Speaking to/through the Operating System: The Personal Computer as a Foucaultian Control Mechanism

  1. In her 1999 article "Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention", Cynthia Selfe laments the ways that teachers and scholars use computers for pragmatic, uncritical ends:

    [W]e manage to have the best of both worlds--we have computers available to use for our own studies, in support of our classes and our profession--but we have also relegated these technologies into the background of our professional lives. As a result, computers are rapidly becoming invisible, which is how we like our technology to be. When we don't have to pay attention to machines, we remain free to focus on the theory and practice of language, the stuff of real intellectual and social concern. (413)

    I see much of myself in this passage: as I type these words in a word-processing program called "Word," I too see my computer and its windowed panes of text, graphics, icons, and menus as part of my home environment. Human-computer interaction has become as invisible as human-pencil interaction was in times past, but as Dennis Baron points out, the pencil, the telephone, and the computer have all encountered resistance as technologies of literacy: the first was primarily used "for marking off measurements but not for writing" (76) and the second "was initially received as an interesting but impractical device for communicating across distance" (77). Just as both became ubiquitous, unquestioned facilitators of discourse, our technocratic culture has also naturalized computers so much that seeing them in any critical way can be difficult.
  2. However, as a Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric who has also filled professional roles in the field of computer science as a technical writer, trainer, and network administrator, I am in a position to see computers as much more than thinking machines. I can use my computer background to ask, How can I pay attention to the operating system-as-operating system in ways that students and teachers of literacy studies would appreciate? If I choose to pay attention, will I see the computer as a Foucaultian mechanism of social control? Did the computer shape my literacy in ways that undermined the possibilities of Freirean liberatory problem posing? As a critical educator who continually asks students to interrogate representations of knowledge-making in the media and our schools, I cannot blithely accept the "you got mail!" ads that tout the computer as nothing more than a transparent medium of information exchange. Aristotelian computers-are-the-dress-of-thought approaches are untenable considering the insidious ways that technology alters and morphs our "reading" and "writing" of the world.
  3. As an exercise in "critical technological literacy" (Selfe 148), I wish to show how the knowledge-forming and knowledge-controlling mechanisms of the personal computer's most basic functions--the operating system and two of its most popular applications, e-mail and the Internet--are relevant to "the theory and practice of language, the stuff of real intellectual and social concern." My re-vision of the personal computer reflects upon the interfaces and programs that have shaped my writing and thinking. I ask, how do standard programs (such as Microsoft Word, Outlook Express, and Internet Explorer) restrict my writing, thinking, and even my feelings about the world and the people in it? Do today's computers constrain my literacy practices in ways that the first computers I used in the 1980's did not? In the final analysis, whose computer (and e-mail and web) is it anyway?
  4. How I Learned to Use Computers

  5. Before I begin to inspect the technology I use today, I will do the same in regard to my first computing experiences. To be sure, my exposure to computers gradually disturbed the cognitive prejudices I held about what it is to read and write and the literacy practices I had taken for granted. I am now thirty-six years old and came to know the world of computers in an academic rather than home, business, or public setting. I remember the milestones in the development of my own computer literacy: the first dealt with developing a basic understanding of what computers can do; the next with learning how programming languages acted like and unlike the writing found in essays, letters, or poems; and the last with comprehending the hypertextual organization of database and Internet resources.
  6. The eighties brought computers out of the university laboratories and into the mainstream, but that didn't mean everybody had one. I would show up at the door to the computer lab at Northeast High School at 7 AM on the coldest winter day to type dozens of lines of BASIC code into one of three Apple IIe's the school had purchased. I had begun by watching others and then had acquired the necessary software from friends. After a short time, I wanted to create my own programs and save my work (there were no hard disks in personal computers back then), so I bought a single 5 1/4 inch floppy disk from a local electronics store for a few dollars (a 3 1/2 inch floppy with twice the storage capacity costs about 34 cents today). It was then that I learned that the cost of technology is high, and access to it can be difficult. As Selfe would later report in Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention, research reveals that school computer purchases and deployment in the 1980's reinforced patterns of discrimination between rich and poor, white and nonwhite, and boys and girls (65-66). In addition to the biases reflected in the distribution of technology, the amount and kind of technology found in schools is disproportionate to the importance of technology in children's lives. While both the presence and power of computers in educational settings has grown significantly since the 1980's, schools have yet to catch up with the technological lifestyles of today's students:

    Youth are wired. They daily use all manner of electronic media at home and in their neighborhoods. Students who do not have computers at home encounter them at friends' houses, in stores, libraries, video parlors, and on kiosks in public spaces. In contrast, digital tools are uncommon and precious in the average classroom. Their special status or relative absence in the classroom is oddly out of step and painfully in the way when students attempt to accomplish classroom tasks. (Tyner 70)

