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.