Archive for November, 2006

What’s with the old dogs…

Tuesday, November 28th, 2006

At the risk of sounding ageist, what’s with the old dogs in the academy? Ha, you’re thinking, the age old question!

Indeed. In their recent journal article No Time to Think, Heather Menzies and Janice Newson contend that “technology, far from freeing up academics’ time, has compressed it to stressful levels” endangering the university as a “site of critical and creative reflection.” Their findings? 58% of respondents find it harder to focus; 51% don’t have enough “time to think” and 42% said they are more susceptible to being distracted by the information and communication coming at them.

No shit. These findings reinforce what I have gathered, learned anecdotally, and have begun to experience in my training for the venerable position of professor. The authors attribute this state to the shift to the “new, technologically enhanced work environment”, wherein academics are regularly online with colleagues, students, and research subjects and partners.

The problem with this article, as I see it, is the conflation of technology with the corporatization of the academy, and the blaming of the former for the deterioration of post-secondary education. To their credit, the authors acknowledge the commercialization of the academy, which began with severe funding cutbacks in the 1970s, and the ensuing repositioning of universities as more business-friendly. One result of this has been the “wired campus”. But in addition to reporting the (seemingly natural) outcome of higher stress due to fewer faculty members and increased work loads, as well as instant access via the internet, this study appears to be blaming ICTs for academics “not reading as deeply and reflectively as they use to, or as they’d like to.”

Hello! That’s a bit of a stretch. I have the internet, so I can’t concentrate, can’t think deeply? My students can access me 24/7 (though I’m under no obligation to respond in kind, and can, in fact, set strict parameters around this), and that’s why I do shitty research. Sorry, I don’t buy it. I don’t dispute the findings; I do take issue with where the authors lay the blame: technology. It’s too simple and too easy to blame this new technological dystopia that campus life and work has become.

Despite this fairly uncritical, determinst approach (technology ruined my life, waaahhh…), the study also only surveys 80 faculty members from across the country. While I think this is a fairly small sample, and hardly representative for all the fuss it’s causing, what I’d really like to know is their age. And does this technological anomie correspond to where these academics came in on the IT learning curve? For those of us who don’t know any different, I wonder if this encroachment of communication technology is so devastating. I don’t think that technology and critical pedagogy are mutually exclusive. Why on earth would Menzies and Newson assume this; it’s a flawed premise, and it has skewed their conclusions. Why would my use of technology as a professor mean that I “fail to challenge and provide an altenrative to students’ self-reported ‘consumerist’ approach to education…” Why would it preclude or threaten necessarily “sustained dialogue in leanring communities and asking questions about the long-term public good.”

There is definitely a problem in post-secondary education. But it’s not technology. Try looking at the people behind it, beginning with those who talk about university degrees as commodities, and students as consumers. Just for starters.

Communist Manifestoon

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

This came across our grad list today: Very funny stuff. Good old YouTube. Good old Karl Marx. Good old Disney. Who knew they were all so compatible?

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General idea of revolution

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Philosophers have thunk on how to achieve the “Good Life” for an embarassingly long time. And yet it remains elusive for, I think it’s fair to say, the majority of the world’s population (Africa and India being as populous as they are).

How about these goals as the basis for the Good Life:

1. The self-reflexive human being;
2. The honourableness of work;
3. The equality of fortunes;
4. The identity of interests;
5. The end of antagonisms;
6. The universality of comfort;
7. The sovereignty of reason (one of my faves);
8. The absolute liberty of wo/man and of the citizen.

Sounds pretty amazing, no? Guess who wrote that? You never will, unless you know anarchist thought, and then you’ll say, but of course, my dear, that is Proudhon, the French political philosopher and original anarchist thinker, in his book, General Idea of the Revolution in the 19th Century.

In addition to the above goals, or principles of the new French society Proudhoun envisioned, he outlines the “forms of activity” this society will take:

a. Division of labour, through which classification of the People by INDUSTRIES replaces classification by caste;
b. collective power, the principle of WORKER’S ASSOCIATIONS, in place of armies;
c. Commerce, the concrete form of CONTRACT, which takes the place of Law;
d. Equality in exchnage;
e. Competition;
f. Credit, which turns upon INTERESTS, as the governmental hierarchy turns upon Obedience;
g. The equilibrium of values and of properties.

Hmmmm. An anarchist talking about commerce and competition? Who knew?

And how’s this for a truism: “God and King, Church and State; these have ever been the soul and body of conservatism” (247). Amen – ahem – right on.

Coupla things

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Well, if a blog isn’t a place you can talk about yourself, I don’t know where is…

Axel Bruns mentioned my CJC book review in his blog. He calls it “generally positive.” Whew.

