Pettiness, possession, petulance and pride

March 13, 1998

The network that brings computing power to your desktop is not electronic, it is social, says William Keenan

Time was when the knowledge revolution, the postmodern child of the modern scientific revolution, gave hope to utopians that at last the intellectual foundations were being laid for the open society. Democracy and social justice would be built on the solid rock of free enquiry and equal access to the universal store of human wisdom. Knowledge was the instrument for designing collective human happiness, the key to freedom and the elixir of the good life. And politics in free societies swung behind this faith, erecting a complex edifice of educational institutions to engineer the great leap into the good society.

All this investment of trust in the magical transformative powers of Knowledge, a vestige of a Baconian-Enlightenment dream of the new science, failed to take sufficient stock of the social fact that knowledge as the handmaid of civic virtue could, like any other public good, be corrupted, exploited, privatised, sequestered, and otherwise turned from its ideal purposes to serve the machinations and manipulations of vested and narrow interests. What, today, is playing a vital part in empowering the new knowledge power brokers in pursuit of old-fashioned self-aggrandisement is, ironically enough, none other than that acme of the scientific revolution, the computer itself, the knowledge revolution incarnate. What had been heralded as the driving-force of a participatory knowledge society has rapidly become a forceful lever in generating, sustaining and exacerbating status and power differentials in already massively divided and unequal societies. To social class, ethnicity and race, gender and sexual orientation, age, height, weight, and basic education grade-point averages, it seems that sociologists ought to be adding the new category of social distinction and demarcation, computer power.

Nowhere is the computer power variable as a measure of social worth more visible and virulent than in higher education where it operates with varying levels of political subtlety and diverse degrees of economic effect as a marker of place within the highly status-conscious culture of academe. Of all revolutions, the salient question is, of course, who benefits? Who owns the technical means of knowledge production? Who has the lion's share in the technology for the distribution and circulation of ideas? If tomorrow belongs to the controllers of knowledge technologies, who guards their computer-rich guardians within the universities today? What ethical and social principles should inform and impact on the information technology policies and strategies of academic IT budget controllers who are in a position to spend considerable public funds, whether from teaching or research budgets or special IT development subsidies?

In doing so, they generate, either intentionally as an element in some curious and opaque neo-Darwinian sponsorship of favoured techno-fit sons and daughters, or as an unforeseen and unplanned consequence of insensitive and socially myopic hardware and software allocation practices, contestable and generally harmful - as all exclusionary activities are - technological divisions within the university system as a whole, and within and between particular faculties, departments and divisions. Where techno-power meets homo academicus, plenty of scope exists to reveal the sad and corrosive personal pathologies of pettiness, possessiveness, petulance and pride in cahoots with the massive structural forces of naked social and institutional power.

Sadly, in all too many instances, access to and command over knowledge technology goods is largely via an ill-defined, relatively arbitrary and decidedly non-transparent grace-and-favour system. It pays, if you are an academic these days, to know your computer power broker well; it is a good investment not only in your access to the increasingly essential tools of the academic trade, but also to the technological symbols of cognitive prowess and intellectual distinction. As the new techno-folk wisdom has it: the bigger the computer, the larger the mind; the more powerful the PC, the more penetrating the intellect. Scholars of any salt all know with every fibre of their being that this implicit ideology of techno-education is total bunkum. However, outsiders - with whom the academic community (often in the shape of the very controllers of the computer purse-strings) increasingly interacts - are more readily impressed by the paraphernalia of science. Busy academic managers (an oxymoron if ever there was one) need, perhaps, in this Baudrillardian universe, the simulacra of the mind consecrated to knowledge and truth, when the genuine article slips further and further from their grip, a trace memory of when they were at the chalk-face.

When the gadgetry of knowledge is in your private possession, there are few checks on exactly what they are being used to produce or by whom, and no questions are asked as to user proficiency in relation to these major items of knowledge capital. This may represent one residual feature of a rapidly fading academic culture of gentlemanly amateurism, and high trust dynamics are certainly to be preferred to that corrosive institutionalised suspicion that can bring ruination to free-thinking communities. Yet, it is worth noting that techno-power within higher learning contexts can engender fashionable new modes of pomp and splendour and be a pretext for the formation of narrow self-congratulatory cliques. Elites down the ages have enjoyed this Veblenesque privilege of conspicuous consumption without accountability for use. Academic techno-toffs follow in this long tradition and it would take a Desmond Morris to decode their new techno-rituals of display.

