Boone Georges short post on why he codes for CUNY talks about the thrills of building something useful, the WordPress/BuddyPress/MediaWiki matrix that is the Academic Commons — especially in contrast to the crappiness of Blackboard and the responsibility Georges feels to the student population he knows is using Blackboard [Bb] when they could be sharing on the Commons.
In describing the cost [in dollars as well as time due to information lock-in] that Bb tolls on the CUNY system, Georges says, “Blackboard is a parasite on public education, which is a public trust, maybe the most important equalizer a state can provide for its citizens.” And the first question I will motivate with is this: Is there a special responsibility to stewardship one has when employed by a public university? Are there more moral reasons not to waste NYC’s ostensibly working class’s money than the larger undergraduate student fees at NYU or Columbia?
I ask this because I believe the rhetoric of money-saving may not always be the most effective. If one is working at a private engagement, Georges suggests that rules regarding expenditure and waste apply differently than at a mission-driven organization like a nonprofit or school. We can argue, as Georges also does, that there are reasons of effectiveness, shared-input, collaboration, and ease of use that could just as easily drive the argument for using a Commons as opposed to proprietary system.
For Georges, these reasons also include the “vulnerable populations” who “are controlled through proprietary software. Examples abound: Facebook, Apple, Google.” That is, groups of people who are using software because they are what is first encountered, easiest, popular, have some kind of existing stronghold or sketchy shareholder payoff up the pipeline. I think of these digitally vulnerable populations as populations who have not, do not, can not, or will not learn to use softwares or platforms that are not immediately present to them. For an example, in a collective I organize with, I am gently trying to move away everyone from Google Docs. In a recent listserv conversation, I suggested that Google Docs was buggy and challenging to use on some, older [read MY] computers and was thus perhaps an issue of class and accessibility and maybe we as a collective should not use it. Someone replied with the suggestion that folks “just get google chrome because it makes google docs work.” Here is an example of the economic argument failing.
Now, envision my eye and fingers twitching as I tried to remain gentle and reply that actually folks should use whichever browser they already prefer — and that by the way I recommend Firefox with tracking/mining-killer add-ons TACO, AdBlock Plus, and Add-Art — because data mining and unclear amounts of data control means that G-docs is not really “free,” and that if Google decided to start charging us all tomorrow, how many organizations would be taken down and do we want ours to go with it!?!? And that is what I was really trying to say about GoogleDocs in the first place. Eye twitch.
This argument for vulnerability in the face of software paternalism is another one I prefer to an economic argument. Do you think that’s off the mark? Can you come up with a better argument, given our readings this week?