Reflections by a retired professor emeritus:
On occasion of a departmental twenty years' jubilee 1994-2014
By Kristo Ivanov (2014, version 190109-1815)
Umeå University's department of informatics from where I retired in 2002 invited me to write a contribution of maximum 360 words to a booklet to be published on occasion of its 20 years' jubilee in 2014. This is my second jubilee paper in the sense that I already had contributed to my department at my "alma mater" in Stockholm on its 40 years' jubilee in 2006 with a paper (more than 4000 words) "Whither Computers and Systems?" in the book ICT for People, based on an earlier comprehensive paper of mine. Just to emphasize how late in life I was asked for my jubilee toughts, I will mention that it occurred to me that I also have an unnoticed third jubilee of 30 years since the Swedish government's appointment (as it had to be at that time, 1984) to the chair as full professor in Ume, in a unit that would become an own separate department of informatics 10 years later in 1994.
So I tried to squeeze in 360 words what I assumed was expected from me, a minimum of candid
reflections about my past at the department and my honest view of its
development in the middle of ongoing reorganizations of the Swedish universities. It is a fateful process that is unknown by many younger university employees but originated many years ago an outspoken essay of mine on universities' work environment followed by a sizable bibliography. It includes politically viable satirical metaphorical tales such as (in Swedish) Kalkonkriget [The Turkey Attack, as its author wants to have it translated]. In my 360-words-attempt I produced the following "executive summary" written in
an awkward telegraphic style, in a feeling of anticlimax relative to the department's kindly encouraging farewell talk (in Swedish) delivered on 27 September 2002 on occasion of my retirement. I present it here since it did not fit the spirit of the department's jubilee
"Critical thinking", which is properly recommended for a university, may be misunderstood as negative inimical criticism to the point that criticism risks to be perceived as one among many "telltale signs of abuse" and complaints of harassment. This is consistent with developments in the Swedish university world that have been noted by the, so far informal, network named Academic Rights Watch, and by Professionsförbundet [The Alliance for the Professions] with its linked international contacts. There are similar initiatives abroad, such as Accuracy in Academia as there are particular philosophical analyses of free speech at universities, like Stephen Hicks' Free Speech and Postmodernism, included in the 2011 expanded edition of Explaining Postmodernism. There are also academic struggles abroad, such as around the prof. Jordan Peterson and freedom of expression vs. the Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (Bill C-16). Such tendencies are far apart from the legitimacy accorded ex-post to historical academic battles such as behind the appointment to academic positions, including mine in 1984 (historical account in Swedish, pdf-format, pp. 30-37). These battles were analog to but, of course, by far more modest if not even more legitimate historical academic struggles and displays of civil courage such as in psychiatry about The Myth of Thomas Szasz, in political science about the treatment of professor Norman Finkelstein, in the ongoing debate in linguistics about universal grammar related to Noam Chomsky, in the field of economics such as in controversies related to e.g. Jonathan Gruber or in the field of sociology those related to Michel Maffesoli. Other embarassing examples can be found in recurring battles (examples here and here) on the Swedish academic scene, and in polemic battles such as The process of academic review and in Wikipedia wars, not to mention later complex controversies in the United States, partly summarized in Quillette.
I understand that in the present daily competitive striving for research funds there is an increased need for maintaining an unambiguously positive departmental self-image, and for facilitating the establishment of strategic alliances that also enable individual careers. The risks for the Swedish university world have already been noted so far as in the popular press. There are strains on freedom of expression and research, and on the quality of dialog and debate. When it all comes about I may be judged to have been naive during my active time in academia to allow for what I believed to be freedom of research and to encourage the blossoming of 1000 flowers, a process that recalls the biblical Tares and the Good Grain. Many flowers may correspond to an unconscious shift from evaluative ethics of systemic design to aestheticist ethics of exploitation of available technology and funds for the development of profitably exciting ICT-applications. Now: over to my edited (about) 360 words.
------- My 360 words on occasion of the 20 years' departmental jubilee -------
Starting as the only professor at the department and as its head for many years I had the responsibility for the build-up of its research and graduate education. I had a vision of fostering a systems approach in the spirit of prof. West Churchman at the University of California, Berkeley. I met a series of unforeseen challenges driven by fast changes in technology while I was critical of the ongoing "industrial" reorganizations of universities, as presaged by the PPBS-thinking in the fateful report Styrning av Hgskolans Forskning [Management of Universities' Research] by the National Audit Office (1984).
An early unexpected event was colleagues' and graduate students' shift of interest, away from earlier technical logical positivism and leftist sociology, towards aestheticist design rather than evaluative systems. I commented this in texts such as Ethics and Politics of Design, Whither Computers and Systems? and Strategies and Design for IT, matching Christopher Norris' What's Wrong with Postmodernism (1990). A new challenge was offered by some colleagues' shift of focus to Jrgen Habermas' political philosophy. This prompted me to write on Humanistic Computing Science and Presuppositions in Information Systems Design. Students' persistent focus on Martin Heidegger convinced me that his conceptions were the origin of many new trends as in the field of computer-human interaction. It prompted me to address the question in Ethics in Technology – and Theology of the Flesh. In doing so, I chose to ignore other minor eclectic approaches that I saw as labyrinthical alleys in the names of various charismatic personalities.
I see later trends in IT management-innovation, virtual reality, interaction-involvement, games, ubiquitousness, machinima, etc. as needing similar critical evaluations, being expressions of a never ending series of opportunistic trends driven by variable funding policies and blind expansion of technology. Such evaluations would require priorities other that those dictated by available research funds or profitability. I appreciate and am proud for the department's vital growth while feeling skeptical about the ethical or political implications of some trends. I tried to express my mood in some views on philosophy of technology, in a "testament", and in reflections on occasion of my 75th birthday, and, paradoxically, my possibly coming 80th birthday.
For the convenience of readers who read only paper-print versions of the text above, here follow in order of appearance the URL-addresses of the links in the text: