As shysters gambol and frisk

American humourist and cartoonist James Thurber‘s wealth of wisdom is evident almost fifty years after his death. Thurber used fables (‘short moral stories, often with animal characters’) as a device to hammer home complex points.  In April 1939, as the world was preparing for war, The New Yorker published a fable called The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing – a story about two sheep “who put on wolf’s clothing and went among the wolves as spies, to see what was going on.”  Arriving at Wolfland during a major fete, each of the spies was chiefly interested in writing his own book about the experience. Having spent five hours in Wolfland, one of the spies managed to get his book wired through while the other made it to the newspapers first. Both had an identical message: “wolves were just like sheep, for they gambolled and frisked, and every day was fete day in Wolfland.” Feeling reassured and relieved, the sheep “drew in their sentinels and they let down their barriers. When the wolves descended on them one night, howling and slavering, the sheep were as easy to kill as flies on a windowpane.” 

The moral of the story, says Thurber, is “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”  

Thurber came to mind when I read a cnet news story titled “Tech giants team on education push.” According to Ina Fried, cnet’s Microsoft fundi, “Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco … are working together to help ensure that proper standards are created for measuring digital literacy.” The emphasis is mine, and for the misnomer ‘digital literacy’ read digeracy, that is, humans’ ability to learn through-and-from digital technology. The Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco triumvirate plans to convene a group of international education and academia leaders and task them with figuring out “the characteristics that should form the basis of global standards.”  The group is to be headed by Professor Barry McGaw from the Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

Some can view the collaboration between three ‘tech giants’ as a crucial development in world education. Woefully short of resources and mercilessly brain-drained through corporate poaching and professional attrition, future education platforms may now be streamlined, standardised and developed through focused, globally researched, defined, accepted and published standards for Digeracy.  

I, on the other hand, see wolves gamboling and frisking. 

Can anyone seriously believe that Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco will ever-ever-ever imagine (let alone support) a world in which, for example,  Linux is the operating system, AMD provides the chips and processors and Juniper supplies the networks? In other words, a world where companies other than Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco reign sublime? A clue to the answer can be found in the fact that Fried’s insightful piece relies on an interview with a Microsoft VP named Anoop Gupta who, Fried says, “heads Microsoft’s emerging markets effort.”  Education as an emerging market!? Give me a break! We’re talking about an attempt to predefine usage-standards for operating systems, processors and networks. 

A closer look at Anoop Gupta’s profile on the Microsoft website reveals that one of the VP’s responsibilities is to “proactively anticipat[e] areas where regulation or policy may impact Microsoft’s ability to bring innovations to market” (for “bring innovations to market” read “deliver Microsoft products to market.”) Clearly, Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco’s marriage of convenience comes to address potentially harmful regulations or policies relating to Digeracy.  Strapped for cash education providers prefer free, open source, solutions. While AMD and Juniper aren’t free products (Linux is), they serve to level the playing fields through a fierce competition to Intel and Cisco, respectively. 

The wolves’ mission statement can be found in Fried’s piece: “Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco … are working together to help ensure that proper standards are created for measuring digital literacy.” It is, really, all bout money. They care for literacy, digeracy or education inasmuch as it affects their bottom line. Worse – I have a strong feeling that the ‘proper standards’ mentioned above reflect standards that are acceptable to the triumvirate.  

I find it hard to believe that the three companies in question would accept a global standard that – for whatever reason – ignored their products.  

There is absolutely nothing wrong with large businesses participating in socio-educational projects – as long as it’s clear that they are governed by various financial constraints and considerations. After all – they are businesses, in it for the money. To paraphrase Groucho: if the three tech giants, who stay away from the standard-making body, look awfully shy for business behemoths, it is probably because they are shyster business behemoths. 

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