industry on fire, nature charred, a monster pleading against expulsion

Indie, Open, Free: The Fraught Ideologies of Ed-Tech

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Reviewed by Rebecca Halpern and Gregory Zobel and Lee Skallerup Bessette
utopia banished” by kr428; CC BY-SA 2.0

Kris Shaffer will be teaching a track on Data Literacies at this summer’s Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in Fredericksburg, Va. Registration for Data Literacies is now open.

I grew up in a middle-class American household, and I studied classical music. I took private lessons from seventh grade on. I owned my own instrument from eighth grade on. I upgraded to a professional-grade instrument at age 20 (with money saved from a paper route in junior high combined with part-time, minimum-wage income during high school and college). My parents paid for weekly lessons and enough of my needs (and wants) during the academic year that I did not need a part-time job in high school outside the summers, leaving me time to practice and compose. They paid for my youth orchestra tuition, college audition trips, etc.

When I wasn’t studying music, I was often playing around with the family computer. At age 6, my dad bought a Tandy TRS-80 4P, and my life as a hacker began, painstakingly typing in BASIC code from my 3-2-1 Contact magazines and making my own customizations to the programs. In middle school, my dad would go to weekend programming seminars and then give me the books when he got home, so I could teach myself database programming. The web entered the picture in college, where one of my work-study jobs was helping maintain the music conservatory website. And in graduate school, I had the time (and the funding) to teach myself a modern programming language for the purpose of doing computational statistics as part of my dissertation in music analysis.

There’s no mistaking the privileged background I come from. And yet, when I think about the current Western economy, I wonder if someone growing up with my background today could make it. In the context of the modern music industry, even the indie music scene, all those lessons and instruments I had would get me just about to the financial level of indie electronica ― the equivalent of a Mac, a mic, ProTools, and time/space to work. If I had to pay for studio time, edit and mix my own tracks, all the while collaborating with others, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue music.

But that’s where we are with indie rock today. The initial financial onus has shifted from the labels — scouting local music scenes for garage bands with The Sound — to the musicians, producing commercial-grade cuts themselves until they make their big break on the internet.

Web development is in a similar position, as DIY-friendly tools like WordPress, jQuery, and the LAMP stack are in decreasing demand among employers.

Now I like indie music ― one of the first podcasts I subscribed to was “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” And I like indie ed-tech ― my classes are full of technologies that (could) claim the mantle of “indie.” But I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the appropriation of indie music as a model for educational technology ― in large part because indie music has such a problematic business model, particularly in the post-Naptser era.

The problematic aspects of the indie music business model also exist (at least as potential) in indie ed-tech, where the glamour and cachet of the term indie often wash over them. Indie is a fraught term, a term that brings with it ― both in music and in ed-tech ― copious contradictions, a foundation of implicit privilege, and veiled ideological baggage that are easily missed by those going indie. But as educators and critical pedagogues, we must interrogate the contradictions, the privilege, the ideology before we adopt a new practice ― especially if we require our students to do so, as well. And when we do, I think we’ll find better models for just, open, free-as-in-freedom education than the indie music industry.

An indie label is a contradiction in terms

Ask a friend ― or DuckDuckGo ― for a definition of indie music, and you’ll have a hard time pinning down a definition. It will generally center around the release of music via an indie label, which in turn is defined by the absence of a “major, commercial” label. But what constitutes a major, commercial label? Is it the Big Three? (Sony BMG, Universal, Warner; some include EMI to make a Big Four.) Does it include their sublabels? Indie labels are, by definition, commercial enterprises, and many of them are rather large. Most of them distribute through one of the Big Three/Four. Some have even been purchased by one of the Big Three. Are they still indie? Or do they become simply a sublabel? Or perhaps a “craft label,” like the “small”, “craft” breweries that are really owned by big beer companies like InBev or Miller-Coors?

Ultimately, though, the ideas of being independent and signed are inherently contradictory, and this contradiction is what makes indie hard to define. Its ephemerality gives it both a mystique and a resistance to criticism ― after all, you can’t critique what you can’t define. And thus, using the term indie is often a great marketing move. But it’s a problematic critical move.

The same problems defining indie music apply in the world of ed-tech, too. Is indie ed-tech just ed-tech done independent of a corporation? Or is it limited to non-profit corporations? Small businesses? Or can a large, for-profit be indie as long as they don’t get bought by Pearson? Or maybe they still can be indie if they’re bought by Pearson? Or maybe indie is a genre of ed-tech ― ed-tech that pushes against the corporate models (à la EDUPUNK).

