Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The One-Dimensional University: The Destructive Marriage of Technology and Administration

Close to fifty years ago, Herbert Marcuse wrote One-Dimensional Man, a radical criticism of contemporary society that has much to say about the current world around us. Marcuse’s central claim was that technological automation extends science’s domination over nature to a social domination over individuals. This domination occurs through a “total administration,” where managers oversee the rationalization of the social status quo through the elimination of all criticism and the provision of desired social goods. Perhaps, what we are seeing at the University of California is only the logical extension of Marcuse’s insightful analysis.

Not only does it appear that administrators have taken over the university, but they are promoting a form of education that transforms students into passive memorizers of standardized information. With the push to move students through the university system in an efficient and cost-effective manner, education is reimagined as an automated human assembly line. Meanwhile, students in large classes are socialized to internalize fragmented information without any possibility of interacting with knowledge in a critical or creative manner. All of these tendencies open up the door for an online education program that envisions mass producing standardized courses to an anonymous student body.

While this degradation of education increases, the university becomes a place of tax-exempt capital accumulation and a research wing of the military-industrial complex and the pharmaceutical-medical complex. As biology is turned into genetic code and culture becomes digital code, we find Marcuse’s warning that every aspect of society is being re-interpreted through the language of functionality and instrumentality. After all, the academic evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists now tell us that we are nothing but biological computers programmed by nature. Here, we have become things (computers) as things are given the power of people. For Marcuse, this confusion between subjects and objects is the end result of total technological rationality.

The lasting image of this transformation of education into administered functionality may be the representation of a campus police officer pepper spraying prone students with an attitude of total indifference. In the alienated world of planning, management, and calculation, there is no space for tension, dissent, or difference. Or maybe, the new logo for the university is an even better representation of the truth of how the administration sees the students: here the management replaces pepper spray with urine as it reimagines the university to be the giant Urinal of California. I say it is better to be pissed off than pissed on, and we need to do everything in our power to retake the university from the hands of administered technological rationality.

24 comments:

  1. ``There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!''

    But does science dominate anything? I think not. Science is a hotbed of dissent and argument. Odd that on the humanities side of campus they miss that.

    Certainly the internet, which allows vast discussions and dissents, say, in Egypt, grew out of science.

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  2. I think you are onto something with the Marcuse analysis. It appears there's a book out there, a collection of articles, called Marcuse's Challenge to Education. I don't have it, but from what I can gather from google books, it has a good deal to say about the role of technology in education. Marcuse was not of course opposed to technology tout court but to its application for destruction, degradation, and war. He was rather interested in the libratory potential of technology and science more generally as perhaps productive of a release from labor and famine. Education too might be used towards libratory ends, but sadly, he seems to argue, the current system does nothing but perpetuate the "happy consciousness" of one-dimensionality.

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