September 15, 2019

Zuboff, Chapter 6: Hijacked! The Queen's to Command

Once again, my Zuboff note-taking resonates eerily with what I see happening in the ed-tech world around me. Last week, I skipped writing up notes from Zuboff to document the weird Twitter event surrounding #ChangeWithAnalytics; here's that post: The Buzz and the Buzzkill. When I resumed note-taking this week with Zuboff's Chapter 6, the opening topic of that chapter — conquest by declaration — resonated perfectly with the declarations by the #ChangeWithAnalytics crew:

To make things even more eerie, just as Zuboff analyzes six declarations by Google (see below), there are also six principles being promulgated as part of #ChangeWithAnaytics: "The thoughtful application of the following six principles will accelerate the meaningful use of analytics and take advantage of the power of data to make the decisions and take the actions that just may save higher education. Really." Here are their principles with cutesey graphics; for Google's declarations, read on.

To get started, Zuboff takes us back to 1492:
On December 4, 1492, Columbus escaped the onshore winds that had prevented his departure from the island that we now call Cuba. Within a day he dropped anchor off the coast of a larger island known to its people as Quisqueya or Bohio, setting into motion what historians call the “conquest pattern.” ]...] It’s a design that unfolds in three phases: the invention of legalistic measures to provide the invasion with a gloss of justification, a declaration of territorial claims, and the founding of a town to legitimate and institutionalize the conquest.
The unsuspecting inhabitants are now the Queen's to command:
Convinced that the island was “his best find so far, with the most promising environment and the most ingenious inhabitants,” he declared to Queen Isabella, “it only remains to establish a Spanish presence and order them to perform your will. For… they are yours to command and make them work, sow seed, and do whatever else is necessary, and build a town, and teach them to wear clothes and adopt our customs.”
Zuboff brings in the philosopher John Searle's work on speech acts to help us grasp just what is going on with this type of declaration:
A declaration is a particular way of speaking and acting that establishes facts out of thin air, creating a new reality where there was nothing [...] asserting a new reality by describing the world as if a desired change were already true: “All humans are created equal.” “They are yours to command.” As Searle concludes, “All of institutional reality, and therefore… all of human civilization is created by… declarations.”
A key feature of this conquest is the insistence on its inevitability, as we hear also in the ed-tech world (Instructure CEO Dan Goldsmith: "So when you think about adaptive and personalized learning I think it's inevitable..." and also the inevitabilism of the #ChangeWithAnalytics campaign):
As historian Matthew Restall writes: Sixteenth-century Spaniards consistently presented their deeds and those of their compatriots in terms that prematurely anticipated the completion of Conquest campaigns and imbued Conquest chronicles with an air of inevitability. The native people were summoned, advised, and forewarned in a language they could not fathom to surrender without resistance in recognition of authorities they could not conceive.
Zuboff then presents the claims of Google, showing how they serve the same function of conquest:
(1) We claim human experience as raw material free for the taking. 
(2) On the basis of our claim, we assert the right to take an individual’s experience for translation into behavioral data.  
(3) Our right to take, based on our claim of free raw material, confers the right to own the behavioral data derived from human experience.  
(4) Our rights to take and to own confer the right to know what the data disclose.  
(5) Our rights to take, to own, and to know confer the right to decide how we use our knowledge.  
(6) Our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide confer our rights to the conditions that preserve our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide.
As Zuboff shows, while it was Google who pioneered this data-dispossession strategy, it is now a pervasive corporate practice, and of course we see it in the new moves by the LMSes, as Instructure has claimed the right to consider what we do inside the LMS as experience free for them to take and to translate into behavioral data (even if that has nothing to do with the goals and purposes of our actions). On that basis, Instructure also claims the right to know what that data disclose (even if we do not need or want an ed-tech company to know these things about us), and to act on that knowledge (even if those actions are misguided or unwelcome, like the Gradebook labeling).

The "division of learning" that Zuboff then invokes is meant to echo the "division of labor," which was a hallmark of late 19th- and 20th-century capitalism.
In our time the division of learning emerges from the economic sphere as a new principle of social order and reflects the primacy of learning, information, and knowledge in today’s quest for effective life. [...]  Today our societies are threatened as the division of learning drifts into pathology and injustice at the hands of the unprecedented asymmetries of knowledge and power that surveillance capitalism has achieved.
Now, instead of a division of labor, it is a division of learning, which involves knowledge, authority, and power, expressed in the form of three questions:
The first question is “Who knows?”
The second question is “Who decides?”
The third question is “Who decides who decides?”
The deskilling of humans in order to invest in machines which Zuboff describes as an early phase of surveillance capitalism is exactly the crisis we are now facing in education, as more and more purveyors of ed-tech tell us that it is not the teachers or the students who know; it is the machines... and so we should invest, not in people, but in those machines, turning over not just our money, but also the actual work of education.
The answer to the question Who knows? was that the machine knows, along with an elite cadre able to wield the analytic tools to troubleshoot and extract value from information. [...] How different might our society be if US businesses had chosen to invest in people as well as in machines? [...] Most companies opted for the smart machine over smart people, producing a well-documented pattern that favors substituting machines and their algorithms for human contributors in a wide range of jobs.
Indeed! And how different the whole field of online education would look right now if most schools and colleges had spent the past 20 years investing not in LMS companies and their contraptions, but instead in the teachers and students who are engaged in the actual work of education.

