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Audrey Watters

Unfair Taxes

3 min read

Here's another rant I posted to Facebook today (in lieu of my actual work):

 What counts as “fair share” of taxes is a totally subjective assessment. Most Americans do believe that the wealthy and corporations do not pay their “fair share,” although according to Pew, Democrats find this much more disconcerting than Republicans do. (Corporate taxes today make up around 10% of federal revenues, down from about a third of revenues in the 1950s.)

Sure, people have every right to claim deductions. But we aren’t talking about Trump taking advantage of deductions here, ffs.

If nothing else, we should recognize the way in which tax laws are set up and how the tax structure benefits the affluent much more than the poor – from deductions for having a mortgage to the low rate on capital gains. And it’s the latter in particular that has helped fuel the growing economic inequality in this country. The wealthy – including folks like Trump – are quite skilled at moving their money into categories that take advantage of lower tax rates so that they aren’t being taxed on income (at a high rate) but are taxed on investments (at a lower rate). They can afford to hire lawyers and accountants to do so.

While individual income tax does make up the largest share of government revenues, the fastest growing part of that revenue comes from the payroll tax. And most Americans – all but the wealthiest 20% – pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes.

To Susanne’s point: Trump seemed to indicate last night he pays nothing in taxes. I agree with her that that is wrong. It is grossly unfair. (Indeed, some of the reporting out of The Washington Post suggests that Trump has used his foundation to commit tax fraud in his attempts to avoid paying taxes.) The Clintons, for what it’s worth, paid over $3 million. I’m sure that had they hired “the best people” as Trump does, they could have whittled that down. But they didn’t. Because when you are wealthy, you have an obligation to help fuel prosperity for everyone, not just line your own pockets. And almost all economists agree that raising taxes on the wealthy would have enormous benefits, including addressing the growing inequality that this country faces.

Audrey Watters

Presidential Debate, No. 1

3 min read

I come from a long line of racists. I mean, let’s be honest white folks, we all do.

But all I can think right now is of my dad (RIP Kirk), who called me in tears on November 4, 2008 because he had cast his first vote for a Democrat in a presidential election.

I’m from Wyoming. One of the reddest states. You’re either a Republican there or you might as well be a Commie.

My dad called me that night in tears because he was proud of his vote and, I think, frightened of his vote. He said his dad would be rolling in his grave that his son had voted for a Black president. “What was this country coming to? A better place. A better place,” he kept repeating.

My dad said he couldn’t vote for McCain. He just couldn’t. He couldn’t support McCain if the guy would pick Palin as his running mate. To acquiesce to the kind of people who support Palin, he said, was to surrender everything that had made the Republican Party great; and even more, everything that had made this very flawed country believe in progress. “She doesn’t believe in dinosaurs, for fuck’s sake,” he said.

It wasn’t a vote for Obama. Let’s be clear. My dad was one helluva polite white supremacist, I’ll give him that much.

And that’s the Republican Party I knew as a kid in Wyoming, I suppose. One that believed in free markets and war and whiteness but also dinosaurs.

I don’t recognize much about the GOP today. Oh I do recognize the racism, for sure. I recognize the sexism. But there’s something about Trump, about his smug selfishness, sure, but about his willful dismissal of facts and truths – “We hold these truths to be self-evident” – that would have driven my dad and my dad’s dad to another party at this stage. I’m sure of it. I’m not sure how anyone, quite frankly, could have watched Trump in tonight’s debate and then pronounced “that’s my guy.” My dad and my grandpa – small businessmen, both of them – paid taxes, not because they were “dumb” as Trump suggested tonight, but because that’s what you do as a responsible citizen.

I want to write more about all of thisthis. About this embrace of factlessness and fantasy. About selfishness in lieu of sacrifice. But mostly I want to be able to understand how so many people I grew up with and love can support someone like Trump – someone who I think (and I think my dad would think too) is really poised to unravel everything everything that “we” – we white folks, we the people, what have you – have worked toward.

Why, it’s almost as though once “we” are confronted with extending rights and dignity to everyone – “all men are created equal” – that white folks would rather burn it to the ground than let people of color have access to freedom and justice and happiness.

