What Do You Believe In?

Ask Capitalism. Is it wrong to be successful?


Imagine that you set up a stand-alone computer in a remote part of India where technology was non-existent. What might happen? Maybe kids would start playing with it. Maybe they would learn English by playing, and eventually they would ask you for a faster processor and a better mouse. They might even learn about character mapping and DNA replication… on their own. Sound far-fetched? Well that is exactly what happened in experiments conducted by Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University (see his award winning TED talk here). What does all this have to do with capitalism anyway?

Capitalism With A Capital “C”

Over the last decade or so, capitalism has gotten a bum rap. The economic crisis of 2008 did not help much where financial institutions – profiting grotesquely from hugely inflated credit – were either crushed (like Lehman Bros.) or bailed out (like Goldman Sachs) by their pals in big government.

Investopedia defines capitalism as:

“A system of economics based on the private ownership of capital and production inputs, and on the production of goods and services for profit.”

It then goes on to talk about supply, demand and competition. A key phrase appears in the end of the definition:

“Other facets, such as the participation of government in production and regulation, vary across models of capitalism.”

During the crisis of 2008, it seems as if government regulation (manipulation?) got so heavy that if you were a small, independent businessman, then the USA was capitalist – that is, sink or swim. If you were a huge bank though, it was socialist.

Yet when left to itself, pure competition can produce miraculous results like Google Glass and Apple iPhones. Even Facebook is changing world in surprising ways (more on this later).

Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword

Over the course of the past few weeks, we have been talking a lot about disruption. One hallmark of the process is that the big guys are always the targets. Who’s going to bother disrupting a corner hot-dog stand? Greg Satell, argues in his blog that networks, rather than nodes or influencers, create disruption. However, you need the nodes to create sparks and accelerate processes which rely on the network to be perpetuated. It’s like dropping a computer into remote India.

Once you make it big though, get ready for a fight. Just like Netflix crushed Blockbuster, torrenting technology is biting at the heels of Netflix. So it’s all good as long as we keep advancing, right? Never mind the pesky issue of piracy that torrenting is built upon.

Old School Vs. New School

Many say that the educational system is broken. The reality, as Mitra said in his TED talk, is that traditional education is outdated. Things are just moving too fast to teach the way we used to teach. One thing about education is that it never loses the capacity to learn, despite the criticism. Enter the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. This is the virtual classroom. Here anyone from Albuquerque to Timbuktu can go online and learn – form the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley just to name a few.

There have been some criticisms about the MOOC form of education such as the high dropout rate. According to Kate Jordan’s Ph.D. research, the completion rate for MOOCs is less than 7%. Pretty dismal right? But let’s crunch the numbers a bit more. The average enrollment is around 43,000 so over 3,000 students have completed each course. Not bad. The very nature of online education is that large numbers enter and small numbers exit.

If we look to the developing world, we find a startling contrast. TechCrunch reports that:

“[T]he self-motivation conundrum that haunts American students doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue for those in developing nations….MOOCs saw a very impressive 95 percent completion rate for users in Africa.”

Tech-apitalism In The Third World

If you were going to name the crown jewels of tech and capitalism, Facebook would be near the top of the list. Now Facebook is planning on teaming up with Ivy League universities to bring MOOCs to Rwanda. If a PC left alone out in the desert taught kids about language and processors, imagine the impact that directed education could make.

It can be argued that this is the end product of all we have been discussing thus far: capitalism, disruption and a world-changing technology that was born of capitalism.

What About The Cream Filling?

Now isolated experiments in the Indian desert are intriguing, but what happens when cultures collide and you bring the Ivy League to the slums of New Delhi on a large scale? We’ve already reported how technology has been blamed for rising inequality. Even stateside, as The New Yorker points out, MOOCs might give you a G.E.D.-like experience thus missing out on much of the learning that takes place with a real high school degree. When you stir in the cultural gap you might not get the results you are looking for.

However, edX, which is the Harvard-MIT MOOC teaming up with Facebook, already has some experience in the field since 10% of edX students are already from Africa. They assure us that they are not going into things blindly.

Irony Of Ironies

In Sierra Leone, you have electrical supply about once a month. In that environment, then 13 y.o. Kelvin Doe figured out how to make his own batteries. He later helped build a radio station from spare electronic parts plucked from garbage cans. He was eventually invited to MIT where he amazed researchers with his intelligence and curiosity. David Sengeh, a doctoral student from Sierra Leone, mentored Kelvin during his visit to the USA. Sengeh writes:

“As a Sierra Leonean who was given an opportunity to pursue biomedical engineering at Harvard and now a Ph.D. at MIT, I understand that a basic set of tools and a supporting platform are needed to transform good ideas into projects that impact an entire community… The youth of Sierra Leone are ready and capable of transforming their country. By providing them with resources and creative freedom, we can spark the joy of discovery that results in innovation and ultimately, national development.”

The poor countries are dying to take advantage of the fruits of technology born of capitalism. Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, they are protesting against Google.

The Future Might Surprise You

Throughout history, more advanced nations have conquered others with advanced technology. In many aspects there was oppression, but opportunity was also born. As we sit and complain about inequality, those in the poorest areas of the world are seeking to innovate. They don’t want funds, they want technology and knowledge. Perhaps in the future, the next Google will arise out of India or an African nation.

Technology is just another platform, but the human spirit always continues to strive ever forward. Maybe that’s exactly why we are so disruptive in the first place.


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