The Performance of University and Cyber Utopia22 May 2021
content warning: mentions of sexual violence, no specific detail
Last year got me thinking a lot about the public sphere of the University. When we went into the first lockdown, I was the Disabilities Officer at the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU). In the last week before we all studied from home, I focused on moving all our in-person support groups, collectives and events online.
These events raised several logistical questions about moving your entire life online. In popular understandings of the internet, there is a tendency to view the online social world as separate from “real life”, a line that has been blurred, crossed and redefined over lockdowns. Personally, my online experience went from doing things and posting about them online to actually having to do them online, which was quite a big jump.
My relationship with the internet is deeply influenced by my childhood in Kolkata, India, where freely available and affordable internet became accessible only in 2012. High-speed mobile data suddenly became very cheap in 2016, which is the first year I was allowed to have a smartphone, and it generated a fair bit of moral panic amongst parents of school kids— often something along the lines of “WHAT IF THE INTERNET RUINS OUR CHILDREN’S EDUCATION”.
While it is a complicated panic to unpack, this kind of moral panic is understandable. When “the internet”, a profoundly complicated global network of information and activity, becomes available to you with no preparation or media literacy, it is rather easy to stumble onto the bad side. My use of Instagram/Twitter is currently a lot more optimised to things I need than back in high school, where I used it to procrastinate on my awful Geography assignments. My mother used to take away my phone when I used to study—a concept almost unimaginable now.
Last year, I was briefly off social media—following an unsafe experience. This was when the Bla(c)k Lives Matter movement and its related rallies were at their peak, and I missed so many events, vigils and protests that were held across the city. I also missed out on something of paramount importance at that time—news. Most organising strategies had to be adapted to online formats, and email-banking, tweeting and online petitioning became front and centre of community activism—I never really thought I’d speak at an online rally from my bedroom, but it happened. Our collective dependence on social media for news, human connections and grassroots organising is precisely why “real life” cannot be separated from cyberspace. However, they are not one and the same.
Moving university online has been perhaps the most pertinent example of worlds colliding—I cannot say I haven’t zoned out of class and checked Facebook through entire tutorials. While this has given rise to some interesting questions about what is considered a “campus” now, it is still very easy for the University to shirk responsibility. Based on the recommendations given by the Australian Human Rights Commission, UMSU has asked the University to commit to a single, university-wide sexual assault and harassment policy that encompasses all colleges, sports teams, off-campus uni-based interactions and such. The University has, of course, not implemented this. On top of that, having most universities be online has led the same tutorial sexism, racism and ableism to be more violent and discreet online. An overwhelming number of students have experienced racist and sexist abuse in online classes that have no clear reporting process.
Online learning has also resulted in over 700 staff job cuts at Melbourne Uni, and more across the country, alongside forced online learning, merging of faculties and a general, federal-level push for defunding education. This attack on education reveals the painful gaps in protective policy that exist due to a belief that things on the internet are cut off from “reality”, and exist as a cyber utopia. In reality, online life reflects and often exacerbates social, economic and cultural inequalities that already exist in society. A public sphere with no geospatial boundary is hard to navigate in terms of policy and legislation, making it that much harder to bridge the gap between online and physical interaction between people.
Efforts have been made. Despite my usual lack of trust for government initiatives, the eSafety Commissioner of Australia has made attempts to make resources on cyberbullying and online safety accessible to people. They are specifically addressing those from different cultural backgrounds and age groups, where the information deficit about how the internet works, is disproportionately large. The University is also working on its own Online Safety action plan along with the eSafety Commissioner, which is something to watch out for, but also hope.
The most interesting, and yet scariest thing about online work is that it moves fast—and information about it needs to constantly be updated. Cyberspace is dynamic, and if there isn’t much preparation for its changes, it could be diabolical—and it could disproportionately endanger at-risk communities in the University and beyond.
Some of my favourite love languages are online—I like tagging my best friends in memes. I have not seen my mother in a year, and slowly, but surely, sending her pictures of elephants is blending into the feeling of hugging her (she’s quite squishy). Out of twelve currently open tabs, one is Spotify, playing a soft, beautiful song that reminds me of Kolkata, my home. On another tab, I’m trying to organise a rally. As all the love I practice blurs into one, cyberspace begins to make a lot more sense.