Audrey Watters

Staying with the Trouble

15 min read

Notes and highlights from Donna Haraway's latest book Staying with the Trouble:

Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” “to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We—all of us on Terra—live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times.

Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.

In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

[Notice the spelling, intentionally re-spelling Lovecraft]


Nothing in kainos must mean conventional pasts, presents, or futures.

Chthonic ones romp in multicritter humus but have no truck with sky-gazing Homo.

Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one;

They make and unmake; they are made and unmade.

Kin is a wild category that all sorts of people do their best to domesticate. Making kin as oddkin rather than, or at least in addition to, godkin and genealogical and biogenetic family troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible.

Anthropocene. Capitalocene.

The first is easy to describe and, I think, dismiss, namely, a comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious: technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children, or what amounts to the same thing, God will come to the rescue of his disobedient but ever hopeful children.

The second response, harder to dismiss, is probably even more destructive: namely, a position that the game is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make anything any better, or at least no sense having any active trust in each other in working and playing for a resurgent world.

This book argues and tries to perform that, eschewing futurism, staying with the trouble is both more serious and more lively.

Companion species are relentlessly becoming-with.

Pigeons are also “creatures of empire”—that is, animals who went with European colonists and conquerors all over the world, including places where other varieties of their kind were already well established, transforming ecologies and politics for everybody in ways that still ramify through multispecies flesh and contested landscapes.

Building naturalcultural economies and lives for thousands of years, these critters are also infamous for ecological damage and biosocial upheaval.

They are treasured kin and despised pests, subjects of rescue and of invective, bearers of rights and components of the animal-machine, food and neighbor, targets of extermination and of biotechnological breeding and multiplication, companions in work and play and carriers of disease, contested subjects and objects of “modern progress” and “backward tradition.”

Becoming-with people for several thousand years, domestic pigeons (Columba livia domestica) emerged from birds native to western and southern Europe, North Africa, and western and southern Asia. Rock doves came with Europeans to the Americas, entering North America through Port Royal in Nova Scotia in 1606.

Called “rats with wings,” feral pigeons are subjects of vituperation and extermination, but they also become cherished opportunistic companions who are fed and watched avidly all over the world.

Domestic rock doves have worked as spies carrying messages, racing birds, fancy pigeons at fairs and bird markets, food for working families, psychological test subjects, Darwin’s interlocutors on the power of artificial selection, and more.

Pigeons are competent agents—in the double sense of both delegates and actors—who render each other and human beings capable of situated social, ecological, behavioral, and cognitive practices.

My hope is that these knots propose promising patterns for multispecies response-ability inside ongoing trouble.

In Project Sea Hunt in the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. Coast Guard worked with pigeons, who were better at spotting men and equipment in open water than human beings.16 Indeed, pigeons were accurate 93 percent of the time, compared to human accuracy in similar problems of 38 percent.

Clearly, the pigeons and Coast Guard personnel had to learn how to communicate with each other, and the pigeons had to learn what their humans were interested in seeing. In nonmimetic ways, people and birds had to invent pedagogical and technological ways to render each other capable in problems novel to all of them.

Not very many kinds of other-than-human critters have convinced human skeptics that the animals recognize themselves in a mirror—a talent made known to scientists by such actions as picking at paint spots or other marks on one’s body that are visible only in a mirror. Pigeons share this capacity with, at least, human children over two years old, rhesus macaques, chimpanzees, magpies, dolphins, and elephants.

Pigeons passed their first mirror tests in the laboratories of B. F. Skinner in 1981.

pigeons did better at self-recognition tests with both mirrors and live video images of themselves than three-year-old human children.

“It would seem that our pigeons do quite a good job of exhibiting an agape type of love toward each other . . . Our pigeons are actually doing the work of real love.”

“The pigeon ‘backpack’ developed for this project consisted of a combined GPS (latitude, longitude, altitude) / GSM (cell phone tower communication) unit and corresponding antennas, a dual automotive CO/NOx pollution sensor, a temperature sensor, a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card interface, a microcontroller and standard supporting electronic components.


To re-member, to com-memorate, is actively to reprise, revive, retake, recuperate.

