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  • Mark 5:07 pm on February 8, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , repression, , ,   

    Educational technology in an age of Trump: a risk to students? 

    I find this suggestion by Audrey Watters extremely plausible. Full interview here.

    I think that education data should be a top priority under the new Trump regime. Schools are wildly obsessed with collecting data. They have been for a very long time, but new digital technologies have compelled them to collect even more, all with the promise of better insights into teaching and learning. By and large, I think a lot of that promise is overstated. Now, particularly under Trump, we have to consider if, instead of “helping students”, we’re actually putting them more at risk. I don’t simply mean a risk of hacking, although schools do have notoriously poor information security. Rather, I’m deeply concerned that, by enabling such expansive profiling, we are furthering a dangerous climate of surveillance – a climate that Trump seems quite ready to exploit regarding undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and political dissidents.


    • Dave Ashelman 5:34 pm on February 8, 2017 Permalink

      Yes, it is plausible. However, it is “complicated” in America. A lot of people outside of America (including Canada) don’t realize how American education works – or rather doesn’t work. It is highly racialized, and will become more racialized with the new legislation before congress with the new education secretary.

      First is that Public primary education USED to produce a lot of Ph.D.s and Noble winners. Then came the 1980s. Today, most students in public schools are in urban ghettos made up of primarily African-Americans, and are highly segregated. There are several school boards that are still (in 2017) under federal court order to desegregate from the 1954 Brown v Board Supreme Court decision.

      Today, most school teachers are required to have Masters degrees. Most urban public school teachers, with their Masters degrees earn about $20,000 per year or less. Many are on social assistance. Many public school boards struggle just to buy textbooks because of funding cuts since the 1980s. Some are using textbooks that are decades old. Those school certainly do not have computers; and if they do, they are old, and not securable.

      The main complaint about public education in America is that they aren’t producing educated children (as measured with standardized testing). What is almost NEVER talked about is that they used to produce Ph.D.s and Nobel winners – until teachers had to go on welfare and not have textbooks.

      Any changes to public education are much more likely to impact African-American students. Currently, with the advent of Trump, there is legislation to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education entirely, and completely de-fund public schools – giving parents “vouchers” instead, to enroll their children in the private school of their choice. Which for urban African Americans, there are nearly none.

      So while plausible, if public schools cannot afford textbooks, are segregated, put teachers on welfare, and are about to be shut down, what’s the point?

    • Mark 9:47 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink

      This sounds very plausible but not sure where that leaves you in relation to what Watters is arguing

    • Dave Ashelman 8:45 pm on February 20, 2017 Permalink

      In relation to what Watters is arguing is two-fold: 1) if schools cannot invest in textbooks, how are they going to invest in data-gathering, and 2) it assumes that political institutions are actually concerned with facts, when the facts have been clear about how schools are operating (and why), yet continue to starve schools out of existence.

      Should there be a concern for data-gathering? Sure. There should also be a concern that most public schools do not have textbooks. There should also be a concern that most public school teachers are so underpaid that they have to receive social assistance. Any data gathered to gain insights of teaching and learning will automatically be flawed in this backdrop. You cannot gain accurate insights into teaching and learning models when both kids and teachers are physically hungry, while teaching and learning with no (or at least substandard) materials. Do we want data, or do we want “accurate” data?

    • Mark 4:20 pm on February 25, 2017 Permalink

      I think you’re operating with a much thicker conception of accuracy than the vast majority of the ed-tech people.

    • Dave Ashelman 1:45 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink

      I think you are correct in your assessment of me. Is that a bad thing? In my economic master’s program I got a “B” on a paper because I didn’t perform enough “mathematical gymnastics” in a regression to get the results to reject the null. The teacher admitted that there was nothing wrong with my model, and the results were solid based on the model. Instead, I worked with the results I had, and not the results that were “expected.” This is a methodological issue that I stood my ground on; I would not engage in what I call “Machiavellian data manipulation” – where the ends justify the means. I ended up with an “A” in the course, no no harm, no foul for me. However, this methodological thinking is symptomatic of data gathering today. From p-hacking to over-weighting variables, we often create the social facts that we want instead of analyzing social facts as they are.

      We know as a social and medical fact that child’s learning outcome is lower when they’re physically hungry as a stand-alone variable all by itself. If we look at student-teacher outcomes without considering that antagonizing variable of hunger, then all we’re really doing is a “Machiavellian data manipulation” to create the social facts that we want, instead of seeing the social facts as they actually are.

      My apologies for my “thickness!” But thank you for reminding me of that! 🙂

    • Mark 4:52 pm on March 8, 2017 Permalink

      Not a bad thing but I think it’s always important to remind ourselves of it.

