Profiles | 7 March 2024

Grad Profile: Mark Howard


Mark Howard is a PhD candidate in Politics with a Designated Emphasis in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. His project explores venture capital and its effects on contemporary society, culture, and politics. Howard served as a part of the Inaugural 2022-2023 Humanizing Technology Fellows Cohort, and is serving this year as a Peer Mentor for the 2023-2024 Humanizing Technology Fellows. In February, we discussed Howard’s dissertation, the pervasive mechanisms of venture capitalism in our increasingly technological world, his approach to collaborative pedagogical practice, and the importance of mentorship in teaching. 

Hi Mark! Thanks for chatting with us about your ongoing research. To begin, could you give us a general synopsis of your research project?

My project takes a critical look at venture capital and its effects on contemporary society, culture, and politics. Originally, I had set out quite optimistically, hoping that in venture capital I might find some redeeming element of capitalism, some way of renewing capitalism towards a more just future. After all, Big Tech spillover effects aside, innovation is good, technology is good, disrupting old monopolies is good, right? So I wanted to do something a bit different, which was to perform a critique that would look at the limits and possibilities of venture capital.

The whole venture capital investment model is … about defining our socially necessary future before it has even happened, erasing alternatives, limiting options. As a result, all these things we have that are products of venture capital look rather wonderful in hindsight.

As I started to dig, however, I found a general and rather curious absence of any kind of sustained critique on the topic, especially when it came to theoretical work. A lot of what is out there would fall into what Robert Cox once referred to as “problem solving theory,” and what I wanted to do was the alternative, “critical theory.” So the question, for me, became why is there no critique of venture capital? More specifically, why is there no social critique of venture capital? Why is no-one looking at the social effects of a capital-fueled innovation system dominated by a relatively small enclave of mostly white, elite-educated males in a small region of Northern California? The more I’ve dug in, talked to people (or been denied access), the more I’ve realized just how influential venture capital is over our lives. How much it defines the formal arrangements of our everyday interactions—the tech firms get all the press, but behind them there is this rapacious investor demand for (financial) equity valorization, hypergrowth, and the centralization and concentration of capital.

As a result, I began to realize that one of the reasons venture capital escapes critique is because VCs have typically already left the scene by the time dominant firms come under any significant form of scrutiny. The whole venture capital investment model is based on trying to find future monopolies before the competition realizes they exist. It is about defining our socially necessary future before it has even happened, erasing alternatives, limiting options. As a result, all these things we have that are products of venture capital look rather wonderful in hindsight; it becomes hard to criticize something that gave us grocery deliveries, mRNA vaccines, social media platforms, ride-hailing services, electric vehicles, and so on. My argument is that this is a path-dependent reality in which we really haven’t been given options. It’s a fait accompli.

So if anything, my research has made me pessimistic about the future and future possibility. My optimism has waned, to say the least. However, when I mentioned this to my adviser—the most excellent Matt Sparke—and told him that I was feeling disillusioned, his advice, as always, was just what I needed to hear. He told me that it was better to be disillusioned than to remain under the spell of illusion. I’ve really held on to that. The critical work I am doing is arguably a bit bleak, but I hope by doing it to the best of my ability I can create a space in which others may find spaces of optimistic possibility.

Your dissertation argues that the discovery and creation of new markets births new and disrupted social logics, new ways of being-in-the-world, and new forms of ethical responsibility around production and consumption. I wonder if you could offer an example of this process from your work, and share more about the implications of this “worlding” approach to entrepreneurial finance and market relations. 

The most obvious existing example would be search engines. I would wager that almost anyone reading this has probably used a search engine multiple times today without really thinking about it, just by going about their everyday business. And that’s okay, we all use general goods all the time without thinking about it. But what folks also probably haven’t thought about is the fact that they used a proprietary—that is specific—good to fulfill this function (which was very very likely Google). I do it all the time. We are all using search engines all day every day. They have arguably become a crutch to our thinking process. Now, even for older people like myself, who theoretically remember the world without search engines, this has become part of our normal being, part of the way we think about information. For younger people, people who haven’t known another world, this is the only way they can think about information.

This is a reality facilitated by the venture capital model of equity investment, growth, and monopolization. It was the goal from the outset, baked into the business model, and it continues long after venture capital has divested its interests.

[OpenAI] will likely become a crutch not just to our thinking, but to all sorts of practical activities, and it has already been closed up within the confines of private wealth accumulation.

So that’s a contemporary example. Thinking about a more speculative example, generative artificial intelligence (AI), the one that everyone is talking about right now, I think it’s pretty easy to discern the same pattern unfolding, this time with OpenAI. Now, despite the “open” in their name, private backing by VC and similar corporate interests are all over OpenAI. Under the stewardship of Sam Altman the firm has become commercialized in all sorts of ways, and it is progressively heading in the direction of any other Big Tech firm. But here’s the important thing: generative AI has the capacity to be part of almost all of our everyday interactions in the future, and VC investors know this. OpenAI has basically won the race to dominate this field in terms of being a generative AI platform, so few VC-backed companies are trying to compete directly. But VC is swarming like a hive of bees trying to monopolize every smaller application that can be built upon this platform. So this new, amazing space of capability has opened up to us as a general technological capability that will likely become a crutch not just to our thinking, but to all sorts of practical activities, and it has already been closed up within the confines of private wealth accumulation. That is, it’s already—before we’ve even scratched the surface of its potential—been monopolized, and all of its untapped capability is being monopolized as we speak. Alternatives are being erased in advance, and the specifics of our future practical interaction with the world are being decided by a small enclave of investors (disproportionately white, elite males, remember) who are prone to fund people who look and sound like them.

