“In the final analysis it doesn’t really matter what the political system is…We don’t need perfect political systems; we need perfect participation.” –Cesar Chavez
If anyone claims they will disrupt public schools, we must regard them with great skepticism. The fact is that public education in the United States has not progressed significantly for over one hundred and fifty years. I left a budding career as a software engineer and project manager thinking that, while I may not be able to transform education in a broad sense, I may be able to create one great classroom and may be one great school. I spent the past seventeen years applying what I learned in the private sector along with my education at Waldorf, the International Baccalaureate program, studies in the French University System and my degrees in physics and education theory. I failed. I created a great classroom as a teacher and I ran a robotics program that had massive success. We transformed a failing school into an “A” school (not that I agree with the rating system). But as I continued to apply my project-based-culminating-assignment-over-final-exam methodology, the system rejected this innovation and confined me to a desk job where I remain to this day.
My administrative job is not demanding as was my fourteen years as a high school educator where I arrived to work at six o’clock in the morning and worked many weekends and holidays. I was left with time on my hands. First, my wife and I become foster parents. Many of my students had grown up in the foster care system and my time as an educator had kindled a passion for serving foster youth. I also started catching up on the tech industry I had left behind. Decentralization interested me as a trend — using the “crowd” to get meaningful work done. The open source movement also interested me. I ended up reading a lot about bitcoin.
That reading ultimately led me back to education and to the proposal for a pathway to substantial transformation of our educational system presented in my recent book Education in the Digital Age: How We Get There. This change will not come from within the existing industrial system of education the way Cuomo is trying to do. He will do more harm than good and he will likely refuse to take the bad data as feedback, instead the prevailing administration will water down standards to make the data look better.
We also don’t have to tear anything down to put this into practice. By integrating education at the ground floor of the new economy being built on bitcoin, we have a unique opportunity to impact the incentives that will drive education in the future. The ultimate goal is to end standardized testing in our high schools (NYC, in particular and Harlem is where my work continues).
If you know anything about me, it’s that I focus on solutions rather than whining about what is broken. So what would a technology plan look like that could actually make a difference? My book fully answers that question for high schools in particular.
The idea is relatively simple: create a new high school transcript that is not controlled by politicians, but by a decentralized community of teachers. These new credits would exist on top of existing high school record keeping in just the way that the AP or ACT do today — they will compete with these standardized tests with a non-corporate set of open source standards that demand students be ready to serve their communities as digital native providers. To put a finer point on it, students will upload digital files (vidoes, recordings, code) representing the end product of their learning.
The focus on digital native literacy would help foster adoption of bitcoin and, in turn, bitcoin would serve to provide financial incentives to push this change forward. The key would be to maintain this new transcript as global gold standard of stored academic value which universities recognize as such — offering more meaningful and verifiable data about the learning of the student than the combination of SAT and college essay and local high school transcript ever did.
As an added bonus, students who prove to be the best ambassadors of the digital native provider mindset would qualify for a modest basic income for the rest of their lives. Students competing for the basic income award would compete against students similar to them — a student from a wealthy household with tutoring and video editing expertise at their disposal would compete against other students with such resources. A student from a low-income community would similarly only compete against those from the same or a similar community. But any student at any school would have access to this gold standard transcript, leveling the playing field in college admissions. While the quality of work required to earn a credit would not adjust between different groups, the number of credits required to earn a basic income would adjust so that students coming from less privilege would more easily access the basic income than those born into privilege. As we will see, these incentives would positively impact the diversity of our schools, the quality of their offerings, the motivation of the students, and the workload of teachers.
This all sounds great, but the only problem is that for it to work out financially, the bitcoin community would have to adopt my recommendation to bake education into the very core of their monetary theory by issuing a new form of free digital cash (similar to Facebook’s proposed Libra currency) which would pay for this basic income guarantee. There is a massive incentive for them to do so based on the two-sided network effects I discuss in detail in the book.
There have been very few times in history when a new monetary system was being born and we are not likely to see another opportunity like this anytime soon. Given the global impact of modern money-making, this could even be our last best opportunity to educate citizens globally to become sovereign individuals, leveraging technology to organize themselves in new ways that are by the people and for the people. I reiterate that the chances that this happens are very small. We have a narrow window of opportunity. If enough people see what I see in writing this book after reading it, perhaps we could organize ourselves to take advantage of the changes taking place in monetary policy to reinvent education for the digital age.
As unlikely as this merger of economics and education may at first appear, consider that it is actually inherent to the digital economy. The industrial economy had massive destructive “unintended” impacts on our physical world leading to the current collapse of our global environment. Short-term self-interest drove us to hurt Mother Earth in search of fast money.
