Higher Education

distributed vs. centralized incompetence

Here’s the basic thing. Humans are in/competent. I mean: it’s all relative, right? As I (cynically) tell my students, in terms of being “digitally literate:” you don’t have to outrun the bear; you just have to outrun your friends.

Let me be more specific. At my uni (and I imagine most others), the IT folks do their best to lock down every computer the university owns. That means the person who uses the computer can’t update it, download/install software, or change many of the settings. For example, as my colleague experienced today, she was trying to test a part of her website. She only has Safari on her Mac but she can’t install Chrome or Firefox without someone from IT showing up with a password. That would be fine if someone would show up in 30 minutes maybe. But they won’t show up for 30 weeks, if ever.

That’s centralized incompetence. Sure the IT people know what they are doing from the perspective of having the technical knowledge to make sure the network is secure and what not. But they are not able to respond to the many demands of daily digital life. How could they? I can barely keep up with the demands for my own friggin’ devices!

A similar theme plays out with university messaging. If your college/corporation is like mine, it’s branded to the hilt. The brand may be perceived as a running joke but “we” paid a lot for it, so whatever. If you want a website or a poster or really anything institutional that has a message on it, it’s supposed to go through some centralized process. Maybe those people know what they’re doing (I guess). I mean they’re not horrible. The overall branding concept doesn’t inspire confidence but those folks probably weren’t anymore responsible for that than the rest of us. Nevertheless, like the IT folks, they are not capable of being a filter for all the communication requirements of university life.

The alternative, of course, is decentralized incompetence. Faculty and staff having admin privileges over their own work computers (gasp!). Lord knows what happens after that. Departments, centers, offices, etc. sending out their own messages designed however they see fit resulting in a chaotic mishmash.

Either way you get in/competence.

But this is where a principle like distributed cognition should help us understand how to do better. The networked association of human and nonhuman actors should expand rather than constrict our capacities.

  • Can we create networks of IT support that allow users to do their jobs in a timely manner while also increasing their ability to limit security risks?
  • Can we create networks that empower employees as effective communicators rather than gagging them?

I honestly don’t think these are difficult tasks. Not that anything is perfect but we should be able to network in a way that increases rather than limits the overall competency of the institution. It just doesn’t even seem like that goal is recognized.

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