This is not worlding but deworlding—on a massive, global, historically definitive scale.

Congratulations on being named as an inaugural Humanizing Technology Teaching Fellow in 2022-2023! As part of the program, you taught a newly developed course “HUMN 15 – 01 Ethics and Technology” in Spring 2023. Could you share a little about participating in the pedagogical design institute and your personal process for envisioning and designing the course? What questions were you hoping to get students to grapple with?

The facilitators had a really neat and well-organized process, and something I found really helpful was getting us to think about the learning objectives first, working backwards from there to define content.

I came into the program with some experience teaching a similar course at one of the colleges, and I had a clear idea about what worked and didn’t work when teaching this kind of material. I was very set on ensuring that all the humanities topics we taught were taught in context. That is, I wanted to ensure that we didn’t design the course around discrete topics like “gender,” “race,” or “justice,” but rather, began with concrete scientific and technological phenomena that naturally raise questions about “gender,” “race,” “justice” and so forth. I wanted to start in their own domain of interest and then lead them to topics in the humanities, rather than the other way around.

The great thing about the pedagogical institute was that it combined individual experiences and wisdom like this with a proven framework for designing courses. The facilitators had a really neat and well-organized process, and something I found really helpful was getting us to think about the learning objectives first, working backwards from there to define content. There was a lot of negotiation about this within our group, but that worked to create a set of better underlying principles that will keep the spirit of the course(s) consistent, while allowing for the interests and expertise of instructors to shine through.

This approach was also reflected in the way we designed assessments and assignments. We all came in with our own bugbears and stories about what worked well and didn’t work well, and I learned so much from my colleagues on this point. Intuitively, as a teacher, you recognize when things don’t work so well, but sometimes it’s hard to cognize exactly what went wrong (or right). Talking these kinds of things through with colleagues really helped me see more clearly what I/we wanted in this regard.

What was one reading or assignment or classroom interaction that stands out to you from your time teaching the course? 

Oh, there were so many! I had an amazing group in the first cohort, they were so engaged, especially considering my course was general education and they had all sorts of other priorities going on with regard to their majors.

I think if I had to pick one, though, it would be the design justice module of the course. One of the objectives we set when we designed the course was that it should have some hands-on practical engagement with “technology,” but we also wanted to make sure that students didn’t reduce that term to “high-tech.” So, the idea was to bring some old material technology into the classroom for students to touch and feel and work with. I ended up using the chairs in the classroom, the ones with the little fold-down tables.

Photo of Cowell 113 classroom.

The assignment, set over two sessions, was to first deconstruct (intellectually!) the technology (chair), asking “who is this for?” “Who is this not for?” And, to use the technical language of design practice, “what are this object’s affordances and disaffordances?” In the second session I had the students redesign the chair with the inclusive design and design justice practices we had been reading about in mind.

Now, first of all, the students got really creative with this. They were asking me questions like “do I have to obey the laws of physics?” and were drawing really detailed sketches and so forth. But what was most striking was that several groups started to question not just the design of the chair, but the context of the classroom itself. This led to questions about the mode of teaching that these chairs and this classroom was for. We realized, as a group, that these chairs were designed for a certain type of classroom, and with it a certain type of teaching—monological, immobile, gridded. The students thus started to think about the technology of the chair as part of the technology of the classroom, which also implicated a particular technology of teaching practice.

So we started with this very material thing and then ended up deconstructing and reconstructing the whole idea of the classroom. It actually made me self-aware of my own assumptions about teaching and induced certain changes in the way I carried out the remainder of the course.

I can’t wait to repeat this exercise with the next cohort.

This year, you are serving as a Peer Mentor in the Humanizing Technology Fellows Program. Why is it important to provide humanities graduate students with community and mentorship around teaching? What’s something you have learned through serving as a mentor? 

I think everyone, not just graduate students, can continue to learn when it comes to teaching, and that learning comes from experience and from the sharing of experience. The point is that when it comes to teaching, community and mentorship is for everyone—faculty, students, and staff—and I think, ultimately, we have to see mentoring as part of the teaching process.

In regard to this specific program, I think there are some unique challenges. We are, in general, aiming a course on humanities-based material, to non-humanities students, and that has several pitfalls—some we saw coming, others we couldn’t have anticipated. The challenge is to remain true to what the humanities is about—the difficulty of the thing that is so radically different from what is difficult in STEM disciplines. Perhaps the number one thing that comes to mind is the ambiguity, the undecidability inherent to certain subjects. STEM students are trained to expect a definite answer, and the humanities tends to lead them away from that. Our job is to do it in a systematic way, so ensure these students can perceive the rigor behind asking questions that sometimes don’t provide clear answers. So part of the peer mentoring process, for me, has been about this—encouraging instructors to stay true to what they are teaching while also trying to adapt their knowledge for students coming from other intellectual backgrounds.

Finally, what’s your favorite spot on the UCSC campus?

Well, coming from an ugly urban corner of London, I am easily impressed by natural beauty and find every part of campus rather stunning. But the one part that never fails to take my breath away is the top of the bike path, just before you descend down to the farm. You can see the meadow, the trees, downtown, the boardwalk and the whole bay. Every time I go up there I am reminded of how lucky we are to be here.

Banner Image: UCSC bike path.