They remember; they entice and prolong into the fleshly present what would disappear without the active reciprocity of partners. Homing or racing pigeons and feral pigeons call both their emergent and traditional peoples to response-ability, and vice versa. City dwellers and rural people of different species and modes of living and dying make each other colombophiles talentueux in company with voyageurs fiables.

the municipal pigeon tower certainly cannot undo unequal treaties, conquest, and wetlands destruction; but it is nonetheless a possible thread in a pattern for ongoing, noninnocent, interrogative, multispecies getting on together.

Companion species infect each other all the time. Pigeons are world travelers, and such beings are vectors and carry many more, for good and for ill. Bodily ethical and political obligations are infectious, or they should be. Cum panis, companion species, at table together. Why tell stories like my pigeon tales, when there are only more and more openings and no bottom lines? Because there are quite definite response-abilities that are strengthened in such stories.

As spies, racers, messengers, urban neighbors, iridescent sexual exhibitionists, avian parents, gender assistants for people, scientific subjects and objects, art-engineering environmental reporters, search-and-rescue workers at sea, imperialist invaders, discriminators of painting styles, native species, pets, and more,

Nobody lives everywhere; everybody lives somewhere. Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.

denizens of the depths, from the abyssal and elemental entities, called chthonic.

Their many appendages make string figures; they entwine me in the poiesis—the making—of speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fact, speculative feminism, soin de ficelle, so far. The tentacular ones make attachments and detachments; they ake cuts and knots; they make a difference; they weave paths and consequences but not determinisms; they are both open and knotted in some ways and not others. SF is storytelling and fact telling; it is the patterning of possible worlds and possible times, material-semiotic worlds, gone, here, and yet to come. I work with string figures as a theoretical trope, a way to think-with a host of companions in sympoietic threading, felting, tangling, tracking, and sorting. I work with and in SF as material-semiotic composting, as theory in the mud, as muddle.

In passion and action, detachment and attachment, this is what I call cultivating response-ability; that is also collective knowing and doing, an ecology of practices.

“It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas.”

It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.

What is it to surrender the capacity to think?

In that surrender of thinking lay the “banality of evil” of the particular sort that could make the disaster of the Anthropocene, with its ramped-up genocides and speciescides, come true.

Arendt insisted that thought was profoundly different from what we might call disciplinary knowledge or science rooted in evidence, or the sorting of truth and belief or fact and opinion or good and bad.

Arendt witnessed in Eichmann not an incomprehensible monster, but something much more terrifying—she saw commonplace thoughtlessness.
[NOTE: Not monsters but thoughtlessness]

a deeper surrender to what I would call immateriality, inconsequentiality, or, in Arendt’s and also my idiom, thoughtlessness.

what it means to hold open space for another.

Extinction is a protracted slow death that unravels great tissues of ways of going on in the world for many species, including historically situated people.

Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction . . . The reality, however, is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

Grief is a path to understanding entangled shared living and dying; human beings must grieve with, because we are in and of this fabric of undoing.

Without sustained remembrance, we cannot learn to live with ghosts and so cannot think. Like the crows and with the crows, living and dead “we are at stake in each other’s company.”

carrier bag theory of storytelling
[NOTE: Carrier bag theory of pigeons]

Think we must; we must think. That means, simply, we must change the story; the story must change.

None of the parties in crisis can call on Providence, History, Science, Progress, or any other god trick outside the common fray to resolve the troubles.

sciences, not Science.

This is neither relativism nor rationalism; it is SF, which Latour would call both sciences and scientifiction and I would call both sciences and speculative fabulation—all of which are political sciences, in our aligned approaches.

the time-space-global thing called Anthropocene. The term seems to have been coined in the early 1980s by University of Michigan ecologist Eugene Stoermer (d. 2012),

Still, if we could only have one word for these SF times, surely it must be the Capitalocene.50 Species Man did not shape the conditions for the Third Carbon Age or the Nuclear Age.

Note that insofar as the Capitalocene is told in the idiom of fundamentalist Marxism, with all its trappings of Modernity, Progress, and History, that term is subject to the same or fiercer criticisms. The stories of both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene teeter constantly on the brink of becoming much Too Big. Marx did better than that, as did Darwin. We can inherit their bravery and capacity to tell big-enough stories without determinism, teleology, and plan.

