Knowledge is Power, or Power is Knowledge

Our reading of and subsequent discussion on Big Data (2013) last week pushed me to think both publicly and privately, as our classes always do, and this time about power distribution. Shada especially, via her interests in copyright issues, made strong arguments about data and to whom it belongs, or should belong. To me, these concerns echo Francis Bacon’s now familiar claim that “knowledge is power,” and those words could not be any more frightening than they are today.

Alongside our concerns about data, who uses it, and how it is used surfaced the topic of “business ethics” and how the writers of Big Data oppose these to the villains that are governments and their ethics, or purportedly lack thereof. Generally, we agreed that large corporations more often than not run governments, and so we would all rather see our data in the figurative hands of our governments rather than in those of these corporations. The second wave, led by Sahar, I believe, counter-argued that governments are not the most trustworthy of institutions, either. I think therein lies the key word: institutions. Institutions and their use of power in the pursuit of knowledge or their use of knowledge in the pursuit of power. The question then becomes: where do we, the public, fit into this dynamic?

Ethics come back into play here; not “business ethics” but “institutional ethics” in general. On the opposite side sits the public, desperately trying to hold onto its vulnerable data. These are the two players in the power struggle, with knowledge at stake: institutional ethics and the public’s responsibility for its data.

Imagine a teeter-totter: if the institutional ethics and the public’s responsibility toward its own data are balanced, the stakes are equal for both sides. The less ethics are involved on the institution’s end, the more the public must be wary of the protection of its data, and it ends up “hung out to dry,” as they say. Unfortunately, this dynamic seems to be the trend today, and the reciprocal benefits of knowledge and power seem to be almost unstoppable from the perspective of the institutions. Fortunately, however, digitization of the world has also made communication among humanists, of all people, much easier. Through awareness as well as small and large scale battles, beginning with those taking place in our class, humanists might be able to be the big kids that lend a hand and balance out the teeter-totter.

Now, shifting from the public to the private: never forget that universities are also institutions and, as a result, have a particular interest in sitting opposite to you on the aforementioned teeter-totter. Our recent discussion in class with Professor Quamen with respect to what your actual goals are in writing a dissertation, as well as my own recent experiences in these matters, make me realize that these power struggles are much closer to home than we (or I, at least) would like.

Since our blog format allows me to do so, I will digress from the public sphere to my particular situation and talk about these power struggles and how they directly affect us. As some of you know, I have to fly back home to New Brunswick next week to defend my MA thesis. My MA is of a comparative nature, and the stipulations are, essentially, that my thesis engage with primary texts in both French and English (a bit odd, since a comparative project should by no means be reduced to this type of condition), that its length be of approximately one hundred pages, and that I provide a ten-page summary of the thesis in the other language than the one I have chosen to write it in. (A considerable amount of work to be done in under one calendar year, so I hope you all will not judge too harshly that I am only defending now.) Evidently, I must also defend this thesis in front of a jury. My defence consists of a thirty to forty-minute presentation of my thesis, oscillating between both languages, of course, followed by a question period from my jury. Before my defence, I am to know whether I failed, passed, or passed my thesis with distinction, as well as receive the commentary from my jury members in order to prepare for and anticipate questions at the defence itself. The jury has four weeks to read my thesis and pass along their evaluations to me.

These stipulations are quite fair, especially considering those final lines. Except that, due to the power dynamics, I am the only one actually constricted by these rules of engagement.

I am not certain how one fails a thesis: your supervisor must approve every step of the way, so unless he or she missed a fairly blatant bit of plagiarism, failing is hard to imagine. If I did fail, though, whatever intellectual property I owned is almost out of my hands. The power would sweep up my knowledge and I could, in reality, probably not do much about the fact.

I followed the rules in submitting my thesis. My jury, for its part, does not seem too invested in rules when suitable to its timeline. My thesis has been in their hands for five weeks, and I have yet to hear of my “passing,” never mind of any comments that would help me prepare for my defence, even though they are my right. I defend in nine days, and the clock keeps ticking. Again, the power is definitely one-sided.

Money is, as always, another issue of power. I must pay out of my own pocket (a lot of money) to fly back to New Brunswick and defend this thesis. Of course, this fact is not my current university’s problem, nor is it my past university’s problem: it did not choose to study across the country, right? Students, evidently, are not allowed to defend their thesis via video conferences: only professors that are part of the jury may do so. Power sticks with power.

I could go on and on with respect to this topic, and you can presumably tell it is close to my heart (and my thoughts, and my wallet), but I feel that we do a proper job of keeping academia and its institutions in check during our classes. I only hoped to remind you to not take anything for granted: yes, our university is progressive, relatively-speaking, but we as humanists in the big, bad age of knowledge as power and power as knowledge can never let our guards down.

Keep on fighting the good fight.

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