Saturday, April 26, 2014

Technocapitalism and the Commodification of Knowledge: An “Adornian” Perspective on Online Education

Almost any discussion of online and distance education today is essentially a discussion of technology. Technology as an antidote to rising costs in higher education; as a facilitator of knowledge; as a utopian tool to rebuild formal education; as a means to enlightened state of knowing and being. Herewith, I would like to try and shift the attention from technology to political economy by drawing attention to an issue that remains surprisingly under-analyzed by contemporary critical theorists: the commodification of knowledge via online education. I argue that the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, and Theodor W. Adorno in particular, has a significant contribution to make to discussions on technology in education, and online education more specifically. Furthermore, borrowing from Kellner (1999) and Pyati (2006), I frame my argument about the commodification of the educational experience within the discourse on technocapitalism, which points both to the increasingly important role of technology and continued primacy of capitalist relations of production in the present organization of society (Kellner, 1999) and in, extension, educational institutions.

Theodor W. Adorno

Before moving further into the discussion, it is important to spell out what Adorno meant by both education and commodification, since these terms can have multiple meanings. Adorno certainly strived for ‘ultimate knowledge’ in the Platonian sense, which ties learning to virtue and the quality of life. Phrases like “people’s last possibility of experiencing themselves” and “working to gain self-awareness” and words like ‘catharsis’ and ‘fulfillment’ in the short passage “Always speak of it, never think of it” that constitutes part of Minima Moralia (Adorno, 2006), reveal a longing for knowledge that goes way beyond the learning of skill or the accumulation of information. Adorno was particularly preoccupied with the ‘Fortschritt des Bewußtseins’ or, freely, the self-development of the individual and saw no possibilities for it within the realms of traditional education (Adorno, 1959). Self-reflection, critical thinking, and the willingness to resist “material and symbolic forces of domination” (Giroux, 2004, p.13) all play a major role in Adorno’s conception of the ideal type education. In fact resistance, in a typical Marxist fashion, constitutes a central theme, ultimately aiming at a freedom that will manifest itself in the ability to “think critically and act courageously, even when confronted with the limits of one’s own knowledge”18. Overall, the Enlightenment ideas of learning as realization of spirit, life, and emancipation of humanity, strongly influenced Adorno’s understanding of the purpose and use of knowledge.

But he also understood that critical thinking was not sufficient to address the impact of capitalism on thought and character. Instead, critical knowledge had to be reproduced and put into practice. In that sense, he was very much in line with Paulo Freire, the most famous perhaps representative of critical pedagogy, who argued that instead of an a priori technique that can be imposed on all, education is a set of political and moral practices which, apart from enabling students to expands their critical abilities, also expand and deepen their active participation in the promise of a true democracy (Giroux, 2010) . Adorno argued that critical ideas gain relevance only as far as they enable students “to participate in both the worldly sphere of self-criticism and the publicness of everyday life” (Giroux, 2004, p.18). In other words, critical reflection was what he considered to be the essence of both genuine education and politics.

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The problem with understanding knowledge as a commodity, however, is that within such a discourse, ideas that promote knowledge as an instrument of enlightenment, empowerment or democratic decision-making, become obsolete. Rather, the focus is shifted towards knowledge as “a kind of service, utility or good to be bought and sold, used, enhanced and re-used” (Friesen, 2008). It is transformed into a “super commodity” that has similar value to physical commodities. Thus, knowledge becomes something quite different from it is understood by Adorno or even Habermas – as being emancipatory and motivated by multiple human “constitutive interests”. This interested character of knowledge is essentially erased and replaced by performative knowledge, guided by an effort to subject learning to marketing practices, return on investment and capital accumulation, without regards to learning and scholarship. That is, knowledge is solely judged by performance: by its ability, in other words, to add value (Friesen, 2008).

