From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wednesday, May 8,
Scholars Sound the Alert From the 'Dark Side' of Tech
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 of
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
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
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
"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
"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 in that."
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