Tag Archives: John Seely Brown

The Ultimate in Unbundling

Day 174 - Bundle! (Courtesy of tommy.toast)

Day 174 - Bundle! (Courtesy of tommy.toast)

Checking our luggage on a United airplane headed for Seattle, we experienced the ultimate in unbundling.   Not only did we have to master the use of the terminal kiosk to access our boarding pass; in the process, we were offered a variety of additional features–all formerly available as part of a flight package.  Included, for example, was baggage storage,  extra leg room, an upgrade to first class, and additional miles.  In the heat of the moment, we decided we could use some extra leg-room.  Inserting our credit card into the kiosk once again, we requested additional space. Alas, we got instead extra miles–heaven only knows to where. Although the lady at the counter could not tell us the destination of these miles, nor how to make use of them, she did know that they were nonrefundable. Sympathetic to our plight, she explained: “Sorry, we have been instructed not to provide passengers much help. The airline companies want us, instead, to train the passengers to take over our jobs.”

 Sympathetic to our plight, she explained: “Sorry, we have been instructed not to give passengers much help. The airline companies want us, instead, to train the passengers to them over our jobs.”  

What a disturbing comment!  Stopping at a fast food counter, I began to ponder it. As I assembled a meal to take on the plane from among the assorted, individual food items, I was struck by what appears to be an inexorable seepage of the idea of unbundling from its origins in the divestiture of the American telephone system to the deconstruction of commonplace pleasures and practices, such as a formal lunch.

A satisfied lunch guest! by maurice flower

A satisfied lunch guest! by maurice flower

Certainly, the modularization of information and communication technologies has greatly facilitated the process of unbundling. Allowing companies to maximize their profits and differentiate their products, by charging on a service by service, item by item, basis, unbundling has been extolled by economists, such as Hal Varian and Garth Saloner, as the essence of efficiency.  As these authors argue in their book, Information Rules, unbundling promotes innovation, encourages competition, and provides for greater consumer choice. One should note, however, that these advocates make little mention of social costs.

This is not the first time that I have thought about the costs and benefits of unbundling. Having directed the OTA study, Critical Connections: Communications for the Future, I spent the eighties participating in the debates surrounding the divestiture of the Bell telephone system. Notwithstanding–or perhaps because of–the in-depth research we conducted, and the intense discussions in which we were engaged, I was never totally convinced of the wisdom of unbundling the communication system.  One book that had a significant influence on my thinking was Steve Coll’s intriguing narrative The Deal of a Century: The Breakup of At&T (1986), in which he describes the high drama and serendipitous events that led to the unexpected divestiture outcome.  These included, for example, Baxter’s bias, Green’s takeover of the case, Reagan’s absence at a critical meeting, and Brown’s unanticipated willingness to make a deal.   As a relatively young policy analyst at the time, I was shocked at what appeared to be a lack of analysis driving such a momentous decision.  I was relieved when, at the end of Coll’s book, he raised the question of social costs associated with unbundling, especially the new transaction costs that would fall to the user.

Humpty Dumpty ... by abbietabbie

Humpty Dumpty ... by abbietabbie

As bundling proceeds apace, encroaching on all realms of our lives, perhaps it is time to revisit its underlying rationale.  In particular, we need to reassess what is lost when all sorts of products and services are disassembled, and users are expected to put Humpty Dumpty together again.  The telephone is a prime example. At the time of divestiture, the transaction costs for users were relatively low–choosing among styles and colors, coping with jacks, and inside wiring.  As technology has advanced, however, sorting out the choices and technological complexities can befuddle even the best of us.  

Even more troubling for me, is the unbundling (or one might say disembedding) of the economic product from the context in which it is employed. The problem is well laid out in The Social Life of Information written by Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown, the book I have assigned for next week’s Networked Economy Class.  As the author’s note, just as in the case of United Airlines, businesses are increasingly substituting technology for human interaction, and with dire consequences.  What such businesses fail to recognize is that technologies can not replicate the knowledge generation, knowledge sharing and/or the norms of reciprocity and collaboration that are inherent in human interaction.  Nor do such policies foster consumer loyalty–next time for me its Southwest Air!   

 

 

 

 

Linking for Interdisciplinary Learning

Michael Wesch’s short video, A Vision of Students Today, associates the gap in relevance between student’s interests today and educational practices at a traditional university to the widespread availability of new, and more captivating, modes of learning and interaction, now available in the digital age. My own educational experience, which began over 60 years ago, suggests that this disconnect is not necessarily a new phenomena, nor solely a product of digital technologies. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid might agree. As they argue in a paper entitled, ” The University in the Digital Age, the weaknesses in today’s educational system are due primarily to a fundamental pedagogical failure. According to the authors, the problem is that we treat education as a matter of delivering scientifically vetted content to students, rather than engaging them in an on-going shared practice of discovery.

the problem is that we treat education as a matter of delivering scientifically vetted content to students, rather than engaging them in a situated, on-going shared practice. of discovery.

The authors’ paper certainly resonates with me personally, especially their characterization of the typical approach used to teach math. In my case, two seminal experiences come to mind. The first occurred when I was in seventh grade. My teacher, Mrs. Milford, posed the following question in our class: If an airplane is traveling at 500 miles and hour, and the wind is blowing at 40 miles an hour, how fast is the plane moving? When she revealed the right answer–540 miles per hour–I was perplexed. I asked: “If the wind is traveling at 40 miles per hour, how can it catch up with a plane flying at 500 miles per hour? No doubt, a reasonable question for a seventh grader? Not according to Mrs Milford. In response to my perceived impertinence I was sent to the principal’s office where I was assigned the task of putting the top 500 U.S. cities in alphabetical order. Talk about a disconnect! Needless to say, it was some time before I raised another math question. In fact, the next occasion occurred years later, in my college algebra class, when I asked why one could not divide by zero. The answer, I was told, was because, if I did so, I would fail. Enough said!

In their paper, Brown and Duguid describe how math might be taught in the context of a community of practice. They suggest that if knowledge is to be meaningful to students, the teacher must make explicit the thought process that he or she goes through in generating a question, and seeking an answer for it. By participating in the learning process–that is to say, the practice and, yes, the culture of doing math –students will develop an intuitive sense of how to generate solutions to such problems on their own.

By participating in the learning process–that is to say, the practice and, yes, the culture of doing math— students will develop an intuitive sense of how to generate solutions to such problems on their own.

Duguid and Brown do not discount the role of technology in the educational process. To the contrary, they consider a number of ways in which technology based tools can support their vision. Having recently experimented with “blogging,” and found it very satisfying, I too would like to build it into my classes, in the form of e-portfolios. I agree with Duguid and Brown that education should prepare students for the real world by engaging them in a form of disciplinary practice. And it would seem to me that blogging within the classroom can help students and faculty achieve such a goal. However, in an interdisciplinary educational program such as CCT, a somewhat different approach might be required. Interdisciplinarity is its own unique practice. It has no-bottom line text: rather it emerges and evolves in the process of engaging with complex problems. The kind of blogging exercise that would most be most relevant in this regard would be one that links students not solely to each other, and to their faculty, but also to the non-academic groups–outside the ivory tower–wrestling with real life problems. University roles and boundaries have traditionally been relatively fixed, so these three groups have typically been remote from one another. Were they to interact around problem solving, just imagine the practice they might engender!