Greetings, educators! Are you watching in sheer terror as BigTech’s four horsemen Surveillance, Exploitation, Manipulation, and Cataclysmic Hubris gallop wildly down the information superhighway, downloading their user-friendly death and destruction as far as the eye can see?* Do you stay up at night wondering if the real AI will just be us in two years because we’ll be the blue-toothed, chip-injected, face-recognized meatbots churning wealth out of smart cities for the 1% tech tyrants who have already long stopped allowing their children to use their products? Are you concerned that your students don’t understand the significance of these issues, don’t care, or can’t care because they feel powerless to stop it? Have you, good teacher of future citizens, (including lawyers, politicians, tech workers and tech users), looked for the lesson on stopping it and found it simply not there?
Check out these ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom . . . next term! Listed with handy difficulty levels because we know Teach is busy! Add your own brilliant ideas and strategies by commenting on this tweet. And remember only we, the people, can truly bring the world closer together.
1. MANTRA: “THE ONLY WAR IS THE WAR AGAINST THE IMAGINATION. ALL OTHER WARS ARE SUBSUMED IN IT.” [Easy peasy]
That quote is from the great poet Diane di Prima. First trick: say this to yourself out loud, and see how it feels. Remember, the digital tools that we use in the classroom contribute to training the technological imagination of students. If you cannot imagine what it could mean for ordinary users to democratically oversee their software’s development, then Surprise, you, too, are also a victim of the privatization of academic technology! Many organizations have been advocating for and exemplifying more just forms of software production for more than 30 years (The Free Software Foundation, for example) and one can only imagine how much better off we’d be had we invested our IT dollars and student attention on their methods. If we use tools that practice exploitative forms of surveillance or prohibit students from modifying or inspecting the code, we are teaching students to passively accept the exploitative goods of the mighty tech gods as they are given. Though it may at present be impossible to avoid such tools, you don’t have to teach complacency with the status quo. Use that wry teacherly snark you have to make leading asides about how the data bank of their student papers may one day be used by health insurance companies to determine their fees based on their likelihood to develop Alzheimers. Or something of your own specialized concoction. Did you hear the professor say that, one student will ask another after class. Do you think they meant that another web is possible and it will be up to us to imagine and demand it or else zombie apocalypse IRL? You betcha.
2. SYLLABUS ALERTS [During your coffee break]
Second trick: Inform your students on your syllabus — say, by adding a sentence or two in that section about academic integrity — that many of the technologies they use to support their educational activities likely practice forms of data collection that are ethically dubious even if legally accepted. (Anyone want to collaborate on some cut and paste language?) I would point to a great example from a professor I saw on Twitter, but they have since removed that tweet. Interesting times.
3. COMMUNITY-DRIVEN TOOLS [During two lunch breaks]
Let’s face it, even if you were Edward Snowden, it would be pretty (!) hard to build a surveillance-free learning environment if you plan on involving computers at any step of the way. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of exciting, freely-available, community-driven tools that are motivated by academic or community principles rather than user exploitation. Trick number three: experiment with at least one of these tools. For starters, try hosting your course discussion on a private or public blog at the wonderful MLA Humanities Commons, and if you like it, consider asking your campus IT about setting up a Commons in a Box of your own for your home institution. The more technically adventurous may want to experiment with other open source tools for various forms of networked discussion and class projects, such as Scalar, Omeka and Neatline, Hypothes.is, Mastodon, and Rocket.Chat. You may also want to make students aware of privacy-focused tools like the search engine DuckDuckGo or the Tor browser. Remember, students are a form of user capital that surveillance capitalists depend upon for user growth. Introducing students to alternatives is a vote for a different technological future.
4. ASSIGNMENT IDEA #1: TERMS OF SERVICE IN EDU [Refine on your commute]
Step 1: Ask students to make a list of at least ten digital tools they’ve used formally or informally in the most recent two months of their educational activities. What app/platform did they use write their paper? To communicate with their professor? To enroll in the course? To ask peers for help? To complain about homework? To find out the library’s hours? Step 2: Do students remember agreeing to the Terms of Service for those tools? Do they remember what was on those Terms of Service? What was on those Terms of Service? Ask each student to (a) find and (b) copy/paste at least one ToS into a clean text-searchable file. Then spend a meeting engaging in some good ol’ close reading of these Terms as a class and discussing. Bonus points: Have students collaborate on a public resource or analysis of these Terms using one of the freely-available tools mentioned in Tip #3 — or open source online group-text editors like Etherpad. Share with us later the brilliant way you tied the exercise into your course subject matter.