As a result of the data-dispossession process which is now fully entrenched in education, the LMSes and companies like TurnItIn control what Zuboff describes as the two texts. There is one outward text which we both read and write: our posts in the LMS discussion boards, the answers we enter for quizzes, the essays we deposit in the dropbox. That first text might feel like it is "us," like it is "ours," but it is in reality just a business mechanism, a way for Instructure and TurnItIn to construct the shadow text on which their data-based businesses depend:
The first text actually functions as the supply operation for the second text: the shadow text. [...] The shadow text is a burgeoning accumulation of behavioral surplus and its analyses, and it says more about us than we can know about ourselves. [...] Worse still, it becomes increasingly difficult, and perhaps impossible, to refrain from contributing to the shadow text. It automatically feeds on our experience as we engage in the normal and necessary routines of social participation. [...] As the source from which all the treasure flows, this second text is about us, but it is not for us. Instead, it is created, maintained, and exploited outside our awareness for others’ benefit.
This is why Instructure is going to find it very hard to accommodate requests to opt-out of the data-mining. It used to be that we could just use the LMS, and all the data was just dumped at the end of the course. Now, all that digital exhaust is what the company runs on; they cannot do without it, which means they cannot just let us opt out. And, just like the conquistadors, they did not ask us to opt in. They simply took the data, building the shadow text without securing our permission to do so, at least not in any meaningful way. Instead, they presented us with take-it-or-leave-it terms-of-service that simply made us the Queen's to command.

The dangers are real, and they are much bigger than ed-tech; as Zuboff shows, this is a question about the future of democracy, about the future of "the future" itself:
Surveillance capitalism’s ability to corrupt and control these texts produces unprecedented asymmetries of knowledge and power. [...] These trends [are] incompatible not only with privacy but with the very possibility of democracy, which depends upon a reservoir of individual capabilities associated with autonomous moral judgment and self-determination.
And for those of us who believe in democratic education, these words from Paul Schwartz (Director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology) are chilling:
The more that is known about a person, the easier it is to control him. Insuring the liberty that nourishes democracy requires a structuring of societal use of information and even permitting some concealment of information.
So too with ed-tech: knowing "everything" about students in order to more fully control them does not advance the cause of education; just the opposite.

Zuboff closes the chapter with the warning that the struggle we now face is unprecedented. That is also why we were caught off guard:
We were caught off guard because there was no way that we could have imagined these acts of invasion and dispossession, any more than the first unsuspecting TaĆ­no cacique could have foreseen the rivers of blood that would flow from his inaugural gesture of hospitality toward the hairy, grunting, sweating men, the adelantados who appeared out of thin air waving the banner of the Spanish monarchs and their pope as they trudged across the beach.
I remember how these passages about the Conquest floored me when I read the book the first time last spring. For literally 20 years I looked on the LMS as some clunky piece of junk, and I could not understand why teachers were using it when we had so many better alternatives. In my preoccupation with the clunkiness of the LMS, like the awkwardness of those grunting, sweating conquistadors, I failed to realize how sinister the LMS had become until there it was: machine-learning and predictive algorithms that claim to foretell my students' educational outcomes before we even begin the semester, dispossessing us of our right to the future tense. It is our freedom that is at stake here:
These operations challenge our elemental right to the future tense, which is the right to act free of the influence of illegitimate forces that operate outside our awareness to influence, modify, and condition our behavior.
So ends Part I of Zuboff's book, and I'll move on to Part II next week.

~ ~ ~

An Instructure update. Back in July, Jared Stein wrote a blog post at the Canvas blog: Power to the People with Canvas Data and Analytics (and just as Zuboff warns, the cycle of data dispossession likes to wrap itself up in the rhetoric of freedom and empowerment). At the time, Jared said there would be further details in a future blog post, so I just now checked to see if another post had shown up. Nothing yet, but I saw this new post: Growing the Wonderful World of Learning.  Check out the first sentence; it's one of those surreal declarations that is gaslight-worthy: We don’t look at education as a “business”

Anyway, nothing new yet at the Canvas blog about the possibilities of a data opt-out but until I actually hear the words "no, there will be no opt-out," I am going to keep on asking.

And I'll be back with Chapter 7 of Zuboff next week. Thanks for reading!

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