NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Issue #72 Copyright 1998 Bridge Communications June 2, 1998 -------------------------------------------------------------------------- Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org) On the Web: http://netfuture.org You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. CONTENTS: *** Editor's Note *** Quotes and Provocations Next: Pigs That Fly? Ties That Bind Departments *** Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner) Report from the Digital Diploma Mills Conference *** Announcements and Resources Media, Democracy, and the Public Sphere The Global Problematique *** Who Said That? *** About this newsletter
What Readers Are Saying about NETFUTURE
"I use issues of NETFUTURE in a course I teach in our administrator preparation program. I think it is a terrific resource, and a great eye-opener for my students, who when they think of computers in schools tend to think uncritically. They are sure that they must get more kids in front of more computers. I spend a lot of time in the course getting them to think about why they would want to do that."(For the identity of the speaker, see "Who Said That?" below.)
With this issue Langdon Winner inaugurates his column, Tech Knowledge Revue. It's a lengthy inauguration, but well worth reading for its clear-eyed look at the forces promising (or threatening) to dismantle higher education as we know it. Professor Winner carries you into the midst of the passionate deliberations at the recent "Digital Diploma Mills" conference.
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Dr. Vernon Pursel inserted the human growth gene in a pig. Pursel hoped to create giant pigs that would be major meat producers. The problem was that though the human growth gene was in every cell of the pig's body it did not act in the manner the scientists expected. Instead of making the pig larger it made it squat, cross-eyed, bow-legged, smaller than an average pig, with huge bone mass, a truly wretched product of science without ethics. Pursel tried to find a silver lining in his experiment gone wrong by claiming that the pig was leaner. Pursel's argument was that people are worried about cholesterol, so maybe we can sell this as lean pig. Did he really think the public was ready for pork chops with human genes?That pig strikes me as a good metaphor for the constructions of the Information Age. The prevailing notion is that we have this massive collection of information -- exemplified by several hundred thousand snippets of human genetic code -- which we can merrily pass from one database to another, inserting this piece here and that piece there.
But there is no such thing as an "objective piece of information". Like a word in a sentence, a bit of information means a particular thing only within a given context. Pursel's pig symbolizes the kind of result you get when you ignore context and try to build things from the bottom up -- that is, when you start with the reduced products of your sophisticated analyses, forgetting what it was you were analyzing in the first place.
Context in the present case means, to begin with, the pig itself. Pursel was willing to see fragments of DNA -- and even lean pork chops -- but did not care to see the pig. Such is the technological mindset we now trust to re-engineer the human being.
Exactly the same trust is at work wherever information is glorified as the decisive form of capital, the basis for problem-solving, and the fundamental ingredient of all knowledge.
(Kimbrell's remark, incidentally, occurs in a remarkable new book from the Sierra Club, called Turning Away from Technology, edited by Stephanie Mills. I hope to review it in the near future.)
The gains in safety and convenience seem obvious. Of course, as most people realize, there are also risks. What happens when the bracelet or alarm system fails? Or when the patient figures out, accidentally or otherwise, how to neutralize the bracelet? Suddenly the staff's habit of ignoring him poses an extraordinary danger. The recent satellite failure, with its unhappy consequences for various emergency communication systems, illustrated some of the chain reactions that can occur in the wake of a technical failure.
Wherever the dangers of technology are acknowledged, this is the sort of thing that usually gets mentioned. Many such problems come under the heading, "technical glitches", and the mind-numbing range of possibilities is covered superbly in Peter Neumann's online RISKS forum.
As most NETFUTURE readers know, my own penchant is to deal with a different class of risks: those showing up when the technology performs exactly as hoped. For example, do those wrist bracelets, by increasing the "efficiency" of the nursing home operation, make it an even more inhuman terror for aging folks than it already is? (Do family members or neighbors or staff members ever take that old man through the forbidden doors and outside, where he can experience grass, tree, and sun for a few minutes? Or, now that he is so well watched after by technology, do they increasingly forget him?)
As important as our dogged pursuit of technical glitches is and will remain, I don't think the "what can go wrong?" school of technology criticism will carry us very far against the most crucial issues of our day. After all, for every technical glitch there is a technical fix. And while the more alert among us may rightly point out that the fix poses its own risk of new glitches, perhaps even making the problem worse, the fact is that the technological arms race between glitch and fix seems to give us a balance of risk and benefit that society is happy to accept. The death rate on our highways may be high (we probably wouldn't tolerate it if it were instead the result of a foreign war) but ... well, do you really expect me to give up my ease of travel from here to there?