This Chthulucene is neither sacred nor secular; this earthly worlding is thoroughly terran, muddled, and mortal—and at stake now.

technotheocratic geoengineering fixes

Sympoiesis is a simple word; it means “making-with.” Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing.


A model is a work object; a model is not the same kind of thing as a metaphor or analogy. A model is worked, and it does work.

“We Have Never Been Individuals,”


“an idea of what the female bee looked like to the male bee . . . as interpreted by a plant . . . the only memory of the bee is a painting by a dying flower.”

The practice of the arts of memory enfold all terran critters. That must be part of any possibility for resurgence!

Symchthonic stories are not the tales of heroes; they are the tales of the ongoing.

“Make Kin Not Babies!”

Making—and recognizing—kin is perhaps the hardest and most urgent part.

Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans. I was moved in college by Shakespeare’s punning between kin and kind—the kindest were not necessarily kin as family; making kin and making kind (as category, care, relatives without ties by birth, lateral relatives, lots of other echoes) stretch the imagination and can change the story.

Marilyn Strathern taught me that “relatives” in British English were originally “logical relations” and only became “family members” in the seventeenth century—this is definitely among the factoids I love.16 Go outside English, and the wild multiplies.

Kin is an assembling sort of word.

All critters share a common “flesh,” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically.

Cyborgs are kin, whelped in the litter of post–World War II information technologies and globalized digital bodies, politics, and cultures of human and not-human sorts.

they are not hybrids at all. They are, rather, imploded entities, dense material semiotic “things”—articulated string figures of ontologically heterogeneous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating relatings of particular sorts, not all the time everywhere, but here, there, and in between, with consequences.

cyborgs are critters in a queer litter, not the Chief Figure of Our Times.

Conjugating is about yoking together; conjugal love is yoked love; conjugated chemical compounds join together two or more constituents. People conjugate in public spaces; they yoke themselves together transversally and across time and space to make significant things happen.

Marx understood all about how privileged positions block knowledge of the conditions of one’s privilege.

We are all responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, but not in the same ways. The differences matter—in ecologies, economies, species, lives.

So much of earth history has been told in the thrall of the fantasy of the first beautiful words and weapons, of the first beautiful weapons as words and vice versa. Tool, weapon, word: that is the word made flesh in the image of the sky god. In a tragic story with only one real actor, one real world-maker, the hero, this is the Man-making tale of the hunter on a quest to kill and bring back the terrible bounty. This is the cutting, sharp, combative tale of action that defers the suffering of glutinous, earth-rotted passivity beyond bearing. All others in the prick tale are props, ground, plot space, or prey. They don’t matter; their job is to be in the way, to be overcome, to be the road, the conduit, but not the traveler, not the begetter. The last thing the hero wants to know is that his beautiful words and weapons will be worthless without a bag, a container, a net.

Plants, however, they speculated, “do not communicate” and so have no language. Something else is going on in the vegetative world, perhaps something that should be called art.

Emma Goldman’s understanding of anarchist love and rage make sense in the worlds of ants and acacias. These companion species are a prompt to shaggy dog stories—growls, bites, whelps, games, snufflings, and all. Symbiogenesis is not a synonym for the good, but for becoming-with each other in response-ability.

polite inquiry.

“Think we must!”

Why should Virginia Woolf, or any other woman, or men for that matter, be faithful to such patrilines and their demands for sacrifice? Infidelity seems the least we should demand of ourselves!

Hannah Arendt and Virginia Woolf both understood the high stakes of training the mind and imagination to go visiting, to venture off the beaten path to meet unexpected, non-natal kin, and to strike up conversations, to pose and respond to interesting questions, to propose together something unanticipated, to take up the unasked-for obligations of having met. This is what I have called cultivating response-ability. Visiting is not a heroic practice; making a fuss is not the Revolution; thinking with each other is not Thought. Opening up versions so stories can be ongoing is so mundane, so earth-bound.

