Recognizing the scope of this transformation has been — and continues to be — a difficult cognitive task for those of us primed to recognize the liberatory potential of the internet and its model of collaborative, peer-to-peer networking. But the outcome is no longer in doubt. Overwhelming evidence has shown that the primary purpose of the technological platforms currently dominating the digital world is to gain access to our personal data in order to sell it to advertisers. The worst thing about the machine-generated algorithms that fuel these platforms is not that they are arbitrary, or skewed, but that they are explicitly designed to keep us addicted. And it turns out that what most addicts us (or what Big Tech has decided most addicts us) is not that which is true or endearing or insightful. It’s what is most outrageous — both in the etymological sense of “excessive” and in the literal sense of producing and sustaining outrage. As Zuboff put it in a 2021
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Recognizing the scope of this transformation has been — and continues to be — a difficult cognitive task for those of us primed to recognize the liberatory potential of the internet and its model of collaborative, peer-to-peer networking. But the outcome is no longer in doubt. Overwhelming evidence has shown that the primary purpose of the technological platforms currently dominating the digital world is to gain access to our personal data in order to sell it to advertisers. The worst thing about the machine-generated algorithms that fuel these platforms is not that they are arbitrary, or skewed, but that they are explicitly designed to keep us addicted. And it turns out that what most addicts us (or what Big Tech has decided most addicts us) is not that which is true or endearing or insightful. It’s what is most outrageous — both in the etymological sense of “excessive” and in the literal sense of producing and sustaining outrage. As Zuboff put it in a 2021 interview with Time: “Algorithms are engineered to amplify the most extreme, angry, toxic content, drawing people in to maximize data extraction.”
Although academics have been at the forefront of diagnosing the ills of our platform-dominated digital economy, they have had comparatively little to say about how platforms have affected academe itself. Of course, there have been spirited debates about the role of the digital in higher education, from the relative merits of online learning to the validity of machine-based research methods associated with the rise of Big Data. And a growing number of empirical studies, mostly in the sciences, have assessed the impact of disseminating research through social media. Yet humanities scholars have still not engaged in a real discussion of how technology platforms are changing the material and social conditions of our work. Most academics would readily admit that the locus of scholarly authority has gradually begun to shift from the university and its traditional venues of inquiry (journals, academic presses, conferences, etc.) toward the digital realm. What, though, are the consequences of this shift? What is our future in the platform economy?
One obvious reason our attention has been diverted is that the humanities are experiencing their own existential crisis. The contours of that crisis — adjunctification, a cratering job market, assaults on the status of tenure — do not need rehearsing here. But it’s important to keep in mind that the generation that came of age in the post-2008 academic-job market is also the generation most likely to actively post on social media. A cynic might think that the millennial-led community of academic Twitter has been so busy criticizing the academy that it forgot to criticize Twitter. A more generous take would be that early-career scholars have never known anything but emergency mode, and that social media provides an outlet for intellectual expression that precariously employed academics simply cannot find in their own colleges.
My own experience as a recently tenured “geriatric” millennial suggests slightly more complicated circumstances for those of us fortunate enough to have landed a tenure-track position. Given the state of hiring in my field of American literature, where tenure-track job advertisements plummeted from the already-low number of 123 in 2010 to 29 in 2018, it seems preposterous to speak of a “professional” community in the traditional sense. This has become even more true since the pandemic began. Not only have most colleges and universities imposed hiring freezes or slowdowns that are likely to persist into the post-pandemic period, but conferences, the primary venue for in-person professional exchange, have been canceled, postponed, or reluctantly reconfigured as virtual gatherings. Indeed, while my teaching at Rutgers — whether online or in person — has remained an interactive endeavor, my professional life beyond the institution no longer seems to have any connective tissue.
In the absence of that connection, I’ve found that I increasingly envision the readers of my academic work as my intellectual “community” on Facebook — my preferred social-media platform — even though I do not post on a regular basis. The work that I share on Facebook feels more visible, and it probably is. Numerous studies have shown that, on average, scholarship shared on social media receives more citations than does scholarship that is not. But I am acutely aware of the loss that motivates this shift. Judging from conversations with colleagues and friends, they are aware of it too.
Yet as Jeffrey Williams and Feisal Mohamed have recently argued in The Chronicle, the very notion of the “public” in public humanities rests on an ambiguity. For scholarship to be public can mean that it is produced for the public good. But it can also imply that it is written for the purpose of being marketed to the public consumer — it’s not for nothing that “public” is the first word in the business abbreviation “PR.” As Williams notes, it has become hard to disentangle the institutional emphasis on public writing from the kind of self-promotion that all academics must now routinely perform and that social media is particularly good at facilitating. Academic friends who have exited social media have spoken to me of a lessening of anxiety, but also a pervasive sense that they are missing out on key information and opportunities.
A system that permits a few scholarly influencers to thrive won’t be much different from the prestige-based, scarcity-driven one we currently possess.
