Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Almost Recognizing

Every so often, when watching something on tv, I’ll sort of recognize an actor.  I’ll know it’s someone I’ve seen before, but won’t be able to place where.  I’ve been known to lose entire evenings trying to figure out who it is.  That feeling of knowing that I know, but being unable to call up the specifics, is a special kind of frustration.  It happens with actors, songs, or even famous quotations in unfamiliar contexts.  Shazam and Google sometimes help, but I try not to resort to them too quickly.  It feels like cheating.

Once in a while, I’ll get a similar feeling when I read or hear an idea.  It’s so foreign, and yet so obvious, that I can’t immediately decide whether it’s brilliant or crap.  I can’t shake the sense that there’s something there, even if I can’t quite place what it is. This piece by Mike Caulfield is like that.  (Hat-tip to Kate Bowles for highlighting it on Twitter.)

Caulfield suggests -- “argues” is too strong a word -- that extremely low labor costs in certain jobs actually deter innovation in those jobs, because the payoff for possible efficiency gains is relatively low.  To use his example, that’s part of the reason that technology has moved much more quickly to come up with tax-preparation software than with robots that can clean hotel rooms.  Preparing tax returns costs more per hour than making beds does, so the payoff for automation is greater.  In the hotel sector, there’s still enough cheap labor around that it hasn’t been worth innovating.  

He then applies the same logic to higher education.  As long as plenty of qualified people are willing to work for very low pay, he suggests, there’s no pressure for systemic innovation. If the cost of instruction were dramatically higher, the sector as a whole would have been forced to change its ways much more fundamentally. If labor is cheap enough, you don’t have to rethink how to deliver Intro to Psych.  If it gets too expensive, you’ll see the appeal of going with an entirely new model.


I like several elements of the idea.  It recognizes incentives, for one, and it avoids the all-too-common trap of assuming that the trend towards adjunct instruction is either just a failure of will or some sort of conspiracy.  The trend is an increasingly desperate attempt to keep an old model alive in ever-more-hostile conditions.  From the inside, it feels much more like a holding action than like some sort of assault.  This theory gives that feeling a context.  

As with many holding actions, there comes a point at which it makes more sense to try something else.  I’d rather have a hand in shaping what comes next, while the option still exists, than hold out so long that all agency is lost to an economic force majeure.

If the theory is substantially correct, then the option of a return to some sort of prelapsarian idyll is really off the table.  If the idyll were sustainable -- assuming it existed at all -- it would have sustained.  The decades-long holding actions have been ubiquitous precisely because the idyll is so appealing that almost nobody wants to admit that it’s gone.  

In other words, if Caulfield’s framework is largely correct, then there’s a choice.  We could embrace the two-tiered future, with the top tier shrinking and the bottom tier growing.  Or we could start looking at the underlying business model itself.  

I’m not sure whether the concept of low wages as innovation-stifler has a glaring hole in it, but it feels like it captures something fundamental.  Now I’m doomed to walk around for most of the day obsessing about it, as if trying to place some actor.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a flaw I’m missing?