Tag Archives: Siva Vaidhyanathan

Feminism without Borders: Inquiry vs. Business

Cover of Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity Title: Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity

Author: Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Publication Date: 2003

LC Call Number: HQ 1870.9 .M64

I can’t even begin to write about this book as a whole, because it is long, complex and dense, but just as an introduction…. Mohanty wants to write about worldwide feminism and in particular the condition of Third World Women (a term she defines carefully and uses advisedly) while at the same time being very careful not to flatten “women” into a coherent group with identical interests. This means that she has to take all the nuances into consideration: legal and social differences in the status of women around the world and in different social strata, economic and class issues, the effects of race, the way that family is constructed, and everything else that affects what “women” means in that particular context in time and space.  So, yeah, this is really difficult.  It means recognizing that there is no way to immediately solve all the problems of sexism and racism and imperialism in the world because everything has to be addressed carefully, one context and one social group at a time, and it means that it’s quite difficult to find a position from which one can speak.  It’s overwhelming, but as Mohanty points out, all alternatives are oppressive and center women of privilege, so—she is probably right.   The post on the first chapter of the book at A Year of Feminist Classics includes a better discussion of this than I can give here.

I should note that, according to Mohanty’s definition, third world women can include women in wealthy countries who are poor, have migrated or are of color, because they are affected by globalization in much the same way as women in poor countries and often end up doing similar work. Mohanty’s methodology is one that she describes as eclectic, but it has a strong Marxist component, and she is deeply concerned with globalization and the ways that women around the world are exploited—and how women resist exploitation, and are discouraged from resisting.  Early in the book, she uses examples such as Indian lacemakers and women workers in Silicon Valley to show both how she thinks about the economic conditions of women and to teach her readers how such distinctions can be made.  She also includes a really interesting discussion about why it is so difficult for conditions to improve for such workers. Mohanty, then, actually shows how some analysis is actually possible when taking all these things into account.

But what I really wanted to focus on was a different part of the book. In the last several chapters, Mohanty quickly shifts focus to higher education in the United States. This seemed like a very strange move; there is a huge social and economic distance between many of the issues that she discussed earlier in the book and the problems of higher education. It was a real surprise, then, to find myself thinking about the goals of higher education, the problems of temporary part time educational labor, and the dangers of allowing commercial interests to participate.  Despite the strangeness of the way this fits into the book, I was really excited to see it, and if the book had been split into two, this may actually have been the half I’d have been interested in reading, if only because I work in higher education myself and am acutely aware of some of the problems she describes.

Mohanty is very concerned with the privatization of higher education, in particular, the relationships that have been formed with governmental and business interests.  She cites several authors who have written about the expansion of the military-industrial complex into various institutions and shows that even theoretically public higher education is implicated in this complex.  She’s concerned with the research done in universities is given a monetary value as “intellectual property,” so that it can be sold to military and industrial types.   With this move, the university becomes part of the economy, and is presumed to have its own economic interests.  Mohanty writes:

[I]mmense power as well as oppression is dispersed, funneled through, recycled, consolidated and above all justified through the daily operations of US universities newly resurrected through the processes of economic globalization.  It is this link between the university and other scapes of global capitalism that recycle and exacerbate gender, race, class and sexual hierarchies that concerns me.  (173)

In short, Mohanty argues that by participating in the project of globalization, the university gives up its pretensions of creating an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom is the primary value and democratic citizenship is an important goal.  Mohanty describes a set of ideals under which higher education is a means of both distributing and thinking through justice and equality. She points out the discrepancy between the university’s involvement in structures that create oppression throughout the world and the ideals on which the academy is supposedly built. The “entrepreneurial university” as she calls it, not only contributes to exploitation elsewhere in the world but also uses labor in a way that perpetuates inequalities of class, race and gender by employing white male professors on the tenure track, a large number of (mostly white female) adjuncts for less prestigious teaching work, and what she would third world women in menial and staff positions.

