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.
Daily Links for June 12th through June 13th | Akkam's Razor — June 13, 2011
[...] Cyborgs and Academic Capitalism [...]
Dave Paul Strohecker — June 13, 2011
YES DAVID. Great post. Very interesting and engaging.
replqwtil — June 14, 2011
I have definitely been a witness to this trend, even here in Canada, as an undergraduate. The way that students interact with their university is as consumers who are procuring a service. Because the cost of a university education is so high, many students seem to feel entitled to grades, not to mention their chosen degree at the end. It can make for extremely frustrating classes, where many students simply do not participate. They are without a doubt more consumer than prosumer.
In fact I would argue that University, as an idealized social construct, could be seen as one of the original sites of prosumption. As a place meant for the digestion and creation of new information and ideas. This is an aspect of the university experience, which in my eyes, is being lost. Especially as classes migrate online. By making university education more 'individualised' it is being robbed of its social dimension. Of the collective action which used to take place when many ideas collided in a small space. It is very rare that I end up in a class today where people honestly participate to produce new knowledge based on the material.
To me, it is a troubling and sometimes demoralizing state of affairs...
javier de rivera — January 4, 2012
The post is interesting, but the argument here is superficial, especially when it talks about new ways to learn online. The answer is not about prosumers or individual learning, but about learning communities and alternative digital institutions and networks. I think.