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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Is Google an Indictment of Higher Education's Failures?
July 28, 2011 - 9:15am

Evidently, Larry Page of Google "once considered accepting goats as a legitimate form of payment from those seeking to buy Google ads in Uzbekistan" according to Evgeny Morozov who has a review of Steven Levy and Sia Vaidhyanathan's respective books on Google, "In the Plex" and "The Googlization of Everything" in the latest issue of The New Republic. Hence Morozov's conclusion that:

"After all, there was history before Google. There was a history even before the Interent. It is only by placing both Google and the Internet in their proper historical and intellectual context that we will be able to understand their evolution. We need Internet books with greater intellectual ambitions. A serious debate about the social implications of modern technology cannot sustain itself on anecdotes about Uzbek goats."

I'm in agreement. One of the assignments for the course "Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet" I am teaching this summer was to write a book review. For years of teaching I have offered a simple approach to book reviews: Introduction, Methodology, Analysis (comparing methodology to evidence) and Conclusion (whereby once critiqued, students may offer their own opinions). To a one, the reports lacked notation of the methodology, so I went back to look at the books only to find that in virtually every case there wasn't one, or at least not one clearly stated. Carr, Turkle, Wu and Vaidhyanathan included. At best, these books were a pastiche of anecdotes loosely threaded with expertise from the author's discipline. Has the publishing industry swung the pendulum from dry, academic monographs too far into the popular direction with its penchant for the sensational? Must every non-fiction book now begin with extreme cases masked as a norm? Do we have the analytic tools to critique contemporary technology in its social context, or are we too overwhelmed by both it and the commodified penchant of contemporary culture to address serious questions of social policy?

I hope to have more to say about these questions in successive blogs, but allow me a few quick observations. The first is that experts trained in the disciplines appear to be generalists screaming to get out! Unfortunately, once they leave their area of expertise they lack the analytic tools of the other disciplines into which they wander. Turkle and Wu are examples. Grateful for their contributions, I turn concern not on them to squeeze back into their departments but wonder whether the 19th century disciplinary structure of research education is fitting the needs of 21st century critical theory? This observation is not new, and it has seeded many a "cross-disciplinary" approach and even worse the epidemics of "theory" that wasted a whole generation of scholars ... but that is my point: even the cross-disciplinary approach maintains the paradigm, and "theory" was a symptom of the disease. I wonder whether it is time to break the paradigm in order for our best thinkers to help us all see more clearly, and with sound policy implications, the complex and challenging world in which we live.

The second is an extension of the first thought. "Thought leaders" lack a methodology. It is very difficult to critique a book if it does not have a clear approach to presenting a thesis and defending it with evidence. Am I too caught up in the model of scientific thinking that undergirds this analytic posture? Perhaps so, but I am at heart a humanist and so never was fully persuaded by it in the first place. Still, anecdotes alone do not make a thesis. And in law school I learned a wonderful adage: hard cases make bad law. If every semi-popular book about the Internet starts from the extreme, hard cases, we will never get to reasonable rules, or understandings, about how law, the market, social norms and technology operate, an understanding that is required before we can broach the still harder questions of what to do about those dynamics.

Finally, for now (because I have to go teach soon!), the shortcomings of these books suggest a far more frightening shortcoming of higher education that only occurred to me as I commented on one student's review of Vaidhayanathan's book. In "Googliziation of Everything" he takes up the concern of many an academic -- including me -- that Google's mission statement to organize the world's information and make it accessible is an encroachment on our missions. It must be my own bias and blinders that kept me until now from recognizing that it higher education's failures that have made that mission statement not only possible in the for-profit context but quite real as threat. Our tenacious hold, in the United States especially, on our particularism impedes a broader, more centralized vision. Has our strength -- diversity -- become our weakness? Have we failed in our service to the good of society for an inability to move significantly beyond not only our disciplines but our institutional borders? Have we failed to organize the world's information and make it accessible? So long as we hunker down in our departments and our libraries with our individual subscriptions and walled garden classrooms and keep raising the price of tuition to ever-higher levels, this lover of higher education has now begun to wonder.


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