There is a ton going on here, so I’m going to look closely at only a couple points.  First, Mohanty is worried about the decay of the concept of public goods. She contrasts the more traditional ideals of the academy with the concept of “corporate citizenship,” which find the ideals of citizenship in the work of the self-interested capitalist marketplace:

Ideas of the public good, collective service and responsibility, democratic rights, freedom and justice are privatized and crafted into commodities to be exchanged via the market.  The institutionalization of capitalist citizenship at the corporate university thus profoundly transforms the vision of the university as a democratic public space, a sanctuary for nonrepression. (184)

This reminds me very strongly of the arguments Siva Vaidhyanathan makes in The Googlization of Everything, which I wrote about early in the life of this blog.  Vaidhyanathan’s interest is narrower; he focuses on the ways in which Google has co-opted many functions formerly assumed to be those of the university and privatized them in service of corporate profits.  He’s skeptical of Google’s user-friendly public image and points out their US-centric nature and their status as a for-profit company.  Although he doesn’t address the problems within the academy in that book, I’d recommend it to anyone who finds this argument compelling. I found that Mohanty’s critiques gave me more perspective on Vaidhyanathan’s argument as well.  Curiously, she criticizes the Human Genome Project, which he used as an example of promising collaborations rather than exploitative ones.

In any case, back to Mohanty: she finds  many problems with corporatized education and, for her, they are all linked together. She writes about the devaluation of her own field, women’s studies, and others that do not produce income but are intended to increase the amount of justice and equity in the world. She writes about the demographics of labor as I’ve mentioned above. She briefly discusses access to education and how public defunding decreases access, while information is instead being sold as described above.

I was a little surprised how close she came to discussing the problematic publishing practices of scholars and the need for open access, and then disappointed that she didn’t quite get there. I didn’t really expect it, of course, but it is such an important part of the constellation of things that she describes.  Current academic publishing practices provide profit to multinational publishers who may or may not embody some of the problems with globalization but who certainly contribute to the corporatization of the academy by charging outrageous prices for their journals and increasing money pressure on the academy.  Not only that, of course, but by limiting access, they contribute to the restriction of scholarly knowledge to the elite, which is a huge part of the problem that she describes.  Not only that, but the open access movement represents a kind of resistance that may be of interest to her.  Since Mohanty is not a librarian, of course, this is not at the forefront of her mind—but maybe it should be. Social justice types need to start thinking about this stuff.

In any case, Mohanty is hardly the first to note the shift of the university’s priorities from a place of free intellectual inquiry to a place where future workers can be trained.  Mohanty doesn’t discuss how and when this shift took place; from what I understand, it happened when just as higher education became accessible to those other than the elite.  The ideal of the academy as a place where citizens are created is—historically complicated. It’s been embraced within critical pedagogy for sure; I love critical pedagogy, but it’s hard to cast it as an integral part of the academy when it’s actually a radical movement.  Thus, I’m not sure about her characterization of the ideals of academic life, and I suspect that this shift to the corporate university comes about, historically, as a result of some of the changes that happened as a result of letting in people who were not previously considered worthy. This makes it a little complicated, actually, but I don’t think that it undermines her point about the importance of the kind of inquiry she wants to support and the difficulty of supporting it under the current circumstances.


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The Googlization of Everything & the DPLA

Cover of The Googlization of Everything

The Googlization of Everything

Siva Vaidhyanathan


HD9696.8 .U64 G669 2010

In my last post on The Googlization of Everything, I summarized the concept of public failure in my last post; the most important point to be made about this is that Google, with its staggeringly ambitious mission to make all the information in the world accessible, is taking over some functions that should be done publicly and not by a commercial entity. This is why we have libraries and universities, which are funded by the public and which are at least theoretically pursuing the public good.

Google recently shut down its News Archive project, which was focused on scanning and indexing old newspapers. I was disappointed to hear it, because many of these newspapers really aren’t available elsewhere.  At my institution, we rely on LexisNexis, which goes back to 1980. Before that, all we have is New York Times Historical, which is just the NYT, and a bunch of microfilm, which is not searchable.  So, I’d been referring students who want newspaper sources on historical events—and yes, students do want this—to the Google News Archive.  I considered it one of their more useful projects.  However, they don’t seem to consider it one of their more profitable projects and have discontinued it.  This is one of the problems with relying on a commercial entity; they will stop doing anything if they decide it isn’t worthwhile, and their definition of worthwhile is based not on, say, scholarly, archival or long-term cultural value, but on whether they can make money from it. So smaller projects like this, and in particular projects that are for this sort of audience, are always at risk.  This is my small example; Vaidhyanathan uses Google Books and Google Scholar, which are much more important and used by more people.

