Against ‘scale’

I was on a bus this afternoon, reading a section of 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary which includes this passage:

if and when such [hand-held, touch-based] devices are introduced (and no doubt labeled as revolutionary), they will simply be facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point. And they too will occupy only a brief interval of currency before their inevitable replacement and transit to the global waste piles of techno-trash. The only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of economic exchange. (p. 40)

I was distracted for a moment by the bland-sounding techno bleeding through the earbuds of the guy sitting across the aisle for me. It started a train of thought which lead me to this: Technology enables privileged individuals to amplify their impact on the world. It was only possible for music to be distracting me then and there because of the ‘combinatorial evolution’ of technologies, in which

slowly over time, many technologies form from an initial few, and more complex ones form using simpler ones as components. The overall collection of technologies bootstraps itself upward from the few to the many and the simple to the complex. (W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, 2009, p. 22, in David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, 2014, p. 96)

During production of the music I was hearing on the bus, a (presumably) digital compression technology was used so that it could be played back loud enough to be heard a metre or two away. Later, a different kind of digital compression was used so that it could be stored and played on a smartphone. This is a literal kind of amplification of the music itself. It’s also an amplification of the (persona/efforts/work/talent/vision/etc of the) individuals who created the music. Finally, it’s an amplification of the persona of the guy playing the music on the bus, who is privileged in the sense that not every one has a smartphone.

This is a straightforward example of my ‘amplify’ statement above. Another way in which technologies amplify the impact of privileged individuals is captured in the words ‘scale’, ‘scalable’ and ‘scalability’. These words are used widely and frequently, often with no acknowledgement of the assumptions lying behind them. Three examples in reverse chronological order.

1. What startups want

On tonight’s 7:30, there a was an enthusiastic report about ‘what startups want’. What startups want is, apparently, more capital from venture capitalists (VCs) so they can scale. It seems, according to one of the innovators interviewed for the report, that,

In Australia, there’s a handful of VCs. There’s probably only realistically three or four that actually invest at the seed stage, which is the stage we’re at, so it makes your options quite limited, whereas in the US there’s hundreds.

However, according to reporter Hayden Cooper, “the nation Australia wants to emulate” is Israel: its “booming tech start-up sector reels in billions of dollars in investment every year.” Never mind where, what or who those billions go to – that probably wouldn’t be very exciting, even if the journalists had bothered to investigate (it’s enough, apparently, to just ask another innovative young person, the Israeli Chief Scientist and get a couple of photos of Wyatt Roy and Malcolm Turnbull smiling with some Israeli tech folk).

Towards the end of the report, Serafina Maiorano, whose company helps ‘Australians in the Valley’ find venture capital, said that what Australian startups need is (presumably publicly-funded) startup incubation/acceleration ‘programs to help them scale their companies’. She also said that there should be “the opportunity to do more programs and scale those programs.” That sounds like a lot of scaling. A lot of tiny tech companies, each employing only a tiny handful of people, all trying to get more people venturing them capital or paying for their products/services or both.

I don’t know anything about the VC scene in Israel, but if it’s anything like Silicon Valley, actual profit generated from the product/service may be irrelevant to a lot of these tiny tech companies – it wasn’t even alluded to in the 7:30 report. What was mentioned, and what seems to be foremost on their minds, is venture capital: people giving them money. If they can get heaps of VC, ‘scale’ quickly by ‘burning’ that capital so they can get a good valuation and then get more VC, scale some more and then finally sell their still tiny tech company, they may never need to be profitable. It’s a fantasy and some pundits think that this startup bubble is close to bursting.

And yet, both major parties in Australia see this kind of activity as providing our future prosperity. They’re worried that our kids aren’t developing the kinds of skills necessary to participate in it.

2. Advancing human potential

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife yesterday published an open letter to their baby daughter. They write:

Your generation will set goals for what you want to become — like an engineer, health worker, writer or community leader. You’ll have technology that understands how you learn best and where you need to focus. You’ll advance quickly in subjects that interest you most, and get as much help as you need in your most challenging areas. You’ll explore topics that aren’t even offered in schools today. Your teachers will also have better tools and data to help you achieve your goals.
Even better, students around the world will be able to use personalized learning tools over the internet, even if they don’t live near good schools. Of course it will take more than technology to give everyone a fair start in life, but personalized learning can be one scalable way to give all children a better education and more equal opportunity. (my emphasis)

3. “Bend it, shape it, anyway you want it but at some point you have to scale it”

‘At some point you have to scale it’, wrote Donald Clark in a 2011 post titled ‘From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg – scale matters‘.

Until we truly understand scalability, education and training will remain the world’s biggest cottage industry. Teachers are not scalable. Classrooms are not scalable. When good practice is tied to both of these, it is prevented from becoming scalable. Tied to the tyranny of location and time, learning’s stuck in non-scalable boxes. But guess what, technology is scalable.

