A critical view of Bezos’s latest philanthropy initiative

Opinion

If you read Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announcement of the launch of Day One Fund, his $2 billion charity to help homeless families and create a network of nonprofit preschools in low-income communities, you’ll find that his tweet got, as I'm typing this, 26K likes, 7.0K retweets and 2.5K comments.

But not everyone applauded the announcement. You’ll find several comments like “Pay your taxes” , “PAY YOUR WORKERS PROPERLY”, “let them use the bathroom when they need to”, and so on. The richest man in the world has been widely criticized for Amazon’s labor practices, particularly in the warehouses were the working conditions are dehumanizing to the point the company has patented a system that would “put workers in a cage, on top of a robot,” as reported on the Seattle Times. And the condition for its white-collar workers is no better. The “bruising workplace” of its headquarters, as described by the New York Times, is experimenting with how far it can push workers.

The announcement letter (oddly shared in a series of pictures on Bezo’s Twitter account. No official document, web page or text could be found whatsoever), starts with a message about the "fantastic aspects of human nature" and an entire paragraph about the many ways Amazon has contributed to "the dedicated and innovative champions of a variety of causes." It’s not until "page" 3 that the scarce details about Day One Fund start unraveling.

The fund is divided into two efforts: The Day 1 Families Fund, which statement is inspired by Mary's Place in Seattle: no child sleeps outside; and the Day 1 Academies Fund that will operate a "network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities." How exactly will this be achieved was not disclosed.

Yet, on the very last page, Bezos declared they'll use "the same set of principles that have driven Amazon," being the most important one "the genuine, intense customer obsession," (emphasis mine). "The child will be the customer," he added. The letter closes with a thank you note to all those who helped him with ideas of what to do with the leftovers of his fortune.

The idea behind the Amazon-like learning experience where the child is the customer is a dangerous approach to the personalized learning trend. As Audrey Watters warns, in this Amazonization of education “the child will be tracked and analyzed, her preferences noted so as to make better recommendations to up-sell her on the most suitable products.” Moreover, the student as a customer will reduce the education experience to a mere transaction, a “marketplace of ideas,” as Watters describes it.

The student as a customer approach is not new and has its followers. They argue a customer service mentality should be a new normal, particularly in higher education were tuition has risen considerably in the last decades, students expect a return on their investment. Yet, we should not confuse student-centered learning with education were the learner is a mere customer.

In a student-centered approach, students take responsibility for their learning and develop autonomy and independence, essential traits for the future of life and work. While in an Amazonization of education, students will likely rely on what the algorithm recommends, similarly as we do now with Netflix, TripAdvisor or Amazon itself. Are algorithms always right? The best things in life are unquantifiable, says Maris Kreizman.

It’s not about being traditionalists. Technology sure can and has improved many aspects of education and our lives in many ways. Still, we are just starting to understand the effects and impact of technology on our daily lives, and many of these, such as Airbnb and Uber, have turned out to be detrimental  to our society. Why then seek for the next Uber/Netflix or Amazon for education?

Supporters of the next big thing in education claim that the personalized model where technology is the primary focus and driver, can be the answer to improve education. Specifically in terms of efficiency: everyone learns at their own pace, where they want and what suits them better. A tailored-made education. Sounds great but personalized learning can also isolate students. We should not forget that learning in community and in coexistence with others can improve the learning experience and our civility.

Bezos is not the only philanthropist that advocates personalized education. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan had done the same with the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, investing “hundreds of millions of dollars a year in whole-child personalized learning.” While other tech-prominent investors like Peter Thiel, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Andreessen Horowitz had also poured millions into similar sorts of initiatives.

But, should we trust tech leaders on what to do with our child's education? In The Trouble with Technocracy, Lyle Broom argues that technocrats, technical experts that lead industries, don’t always get it right, as we could see recently with Elon Musk’s Pravda initiative. For Broom, a technocrat is a “wealthy, and powerful member of society who has the ideas, the money, and the means to direct technology, and therefore society, in the direction they want it to go.”

Should we let them run education experiments like they run their business? For how long are we going to ignore the detrimental effects that their apps, technology, and platforms have on society and individuals? Is an algorithm or a more business-like model really the answer to a better education? As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.”