Vaidhyanathan asks some important questions about this state of affairs:

The question is not whether Google treats us well but whether this is the best we can do. Is the system, as Google has designed and governed it, ideal for all parts of the world and all segments of society? Is it durable and extensible over the long term? Will it let us both preserve and create? Will it let us filter wisely and connect widely?

Certainly, all of these are questionable. If Google is interested in “facilitating consumption” and if their style of doing business works best for privileged communities that are built around things that are fun, then it’s difficult to answer these questions affirmatively.  As for all the questions about preservation: it’s difficult to trust any for-profit company to do preservation, because we cannot rely on their continued interest or even existence.  In particular, if all this information is centralized in one physical location and in a digital format, that’s very dangerous.

He goes on to recommend the building of a Human Knowledge Project:

In a sense, we missed an opportunity. About the same time that Google started, we could have coordinated a grand global project, funded by a group of concerned governments and facilitated by the best national libraries, to plan and execute a fifty-year project to connect everybody to everything. At least we could have executed a plan to digitize the major collections of a hundred or so major libraries around the world and unify the works under a searchable index. We could have launched something like a “Human Knowledge Project.” Now, a dozen years later, it’s harder to do that. But it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s still necessary if we want to pursue the dream of a vital global public sphere.

Now, I have to admit, I read this and I feel both very excited and very skeptical.  Will it include non-public-domain works? If so, um… how? How will such an initiative really be funded? I’m not sure the concerned governments are quite concerned enough to do that. If we just want an index, how is that different from WorldCat?

But at the same time: YES. This is fantastic and I want to work on it.  The problem is that nobody can agree on how to do it. Several initiatives have started recently to think in this direction… Open Library (Internet Archive-related), the Digital Public Library of America (Harvard-related), Library Renewal  (a nonprofit organization based around public libraries), and a couple others.

Are these initiatives the Human Knowledge Project? Vaidhyanathan seems to be on the board for DPLA, and in his talk at ALA he mentioned “initiatives like the DPLA,” so… maybe? The curious thing about the DPLA is that it’s come under fire for not being public enough. At the same time, it’s certainly the one that’s gotten the most attention lately. I should have asked him about it there; eventually I’ll get over my desire to have the perfectly phrased question, but I’m shy and it’s difficult. In any case, I’ve subscribed to its listserv and it is fascinating, but there’s little agreement on what, exactly, this is going to be.

It seems clear that if these things really have a chance, if we can really take important and scholarly and not commercially useful information and make it readily available to everyone, then this is a very exciting time to be a librarian. Not only that, but if this is really going to go somewhere, then it is the most important news in the library world, without hyperbole, and we all ought to be working on it together.  And I need to actually take the time to see if there’s anything that I (and I am nobody in particular) can do to help. But with librarians it can sometimes be difficult to get everyone working in the same direction.

Now what this really needs is to get together with the Open Access movement.  Hmmmm.

Oh, one more thing: I’m deeply appreciative of the fact that this book, written by someone who is not a librarian, comes down squarely in the corner of libraries and the mission we try to support.  That, too, is exciting to me.

(As I read over this, it seems more and more as if I should have posted it to my professional blog instead.  Considering cross-posting… I need to figure out what I think about that.)

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The Googlization of Everything: The Digital is Political

Cover of The Googlization of Everything

The Googlization of Everything

Siva Vaidhyanathan


HD9696.8 .U64 G669 2010


So. The Googlization of Everything.  It’s very much in conversation with What Would Google Do?; in fact, Jarvis is thanked in the credits as a “sparring partner.”  However, it’s a very different type of book. Where WWGD is really a business book, and this one is much more philosophical, even political.

Vaidhyanathan’s central argument has a lot to do with the notion of “public failure,” which he explains at some length and with which I wasn’t familiar. Basically, this is what happens when the government abdicates its responsibility in areas that should be public.  The failure of FEMA after Katrina is used as an example, but it’s not hard to think of more. The one that is currently making my hair stand on end is the privatization of libraries, but again, this is all over the place.  As public agencies give up control over essential services, private companies step in to fill the gaps, but they fill them according to their own agendas, which involve making money and improving their image much more than serving the public good.  Vaidhyanathan argues that Google, too, has stepped into some areas that should be done publicly and not by a private company—but the political atmosphere in the United States makes it very difficult to take on projects that are new and exciting and expensive.