The digital economy will have just as massive “unintended” impacts on the social fabric of society. Greed is driving digital brands like Google and Facebook to extract value from social networks rather than doing so from the physical environment. Human attention is the resource being mined and packaged into products for sale. We are being manipulated and shaped to generate profits just as Mother Nature has been repackaged for industrial profits. Since human beings’ attention is the new resource being mined for profit, the nature of that attention drives economic value. In other words, how we are educated, how we use our mental resources, is at the heart of the digital economy. Preparing citizens globally for their fundamental role as a resource driving digital profits is what this book is about.
I advocate for the acceleration of a digital native mindset. Digital natives are people who are “native speakers” of the digital language of decentralized platforms like social media, mobile applications, video games, artificial intelligence, and the internet. The digital native mindset I focus on is that of digital producers who are making money with these mobile applications (“apps”), in particular. These leaders leverage the fact that their networked businesses are borderless, offering a global customer base. They also leverage decentralization as an organizational structure: meaning that they allow “the crowd” to participate in the creation of value for their business rather than paying employees to do work in a top-down, command-and-control framework. While being global, this movement is hyper-local since it is formed from the leaves on the branches of culture rather than from tapping the root. I embrace artificial intelligence to allow machines to do what they do best, allowing humans to focus on the very human work of connecting with humanity through video, podcast, or blog.
If we can educate the next generation in the operation of these emerging business models, they will offer new opportunities for democracy, for privacy, and for accountability. If, on the other hand, users remain ignorant to the value of their data and the use of their attention, these same trends will lead us to a new form of corporate consumer dictatorship with unprecedented surveillance and no accountability. As I write these words Facebook is hard at work launching a global digital currency which would make Mark Zuckerberg the leader of an economy larger than any nation on the planet. He will have no term limits. He will face no election challenges. And he will have mass surveillance at his disposal to maintain his control. The future of totalitarian rule is also hiding in the wings of the nascient digital economy. My proposal is to create a competing currency which has no owner, is backed by no government, and is totally free to use. Free in terms of fees for transferring money to make payments and free from government or corporate influence or control.
My argument is neither left nor right in a political sense, but “digital native” versus “industrial native.” The political Left favors big government, the Right, big business. And yet, I don’t see a difference between big government and big business today: they are colluding to maintain a stranglehold on the prosperity of workers. As I write my book, the Democrats advocated for a “Green New Deal” and now we are spending like crazy in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
While I agree that if we will print money as we did until 2014 with “quantitative easing,” it would be better to spend those funds on the emerging “green” industry than on a bloated and undeserving financial services sector. But I am not convinced that we should return to printing money in that way at all beyond giving money directly to citizens as a short-term intervention until social distancing is lifted. Going back to reckless long-term monetary policy for “a good cause” is a cynical approach which assumes that the endless printing of money is unavoidable. Better a Green New Deal than the $6 Trillion Iraq and Afghanistan wars or the bank bailouts. However, today there is another way. A way that involves neither big government nor big business.
The trick will be to get this new technology out of the hands of “big tech” including the Gates Foundation. Despite great intentions, they are ill advised in their top-down approach to reform. Better spend that money by just handing it, no strings attached, to effective school communities than the type of consultant-centric approach that brings in “experts” to solve the problems those schools know all too well.
Silicon Valley “big tech” seem to be agnostic regarding Democratic or Republican leanings like myself, but have a focus on accumulating wealth at all cost, while spewing condescending, overly simplified “win-win” solutions to the problems they help to cause.[i] While Silicon Valley extracts value from users with crowdsourced content production, they are still traditional industrial business models in terms of their governance and profit-sharing. The fully digital native economy I advocate in the book takes power from these centralized high-tech brands like Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook and shifts it to a decentralized “crowd” of workers that collaborate using apps, sharing access to resources to generate economic value.
By framing our discussion as a shift from the outdated left/right industrial-era political mindsets to one of digital native versus industrial native, we may even discover solutions to industrial-era harms. Certainly, this shift in mindset will be more effective than throwing money we don’t have at half-baked environmental solutions that no one actually believes will bring the result required for the scale of the damage we have caused. Looking backwards to “Make America Great Again” or similarly, looking to spend irresponsibly on a “Green New Deal” are equally rear-facing strategies. It is important that we look forward and prevent destruction of our social fabric rather than putting expensive band-aids on the damage we have been doing for the past two centuries. Crowd participation in policy through apps is more likely to bring meaningful reform than a top-down government approach with a public that remains disengaged.