That is what “going too far” means, and this curious practice is not safe.

racing pigeons, also called carrier pigeons (in French voyageurs) and with their avid fanciers (in French colombophiles, lovers of pigeons).

Pigeon racing is a working-class men’s sport around the world, one made immensely difficult in conditions of urban war (Baghdad, Damascus), racial and economic injustice (New York, Berlin), and displaced labor and play of many kinds across regions (France, Iran, California).

Audrey Watters


7 min read

(For a project, formerly known as "Speaking Openly")

I often quote the Marxist Antonio Gramsci – “I am a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will.” I quote Gramsci because, as “ed-tech’s Cassandra,” I’m often accused of being too critical, too negative about the future of education. And admittedly, I do fear that the future might be grim. But I am an optimist. I think that most of us that work in and near education are – we have to be. We believe in the transformative potential of teaching and learning. We believe in shaping and changing minds; as such, we believe in shaping and changing the future. The three other respondents have all laid out fairly optimistic visions of the future of teaching and learning – deliberately so, no doubt – a future that honors individuals, empathy, cultural relevance, social change, and social justice. And if that future is technologically-enhanced, it’s enhanced in such a way to make it more human and humane and less machine-like.

These are all reflections of our pedagogical goals, I think, as progressive educators. But these are also political goals. And I want to pause here to talk a little bit more about what I see as the future of the politics of education and, perhaps just as importantly, the future of the politics of the digital technology industry. A possible future, I should be clear, if we do not tackle these questions politically.

I think the others were right to point out that “learning” is distinct from “education.” But I think we have to talk about “education,” the institution. We have to scrutinize their role in past injustices, their role in inscribing and re-inscribing hierarchies, and we have to demand better. But I’m not sure we can abandon institutions, particularly public institutions, entirely. I say this recognizing that among the many crises we face right now, a lot of these involve our loss of faith in institutions – in the government, in the Church, in markets, in medicine, in science, in schools. How do we rebuild so that the collective and the communal is protected and that, as I fear would happen without institutions, it’s up to the individual and her or his privilege and social capital alone, in order to survive and succeed.

When I talk about the digital technology industry, I use the shorthand “Silicon Valley.” It’s not quite an accurate term geographically, but I use it to refer to its ideology – one of radical individualism, libertarianism, neoliberalism, exploitative and unchecked capitalism. This ideology isn’t espoused only by those who work and invest in Silicon Valley, of course. But increasingly – because of the financial and political power and influence of Silicon Valley – this ideology is becoming quite dominant.

We must ask how this will affect education. Disinvestment? The shrinking of the public sector? A move away from the communal to the individual? “Personalization” – one of the buzzwords of education technology? Standardization? Outsourcing? Uber-ification? Dismantling of labor protections? Automation? Algorithms? Financialization and monetization of all aspects of our lives? Surveillance, not only by the state but by corporations?

2015 was a record-setting year for education technology investment. Over $6 billion by some estimates. What was popular among investors? Test prep. Tutoring. Private student loans. Learning management systems. Online “skills training.”

Now to be fair, that $6 billion is dwarfed by venture capital that goes into other sub-sectors of tech. And Uber alone raised about $5 billion last year. But this flood of money comes with political power. It comes with a power to reshape – or to try to reshape – all sorts of narratives about what it means to be social, political, workers, students, “users,” citizens. The narratives that Silicon Valley tells about education are that schools are broken, that they are irrelevant, that they are inefficient, that unionized labor prevents innovation, that education can be automated. Successful entrepreneurs do not just form companies or form investment firms; they start philanthropies, like the Gates Foundation and now the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. These organizations have an oversized influence on education policy. They envision a future of teaching and learning that is, to borrow from Liz’s formulation, very much about calculation – about data and algorithms and efficiencies and tracking and analytics. They are profoundly anti-democratic.

This is one of the challenges we face, I think, particularly when we talk about a future of teaching and learning and digital technologies: this question of democracy and open communication and collaboration built on technologies of surveillance and command and control, built on top of pre-existing communication networks, never quite erasing the previous manifestations of power or politics, despite our rather utopian hopes that technologies like the Web just might.

