Living in interesting times
As someone whose professional life sits at the intersection of the internet and higher education, the past week has been interesting to say the least, and not a little depressing. I'm not sure I have much to add to what's been said about the two big stories of wikileaks and student fees, but I have woken up on an almost daily basis thinking 'are we really witnessing this?'. So, lest I allow it to slide into normality, I thought I'd record some of my reactions to it all.
As Clay Shirky has put it, I'm conflicted about Wikileaks – even as an advocate of openness, I know there are things of my own I wouldn't want made open, and I accept that diplomats probably need to have some confidentiality in what they say (and they could be doing work for good as well as ill we should remember). At the same time, I think the possibility of openness and revelation may bring a level of accountability to states that they will have to consider. The long term effect of wikileaks may be to make states less likely to engage in dirty, clandestine work because they know, ultimately, they'll get found out. As John Naughton puts it "Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet."
But what has been a revelation to this naive observer is the naked ferocity of the US reaction. The manner in which they have coerced companies (Visa, Paypal, Amazon, etc) and strong-armed the legal systems of Sweden and the UK (I make no judgement about the allegations, and have no illusions that Assange must be a nice man, but no-one else with a similar allegation would face the same legal treatment) and conducted a global campaign, including some commentators calling for Assange to be assassinated.
As Scott Leslie pointed out on twitter the other day, this is just part of an ongoing anti-internet campaign, but I think the level, and blatantness of this campaign is revealing. If the gloves were ever on, they now seem to be well and truly off.
Shirky sums it up: "When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want."
Whatever the rights and wrongs of leaking the cables, or of Assange as an individual, I can't help detecting more than a whiff of the conspiracy of sentiment in this. It is not just that information has been leaked, but that it has been done through the internet, by people they don't understand, and who aren't 'proper journalists'. This is when the full anarchic nature of the net comes home to them, and the lack of control they have over it. That they invented it must be particularly galling. If they could shut it down, or control it now, they would. If you think that sounds far-fetched or paranoid, consider what would have been the equivalent if a newspaper had printed the articles:
- Closing down the printing press and forcing any other printers to refuse to work with them
- Forcing all advertisers to withdraw support
- Having the editor extradited for trial
- Making selling the paper an offence
I'm not sure people would accept this, even if they disagreed with the initial publication. The traditional media would certainly be united in condemning it as an over-reaction and as having serious consequences for free speech.
As the bill to raise tuition fees was passed yesterday, we saw the third day of the most political, angriest demonstrations since the poll tax. Inevitably the media focus has been on the violence (and the Royals for goodness sake), and ministers have sought to explain in detail how their proposals will mean that students aren't worse off. Either they are deliberately focussing on the detail to distract and confuse, or else they have failed to really understand what the protests are about. This is about more than whether you pay back amount A or A x 3 for fees, but about what kind of society we want to live in. If it is one that doesn't value higher education (particularly the arts and humanities) and views education solely as an individual transaction to gain better paid employment then that will be a society many of us don't want to live in.
I argued before that during the Iraq war protests, Blair should've asked himself 'what do they know that I don't?', because maybe he was dealing with too much information, and the crowd had extracted the fundamental sense of the situation. If we give some of the politicians involved with passing the bill the benefit of the doubt and think they do believe it is a fair bill, then they should be asking themselves the same question. They must be surprised by the scale and ferocity of the backlash against the bill (the same politicians were complaining about political apathy in the young only a year ago, how they must wish for a return to that apathy). Instead of dismissing this as either a) a violent fringe 'hellbent' on making trouble or b) students not understanding the bill, they should be thinking 'what is the essence they have understood that we have missed amidst all the detail?'.
I would suggest it is this – education should be cherished and promoted for any society to progress.
So between these two we find ourselves in a radically more overtly politicised world, and one where the role of the internet and education are central. Tell me now that educators shouldn't engage with technology.
hear, hear Martin! Couldn’t agree more. Re wikileaks I’m actually glad to hear that diplomats are having these discussions/concerns – I’d be more worried if they weren’t.
Based in Scotland adds another dimension to the fees debate, it will be interesting to see what impact yesterday will have on decisions in Holyrood next year.
Great post Martin. Sometimes the story doesn’t break until well after the spin is over – wikileaks has proved this, and we’ll see it again with fees and the new funding model.
Shirky was very good on the Today Program yesterday on the implications of American behaviour for democracy: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9270000/9270796.stm
And Jeff Jarvis today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/news/2010/12/101209_cyber_wars_wt_sl.shtml
Great post. Stefan Collini wrote something similar to your view on tuition fees, in the London Review of Books: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n21/stefan-collini/brownes-gamble
Good summary Martin. Everytime Clegg and Cable are put on the spot (this is obviously the Government paty line), they say that if they knew before taking power what they know now about the state of the UK financial situation, they would have taken a different view. However, they haven’t produced one example of something that they know now that they didn’t know before the election. Wasn’t the whole election fought by them on the terribel state of the economy?
Martin Le Voi
I was one of the million or so who marched against the Iraq war. The evidence was plain that we were being hoodwinked by the USA, why Blair could not see through it defeats me.
But I won’t be marching against the student fee plan. I am appalled at the way every sector threatened by cuts yells and screams “cut them, not us! We are special!”. If only some could have the integrity to say “yes cut us, we can take it”. Well, I will stand and say we can. Our output is (largely) privileged people who can afford the cost of the education they received. As we see in the USA, there are ways (needs blind assessment etc.) for fee-based education to reach out fairly to the poor. And why should the privileged have the source of their privilege funded by the unprivileged? The argument that its an attack on humanities is totally spurious, as any financial analysis shows.
So come on, HE sector, have the guts to say we can take it *and* support widening participation properly.