What ‘scale’ really means

‘Scale’ and its derivations exemplify ‘bullshit’: “language that is excessive, phony and generally “repeat[ed] quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are”” (Selwyn, 2015 citing Harry Frankfurt in On Bullshit, 2005). Following in this inglorious tradition, a Forbes contributor has written that ‘scalability’ means

that your business has the potential to multiply revenue with minimal incremental cost. Ready to scale is when you have a proven product and a proven business model, about to expand to new geographies and markets.

What social realities are obscured in this definition and the uses of ‘scale’ mentioned above? To start with, it’s a 21st century version of ‘economy of scale’ but that has an unsavoury ring to it when you’re trying to ‘advance human potential’.

In their recent critique ($) of the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’, Andrew A. King and Baljir Baartartogtokh discuss the ‘disruptive’ implications of scale. They analysed 77 cases of supposed of ‘disruptive innovation’ and found that, in at least 40% of them,

changing business conditions increased the economic advantages of scale and thereby limited the number of businesses that could profitably serve the market. The resulting “disruption” was really a well-known economic process that selected for a few well-placed businesses, incumbents and entrants alike, that could best leverage scale economies. For example…the expansion of national railroads allowed a few meatpacking plants to harness economies of scale and drive down costs. Previously, such scale advantages had been constrained by the inability to ship meat long distances, but the expansion of railroads and the availability of railcars with ice removed these barriers. These developments allowed meatpackers near rail hubs to harness massive scale economies and distribute inexpensive meat to broad regions of the country.

In recent decades, the development of the Internet and reliable parcel delivery has created similar scale challenges for brick-and-mortar bookstores. Before the tremendous growth of e-commerce, Borders Group Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc. leveraged economies created by the superstore format to gain a competitive advantage over smaller bookstores and mall-based chains. Online technologies meant that the assets represented by superstores could be trumped by an enormous, largely centralized distribution system. Because online sales costs continually fell with volume, whoever gained an initial advantage was likely to take the entire market; it didn’t matter whether it was a startup or an incumbent. (my emphasis)

Important though this analysis is, it does obscure the social implications for the meatpackers who weren’t near rail hubs: what happened to them and their families? Did they get different jobs in the same location? Did they relocate and, if so, what were the social impacts of their relocation? Were their liveilhoods permanently ‘disrupted’?

Scaling in education

In education, ‘an enormous, largely centralized distribution system’ could be Google, Facebook, Udacity, Coursera, or Pearson. Is this the kind of ‘scalability’ that Donald Clark had in mind when he said the following during his ‘Wake Up Plenary’ at this year’s European Association of International Education conference?

“I would like everybody to get a degree but I would like it to be cheap. I’d like it to be free. The only way you get that scalability beyond the rich developed world is through technology,” he said. “There aren’t enough human beings on the planet to solve this problem by paying teachers money.” (cited by Sara Custer)

Indeed. There is a finite number of human beings/students/paying customers so as one education provider scales up, others must inevitably scale down. Some of these education providers and their employees will go the way of the unfortunate meatpackers and booksellers described above. What this also means is the accelerated accumulation of wealth in the hands of an ever-dwindling number of individuals. As one privileged individual amplifies his or her impact on the world, other less privileged individuals may have theirs further diminished. But maybe that’s just the cost of ‘advancing human potential’? You can’t make an omelette without destroying the livelihoods of a few million people**.

Alternative ending

We should be suspicious of governments providing funding to help startups ‘scale’ and talking incessantly about ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, ‘agility’ and the desperate need to teach every single child how to code while at the same time crying poor when it comes to funding public education more generally.

** It’s worth keeping in mind that, due to the influence of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School over the last 40 years (i.e. neoliberalism), full employment is not actually a policy goal in the US, UK or Australia. In fact, full employment, or anything near it, is seen as a threat to the profitability of businesses due to the wage inflation and higher inflation more generally that would result. One way of interpreting Zuckerberg’s phrase ‘advancing human potential’ is that it means simultaneously unlocking both cheap and/or free labour and billions of potential consumers in the ‘global south’ (i.e. Africa, Latin America) – a win-win situation for Zuck.

7 thoughts on “Against ‘scale’”

  1. I can’t wait to become a shell of a destroyed livelihood if it means, in some small way, I contributed to the great, innovative ‘scale me up Scotty’ Omelette of Edtech.

    1. It’s a livelihood, Damien, but not as we know it.

      I think we all just want to be able to look our grandchildren in the eye when they ask us what we did during the Great Disruption.

      1. I see the dangers, but I’m not sure where to start in fighting it (maybe protect my privacy more such as Ghostery etc and also inform students of the Darkside which I am doing now). But doing that doesn’t really halt the “Great Disruption”. The Scaling is still going to take place.

        Technology does offer some benefits but how do you get the good out of it without being tainted by the bad? For example, I did an English course through EDx which I found really useful and professionally run (being in a small, coastal town in Thailand it meant I could do a quality course for free but how much data did I sell to do it?)