    I could vouch for the need for more computers back in 1984; I can only imagine how a shortage would harm students in today's educational institutions. One unforeseen consequence of inadequate funding for technology is the use of students as an unpaid labor pool of technology experts. One study reveals how "because we were beginning users ourselves and had no in-house technician to call on when questions about the hardware or software arose, we often relied on students who were more computer-literate than we to solve those problems. They became the experts, instead of the teacher" (Graves and Haller 146). Although the students may have gained customer service experience on these occasions, for the researcher to call this a "student-centered, collaborative approach to teaching" (146) seems euphemistic.
  7. The distribution of technologically-produced "texts" has also changed. My experiences on those mornings reaching behind the computer to flip on the power switch were some of the most exciting of my young life, and testify to the power of the written (or typed) word in any medium. When I turned on the monitor and saw the block cursor blinking, I knew it was waiting for an instruction from me. I controlled the conversation as a student, constructing knowledge long before I'd heard of Freire, Giroux, or Shor; in turn, the computer played the devil's advocate, the Foucaultian grasp of the BASIC designers subtly limiting what programs I could write and how. Many such programs were circulated in a discourse community of hobbyists who approached computer literacy in a no-nonsense way. Many of its members would give me a program to get started or trade amongst themselves to build up a curious library of games, tools, and text editors. The vocabulary and assumed cultural knowledge of our conversations made references to "peeks" and "pokes," RAM and ROM a daily occurrence. Today, such communities still exist in a variety of mostly online forums; one can download and try programs over the Internet without paying a cent, and get free programming advice and code samples from a multitude of sources. On the other hand, I can also pay hundreds of dollars for the latest, greatest productivity software, and usually pay about $50 for a decent game. The economics of the computer industry has created a cycle of increasing memory, processor power, and hard drive size that has enabled software manufacturers to make larger, more powerful programs which, in turn, have justified the production of faster processors and larger hard drives, and so on. The simple acts of kindness and camaraderie that permeated the discourse communities of early personal computing and encouraged the dissemination of information and computer "texts" of all sorts--printed or digital--are not entirely a thing of the past. But even the Internet sites that encourage consumers to download shareware programs are advertising-driven businesses, and once the trial period of a program has expired one must pay the author or stop using the program. Big business has largely taken control of the computing/literacy situation on personal, social, and economic levels. As a result, the give-and-take of individual literacy practices has lost influence, and such innocent exchanges have fallen into a Foucaultian web of power.
  8. Compared to my relationships with fellow programmers, my first programming experiences were more mechanical than social from a literacy standpoint. If I couldn't get a game from my friends, I had to make one using program code from computer magazines. Although I was typing the code, I knew I wasn't writing in the traditional sense: I was not creating an original text but only transcribing the text of another. I felt like I was typing out "Mont Blanc" by Shelley for no apparent reason, but the uneven lines were numbered, spelled in all caps, and spoke to the computer in ways no poet could. When I took a programming course, however, the line between self and other, my work and the discursive reasoning of another person's programming conventions, became blurred. Once the teacher had explained the use of various instructions, such as the PRINT command or the FORNEXT loop, I could use them in my own way to solve a programming problem. My teacher considered my work to be original, grading it based almost entirely on whether my code solved the problem and printed the output correctly, but in retrospect I interpret my computer coding as a purely functional literacy, constrained by the syntax and data types of the programming language. The set of possible combinations of commands that would both calculate and communicate the correct solution was severely limited. In contrast, this essay draws upon a mind-boggling set of permutations: the English language's available syntactical structures and vocabulary make the possible "solutions" to a problem such as "write a publishable essay about computers and literacy" nearly infinite. Another key difference was the performative nature of the programs I wrote: they either worked or they didn't. If they didn't, the computer may have provided an error message to help me correct the problem, or it may not have. The culpability of the programmer was the most important aspect of this literacy situation. If my program didn't work, I was blamed, not the discourse. I had the worst of both worlds: ultimate responsibility for my writing without the corresponding power to change the discourse that shaped it. This is a lesson I still cherish: dealing with human or computer "minds" that only understand the binary possibilities of on and off, yes and no, and right and wrong is a poor way to develop higher order writing or thinking abilities. To this day, in an effort to avoid the habits of a petty bureaucrat or opportunistic politician, I strive to express my ideas and consider my options in sets of three rather than stopping at two (or one). To do less is to answer the computer's (and, by extension, the software manufacturer's) court summons: Do you wish to click OK and accept responsibility for any resulting data loss or program failure, or do you wish to click Cancel and just sit there not knowing what to do next?
  9. Reading hypertextual information was as perplexing as writing code. About thirteen years ago I worked in a business that used "dumb terminals" connected to a UNIX server, and it took me some time to adjust my notion of a page in a book to a "page" on a digital screen. The "page up" key rewrote the data on the static screen with data from a previous virtual "page"; the "page down" key did the same with data from a subsequent "page." The program designer who had linked the pages through computer code was analogous to the author and arranger of the text, and I was its reader. The disconnect between the pages in a book--in which form and content were joined and necessary--and the pages of virtual text--in which form and content were separated and contingent--required a leap of cognitive vision on my part. I had to make a further cognitive leap a few years later when I finally discovered the Internet through another place of work. By this time, graphical interfaces that were unheard of in my high school days glowed on monitors in more shades of color than the human eye could discern. The awkward commands I had fed into the monochrome monitor of my school's Apple IIe to produce a tinny note or rudimentary circle were pitiful compared to the scripting that allowed web sites to gush with full-color pictures and stereo sound. I was wired. Raw production had become cultured consumption. I became aware of the unknown authors who held subtle sway over my online reading habits, placing key advertisements here and less relevant links there; yet, for a time, I remained unaware of the company network administrator who tracked my movements, printing out a report of my travels through cyberspace.
  10. Whose Operating System/E-mail/Web Is It?