This is a fascinating and complex argument and I strongly recommend reading the whole book.  I just wanted to point out a couple things that were interesting to me, and to ask a question.

First, there’s a very interesting argument about the nature of privacy and surveillance.  He writes:

[M]ost work surveying the troubling implications of mass surveillance has fundamentally misrepresented its nature. It assumes that surveillance of the kind that Google makes possible is analogous to the theory of social control described by Michel Foucault as the Panopticon. … The original Panopticon, conceived by Jeremy Bentham, was a design for a circular prison with a central watchtower, in which all the inmates would behave because they would assume that they were being observed at all times. Foucault argued that state programs to monitor and record our comings and goings create imaginary prisons that lead citizens to limit what they do out of fear of being observed by those in power.  (111)

So far, this is very familiar to me.  I’ve read the essay to which he refers (it’s a chapter of Discipline and Punish, the rest of which I haven’t read), and this is indeed the model on which I’d been operating. Even in library school, we learned that it was essential to keep reading records private because of potential chilling effects if library patrons felt that their records were open to others.  One fairly central tenet of librarianship is that privacy of reading records is an essential free speech right, because people could be discouraged from accessing the information they wished to access by pressures such as this. However, Vaidhyanathan continues:

[T]he Panopticon model does not suffice to describe our current predicaments. First, mass surveillance does not inhibit behavior; people may act weird regardless of the number of cameras pointed at them. The thousands of surveillance cameras in London and New York City do not deter the eccentric and avant-garde. … There is no empirical reason to believe that awareness of surveillance limits the imagination or cows creativity in a market economy under a nontotalitarian state.  … The forces at work in Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world are the opposite of a Panopticon: they involve not the subjection of the individual to the gaze of a single, centralized authority, but the surveillance of the individual, potentially by all, always by many.  … Unlike Bentham’s prisoners, we don’t know all the ways in which we are being watched or profiled—we simply know that we are. And we don’t regulate our behavior under the gaze of surveillance: instead, we don’t seem to care. (112)

I’m not sure that the panoptic model can be quite so easily dismissed; it’s extremely difficult to compare how people actually act under conditions of surveillance to how they would have acted. But the goals of this kind of surveillance seem to be quite different: not to discourage or encourage any particular type of behavior, but to gather information that may later be valuable, to marketers in particular but also perhaps to others.

“[M]ere expression of difference is usually both harmless and remarkably useful to the powerful” (113).

Really, I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. All the data about me that the internet has—and by this time, I don’t doubt that it’s pretty extensive if it could all be assembled in one place—is put together just to try to sell me stuff? Just for that? Is that really worth it? When I think of all of the infrastructure that’s been built around this, I seriously doubt that my puny purchases make up whatever it costs just to get whatever they have about me. And what happens when they figure out that I don’t actually buy very many things at all?

But on the whole, this seems a lot less damaging than the panoptic model, or even the blackmail model.  I’m trying to think of the possible ill effects to me personally—I guess I might be persuaded to buy more things? Or perhaps I should feel exploited? I’m coming back to Jaron Lanier’s ACRL keynote speech here, where he explained that there are two versions of me, one that I intentionally create, and one that is based on all my data and is very valuable to the companies that own it, and which they will never share with me, because it is too valuable.  And I admit that this is more than a little irritating.

But maybe the real concern here is the commercialization of daily life.  I get really tired of seeing ads all over the place, and I find myself tolerating them more than I formerly did because I’m getting things for “free.” (Heh—I’m listening to Pandora right now. Clearly my resistance to this is limited.)  Even if they were ads for things I was interested in, I still would prefer not to see them.  And being constantly encouraged to buy something as I’m just trying to go on about my business, or entertain myself, or whatever, does represent an intrusion in my daily experience.

So, the consequence of losing privacy in this particular way is not a loss of freedom of expression—rather, it’s that we must spend our lives in continual engagement with commercial entities, not just the ones that we choose to engage with but also the ones that they refer to us.

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