Tablets, blackouts, students and universities

I’ve written about mobiles before, and you can read that stuff here.

I’ve written about tech-determinism before, in particular in a post here.

The issues I am trying to reflect on are part of a critique of technology inside capitalist work, and the socio-environmental symptoms of its excesses, which in turn impact our world. And these excesses are our excesses, insofar as we might find the power or agency to act differently. As a result, these are issues that do not go away, because they are tied to the historically-defined and reinforced reality of our use of technology under capitalism. In this reality, our procurement and deployment of technologies implicates us in the proletarianisation of our lives, and in the monitoring of our experiences, and through discourses of profit and value and efficiency and productivity, and in the exploitation of other humans, and in the re-focusing of our work around money, and in the enclosure of our world for profit. Although we tell ourselves hopeful stories of how technology enables the possibility of redemption and enfranchisement and empowerment and “the student experience”. Because we can tolerate/justify almost anything in the name of “the student experience”.

And maybe technology can help us to be these hopeful things; but we cannot do these things without the recognition of the political content of our work with technology. And we cannot create these hopeful things without the recognition that the spaces in which we place and use technologies are highly politicised, and irrevocably ideological. The content of our discussions, over which tablet, or which virtual learning environment, or our mobile learning strategy, or our approach to the implementation of open content/data or social media, or whatever, is important. It is part of the lifeblood of our Universities. But it is also deeply political; for this content reinforces power and our existing social relationships; unless we have the courage to think and talk and act otherwise.

Which brings me to the things that have crossed my path this week and which have made me wonder, what is to be done?

The first thing. There has been and continues to be a vigorous discussion on the Association for Learning Technology members’ email-list about the utility of tablets, and specifically the iPad in higher education. The discussion has been very specifically tied to academic work within the University, and linked to both the student experience and what might be termed academic value, as is indirectly revealed through ideas of flexible learning and efficiency gains and productivity. Although one correspondent focused upon strategies for encouraging the democratisation and free accessibility of content across communities, rather than engaging with closed, proprietary software, the debate has been de-political (and therefore highly political, for this is the ideology of network democracy and participation that is central to neoliberal dogma and the cry of “there is no alternative”).

The second thing. There was a report from Business Insider about the employment conditions of employees working for companies who make Apple’s products, in particular in China. And there was also a transcript from This American Life, which reveals some of the evidence that underpins the former report, about the abuse of labour and human rights. And we are implicated in these abuses, and I wonder if our silence can ever be redeemed through our focus on the student experience?

The third thing. The blackout over SOPA and the fight for a free-and-open internet, has led to two interesting status updates in my Facebook newsfeed (even I’m fallible). The first from a student:

“Stupid wikipedia…It’s not even a British law. I know why your doing it, even agree to an extent but urgh!”

The second from someone who works in education and technology and strategy and planning:

“Ask yourself – why isn’t facebook blacked out?”

And this has made me think about those very items of content that are so dear to our hearts, like which tablet, or which virtual learning environment, or our mobile learning strategy, or our approach to the implementation of open content/data or social media. And it has made me think about the power of corporations within capitalism, and their desire for the separation, commodification and enclosure of our experiences. And how technology and network theory always brushes up against the market, and the power relations that are revealed though it.

And this has made me think about what is to be done? How might our use of technology inside the University be connected to the political struggles outside? How might we refashion our discussions away from the comfort of the UK student experience, in order to situate that experience globally – and I do not mean in terms of opening-up that experience for/to a global market. Instead I mean opening-up that space to a critique of that market. So how do we work on University procurement practices? How do we collectively lobby technology firms over human and labour rights? How do we engage students in a discussion of the open web? How do we enable them to discuss the labour and human rights, and the liquid resources and energy and carbon, which are embedded in our technologies?

Because it strikes me that we might usefully utilise technology, in order to reveal the reality of our labour-in-capitalism or our capitalist work, and to discuss possible alternatives. But we need to situate the discussion of the content of our technological lives politically. And as we do this, our alternatives might be a statement of “no! I will not be complicit in this activity”. And it might involve a deletion of accounts on social networks, or the equivalent of a strike through our refusal to use specific learning management systems or proprietary software/hardware that is implicated in human/labour rights abuses, or services that give away personal data to Governments. Or it might be finding the courage to raise these issues institutionally, or across the sector, or in public meetings. And it might be a way of pushing back against the enclosure of our lives for profit, by going into occupation of virtual learning and teaching spaces. Or by fleeing those enclosed worlds and setting-up rival spaces, using open software, as a way to define a new set of social relationships and new forms of value against money.

And in this we might redeem a part of ourselves; and we might do this socially and co-operatively; against our separation from each other; as we refuse to outsource our politics and our technologies and our relationships and our identities and our privacy and our data to corporations that have corporate interests at heart. In so doing I wonder whether we might also meaningfully describe what a University experience is for and what a student experience might be.

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