5. FRIENDSHIP + DIALOGUE WITH CAMPUS IT [Are you a good human? ]
What Edward Ayers observed in 2004 is still very much true today: there is a dark and mighty abyss separating the academic culture and the IT culture (my paraphrase) across which eye rolls are endlessly fired (“eye rolls” is a direct quote) and it’s not helping anyone take advantage of the tremendous creative and political potential of university technological practice (my interpretation). It is time, my academic friends, to get to know your campus IT. If you aren’t already aware, campus IT workers are some of the most brilliant, diversely-talented, and interesting folks in academia land, while also being (obviously) the most knowledgeable about the incredibly complex landscape of information technology today. Though there is no simple surveillance on/off switch, there is a very exciting and untapped opportunity for academics and campus IT workers to share ideas and learn from one another about the philosophical and practical considerations of shaping our technological future. Fifth trick: Invite a campus IT worker out for coffee or tea and ask them about what they see as the main challenges and opportunities of campus IT today. And please, leave your questions about printer updates and smartphone apps at home.
6. ASSIGNMENT IDEA #2: DOWNLOAD AND EXPLORE USER DATA [No biggie]
Part of this assignment is simply figuring out how to do it. Choose any platform you use. Figure out if you even can download your data — how much of it? in what form? — and document any difficulties that arise in the process. Inspect your data. Does anything about this data surprise or concern you? Is it in an accessible and meaningful format? Would you want the whole class to have access to it? Your school? The state? Why or why not? Have students write about their findings and discuss in class. Here is one nice and terrifying article (and there are many more) to help guide your understanding about the millions of documents-worth of data digital companies have about you.
7. ASSIGNMENT IDEA #3: UNWRITING/DELETING PERSONAL DATA [When else will you do this?]
Hooray, you’ve accessed your data, but now, can you delete it? And, how can you be certain that you have? Since we’re asking students to feed the data machine everyday with assignments and class communications, it only seems right we also teach them how to control that data while revealing the limits of that control. Have students figure out if they even can — let alone how to — delete their data from a particular platform or service and identify challenges, strategies, and limitations in the process. For example, the eight-day Data Detox by Tactical Tech seems like a great (and manageable) exercise to pair with a writing or research assignment related to the subject matter of the course. If students seem to consider data collection practices as inevitable, remind them that the American Library Association has finding creative ways to defend and protect individual privacy from 1876 to the present day. It can be done.
8. SELF EDUCATION [Not before bed!]
The good news is that there is an explosion of literature dedicated to critically unpacking the exploitative, manipulative, irresponsible, and otherwise unsavory dimensions of technological development. I’ll offer some suggestions here in case you don’t know where to start, but I’m eager to hear what you’re reading, too! Personally, I am looking forward to Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Jan 2019), whose work on this topic can also be found in “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Other recent fantastic critiques include Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, and Virginia Eubanks’ Automating Inequality. Members of the open “Unlike Us” email list regularly share useful links to news articles and essays about political issues in tech. And I love Nathan Schneider’s “The Joy of Slow Computing” and a piece from the Free Software Foundationas two quick reads that offer important counter models to exploitative modes of software use and development.
On the education front, there is of course the incredible ed tech critic Audrey Watters and her blog Hack Education. The blog Wrench in the Gears offers gut-wrenching, meticulously-researched coverage of the corporate take-over of education via technology from the perspective of a parent. Chris Gilliard has a fantastic short piece about resisting oppressive tech in the classroom and one could form a productive reading group around all the related articles he posts on Twitter. Zach Kaiser’s short video “Our Program” is a great dystopian art piece for raising questions about the quantification of academic activity. C.A. Bowers offers ecologically-minded critiques of computing and education in his books Let them Eat Data (2011) and The False Promises of the Digital Revolution (2014). And I am looking forward to diving into the Association of Research Library’s Spec Kit 360 on Learning Analytics, which investigates “current practices, policies, and ethical issues around libraries and learning analytics.”
9. RAISE CAMPUS INTEREST [Baby steps]
Transform your personal paranoia about surveillance capitalism into fodder for cross campus dialogue, research, policy development, and community building. Reach out to your librarians, digital scholarship/humanities specialists, IT workers, humanities centers, and other campus organizations about exploring options to raise awareness about these issues, such as reading groups, talks, and workshops. UCLA Read Me, “a graduate students for digital rights including privacy, security, access, and intellectual freedom within libraries, archives, and information work,” is one great example of a campus group doing this type of work. Pro-tip: No need to burn out on organizing events if that isn’t in the cards right now. Simply discussing an article with a colleague can be a great way to grow awareness and solidarity around these issues.
10. Write down and share your own list of your own #weirdtricks! [Choose your own adventure]
Surveillance capitalism may be some pretty slick technology, but so is the classroom if we hack it right. Sketch out your own tricks for resisting digital exploitation, surveillance, and manipulation in education — and share them widely!
*See any newspaper. Or find my own summary here (pg. 1-6).
Some of these ideas were developed in collaboration with Clinton Tolley as part of co-teaching the freshman philosophy seminar #OurTech: Building the Web That We Want. Send me an email (erglass at ucsd dot edu) for the syllabus or if interested in discussing these ideas further.