In other breaking news, the latest issue of *FAS Thinking* is out, with the ACT Lab cover story. It’s rather embarassing, but then we all knew it would be.

Infocommons and the capitalist connex

Thursday, November 16th, 2006

Yesterday, Patricia Aufderheide came to SFU School of Communication to yak with the grad students. She was in town from Washington, where she teaches at American University, to deliver our School’s annual Spry Lecture (I’ll put the link up to her talk “Vlogs, ipods and beyond: Public media’s terrifying opporutnities” when it’s posted).

Aufderheide is a cool lady with big ideas that escape the confines of traditional academe. I liked her immediately. The focal point of her discussion with us yesterday was twofold: to defend and justify the right to politicize one’s research in the academy, and to bring the very unique skills of academics to the “real world”, and apply them in a meaningful way. In short, to make a difference.

Aufderheide has made a difference in a couple of really big ways. First, she founded the Center for Social Media in the School of Communication at American University. The objective of the centre is to “showcase and anlayze media for social justice, democracy and civil society.” It engages in reasearch that highlights issues of public media and pursues practical solutions. A case in point is the drafting of Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices, which Aufderheide spearheaded. Although it may sound rather dull, this document has been, in fact, groundbreaking. Evolving out of the hostile and litigious copyright climate in North America, and centred on the notion that cultural creativity is a communal and ongoing project, it has changed practice on copyright clearance and expanded creativity and expression in documentary film.

“This project is anchored around the notion of freedom of speech and pushing back against censorship,” Aufderheide says. Fair use, which permits limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders, under certain conditions, is a doctrine that documentarists have avoided embracing in fear of law suits. This, Aufderheide says, empowers rights holders as private censors. She discussed the cultural enclosure movement, which has been aided by this fear, and which brands and privatizes cultural and creative material. Opposed to this is the Infocommons, which is also another way to think of the public domain, which gathers work that no longer has copyright protection (she also mentioned Creative Commons, as another example of how to challenge the current copyright regime).

What Aufderheide didn’t mention, and I found this almost as interesting, was the obvious link between capitalism and the branding and privatization of creativity. Even the metaphor of “the commons” which she invokes has an historical connection to nascent capitalism, when commonly held land in England was enclosed for private use. Now maybe she simply doesn’t find this useful in finding practical solutions – it’s not like capitalism is going anywhere anytime soon. But if we’re attempting a critical analysis, I don’t think avoiding the raison d’etre of the matter is helpful. Rights holders don’t want anyone using their work without receiving large sums of money – why should this be wrong in a capitalist society? Why shouldn’t people get paid large for their hard work? Until we alter the framework upon which our society operates, this will be a legitimate question, which no amount of pleading or moralizing or guilt-tripping will change.

And that’s a whole nother kettle of fish.

Brunch with Bijker

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

OK, it wasn’t quite brunch. It was timbits, and we brought our own coffee. But Wiebe Bijker was definitely at the ACT Lab for what was billed as an “informal chat” with students. He was excellent.

Now this guy, this Wiebe Bijker, is a Dutch dude, and the founder of what is variously referred to as a method, a theory and a school – the social construction of technology, or simply SCOT. I suppose he is properly considered the co-founder of SCOT, because the seminal article written on this innovative new approach to technology studies was co-authored with Trevor Pinch.

Two things struck me about him. First, his age. He was a youthful guy – not young, but with the essence of youth. I imagined him to be a well-fed, frumpy old fuddydud. Talk about stereotyping. But anyhow. He was not “cool” in the way kids today might conceive it, but was fit and snappily dressed, with a humble, kind way about him.

The second thing was also surprising but perhaps should not have been. His politics. He has some. And not just any; he is an activist academic who seems to envision his work as necessarily political. Now this was (actually) shocking to me because one of the initial critiques of SCOT was that it did not include evaluative criteria. Langdon Winner (1993), in particular, was hot and bothered about this. He produced a scathing critique which suggested that any advances made through this line of inquiry “take place at a significant cost: a willingness to disregard important questions about technology and human experience…” (p. 4). According to Winner, SCOT’s most offensive flaw is its “almost total disregard for the social consequences of technical choice” (ibid). One can fairly hear his voice dripping with disgust. Winner regards Pinch and Bijker’s notion of interpretive flexibility as a handmaiden of relativism for its failure to attribute any meaning to a technology or its uses. Because technology is considered neutral in the quest to understand technical development, interpretive flexibility devolves into moral and political indifference (p. 7). Winner also charges that SCOT’s “ways of modeling the relationship between social interests and technological innovation will conceal as much as they reveal” (p. 5).

