Blinded by science.

5 10 2011

Yeah, let’s go to Braverman again. This thought is in Labor and Monopoly Capital, but it’s also put very succinctly in a really nice article they appended to the 25th anniversary edition:

“Thus the more complex the process becomes, the less the worker understands. The more science is incorporated into technology, the less science the worker possesses; and the more machinery that has developed as an aid to labor, the more the labor becomes a servant of machinery.” [p. 319]

Now I’m tempted to conjure up this image of classes canceled because the tech infrastructure needed to put them on doesn’t work right (and if you know anything about the tech infrastructure at my place of employment, you’d know that’s not at all far-fetched), but I want to take this analysis in a different direction. I’m starting to to think that the advent of technology is making professors passive. What I mean by that is that too many of us are letting technology get imposed upon us from without rather than picking and choosing what works for them. You probably saw this post about Blackboard in the CUNY system, but it’s not just Blackboard. Whenever I do those focus groups with big academic publishers I always say the same thing: “I’d like to get your services à la carte.” They say no dice. Why does any professor put up with that? Are they blinded by science?

More importantly, what happens if technological makes your class worse rather better? Here’s Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

My students…think they are riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements that will make our lives easier and better. They have a very hard time figuring out that technology can sometimes have unexpected bad consequences, not to mention fully intended bad consequences like putting people out of work. I can’t really speak for other countries, though clearly societies like Japan and South Korea share similar love of technological innovation, but this blind faith in technology is deeply embedded in what it means to be an American, going back to the early 19th century and the rise of canals and railroads at the very least.

So evidently, humans have no agency to accept or reject technology. We can either embrace it wholeheartedly and ideologically or we can be called “Luddites.”

We don’t have to be servants to machinery. We can be its masters because they’re our classrooms!

Perhaps what I like best about the Digital Humanities movement is its practitioners willingness to experiment. If something works well, tell everybody else about it and they can take that practice up too (often with no cost at all). If something works badly, tell everybody about it and people won’t walk down the same blind alley. We make the decision because we’re the ones who can best just the pedagogical merits of any innovation.

The existence of Blackboard is proof that technological decision-making needs to be placed in the right hands or bad things will happen, kind of like in all those James Bond movies.

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