Pamela Fox makes really cool stuff. So says Tessa Miller on Life Hacker, a website the “curates [web-speak for exercising editorial judgment] tips, tricks, and technology for living better in the digital age.”
I’m sure that’s true, about Pamela I mean. But she’s more than someone making really cool stuff. She’s a window on our twenty-first century culture and our seamless garment of money-making and idealism.
Pamela’s someone who, like the rest of us, sees herself as unique. She’s got a bleached swath of hair and doesn’t “believe in” alarm clocks. “I’m not your typical engineer,” she says. Apple products all the way, of course. Asked about her favorite time saving device (remember, this is lifehacker.com), she replies, “the IUD.” Think of all the time saved not worrying about birth control pills!
But the ways in which Pamela is unique are pretty conventional. Americans have been individuals in the same way for a long time. It’s her job that’s telling. She’s a product engineer at Coursera, a for-profit company that “partners” with dozens of big-name universities to provide free on-line courses, so-called MOOCs, massive open online courses. With them you can take Stanford University’s Larry Diamond’s course on democratic development, or a Cal Tech professor’s course on galaxies and cosmology.
This is new frontier stuff in education. Thus the Coursera website: “We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.” Without limits! “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few.” Everyone! Pamela’s very excited too: “I joined Coursera because I love their mission, and also because there is so much more experimentation to be done in the world of online education.”
I don’t doubt that Pamela, the founders of Coursera, and the venture capitalists who have put many millions into the company believe in their product—believe in their roles in the Great Educational Revolution. But I also don’t doubt that they would very much like to get rich (or in the case of the venture capitalists, to get richer still). I have no brief against moneymaking, but this is Amway on steroids. And it’s typical today. We want to believe: Anyone around the world can learn without limits. And we want to win, win, win in the great race for wealth. Thus Pamela. Every few months she re-reads Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. (I am not making this up.)
I don’t think Pamela realizes how strange and new this seems to me. The ad men on Mad Men would blush at the hype masquerading as idealism. I can’t understand a mind that can so easily fuse feel-good, sentimental moralism—breaking down barriers to elite education!—with a job as a technical cog in what some very rich people in Silicon Valley hope will be a profitable business with a big payout.
First, I strongly believe Pamela represents our age: IUDs, for-profit companies proposing to save the world (without limits!), insistent assertions of individuality, and Dale Carnegie. It’s not a wicked age (though Kermit Gosnell suggests otherwise). In many respects is sensible, functional, and appealing. Pamela would probably make a good neighbor. But I can’t see how it makes much sense.
Second, I’ve been writing recently about the triumph of capitalism, chiding conservatives for misguided worries about socialism. Pamela, Coursera.org, and lifehacker.com provide powerful evidence that whatever our secular liberal culture wants, it doesn’t want anything other than capitalism. Perhaps it can’t even envision anything else, so easily does its moralism and chipper idealism serve moneymaking purposes.