Feenberg, too, has pointed out some of these things. Perhaps this is why his first question to Bijker was about second thoughts. Does he have any, based on how Science and Technology Studies has evolved since SCOT’s birth in 1984?

Bijker replied: “I only have had second thoughts rarely. [They] are about the evolutionary model [of SCOT] with its explicit stages of variation and selection. I think it worked well then. It came from my tech studies side not Trevor [Pinch]’s sociology of knowledge side. I needed it to open up the implicit linear models of technology. The evolutionary model helped to argue that there were alternative models to technical determinism.”

But Bijker noted that there are also very mechanical interpretations – mechanical models of evolution that problematize the 1984 SCOT model, which is based on a biological interpretation of evolution.

Feenberg suggested that Simondon’s concept about the evolution of technology might be useful. Simondon’s concept of the progressive “concretization” of technological development explains how a technical artefact constitutes a series of objects, a lineage or a line. “It refers to the condensation of various functions in a single technical structure oriented toward efficiency” (From Essentialism to Constructivism). Gradually, fewer technical structures serve more functions; one example is the air cooled engine, where the engine casing both contains and cools the engine. Feenberg generalizes Simondon’s notion of concretization to describe the way in which social actors layer interests into technology: the same structures get layered with new functions as new actors get involved.

Bijker said he’d also had second thoughts about the label “social” in SCOT. “We wanted to argue against technological determinism and we did so by saying there is no linear logic, that artifacts are socially constructed. We ‘won’ – yes, things could have been otherwise. Then there we were in a world where everything was socially constructed; there was no way to talk about impacts. That’s a very silly world – to come up with a conceptual apparatus that doesn’t allow you to talk about effects on society.”

Bijker continued: “To get that back you need also to be able to talk about the technical shaping of society. The artifact was a unit of analysis and its social shaping had been conceptualized. Now, society had to be a unit of analysis and you want technology’s impact on it. Then Callon, Latour and Feenberg talked about socio-technical networks…”

For Bijker, the idea of the network is too specific; instead he talks about technical ensembles. “We were all groping for a way of labeling that unit of analysis that wouldn’t implicitly choose for either technical or social; are we happy with just ‘why’ questions and don’t want to answer ‘how’ questions?”

Roy Bendor, of les ACTants, asked what Bijker considered to be the aims of STS, its social commentary. This is where the talk turned political, much to my surprise.

“I’m not ashamed to take an explicit, personal, normative stance but I also think when you’re studying a certain practice its heuristically productive to keep normative judgment at the back of your mind and trace empirically how norms and values are constructed.”


Bijker used an “automotive” metaphor to describe the development of STS, which he conceptualizes largely as an academic detour. “It started with a political agenda that was successful within academia but not very successful in society. It didn’t succeed to stop nuclear power in the Netherlands (the Russians had to help with Chernobyl). The idea was, let’s achieve more fundamental sociological understanding then return to political issues; this describes the past 15 years…

“About five years ago, we started to raise the question, was this really detour and can we return to the main political question or are we stuck there? According to my roadmap, it’s still an academic highway; [the feeling is] ‘don’t bother us with this political stuff.’ There is also a policy street; some people are really able to sell this work. I’m pleading for a democratic (or politicization in Dutch) boulevard which combines the political agenda, but in less of a short term, instrumental way as the policy street, with academic research.”

On the topic of the politicization of technology, Feenberg admitted his doubts about the application of the principle of symmetry to technology. “The enormous differences in power and wealth in society at large make it absurd to talk about symmetry [e.g. Big Tobacco]. It’s hard to end a controversy when your adversary has 1000 times the amount of money you have and are cynical. This raises serious methodological problems and forces you back into more traditional sociological methods like ideology, class.”

Nodding amenably, Bijker agreed that it doesn’t make sense to use symmetry ontologically, as do Latour or Callon. Nonetheless, he maintained that it could be a useful heuristic device. He gave the example of his study of the flourescent lamp, and a battle between the all powerful General Electric and the utility companies, who were at some point able to force GE to do something it didn’t really want.

“My argument then would be, not that there are not huge power differences in the world, but explaining a development by using a concept like power is begging the question, why is one actor or institution more powerful than another?”

For Bijker, a symmetrical analysis means that “you don’t import implicitly, uncritically your preconceptions of the world but try to find out how these extreme differences in power, wealth, class are reproduced in the particular case you are studying. Hueristic advice: you will see more, that will help you understand what’s going on. The problem is, this works on micro level, but of course there’s more going on. I am one of the old STS guys who loves to use Marx, so I’m not denouncing Marxist theory. How to connect macro structure to microanalysis difficult.”

There was more to the conversation, but it jumped around a bit, and was less cohesive. Plus I think I’ve gone on quite long enough.