A revised note on technology, outsourcing and the privatisation of higher education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 14 December 2010

In a recent note on technology, outsourcing and the privatisation of higher education, I argued that hegemonic economic arguments, uncritically focused on short-term efficiency gains and the perceived flexibility of cloud-based provision, is accelerating the commodification of IT services, systems and data. A core strand of this is that the dominant logic “makes no attempt to focus upon an institution as a complex socio-cultural set of spaces, within which technology and those who work with it are situated.”

My belief that we are witnessing “an emerging crisis of the public space” revealed in-part through technological outsourcing, privatisation and enclosure has been amplified by recent, global socio-cultural events. These events highlight the power of capital in enclosing our places for co-operation.

  1. In an excellent commentary on Amazon’s decision to abandon Wikileaks, John Naughton claims that the migration to the cloud offers problems for those who dissent from prevailing narratives of power. The political pressure brought to bear on Amazon, and its decision not to support a counter-hegemonic or alternative position, for reasons that are extra-judicial, is concerning for democratic engagement on-line. Naughton quotes Rebecca MacKinnon: “A substantial, if not critical amount of our political discourse has moved into the digital realm. This realm is largely made up of virtual spaces that are created, owned and operated by the private sector.” Therefore the control of spaces for deliberation, where controversy can be played out is compromised by the interplay between power and capital. It should be noted that the Wikileaks farrago has been critiqued as business-as-usual, in that “The leaking performed by Wikileaks does not imply the disclosure of the web of power that government puts into motion”. However, the attack on dissent matters in a world where autonomous student and academic activists are using the web to oppose the dominant logic of those in power, and where the state is physically opposing forms of protest.
  2. MacKinnon goes on to state that “The future of freedom in the internet age may well depend on whether we the people can succeed in holding companies that now act as arbiters of the public discourse accountable to the public interest.” The web is entwined with our social forms – it provides a space to widen our engagement with education, with exchange and production, with communities in their struggle for justice. The web forms a space, embedded within our view of social forms, within which ideas of our shared public goods can be defended and extended. In the logic of capital, where cuts and privatisation, or the marketisation of our lives, are being catalysed at an increasing velocity, the spaces we defend and extend for shared social value are critical. However, it is clear that whilst the state has moved to enclose and brutalise physical space, through the use of militarised tactics like kettling people, in an attempt to reduce dissent via shock therapy, such coercion on-line also needs to be resisted in the name of democracy.
  3. Resistance is difficult to achieve for it rests on a view of the commons or public goods, which in-turn stands against the dominant logic of all spaces opened up for the exchange of commodities. Dyer-Witheford has demonstrated how the tensions between exchange for sharing, versus co-operation for sharing are exacerbated in the violence of the virtual space. Dyer-Witheford sees some hope in the concept of the multitude raised by Negri and Hardt in opposition to the power of capital that re-produced systemically, beyond national borders, as Empire. The multitude offers hope because it re-connects opposition towards the alienating, dehumanising effects of capitalism and coercive competition, by way of a proliferation of autonomous spaces. It re-connects opposition into the ethics of peer-to-peer sharing and the hacker. It offers a metaphor for multiple ways to dissolve the toxicity of capitalism into a new set of deliberated social forms. In this we need to reconsider our approach to the personal and towards celebrating libertarian views of the individual that commodify our privacy, or at least the state’s control of it. This is why the place of hacktivism, in and against capital’s dominant social forms and their shackling of our labour and social lives to an economically-determined set of outcomes, is important. Hacktivism as “electronic direct action in which creative and critical thinking is fused with programming skill and code creating a new mechanism to achieve social and political change” is critical in “securing the Internet as a platform of free speech and expression.” Increasingly, this work will be needed as the state marketises or closes down our public spaces for free speech and expression, and forces public bodies like Universities to privatise and valorise their work, conditioned by debt.
  4.  In the face of an homogenised life, we can view the autonomous nature of student occupations of physical and virtual space as a protest without co-ordinates or co-ordination. The lack of leadership in the face of a militarised response has enabled the multitude of dissenting voices to work towards a network of dissent that is able to theorise and critique a position beyond fees and cuts to teaching budgets. The dominant logic is one of resistance to capital, visited symptomatically through fees, cuts to public services, financialisation of debt, and corporate tax avoidance. One possibility is that the use of cloud-based social media, which is at once open source and proprietary, peer-to-peer, shared and closed, offers ways for those in opposition to subscribe to a broader critical and social opposition in developing this critique. This is not the world of the lone reviewer or subscriber, who can rate/subscribe to other lone reviewers. This is the world of security in the social; it is the world of re-production and sharing as social exchanges and social activities that are not-for-profit. They need to be defended and not proscribed.

There is an emerging concern that the privatisation and outsourcing of spaces and opportunities by Universities, driven by cost and an agenda of debt, is a real risk to freedom-of-speech and dissent. Where private firms are able to control public discourse, and where the internet becomes tethered or enclosed, there are no guarantees that we will be able to challenge. There is no guarantee that we will not be kettled or coerced where we protest on-line. The privatisation of our academic spaces threatens a negation of the critical, social life. It needs to be deliberated before that possibility is destroyed.


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