‘open’ discourse around these platforms, especially when we consider their impact on the education superstructure, is overdue.


As I mentioned in a post some 2 years ago, and in several keynote talks, our society moved from an agricultural economy defined by the windmill where the feudal lord was the master to an industrial economy defined by the steam engine where the industrial capitalist ruled. Today as we move towards a digital economy we should consider who are the masters and for whom we till the fields.


There are executives in Silicon Valley who think they can fix global education, they can’t & you shouldn’t expect them to. Equally there are educators and policy makers who think they can maintain the status quo, they can’t either.


Something we can all agree on is the importance and value of education and our ability to learn and relearn. Digital technology has the potential to have a transformative and liberating impact within this domain but as we have seen from recent revelations about global surveillance using the very tools intended to liberate they also have the power to enslave.


Here’s a musical interlude:



Naturally I will be covering some of these issues in the Learning {RE}imagined book in 2014 but stay tuned for the next post which will be about some of the amazing people and places that we visited during the US leg of this tour.