My latest essay at Truthout “The Great Answer to Education Reform? The Number 42” was released last week, and it was exciting to see the dialogue on Truthout, Facebook, and Twitter, as readers debated the role of automation, corporatization, and technical progress in our schools, and our culture more broadly.
In writing the essay, I was most inspired by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s prophetic and hilarious first novel Player Piano, which vividly imagines a completely technicalized society (Thanks to Paul Thomas for recommendation).
But if it’s possible to be reverse-inspired (as I’m sure Dr. Who would agree it is, given the right kind of temporal flux), then Dave Egger’s latest novel The Circle –which I read immediately after the essay was published – vividly depicts what I was trying to express, extending upon it significantly. Egger’s novel – set in a world perhaps just a few years away – imagines quite vividly and frighteningly what will happen once Big Data dictates all elements of our lives . In one section, he explores a new data system The Circle has created called YOUTHRANK, which compares all students across the country against each other, using their standardized testing scores and other quantitative metrics. Indeed, once it’s fully up and running, with “full participation from all schools and districts, we’ll be able to keep daily rankings, with every test, every pop quiz incorporated instantly.” That way, “soon we’ll be able to know at any given moment where our sons or daughters stand against the rest of American students, and then against the world’s students.”
YOUTHRANK may be a prophetic warning, but it’s also already here in nascent stages, in the form of the InBloom student database, funded by the Gates Foundation and built by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. And certainly, the competitive, data-driven ethos underneath YOUTHRANK is already encoded in federal law, in the form of Race to the Top – if The Circle existed, it would no doubt get the $3 billion grant it was given by the (fictional) Department of Education in Egger’s novel.
More broadly, though, The Circle provides important answers to the questions raised in my essay: What kind of world is Silicon Valley leading us to? And do we want to live there?