Entrepreneurs, Labor, and Citizen Science

Venkatesh Rao, the blogger at ribbonfarm has written a three-part series “Entrepreneurs are the new labor” for Forbes. His basic argument is that entrepreneurs are becoming a new labor class. Twenty years ago technology entrepreurs, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were the Robber Barons of the current technology wave, riding the development of personal computres to massive individual fortunes. Today the entrepreurs in Silicon Valley are building upon the shoulders of these giants, many of their companies are small bore endeavors creating the latest social-this-social-that app for consumer smartphones. The relationship between venture capitalists and the hustlers from start-up companies has changed, becoming less adversarial and more mentor-apprentice. There is a lot to digest in the whole three part series.

The most interesting part of the series was the final part where Rao discusses the future models he sees for this new relationship between entrepreurs, engineers, and VCs. He argues that the next model of education is going to be based on this mentor-apprentice model, students will eschew colleges, leaving them to the rentier elite, and enter start-ups where they will learn how to code, live in poverty for a few years, and then be brought out, aqui-hired, by a larger company.

There are two responses I could take to this. First is a lament for the decline of the liberal college education, a lament and fight that I still think is worthwhile. The second is to think how his model might fit some of my own current concerns with citizen science, continuing education, badges and a few other items I see on the horizon.

Let’s start with citizen science. There appear to be a number of parallels between the recruitment of citizen scientists and the entrepreneurs as labor that Rao describes. Most citizen scientists are treated as a form of labor. Their interest in a particular topic, say ornithology, or astronomy, is channeled into volunteer labor to collect or analyze data. The results of that labor are used by the scientist-managers to create the official intellectual output of peer-reviewed journal publications. The volunteers may gain some specialized training but they don’t become scientists. There may also be benefits for the public as a whole by modeling scientific behavior and attitudes for a larger audience but those benefits are tenuous and unproven.

Right now there is no path for a citizen scientist to graduate from layperson to expert, except by joining the traditional scientific credentialing path of the academic university. Many citizen scientists may already be among the successful class of engineers that Rao describes, so they already have an advantage in the economic sphere by possessing a skill that can be leveraged for money so they may be content to continue to volunteer their spare time to contribute to scientific research without getting much more than satisifaction back. But what if someone wants more?

This is where badging comes in. Mozilla has been working on the Open Badges project for a number of years with the goal of deploying an alterntive infrastructure for certification. Today academic institutions, such as the university, certify people for careers and professional employment. Badges are a nascent attempt to decouple certification from the current institutional matrix where it is embedded. There are many problems with the academic world and badges are both an indication of the problem and an attempt to respond to it.

The HASTAC collaboratory is currently running a grant competition, partially funded by the Gates Foundation, for research projects into badges and badging. And they’ve written a number of articles about badges and why they may be significant for the future of education and certification.