Dressed in Illusory Robes: Selling a Solution that Misinforms and Creates Dependency

I have spoken before on the subject of technological imperialism. This concept uses the framework of imperial nations and colonized peoples to addresses how the consumer and social contract between vast technology multinationals and governments or private consumers. The goal of the imperial company is not to empower the consumer nor to educate and liberate them that they may be equals. Rather, the imperial multinational technology company builds its revenue model and projections on the expectation that inequality and dependence will continue.

I understand that associating technology giants with technological imperial powers may sound like I am advocating for a non-capitalist world or that I am against success. This would be an erroneous leap in judgement. As an entrepreneur I believe in free market competition. What I am speaking about however is the reproduction of inequality under the false guise of empowerment.

The following is an example of a multinational presentation to local government agency. 

The case in point was Microsoft’s presentation of Multipoint at a teacher’s training event offered to public school teachers.  The notes are personal notes taken at the event.

Personal Journal Entry

I am here at the the Multipoint Sales and Teacher Training event. The greeters at the registration to the event were dressed in school uniforms. As I walk in I catch the last portion of the welcoming remarks by the Auxiliary Secretary of Academic and Community Services of the Department of Education.  She speaks of the importance of integrating innovation in the curriculum and the need for updating the technology infrastructure in order to better prepare the next generation for the demands of the information economy and improve the competitive advantage the region offers multinationals. As she concludes her remarks she surprises me with a clear sales pitch and endorsement for Microsoft as their partner that will make this need for better integrating technology in the curriculum happen.  As she returns to her seat I greet her and ask her for her remarks, but seemingly uncomfortable at the prospect she declines.

The meeting hall had 2 huge screens where Microsoft documentary-style ad campaign for Multipoint is presented.  The ad campaign features 4 test sites for Microsoft Multipoint, all of them in developing nations.  When talking about the case study they refer to the a local public school where they installed the Microsoft Multipoint services.  Interviews of teachers and students color the film in a personal telling of change and hope.  The English language presentation that follows is offered by Microsoft’s Education Services Latin America Vice President. The conference introduces the “innovation” of using thin clients.

Noteworthy quotes, these are actual quotes:

“Collaborating”: is putting documents on a public access folder.
“Inspiring students is getting them new computers.”

I am surprised that the presenter did mention limitations to the technology:

— “Multipoint does NOT resolve the issue of legacy educational applications that don’t run on Vista or Multipoint.”
— “Does not integrate with laptops.”
— “Multipoint technology is meant for sharing the users on a table setting.” Use in settings farther apart than a shared table are not intended and are not available.

Imperial Discourse Reaffirming Technologically Colonized Status of People

The conference I witnessed was a masterfully planned overpowering presentation that communicated modernity, wealth and global perspectives.  It was presented as a training event and yet there was no hands on use, no manual, no questions from the audience during the short moments of cursory instruction. The lack of actual student, instructor interaction reinforces the fact that the event was primarily a sales event.

The sales event dressed in the robes of yearning for quick easily purchasable solution that will provide technological empowerment and innovation among students, effectively sold those illusory robes. Illusory, because teachers were taught, there was no learning there was convincing argument for a sale.  The documentary also claimed the success of the technology innovation program at the local public school, which had embarked on an independent technology project years before the new technology was integrated as part of the success of Microsoft Multipoint.  The Department of Education was proud to see its achievement shared globally, though it dismissed the new philosophy and approach developed by a local academic researcher before MS became involved.

After the sales is completed the dependency is reinforced because a solutions was sold but no discussion of actual transfer of knowledge was presented. The lack of knowledge on how to use the tool reaffirms the clients incapability and need for the supplier.

The robes that make the wares of this sale, can furthermore be described as illusory because they are speaking of thin clients as being new, when they have been around, in fact before the personal computer revolutionized the market. More recent success cases for thin clients include the well publicized deployment of linux based thin clients in 2001 the Municipality of Largo, Florida, which remains 9 years later as a positive change in their technology infrastructure. (REFERENCES: http://www.largo.com/egov/docs/1220878017329.htm )

On the topic of remote use and equipment that can be used, today many companies implement Google style remote desktops to access their work sessions remotely and the range of possible hardware can be described as “if it can run and can be plugged in it works”.  This is option is much more robust than plug it in and share if its on the same table.

On the topic of “inspiring students” I strongly believe that TEACHERS inspire and the opportunity to create and produce inspires students, NOT a new shiny computer. Alluding to purchasing new  computers as inspiring students is not dissimilar to believing that a diamond ring communicates commitment, a car love and trust or spending will help stem an emotional depression. In all these instances the psychological impact of quick achievement induced by purchasing helps blind the relationship between source and symbol.  Though the item purchased is a symbol it is promoted effectively as an icon to the point of negating its existence  of the source  if the symbol is not present.

Alternative Robes

If we demystify computers and render them like hammers. They are a tool. Ideally a tool that can be reused for years to come, but that will not on their own build a house or give the builder the plan to follow. The key to a good home or successful construction project is therefore not in the tools necessarily but more importantly in the knowledge that is put into place in the drafting of the plan.

In the spirit of recycling, it is great that Multipoint saves in energy costs, but even better that the Department of Education  could recycle 3000+ computers from other agencies and the thousands of computer components that are in the books but were rendered “inoperable” because they could not run the newer operating systems. Making accessible new technologies using thousands of existing computer elements gives physical representation to thinking outside the box.  Breathing new life and new use to existing components communicates resourcefulness and ingenuity.  Teaching by example is a powerful educational strategy. It invites students to look beyond the existing market limitations and wonder what could I do with what I have rather than discard it?

This course of action is not new.  The region of Extremadura in Spain facing budget crisis in 2002 decided to implement linux workstations and made it possible to place tens of thousands of computers. Eight years later that decision can be traced as a turning point that inspired economic development in the region.  The local Ministry of Education suddenly had needs for new solutions and new local companies were formed to meet the demand.  In a few years Extremadura became known as one of the centers of information technology innovation.  The Extremadura experience has provided a slew of Spanish language open source curriculum.

More recently, using more modern hardware, the Ikastola School System of the Spanish Basque Autonomous Community  has moved to using electronic textbooks.  This solution is also open source. Along with the Largo, Florida example of thin clients and the electronic books in the Basque Region, the field is set for new examples of technology integration to be set where use of technology does not preclude an annual licensing fee.