Investor Marc Andreessen famously said a few years ago that “software is eating the world.” Andreessen is an important figure to think about in terms of technology and education – and not simply because his investment portfolio includes companies like the MOOC startup (or once upon a time a MOOC startup) Udacity. Andreessen was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign where he worked on the Mosaic Browser, the first browser for the Web. He believed that the browser had commercial possibilities and built Netscape Navigator – which shared no code with the browser built by a public university but shared its functionality. Andreessen became a billionaire with Netscape, a company’s whose IPO is generally seen as synonymous with the Internet bubble and with young tech entrepreneurs who would reshape the world. “Software is eating the world.” It’s eating public education, it’s eating higher education, arguably, despite the origins of almost all the innovations of the past sixty years in the computer industry being intimately tied up with these scholarly institutions.

To echo Maha’s question about whose learning – learning by whom and for whom in what contexts, I would add a litany of questions about the world that software is purportedly eating – whose software, who benefits, whose world is being re-enacted and recoded and digitized? A world of the global elite? A world of the global north? A world of engineers? A world of white men? A world of machines?

What about the rest of us? Non machines and non humans alike?

The future of teaching and learning will continue to be, as the history of teaching and learning would show us, political acts, political practices. They must be ones of resistance, I think, to the stories and the practices of exploitation. As we think about institutions – new ones and old ones – we must demand justice. We must cultivate “response- ability” – I’m using this term as Donna Haraway does – to be able to respond, to be able to recognize our complicity in harmful acts past and present, and to think about transformation that is deeply critical and deeply empathetic to all the world around us. This is a political undertaking, and an incredibly urgent one. It isn’t because, as Andreessen gleefully pronounces, because “software is eating the world.” It is because the world is dying or careening at least to another global extinction event. Addressing this isn’t simply a question of engineering. It is a question of compassion and teaching and learning and radical pedagogy. We must be optimists, not pessimists as hard as it can be in the face of global crises. Our world, our survival demands it.

Audrey Watters

The Pigeon Camera

via The Public Domain Review

Audrey Watters

Thoughts on Colin Kaepernick

2 min read

(Reposted from Facebook)

Hate the 49ers. Love Colin Kaepernick. Full respect.

1) Among the things that makes this country "great"? We aren't mandated to respond a certain way to the flag or to the national anthem or to other nationalist symbols

2) White folks love to see black folks be "athletic," much of which involves all sorts of long-standing racist performances around the body. The male body. The same body we punish, we laud. The very same body. White folks readily cheer when strong black men's bodies get broke. I can see why Colin would sit down for a celebration of this. I can see why he extends his analysis of broken bodies off the field.

3) There is a long history of black athletes performing some of the most powerful displays of anti-imperialism and anti-white supremacy. I honor this history. I am proud to live in a country of raised black fists, of defiant black athletes but ashamed that it falls upon them to do so. We must recognize the history of white supremacy, built on black bodies.

4) Look at college athletes, particularly in the high profile men's sports -- football, basketball, baseball. This is the new plantation, as Taylor Branch has argued. Schools are completely implicated in this and by this. Black and brown bodies on display. We deny them a college education, while claiming that they get one for free. We use and abuse their body for sport. For. Sport.

5) "I wouldn’t fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn't my friend." -- Jackie Robinson. You do not disrespect the flag or the country by refusing to fly or salute the flag. You disrespect it by denying others freedom.

Audrey Watters

Introducing Tressie

4 min read

I was honored to get to introduce Tressie McMillan Cottom this week when she delivered the opening keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute. Here's what I said:

When I was first asked to introduce the keynote today, I thought about wearing my Denver Broncos t-shirt to troll Tressie, who I haven’t seen since my team – go Broncos – beat her team, the Carolina Panthers, in the Super Bowl. See, I would have tied it all together though, something about Cam Newton and how society demands certain bodies – Black folks in this case – perform a certain kind of emotional labor alongside physical and intellectual labor, what that looks like not just in post-game interviews, but what that looks like in academia, what that looks like in a public talk.

I was also sorely tempted to tell you an anecdote from that one time we were together on the 17-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Atlanta, Georgia and Magic Mike XXL was one of the in-flight movies. But the set-up is kinda long and it perhaps require you have seen the movie and know a little about “Where Mike Got the Magic.” So I’ll save the story for the cocktail hour.

