September 14, 2015

Bubbles of Belief

Based on the recent article about life inside Amazon, it is clear that the company is rigorous (to say the least) in its efforts to align employees with a set of ethical and social standards that define, support, and promote the community that is Amazon. What is so creepy, though, is that these are clearly out of alignment with the ethical and social standards of our shared community of human beings.

Folks who do not adhere to (or are not aligned to) the standards of behavior commonly found to be acceptable in a civil society are identified as sociopaths. Yet within the “society” that is Amazon, it sounds like a sociopath would be someone who chooses sleep, loved ones, balance, calm, socializing, health and self-awareness over a full-fledged psycho-emotional commitment to how 1) the company defines what matters and 2) how the company defines an employee’s roles in fixing whatever the company determines is broken. Or, as one deeply committed employee quoted in the article put it, “Once you know something isn’t as good as it could be, why wouldn’t you want to fix it?”

But who gets to define what's good?

And who defines the ethical and social standards of a community? In the case of a business like Amazon, the answer is obvious. In the case of public schools, it should be equally obvious, and also entirely distinct, since public schools are and always have been the models for and reflection of the ethical and social standards of the community of human beings. They are not mini-societies with enclosed systems of reward that serve to promote a product or brand or stock price.

Schools are a public service, and students within schools actually have a property right to education (they are required by law to be educated, and also cannot be denied their right to an education without due process). Amazon employees have no right to employment. And Amazon has minimal obligation to employees. This is not an emotional issue; this is factual – no company with at-will employment really owes its employees anything much at all, and the employees don’t have a basic right to fight dismissal, unless they have union protection. Which Ambots do not.

Public education in the U.S. is being re-shaped by school reformers who would define the good, and the ethical and social standards for schools, in much the same way leadership at Amazon does. But this approach requires modelling something and then applying it to something entirely different, and expecting positive and/or universally applicable results. Like doing breast cancer research exclusively on male patients, for example. Or writing contemporary standardized test questions that require knowledge about animal husbandry

By way of explanation, here's a quick story: A few years back, while living in Silicon Valley, I heard a story shared by the (infamous) design firm IDEO at a training session: IDEO sent out new design staffers on a quest where they had just a few hours to come up with research on and an effective design for a really useful shopping cart. The IDEO office they were at is in Palo Alto, CA, and located just down the street from a Whole Foods. As the IDEO trainers told it, the new design staffers went and did “speed research” at the Whole Foods and came up with a new cart design of which they were quite proud, a design based on the needs of the midday shoppers they had spoken with. And the shoppers they had spoken with, and kept in mind when designing, included a cluster of personal shoppers, people hired by busy local tech folks at Facebook or Google or Apple (or IDEO) to do their errands for them. Several of the personal shoppers were doing a multi-shop trip, buying items for several customers at the same time, and for them the ideal cart would have separate segments so that they could keep customers’ items accounted for. This is the cart the new designers created.

There is nothing inherently wrong with developing an idealized shopping cart for a particular type of customer. But the outcome of the “research” was not applicable to actual real-life grocery shoppers, or rather to grocery shoppers existing outside of a certain enclosed system. Which is where the idea of objective data-driven decision making (a key tenet of Amazon’s culture, and a key concept in contemporary school reform) enters the picture…and becomes laughable. As another Amazon employee noted in the article, “Data creates a lot of clarity around decision-making…Data is incredibly liberating.”

Data is defined by the place and time that you are looking for it, and data is infinitely malleable. So what does the use of data “liberate” us from? A sense of responsibility for anything outside the data we chose to look for? Confronting ambiguity or subjectivity? A sense of connection, social, ethical, or otherwise, to other people and their unending diversity of experience? Or does it really just liberate one from the fear of being a dictionary-definition sociopath?

I can’t know all that an actual individual Amazon employee feels liberated from by using employee metrics and data to shape other employees’ lives, other than tongue-lashings from his superiors. But the recent hyping of the use of data for all things (student success, teacher effectiveness, classroom value-add, school success) seems to “liberate” contemporary school reformers from any sense of obligation, commitment, or professional respect for teaching, teachers, and students alike. Just as data has been used to “liberate” folks from thinking on how actual people use a shopping cart. Or how actual females experience breast cancer. Or from knowing that 81% of the population of the United States lives in urban areas - no farm animals in sight.

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