Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Road-Kill on the Information Highway: Repetitive Strain Injury in the Academy

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Road-Kill on the Information Highway: Repetitive Strain Injury in the Academy

Article excerpt


In an early interrogation of geographic information systems (GIS) in geography, Pickles (1993) and Sheppard (1993) criticised the positivist assumptions of most automated geographies. Pickles (cf. Haraway 1991) questioned the impacts of computing on individual identities, bodies and the prosthesis-like quality of human-computer interactions. He noted the shortage of critical reflection on how computing affects various types of social relations, including labor relations and 'the labor process within the academy' (Pickles 1993, 452). Sheppard (1993, 459-60) also argued that the adoption of technology should be investigated as a social process--and as an irreversible process, as societies seldom revert back to less sophisticated older technologies.

A decade later, thanks to desktop and laptop computers of various kinds, PowerPoint presentations, the Internet and listservs, IT in geography pervades the entire discipline, not just the 'technical' specialties like GIS. IT is rapidly commanding a niche in cultural studies in its own right (Crang, Crang and May 1999; Jordan 1999; Dodge and Kitchin 2000).

In this article I develop additional critical perspectives on IT by focusing on the use of desktop computers in the academic workplace, the controversial emergence of computer-related repetitive strain injury (RSI), and the politics of disablement in university research. I describe how RSI can reposition some of IT's most ardent users from able-bodied to disabled worlds and identities; and in particular, how computer-related injuries can affect faculty and students in higher education.

I argue that bodies impaired by this condition can be understood, particularly in the context of university workplaces, as sites of contested and negotiated social identities and employee-institution power relations. From 'the field', I describe some personal experiences with RSI to suggest how such injuries subvert lived boundaries between workplace, home and other activity spaces. Because the experience of RSI can also reduce an individual's production of scholarly research, I also discuss problems of academic marginalisation and whether computer-avoiding scholars are even 'in place' or valued today in North American universities. The foregoing should indicate that I believe intensive keyboarding and gazing for hours into computer monitors can injure people: I assume an RSI advocacy rather than a neutral or pro-industry position.

This article is not intended as a latter-day Luddite critique of modernity and technology, although modernity is surely implicated in the explosive rise of computer culture. Despite IT's many benefits, computer use can be interpreted as a set of western capitalist cultural practices; often marketed by the media through images of progress, economic and social advancement, and elitist knowledge. Nor is this article a transparent ploy for sympathy in a classical 'personal tragedy theory' mode (sensu Oliver 1990, 25). Indeed, my personal situation is more privileged than that of most people who become injured through computer use, such as poorly paid data-entry workers, and certainly more privileged than that of people who cannot afford computers. Rather, I hope to develop a broader social critique.

Placing RSI in Disabilities Studies

Most critical researchers who study disabilities question how environments effectively disable or enable certain groups of people, and avoid defining disabilities as objective realities located within specific individuals (cf. Park, Radford and Vickers 1998; Gleeson 1999). Taking their line of inquiry a step further into the Information Age, there is no doubt that computers and software can positively and dramatically reduce socio-spatial barriers in places and difficulties in negotiating physical distance for persons with impairments (Golledge 1997, Gold 2000). Speech-recognition software, to cite just one example, can facilitate communication for people with difficulties in moving their hands. …

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