I actually want to be serious with this intro, because Tressie does some of the most seriously important work of anyone I know. In the last four years, her scholarship has become foundational to my own, as we work to analyze the systems and stories surrounding “skills,” “markets,” “certification,” and “schooling.”

I can tell you the first time I heard of Tressie McMillan Cottom. It was 2012. Tressie had written a response (or two) to an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education by right-wing pundit whose name isn't worth mentioning and started a petition to have Schaefer Riley dismissed from the publication. I caught wind of this all on Twitter (because thankfully, I’m not in academia anymore and I needn’t subscribe to The Chronicle).

In the Chronicle article in question, this pundit argued for the elimination of Black Studies departments by viciously mocking and attacking the work of three doctoral students. The work of three female doctoral students. The work of three Black women.

Perhaps it’s a familiar story to us now: a publication hires someone it knows is going to say outrageous things. That person writes something outrageous. Outrage ensues. Outrage and virality. The publication then solicits articles, from the offender and the offended, in response – “We encourage you to weigh in!” – an attempt, let’s be honest, to extend not resolve the outrage. As the business model for online publishing increasingly depends on page-views, we get rage clicks. Hate reads.

And Tressie, then a doctoral student herself, named it. She named it for what it is – not just the baiting (link baiting, click baiting, race baiting), but “the institutional logic of racism.” The institutional logic of racism at work on the pages of the premier publication for higher education, one that echoes the institutional logic of racism in higher education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is just one of the many, many gatekeepers in higher education. It’s the publication that faculty, staff, administrators, and yes graduate students are urged to turn to for the latest on the state of the institution, the disciplines, the politics, the future. It helps identify and shape the important issues, the important characters. The Chronicle, like all gatekeepers, carves out who belongs, whose scholarship – whose lives – matter. These gatekeepers distinguish, designate, and reinforce prestige.

Higher ed is, as Tressie’s work reminds us, a “prestige cartel.” (Her book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy will be out in February.) This distinction, this stratification – “high” and “low” – coincides, overlaps with others – “real” and “fake,” “public” and “private,” “open” and “closed,” “Ivy” and the rest of us plebs, and perhaps central to our purposes here at this event, “offline” and “online,” “standardized” and “personalized.” The keywords of the new higher ed-tech economy – “innovative,” “disruptive,” “at scale” versus the old, the traditional, the outmoded, the irrelevant.

I’m honored today to introduce the Digital Pedagogy Institute’s opening keynote, assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom – a model public scholar, openly and ferociously engaged in issues of education and justice. My friend…

Audrey Watters

Notes from The Real World of Technology

26 min read

Ursula Franklin passed away several weeks ago. Although I'd been exposed to her work via several (Canadian, feminist) technologies and scientists, I hadn't ever read this book. I have to say: it's the best book I've read on technology in a very, very long time.

technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled.

Technology, like democracy, includes ideas and practices; it includes myths and various models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the social and individual relationships between us. It has forced us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability.

technology as practice

Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.

Technology also needs to be examined as an agent of power and control, and I will try to show how much modern technology drew from the prepared soil of the structures of traditional institutions, such as the church and the military.

technology’s social impact. I myself am overawed by the way in which technology has acted to reorder and restructure social relations, not only affecting the relations between social groups, but also the relations between nations and individuals, and between all of us and our environment. To a new generation, many of these changed relationships appear so normal, so inevitable, that they are taken as given and are not questioned. Yet one can establish clear historical trends. In order to understand the real world of technology and cope with it, we need to have some knowledge of the past, as well as to give some thought to the future.

Central to any new order that can shape and direct technology and human destiny will be a renewed emphasis on the concept of justice. The viability of technology, like democracy, depends in the end on the practice of justice and on the enforcement of limits to power.

The historical process of defining a group by their agreed practice and by their tools is a powerful one. It not only reinforces geographic or ethnic distributions, it also affects the gendering of work.

The common practice that a particular technology represents, in addition to leading to an identification with culture and gender, can also lead to the “right” of the practitioners to an exclusive practice of the technology.

