What do asteroids, MOOCs, and medical records have in common? All are examples, currently in the news, of the way in which public policy in the US is driven not by the common good or professionals or expert knowledge, but by the generation of mediashock in the service of the entrepeneurial desire of cybercapitalism to monetize data. Let me offer a quick explanation.
An article on the front page of today’s (2/20/13) New York Times presents the unsurprising news that 2009 federal legislation to require the digitization of health and medical records was driven by the opportunity to turn data into corporate profit, though sold to the government and the American public as being done for public health reasons. Four years later, the Times article tells us, companies like Allscripts Healthcare Solutions of Chicago or the Cerner Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri, have increased sales by hundreds of millions of dollars, and executives of those companies have gotten wealthy, while doctors and hospitals are still struggling to adapt to this new technical regime. It may very well be the case that the digitization of health records will contribute to the public good; but what is certainly true is that the first consequence of this transformation has been greatly to enrich a few individuals and corporations.
Late last week, on the day after the February 15 meteorite explosion over Russia, the New York Times featured an article on how the explosion created an opportunity to make money off of data-driven asteroid defense systems. “A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw Friday’s shock wave as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more.” Why worry about pressing needs like climate change, drought and famine, or global health when there is money to be made from the development of an asteroid defense system? While it appears at this point unlikely that this fantasy will materialize, the cybercapitalist logic–premediating a social need or public good for the purpose of generating profits–is not very different from what the Times describes in the case of digitizing medical records.
Which brings me to MOOCs. The current gold rush to MOOCification is positoned somewhere in between the phantasmatic entrepeneurial premediation of an asteroid defense system and the ongoing transformation of US medical records from print to digital media formats. Although there is a tremendous amount of energy and some capital investment inflating the current MOOC bubble, it is not yet clear whether MOOCs will become institutionalized in the world of higher education in the same way that the digitization of health records has in the medical system.
But what is clear is that both of these efforts represent attempts by cybercapitalist entrepeneurs to drive the development of major public institutions (healthcare, education) for the purpose of monetizing or captitalizing on digital data. Like the healthcare system, higher education is sitting on a treasure trove of data–particularly about its students. What makes MOOCs so attractive to Silicon Valley (and other) entrepeneurs is the opportunity they offer to create value out of this data. On the one hand MOOCs are being successfully marketed as a solution to problems of cost, access, and efficiency in 21st century higher education. On the other hand they are being presented to educational administrators (mainly of elite or elite-wanna be institutions) as a way to cash in on their educational capital. In this way MOOCs resemble asteroid-defense efforts as much as efforts to digitize health records, capitalizing on a current crisis to create millions for cybercapitalist entrepeneurs.
Naomi Klein has described as a “shock doctrine” the similar practice by the US government in deploying “free market” ideology to exert US and corporate control over nations and markets across the globe. I have more recently characterized this in terms of a “mediashock doctrine” perpetuated through US print, televisual, and networked media. Through the creation and intensification of “mediashock,” the US and increasingly global public is prepared to accept as necessary and desirable the latest cybercapitalist entrepeneurial schemes as solutions to problems presented by the media.
Although by no means the only media assemblage practicing mediashock, the New York Times is one of its most adept practitioners. Its ongoing enthusiastic campaign for the MOOCification of higher education is only one close-to-home example of its deployment of the mediashock doctrine. Given the overwhelming number and scope of “wicked problems” facing the US and the world at large, it is incumbent upon all of us to look for approaches and solutions that take the greater good of humans and nonhumans, not the generation of profits for cybercapitalism, as their goal.