Month: September 2017

Resisting the surveillance project: Siân Bayne keynote at #altc

This keynote presentation began by describing the ‘slow death’ of Yik Yak, an anonymous geosocial networking app launched in 2013.  The software allowed people in close proximity to send and receive short, anonymous messages and write posts (Yaks).  It was heavily marketed on university campuses.  Yik Yak was totally anonymous, and was moderated by community voting.  Edinburgh students used the app to ask questions.  The hyperlocality of the app meant that interactions were limited (e.g. discipline specific, location specific) rather than campus-wide.

Between July 2016 and May 2017, 46,637 Yaks were downloaded and analysis.  In addition, two undergraduate research assistants kept reflective diaries, and data was pulled from other studies the researchers were involved with at the time.

The research team assumed that the hyperlocality of Yik Yak was the key element, but in fact anonymity was the the most important thing for students.  The app developers made a similar misjudgement.  Their tinkering with the app eventually removed the anonymity and this was followed by outcry from the user base.  The return of anonymity was eventually restored, and the data gathered by Edinburgh showed that, for their local users, use of the app picked up again.  At a global level it never recovered, and Yik Yak went from #3 in the download charts in 2014 to #447 by 2016.  On 6 May, 2017 the app was closed down and the company sold for $1 million – having been valued at $400 million just two years before. The failure of the developers to understand the importance of anonymity in their app was symptomatic of a more general failure to understand the value of their product for their market.

There was widely reported abuse, harassment, victimisation and toxicity on Yik Yak, and this was to some extent enabled by the anonymity.  To deal with this, the developers tagged the app as for adults on the App Store, and prevented the app from working in schools.  This cut a lot of the user base.  A system of word filtering was also introduced to flag potentially offensive tweets.  The community also tended to down-vote abuse and up-vote positive messages.  Black, Mezzina & Thompson (2016) found that there was abuse on Yik Yak, but not so much as to demonise the platform as a whole.

Bachmann et al (2017) argue that anonymity can enable disinhibition and create safe spaces:  anonymity need not be associated with toxicity.  Students at Edinburgh used Yik Yak as a support network, notably for mental health issues. Bayne argues that we need to stop seeing anonymity as evidence of some kind of deviancy or an unwillingness to reveal.  As Nissenbaum (1999) argues, the value of anonymity is in acting or participating while remaining out of reach and unattainable.  (Compare this with the ubiquity of Facebook and the way that it is practically essential for students who wish to have a social life or join groups.) Lanchester (2017) provides a good overview of worries about Facebook surveillance.  Bachmann et al (2017) make the point that anonymity is a barrier to both platform capitalism and surveillance culture more generally.

Two conclusions:

  1. When designing digital learning environments, we need to allocate space for un-namability and ephemerality.  E.g. designing pop-up tools that delete themselves.
  2. The surveillance project is opposed to our instincts for an effective life.  Zuboff et al (2015) suggest this leads to a kind of psychic numbing that makes us less attentive to the operations of surveillance capitalism.  In designing teaching we should actively educate against ‘psychic numbing’.
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Open Cyborgs at #altc

I’m in Liverpool this week for the annual ALT Conference. I’m primarily here as part of the UK Open Textbooks project to assist and understand the adoption strategy used by OpenStax.

In the opening keynote Bonnie Stewart encouraged us to understand embodied work and embodied perspectives as important as the ‘rational’ perspectives that have traditionally informed academic inquiry.  She appealed to Haraway’s (1985) socio-feminist conception of the cyborg as a model for open practice in education.  “The cyborg gives me a model of hope and possibility… not faithful to norms (as in a bell curve) but capable of inspiring actions and projects.”  My own reading of Haraway identifies this position with the following adjectives: genderless; un-alienated; independent; oppositional; un-hierarchical; rhizomatic; irreverent; subversive; quintessential; bodily; illegitimate; monstrous; inorganic.  (Most of these appear to be negatively defined – i.e. defined by what they are not. This is also common for open approaches.)

Representation Simulation
Bourgeois novel (realism) Science Fiction (postmodernism)
Organism Biotic component
Depth Surface
Perfection Optimization
Organic division of labour Cybernetics of labour
Reproduction Replication
Community ecology Ecosystem
Freud Lacan
Sex Genetic engineering
Mind Artificial Intelligence
World War II Star Wars
White capitalist patriarchy Informatics of domination

I found this table more helpful in explaining the difference between traditional, hierarchical positions and the “informatics of domination”. (I left out some of the more esoteric elements of the table.) Here are a couple of quotes that also seem to be useful for understanding the position:

“The cyborg is not subject to Foucault’s biopolitics; the cyborg stimulates politics, a much more potent field of operations.” (p.302)

“One important route for reconstructing socio-feminist politics is through theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technology, including crucially the system of myth and meanings structuring our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must code.” (p.302)

I am not sure I understand the cyborg theory outlined in the paper well enough to say whether it really makes sense – but it’s an interesting take on how to identfy the normative dimensions of openness. For me it’s perhaps close to the kind of contrarianism presented in Deleuze & Guattari’s (1972) Anti-Oedipus, perhaps because of the common interest in Lacanian decentralisation of the psyche.  (Similarly, they also speak of ‘desiring machines’ and ‘rhizomes’.)(Wikipedia reports that feminist Lacanians like Irigaray also an influence.)

Haraway summarises her argument as follows:

  1. The production of total, universalising theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality (probably always and certainly now)
  2. Taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts

Cyborg theory is anti-essentialist and aims at overcoming the patriarchal dualisms, taxonomies and logics (self/other, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial) that have characterised Western history.  This belief in emancipation and freedom is one that many open practitioners share, but here the approach is deconstructive.