        Does it mean forgoing a presence in the online world and not buying any new tech related products? I try to limit it in some ways my tech purchases (second hand Iphone 4) but on the other hand I bought two new I-pads to use in relation to my school. Maybe they benefit the students at my school but is there a greater evil with waste of resources, poisons, poor factory conditions, gorilla fingers etc.

        Also, through my website I do advocate a style of teaching that incorporates technology into teaching. Lots of threads here…..

        Where’s the line in the data going to be drawn?

      2. “I’m not sure where to start in fighting it” Your comment here reminds me of this doco I watched last night about Syriza vs the ‘Troika’: How to meaningfully resist something which is alluring, overwhelmingly powerful and pushing relentlessly in the opposite direction?

        My own response, pathetic and futile though it may be, has been: 1) Try to understand better, 2) Use that understanding to articulate my concerns more clearly with the aim of raising awareness amongst friends, family and colleagues, and 3) Try to make choices about my own use of tech that better align with my beliefs and principles.

        “The Scaling is still going to take place.” I think it’s also important to keep in mind that ‘the Scaling’ is not inevitable, inexorable or the ‘natural order’. It’s driven by people and organisations; these people and organisations can be influenced, resisted, rejected, diverted, etc. and so can their ideas and political, social, economic processes.

        “Technology does offer some benefits but how do you get the good out of it without being tainted by the bad?” As Morozov says about 24:25 into the ‘Rebel Geeks’ doco ( “We are not creating the kind of world that technology allows us to create…” There are other possibilities; the technology does not determine for us what possibilities are realised in terms of how it is used. Is data mining used to further concentrate wealth in the hands of a few technocrats or is it used in the way that Morozov describes at around the 24 minute of that doco? We must keep our minds open to these different possibilities, and keep imagining alternatives.

        “is there a greater evil with waste of resources, poisons, poor factory conditions, gorilla fingers etc.” I’m not sure how it helps but I would argue that the ‘lesser evil’ of tech/edtech (I’m not sure it’s useful/meaningful to separate the two) is closely related to these ‘greater evils’. It just happens that education is an area where I feel I might be able to make some sort of a vaguely useful contribution, as opposed to, say, trying to stop the West selling arms to Saudi Arabia. I don’t see technology as the cause in a deterministic sense. Rather, I believe that the greater and lesser evils are all likely to happen more frequently in a world (such as the one we’re living in now) in which people mindlessly swallow and/or recirculate the type of technofuturist bullshit (meant in the more specific Frankfurtian sense) that we hear so frequently from people like Zuckerberg, Gates, Kalanick, Turnbull, Donald Clark, ELTjam, and so on and so on. I hope to see a greater recognition of the fact that inequality is increasing in the world and increased motivation to reverse this trend; technofuturist utopian bullshit (e.g. about how Twitter and YouTube helped bring about sustained/sustainable revolutions in the Middle East) just makes that harder. This is not necessarily the intent of Donald Clark or ELTjam or Turnbull or whoever, but I believe it is, to some extent at least, an unwelcome effect. In some cases, though, the technofuturist bullshit also hides ideologies which actively seek to maximise ignorance and inequality.

        Thanks for engaging with the post, Damien – I hope this is helpful in some way!

  2. Cheers. Some good ideas and thanks for your detailed response. Your three point plan sounds like a good place to start. My opinions are definitely evolving in regards to tech (I think I sat on my rose-coloured glasses this year). I should buy that book you always talk about by Selwyn. Maybe Santa will bring it for me downloaded onto an I-Pad Pro 🙂 Also, I’m going to modify how I post on my blog a bit and include a Poisoned TEFLon component in my reviews. Hmm how do I phase out FB when all my business pages are on it? Also, I should destroy my google accounts and shift towards maybe Firefox and freeware stuff rather than Microsoft…. Anyways thanks for the informative blog and have a good festive period!

  3. My argument against scaling is not economic but qualitative one. Disrupiton happens all the time, whether through scaling or other processes, and people have to adapt. I accept it. The point, however, is that scaling has significant bearing on quality. In teaching, good quality is very often based on a particular human being. Not the method, but the teacher. And the being of each person is something unique, and unscalable by principle.

    1. Hi Jedrek.

      Thanks for adding some nuance to my argument by focusing on the impact on quality of scaling in education. I agree but I think it’s wise to keep in mind the link between the qualitative and economic aspects – too often wider socioeconomic realities are ignored or glossed over and I think that can be dangerous.

      That quality in education depends ultimately on social factors that are ‘unscalable by principle’ is, sadly, anathema to many of those pushing for more technology in education. These social factors stand in the way of the realisation and rapid scaling of a highly profitable technological ‘reimagining’ of education; in the hope of reducing or eliminating the need for human experts (because they’re expensive and get in the way of the positivist vision of technocrats like Jose Ferreira and Mark Fallon), billions are being spent globally on artificial intelligence. So, I’m not sure that the social and the economic aspects can be separated without dangerously distorting our understanding of educational technology.

      Thanks for your contribution!

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