In Memoriam

I’m with the brother in the corner, David F. Noble (1945-2010)

In mindfulness and somatics practices, like yoga and meditation, you might see someone sitting in the corner “holding the space” with stillness, presence and calm. They’re not otherwise interactive – they’re just holding space, fortifying the container for the other practitioners.

Or, maybe you’re at a labour council meeting with my old friend Geoff, who would raise his cap in agreement and loudly proclaim that he was with the brother in the corner – the one who says what many are thinking, the one who says what really needs to be said.

Or, you might be visited by some insight or voice tired of waiting in the wings that perks up, and sits up straight, and chirps, right when we need it to – an envoy from Mirror City as Janet Frame might say.

Photo by Denis Rancourt & taken from

He’d protest, but I’m setting up the spirit of David F. Noble in the corner, and asking him to hold space on this website as I explore, who knows, maybe in vain, organizational strategies to keep things human as we go digital, in particular educational strategies that might give nonprofits more of a fighting chance of transforming the present into a livable and loving future.

I’d like to acknowledge my debt to David, the late professor of history, activist and technology critic, and a friend I wish life had given me more time with.

I met David briefly in the early-mid 1990s during the fight against the advent of the militarized “Space University” at York University in Toronto. He introduced me to the idea that corporations weren’t really interested in profits – sure, profits were nice, but what corporations were really interested in was control: over resources, over decision-making, over democracy. This insight opened the world wider for me, and I saw things differently from that moment.

Through his writing and activism, David challenged conventional wisdom about the beneficence of technological progress, the exercise of arbitrary authority at our institutions and the academic rush to “partner” with corporations. David Noble fought vigorously to widen the public debate on the issues of the day. He constantly advocated for more openness, more discussion, more democracy, more honesty. He spoke truth to power. He got fired (twice). He even got unhired ( at least once). He was a hero of mine, and I welcomed the chance to get to know him a little better in the early 2000s when he became the partner of a friend of mine.

David was wonderful, funny, passionate, brilliant. He had a brain the size of the planet and was able to connect with you as an equal. His radical vision stood out in a world grown so timid. 

His book Digital Diploma Mills provides a sharp counterweight to the unthinking advancement of digital education. For David, online learning was about the commodification and control of the organization and delivery of education. It displaced teachers and professors, it ripped off students and it set in motion the automation of education, just as capitalism had automated so many other areas of our economic life.

David’s piercing critique of the social implications of capitalist technological determinism demands to be carefully considered as our organizations “go digital” and develop their distance and online learning programs.

Read a lovely tribute by a good friend of David’s and a fellow renegade academic and rabble rouser, Denis Rancourt.

I’m with the brother in the corner. Thanks for holding space.

David Robbins