Date: May 9, 2013 4:20 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Scholars Sound Alert: 'Dark Side' of Tech Innovation
From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, May 8, 2013. See
Scholars Sound the Alert From the 'Dark Side' of Tech Innovation
By Marc Parry
Companies, colleges, and columnists gush about the utopian
possibilities of technology. But digital life has a bleaker side,
too. Over the weekend, a cross-disciplinary group of scholars
convened here to focus attention on the lesser-noticed consequences
Surveillance. Racism. Drones. Those were some of the issues discussed
at the conference, which was called "The Dark Side of the Digital"
and hosted by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's Center for
21st Century Studies. (One speaker even flew a small drone as a
visual aid; it hit the classroom ceiling and crashed.)
After a week of faculty backlash against online education, including
the refusal of San Jose State University professors to teach a
Harvard philosophy course offered via edX, the down sides of digital
learning emerged as a hot topic, too.
In a talk dubbed "Courseware.com," Rita Raley, an associate professor
of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara,
described how societal and technological changes had "reconditioned
the idea of the university into that of an educational enterprise
that delivers content through big platforms on demand."
Much discussion followed about the implications of that shift-in Ms.
Raley's talk, in other sessions, and in informal chats among
'A Built-In Inequality'
The conference's organizer, Richard Grusin, a scholar of new media,
worried about the potentially "dire" consequences of massive open
online courses, known as MOOCs.
Education, Mr. Grusin said in an interview, is about teaching people
how to think, how to question, how to sit in a room with someone and
express a different opinion. Equating it with simple content delivery
"denudes" what it means to teach and learn, in his view.
What's more, when colleges start to award credit for MOOCs serving
thousands of students, the result could be a reduction in the need
for faculty members to teach those courses, said Mr. Grusin, a
professor of English at UW-Milwaukee with a history of tech
experimentation. Much of that reduction, he added, would hit teaching
assistants. Rather than teaching their own sections or classes, they
may find themselves managing online discussions.
Online courseware could create inequalities among colleges, Mr.
Grusin added, as he and other professors discussed Ms. Raley's talk
over lunch. "Power gets aggregated by elite universities," he argued.
"Because it's not San Jose State professors or UW-Milwaukee
professors sending their lectures to Harvard students. It's Harvard
professors sending their lectures here. And so, not only is there
already a built-in inequality, but this technology is going to enable
that to be multiplied and leveraged, to even create a further
Ms. Raley, for her part, also offered a dystopian take on the
extensive data tracking in MOOCs, which harvest detailed information
about students' online behavior.
Proponents present data mining as a way to improve the experience. To
Ms. Raley, it means "disenfranchised students" become "mere
statistical material, bodies from which data is extracted, their
function to provide the metrics that will legitimate the
restructuring of educational institutions as mere automated
Other Internet trends discussed were more obscure. Take "scam
baiting." Lisa Nakamura, a professor of American culture at the
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, explained that scam baiters are
online vigilantes who fight back against potential scammers by trying
to waste their time and resources-and by humiliating them.
The baiters respond to the scammers by pretending to be willing to
send money as requested-if only the scammers do some absurd act to
prove they are real. The vigilante might say, "We want to give you
money for your cause, but we really need you to pose pouring milk
over your head" because "our church does that as a ritual," Ms.
Nakamura explained after her talk, called "Spambaiting, Dogshaming,
and the Racial Violence of Social Media."
Some news accounts have portrayed scam baiters as noble crusaders for
Internet justice. Yet Ms. Nakamura described how their high jinks can
escalate into degrading images, typically of African men, that
circulate across the Web completely out of their original context.
She drew a parallel between those images and colonial-era racism,
when spectators flocked to museums to observe "professional savages."
"Racial violence is absolutely the foundation for all the images I've
shown," Ms. Nakamura argued. "These images are so overtly about
trying to emasculate African men."
'A Loss of Control'
Another talk, by Julie E. Cohen, a professor at the Georgetown
University Law Center, addressed a policy problem: that policy gets
made as if people were perfectly free and able to evaluate the
choices that technology presents to them. That's not the case, said
Ms. Cohen, author of Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and
the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, 2012).
Increasingly, networked technologies track everything about us,
creating records of where we go, what we buy, what we read, what we
like, and who our friends are. The structure of our environment has
changed so radically as a result of this, and the choices we're
presented with have been shaped so differently, that it's changing
how we understand the world, Ms. Cohen said in an interview.
For example, think about the difference between a road map and the
step-by-step instructions of a GPS-enabled device. Maps forced you to
consider neighborhoods and topography. GPS directions remove the need
to be aware of anything other than how to move from one point to
another, Ms. Cohen said.
Or take the process of reading and seeking information. The terms in
which you participate in political discussions are shaped by the fact
that when you look for information online, what is shown to you is
already manipulated to conform with what is likely to interest you.
That makes it harder for people to have dialogue with those who don't
share their beliefs, Ms. Cohen said.
Or take our changing relationship to culture. Throughout history, Ms.
Cohen said, people have created art by copying other artists. But if
you want to borrow and mash up a clip from your DVD of Pocahontas or
Pulp Fiction, she said, you'll need to engage in significant
"There's a loss of control that we don't really even see," Ms. Cohen
said. "So we have this illusion that we have so much more control
over ourselves because the Internet creates all these opportunities.
And we do not see what's going on inside the technology, and what
kind of interests are driving the decisions about the technology."
"We talk about the rule of law as being a system in which people have
a say in how they're governed," she continued. "When the world of
information and opportunity is pervasively shaped in ways you don't
understand and have no control over and can't see, you're being
governed. And I think it's important that we learn how to have a say
The Value of Uselessness
The event sometimes veered into a dense fog of theoretical jargon.
During her talk, Ms. Cohen said she had spent part of the conference
"writing down statements that, if uttered in a room full of lawyers,
would cause people to roll on the floor with tears of laughter
streaming down their faces." As she put it: "Necropolitics versus
thanatopolitics-what the hell?"
If law is to derive insight from critical theory, she said, "we need
a project of translation." And people need to move beyond critical
purity to produce "good enough" proposals for actually dealing with
problems, she added.
On this subject she got some pushback from Mr. Grusin, who spoke up
"on behalf of the dark side of critique." Translation shouldn't
replace that critique, he contended.
Critique, he said, is free to ponder issues without having to be
pragmatic. Mr. Grusin argued that one of its values, perhaps its
deepest value, is "uselessness."
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Airborne drones, data mining, and MOOCs were among
the features of our digital life whose bleaker side drew scholars to
a conference last weekend at the U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty Images
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244