August 18, 2019

Zuboff, Chapter 4: How Google Got Away With It

Last week was Zuboff's chapter on the discovery of surveillance capitalism, based on using surplus behavioral data for user profiles and predictions; the parallels to the LMS were, in my opinion, both clear and frightening, and that was the focus of my post. In this week's post, I'll be sharing my notes on Zuboff's chapter about "how Google got away with it," and, coincidentally, this week is also when Google announced two new moves in its effort to automate education: on Wednesday, they announced a plagiarism policing service which got widespread attention in the Twitterverse (my part of the Twitterverse anyway); on Thursday, they announced an AI-powered tutoring tool, Socratic. It is the tutoring tool which I think is far more alarming, although my quick test of the tutor led to some laughable results (see below).

So, for this week, my notes about Zuboff's book will be less detailed since the chapter is mostly about Google, but I would urge everybody to think about Google's very aggressive new moves into the education world. Here is some of the initial coverage in TechCrunch, and I hope we will see some detailed critical analysis soon: Google’s new ‘Assignments’ software for teachers helps catch plagiarism and Google discloses its acquisition of mobile learning app Socratic as it relaunches on iOS.

And now, some notes from Zuboff, Chapter 4: The Moat Around the Castle.

~ ~ ~

Chapter 4 opens with a historical take on capitalism as appropriation and dispossession, where "things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities." We've seen this happen most clearly at TurnItIn, where students had been writing school work for decades; it took TurnItIn to figure out how to turn student writing into a billion-dollar business. As Zuboff explained in detail already in the previous chapter, the extraction process reduces our subjective experience into behavioral data for machine learning:
human experience is subjugated to surveillance capitalism’s market mechanisms and reborn as “behavior.” These behaviors are rendered into data, ready to take their place in a numberless queue that feeds the machines for fabrication into predictions
In return, we get "personalized" products (personalized education is inevitable, as Instructure's CEO has proclaimed), but the real story is the larger corporate agenda:
Even when knowledge derived from our behavior is fed back to us as a quid pro quo for participation, as in the case of so-called “personalization,” parallel secret operations pursue the conversion of surplus into sales that point far beyond our interests.
For that corporate agenda to move forward, we must be denied power over the future use of our data, making us "exiles from our own behavior" as Zuboff explains, carrying on with her metaphor of home and sanctuary:
We are exiles from our own behavior, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. Knowledge, authority, and power rest with surveillance capital, for which we are merely “human natural resources.”
After these preliminaries, Zuboff then moves into a detailed examination of the factors that allowed Google to get away with it, an examination that will carry on for the rest of the book:
“How did they get away with it?” It is an important question that we will return to throughout this book.
Some of the factors are specific to Google as a company, but some of them also parallel moves that we see in the ed tech world, such as the way that we are being asked to simply trust Instructure with our data, without legal protections:
In the absence of standard checks and balances, the public was asked to simply “trust” [Google's] founders. [...] Schmidt insisted that Google needed no regulation because of strong incentives to “treat its users right.”
In the case of education, FERPA is indeed an almost 50-year-old law (well, 45 years; Wikipedia), just the kind of legal framework that Google's Larry Page has scoffed at:
“Old institutions like the law and so on aren’t keeping up with the rate of change that we’ve caused through technology.… The laws when we went public were 50 years old. A law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old, like it’s before the internet.”
Zuboff then provides a detailed analysis of the impact that the events of September 11 had both on Google's corporate agenda, as well as the government's surveillance efforts. That discussion is not directly relevant to education, but it got me to thinking how the rise of the LMS coincided with the "great adjunctification" of the higher ed workforce. Because of the LMS, schools could experiment with centrally designed courses that could be staffed at a moment's notice with part-time temporary faculty. The LMS was not created in order to make that possible, but the availability of the LMS certainly made the adjunctification of higher ed much easier over the past two decades.

Zuboff also has a chilling section on the role that Google played in the elections of 2008 and 2012, along with an inventory of Google's enormous political lobbying efforts.

Towards the end of the chapter, Zuboff presents this description of Google's Page and Schmidt to sum things up:
Two men at Google who do not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercise control over the organization and presentation of the world’s information.
I have much the same feeling about the engineers at Instructure and other ed-tech companies: without being teachers themselves, and without being directly accountable to teachers (but instead accountable to schools and those schools' IT departments), they exercise control over the organization of our schooling.

We need and deserve better, and so do our students.

~ ~ ~

P.S. Unrelated to Zuboff's book, I tested the new Google Socratic and it was a total failure with both questions I tried. Has anyone else tried it with success? I guess I am glad that it looks to be so bad!

For example, I asked it what do bush cats eat (something I actually was researching earlier today)... and the response from Socratic was a Yahoo Answers item about a house cat who eats leaves from a lilac bush, and the owner is worried that they might be poisonous. Poor Socrates didn't recognize "bush cat" is another name for the African serval. It thought I was asking what-kind-of-bush do cats eat, as opposed to my actual question, which was "what do bush cats eat?" I didn't mean to trick it, but that was pretty funny once I figured out how the computer misunderstood the question. (And yes, I really was learning about bush cats earlier today, ha ha, re: this story: How a Hunter obtained Money from his Friends the Leopard, Goat, Bush Cat, and Cock, and how he got out of repaying them.)

For your viewing pleasure, this is a bush cat (photo by Danny Idelevich):

Then, I asked what I thought would be an easy question: what was the first Cinderella story? But instead of sending me to the Wikipedia article on Cinderella, it sent me to the Wikipedia article about the Toy Story film franchise. I'm not even sure what's up with that one.

Anyway, the official Google post says that Socratic is ready to help... but it sure doesn't look like it to me. Help-not-help ha ha.

and now...
Happy Back-to-School, everybody!

UPDATE: Here are the notes on Chapter 5: The Dispossession Cycle

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