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Authoritarian structures and the open web

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 03, 2017

Jesse Kriss wonders whether we’ve been acclimating ourselves to a more authoritarian system for some time, not just through politics, but in our technical and commercial choices. Like, say, whichever social network you might have used to route to this story right now.

We live with our technological and political systems. They are part of the fabric and substance of our everyday existence. That is significant, but it also goes deeper: their embedded values and philosophies are inescapable.

The systems we use everyday can have insidious effects: we internalize them, and they constrain our imaginations. When everything around us mirrors the same structural properties, those positions and impositions become invisible to us-we don’t even realize that they’re there, or that it could be any other way.

This isn’t to say that big systems have to be evil-far from it-but when everything is this way, our democracy, our agency, our freedom, and our imagination are all at risk.

This is by way of introducing a now two-weeks-old open-source project called Altcloud, described as “a web server with some niceties build in so that you can create real applications without any backend code or external services.” It’s probably beyond my talents, but I imagine more than a few Kottke readers could build some cool things with something like that.

Yesterday, I was talking with my friend Audrey Watters, a technology journalist, historian, and education activist. For years, Audrey’s been critical of education technology companies — their data and privacy practices, their close ties to the military and prison-industrial complexes, their historical myopia, and their ideologies about what learning is and what (and who) it is for. And basically, what she’s always done is to try to articulate an antifascist alternative to education technology, knowing that the roots of what we do now lies in the command-and-control models we borrowed from Nazi Germany, American slavery (and the systems that succeeded it), and the most exploitative and totalitarian sides of good old-fashioned liberal capitalism.

In a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump,” she writes:

I’m concerned, in no small part, because students are often unaware of the amount of data that schools and the software companies they contract with know about them. I’m concerned because students are compelled to use software in educational settings. You can’t opt out of the learning management system. You can’t opt out of the student information system. You can’t opt out of required digital textbooks or digital assignments or digital assessments. You can’t opt out of the billing system or the financial aid system. You can’t opt of having your cafeteria purchases, Internet usage, dorm room access, fitness center habits tracked. Your data as a student is scattered across multiple applications and multiple databases, most of which I’d wager are not owned or managed by the school itself but rather outsourced to a third-party provider.

School software (and I’m including K-12 software here alongside higher ed) knows your name, your birth date, your mailing address, your home address, your race or ethnicity, your gender (I should note here that many education technologies still require “male” or “female” and do not allow for alternate gender expressions). It knows your marital status. It knows your student identification number (it might know your Social Security Number). It has a photo of you, so it knows your face. It knows the town and state in which you were born. Your immigration status. Your first language and whether or not that first language is English. It knows your parents’ language at home. It knows your income status - that is, at the K-12 level, if you quality for a free or reduced lunch and at the higher ed level, if you qualify for a Pell Grant. It knows if you are the member of a military family. It knows if you have any special education needs. It knows if you were identified as “gifted and talented.” It knows if you graduated high school or passed a high school equivalency exam. It knows your attendance history - how often you miss class as well as which schools you’ve previously attended. It knows your behavioral history. It knows your criminal history. It knows your participation in sports or other extracurricular activities. It knows your grade level. It knows your major. It knows the courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned. It knows your standardized test scores.

This has always been a problem, but now it’s a problem with a different kind of relevance and a different range of endgames. Data can be destroyed, which hurts us one way, or it can be operationalized and abused, which hurts us in another. Data can also make us complicit, by limiting our range of expectations, encouraging us to accept compromised outcomes and successes and not question too closely what forces are moving behind the scenes. Trust given is not easily revoked; and trust abused is not easily regained.