It will, then, be difficult to cultivate a more sober public attitude toward technology merely by pointing to glitches, however pervasive. The challenges I am most concerned about, on the other hand, arise not when something goes wrong, but when everything goes right. These challenges can be shown to grow more acute with every successful fix and with every new, more sophisticated generation of devices.
When the bracelet functions so well that it becomes a prison shackle or an isolation cell; when we can travel the globe so conveniently and safely that we unthinkingly abstract ourselves from place and community; when the new, improved voice recognition system enables us to reduce ever more meaningful aspects of human exchange to dialog with telephone answering systems -- these are the times I worry most. (For an elaboration of this point, see "Is Technological Improvement What we Want?" in NF #38, #40, and #48.)
Finally, do not think there is a neat symmetry between the risks and the benefits of technology, as I have framed them here. The subtleties of risk-benefit analysis notwithstanding, not all risks and benefits can be weighed in the same balance. The bracelet, by offering safety and convenience, does not elevate our humanity; but the bracelet we allow to become a shackle helps to destroy our humanity.
That's the way it is with technology. The real benefits we stand to gain -- the ones that truly elevate us -- always result from our overcoming technology rather than yielding to its invitations. It requires a wrenching inner effort to make that bracelet an occasion for more humane and loving attention rather than less. We gain from technology by learning how to work against its pull -- a gain of inestimable value, essential for our future.
The deepest risks of technology, on the other hand, are realized without effort on our part. In fact, this lack of inner effort is itself the realization of the risk. It is the disappearance of ourselves -- the loss of the power and will to struggle against technology toward higher ends (higher, for example, than convenience).
We can be positive about technology, in other words, only by being negative about it. Look at contemporary discussions of technology and you will almost invariably find that one or the other side of this paradox is overlooked. The most common denial of the paradox consists of the attempt to weigh all of technology's pluses and minuses in the same balance. This is to forget that we must stand above technology, and that what we gain through our mastery of it (or lose through our failure of mastery) is of an entirely different order from any supposed goods (or ills) the technology offers in its own right.
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From Langdon Winner (email@example.com)
TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE 1.1 June 2, 1998It was billed as "a second look at information technology and higher education," a gathering of students, professors, administrators, and union leaders concerned about the effects of computer-based learning in our colleges and universities. Organized by historian and social critic David Noble, the conference on "Digital Diploma Mills?" took place in late April at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and featured some of the most intense, personally moving discussions I have ever heard in a scholarly setting. While descriptions and diagnoses ranged across a broad spectrum, there was a widely shared sense that a crisis in higher education is now at hand.
At one level the question had to do with how well the new media of computerized instruction compare to conventional, classroom-centered methods of teaching. As students connect to new networks of "distance learning," what exactly are they getting? How does their experience compare to that gained on traditional college campuses?
Almost all speakers at the conference took care to recognize that there are some definite advantages in what the new technologies and digital institutions offer. Several professors described ingenious attempts to use the Internet and Web in their teaching, for example, a seminar in global political economy that links teachers and students across several continents. Many acknowledged that, for great numbers of students today, sources of electronic information and occasions for on-line instruction are actually superior to what would have been available to them otherwise. Especially for non-traditional learners -- those who have jobs and families and want to return to college to expand their learning and earn new credentials -- computerized settings offer varieties of access and flexibility that traditional campuses do not provide. This is no small accomplishment.
Particularly troubling, Burgan observed, is the way that computerized methods sever personal bonds between students and teachers. Speaking of participants in her own classes, she noted that "their intellectual difficulties are very personal," often tied to troubles with family, friends, lovers, substance abuse and the like. It is difficult enough to spot these problems in direct, face-to-face classroom encounters. If teaching increasingly takes place in the abstract realms of cyberspace, will teachers be able to respond to students' highly individual needs?
