Information Technology: Friend or Foe?

It wasn’t until this week I really started appreciating the academic crossroad I currently exist in. This predicament is in reference to how the digital age is inevitably shaping and challenging the world of learning and what we consider academic quality work.

As a doctorate student I need to start concerning myself with publishing papers or producing a monograph (as expected in the humanities). What I didn’t consider until now is that the advent of the digital age is challenging conventional notions of “publish or perish.”

For example, in his essay “How to Read Hypertext: Media Literacy and Open Access in Higher Education” Richard Rath (a University of Hawaii history professor) juxtaposes the conventional peer review and print publication process with the growing movement for open access scholarship via information technologies. Rath foregrounds this juxtaposition in the context of struggling university presses as well as a need to teach critical media literacy. What I find exciting about this discussion is for its potential to critically evaluate how the proverbial “ivory tower” serves (or doesn’t serve) the public.

Also, information technologies potentially offer greater access to academic knowledge. I’m cautiously optimistic about the anti-hierarchical and decentralizing potential for digital tools like the Internet in academia especially.

Beyond academia, in the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Fred Turner writes a history of, and relationship between, information technologies and resistance dating back to the cold war, predating the Internet. Turner follows the careers of key pioneers such as John Perry Barlow and their approach to the digital world as analogous to westward expansion:

“By summoning up the image of the electronic frontier, Barlow transformed the local norms of the WELL, including its Whole Earth-derived communitarian ethic, its allegiance to antihierarchical governance, and its cybernetic rhetoric, into a universal metaphor for networked computing” (162).

Upon reading this I immediately think of the Indian Removal Act. Obviously, I’m not taking this analogy literally but the frontier parallel conjures questions about the digital divide. For example, who’s left out, forgotten, or eradicated in the digital landscape? Who’s writing the digital history and how does it matter? Are we adopting “manifest destiny”-like attitudes in pursuit of claiming digital space?

These questions may seem esoteric or overly meta-analytical but I’m genuinely concerned about them. An architecture friend of mine who looked at technology in elementary schools (for his dissertation) once told me that we’re not really using technology in innovative ways that drastically change our way thinking. Rather, teachers often use, lets say, a smart-board to replace the whiteboard; or instead of turning in a physical paper, it’s turned in electronically.

This anecdote reminds me that technology’s counterculture potential in academia (and to a larger extend the world) is equally met with its ability to reinforce existing structures.

9 thoughts on “Information Technology: Friend or Foe?

  1. I agree that the trope “frontier” is such a loaded term. For those with the means, it conjures up opportunity, but as you articulate, it also retains a dark shadow for those left behind/exploited. In terms of the digital divide, you reminded me of Adam Banks’ “Race, Rhetoric, and Technology,” where Banks connects racial inequities of education and technology with socioeconomic ones. Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about pedogogical uses of technology. Being funded enough to support electronics at the public school is one thing, but such opportunity requires the teaching of digital literacies as well. If our teachers don’t understand the functional/critical/rhetorical literacies of their digital devices, their students will often pretend to work while playing games. At least, that was my experience as both student and teacher.

    1. I agree with your comment about needing to go beyond putting technology in the classroom. It’s about teaching digital literacy and new ways of thinking. One challenge is that there seems to be no consensus on what digital literacy should look like and at the rate of change in technology, once a definition is defined will it be obsolete upon implementation?

  2. One of the articles I had linked at the end of my post brought up an interesting idea that was brought up while reading your post this week regarding “publish or perish.” The article about why Graduate Schools should require students to blog brought up the following thought:

    “[academia should] incentivize students to blog and to write for a popular audience on topics that go beyond their immediate area of interest. At Columbia, for instance, we can write a grant for one of our comprehensive exams. Why not let a series of published blog posts count as well? It gets the student thinking and writing–and gets him a byline in the process.”

    This brings up the issue of print publishing vs digital publishing, but it was something I was hoping to have brought up last week. What are your thoughts on this becoming a possibility? Maybe it will come up today, especially because of this post.

    And as for who is writing, and who is being ignored or forgotten, a truly non-hierarchical digital landscape should give those ignored or forgotten an opportunity to express their presence, but my thoughts while reading Turner’s work made me wonder about censorship and online moderators. As long as one party has the ability to censor others, there is a power-relationship going on which establishes a hierarchy on a given page/forum/platform. Censorship must also be a large topic in the digital humanities, and would be an interesting conversation in our class.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think the potential for digital publishing isn’t fully explored yet. In the context of publish or perish, what’s considered rigorous work still remains quite conservative (not so much content but format). There should be more room and discussion for how we (academics) really work with, rather in fear of, digital publication and explore what it offers beyond the print format. Rath’s essay’s a good launch point for this discussion because it also incorporates the supply and demand capitalist structure we operate within plus issues of critical pedagogy. I really only started thinking about this issue since the start of the semester so I’m curious to hear what others think. And the censorship issue? Well that’s a whole other beast, though I agree with your take on inherent power relations with moderators and censoring.

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