  • Mark 10:53 am on May 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , blackouts, egypt, infrastructute, repression, telecomms   

    What’s it like to be a corporate executive receiving an order to cooperate with an authoritarian government? 

    An interesting, albeit brief, answer to this question in Losing the Signal, pg 210-211:

    A senior official from Egypt’s telecommunications regulator had just called to deliver an ultimatum, she said. State-owned Telecom Egypt had yanked the plug on BlackBerry service in the country, and it would stay off-line until RIM handed over encryption keys for coded e-mails and messages traveling through Egypt over RIM’s secure network. As his car moved through the snow-quilted streets of Davos, RIM’s boss struggled to make sense of what was happening. What did a phone maker from Waterloo know about tyrants and revolutions? “I’m shitting my pants,” Balsillie says, shaking his head, remembering the stress that night. “I didn’t take this course in business school.” Balsillie did, however, understand that by allowing Egypt to decode encrypted BlackBerry messages he could be giving up protestors who relied on BBM messages to coordinate covert activities. “I didn’t start a tech company to help totalitarian governments kill protestors,” Balsillie told Bawa.

    From pg 211:

    Saying no to the Arab nation meant kissing good-bye to one of RIM’s fastest-growing markets, a loss it could ill afford as American customers retreated from BlackBerrys. But the financial hit and shareholder anger couldn’t be as bad as aiding and abetting execution squads. After several back-and-forth calls, Balsillie arrived at a decision. “We’re out of Egypt now; we’re not doing it,” he instructed Bawa. As it turned out, Balsillie would never have to explain his decision publicly. The next afternoon, the desperate Mubarak government ordered Egyptian carriers to shut down, blocking everyone except the country’s stock exchange from Internet access. “We dodged a bullet. BlackBerry was no longer singled out,” Balsillie remembers.

  • Mark 5:43 pm on May 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , repression, , torture,   

    What would techno-fascist punishment look like? 

    Perhaps something rather like this. From a disturbing but important article:

    The scary thing about VR as a torture device is its versatility. “It’s difficult to conceive of the upper limits of distress. The human mind’s capacity for suffering is tremendously vast,” the people at BeAnotherLab told me, “as is human ingenuity to cause suffering in novel ways.” Within the confines of simulation, there are certainly many circles of mental hell that a head-mounted display can navigate: disorientation and physical sickness, the incitation of panic and fear, religious or moral defamation, sensory overload, sensory deprivation, a feeling of disembodiment, and dependence on a machine that could flash whatever horrible imagery its operator chose before the eyes.

    It may seem that VR prisoners would simply be trained to tune out the images being blasted into their eyeholes, knowing full-well that the worst harm that could come from an optical illusion is eyestrain. However, consider the hypothetical plight of a captured soldier who is kept alone in VR for an exceedingly long period of time. Gradually, their brain would begin to carve out new connections as it adjusted to living inside a virtual environment. If the simulation was stressful, fear conditioning would climb. Prolonged VR immersion would potentially alter how a person responds to visual stimuli. It would also affect the prisoner’s sense of self, place, and time. Coupled with what is already known about solitary confinement—that it causes visual and auditory hallucinations, that it hinders people’s ability to recognize an object as the same object when viewed from different angles, that it drives inmates to self-harm and suicide—VR confinement could leave detainees on the verge of a complete breakdown.


  • Mark 10:21 am on November 16, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , fbi, , intelligence agencies, repression, security services,   

    “we know you’re a cheat and you should kill yourself” 2.0 

    This great lecture by Frank Pasquale (podcast) references this note, the text of which is the title to this post, sent to Martin Luther King by the FBI. As Pasquale notes, King was under constant surveillance that both facilitated and motivated this horrendous intervention. Can we imagine a data-driven generalisation of this condition and the possibility of comparable interventions being made by intelligence and security agencies seeking to repress dissent in an era of increasing social unrest? I certainly can.

  • Mark 7:33 am on July 25, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , repression, ,   

    imagining post-capitalism and techno-fascism 

    Last week Paul Mason posted a provocative Guardian essay suggesting that the end of capitalism has begun. It’s a precursor to his upcoming book PostCapitalism: A Guide To Our Future which is released in a few days time. I’m looking forward to the book, not least of all because it’s an optimistic counterpoint to the gloomy thought experiment I’ve been intermittently working on for months now: what would techno-fascism look like? I finished my first piece of work on this recently, a contribution to the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project, making the case that digital capitalism is giving rise to ‘distracted people’ and ‘fragile movements’ while also facilitating surveillance and repression of a degree of efficiency exponentially greater than any security apparatus that has previously existed in human history.

