In common with over a third of the world’s population, I have spent the last week confined to my home after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced long-anticipated lockdown measures in which anyone who could work from home was ordered to do so. I say ‘long-anticipated’ but in reality I am talking about a matter of days, reflecting the unnerving temporality of this global crisis in which slow days confined to the house are combined with an accelerating unravelling which would have sounded like science fiction if described only a month earlier.
This crisis has escalated so quickly that it can be difficult to stand back and consider how this might relate to what preceded it. The political implications of this will be playing out for years, if not decades. It seems unarguable that we will confront a world transformed when lockdown measures are released at some uncertain point in the future. Against this backdrop, it might seem myopic to suggest we spend time reflecting on what is happening to scholarly practice under these conditions. However, I want to suggest there are changes underway which might be difficult to reverse once enacted, likely to shape the politics of higher education in matters such as working conditions, the funding landscape and the role of expertise in public life.
It was little more than a month ago that many of us were coming to the end of the University and College Union’s third week of strike action, driven by the ‘four fights’ of pay, workload, equality and casualisation. I am sure I was not alone in being so preoccupied by preparing for a final exhausting week on the picket lines that Covid-19 had barely penetrated my consciousness. It was only when the strike was approaching its end that the full significance of unfolding events began to dawn on me, underscored by the decision to suspend picketing on the final day.
Since then the face to face elements of the university system have shut down, with the overwhelming majority of staff shifting to working from home, carrying still uncertain consequences for teaching and examination. The sheer logistical challenge of executing this transition has been immense and driven by the necessity of keeping the basic functions of a university operating at a time when we can longer inhabit the face to face environment of the campus. While digital platforms have been a part of our working lives for some time, this sudden shift to working from home means that they are coming to be woven into the fabric of the university to an unprecedented degree.
In what follows I outline some of the questions which this poses for those working within universities, as well as how it relates to the febrile institutional context of the strike which now seems so long past. The issues we confront are simultaneously social and technical, necessitating a difficult balance between recognising the specificity of working with particular systems and retaining our focus on the broader conditions within which that work takes place.
In recent days we have seen ever more scrutiny of the privacy issues entailed by these services. The video conferencing service Zoom’s claims of ‘end-to-end encryption’ have been revealed as misleading, with the reality being that the company could access the content of meetings or hand them over to others. Increasing use is leading to more awareness of surveillance features like attention tracking which enables hosts to see if someone flicks away from the conference for more than 30 seconds while someone is sharing a screen. It provides administrators with detailed reporting of user activity using an organisation’s Zoom subscription encompassing the meetings which have been held, who participated in them and how long they lasted for. Furthermore, the rapid growth of ‘ZoomBombing’ in which publicly shared links to Zoom meetings are used by racist and sexist trolls to disrupt and harass has led the FBI to issue a warning.
Slack’s real time collaboration tools have become familiar to increasing numbers of us in the last few years and a recent redesign simplified the interface in anticipation of increasing numbers of users. However the fact its name stands for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge should give us pause for thought. The full extent of this only applies to corporate subscribers for whom it is possible to download the complete activity of their team, even if workplace owners need to apply in order to read private channels and direct messages. Microsoft Teams is what my own institution has rapidly rolled out in order to support home working and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about how it has helped the research cluster I work within preserve a sense of community as we make a difficult transition towards home working. However there are sophisticated oversight and analysis mechanisms built into the system which could have significant implications for the privacy and autonomy of academics.There are also third systems available for Teams which go much further than the functionality offered by Microsoft.
An obvious retort from a cynic would be that these issues have been with us for years in our use of workplace e-mail. However even if we’re intellectually aware of this, I suspect many people rarely think about the implications of this unless they are dealing with particular issues which are institutionally or legally sensitive. It should be stressed that there’s nothing inherently sinister about the capacity which these platforms have for monitoring if we accept that organisations have legal responsibilities and ethical duties concerning activity which takes place within their (virtual) walls.
This is compounded by the tendency for digitalised workplace to generate ever increasing volumes of communication, entailing a logistical challenge for oversight and compliance. It should also go without saying that these platforms are being embraced as a solution to the immediate problem which the Covid-19 crisis has created for universities. It’s not that university managers are eagerly waiting for their staff to adopt Teams so they can gain access to internal communication which was previously denied to them. It is crucial we are critical but we must avoid paranoia, to invoke a distinction offered by Sasha Rosneil.
The challenges of the platform university shouldn’t lead us to ignore the powerful ways in which we can use these technologies collaboratively and collegially, not only through this period of enforced lock down but in the university system which is going to emerge from it. An (accurate) awareness of the expanding capacity to surveil what we are doing as employees can too easily be expressed without any specificity about who is doing this, what their motivations are and what legitimacy the institution confers upon their actions.
The obvious necessity of finding some way of operating remotely means that being insufficiently specific risks locking us into (passive) critique while the machinery of the platform university is installed around us. Though, as Jana Bacevic has argued, critique without action is a trap which academics have long been prone to falling into. What matters is how we articulate our interests as workers within the university at a time when most people and most institutions are struggling to cope in the face of an unprecedented crisis. These platforms are going to be central to our working lives for the foreseeable future and we urgently need to find ways to work with them, as well as to identifying what their implications are for our work in the longer term.
In the short term it means finding ways to preserve corridor conversations, as Steve Watson puts it, outside the boundaries of organisationally mandated platforms. It means using them to support each other and sustain an intellectual community without being reliant on them or reducing our ambitions to the limits of their functionality. It means using their visibility to recognise the range of personal situations faced by those within the university and what this means for reasonable expectations about the work we are doing. It means using them to facilitate discussion about the novel risks which the turn to platforms is opening up, such as racist attacks on Zoom lectures, precarious staff being pressured to adapt teaching materials without remuneration or line managers failing to recognise their expectations have to be adapted under present circumstances.
It seems unlikely that we will see a return to the university as it previously was, if for no other reason than that the world itself will have radically changed when we find our way out of this crisis. It’s hard not to fear that the four fights which had led us to the picket lines only a month ago will have multiplied to leave us with us a whole range of conflicts to protect our vocation, our employment and our communities once the outlines of the post-Covid 19 environment become clearer. In fact for many of us the fights have already begun, from precarious staff at multiple universities being made redundant to securing the position of casual staff whose contracts are due to expire at a time of unprecedented insecurity.
It is certain that planning assumptions about student numbers, government funding and financial support will be upended by the present crisis and this means we need to retain a focus on what comes next as we muddle through our current challenges. Furthermore, once university managers discover that academics can work from home if required to do so, it is difficult to imagine how our working lives could return to their previous form. As Jamie Woodcock has pointed out, universities have been drifting in this direction for some time, involving “a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university” in which the university provides “access to institutional subscriptions, e-mail accounts, and other online resources, that do not require a worker to physically be present within the university itself”. For some this will be an intensification of what come before, while for others it might be a pronounced shock. It nonetheless seems certain that all our working conditions are going to change, leaving us with a fight on our hands to steer the nature of those changes. This is when the infrastructure we have come to rely on, with the potential it offers to operate collectively but also to be subject us to surveillance and control, will truly come to matter.
Mark Carrigan is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His research explores how we practically reason about digital platforms, with a particular focus on education systems and knowledge production. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, the second edition of which was published in October 2019.