  11. So, having progressed from blissful ignorance to exciting discovery and through frustrating complexity to blissful knowledge, I've become so accustomed to the pleasing colors and pictures on my computer that I couldn't imagine living without them. Far from being one to call Microsoft "evil," I have embraced the technology that the company has offered and can come to its defense. I can point out, for example, details that most consumers miss: that Microsoft includes "accessibility options" for the disabled in the Windows XP operating system. Services for the deaf include the ability to show textual or visual cues in place of sounds; the visually impaired can have the computer read text to them or increase the contrast of text and colors; and the keyboard's functions and sensitivity can be modified for people with special dexterity needs. In this sense, the computer (and e-mail and web) is "everyone's" more than ever before. However, I can still see how, from a critical literacy standpoint, the operating system reinscribes received opinions about the nature of handicaps by referring to devices that work (or can work) as "enabled" and ones that don't (or can't) as "disabled." In addition, the practices of symbolic manipulation, communication, and transformation that the operating system makes possible are subject to a multitude of constraints that hem in the "end user." I know enough about programming to understand that a certain amount of constraint is necessary for an operating system or program to work: one cannot let the consumer do everything that they might wish and ensure a stable computing experience. Yet I must ask, Whose operating system/e-mail/web is it? What can I change? How much can change? Who decides what I can change? For what reasons were those decisions made?
  12. Just like any Windows user, I can make superficial changes to the appearance of my desktop and several other settings through Control Panel, yet there will always be settings and behaviors that I won't be able to modify, such as the shutdown procedure. The Windows designers and programmers-as the manufacturers and propagators of Windows technology-have decided which freedoms are efficient and beneficial. We can only perform certain operations to tailor the computing experience to our own tastes and work requirements; constraints and prohibitions are placed on all other operations. However, the "end users" do have a small voice in the development process: they can participate in what is known as "beta-testing," trying out the newest products and giving their feedback. The Microsoft website also allows consumers to ask for additional features in future product releases. Nevertheless, the freedom to speak up may also be a constraint in the form of cheap labor: is Microsoft getting free marketing advice from consumers in the same way that some school teachers get free technical advice from students? Do such initiatives only give the illusion of the tail wagging the dog? Has the computer become a mechanism of social control yet again?
  13. Ira Shor's enactment of problem posing offers some insight into these questions, especially if we wish to consider the impact of a Windows-type operating system on students, teachers, and consumers (and permutations of all three). He describes his non-prescriptive pedagogical model as a repeated series of processes, including asking questions, class discussion, writing, editing sessions, peer review, reading, more writing, taking action, reflection, and asking more questions (237-253). Most if not all of these processes are enacted in a typical Windows session: I can check my e-mail, add a message to a political forum, or read an online editorial, all the while participating in an intertextuality that blurs the line between self and other much like my programming experiences once did. However, every writing situation I encounter on the Internet has the potential (and even the tendency) to reinforce the mechanisms of coercion that web site administrators invisibly deploy. The message board I recently set up for my composition class is a case in point: when I log on as the administrator, I can tell which of my students are online, which forums they are browsing, if and when they post a message, and delete any message I judge to be inappropriate; all the while, they have no idea that I am watching them. I have become the Internet cop I once feared.
  14. We must continue to look into the roles we play through our computers each day. Due to the computer's immense power to connect to the end user (and end users to each other), the computer often puts the developers and programmers in a teaching role and the end user in a student role: the average user of a PC will never know, or want to know, all of its functions and capabilities. There will always be an excess of computerness that will never be fulfilled by the consumer-student; the collective intellectual and economic power of the software development team has put more into the product than can be effectively used. The consumer has little say about how operating systems and programs are developed, yet the possibilities for creative output and community interaction that such products make possible can be seen as a liberatory pedagogical process, at least in a limited fashion. Computers prompt people of all ages, races, nationalities, genders, ability statuses, incomes, sexual orientations, and values to engage in the Internet's revised literacy practices and ask more questions in the process. In this way, the computer dismantles the teacher-student power relation, making teachers out of students and vice versa. Such leveling can lead to constructive dialogue and incremental social change.
  15. On the other hand, Todd Taylor's Foucaultian analysis of the computerized composition classroom warns us of the panoptic potential of human-technology interfaces. As he notes, Internet firewalls "are designed to confine students to areas of safe and tractable electronic discourse" (112). While school administrators may emphasize how firewalls make web surfing safe for students, they may fail to reveal its use in the surveillance of students: "Firewalls have the ability to monitor all transactions coming in from and going out to the Internet, and, as Foucault might have predicted, they achieve this surveillance without being readily detected" (114). Moreover, "all that is really required is the mere rumor that these types of firewalls exist" to ensure "willful conformity" to the rules (114, emphasis in original). In this way, students (myself included) are reminded that the computers they use in a commons area or a library are not theirs, and that information they consider private may be made public.
  16. Taylor's example should also remind us of the danger from hackers: firewalls act "as security devices to protect institutional and corporate systems from outside saboteurs" (114). A networked computers can be seen and invaded by anyone who knows (or comes to find) its IP address, a numerical entity that both names and locates a particular computer on the Internet. Unscrupulous surfers could launch a denial of service attack, and both teacher and student would be at a loss to know why the Internet was "down." Hackers not only interrupt and eavesdrop on Internet conversations, they can steal or destroy my sensitive information, taking control of the data and machine that was only temporarily mine. Both the surveillance of administrators and the destruction caused by hackers seem to come from nowhere in our decentered computing world. Considering the threats to literacy education from both within and without the school, a moral or pragmatic impulse to protect adult students from the evils of particular web sites seems misguided.
  17. Such concerns are especially relevant for web surfers who use Microsoft products. Widespread hatred for Microsoft has led many hackers to find vulnerabilities in Outlook Express and Internet Explorer. Microsoft provides "patches" to fix these holes, yet the delivery mechanism for installing them has changed. Unlike past versions of Windows, XP automatically prompts the end user to install the patches instead of requiring a trip to the Microsoft website. I like the convenience of this feature, but it once again reminds me of a summons: do you wish to install this patch or not? Even with my computer expertise, I don't know exactly what this installation program will do to my PC, yet I click "Install" anyway out of habit. I do know that the web sites I visit save "cookies" on my hard drive to track my surfing patterns and retain the information I commonly type into web-based order forms. Ironically, it's almost impossible to escape the panoptic eye of web sites or software companies without installing more software. While the web site administrators and software developers may consider these intrusions to be "polite chats," I feel summoned and bullied into a panoptic "willful conformity" (114) in the name of efficiency and commerce.
  18. Don't Think Like A Computer

