Today’s sermon is inspired by NY Times columnist David Brooks’ case that what was an economy based on making “stuff” is now an economy based on sets of instructions. The Protocol Economy, as he’s calling it, has its iconic source in software, that set of instructions embedded in our stuff — cars, appliances and, of course, computers.
The implication for college professors — and for the entire K-through-post-doc education — is that education is already a crucial part of the protocol economy. My job teaching undergraduate and graduate students is now not only driven by emerged and emerging technologies — web sites, social media; what I do is now judged according to a set of instructions called “outcomes assessment,” which is itself a protocol based on a logical, data-driven system that spells out (the scientific term is “operationalizes”) the “objectives” of a course in such a way that what and whether a student actually learns can be measured.
The big idea is to eliminate wiggle room. No longer will students be required to learn “the material” because such a instruction is amorphous, ambiguous and therefore not measurable. That approach to teaching is now regarded disdainfully as merely a bad piece of software. It’s Old School, shot through with contingency, and in the protocol university contingency is unacceptably nostalgic, vague and inefficient — its inefficiency impotent to generate the quantifiable, comparative, competitive results which are now the basis of life support for educational institutions: government support, corporate donations, grants and other forms of economic and financial transfusion.
As a professor whose expertise includes public relations — relationship creation, reputation management, branding, ranking, visibility, credibility — I see how the public relations industry has shrewdly embraced the industrial protocol and assessment strategies enabled by search engine optimization, social media, and all forms of user-generated content. Mass communications have been de-massified, a process that has been in the works for a generation. The demassification has all but killed mass advertising, and with it mass media. The world of communication is now parsed one-at-a-time — one irate consumer, one pissed-off voter, one beetrayed celebrity spouse — and then the one’s get aggregated to the millions. (Hello there, Susan Boyle.
We live now day to day, awaiting the next new thing and its Schumpeteresque creative destruction of the sweet and sour old things (bye, bye Seattle Intelligencer, professorial lectures, and human bodies cheek to jowl in a classroom; bye bye textbook divisions of big publishing companies; bye bye publishing companies).
All of which is to say that we now live in age of agitation and even crisis. Of what a friend of mine calls Continual Partial Attention. An age where continual monitoring is no match for slander and libel that goes viral in a heartbeat. In a way, a fabulous age full of fables: Make your own, see it fly. But that’s another matter for another time.
In the protocol economy, the winners will know how to create, live by and be judged according to rigorous sets of instructions. The losers will recuse themselves, wax nostalgic and wane into irrelevancy.