Discussion Topics

The following are discussion questions prompted by the Palinurus Suggested Readings list. It is hoped that in the future this page will include questions (and online discussions) contributed by courses, forums, and individuals working on the problem of the place of higher education in a "knowledge society." There is a Discussion Board for responses to these questions as well as other means to contribute citations and links.

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* General
* The Idea of Business
* The Idea of the University
* Academe and Business
* Information Technology and the Academy
* Archive (not yet initiated)

General Discussion Questions

Business, Education, and Control

James R. Beniger's The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (1986) is a profound, ambitious, and remarkably knowledgeable attempt to locate the roots of information society in a long history of economic, social, and cultural "control." "Control" for Beniger is as fundamental as the principles of life, evolution, and cognition (which he studies in a preliminary part). But while his book gains powerful philosophical resonance from taking such a large view of the topic, it ultimately focuses on the transition from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Revolution. Building on the work of Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Beniger sees these two revolutions as one continuous saga of the way societies and cultures control themselves--and, as a corollary of control, develop necessary apparatuses of information and communication. The means by which pre-industrial societies controlled their trade, for example, were adequate to the speeds and quantities of trade in those times. But when speeds and quantities increased to the scale of the railroads and other steam-assisted technologies (let alone later technologies), there was a "crisis of control." New means of technical, bureaucratic, and cultural control were needed to minimize something as simple as a collision of two trains on the same line and to maximize something as complex as efficiency. Thus was born modern industrial business and, eventually, postindustrial business. In the context of Beniger's expansive idea of "control," information technology and the new, flexible ways of business it enables are the ultimate control--a thesis that is echoed in portions of such substantial studies of the information age as Shoshana Zuboff's In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988) and Gene I. Rochlin's Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization (1997).

In the light of Beniger's book, what is the difference, if any, between business and the university as agents of "control"? And, within the university itself, what is the difference, if any, between the control exercised by an administrator and that exercised by an instructor? If, as Beniger believes, "information" is inextricably tied up with the technical, economic, social, political, and ultimately cultural implications of "control," then what is the meaning or meanings of the "wiring" of the university?

Alan Liu, Feb. 11, 1998

The Idea of Business

Globalism and Difference

It is widely acknowledged that the notion of "global economy" does not count the world's "have-nots" (including those in major industrialized countries) as effectively part of the globe. But even within its own terms, the discourse of "globalism" that frames much of the business, economic, and political policy of G-7 nations is conceptually problematic.

On the one hand, the proselytizing, even missionary, zeal of best-selling business literature in recent years projects the image of a single world inevitably fated to elect the options of restructuring, reengineering, downsizing, "flat" organization, teamwork, knowledge work, and the rest. As Armand Mattelart has commented in his Mapping World Communications: War, Progress, Culture, books on business now enjoy "a transnational readership far broader than just business executives" and provide "a medium for the followers of [a] new business doctrine," "a veritable cult of enterprise, bordering on the religious" (pp. 207, 208). As it were, there shall be one god--even if the god now worshipped is "decentralized" by comparison with the deity that Allen Ginsberg, in the midst of the 1950's era of the "organization man," feared would be Moloch.

But on the other hand, Manuel Castells argues that the notion of postindustrialism (which has been theorized primarily on the basis of U.S. experience) homogenizes significantly different versions of the same phenomena around the world. See, for example, his socioeconomic analysis of Japan and the U.S. as representing two different world paradigms of postindustrialism and informationalism (Information Age, I: 217-31). In general, Castells' focus on (and lived experience in) the "global" provides a counterbalance to views of the global economy that are at base parochial.

The question is an open one: is there destined to be one global economy and, by implication, society, politics, and culture (the so-called "end of history" thesis recently popularized by Francis Fukuyama)? Or will there be different local visions of globalism?

Alan Liu, Feb. 17, 1998

The Idea of the University

The Work of the University in an Age of the Transnational Corporation [TNC]

Barbara and John Ehrenreich have noted that it is both the university and the specialized knowledges that it incorporates that allow for the self-reproduction of a professional-managerial class. Pierre Bourdieu's early writings, especially from The Inheritors, are a critical backdrop here, particularly his suggestion that the new ideologies of educational egalitarianism and academic merit do nothing to change the fact that the institutional structures are such that social differences and relations continue to be reproduced in kind. Another backdrop is the notion--extending most famously back to John Henry Newman--that an important part of the work of the university was personal grooming, namely concentrating on the development of a future class of political guardians in order to perpetuate hierarchies of culture, religion, and nation.

In a moment declared to be past the epistemological paradigms of the nation, Masao Miyoshi has given an added twist to these visions of the university as an institution that reproduces a governing class. Miyoshi writes incisively of the ways in which late-20th century universities produce the workers and the knowledges needed by global capital and transnational corporations--to the point that the knowledges particular to the uses of capital and the TNC have provided a new raison d'etre for an academy struggling to legitimate itself without the organizing principles of its former literary-historical-cultural work.

The questions, then are these: in what ways are these workers or "new class" bound to the global economic and cultural system? What kind of knowledge does the university now feed into the circuits of global capital and the TNC? To what paradigms does such knowledge adhere? What, if any, are the fundamental differences between the legitimating narratives of a university in service to a national system and one in service to a global system?

--Rita Raley, Feb. 25, 1998

Academe and Business

"Diversity Management" vs. "Multicuturalism"

Affirmative action (in hiring) and multiculturalism (in curricula and research) have together constituted one of the most important--but also controversial--recent initiatives in higher education. Since the early 1990's, meanwhile, "diversity management" has been one of the priorities of U.S. business. (An important influence, for example, is R. Roosevelt Thomas.)

What is the difference between the educational and business versions of affirmative action (more fundamentally, society)? or of multiculturalism (more fundamentally, culture)? A related question: what is the relation between diversity and "globalism"?

Alan Liu, Feb. 16, 1998

Information Technology and the Academy

The "Productivity" Paradox

Just as on the cosmic scale "missing" or "dark matter" has been one of the great puzzles of astrophysics, so on the scale of global business the "missing productivity" of IT has been one of the most abiding conundrums of the corporate world. As Thomas K. Landauer documents in his The Trouble with Computers, for example, the massive investment of business in IT in the past decades has led to no, or even negative, objective measures of productivity increase. This leads Landauer and others to inquire into what "usefulness," "usability," and "productivity" actually mean when applied to IT. Paul A. Strassman's rethinking of productivity in chapters 5-9 of his Information Payoff, for example, is particularly authoritative. Indeed, there is now a whole literature on IT and the "productivity paradox."

Meanwhile, business (as well as governmental and media sectors awestruck before the contemporary business model) increasingly criticize education on the grounds of both general effectiveness and cost/productivity. Much of what academics do, it is argued, is useless and unproductive. Wiring all the schools and universities with high-tech, the argument continues (doubters notwithstanding), will help increase the value of education in measurable terms.

What is the relation--of similarity or difference--between "knowledge workers" at large and "intellectuals" that makes the productivity of both so difficult to perceive from the perspective of contemporary high-tech economy? What, fundamentally, is the productivity of knowledge?

Alan Liu, Feb. 24, 1998

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