Our union is at a critical juncture. The next year will be a pivotal moment in the TAA’s history. We have fought hard over the course of the last year against the attacks on our rights to have a voice in determining our working conditions and higher education funding in this state. Our union is still strong, but the fight is far from over. We need to get Scott Walker out of office this June and work to rebuild what the right-wing has dismantled in the past 16 months.
The university works because we do. We are the voice for graduate student employees and for all graduate students who desire tuition-remitting employment. As graduate assistants, we teach almost half of all the lectures, discussions and labs combined on campus and are integral to the university surpassing the $1 billion mark in research expenditures for the first time in 2010 (data from the UW-Madison Data Digest 2010-2011).
The fight back against cuts to higher education. At the same time that UW-Madison is ranked 27th among universities globally, in the past year we have seen unprecedented cuts to funding for the university’s basic educational mission. Within this context, we need to do a better job at articulating why we are better off advocating together for fair working conditions and draw connections to undergraduate learning.
Around New Year I visited WORT-FM 89.9 FM Community Radio with a friend who was back in town for the holidays and is a former local news “In Our Backyard” host. Sitting in the on-air studio I was struck by how the station was using the same basic technologies (e.g. mini-discs and Sound Forge audio editing software) that I had used at the station eight years ago. Shortly thereafter I heard an on-air announcement looking for volunteers to join its long-range planning “WORT 2020″ process. As a listener, former staff member and sometimes volunteer, I decided to bring my perspective as a communications scholar to the table.
First on my mind was how my personal media consumption habits have changed drastically since I first got involved with WORT while I was an undergrad at UW-Madison, and that’s an understatement. I am not alone.
Our behavior is predictable. We leave digital traces throughout the course of our daily (mediated) lives. So accepting the premise that human behavior is not random, the next set of questions is to understand what laws govern our actions. As Albert-László Barabási explores in Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do (2010), human behavior is governed by natural laws and through studying artifacts of digitality we “come to see the rhythms of life as evidence of a deeper order in human behavior” (p. 11).
Featured in Bursts, the case of art professor Hasan Elahi is old news by now but still worth revisiting given on-going debates over privacy and ownership of the data we share about ourselves daily (Facebook being the current headline maker). Following 9/11 he was tracked by the FBI and in an act of creative resistance he made his whereabouts freely available via the Internet. He raises questions of who owns our data? What gives it value? If we share “everything” does it become meaningless in the vast quantity of data?
We can learn from Elahi about how to find humor and art in the uncontrollable. My favorite excerpt is, when asked during a FBI polygraph if he belongs to any groups that want to harm the United States, he replies “I work in a university.”
Barabási raises the ethical issue of the role of research in understanding new information technologies, writing “Technology has outstripped our ability to use it responsibly, and I could not ignore the possibility that the fruits of our research would soon become part of some malicious Vast Machine-like enterprise” (p. 221). Do we take Elahi’s approach under the premise that information loses its value once it is freely available. What then are we “sharing” and via what platform? To me the difference between making one’s life into art and using a commercial social networking platform. Sure we are more connected but at what cost? And, do we have a choice to opt-out? I believe increasingly that we do not.
Then as researchers we have an obligation to understand the place of digitality in our mediated lives.