Indie’s difficult-to-define mystique makes it great for marketing. But educators, particularly those espousing critical pedagogy have to cut through the hype and expose the ideology, the practice, the data-collection and -retention policies, the intended (or unintended but foreseeable) ends of each technology. Uncritically celebrating the indie label keeps us from finding these answers.

Take Domain of One’s Own as an example. There are many ways in which we could describe the project as indie ed-tech. But what that means can be unclear, particularly to students and faculty new to the initiative. While the students have ultimate control of their web space, faculty give (and often grade) assignments that take place in that space. While the apps students can install in their hosting space are free-as-in-speech, open-source software, some of them were made by indie developers and some by corporations. Domain of One’s Own schools typically contract with a for-profit web hosting provider and deal with other for-profit companies along the way, such as domain registrars. And as becomes particularly clear when students leave the university and are faced with a decision about keeping (and paying for) their domain on their own or letting it go, there are real financial implications for the space that they own (or, rather, rent).

I would never claim that something is bad because it costs money, or that a company is bad merely because it is for-profit (which is simply the default disposition under U.S. law). However, the degree to which a student, their instructors, the institution, the hosting company, the registrar, etc. own, rent, and control the data on a student’s “own” domain is a complex issue, and one that deserves unpacking and engaging with a high degree of nuance. Especially because it is a core part of the digital literacy that programs like Domain of One’s Own are intended to foster for students (and faculty).

Indie is privileged

Indie music ― indie rock, in particular ― requires substantial privilege to create. That doesn’t make it bad. Again, I really like indie rock! And I think it’s important that people use their privilege to enrich the lives of others. But we need to acknowledge that privilege before we appropriate it as a model for other things, especially in education.

Think about what it takes to make a truly indie album. Musical talent, instruments, rehearsal space (not as easy to come by for a rock band as for a string quartet), access to recording space and equipment (ditto), a digital audio workstation for editing/mixing/mastering, time for songwriting, time for rehearsing, time for recording, and enough experience to digitally transform a world-class performance into a world-class digital cut. All of these take a level of financial privilege. And for each one of these, if the artists don’t possess the space, time, or experience necessary, they require more funds to pay for them. Perhaps this is one reason why Stuart Maconie writes that the privileged are taking over the arts.

The same kinds of privilege can be found in education ― as tuition costs rise and public contributions to higher ed diminish, as MOOCs and online ed require high-quality broadband access, copious free time, and “roaming autodidacts”. That privilege can also be found in ed-tech. I was only able to co-author an open, “indie” textbook because much of that work doubled as class prep. (It still required some crowdfunding.) My creation of the various tools I’ve worked on since (a WordPress plugin for and an open-content-friendly CMS) was only possible because it is part of my current job at UMW. In other words, I have been paid to work “indie”.

But the ability to work on indie projects is not available to all. The time and resources required to work indie are a sign of privilege, as is encouraging (and certainly expecting) all to work indie. As Anne Pasek writes, “all materials and practices … have a cost and thus a tollgate for participation.” (And there are many, often intersecting, forms of privilege that contribute to that “toll” ― race, gender, orientation, cultural background, economic background, able-bodiedness, etc.) So while indie work is great, and I’ve done a lot of it myself, we need to be careful about the ways in which we encourage and characterize indie work, noting in particular what it costs and who may be left behind or left out.

Indie is not ideologically neutral

Indie music is not an entirely new phenomenon. The generation of European composers born into the depression and raised through the rise and fall of national socialism saw the purposes to which music was put in a totalitarian society. It played a significant role in state propaganda, particularly the attaching of current political oppression to national legends and nationalistic heroes. (Think Adolf Hitler drawing on the Teutonic themes in the music of anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner to bolster his ideal of German national identity.) Composers in post-WWII Eastern Europe experienced similar trends at the hands of Stalinist socialists, including the Zhdanov Decree of 1948 (which put them at the mercy of Stalin’s paranoia and his uninformed, easily influenced artistic taste). So in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many young European composers sought to go “indie” ― to create music that was “ideology-free”, stripped from the ideological baggage of the music of previous generations. Some did this by “liberating the tones,” some by embracing technology and algorithms in artistic creation, some by eschewing the traditional elements of music (notes, chords, rhythms, instruments) altogether. They soon discovered that ideology-free music was untenable. Not only was ideology-free music itself an ideology, but it was structurally impossible to create such music.

