Sounds in the Cloud: Is music education too important to outsource to the cloud?

Morris’ post-doctoral paper ‘Sounds in the Cloud: Cloud computing and the digital music community‘, written in 2008, is remarkable prescient. At an early stage in the development of the cloud, it explores the technological and cultural implications of cloud-based music, how the cloud itself is leading to the commodification of music (and not in a good way), and how our relationship to music is changing as a result. Through the adoption of various metaphors and an analysis of [then] current trends, Morris is pretty scathing. Firstly, he argues, the cloud fundamentally changes our relationship to music itself:

[Music] is now part of a network of technologies and blended into a multi-mediated computing experience. Phones come with music, as do Web sites, video games and new cars. CDs are routinely given away in newspapers and magazines as promotions (Straw, 2009). Social networking sites, search engines, and other such technologies use online digital music as a draw for their services. Rather than a commodity of its own, music is integrated into so many diverse services that it becomes difficult to talk about music as a specific experience at all. Music appears to be ubiquitous: it is both everywhere and nowhere. [my emphasis]

The relocation and reliance on external storage, of dependence on a network to access it and the prevailing ‘benefits’ of such a ‘liberating’ system for us, the user, are seldom questioned he notes. Clouds themselves have been chosen by the powerful Internet elite as a productive metaphor:

They are ubiquitous and highly dispersed. … The cloud is an idealized portrait of what we expect from our information: it should be always there, wherever we are. For the most part, clouds conjure positive images. They reflect ‘a whiteboard vision of heaven on earth’ so the Internet as cloud is a kind of ‘holy condensation of bits.

Alongside Morris, many researchers have noted the cloud as part of a concerted effort towards the organised and technocratic control of digital music. Ten years ago, Burkart & McCourt (2006, p.359) wrote about the dangers of record companies creating a ‘celestial jukebox’ that will put ‘new and enduring constraints on music’s viability as a cultural practice protected from pure market functionality’.

Burkart went on to note (Burkart 2008, p.250) that, in his opinion, music in the cloud was a threat to music’s very status as a socio-cultural good, with all kinds legal implications for the consumer, composer and manufacturer alike:

In the audio–visual enclosures created by intellectual property law, contract law, and computer software, music collectors face a loss of property, control and usability, legal rights of first sale, consumer product protections, and other customary rights and privileges. It remains largely unclear who and what are in charge of the manner in which music reaches the music fan who has signed up for cultural services.

Whilst some of the legal issues identified have been clarified in recent years, the cultural implications and consequences are still very relevant to us today. Andrew Keen, writing in his recently published book The Internet is not the Answer (Keen 2015, p.143), points out that:

The more abundant the online content, the more dramatic the contrast between the massive success of a few hits and the utter obscurity of everything else. …  Of the 8 million tracks in the iTunes store during 2011, 94% – that’s 7.5 million songs – sold fewer than a hundred units, with 32% selling just a single copy. In 2013, the top 1% of music artists accounted for 77% of all artist-recorded income while 99% of artists were hidden under what one 2014 industry report. titled ‘The Death of the Long Tail’, called a ‘pervasive shroud of obscurity’. 

Incidentally, what is true for music and its commodification in the cloud is also true for education. The e-learning industry has created its own breed of superstar teachers who have instant access to audiences of millions of students. The result, as Keen writes, is the establishment of a ‘two-tiered economy in one of the most historically most egalitarian of professions’ (Keen 2015, p.144). He points to the example of Andrew Kim, a ‘rock-star’ teacher from Korea, who earns $4 million a year delivering to an annual audience of over 150,000 students. The Internet, he writes, has ‘turned his classes into commodities’ (ibid).

