Does the University Have a Future in the Network Society?

Sunday, 11 April 2010 08:54 By Ian Angus, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Does the University Have a Future in the Network Society?
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: tillwe, Magic Foundry)

Who should care about the future of the university? Why should they care?

The university used to be an elite institution that most working people rarely encountered. The training and socialization that the elite classes received prior to taking up leading positions in government and industry was arguably as much of a rite of passage as a search for enlightenment. Of course, there were always those few for whom the love of knowledge and the reading of great texts was a consuming passion. But if one were concerned only with them, there would be few larger social issues to be raised about the university in society. The situation is different now. In the United States and Canada, about a quarter of the working population has completed a university degree. Increasing attendance in higher education is an international trend that is deeply rooted in economic and technological changes. It is a trend that is not likely to reverse and countries that do not keep up will be confined to marginal status. It has been said that we live in a knowledge society and there is no doubt that contemporary society is deeply committed to the extension of knowledge and its rapid utilization in innovations. This is true not only of scientific and technical knowledge, but also of social scientific and even humanistic pursuits to the extent that they can be oriented to the market. To this extent, the future of the university should provoke widespread social concern. Add to this the fact that the university has in recent years changed to such a degree that it hardly resembles what previous generations experienced under that name.

The corporate university has been waging a battle for some years now against the remaining features of the public university. The major means of this battle has been fiscal. Public funding of universities has consistently fallen for decades now and major issues about the functioning and purposes of the university need to be addressed. This fall in government funding has gone hand in hand with seeing education as simply an aid to the individual in confronting the job market, so that any larger social or public purposes lose their purchase. University administrations, on the whole, have avoided addressing larger questions of the social role of education or the current restructuring of the university directly because of their bureaucratic, rather than political, approach to university functioning. They have presented the new fiscal environment as an inescapable force that has inevitably turned them toward corporate sources of funding.

The university used to exist in a complex, double relationship to the modern state and the capitalist economy - in one sense dependent on them for resources and support and in another sense independent enough to make the claim to know the whole. The university was clearly inside society as a social institution dependent on other, more powerful institutions. But it was also outside society in the sense that its partial independence provided a standpoint from which the whole of society, history and nature could be represented as a form of knowledge. Knowledge understood as an organized totality - subdivided, but unified in a structural whole - that refers to and represents the world is the specifically modern form of knowledge. Knowledge in this specifically modern form confers structure and meaning on the modern university. This location and mission of the university has changed and much discussion thus far has emphasized the social and economic, that is to say, corporate factors, that have brought this about.

In the short term, one can resist the corporate model and call on the remaining resources of regions and the nation-state to protect the legacy of the public university. But we can't turn the clock backward. The citizenship role of the public university in the national economy cannot be reinstated in the same form in a global economy. Also, changes in the storage and transmission of knowledge means that the library has passed as the center of higher learning. How can humanistic studies be saved by being transformed? How can they face these new conditions with confidence in its past and a plan for facing the future?

Corporate factors are not the only ones at work here. Institutions are also being transformed by the contemporary interpenetration of technology and science - which can be called techno-science - that has brought about changes in knowledge production and transmission. These factors are always in practice bound up with social and economic forces, but they are not reducible to them. Under any conceivable social-economic regime, the contemporary transformations of knowledge undermine the traditional structure and rationale for the university and require a new, creative response - that is to say, techno-science is a product of modern society and not just of capitalism. These changes were well summed up in the recent statement by a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) official: "the university has lost its monopoly on the creation of knowledge." But this is a negative statement, a summary of what is no longer the case. Difficult as it is in a time of transition such as our own, real understanding requires some positive, content-filled account of the transformations that are underway.

The double, inside/outside relationship of the modern university to society meant that the university was both a social institution and a relatively independent standpoint from which the whole (of society, history and nature) could be represented in the form of knowledge. The end of the double relationship means that the university is in danger of being subsumed within society to become exclusively, one-sidedly, a servant of social interests. We can see emerging a university thoroughly immersed in socio-technical networks identical with those of the society as a whole. This indistinction between university and society implies the end of a standpoint from which one can represent the whole in the form of knowledge and the beginning of the production of forms of knowledge that have a directly social function. Knowledge-production becomes an action alongside other actions rather than a representation of the whole field of action.

The classic modern university, in its commitment to teaching and research, was based in the modern concept of knowledge: knowledge divided into specialized domains and yet unified in the role of enlightenment within the individual. The educated individual thus could participate rationally as a citizen in democratic self-government. The social role of knowledge is not imposed on the university from without, but is rooted in its own mission. But the specialization of contemporary research, the multiple and diverse applications to which it gives rise, its centrality to economic gain, can no longer be held within the precarious unity of its classical form. We live in a knowledge society, not only with the knowledge-based university and, while social application is constant and unproblematic, the question becomes whether there is any standpoint from which one can think the whole of society, history and nature.