Ed-tech is the same. There is no ideologically neutral technology. There is only technology that isn’t open about its ideology. As Audrey Watters writes:

We tend not to see education technology as ideological. (No doubt, we largely fail to scrutinize the ideology of education as well.) We do not recognize the ways in which education technology can, as Selwyn notes, “accommodate all these agendas (from the countercultural to the commercial) with little sense of incompatibility or conflict.” How does a push for “self-directed learning” feed a libertarian anti-institutionalism? How does the mantra “everyone needs to learn to code” serve the interests of global capitalism? How much of the “Maker Movement” is venture-backed consumerism? What does it say that this profitable version of “making” dovetails so neatly with some visions of progressive education?

Audrey’s essay is about the “Californian ideology” of ed-tech, an ideology where neoliberalism, libertarianism, and the privileged opportunism of the “new economy” intersect. I’m bothered by all three of these strands in ed-tech in general, but in indie ed-tech, I’m most concerned about the potential to fall into (pirate?) libertarianism. Uncritically going indie tends towards the individualistic, the libertarian. But in the face of systemic problems in education, government, and industry, a collective response is needed. An actively pursued counterculture. And as Audrey says, indie can support that too — but only if we’re clear about what we’re doing.

Socially conscious computing

These are some of the reasons why I’ve begun to replace “indie” with “open-source” in descriptions of my own work. In “Open-Source Scholarship”, I describe the open-source software movement as a model for scholarly work:

The open-source (or “free” or “libre”) software movement centers around a single ideal: community ownership of software. Open-source software may or may not be free-as-in-beer (no cost), but it is always free-as-in-speech. Not only do users have the right to use the software, but users, developers, and re-developers have the rights to access, manipulate, break, rebuild the original code to fix bugs, add features, or create new projects. Open-source software is licensed in a semi-restrictive way. Limitations are placed on the use of the software that preserve the rights of the community (such as the requirement that all derivative versions use the same license). The author gives up the sole right to sell, distribute, and create derivative works in order to preserve those rights for the community, of which the author is, of course, a member.

The open-source movement is not without its own social problems. In fact, many of the same layers of privilege and gatekeeping seen in indie music are imposed by companies who center their work around open-source software. But at its best, the open-source, free, copyleft philosophy provides a helpful model of community ownership and collective progress towards a common goal, and the licenses associated with open-source software offer substantial inoculation against both libertarian and neoliberal ideologies, as well as against definition creep. The open-source movement is also compatible with the Hacker Ethic, which holds sharing and world improvement among its chief goals, alongside indie characteristics like openness and decentralization.

Let me close by again affirming my love for much of what we call indie music and indie ed-tech. But for me, indie is a means. Socially conscious computing and liberal education are the ends. Like open, indie serves a goal, and as a term, it brings a lot of baggage. Just as openwashing threatens the value of openness (especially if openness is an end, rather than a means), indiewashing threatens to undercut the value that indie ed-tech can provide.

But whatever terms we use to describe our work, let’s be honest about our ideology and the privilege that allows us to pursue it in our work. And if your ideology is similar to mine, let’s keep working “indie”, but let’s do it together, in pursuit of social good.

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1 Response

  1. Yes to so much of this, Kris. I also wonder about how public institutions relate to the concept of “indie.” First, of course, is the question of how *any* institution relates to the concept of “indie.” But as you note the decline in support for public higher ed, you also note the way that institutions can support the kinds of “indie” work that we value. I wonder how public and private universities could differ from each other in supporting indie work, or if maybe what I really value is less indie and more public. Can public institutions be one way to grow EdTech outside of the profit motive that drives commercial EdTech (cough coughPurdue/Kaplan and a million more such examples that defeat my ideas here) and shift the privilege points to access points? Are we missing the boat by using words like “Indie” when we could be using words like “public?” And are we missing the boat by not better articulating the public value of public institutions and the ways that they could shift the landscape that you are critiquing here? Christopher Newfield talks about the subbing out of technology programs and initiatives to private commercial EdTech vendors as one of the key parts of the devolutionary cycle that contributes to the privatizing of American higher ed. I wonder why we talk so little about the potential of public institutions when we have these conversations.

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