#MobilityShifts – Day 2: Privacy, Surveillence and the Academic Commons [guest post]
I’m writing this in the lounge area of the Manhattan hotel at which I’m staying. There’s some people warming up for an evening out with a few cocktails and others, like me, busy on their digital devices. The whole scene is bathed in relaxing yet upbeat music. Happily, this matches the mood I’m in after attending two sessions at the Mobility Shifts conference today.
The Cryptopticon: The New Nature of Privacy and Surveillance
The first session I attended was led by Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivavaid) who spent about an hour and twenty minutes (including questions) on the nature of privacy and surveillance. In a nutshell, he argued that Jeremy Bentham’s (metaphorical) idea of the State having a ‘panopticon‘ which keeps us all in line through fear is not, in fact, what we should be afraid of.
Instead, Siva argued, we need to be aware of the ‘cryptopticon’ and the data mining of private actors (i.e. the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon). This is particularly important in education for two reasons. Firstly, classrooms are simultaneously non-public and non-private spaces in which students can ‘try on ideas for size’. Individuals can venture opinions and then backtrack as needed without being held accountable further down the line. Secondly, educators can play devil’s advocate over a sustained period of time, effectivly ‘lying’ to their students in order to provoke a reaction. Siva gave the example of a class on politics where to shake up a ‘lazy unanimity’ amongst his students, he played the part of a classical neoliberal. This drew out nuances between the positions of students which were otherwise in broad agreement. The classroom, he stated, is a place for deliberation and therefore shouldn’t be recorded.
I won’t rehearse the entire session, but interestingly Siva mentioned that we have a ‘flattened vocabulary’ when it comes to ‘privacy’. Indeed, we don’t really know what it means. The definition Siva gives is, “the autonomy to manage one’s reputation among various contexts”. Such a definition makes statements such as ‘the death of privacy’ meaningless. We need privacy for twp main reasons, argued Siva:
- To protect our own dignity (we should be the ones that get to tell the world about ourselves)
- To mitigate harm and prevent extortion (for example, we should be able to get whatever books we want out of a library without fear of reprisal)
The State and private companies collecting (and mining) data have no interest, argued Siva, in the ‘panopticon’ model of surveillance. Why? Because it leads to individual self-censorship meaning that the information being collected is not accurate. The State wants the terrorist to act like a terrorist so that they get caught, and the private company wants the individual to display patterns of behaviour that will enable them to better serve up advertisements. It is the ‘cryptopitican’ of which we should be wary: the hidden surveillance that is practically invisible because it is layered with obscurity in ever-changing privacy policies. After all, unless you think there is a problem, there is no need to go looking for one.
In the Q&A session afterwards, I asked Siva what he thought about schools and universities adopting things like Google Apps Education Edition and Microsoft Live@Edu. He replied that his own university is going down this route and that he has campaigned for the administrators to enter negotiations with a list of demands and questions of Google. However, it’s difficult when what is being offered is powerful and free. The administrators talk, Siva noted, of ‘balances’ and ‘trade-offs’, a notion that he rejects. How do you measure ‘privacy’ and ‘security’? If they can’t be measured, they can’t be ‘balanced’.
Open Education: The University and the Commons
Matthew K. Gold (@mkgold) led the second session I attended today. He talked about:
- The CUNY Academic Commons
- The Commons
- New Models for the Networked Commons
Having spent the vast majority of my career thus far in schools I saw that this is just as much an issue for school leaders and teachers as it is for academics. How do we foster a sense of collegiality and experimentation whilst maintaining rigour? Matt, as Director of the CUNY (City University of New York) Academic Commons, has worked with others such as Boone Gorges (@boone) to create a decentralised, DIY space based on Open Source software for students and educators to interact.
There was much to like in Matt’s fast-paced presentation, not least his mantra that the ‘service model’ of IT provision disempowers and inhibits educators and academics. Partly due to funding, partly from underlying philosophy, the staff associated with the CUNY Academic Commons will only help educators and academics help themselves. They won’t do it all for you. Yes, they could have just used Facebook but to do so would have been building equity for a private company at the expense of empowering others.
Another refreshing thing to hear was that they wanted activity around objects rather than to be a repository for the objects themselves. The activity and objects would be open and public by default, with the option to make spaces more private. The structure of the spaces would grow organically, like a beehive with many entry points. Matt quoted with approval Tom Scheinfelt: “We judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used.”
CUNY Academic Commons uses a combination of WordPress, a ‘social networking plugin’ called BuddyPress and MediaWiki (the platform that Wikipedia runs upon). Small things, such as developing plugins that allow single sign-on between MediaWiki and WordPress/BuddyPress can be very important for gaining traction. The profiles, groups, and discussion spaces allow for improved scholarly communication, argued Matt.
After giving this overview of the CUNY Academic Commons, Matt gave an overview of the notion of a ‘Commons’ more generally. He stated that, in essence, it is a shared resource often to do with land. The debate and conversation around the Commons, however, has been skewed by a 1968 publication entitled The Tragedy of the Commons which argued that any such arrangement would collapse due to self-interest. Matt argued with Lewis Hyde (author of Common as Air) that “A true commons is a stinted thing”. In other words, all true Commons are bounded in some way. In fact, quoting David Harvey this time, Matt argued that the Commons is less a space and more a state of mind. We should be talking of a ‘cornucopia of the commons’ as the more people invest in it, the more valuable it becomes.
To finish off, Matt gave some examples of Commons that are in existence or will soon come into being:
- Academic Commons
- Flickr Commons (an interesting example as it’s actually built upon a proprietary platform)
- Wikimedia Commons
- Smithsonian Institution
- Media Commons
- Humanities Commons
Practices in this area are developing all the time with a recent development being ‘middle-state publishing’ (academic publishing in the liminal space between a blog post and a journal article). At the same time, Matt issued a warning about practices in new spaces. We shouldn’t just move existing conversations to new, more open and public spaces without thinking how and why we are doing so.
Perhaps the best reason to build an Academic Commons, however, was the reason given right at the end of the session. Invoking Zittrain’s notion of ‘generative spaces’, Matt argued that without open, emergent and organic spaces for people to come together we will never come across the unanticipated changes that make groups, organizations and societies better.
These two sessions had the potential to be heavy-going and quite depressing. However, there’s a real sense of hope and energy pushing towards a brighter future at this conference. What’s exciting is that, whilst we may be in the midst of the worst financial crisis in living memory, there’s people thinking about new, different and better ways for society and education to be structured. What’s necessary, however, for (positive) unexpected consequences to emerge is for those in control, the administrators, to facilitate experimentation.
Random things I saw in New York today:
- A man carrying a sack of concrete on his back. Whilst riding a bike.
- A baby wearing an If found crying, feed burgers babygro.
- Special ice-creams for dogs (at Shake Shack, Madison Square Garden)
Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.