In recent years, the idea of a network has come into increasingly common use in the social sciences and humanities. It is used both as a description of new social and technical relationships and also as an image, or metaphor, for the structure of society as a whole. The network society is that society in which information has become the dominant mode for the storage, processing, transmission and reception of knowledge. Here, we must be careful to understand knowledge not in the modern way as the representation of the world, but as a constitutive component of it. Knowledge, as externalized in technologies based in information, has become a central component of the process of production. The technology of information is not an isolated phenomenon, but is the active force shaping social possibilities in its own image. Also, information is pervasive, based on a networking logic, flexible and characterized by the convergence of technologies into an integrated system. The network society relegates hierarchy, control and repression to merely local features of the system and operates on a logic of linking and horizontal transfer.

It is no accident that the network, with its transversal flows and absence of hierarchy, for many commentators represents a utopia of social equality, a utopia that seems today to be within our grasp. For others, the loss of reflexivity and the lack of a standpoint from which to judge the whole is a symptom of decline. It is commonplace these days to style the latter as simply conservative and the former as simply liberal or progressive, but the situation is actually more complex. The question of the future of the university can be honed into two issues: What is the role of the university when it becomes one of many producers of knowledge in the form of technical innovation to the network? Is there a standpoint for reflexion from which the network can be described and evaluated for what it is? In a nutshell, what remains of the university's commitment to public knowledge and to social reflexion when it is reduced to being a node within a network?

It is important to keep in mind that while the network is transversal rather than hierarchical, an open rather than a closed system, that does not mean that it has eliminated social conflict and disagreement. The network is constantly changing due to the continuous introduction of new technologies that require changes in social organization. The manner of this social organization is not predetermined and is often subject to social contestation. In short, every new addition to the network raises more than one possibility of its incorporation; the actual manner of its incorporation advantages one group over another. Network society is thus traversed by social movements that struggle with established powers over the direction of innovations. There are many of these movements. Network society is not based on one basic social struggle or conflict, but upon an open-ended series of conflicts that are pointed out and addressed by a plurality of social movements.

In fact, it is even a more basic matter than social movements. Because the network is constantly changing, it destabilizes the identities of those who work and live within it, leading to a search for a viable identity within the current state of the network. This anxiety about identity within the network is what coalesces within social movements and drives them to contest specific innovations. The network is criss-crossed by power relations such that struggles over identity influence the actual form of innovations. Each of these movements poses issues about how to understand the current state of the network. These issues have entered the university and pose interesting philosophical and political questions for thinkers. This independence yet relationship between social movements and university-based researchers and teachers is the most interesting new phenomenon that has kept the university alive as a publicly relevant institution. The notion of the public is no longer confined to the political institutions of representative democracy, but has become a space of social reflexivity over the form of innovation and its relation to established and emergent powers. The university exercises its best contemporary role when it brings thoughtful reflection to bear on such public issues.

Rather than describe the phenomena that disturb the equilibrium of the network in detail, I would like to emphasize the logic of such disruption, since it is from these sources that the contemporary university can keep alive its public relevance: Continuous innovation in the network produces an anxiety about identity that leads to a search for identity with both individual and social dimensions. Social movements raise public issues about the current state of the network that can be usefully explored by university-based researchers and influence the public through their teaching, writing and expressions in other media. While the network appears to be a seamless pattern of transversal relations, it is actually a tensional pattern in which each relationship can be opened to public debate. What is going on when this occurs?

Let us look at the bit of information from which the network society is built. The bit of information is closed in upon itself, but open to an infinity of potential relationships. Similarly, network society does not offer a stable identity to its participants, but enlists them in a constantly changing set of relationships. But simply adding on more relationships does not constitute an identity. An identity is constructed when bits of information are connected into a meaningful whole. Such a meaningful whole can only be constructed when one's specific location in the network becomes the locus of a totalization, a vision of the whole. To state it in a formula: a node becomes an identity insofar as it embraces its place. Information becomes localized as knowledge, which is ultimately self-knowledge; the infinite spatio-temporality of the network becomes the lived time in place of a specific identity. This is the contemporary form of self-reflexion that could ground a new concept of enlightenment.

Information treats knowledge as a completed thing rather than an ongoing search. Even though the production process of knowledge disappears into information, it still takes place in the network society, though off stage, as it were, in the struggle for identity. The network is parasitic on the production of knowledge that it uses as information. Actually, one needs to distinguish two notions of knowledge here: it is certainly possible to produce new innovations through following out the implications of information already present in the network. However intelligent one might have to be to do this, it is confined to the recombination of existing information. Knowledge production, in the pregnant sense in which I am describing it here, refers to the meaningful whole from which bits of information are derived. In this sense, it is inseparable from the construction of identity. The anxiety about identity produced by the network thus motivates a search for self-knowledge that can produce new knowledge and not simply recombinations of information. It is not by attempting to restore a monopoly of knowledge that the university can find a contemporary public function, but by taking seriously the anxiety about identity and entering into the production of self-knowledge. At this point, the contemporary function of the university reaches back to touch its humanistic roots. The search for self-knowledge initiated by Socrates can take on a social function in the network society.

Ian Angus

Ian Angus is a philosopher and social critic who teaches humanities at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. This is an excerpt from his recent book "Love the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment," published by Arbeiter Ring Publishing, which can be found here. His earlier book, "Emergent Publics: An Essay on Social Movements and Democracy," is from the same publisher. 

Last modified on Sunday, 11 April 2010 11:01