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Tech Monopolies Broke Universities

posted by Roy Schestowitz on Dec 30, 2022,
updated Dec 30, 2022

Guest post by Dr. Andy Farnell

Previously in this mini-series: UK Education Under Attack From Microsoft and Google, Disempowering Technologies: How Google and Microsoft Harm Universities

In my summing up of inappropriate technologies that blight higher education, I previously claimed that the primary cause is lack of joined-up understanding. I said that we should re-examine the power to shape academic life accidentally handed to non-academic faculties such as ICT, security and compliance teams.

I was being polite, and writing in a moderate style appropriate for The Times. The truth is much harder. Many of these trajectories are beyond reform. They have become societal issues that even governments are struggling to address.

What is happening in universities reflects a global trend. However, it's the job of universities is to resist that. The trend is "technological ignorance". A harsh fact is, digital technology is making us stupid at a tremendous rate.

The greatest violence in the world is ignorance, and if universities are anything at all, they are by definition the natural enemy of the ignorance companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google are offering us - a descent into passivity and dependence. Universities have survived historical attempts at dissolution, but those threats have been external. Unhealthy technology gets into the marrow of our institutions.

In Digital Vegan I offered a different perspective on technology, not as a tool, but as a food. Healthy technology does not make us bloated and slow like the heavily processed junk-food of Big-Tech.

In a pathological rush toward centralisation and scale institutions have grown by ingesting food that has the sugar coating of "efficiency and control", both of which are toxic except in small amounts. This fat (over-systematisation, security, silos, AI, central portals) accumulates around the institutional organs. A defensive reaction against information overload, plus a paranoid drive to hide or abstract organisational workings, then blocks our communication pathways.

Soon all problems, even fatal ones are hidden from top management. Oblivious managers lie about things being all-well. Systems of metrics, surveillance and modelling lie too, because the entire organisation is now mobilised around making them lie. The organisation becomes fat, dumb and happy. But junk technology is not made to nourish and satisfy. Digital solutionism means always consuming more. The next update. The next security fix.

Returning to the question of what can be done, I will go much further here; In academia, the conceits of centralised network governance and common policies have failed. Spectacularly. They are a race to the bottom of cheaply outsourced junk-food that bleeds control from those who should hold it. Most of all there is a profound competence problem, which companies like Microsoft and Google are exploiting to the hilt.

Once upon a time being a university sysadmin was a high accolade. Few jobs were as challenging and diverse. The ability to install, configure and run a mail server, multiple web servers and a network with thousands of nodes and thousands of password logins was a badge of professional pride. It meant running a heterogeneous network of Sun, Silicon Graphics, Apple, Windows, and specialised hardware while supporting academics in their selection, installation and self-directed usage of diverse software. Professors in the maths, physics, economics and computing departments would regularly write and deploy their own software! Like a good librarian, even if the sysadmin did not understand all those subjects, she at least had to be able to talk to the academics.

Today that role is unrecognisable. Not because technology "got better", but because we all got a lot dumber and more dependent on click-box cloud technology. We don't own or really understand it now. We have a shrugging, negative permissions culture. The first position is to assume nothing can be done.

The disconnect between the official theoretical syllabus and daily practice is immense. Today my university could not afford to hire my own graduates for roles currently occupied by people I would fail if they were my students.

Much of what we teach is in fact obsolete because, if the standards of our own institutions are anything to go by, nobody actually needs to know how anything really works. The reality is they'd be better off doing a Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS or Google Cloud certificate for a tenth of the price and spend the rest of their careers clicking on drop-down menus with meaningless brand names. The skill-set of educational ICT has been eviscerated.

Most egregiously, the highest levels have been staffed not by experienced administrators with an understanding of the demands and complexities of a university network, but by "industry dropouts" who bring toxic corporate buzzwords and hostile values into an institution that requires curious, tactful consultation, openness, trust and cooperation.

What that means is that it no longer the academics who decide what research and teaching can or cannot happen. Nor its it denes and vice-chancellors. It is Microsoft and Google. Their minions, installed within our universities are now in control.

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