Burgan's thoughts gave focus to a dispute that erupted repeatedly during the gathering: how to weigh the benefits and costs of on-line learning. For some vocal techno-optimists in the crowd, the central promise seemed to be that of "content." Content, they explained, is the crucial substance of any field of knowledge -- physics, math, history, etc. -- such that it can be "delivered" through a set of institutions, practices and technical equipment. Content plus delivery equals "access." From this standpoint, computerized education looks like a godsend. As Casey Green, Director of Campus Computing for the Claremont Colleges, exclaimed about the new technology,
This stuff is great. This stuff is fantastic. This stuff is wonderful. This stuff offers tremendous opportunities for me as a scholar ... and tremendous opportunities for engagement for me and my students focused on the issue of content: what we teach, what we bring into the classroom and what we bring into the syllabus.Some in the group, however, balked at the enthusiasm over "content", wondering whether coming generations of students were fated to be taught by machines rather than living human beings. Mary Burgan acknowledged that knowledge of a certain complexion can be transferred via the new media. But she asked, "What happens to people who get their knowledge and then don't have to interact with other people in other settings?" Throughout the discussions there was a gnawing sense that even the most exquisite applications of distance learning run roughshod over crucial, social dimensions of learning.
Among the most powerful forces are those in the corporate sector that see education as a huge, largely untapped market for new goods and services. If one totals all the money spent on education and training in every setting and every institution, public and private, in the United States each year, the amount comes to perhaps $600 billion. Several speakers pointed to the expanding reach of corporate innovations aimed at capturing markets that traditional colleges and universities now serve. New firms, the University of Phoenix and the Home Education Network, for example, have already taken a substantial bite of the growing market for distance learning and look forward to huge profits in the future. As the emerging Wal-Mart in this field, the University of Phoenix has some 31,000 students enrolled.
Meanwhile, conventional institutions are scrambling to find a role, sometimes renting their reputations and even some of their faculty to cyberspace business concerns. Rick Worthington, professor of public policy at Pomona College, called attention to the controversial link between U.C.L.A. and the strictly for-profit Home Education Network. "Why would this firm be interested in the university?" he asked. "The reason is clear: U.C.L.A. is a good brand!"
Another arrangement between business and the university that drew considerable fire was the California Education Technology Initiative, a sweetheart deal announced in December 1997, linking the entire California State University system to a consortium of information technology firms -- Fujitsu, Hughes, Electronics, GTE and, of course, Microsoft in the group first announced. The plan involves a $300 million upgrade of the CSU digital "backbone" and the transfer of the $80 million a year that CSU budgets for computing services to the new CETI monopoly.
University administrators see the plan as a convenient way to improve information technology services within the college system. But students and faculty at the Harvey Mudd conference blasted the scheme as a corruption of the fundamental purposes of a public university, renaming it the "Corporate Education Takeover Initiative." Several speakers voiced fears that CETI corporate partners would begin to control the content of courses, reducing professors to a distinctly secondary role. One faculty member from a CSU campus reported that in the original CETI contract, professors were expected to become members of an active sales force, hawking products of the corporate partners to the 365,000 students on CSU's twenty-two campuses.
[It's worth noting that as campus protests about CETI roiled this spring, Microsoft and Hughes Electronics withdrew from the negotiations. University officials remain hopeful that a deal of some kind can be worked out.]
We are facing `Tidal Wave II' -- an additional 110,000 to 125,000 students in the next fifteen years. That represents building an institution the size of Cal Poly Pomona with 20,000 students every year for the next seven years. That's not going to happen. The brick and mortar solution is not going to happen.What is going to happen, Gonick made clear, is that public universities will look for ways to stretch their present campus facilities and faculties through the use of digital communications.
Whether or not this strategy will work was hotly debated. Several who spoke on the economics of information technology noted with bemusement that universities rushing to the game are largely clueless about how much the new equipment and services will actually cost. "I.T. is as much marketing phenomenon as it is scholarly tool," educational policy analyst Christopher Oberg observed. "It is as much about keeping up with the Joneses as it is about keeping up with research." Even the notion that information technologies bring increased efficiency seems suspect. There now appears to be an "education paradox" at least as puzzling as the "productivity paradox" oft-reported in the business literature. As Oberg put it, "In the literature searches I've done and research reviews I've conducted, I cannot find a single claim that I.T. has delivered an equal learning product at a reduced cost."
David Noble chimed in on this point, recalling that his studies of industrial automation two decades ago had reached similar conclusions. In fact, the managers and engineers he talked to simply did not want to talk about matters of cost, efficiency and profit that ostensibly motivated them. "We hear all the time about the bottom line ... cost effectiveness, austerity. The reality is otherwise. Trying to identify gains in productivity or economic gains -- the results are always ambiguous and quite contrary to the assumptions." Studies of supposed "gains from the introduction of computers in the service sector," he added, "have thus far yielded no gains in productivity .... Now all of this is coming to the universities."
