15 Freedom and Empowerment through IT

In recent decades, Information Technology has become synonymous with peak capitalism. The most valuable companies on Earth are IT companies, and IT has become essential infrastructure for all the others. Some students favor IT studies simply because they love computing; compensation is just a side benefit for them. For many more students, though, money matters the most. In different eras these same students would have been seeking fortunes in beaver trapping, or timber mills, or gold fields, or assembly lines, or shopping malls – whatever the leading economic engine of the age might have been. In today’s world, fortune seekers need to gear up with IT. Either they can work for an IT company directly, or they can apply IT skills across the rest of the economy. For better or worse, IT is at the leading edge of innovation. As with most other value-centric questions in our postmodern, social media driven culture, opinion is sharply divided regarding social costs and social benefits of IT. Where some see opportunity, others see mostly inequality. Where some see personal expression, others see automation and invasion of privacy. Some admire the speed and efficiency of IT-based services, others long for a more natural or more human order. In IT studies, within the equity, diversity, and inclusion mission of the community and technical college system, are we more empowering the disadvantaged or are we mostly adding fresh recruits to bolster an elite, exploitative, and exclusionary system?

Postmodernism, the intellectual megatrend of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, denies the very possibility of a “master narrative” or an authoritative point of view. All voices must be heard, especially those of the historically marginalized. From that perspective, our students can only speak for themselves. Is IT liberating for them? Or is it oppressive? Would they rather rise in the current capitalist system? Or would they prefer to transform that system to something better (or at least something different)?  Given that our students voluntarily sign up for IT classes and use their scarce funding to pay tuition for those classes, one suspects they prefer to rise in the system more than replace it, and that they find the prospects of such personal advancement generally empowering. But is their free will really all that free? Did the economy, society, “the system”, in effect herd them in our direction like so many cattle for lack of better or more viable options that should have been there for them in some other way?

In our currently dawning post- postmodern era, no story told by one single voice can can possibly aspire to provide universal or irrefutable conclusions about the value and nature of IT studies. Any yet, to orient action and create meaning, if only on strictly personal levels, we each do need such stories to tell. So for what it’s worth, here’s my take. Inequality and exploitation in human society are about 10,000 years old, plus or minus a millennium or so. Blame the Neolithic agricultural revolution, followed a few thousand years later by urbanization and the formation of what later become known as civilizations.  Since ancient Sumer at least, there has been human hierarchy. Those at the bottom of that hierarchy – peasants, prisoners, serfs, slaves – had onerous, short, and painful lives. That was most of the people who ever lived. Those farther up in the hierarchy – kings, priests, traders, skilled specialists – had it better. From the very beginning, IT workers had it better. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and elsewhere, those who mastered the IT of their day (cuneiform tablets, papyrus scrolls, brush on bamboo), enjoyed lives of privilege. So hierarchy has always been a given. What has changed recently is science, technology, industry, and modern medicine. The general results of these more recent developments (recent as in the past 500 years or so) have been vast increases in both human populations and human lifespans. Hosting so many more people on the planet certainly strains the natural environment, but in a fundamental way, one needs to decide if human life itself is a good thing. Do we as instructors view our students – with stories and personal histories from all over the world – as precious gifts or as burdens on planetary resources? One hopes that teachers would at least find some value in the students they work with – this one certainly does! At the most abstract and general level, it appears the story of humanity has involved using available resources at every turn to solve the problems of the moment. Quite often, the solutions for one group involved the exploitation of some other group. Ancient “IT” did nothing to prevent this exploitation, but it did give its educated workforce a bit of a safe haven. Current computer science – linked to all the other sciences – promises quite a bit more than that. If IT systems can help maintain current industrial production levels while mitigating and remediating environmental destruction, then some sort of sustainable planetary civilization might just be possible. The Internet, in effect, may be seen in retrospect as Gaia’s fetal nervous system. Some locate the essence of democracy and the prospect for social change in communication, collaboration, and dialog. It’s hard to imagine how global collaboration for change – or global anything – could work without IT.  My hope, my faith, and to some extent, my experience has been that when diverse students enter the IT workforce, in small personal ways, this does in effect reform capitalism in positive directions. To paraphrase Barack Obama, these students themselves are the change we have been waiting for. Thanks to our training efforts with these students, I’d like to think the world in general becomes a just bit better for each of us and for future generations.


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Making Connections: Instructors Guide for Information Technology Copyright © by Robert Bunge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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