Critic Conscience and the Red Pill

In his letter to the Times detailed here Stephen Toope speaks to a dysfunctional relationship between universities, students and society in general. One which is mirrored here in NZ. When we treat students as consumers and business as our only stakeholders, the goal becomes to provide sufficient value for money. With a persistent media focus on the “graduate premium” and the relative worth of a degree it is tempting to assume that this is really what it is all about. Thankfully, the education act 1989 demonstrates more foresight. It requires universities in New Zealand to “accept a role as critic and conscience of society”. Where social media busily constructs a virtual reality ultimately aimed at consumerism, it seems timely to re-visit what “critic and conscience” might mean right now.

In the past I’ve been quite outspoken about the risks associated with social media as it has been designed, talking in particular about how it creates virtual Skinner Boxes. These boxes are inhabited by human rats, learning what it takes to be “liked/shared” in an electronic world. Most recently, media conversation has revolved around mental health, bots and the profound ability to shift or polarise social debate with disturbing consequences*. But the point I want to come back to, is that social media, unlike day to day interaction, is constructed with consumerism in mind. The whole point of the social media box from a business perspective is to capture data and sell advertising. This is problematic in so far as users remain trapped in a consumer discourse for increasing amounts of time. Ordinary conversation doesn’t demand this, which can be both a good and bad thing. But the key focus for social media, is not just to get people liked, but also get products and services liked, regardless of their merit or value. Keeping eyeballs on screen and pushing through those likes, is a largely uncritical activity bereft of conscience. Creating communities built around mutual interests are mixed with those built for shared consumer preferences. It seems logical and convenient to sell bottled water to anti-fluoridation activists while selling homeopathy to anti-vaccination groups. No one cares what you think, only what you share and like. Structures that reinforce the role of people as consumers add to this problem.

Universities are mandated to drive the growth of knowledge, critical discourse and intellectual independence. This provides a valuable alternative to the siloed consumerism that underpins social media. Essential to the operation of universities are students willing to debate difficult topics, explore different ideas and make mistakes. A consumer focussed model of education would not support any of these things; Making mistakes is uncomfortable when set next to ticking off of learning credits. Discussing conflicting ideas that are not your own is threatening and emotional. But it seems, as in 1989 there is a need for these experiences. University education if suitably directed can provide a rich, safe environment for exploring new ideas and being critically exposed. The end result being people willing to ask questions of the things and ideas we are bidden to like on social media and elsewhere. Thus, it is timely that Toope and and student unions (in the UK at least), reject the pure consumer model, arguing that it reduces the value of universities to pure economics.  So, what of alternative values?  A starting point would seem to be not merely acting as critic and conscience but equipping modern graduates with tools that allow them to do the same. In this way universities are the red pill that is needed to challenge blue pill of virtual consumerism.

*These issues notwithstanding, it seems difficult to imagine #metoo without social media.

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