For all these reasons, and many more that I haven’t had the time to explore here today, I’m wondering whether the cloud is a suitable location for music education. Music education services such as Music First present themselves as an easy to use, low cost, cloud based ‘solution’ for teachers. As you would expect, their marketing presents an idealised vision of a music education with technology presented as victory narrative that ‘saves’ students from mediocrity, the cost and prohibitive access associated with other technologies and resources, and over-reliance on the teacher and a vision of ‘autonomous learning’. (I also notes that it ‘liberates’ the teacher from the tedium of having to produce lesson plans and resources, thereby freeing them up to give more of themselves to their students as ‘autonomous’ [sic] learners). Just watch and make your own judgement:

All of these ‘benefits’ are, of course, unquestioned in this company’s marketing. Music First, and other online music education offerings like it, present the most recent example of the commodification of music education. But the apparent ‘benefits’ need to be weighed against the costs. Music First, like any piece of technology, is not a neutral and is certainly not a benign force for good. Its claims should not be taken at face value. Critical questions need to be asked about approaches like this, including:

  • What it might prevent students from learning?
  • How it might impoverish a teacher’s pedagogy?
  • Whether it really results in students become more autonomous in their learning?
  • The costs of such a resource (curiously not mentioned on their website as either a one-off cost or the ongoing buy-in year on year)?
  • The technological infrastructure that it depends on (and who has paid for that within the school or home environment)?
  • Broader issues of equality and access both in the school and home environment?
  • The changing relationships that such an approach engenders between the particular agents in music education (students, teachers, schools, parents, other siblings, etc)?
  • The wider questions related to the technological and cultural commodification of the process and practice of music education?

At a technical level, there is also the obvious question of whether schools have the technical infrastructure to access cloud based technologies. A recent BESA press release (29th September 2014) stated that pupils in more than half of all UK state schools had poor access to ICT and computers:

Poor wireless (Wi-Fi) provision was cited as a major problem in many schools with 65 per cent of primary schools and 54 per cent of secondary schools considering themselves under-resourced in Wi-Fi connectivity.

We should also remember that around a third of our students do not have access to the Internet in their home environment. Similarly, the issue of the broadband (connection) speed for schools and the home environment has been identified as significantly variable across the country.

For all these reasons, I do not think that cloud based solutions are the answer for music education. Music education, of the type that I value and promote, is too precious to be commodified online by a corporation and sold to the highest bidders. I understand that teachers choose particular tools for particular jobs. I have written extensively about this topic elsewhere. Music education in the cloud is subject to the same critique that writers such as Keen (2015) have levelled against the Internet and the networked society. Does the Internet democratise the good and disrupt the bad? Is it creating a more egalitarian and equal world? Does it bring more value to society and its users? Is it a magically virtuous circle, an infinitely positive loop, an economic and cultural win-win for its billions of users? Keen’s answer is no, it isn’t; at least not yet:

Rather than creating transparency and openness, the Internet is creating a panopticon of information-gathering and surveillance services in which we, the users of big data networks like Facebook, have been packaged as their all too transparent product. Rather than creating more democracy, it is empowering the rule of the mob. Rather than encouraging tolerance, it has unleashed such a distasteful war on women that many no longer feel welcome on the network. Rather than fostering a renaissance, it has created a selfie-centred culture of voyeruism and narcissism. Rather than establishing more diversity, it is massively enriching a tiny group of young white men in black limousines. Rather than making us happy, it’s compounding our rage. (Keen 2015, p. x)

Similarly, cloud based music education is not the answer; at least, not yet. As teachers, I would urge you to tread carefully and make wise choices in relation to the tools that you adopt. The consequences of ill-informed decisions on the richness and diversity of the music education that your students enjoy could be far reaching. Music education is too important to out-sourced in this way. There is much that you could loose.

References

Burkart, P. (2008). ‘Trends in digital music archiving’. Information Society 24: 4, pp. 246–250. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01972240802191621 [last accessed 15/2/15].

Burkart, P. & McCourt, T. (2006). Digital music wars: Ownership and control of the celestial jukebox. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Keen, A. (2015) The Internet is not the Answer. London, Atlantic Books.

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