In my Theorizing the Web presentation last April, I gave a presentation entitled Practical Cyborg Theory: Discovering a Metric for the Emancipatory Potential of Technology. I wanted to develop a cyborg theory that helps us understand the emancipatory potential of a given technology or technological system. My formal hypothesis was an addendum to Haraway’s definition of a cyborg in the Cyborg Manifesto:
A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, who’s existence and emancipatory potential is constructed as a function of the temporal and social environment within which it operates.
The temporal and social environs are dependent on the individual’s (or a collective of individuals) ability or knowledge of the technology and its relationship to various fields of power. To give a concrete example: a computer is only as useful as one’s own knowledge of computers and the internet. (Think of teaching an older relative how to use a computer.) It is one’s knowledge of how to use the machine (and those socio-technical systems that control how and what the end-user is allowed to control) that determines the degree to which that technology can create opportunities for emancipatory action. You see this play out in China, as the government tries to block Facebook and Twitter, and individuals work to access proxy servers and set up alternative systems.
Now consider the state of educational systems, in light of the previous statement. Set aside America’s deplorable rankings in K-12 education, and consider our world-class secondary education and research institutions. Today, colleges and Universities act more like an expensive service, than an element of civil society. The best and most complete study of this trend is Slaughter and Rhoades’ book Academic Capitalism and The New Economy. We see artifacts of this shift in government, industry, finance, and academia itself. A good example of all four is federal funding of undergraduate education. The government has shifted from funding the universities themselves, to offering subsidized loans to students. This reifies and reinforces the student as independent consumer of his or her education. Since these loans need to be paid back, students look at their college choice as an exercise in return on investment, and less about enriching their lives or following a passion.
I do not wish to romanticize a past in which only the well-off white patriarchy were allowed to attend higher education, and I do not think this argument goes there. Consider what one could do with a high school diploma (debt free) thirty years ago, compared to the job offers of a freshly minted B.A. in the twenty-first century and you will find that in terms of finding a job and doing productive work- education has not necessarily been democratized as much as we would like to think. Online, for-profit educational services complicate the matter further, since they have obtained record-breaking profits while being accused of putting their students in severe amounts of debt. Some interesting statistics provided by the online education database.
Which brings us back to the emancipatory cyborg. If our access to knowledge becomes totally enfolded within a market economy, what does this say for the ability of individuals to use technology to their own ends? The educated cyborg is inherently a more powerful, agentic cyborg. If we as intellectuals are concerned about the social justice of a technologically-augmented society, then we must be doubly concerned with the production of knowledge about (and through) these technologies. This means fighting the trend towards academic capitalism, while also opening up new avenues to education. The revolutionaries in Egypt were not using social media technologies as they were intended, they had to appropriate them. To put it in the parlance of the tech industry: revolutionaries are almost always prosumers.