Are learning environments in higher education becoming commodified? Who is in charge here?
The article The Open Ed Tech: never mind the edupunks; or, the great Web 2.0 swindle by Brian Lam and Jim Groom (Educause Review July August 2010) remembers the palmy days of "edupunks" –those Gen-Xers who wanted open educational environments fostered by open web technology. Away with closed, tightly-controlled proprietary systems!
What happened? The consolidation of Blackboard. The rise of Google whatever: docs, alerts, talk, reader, YouTube, whatever. Above all, the consolidation of cultural industries: ContentID. Users such as Critical Commons and Lawrence Lessig –who used snippets of copyrighted works for their presentations to demonstrate examples of Fair Use– were effectively silenced by corporate take-down orders without respect to any Fair Use guidelines.
Advertising is the point of the Google products, its YouTube, Facebook, and all their kin. Steve Greenberg has written, "You are not Facebook's customer. You are the product they sell to their real customers –advertisers. Forget that at your peril." This is the simple commercial point all the "free" capabilities. When Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc. control educational and cultural spaces, advertising is the point. Facebook's long-standing and fundamentally deceptive bait-and-switch privacy policies are a running case in point. GoogleAnalytics tracks searches, retrievals, and every click. Is this desirable in a cultural space such as an academic library?
The implications for privacy, for academic freedom, and for creative re-use of cultural "properties" (rather than "resources") are very serious. Lam and Groom note, ". . . We can expect the values associated with educators and the public interest to be of secondary importance at best. Proprietary needs will prevail, even if we can trust that these companies set ouf to 'do no evil.'"
(As a reader of Reinhold Niebuhr, I have to add "Don't be evil" as a corporate slogan is reflects a very shallow, California-lite superficiality that either intentionally hypocritical or incredibly stupid. Of course corporate entities sometimes do evil: see Moral Man and Immoral Society or The Nature and Destiny of Man. Evil is unavoidable; the question is how to plan for it and limit its effects. Google's slogan reflects exactly who they are: technologically incredibly sophisticated but philosophical and moral dwarves.)
This is not simply an anti-corporate screed. Obviously corporations exist to make money, and will do what is necessary. Obviously, libraries buy or lease many corporate products. But why should libraries advertise corporate products to their users? Already Wolters-Kluwer's OvidSP defaults to search all journals@Ovid –and offers pay-per-view to those articles not covered by a library's database contract. Is this advertising or for the convenience of the user?
The question here is whether libraries see our users as aggregatations of data useful for advertisers. Libraries do not have user aggregations: we serve students, faculty, and staff. We are necessarily and properly non-commercial in a culture where commerce rules all, and in that sense we unavoidably counter-cultural. In Lam and Groom's phrase, we provide a green space for public-minded, convivial exchange online and on-ground. We serve people first,and corporate interests second. (–no wonder libraries are both incredibly expensive and often poorly funded!)