I am not suggesting that we ignore the industrial economy or allow short-term profiteering to continue destroying our home planet. What I argue is that this big business versus big government fight is a red herring, dividing workers over trivial issues and taking our eye off of the more important issues where we agree with each other: the importance of work ethic, family values, honesty, and integrity. Big tech like Facebook and Google make money by getting us to fight amongst ourselves. When we get angry, they make more money because we share more aggressively and stay on their platform for more time as we stare at our news feed in outrage.[ii] They push false narratives into our feeds about our fellow workers’ extreme and controversial views because doing so is profitable. A minority of extreme voices control the memes and thus the message because issues where we agree with each other do not generate effective memes. Fake news produces real profits for big business and power for elected officials while dividing workers who are suffering as a result, irrespective of their political leanings.
Russia was able to meddle in our elections because their meddling made Facebook money through increased engagement of users while also supporting the narratives favored by politicians on both sides of the spectrum — that is a dangerous combination of corporate profits and political interests aligning against democratic institutions. The only solution to such an attack is to better educate voters in the spread of information “viruses” just as we had to educate citizens previously in the spread of germs and the importance of personal hygiene.
Learning to think as a digital native will bring industrial command-and-control to its knees with something like economic aikido — using greed to empower workers to out-compete the interests of big business shareholders and big government bureaucrats alike. The key is to focus on economic incentives so that workers can do good while doing well. The innovation that will result from shifting to a digital native way of thinking will move us farther toward solutions than being “anti” money making. Greed and self-interest aren’t going anywhere, we might as well learn to use them as incentives to our advantage as workers. This opportunity will not come from government regulation of social media companies or any goodwill on the part of corporate executives. It depends on a new set of financial incentives which are transforming the very definition of value in the context of mobile platforms. This is the emergence of new forms of capital, of which “Academic Capital” could be prominent. But that is not inevitable or even likely.
This book is full of polarities: big corporations to small startups, individual to crowd, scarcity to abundance, local to global, and physical to digital. I explore these tensions in economic terms because they are uniquely relevant to the rapid changes taking place in our economy. While the economy is global in scale, my focus will remain in the United States, but each country will recognize its own version of the issues addressed.
The key distinctions that drive my analysis are (1) the difference between capitalism and consumerism, (2) a critical distinction between having a job and doing work, and (3) the shift from a mechanical to a digital means of economic production, distribution, and consumption. The investigation of these ideas leads to the proposal for a bitcoin-based cash system which distributes newly minted currency as a basic income to high school grads who demonstrate their unique abilities as digital providers. The journey through economic theory is necessary to orient those of us who grew up when economies of scale mattered more than network effects, when product-market fit was discussed instead of user-platform fit and when literacy meant reading and writing rather than video production, blogging, and podcasting.
The fact is that our education system was born with the industrial age; the two were intertwined from the start. As the industrial age comes to a close and the digital age is born we are facing our first real opportunity to invent a newly relevant model of education for those who were manipulating images on smartphones before they could even talk. This book will spend some time looking at the transitions between previous eras: the hunter-gatherer, the agrarian, and the birth of the industrial age to give some needed perspective on the opportunity that we have before us today.
Industrialists turned philanthropists like Rockefeller asserted that “with great power comes great responsibility.” But that is false — those with great power carry none of the related responsibility, even if they give away their money for the causes they perceive to be worthy. Lord Acton’s cliché, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to be a more apt description of how things play out. An inverted version of the original cliché seems to be increasingly true: “with great responsibility comes great power.” Those that take responsibility for some part of the world around them gain power proportional to the level of responsibility they own. This is accurate only if we dissociate responsibility from position. Any worker knows that having a position of responsibility does not imply ownership of that responsibility. Authentic responsibility as a mindset comes with an experience of underlying power: considering oneself “able to respond” to life’s circumstances. Being “response-able” frees us to participate; to make things around us more workable. The ability to do such work is the classic definition of power in the scientific sense: “power equals work divided by time.” The more work we can do to improve our community in a given time period the more power we wield. This is also the definition of power in a democratic sense, as the quote by Cesar Chavez at the start of this chapter suggests.
The digital app economy creates an opportunity for individual workers to invest their energies to great impact, independent of their title or appointed role. Learning to take advantage of this opportunity will be the keystone to power dynamics as the app-driven economy continues to expand. This learning must also be the foundation of any new digital native standards we are to invent for our high schools. Can we expect high school graduates to invest their energies to author meaningful digital content about their communities? The answer to that question depends on the incentives we make available. The digital native solution I advocate in this work involves both less government and less commercial influence and much more student voice and student creativity. For the first time in history, mobile computer networks allow workers to coordinate as a “crowd,” leveraging the efficiencies of decentralized decision-making while enjoying the scale of global markets. If we can model that new opportunity in our high schools, we have a shot at transforming power dynamics in a single generation of high school graduates.
[i] see “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” by Anand Giridharadas, as well as my review of the book.