There is an even more vexing question here. As the academic-job crisis continues without any signs of abatement, and as academic institutions endorse the notion of public scholarship in ever greater numbers, is there an institution other than the university capable of sustaining a decent number of public scholars? The point should be obvious, but it nevertheless bears repeating: Ph.D.s who do not follow a traditional academic path must be directed toward some career, which is to say a viable career that can materially support them.
During the past five years, I have served as research director of a public-humanities project in western Massachusetts not affiliated with a college, and one of the many lessons I’ve learned is how difficult it is to support even a single full-time employee, regardless of how doggedly (and successfully) one pursues funding from private donors and competitive grants. For all their problems, universities possess a vast employment infrastructure that dwarfs that of any potential alternative for intellectual work, including think tanks, foundations, and newspapers and magazines. Grass-roots public-humanities initiatives may provide gainful employment to a few Ph.D.s, but they are at best a small part of a potential solution to the humanities crisis.
Digital platforms, by contrast, have proved singularly adept at creating just such material infrastructures. Influencer culture — in which “ordinary” people with large social-media followings incorporate company products into their daily posts — has become a multibillion-dollar industry. The entire field of journalism, once tied to brick-and-mortar institutions, has been radically “disrupted” by Big Tech and the rise of social media. As Caitlin Petre has recently documented, the metrics-driven assault on traditional media outlets over the past 10 years has led to a vast shift in “institutional gatekeeping power from news organizations toward technology platforms.” As all but the biggest legacy newspapers have been forced to close shop or drastically downsize, digital alternatives such as Substack — a subscription-based platform backed by some of Silicon Valley’s largest venture-capital firms — have increasingly filled the void.
Does a similar fate await us in academe? It would be hyperbolic to propose that universities are at the same risk of digital disruption as traditional news organizations. But there is evidence to suggest that the biggest players in the platform economy are actively courting academic scholars. A 2021 New York Times article mentioned several prominent professors who had signed deals with Substack, including the Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson and the Berkeley English professor Grace Lavery, who received a $125,000 advance for her subscription newsletter. It seems likely that at least a few well-known professors with large social-media followings will fully make the jump from academe to digital platforms in the next few years — if this hasn’t happened already.
There is nothing wrong with individuals’ making that leap. But we would be naïve to think that a system that permits a few scholarly influencers to thrive will be much different from the prestige-based, scarcity-driven higher-education system we currently possess. Indeed, if journalism’s decades-long experiment with “digital revolution” is any indicator, that system will be far worse.
Young scholars are right to be mad as hell that there are few reasonable job prospects for them in the 21st-century university. And it goes without saying that higher education remains exclusionary in many ways. But as Noble and others have shown, digital platforms not only reproduce the racial and gender biases of society at large; they often refuse to modify the algorithms that promote such biases if they believe that doing so will substantially detract from their bottom line. The fantasy that we can leave behind the problems of the academy by “leaving academe” is just that: a fantasy. Moreover, it’s a fantasy that comports with Big Tech’s own misleading fiction that digital platforms are inherently democratic and that the industries they “disrupt” are irredeemably flawed. The pain that graduate students and recent Ph.D.s express on these platforms is real. But we need to think far more critically about the corporate co-optation of such discourse, whether it takes the form of “quit lit” pieces on Slate and Vox or meme-ified campus caricatures on Netflix.
So how can academics confront the rise of platforms like Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Facebook? Most media scholars have argued that regulation alone will not impede or reverse the corporate dominance of cyberspace, given that the largest digital platforms routinely find ways to circumvent legislative measures even before those measures are enacted. Scholars like Zuboff and Noble advocate for public alternatives to commercial platforms, perhaps even a postcapitalist alternative that would, as Srnicek puts it, “make use of the data collected by these platforms in order to distribute resources, enable democratic participation, and generate further economic development.” Any efforts on the digital front must directly confront the profiteering logic that dominates the platform economy.
That doesn’t imply, however, that we should forsake the university as a site of political struggle. In his study of journalism over the past hundred years, Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, Victor Pickard argues that a primary reason “toxic commercialism” has become so rampant in the profession is that the United States has declined to invest in public-media infrastructure. Pickard estimates that the U.S. government spends $1.40 per capita on public broadcasting, a fraction of what is spent by other industrialized nations. Of course, the neoliberal governance model that has dominated U.S. policy making since the early 1980s has also sharply cut funding to public institutions of higher education. But we might surmise that one factor that has prevented academe from undergoing the same wholesale transformation as journalism is its public infrastructure — which is to say, the buildings of some 1,600 colleges and universities and the students, staff, and faculty who inhabit them. Once we lose that infrastructure, we will not get it back.
Toxic commercialism has infected every aspect of 21st-century American life, including the academy. But it’s hard to imagine we’ll be more successful combating it in digital fiefdoms than on campuses, where we retain a degree of collective agency and — for those of us at state institutions — a public mandate. We abandon the academy at our own peril.