In online education, commodification is not only reflected in branding and expectations, but also in the way courses are produced, organized and delivered. The temptation, it seems, in the virtual world where one is trying to develop income via the economies of scale, is that one is producing a standardized product and generic content which can be used anywhere and by anyone. Course materials (syllabi, lectures, quizzes etc.) are alienated from their producers, the instructors, and assembled as courses, which – with few exceptions – come to life independent of and apart from those who created them. As Noble (1998) has argued, this alienation of ownership of and ownership over course material is the most crucial step in commodity formation. Further, once the course assemblage is finished, the courses are sold for profit and delivered as well as evaluated by individuals who may or may not have any relationship to the original creators. Thus, instructional designers become commodity producers and instructors commodity deliverers, while students become consumers of those commodities, all at the expense of the integrity of the educational process. The final educational product is completely divorced from the ideals of self-reflection, self-awareness and self-actualization that we saw earlier, and committed to little beyond the creation of profit.

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Another aspect of online courses that relates to the commodified character of education, and which relates to course design as well as content, is that of pseudo-individualization. “Pseudo-individualization” is a phenomenon of mass-culture observed by Adorno that can easily be applied to mass-produced education. While Adorno’s original utilization of the concept in the context of popular music could be argued to be elitist due to his distinction between high and low art, it is nevertheless a useful concept for thinking about and criticizing the “personalized” character learning that online education is believed to promote. According to Adorno (2005), “the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardized production of consumption goods” (p. 40) yet the “the manipulation of taste and the official culture's pretense of individualism” (ibid.) conceals the fact. In other words, while consumers are under the impression that every commodity or product they purchase is tailored to their personal preference or needs, they are purchasing only a slightly modified version of the “original”. Similarly, in distance learning while the curriculum of a degree or certificate can be designed to fit the needs of the individual participant, and while the participant can mix-match between institutions or even choose to only attend a single course in a specific area of interest, the flexibility within a given course is very limited. Surely, the student might be able to “attend” class from anywhere, anytime, but the actual course content, the lectures, assignments, quizzes and so on, are just as inflexible as in a traditional course. What’s more, online courses for different institutions may be created using the same platform, with branding creating much of the differentialization in consumer eyes.

With the rapid growth of online education, mass education is fast becoming a major vehicle through which the global landscape is being formed. To make the educational product competitive among global educational consumers and in turn maximize financial returns, higher education providers are forced to produce and export ‘knowledge’ cheaply. Thus, while knowledge, information, and education appear to be playing a more important role than ever before in the organization of contemporary society, it is capital - restructuring itself through the implementation of new technologies into every sphere of life – that is in fact the major player. Pointing both to the increasingly important role of technology and continued primacy of capitalist relations of production, Kellner (1999) has proposed the term “technocapitalism” to describe the synthesis of capital and technology in the present organization of society. As we saw earlier, technocapitalism involves the commodification of knowledge in faster and more diverse ways than at any previous time in human history (Pyati, 2012). But as a commodity, education, rather than augmenting the realm of knowledge, only serves as a fancy alternative to vocational training, focusing on transmitting the skills and knowledge that capital needs to grow (Kellner, 1999).

My point in applying critical theory to critique online education is not to say that it is intrinsically flawed or evil. I also do not deny that online has many potential benefits related to access, cost, flexibility and student learning. Rather, my argument is that despite their many outward appearances of being radical and democratic, online courses are built on and around capitalist structures that are helping form popular understandings of education as a commodity to be purchased versus a route to emancipation and self-actualization.


Adorno, T. (1959). Theorie der Halbbildung. Retrieved from

Adorno, T. (2005) The Culture Industry:Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge.

Adorno, T. (2006). Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged. London: Verso

Friesen, N. (2008). Critical theory: Ideology critique and the myths of e-learning. Ubiquity2008 (June), 2.

Giroux, H. A. (2004). What might education mean after Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno's politics of education. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East24(1), 3-22.

Giroux, H. A. (2010). Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the promise of critical pedagogy. Policy Futures in Education8(6), 715-721.

Kellner, D. (1999). 10 New Technologies: Technocities and the Prospects for Democratization. Technocities: The Culture and Political Economy of the Digital Revolution, 186.

Noble, D. F. (1998). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education.Science as culture7(3), 355-368.

Pyati, A. K. (2009). Critical Theory and Information Studies: A Marcusian Infusion. Marcuse's Challenge to Education, 181.

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