  19. Does anyone really "own" the Internet? The question "Whose web is it anyway?"--mine or yours, ours or theirs--neglects the distributed nature of the web's power. Taylor's gloss of Foucault seems to describe the situation confronted by Internet users every day: "According to Foucault, a microphysics of panoptic control can be defined as a complex, widespread system of forces and impulses that function on the small scale of day-to-day human interaction, maintaining control by injecting measures of surveillance and willful conformity into the transactions between bodies on the smallest scale" (113). Yet are web surfers (and PC users in general) really without personal agency? While no one owns the Internet, everyone has a stake in its survival, maintenance, and growth, and as "readers" of its discursive forces, Internet users inform themselves of its perils as they go along. The Internet may be more of a culture than a technology, and like a culture, it offers its citizens the freedom of open doors even as it subjects them to the constraints imposed by onlookers from the street: the world is one step away, but the world is watching. Ultimately, both Freire's emancipatory pedagogy and Foucaultian warnings about surveillance and coercion only partially explain the complex interaction between computers and humans. We must dismantle the liberation/oppression and freedom/constraint binaries that this technology invites us to construct and dare to open the door to the complicated roles computer discourse asks us to play: at different times, we are all students, teachers, and consumers of this technology. It is probably true that "we will continue to fail to invent truly student-centered classrooms because authority does not have a center" (Taylor 118). Yet as English teachers we should strive to comprehend what it means to read, write, and act in a decentered world by continuing to apply critical technological literacy to the "invisible" computers Selfe describes in her article--lest we begin to think in ones and zeros, and teach our students to do the same.