mamamusings: October 17, 2003

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Friday, 17 October 2003

privacy and power

This morning I’m taking a few hours off from being a responsible grownup, and instead slept late, caught up on email, worked out in the hotel gym, and now am catching up on blogs.

A line in AKMA’s post this morning from the DigID caught my eye, though, and dragged me back to the things that have been weighing me down in the real world.

He quoted Cory Doctorow as saying “Privacy never exists apart from power relationships. Privacy is all about power.”

Now, this isn’t really a groundbreaking concept. (And I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of criticism on exactly this front, as those who are regular readers and participants on the Happy Tutor’s site are well aware.) But seeing the words like that, in the context of recent departmental debates about things like promotion in rank, and internal governance, really hit a nerve for me.

This week had an almost surreal feel to it for me, in fact, because I was re-reading Pierre Bourdieu’s book Homo Academicus, in preparation for my presentation at AoIR. The book is Bourdieu’s “self-reflexive” sociological analysis of power and class struggles in French higher education, and his discussion of the “symbolic violence” that results from imbalances of capital and power.

On Tuesday, while I was in the midst of this reading and thinking, we had an extraordinarily divisive meeting of our faculty. Some context, first. We’ve got 51 tenure-track faculty members in our department (and a handful of visiting professors, and a smattering—a small smattering—of adjuncts). Of the 51, 20 are tenured. Of those 20, two (including me) are still at the assistant professor rank, because our departmental policy does not allow faculty to go up for tenure and promotion in the same year. It turns out that we’re just about the only department on campus to have that restriction, so a number of “junior” faculty asked in the faculty meeting that our departmental policy be changed in this regard.

The details of the meeting are not particularly important, but the outcomes certainly were. The “junior” faculty (myself included) are unlikely to forget the statement by one of our most senior professors that the “peer group” (those at or above the rank aspired to) was under no obligation to even consider an application from a faculty member for promotion, even if that person met the university’s criteria. Nor are the senior facuulty likely to forget my angry response to that, and to a highly charged and divisive vote that occurred at the end of the meeting.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, considering that I’m up for promotion this year. After the meeting, one of the less belligerent senior faculty told me that “confrontational approaches never have good endings.” I refrained from pointing out that seldom are power imbalances corrected by gentle suggestions by the underclass. Yes, I know, I could have waited a year. But I squelched my anger at how things are done in our department for two years (between midtenure and tenure) in order to keep my job, and I guess I just didn’t have it in me to keep quiet one more time.

The response of the senior faculty to what happened on Tuesday was two-fold. First, they made it clear that any changes to policy would happen behind closed doors, without the input of those most affected, and without the process being made visible. Second, at least two of them have contacted me to say that because they were offended by my challenging their votes, they’re going to request that all future full faculty votes be conducted by secret ballot.

I don’t want to break down all the structures, hierarchical or not. As Cathy Irving pointed out in a comment to an early post of mine, “Walls are good. They hold up the roof.” But I think that privacy must be balanced with trust. Do I want to be private sometimes? Sure. Are there times when the use of power is appropriate and effective? Yes. But the breakdown occurs when trust is gone, and I think our department is well past that point. Maybe it’s a function of scale. Maybe it happens everywhere. I don’t know. But I’m saddened by it, and increasingly weary of fighting the battles.

For now, though, I’m going to wander over to the AoIR presentations, and soak up a little more of what I love about academia—the exchange of ideas, the enthusiasm about research, the conversations with smart people that make you really think. And then I’m going out on the town with no other than Joey deVilla (aka Accordion Guy). If you’re at AoIR and want to join us, come find me during or after the 2pm session today on “Access Denied: Critical Considerations of Internet Space and the Digital Divide.” I’ll be the one with the 17” powerbook, live blogging the panel (assuming WiFi is live).

Posted at 12:29 PM | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
more like this: curmudgeonly

aoir: "Access Denied: Critical Considerations of Internet Space and the Digital Divide"

My notes from the Saturday Friday afternoon session. This was a great session, with interesting stuff on metaphors for the Internet. (Paging Dr. Weinberger…)

Annette Markham (who comes highly recommended by Jill Walker) on “Metaphors Shaping the Reality of the Internet: Tools, Place, and Way of Being”

Argues that the way we talk about the Internet (or ICT, CMC, pick your word) influences the shape those technologies take. Not a new argument, but presents a framework for making sense of IT, and the implication that has for issues related to access.