Many in the room called attention to another feature of the brave new academic economy -- increasing reliance on a corps of contingent workers, the tens of thousands of poorly paid "adjunct" professors, "Roads Scholars" if you will, who now teach a growing share of courses offered on American campuses. Nearly 50% of all college classes nationwide are taught by non-tenure track, part-time teachers, a source of increasing distress among students and faculty alike.
Ann-Marie Feenberg, Associate Dean at the University of Redlands, called attention to one disturbing aspect of this trend: the de- professionalization of a whole generation of scholars. "We see our junior colleagues becoming independent contractors," she lamented. As members of the new generation of PhDs move from one part-time slot to another, it is all but impossible for them to build coherent careers in teaching, research and collegial relations.
This result, of course, has little to do with computers or high speed networks as such. But as the use of temporary academic workers spreads, the idea of building new "wired universities" around them is a temptation that academic administrators and entrepreneurs find difficult to resist. Welcome to the global economy and its lean, flexible, just-in-time work places. These days I often hear unemployed PhDs say how thankful they are for the $3,500 fee they receive for doing occasional, on-line courses. As they adapt to this new regime, deplorable conditions are accepted as normal.
Maitland's point, however, was a serious one. Whether they realize it or not, college teachers are now involved in a fierce struggle over the control of the curriculum. The increasing use of technology in higher education raises persistent questions about what the curriculum will include and who decides. "It is the faculty that are the best judges of the content and quality of courses in their discipline," she insisted. With a "knowledge explosion" under way in all areas of learning, the idea that software developers can simply package lectures and lessons and pump them through digital pipes year after year is an illusion. Such knowledge would have a limited shelf-life. Hence, the best strategy is to allow those active in various fields of learning to oversee changes in the substance of courses.
Maitland cited the example of the University of Maine, which attempted to institute distance education without including faculty in curriculum planning. Faculty fought back, eventually forcing the chancellor to resign. "The union won the right to have faculty review of distance education courses. There is now some very good distance education offered by the University of Maine and it is controlled by the faculty."
This does not mean that college teachers should see themselves as protectors of traditional sinecures. Indeed, many at the meeting saw the true challenge of information technology as that of democratizing education, transforming deeply entrenched structures of prestige and privilege. Phil Agre, professor of communication at UCSD, observed that the very ideal of liberal education has long presupposed a distance between the educated person and the rest of society. A possible benefit of distance learning might be to overcome this distance. "The model of liberal education depended on a kind of leisure that our students mostly don't have and do not expect to have and can't identify with." Agre called for "a positive, democratic vision of what a liberal education is," one that would draw upon the power of digital technologies as an occasion for progressive social change.
Andrew Feenberg, professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, chided college teachers for missing the boat on exactly this challenge. "University faculties have not been willing to address non-traditional learners. Because they haven't, those learners have been addressed by entrepreneurs and administrators who have created a whole parallel education system which they now control." In contrast to the kinds of high-cost pedagogy that now produce de-skilling and automation in education, Feenberg described some time-tested, inexpensive forms of computer-centered learning that bring students and teachers together around projects of shared inquiry. But he admitted that few have been willing to move forward with these approaches.
"We don't want edutainment," Maria Quintero exclaimed. "What we want is people to inspire or infuriate us." In a rambling monologue worthy of a stand up comic, Evan Blumberg described a fellow he'd noticed in a campus computer lab, one who would stare into his cathode ray tube for days on end, oblivious to the passage of time, the need for food or drink and the presence of people sitting right next to him. "Because these labs have no windows, you can't tell whether it's day or night. They're a lot like the casinos in Las Vegas. I think I know who `the house' is."
Another of the students, Julia Baker, spoke as a leader of the revolt against CETI in the California State University system. Ms. Baker pointed to the destruction of the partnership between students and professors that systems of distance learning sometimes entail. Suggesting that the problem was ultimately one of corporate domination of education rather than technology itself, she announced that a "revolution in consciousness" is on the horizon, one quite different from the educational revolution corporate managers and university bean counters have in mind, an uprising that would bring students to renew their commitment to social justice and ecological principles. "When the revolt arrives," she asked, "will the faculty stand with us?"