Techno-egos, PC-machismo and the risks of cyborgphrenia aside, the uneven, unplanned and unjust distribution of computer power in higher education contexts matters greatly and is a real concern if for no other reason than the fact that to do one's job as an academic efficiently, effectively, and at todays quality threshold standards, requires, increasingly, access, day-to-day, at one's desk (or workstation), to computer capacity of sufficient reliability, range and adaptability to new information systems and products. To cite a factoid example or two: first, if students from different courses located in different buildings on a multi-site campus come to seek advice on project or dissertation work based in some measure on software packages and CD-Roms of diverse sorts which one's puny work computer has simply no earthly chance of accessing, then one is in deep student-cred trouble, and one's service-delivery substantially impaired; second, should a publisher ask for a certain technical refinement to a paper, suggesting a quick turn-round will facilitate early publication, to wait in a long queue for the machine that will do the trick since Lazarus on one's desk has yet again failed to live up to its name may, Heaven forfend, jeopardise the great RAE transition from 3b to 3a.

We come back here to the question of how it might be possible for academic institutions to improve the mechanisms whereby the machinery of the knowledge revolution can be distributed better, or, if enhanced productivity, improved quality service-delivery and increased equity can be so secured by it, redistributed differently among staff. To complicate matters further, students also have to be accorded due recognition in any redistributivist IT policy and strategy, since they are subject to similar pressures of IT upward renorming and the ever-present fear of irretrievable techno-obsolescence looms almost as large as the trepidation at the discovery of a string vest, tank top and velveteen flares in one's wardrobe.

The issues raised here regarding efforts to decelerate technological drift, eliminate exclusion, redress the structural imbalance of power between the techno-super-rich and the impoverished masses, cultivate the imagination to factor in a moral dimension to computer power ownership and control, and so forth, are all highly salient and pressing. They need to be addressed on a sector-wide basis if we are to move to a new and, arguably, more progressive stage in the scientific revolution and extend far beyond the technical agenda per se into the very heart of the university and its moral and social purposes. As such, these are matters requiring free, frank and full discussion at every level of the higher education system by all interested parties.

The universities and colleges could take the lead in advancing the challenge to computer power inequality. It is no longer sufficient to march under the banner of yesterday's IT radicals: one computer, one desk! We need to rethink through the entire purpose and provision now that this early basic goal has largely been achieved. Fundamental issues of a moral-political and social dimension enter into the picture in a more urgent way than before and old thought habits regarding individual rights of hardware use and ownership may be at odds with economic realities and knowledge development processes. Expecting to retain personal life-long computer power advantage as a reward for early market entry or an assumption of preferential IT treatment purely on the dubious grounds of hierarchical administrative status, the latterday droits de seigneur of academic barons, are palpably not the best means of taking the knowledge revolution further and serving the needs of knowledge producers and consumers on the cusp of the third millennium.

Clearly, what matters most is that state-of-the-art equipment be available to all academics who need it as and when it is needed. There are likely to remain differentials in capacity and capability for a long time to come and systems of swapping and rotating the deluxe, the standard, and the "Made in Bedrock" provided that there is a recognisable sense of fairness built into them, seem sound and sensible when in place. For now, academic IT allocations systems should be encouraged to move towards greater transparency and equity, with the case for privileged access to scarce superior equipment visibly directed more to knowledge generation criteria, the heart of the university mission, its core business, than any other single function or service.

We can and ought to go much further to advance the knowledge revolution as an ethical revolution than the original liberal programme of techno-possessive individualism which delivered on the promise of to each a personal computer (aptly named), but not on the more challenging agenda of building an equitable information society within the diverse moral communities of academe.

One place to start might be to borrow from communitarian redistributivist welfare thinking - and the debate around John Rawls's A Theory of Justice would be instructive here. This takes on board a conception of technological justice, to coin a phrase, in relation to which the academic community at all levels moves deliberately and strategically towards an agreed sense of fairness in the access to and use of computer power resources. Here, the notion of an entitlement-points profile in which the least well-off members of the group have their needs gauged against a calculation of the best advantaged, and any new provision, rather than going to maintain the differential, is skewed in favour of those with the strongest comparative need, seems a helpful one.

As things stand, the best liberal solution to the problems of techno-power inequities is to aim to ratchet up the user system so that differentials are maintained (as in some technological variant of quasi-feudal pay negotiations) while techno-rubbish falls off at the bottom end.

However, this can only be a resolution acceptable to those with vested interests in maintaining and, indeed, given the exponential quality development of new information technologies, widening relative advantages and privileges. A more root and branch reform, a radical collegial or communitarian approach, would be actively to seek to bring about equalisation at a high level of provision bearing in mind funding resource realism.

The fear or risk of thereby losing competitive edge in computer power markets, part of the me-first techno-ideology, should be a considerably less salient element in our techno-ethics.

Instead, the emphasis should be upon the gains to the commonwealth of learning possible through fairer IT-power shares for academic players. This approach to techno-power brokering would help to stimulate quality knowledge output - one has to have a foundational faith! - across the board.

William Keenan is a senior lecturer in sociology at Nottingham Trent University.

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