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Re: <nettime> More Crisis in the Information Society
t byfield on Mon, 21 Jul 2014 22:21:50 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> More Crisis in the Information Society

One curious thing about this discussion is that most of the people involved are speaking from their experiences on faculties involved, broadly, speaking, in 'digital culture.' This field sits in an odd conceptual space between design, art, 'technology' (e.g., computer science), and critical fields grounded in somewhat politicized humanities (as opposed to, say, political science). Certainly, many of the main ideas proposed are shaped by different disciplinary inflections, which are mainly institutional in their orientation: they seem to look outward, but they remain tacitly inward-looking in that constant reference is made to the experiences and prospects of graduates, new classes to taught, and so on.

They're also shaped by different regional inflections: you can hear echoes of, on the one hand, different national policies regarding educational funding and employment policies, and, on the other, the emergence of transnationally legible fields of practice -- enabled partly by the standardization of 'technologies' (ranging from TCP/IP to Adobe products), and partly by seismic shifts in governance (e.g., the EU's impact on our own biographical options). If we had contributors writing from China, Korea, Japan, Israel/Palestine, Turkey, Australia, Brazil, India or Pakistan or even for that matter different parts of the US we'd hear some perspectives with key differences. For example, in NYC there are immense amounts of money sloshing around in 'digital design,' but in very contingent ways. I think they're mainly a byproduct of megacorps' distinctions between their 'core' capacities (where they make direct investments in employees) versus peripheral needs (which they can outsource at lavish rates to agencies and boutiques, which can easily be jettisoned ). It doesn't take much effort to see how this will end in tears for many.

Felix is absolutely right that this is all at root political -- and not just politicized, in the way noted above, but political in the sharply defined sense of people's will and ability to recognize where they stand in structural terms and to act effectively on that understanding. This is where the roll (I would say the *plight*) of faculty expresses itself most poignantly, because faculties these days are at a fork in the road, or, as I think, sitting on the edge of a knife. Their status n veery sense is directly grounded in their employment in a particular kind of institution -- one whose function is, basically, to mediate change in a sort of Goldilocks way, i.e., not too much and not too little. That mediation takes many forms, some 'synchronic' (e.g., sectoral), some 'diachronic' (e.g., generational). But, internally as it were, a central part of this process is the practice of standing 'outside' the forces it mediates -- in ways that are both imaginary and real. What does education do, after all, but transform the imaginary into the real, yes?

In 'digital' fields, this ambiguity or ambivalence is completely concrete in ways that were exemplified by the recent ruckus over the Facebook 'manipulation' study. From a certain, very idealized standpoint, the FB study shocks the conscience, violates important ethical norms and probably many laws as well, and so on. At the same time, I think many people working in these fields are utterly befuddled by the ruckus, because that woolly combination of study and intervention is the *point* of design; and from that parochial perspective, the academics who are upset by it seem like the village green preservation society, hopelessly naive nostalgists. Worse, that nostalgia prevents them from seeing as clearly as they should the ways in which the FB study exemplifies a profound shift in universities, where declining public funding and prestige is forcing them to seek out alternative sources of funding and prestige.

That shift from public to private sources of funding is another area where regional differences will express themselves *very* clearly. The political, economic, and cultural traditions that have shaped higher education -- again, in part, as a mediator -- as a *national* phenomenon. Historical experiences in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany have varied dramatically in the postwar period, to say nothing of the countries I mentioned above that we haven't heard from. So I think it doesn't make much sense to spend time on particular national studies about the economic prospects of any given 'creative' practice -- in particular, *photography*, as though it were a useful historical constant or reference on any level.

But if every single thing about photography has changed since, say, WW2, we can at least note that it *existed* before that war. The same cannot be said of 'digital' fields, can it? So presumably they've changed even more than photography in that same period -- not least, by absorbing it. Given these abysmal depths of change, I don't think (_pace_ David) we can make any generalizations about cyclicality of any kind, least of all economic cyclicality.

We could settle for that lazy refutation of a certain way of thinking about history, but the specificist context -- the rise of computationalism -- changes things on a much deeper level. The difference is roughly akin to, say, the shift from Braudel and Piketty: on the one hand, a ponderous model of a world history that emphasizes the longue duree and continuities, on the other, a more dynamic and pessimistic model of a historical word that emphasizes pathological trajectories. It doesn't matter what you think about either of these thinkers (let alone whether you 'like' them), whether you think they're right or wrong: each exemplifies a kind of mentalità or zeitgeist. And universities are a key site where we're trying to figure out how to bridge that chasm.

But the problem is that the university as we now know it, despite its masonicky pretensions to being ancient by dint of concerning itself with the truth, is a pretty recent affair. In particular, the norms that define what it 'means' to be a faculty member -- your pay packet, as David put it -- is very, very recent, just a few generations old. Those generations happen to coincide heavily with a period of postwar economic expansion and prosperity (and its imaginary afterimage). And, as people tend to do in good times, they think they'll last forever -- or at least hope they will. That hope, as much as anything else, is what shapes the standpoint of the contributors to this discussion -- basically, the assumption that the university is a safe place from which to observe the world. It is not. So we can talk about what 'other' sectors will be made redundant by computationalism or about the experiences of people in our fields and our graduates, but of course the elephant (or gorilla or whatever) in the room is when and how computationalism will, in effect, make faculties redundant.

Lots of faculty are consciously wary of explicit forms -- for example, how OMG!!! BOO!! MOOCs!!! will displace their rituals -- but are blind to the greater danger: the financialization of education. Of course, since the universal 'stability' they've generalized from the experience of a few generations relies precisely on that financial cushion, so they've had very little incentive to see this threat. In any event, as most of us know, financialization is just one dimension of a much deeper change afoot, which Felix, citing Snowden, described as the emergence of a kind of 'deep state' defined more by administrative bureaucracies and proceduralism than democracy. And let's not forget that manufacturing competent subjects for democracies was one of the main reasons for being of the modern academy; so as democracy becomes ever-more optional, so does that function of the university. And that, more than MOOCs etc, is why faculties aren't just as a fork in the road but really on the edge of a knife. Many knives, actually.

I'd like to stay and awaken the dead as they say, but this is long enough already. One thing worth noting, in conclusion, was something astonishing that Snowden said to the assembled crowd at HOPE X in NYC a few days ago -- something that only a handful of faculty in the US are willing to admit (and I'm one of them): that student debt student debt is creating a 'new class of indentured servants.' If that immense juridical step backward isn't political, I don't know what is.


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