Life improved, ruined, by technology

Being the digital hoarder-type, I’ve managed to accumulate over 2GB of mail since, er, 1997. Much of it is trivial ephemera, but there are historically significant bits of ephemera too. Having a pretty poor memory, I’m not apt at keeping track of it all. Not to worry, you say. Delete it, and if it’s important, someone will have stuck it up online. This may well be the case. But that would mean that I could get online. And I can’t. The World Bank is to blame.

No really.

Here’s the short story, and here’s the photo-essay. Last year, the University of KwaZulu-Natal enrolled 43,000 students. This year, they enrolled 28,000. The University decided that it wasn’t going to let students in who weren’t paying their debts. This is an unfortunate decision, because there’s no way that students *can* pay their debts. Unemployment is sky-high, and there’s no market for students to exploit themselves like their counterparts in the global north. By the same token, parents, particularly working class parents, don’t have enough cash to send their kids to university, and certainly don’t have the requisite splodges of wonga to be able to bankroll the R20,000 or so per year tution and accomodation fees which the University seems to ask of its students. For comparison’s sake, R20,000 is is a fraction more than the average annual per capita GDP, an average figure which in turn, because of the rampant inequality in South Africa, masks the fact that most people earn considerably less than that.

Of course, students haven’t taken this lying down. They’ve taken it between the eyes. The Student’s Representative Committee, the body intended to represent student concerns to the faculty, is a den of ANC supporters with a hair-trigger response to institutional racism. The SRC have been quick to observe that the overwhelming majority of students excluded by this policy are, in fact, black. Trouble is that the people doing the excluding are, for the most part, black as well. The distinguishing feature is that the management is considerably richer than the students they’re kicking out. The SRC doesn’t have the analytical skill to deal with this awkward situation – to protest a policy of exclusion based on income would be to take the first of two steps, the second of which would demand protest against the government that instituted this policy in the first place. And the ANC hacks aren’t about to do that.

How to wriggle out of this? The management doesn’t want student dissent. The SRC doesn’t want to ‘get political’, but doesn’t want to let it seem as if they’re selling out their constituency, even if it turns out that this is exactly what they’re doing. So. Last week, after the protest against management, the SRC and management met for three hours. An email was sent round to students and staff saying that all was well, and that everyone could return to their offices. We weren’t actually told what the conclusion of the negotiations were for a couple of days. Long enough for a chunk of richer students to enroll away, and for poorer students to be told, ‘wait to the end of the week and all will be well’. The end of the week was Friday, and that was when thousands of students seem to have found out that they wouldn’t be attending University this year.

So, the SRC managed to defuse a troublesome week. And the management seems to have found a way not to blame the students for responding angrily to being excluded, but the introduction of scapegoats. Our vice-chancellor, Malegapuru William Makgoba, recently returned from a wedding and meetings in Washington DC made it clear on Friday that the protests last week were unacceptable, and has singled out ‘trouble-making staff’ who will come under disciplinary action. There were only three people who might fall under that category at the protest, standing to one side, talking to people. That’d be me, Richard Pithouse, and Fazel Khan. And, as far as I know, only Richard has received a nasty phone-call from the bosses. I look forward to mine with anticipation. Because Makgoba also made it clear that the University will be moving forward. And the World Bank will be helping the university with its problem with staff retention. I’ve little doubt they’ll be triumphant- the Bank’s policies have been deployed with great success to the problem of retaining too many students.

Okay, now that I’ve made you read about the protest – and there’s going to be a follow-up tomorrow at 1pm and likely a report on Indymedia later in the day – here’s the technology bit. Just as there’s a two-tier educational system, there’s an apartheid at work with the internet. There are, in fact, two internets, and a market for each. One which works fairly speedily, where you can do things like check your mail, go online and find emphemera, occasionally download an article and, if you’re lucky, print it. And then there’s the one that you get to use if your department decides that it can’t pay for the good stuff. And it’s bollocks. You can’t do a damn thing on with it. It turns your ordinarily functioning computer into the Wailing Wall, against which you rock in transports of agony, praying for divine intervention, stuffing email like notes in the cracks, strongly suspecting that they’ll be removed and thrown away at the end of the day unread, but hoping against hope that an intended recipient might get to see them. I don’t know of a department that can afford the premium service. In fact, many departments are cutting back on things like paper for graduate students (bring your own), books, pens, pencils, and other sundry items that, apparently, are too expensive for the Provinces’ premier educational institution.

Okay, this might not be the Bank’s own handiwork. Could just be an inspired bit of dual market pricing instituted by the wankers over in administration, over which the wretched and understaffed folk in our IT department have no control. But it smells like neoliberalism.

Either way. This rather alters the economics of information access. All of a sudden, eight years of email looks less like a pile of shit, and more like a database. With the Google desktop search engine, and a day for it to index everything, I now don’t need to be online to do research at all.

Course, there’s still the problem of sending email. But, well, I’m sure google will figure out how to forward outrageous bits of news from the Bush, Mbeki and Mugabe administrations (and sometimes, all three) and then I’ll never have to go online again.

Except, very intermittently, to blog.