    My rather depressing conclusion concerns spiralling obstacles to durable social movements exercising a sustained influence over political and social life, though not necessarily to protest, politicisation or critique. As the project progresses, I want to explore two tendencies towards digitally facilitated suppression: the ‘hard’ strand, the openly authoritarian mechanisms through which digital technology is used repressively and how they might diffuse, as well as the ‘soft’ strand, the increasingly designed informational environment and the cognitive costs involved in escaping it, as well as their implications for collective action.

    I situate these in terms of post-democracy and the political economy of the second machine age: crudely, I’m suggesting that the interests of elites in defensive repression, in the face of growing structural underemployment and unemployment driven by automation, creates a risk that ‘soft’ repression (already a problem) comes to be conjoined with ‘hard’ repression, with a post-democratic political climate likely to render popular restraints upon this drift ineffective. This is compounded by a political context in which the war on terrorism is giving way to the war on extremism, normalising repressive measures against those whose ‘ideology’ (let alone their actions) put them outside the political mainstream. Underlying this analysis are some much more specific arguments about ‘distracted people’ and ‘fragile movements’ which I won’t summarise here, as well as an argument I want to develop of where a trend to vertical integration is likely to lead the tech sector and how this might further incline the culture within it in a way susceptible to acquiescing to some rather extreme measures.

    It’s a depressing argument. But I’m looking forward to developing it. The project has been on hold since I finished my CSO paper because I need to finish Social Media for Academics. But I’m presenting an initial version of the overall argument at a Futures Workshop in August and then I’ll begin work on a book proposal in September. I’d like to include two chapters of design fiction in the finished book: one envisioning post-capitalism and another envisioning techno-fascism. I don’t believe either outcome is inexorable but I do find my own arguments worryingly convincing (I’m often very critical of my own work but I’m really pleased with the CSO chapter, it went through a slightly  brutal multistage review process and it really shows) at least in terms of currently inoperative social mechanisms that one could easily envision kicking in under future politico-economic circumstances not much worse than our present ones. But if Mason’s book is as provocative as I suspect it will be, I’d like to use it as an optimistic foil, not least of all to preserve the social optimism which I’m concerned that I’m in the process of losing.

    This extract from a recent Guardian debate with Mason (HT Phil BC) gives a taste of what the book will be like: https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/membership/video/2015/jul/23/paul-mason-is-capitalism-dead-video (unfortunately it won’t embed on wordpress.com)

  • Mark 10:09 pm on February 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , repression, , student politics,   

    Misdirection as technique of governance, or, “it’s student activists attacking freedom of speech, not the state!” 

    Earlier today I read a Guardian article on the ‘crisis around debate’ at UK universities. It was a well written article with a valid argument that made some interesting points and to a certain extent some of these concerns had occurred to me in recent years. I’ve long been a proponent of no platform and it’s an issue I feel extremely strongly about – I helped lead the (unsuccessful) campaign to keep it in place at the Warwick SU and my relationships with quite a few people never really recovered from arguments over those few weeks. But I see no platform as a very specific strategy to deal with a very specific enemy. I find its effective generalisation extremely worrying, even if I sometimes share the hostility to those it is directed at.  So in one sense I found the article to be a perfectly valid contribution to an important debate.

    But in another sense, I found the article to be almost offensively stupid. It holds up left-wing student activists as the source of ‘a crisis around debate’ at UK universities at a time when parliament is considering a bill which, as the THE summarises, would mean universities “have a statutory duty to implement measures that prevent radicalisation that could lead to acts of terrorism”. Radical advocates would be barred from speaking on campus. Every local authority would be required to to “set up a panel to which the police can refer ‘identified individuals’ who are considered to be vulnerable to radicalisation” with universities as partners of local authorities in this process. We risk drifting into a police state – the words of the chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, not my own – while the Guardian is blaming this on student activists?

    We’ve already seen the police ask a university for attendees of a fracking debate. The president of the Lancaster Student’s Union was warned by police, who she discovered taking photos of her office, that she may have been committing a public order offence by displaying a poster in her office window. Police used CS gas and pulled a taser on Warwick students who were screaming in terror.  They launch secret operations to spy on peaceful student protestors. University staff are increasingly expected to function as proxy border guards. Police violence is increasingly an expectation at student protests, including some astonishing and egregious instances of brutality. Punitive bail conditions are becoming the norm for student activists and some university managements have gone out of their way to exclude and persecute ‘trouble makers’.

    But the ‘crisis of debate’ is being caused by left-wing activists? Get real. If we consider this broader context for even a moment then this case is offensively stupid at best and mendacious misdirection at worst.

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