The metaphors we hear tell us what something is, and how it can/should be responded to. They provide a strong frame of reference, and shape the way we think about and interact with technologyy.

(I wonder if she’s read David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined?

Take-away line: “Through our use of metaphors and language we are creating a box, and pretty soon we’ll be stuck in the box, trying to think outside of it.”

(She’s reading from her computer notes, which we can’t see. :/ )

We understand most technologies as tools (for magnification, amplication). Within this frame of reference, the Internet can extend reach, collapse distance. When you examine discourse surrounding the Interent, certain types of discourse become more apparent: Internet as conduit. Internet as prosthesis. Internet as container. These are more of a “root level” metaphor. (e.g. information superhighway is Internet as conduit). [So where does “Internet as place” fit? Container, I guess?]

Internet as prosthesis is invoked when we talk about extending ourselves, our reach with the ‘net.

Conduits are means of transport from one place to another. What exactly we call it is not as important as the emphasis. Pipes, highways, etc is a focus on conduit.
And yes, technically, the Internet is a medium that transports information. But the focus, when we think of/talk about conduits (more than other things) leads to a predominance of transmission as the defining characteristic.

Internet as container, as something that holds something else. Emphasizes the “shape” of “that which holds stuff.” Access and entry points, it can be open or closed, empty or full. Different framework for understanding and interaction. Primary in this frame of reference is “Internet as Thing” as opposed to “Internet as Process.”

These conceptualizations by their natures limit the way we are able to think.

Ah…here we go. “Internet as place.”

Place-oriented metaphors such as community, frontier, “sociocultural space” highlight certain features again. You can’t perceive the Internet as a place unless you perceive boundaries, entry/exit points, and sense of presence. You must perceive a shape of the place for this to be meaningful. And there must be other in order to define presence. (Hmmmm. Not sure I buy that. Is “acknowledgment of other” necessary to define place or sense of personal presence?? If I’m in a virtual forest and there’s no one there to interact with me, do I exist?)

Talks about libraries, and how we understand them. We understand scale, we understand the browsing process, the importance of proximity of items.

Internet lets us create “electronic libraries.” We “make our libraries digital.” But there’s a disjuncture between the electronic implementation and the physical. We see the library as a place, but our students see the electronic library as a conduit instead. Type in a keyword, get 17 hits. [Note to self: Need to go back and re-read Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place.]

Moving towards a “way of being” metaphor.

[Where is this paper? I want to see the paper, rather than trying to process all this audibly. I’m more of a visual learner…]

If policymakers think of Internet as “place,” then all it takes to address the digital divide is to “build or open doors.”

Questioner (who used to work with McLuhan) says McLuhan would say that the Internet is a medium, but reject the view of the Internet as a conduit. He’s pontificating, rather than questioning, so I’m tuning out. Markham is responding—let’s analyze “medium” as a metaphro. What’s being privileged? What’s hidden/absent? In communication we’ve used the SMCR/feedback metaphor for decades. In the discipline, criticism has led to a recognition that that model does not recognize meaning — but even though we know communication is more complex, we still use the model. And it focuses us on the medium, rather than on the meaning.

If we focus instead on other metaphors, besides just “the medium,” we start to see different things, different facets.

Another questioner quotes Mark Poster, who said “the internet is n’t a tool like a hammer, it’s a tool like Germany” Asks about the need to disentangle metaphors.

Markham asks him to clarify. He asks if the Internet is somewhat like the rise of the nation/state. Does it change our sense of self? Markham responds that it’s a great question, but not one that can be answered in the time available. (That makes it sound like she’s ducking, but she’s not. Just acknowledging how complex a question it is. Clearly she’s intrigued.)

Next guy also is not using visuals. Hadn’t realized how much visuals really help me with making sense of presentations.

He’s reading from his paper, which I hate. He’s using all the big polysyllabic words that work well in written form but are counterproductive when talking to an audience.

I give up. Will listen, but can’t blog this.

Posted at 2:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (1)
more like this: conferences

aoir: interesting audience comment

From a questioner, who teaches at a somewhat conservative school. She showed her class the Homeless Blogger’s site, and it made them angry — they felt that it should be illegal for him to solicit for funds online, and that if he had a blog, he ought to have a job, and a home.

Fascinating stuff. No time to think about it…another interesting speaker now.

Posted at 3:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (2)
more like this: conferences
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna