The original impetus for European sugarcane plantations was to obtain sugar not controlled by Muslims, but Europe was generally too cold to grow cane. When European voyages of discovery revealed warm new lands, investors raced to sponsor cane planting. By chance, one of the first Portuguese experiments was on the Atlantic island of Madeira, where a dry climate made the building of extensive irrigation works necessary, in the process remaking the landscape entirely. The success of this experiment directed subsequent Portuguese efforts toward terraforming and irrigation, though neither was necessary to grow cane in the tropical New World, where flat and moist country was easily available. But it turned out that these technologies made a tighter control of cane growth possible, facilitating the interchangeability of elements and, thus, scalability. Irrigation helped to coordinate synchronized growth, facilitating the scalability of both resource management and labor. Meanwhile, colonial planters took control of native lands. Through doing away with native peoples and seizing their land, a vast terrain for experimentation with nonsoels spread out before the European planters. As the geographer J. H. Galloway writes: “The vast plantations of Brazil presented a picture of abundant resources and profligate use that must have astonished anyone familiar with the careful husbandry of the tiny terraced fields of Madeira.” Despite the new terrain, planters followed the precedent established in Madeira by terraforming artificial cane-field modules. Brazil showed the potential of the Madeira experiment to create an expansion-oriented world through the replication of controlled field practices.

Portuguese cane growing came together with their newly gained power to extract enslaved people from Africa. As cane workers in the New World, enslaved Africans had great advantages from the growers’ perspective: slaves had no local social relations and thus no easy place to run. Like the cane itself, they had been transplanted; and now they were isolated. They were on their way to becoming self-contained. Furthermore, the plantations were organized to foster alienation and thus enhance control. Once central milling operations were started, all operations had to run on the time frame of the mill. Workers had to cut cane as fast as they could, and with full attention, just to avoid injury. Under these conditions, workers became autonomous units. Already considered commodities, they were given jobs made interchangeable by the monotonous regularity and coordinated timing engineered into the cane. Slaves were the next nonsoel, design elements engineered for expansion without change.

The success of the Brazilian experiment prompted Spanish, English, French, and Dutch versions in the Caribbean…

Tsing (2012). On nonscalability: The Living World Is Not Amenable to Precision-Nested Scales. Common Knowledge, Volume 18, Issue 3, , pp. 505-524.

These passages are part of a tremendous essay by Tsing. In this part of the essay, Tsing uses the case of sugar cane plantations as models for scalability. This example works to set up the argument for a theory of nonscalability.

At the risk of pulling the most banal move in blogging, let’s consider substituting teaching and learning-related terminology for some of the words in these passages of Tsing’s tremendous essay. “When European voyages of discovery revealed warm new lands, investors raced to sponsor cane planting….” I mean, the World Wide Web as a “warm new land” for teaching and learning; no need to substitute for the word “investors.”

The success of this experiment directed subsequent Portuguese efforts toward terraforming and irrigation, though neither was necessary to grow cane in the tropical New World, where flat and moist country was easily available. But it turned out that these technologies made a tighter control of cane growth possible, facilitating the interchangeability of elements and, thus, scalability.” Sound at all like the Learning Management System (LMS)? Unnecessary when “flat and moist country was easily available” (where “flat and moist country” are the open Web). “…these technologies made a tighter control of cane growth possible.” Control = managing learning.

Despite the new terrain, planters followed the precedent established in Madeira by terraforming artificial cane-field modules.” Artificial modules. Sound familiar? The credit hour, anyone?

Portuguese cane growing came together with their newly gained power to extract enslaved people from Africa …” I am absolutely NOT comparing adjunct/contingent labor to slavery, but it is true that much of the growth of distance education has been built on the backs of contingent labor.

I could go on. I am posting this mostly as a note to myself to continue to think about this tremendous essay, particularly as I continue to work towards a book that is a critical policy analysis of distance education in higher education. So, I’ll end with this quote from the essay as I continue to ponder the notion of scalability and nonscalability with respect to teaching and learning:

Scalable projects are those that can expand without changing…. Scalability is possible only if project elements do not form transformative relationships that might change the project as elements are added. But transformative relationships are the medium for the emergence of diversity. Scalability projects banish meaningful diversity, which is to say, diversity that might change things.