Audrey Watters

Over the course of the last 6 months or so, I’ve felt a real shift in what it means (for me) to write — to work, to be — online. And let’s be clear: this affects me offline too.

I’m hardly the first or the only person to notice that the great promises of the web — freedom! knowledge! access! egalitarianism! creativity! revolution! — are more than a little empty. I’m hardly the first or the only person to notice that the online communities in which we participate increasingly feel less friendly, less welcoming, more superficial, more controlling, more restrictive.

Online, we seem to be more and more short-tempered and sharp-tongued. It feels less and less sustainable. It’s taking a toll on me, personally — the status updates, the sneers, the threats, the responsibilities, the accolades, the comments, the deadlines. All of it.

I’ve long been “a critic” of edtech, to be sure. That’s what my work, my writing is known for.

But what I’m feeling now is new. It’s different. As such, I recognize — for me, my work, my writing — with a growing sense of urgency that I need to re-evaluate my own use of digital technologies — as a writer, as a worker, as a human.

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I wake in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more

It’s hard to mark the moment in the early 1960s when Bob Dylan “changed,” when — as we’d tell the story now, at least — enough was enough.

Bob Dylan recorded “Maggie’s Farm” in 1965. There are lots of interpretations of the song’s lyrics, and much to be said about the song’s origins and its subsequent performances.

The song first appeared on Bringing It Back Home — an album that’s often used to mark one of the many shifts in Dylan’s career; but it was the performance of the song at the Newport Folk Festival that same year — loud and electric — that elicited those infamous boos from the audience and prompted that final split between Dylan and the folk music movement.

Some point out that, like a lot of Dylan’s music, the song is simply an adaptation of an earlier folk song — in this case the Bentley Brother’s 1929 recording of “Down on Penny’s Farm,” which also criticizes rural landlords who systematically exploit day-laborers.

Some say “Maggie’s Farm” is a pun on the surname of Silas McGee, on whose farm in Greensboro, Mississippi Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” during a voter registration rally, as featured in the D. A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back.

Some argue that “Maggie’s Farm” is a protest song against protest music, condemning those in “the scene” who are quick to profit off of the creativity and the fury of others, all the while pretending that they do so as part of some larger progressive political project.

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more
Well, he hands you a nickel
He hands you a dime
He asks you with a grin
If you’re havin’ a good time
Then he fines you every time you slam the door
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s brother no more

New Media, we were told, would displace Old Media. The Internet would change things. Radically.

Old institutions — those which controlled who could be published, those who would be deemed experts, and as such who could be heard — would crumble. New voices would be recognized; new voices would be heard.

A radical democracy of “the folk,” if you will.

The readable, writable web would encourage a flourishing of cultural production, distributed and supported through more equitable frameworks. Creatives, no matter who or where, would be able make a living being creative.

As a freelance writer on the web, I write. I speak. My writing is read and shared widely. Despite that, as a freelance writer on the web, I still struggle to be heard. I struggle to make ends meet. I have to hustle for gigs, and I have to hassle folks for payment. I always have to hassle folks for payment.

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more
Well, he puts his cigar
Out in your face just for kicks
His bedroom window
It is made out of bricks
The National Guard stands around his door
Ah, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s pa no more

I’ve long been an advocate for writers — well, all of us really — to own our own domains. A domain of one’s own, much like a room of one’s own as Virginia Woolf insisted, is an important and necessary space to think and to work.

In this so-called Information Age, having a domain of one’s own isn’t simply a means to produce writing; it’s a means to distribute it as well. To publish. To manage and control one’s “intellectual property.” To manage and control the metadata surrounding its dissemination and consumption.

The web promised openness. Open access. Open knowledge. Collaboration. Distribution.

Instead what we have today is a mass of information silos and content farms.

What we have today, if we’re honest with ourselves, are old hierarchies hard coded onto new ones.

New media, new websites often demand we sign over our intellectual property. If they don’t ask outright for copyright, they demand a license to such — “you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with [whatever].”

[Whatever] sells ads against that content. [Whatever] grants access to data to their partners.

[Whatever] [Whatever] [Whatever] — that seems to be the response from most folks in edtech. A shrug. An acquisition, one that is seemingly happy to work on someone else’s farm — the LMS, the academic journal. But to work there oneself is one thing; to demand one’s students work in these silos, on these farms as well… that’s horrifying.

That’s wrong.

I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
No, I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more
Well, she talks to all the servants
About man and God and law
Everybody says
She’s the brains behind pa
She’s sixty-eight, but she says she’s twenty-four
I ain’t gonna work for Maggie’s ma no more

I’m frustrated with so much of edtech. Surveillance. Control. Frustrated and exhausted by the demands that we participate in technologies that are exploitative and extractive. I’m increasingly concerned that we’re asking people to participate in technologies, practices, online communities, “farms,” — that are profoundly, profoundly unsafe.

How does one protest that?

Refuse to participate online?

Move one’s participation elsewhere? New songs? New communities?

Dylan’s protest in 1965 was to plug in. Mine, I don’t know… it might be to unplug.

But if nothing else, I tell you this: I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm. And I think you need to think about your own work. Where you work. For whom.

And then you must consider where you demand your students work. For whom they work. Who profits. Where that content, where that data, where those dimes flow.

On whose farm are you working? On whose farm are you demanding your students work? To what end? For whose profits?

Are they safe there? Are you safe there? Are you sure?

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Critical Digital Pedagogy Copyright © 2020 by Audrey Watters is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book