The event ended with no firm resolve other than a firm desire to keep the conversation moving. Evidently, there will be a second "Digital Diploma Mills" gathering in Wisconsin this fall. If it's anything like the first one, it will be well worth the journey to Madison.
** The extent of corporate penetration of higher education is even greater than I'd previously known and is spreading fast.
** State legislatures would now rather invest in digital bandwidth than spend money on conventional settings for teaching and learning.
** Most faculty of college and universities now seem unaware of or indifferent to changes slated for their ways of working in the years ahead.
** If professors ever do begin to squawk about the erosion of their scholarly autonomy, the general public probably won't care.
** In the coming decade, higher education seems likely to split into two distinctly different sectors: (1) two hundred or so institutions that deliver high quality, face-to-face teaching for those slated to become social elites; (2) several thousand semi-campus, semi-cyberspace, hybrid organizations -- colleges, universities and business firms -- ready to pump instruction and credentials to a flexible global workforce.
** The goal of shaping information technology to democratize education is highly appealing, but there are, at present, no strong, well-organized forces promoting that end.
** I plan to advise my sons to avoid college teaching as a profession, unless any of them demonstrates a taste for protracted conflict.
Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced Study, P.O. Box 215, North Chatham, NY 12132. Langdon Winner can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and at his Web page: http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .
Copyright Langdon Winner 1998. Distributed as part of NETFUTURE: http://netfuture.org. You may redistribute this article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.
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The UDC encourages (by its own advertisement) "critical perspectives in communication theory, media production and the study of popular culture". It brings together "media producers, researchers, policy makers, and grassroots communications activists".
The UDC calls for critical academics and media activists, practitioners, and producers to address issues that might include: the notion of the "public interest," the role of public media systems in the creation of a democratic public sphere; the role of media policy in helping or hindering democracy; the role of media in (trans)national democratization processes; the dissemination of radical claims through alternative community and mainstream media; the ways in which the everyday media practices of the public help or hinder the creation of a democratic public sphere; the education of media workers in the interest of democracy, and the utilization of information technologies for and against democracy.The conference schedule is extensive and impressive. You can check it out at http://www.udc.org/.
McRuer describes his undertaking this way:
The problematique presents a long list of interacting symptoms of labyrinthine complexity: Global warming, ozone depletion, anxiety about the global food prognosis, population growth, global carrying capacity, deforestation, declining biodiversity, collapse of fish stocks, air and water pollution, threats to wildlife, so called overconsumption, accumulating garbage, undisposed nuclear waste, aquifer depletion, poverty, environmental refugees, globalization of the economy, and a wide range of resulting political conflicts including growing corporate power, water rights, transboundary pollution, fish wars, transportation gridlock, NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), carbon taxes, voluntary simplicity, and "full cost accounting". On a more esoteric level the problematique has generated growing academic tensions concerning the paradigm of economics, the nature and future of technology, the legitimacy of long-term global simulations, the implications of growing complexity in human interactions, the influence of the media on cultural change, and the underlying drivers of ecological decline.
In most cases the notes I post are a series of bullets which condense the content of an item down to its essentials, often with brief comments from my own analysis. They are aimed at an audience consisting of informed generalists and specialists whose fields are influenced by a broad range of external factors with roots in ecological change.
To subscribe, send a note to email@example.com asking to be added to the list.
Among the previous postings (which I imagine you can still obtain), McRuer lists these:
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Bill McInerney is a professor of educational administration in Purdue University's School of Education, where he teaches courses on technology and planning. He previously spent seventeen years as a teacher and administrator in secondary and middle schools. Music, he says, has always been central to his life, and, with an appealing technological backwardness, he enjoys collecting vinyl records.
McInerney teaches a course on "Information Systems in Education", whose description and fascinating reading list you will find at http://www.soe.purdue.edu/fac/bmcinern/teaching.html. He co-teaches a second course (Topics in Educational Restructuring) wholly online. In his introduction to the latter course, he cites this remark by J. F. Covaleskie:
When I talk about resistance, I do not mean to suggest that ... reforms are actively opposed. They rarely are. Quite the contrary, they are often enthusiastically embraced by teachers and administrators alike. For this reason, the ability of the system to resist efforts to change it is an interesting phenomenon. As such reforms diffuse through the system they tend to become less reforms as they are modified to conform to the systemic demands for efficiency.SLT
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Copyright 1998 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.
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http://netfuture.org/subscribe.html.Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #72 :: June 2, 1998
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