Viewpoint

Frankenstein in the University

"You are my creator, but I am your master...."  --  Frankenstein's monster

Why was the story of Frankenstein so compelling to nineteenth-century audiences, and why are similar stories still engaging today? The escape of Frankenstein's monster from the lab represents  technology out of control, a theme that resonated with nineteenth century readers who were witnessing industrialization. It continues to be a compelling subject for modern Americans in a high technology society. In the once popular movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, astronauts are deliberately murdered by "HAL," the infamous on-board computer. In The Terminator series, robots from a not-too-distant future return to the present in a bid to kill off humanity. And in the oft-cited movie The Matrix, the traditional relationship of machines serving man is flipped upside down: an advanced network uses unwitting humans as its power source.

Despite the popularity of these narratives in mass culture, they don't have much truck among academics. For example, almost all historians reject the idea that technology follows its own internal logic (or illogic), independent of human agency. And most historians are hesitant to write what they call "hard determinist" narratives that paint machines as the sole drivers of historical change. Instead of embracing a reductive theory of hard determinism, historians are more apt to adopt "soft" determinist approaches, where technology is seen as only one among many other social, economic and political forces that shape human destiny.

Yet in our daily encounters with technology, in settings where we don't interact with monster robots but with the more quotidian machines of life and work, there often runs a thread of anxiety about how much control we actually have over our machines. Recent developments in university life are especially suggestive that human inventions are controlling the way people teach and learn -- especially when it comes to media technologies, distance learning, and software that has been purchased from vendors.

New Media
Emerging media like podcasting, instant messaging, and increased use of videos can trigger visions of technological determinism. Of course we have the option to ignore or adopt these technologies when we teach. And in claiming this option we're retaining the human agency that dissolves the prospect of hard determinism. But what we do individually may be overshadowed by the larger cognitive transformation that is often attributed to this media by technology critics.

This transformation is commonly described as follows. The university used to place a very strong premium on the virtues of reading and writing and cultivated an ideal of an educated student who was highly skilled in these competencies. As my freshman composition instructor once advised me "Read a lot and write a lot." Universities emphasized such skills because writing and print culture were thought to foster a type of deliberative, sequential, and individualized thought upon which reason and enlightenment flourished. But the advent of more visual and oral media are encouraging new forms of communication, and, arguably, different forms of  thinking that are promoting what the scholar Walter Ong has called "secondary orality." Ong wrote almost all of his work before the advent of recent technologies like Amazon's Kindle, the iPod, and Youtube. Nevertheless Ong's phrase, "secondary orality" is still used by current critics to delineate a shift away from the deliberative and quiescent thinking that people engage in when reading and writing, to a more emotive, shared, and collaborative form of thinking that is ostensibly fostered by post-literate communication technologies. These same critics note that while reading and writing allow us to take note of inconsistencies between one author's exegesis and another's, this is more difficult to do when listening to or viewing speeches; consequently the lack of exposure to inconsistency prevents less-literate people from developing healthy measures of self-doubt.

Portrayed this way, the new media are not merely lenses that uncover new meaning, they become lenses that transform meaning and restructure cognition. As Ong's teacher, Marshall McLuhan, famously put it, "The medium becomes the message." When critics describe media in this fashion, they are bestowing an awful lot of insidious power on a technology.  And when this much covert power is attributed to a technology one might even be inclined to think that it is playing a determinative role in shaping consciousness and reworking our social and cognitive matrices.

Online Education
If stories about the new media and the cognitive abilities of the Net generation make hard determinism an increasingly attractive perspective, such interpretations are also found among the cohort of professors who claim that they will never teach online because it's a pale similitude of the learning experience they are able to create in the brick and mortar classroom. Although assessments of online versus face-to-face teaching are not revealing definitive differences in terms of learning outcomes, there are faculty who are highly skeptical of online education anyway. To these people, the specter of a virtual university is a horror to be avoided as much as the residential college education is to be hallowed. In "Digital Diploma Mills; the Automation of Higher Education" the historian David Noble sees the technologization of learning as a development that is jeopardizing faculty autonomy and making faculty increasing subject to "....administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship...." To be fair, Noble isn't  telling a strict tale of technological determinism, since the technology isn't metastasizing through academe of its own accord so much as being promoted and deployed by  administrators eager to commodify the university. But since, in Nobles words, "the technology, like the automation of other industries, robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control over their working lives, [and] the product of their labor...." faculty may feel that intellectual freedom is being subsumed and desiccated by machines.

Captive Customers
There are also less obvious and more pedestrian ways in which technology exercises control over our university's destinies. This often happens when schools choose to buy a learning management system or an administrative system from an outside vendor. Although acquiring software from organizations outside the university doesn't have to mean giving up control over one's technological destiny, it often feels like it does. For example, vendors often compel campus IT departments to perform upgrades that are seen as unnecessary because the current software works acceptably. While IT departments sometimes prefer not to do these software updates, they do them anyway since vendors will refuse to support software that hasn't been kept up to date. Moreover, while campus IT departments usually want to customize software and fit it to local needs, vendors often won't allow this; almost always the evolution and telos of the software is controlled by the vendor rather than the customer. Finally, after a vendor's product has been installed on campus, it can be difficult for a university to change to something more competitive even if university constituencies have a strong desire for change. Robert Pool, the author of Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology, illuminates this dilemma: "Once the choice has been made to go a certain way, even if the reasons are not particularly good ones, the institutional machinery gears up and shoves everybody in the same direction. It can be tough to resist."

To be sure, the dilemma of the captive customer isn't strictly suggestive of technological determinism. Schools, in almost all cases, retain self-agency by continually assessing when the every-day disappointment is so large that switching to something new is merited despite the "change pain" in making the switch. But because vendor technologies shape and constrain the way business and teaching is conducted on campus, and because the work of technology assessment isn't always well advertised,  it sometimes looks like the imperatives of the technology are determining a school's technological destiny.

Technology and Nihilism
While the specter of technology out of control is worth dwelling on (if only to make sure it doesn't happen) we shouldn't resign ourselves to it. If we do, we truly do become its victims. To be sure, the highly technical environment we live in has latent tendencies that encourage certain outcomes. To deny that would be to ignore some of central structural tenets of the social sciences. But even if our lives are constrained and pushed in certain directions, we have some agency. To deny that would be to succumb to the most nihilistic form of technological determinism. If we believe that we can shape technology as much as it shapes us we can hold out the hope of at least playing some minor role in influencing the direction that the university takes in the information age.

And while each of us needs to do this in our own way perhaps we can all agree with the historians on the fundamentals -- that history is rarely driven by one thing. If the prospect of Frankenstein's monster, the Terminator and the Matrix uncovers a deep anxiety that we all share, it doesn't mean that we can't do concrete things to prevent these fears from being realized. We can imagine, as some have done, that technology is poisoning and corrupting university life. But even if we accept the doubtful premise that it has, we are not powerless to change our fates or to adjust our technological course.

[Editor's note: Read more at Luke Fernandez's blog, "IT in the University," http://itintheuniversity.blogspot.com/]



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