Shaman Drum and IT

Great, so I found out recently that Anonymous-IT-Department (whereI work) is partially responsible for almost killing Shaman Drum Bookstore, a renowned downtown Ann Arbor bookstore. To clarify, Karl Pohrt, the owner of Shaman Drum, doesn’t make this claim, in fact he states "I don’t think there are any villains here (well, maybe some greedy textbook publishers), but this is one of the consequences of the university’s policy." But he is clearly stating that the textbook program was one contributing factor in the ongoing death of his store. There’s another recent article in the Detroit News about this.

There are some interesting comments in the open letter that Pohrt wrote to the Ann Arbor Chronicle. I have to say, even though I do try to support Shaman Drum when I can, as one of the few leftish bookstores remaining in the area, some of the criticisms made by commenters were apt. The store can seem kind of unfriendly to those not in academia or to people outside the upper middle class (I’m projecting here, since I am clearly in the UMC these days– although I remember Michael Moore saying this in the late 90s). I think this is part of the class problem that the U.S. left has, which Michael Albert and others have been talking about for years. Perhaps in response to some of the comments on the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s blog post, the clerks seemed to be greeting people as soon as they walked in the door, at least they did so when I walked in on a recent Friday afternoon. (Of course, being a shy introvert everywhere except in my bloggoreahic rantings here, I fear and shun human contact, and would rather be left alone until I need something. But that’s just me.)

Putative elitism and class bias at Shaman Drum aside– it’s a problem that a lot of people of the left, including me, are working on– I’m still supportive of the call from some University professors and community members to devise ways for the University to support Shaman Drum (and, my words not theirs, to undo some of the damage that the University has caused).

One extremely disingenuous thing that higher-ups in the University do is claim that new information systems are somehow "neutral", and will "benefit the University". The systems themselves are not good or bad*. But information systems empower or disempower groups within the University, and with the surrounding community. Marc Bousquet, scholar of the corporate university and contingent faculty movements, in his book How the University Works (2008), discusses the work of David Noble in this regard.

"Noble’s work in the ‘Digital Diploma’ series … remains a core analysis of managerial intentions regarding the tenure-stream faculty. It originates in the actual workplace struggle of faculty in California and Canada, and it maps the area of starkest contrast in the technology conversation: at the bargaining table, with the tenure-stream faculty mostly ‘against technology’ and the administrative mostly ‘for technology’. This conflict is at least partially chimerical: the faculty and the administration aren’t primarily struggling over technology, but, rather, what they think ‘it’ will do– something they agree on, and regarding which they’re quite possibly both wrong. The faculty and administration are fighting over what is essentially a shared vision, a vision created by information technology, of a fully downloadable and teacherless education (At least for some people). The material basis of this shared vision is a real struggle over the elimination of the jobs of teachers and scholars. The administration seeks to employ ever-fewer teachers and scholars, and the tenured faculty seek to preserve their own jobs." (p. 57)

The point isn’t that academic IT is evil, or that it’s a savior (although it’s often treated in the latter manner around these parts). IT is used by groups with power on campus (higher-level administrators, some powerful faculty and Deans) to advance their interests. That’s not conspiracy theory, that’s institutional analysis. These interests sometimes coincide with the interests of University workers, faculty, and students, and the State of Michigan as a whole. Sometimes, however, these interests are more about giving more power to higher-level administrators over workers, faculty, and students; and to further destroying what little remains of the anti-neoliberal liberatory vision of the University. This effect of IT is often doubled and tripled with the "enterprisey" systems– hugely expensive and proprietary, these require armies of workers and layers upon layers of middle management to build, maintain, and provide ideological support for. This type of IT usually presupposes centralized definition of the work processes of thousands, with the only voice for workers, students, and faculty being through usability testing and focus groups, in which the people who end up using the systems don’t get to question the premise of the systems, or the processes they support.

One positive development in the realm of IT in this respect is the growth of standardized formats and open protocols. As with the Open Government movement, this might allow groups from outside the University to have more control over and access to data that is supposed to be public– if the University is really a public institution as it claims to be. (And yes, I know many of these protocols were invented in consortiums with heavy participation from these same enterprisey vendors– social life is complex, OK?)

Without any strong countervailing forces (community groups, unions, student organizations, Parecon consumer councils), higher-level administration will inevitably use IT to advance their own interests. As I said above, sometimes this will be good for "the University" and "the community", and sometimes it will… screw workers over further, and run leftish bookstores out of business.

* OK, most of them are actually "bad", in terms of having horrible UI design and usability, but that’s the subject of another post.

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