THE BLOG
07/14/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Why Can't Big Data Take a Bow, and Then Contribute to the Collaborative Commons?

Back in the early 1960s, when our elementary school teachers and principal had a particularly important point to make, they brought us across the courtyard into the junior high auditorium. Needless to say, those events made a huge impression. I have a particularly vivid memory of one part of an excursion to watch an old-fashioned film of a television news special.

Our principal introduced and concluded the big event explaining why we need an education. In the near future, as technology relieves us of the worst burdens of physical labor, the workweek will only be 15 to 20 hours. Schools exist to help us take full advantage of the joys of creativity, self-exploration, and learning how to learn in the free time we would share.

Much later, I learned that the documentary and my principal's prediction were inspired by John Maynard Keynes's "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren." Even during the most hopeless part of the Great Depression, Keynes said that "technological unemployment" may be frightening as the need for human labor is reduced, but "much sooner perhaps than we are all aware of" the benefits of this transformation will accrue. As humans are more liberated from the need to toil for a paycheck, we will "devote more of our further energies to non-economic purposes."

Keynes and my principal were a bit too optimistic. But, Jeremy Rifkin's The Zero Marginal Cost Society makes a strong case that both will eventually be proven correct. Although Rifkin may also be too hopeful, he presents an impressive body of evidence in explaining why he anticipates the rise of the Collaborative Commons within the next forty years.

Rifkin argues, "The capitalist era is passing -- not quickly, but inevitably." After a long and protracted fight, he predicts, the Collaborative Commons will likely be "the primary arbiter of economic life." In other words, we will transition to an economy based on sharing, as opposed to private property, profits, and competition.

Although I fear Rifkin is too optimistic, he makes a strong case. For instance, he argues that the traditionally managed commons and its democratic governance "are still found in scattered communities on every continent." They provide insights into how a 21st century "social commons" could prosper.

According to Rifkin, the Internet of Things (IoT) "will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network." Because of Big Data, he predicts, the marginal cost of "information goods" is approaching zero. This contributes to the "Makers Movement" which could democratize the mass production of goods.

Big Data set the stage for the 3D printing in an economy of abundance to replace the marketplace based on scarcity. These 21st century technologies will allow for a neo-Gandhian economy. Big Data might create a modern version of Gandhi's vision of Swadeshi. The mass production of 3D printers will "bring work to the people not people to the work."

If Gandhi's dream is realized, our inequitable pyramidal economy could evolve into "'oceanic circles,' made of communities of individuals embedded within broader communities that ripple out to envelop the whole of humanity."

Again, Rifkin does not promise a happy ending of the story he predicts. Success would require the development of a new set of values, and schools must be a part of that process. Students need to learn how to control the proliferation of information and not be controlled by it.

Rifkin urges the pedagogy of service learning, where students learn how to communicate with others as they also learn to share. His vision requires public schools that are allowed to nurture "participatory democracy." Ultimately, Rifkin's vision needs schools to help nurture empathy for our fellow beings and to assist in the development of "Homo Empathicus."

Whenever I read about, or witness, the opportunities created by Big Data, I grow perplexed. Why won't its corporate advocates share its potential with public schools? Why do reformers not respond to opportunities created by technology by seeking schools that nurture creativity, problem-solving and cooperation?

Why do so many adherents of Big Data (such as the "Billionaires Boys' Club") help impose rote, teach-to-the-test, bubble-in, accountability on public schools? Why are the clash of ideas and experimentation being driven out of classrooms? Why mandate school cultures of test, compete, reward, and punish?

Why can't Big Data take a bow? Why can't its architects celebrate the humane vision of Lord Keynes and my elementary school? Why can they not join a collaborative effort to help create learning environments worthy of a democracy? Surely, the brilliant entrepreneurs who invented the Internet of Things can see that they can't prosper by continuing to turn our schools into sped-up Model T assembly lines.

Although I'm saddened that corporate school reform has made a mockery of the values of an open society and the education system necessary for a Collaborative Commons, I'm still hopeful. I suspect that the journey towards a social commons based on sharing will be slower than Rifkin predicts, but I bet he's basically right. The first step towards a humane society where Big Data and the Internet of Things create an economy of abundance and sharing is reading his The Zero Marginal Cost Society.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.