Another facet of the concept of technology as practice is the fact that the practice can define the content.

Work-related technologies make the actual practice easier.

control- and work-related technologies

holistic technologies and prescriptive technologies

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft.

Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

It is the first kind of specialization, by product, that I call holistic technology, and it is important because it leaves the doer in total control of the process. The opposite is specialization by process; this I call prescriptive technology.

“division of labour”

a production method.

The amount of material found, and the knowledge that this constitutes only a small fraction of what was produced, assures us of the presence of a large, coordinated production enterprise. It was only when I considered in detail – as a metallurgist – what such a production enterprise would entail, that the extraordinary social meaning of prescriptive technologies dawned on me. I began to understand what they meant, not just in terms of casting bronze but in terms of discipline and planning, of organization and command.

When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager.

invention. In political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance.

Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing “it.”

Any tasks that require caring, whether for people or nature, any tasks that require immediate feedback and adjustment, are best done holistically. Such tasks cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled the way prescriptive tasks must be.

When successful, prescriptive technologies do yield predictable results. They yield products in numbers and qualities that can be set beforehand, and so technology itself becomes an agent of ordering and structuring.

The ordering that prescriptive technologies has caused has now moved from ordering at work and the ordering of work, to the prescriptive ordering of people in a wide variety of social situations.

“the digitalized footprints of social transactions,” since the technology can be set up not only to include and exclude participants, but also to show exactly where any individual has spent his or her time.

prescriptive technologies eliminate the occasions for decision-making and judgement in general and especially for the making of principled decisions. Any goal of the technology is incorporated a priori in the design and is not negotiable.

As methods of materials production, prescriptive technologies have brought into the real world of technology a wealth of important products that have raised living standards and increased well-being. At the same time they have created a culture of compliance.


Underlying the different uses of the concept of scale are two different models or metaphors: one is a growth model, the other a production model.

A production model is different in kind. Here things are not grown but made, and made under conditions that are, at least in principle, entirely controllable.

Production, then, is predictable, while growth is not.

choosing a particular university, following a particular regimen, will turn the student into a specifiable and identifiable product.

If there ever was a growth process, if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education.

The real world of technology seems to involve an inherent trust in machines and devices (“production is under control”) and a basic apprehension of people (“growth is chancy, one can never be sure of the outcome”).

vernacular reality

extended reality that body of knowledge and emotions we acquire that is based on the experience of others.

constructed or reconstructed reality. Its manifestations range from what comes to us through works of fiction to the daily barrage of advertising and propaganda. It encompasses descriptions and interpretations of those situations that are considered archetypal rather than representative. These descriptions furnish us with patterns of behaviour. We consider these patterns real, even if we know the situations have been constructed in order to make a particular pattern very clear and evident.

projected reality – the vernacular reality of the future.

today there is no hierarchical relationship between science and technology. Science is not the mother of technology. Science and technology today have parallel or side-by-side relationships; they stimulate and utilize each other. It is more appropriate to regard science and technology as one enterprise with a spectrum of interconnected activity than to think of two fields of endeavour – science as one, and applied science and technology as the other.

Today scientific constructs have become the model of describing reality rather than one of the ways of describing life around us.

As a consequence there has been a very marked decrease in the reliance of people on their own experience and their own senses.

the downgrading of experience and the glorification of expertise is a very significant feature of the real world of technology.

the message-transmission technologies have created a host of pseudorealities based on images that are constructed, staged, selected, and instantaneously transmitted.

Media images seem to have a position of authority that is comparable to the authority that religious teaching used to have.

Media images seem to have a position of authority that is comparable to the authority that religious teaching used to have.

As a community we should look at what the new technologies of message-forming and -transmitting do to our own real world of technology and democracy. This is why I have a sense of urgency to map the real world of technology, so that we might see how in our social imagination the near is disadvantaged over the far. We should also understand that this does not have to be so.

Viewing or listening to television, radio, or videos is shared experience carried out in private. The printing technologies were the first ones that allowed people to take in separately the same information and then discuss it together. Prior to that, people who wanted to share an experience had to be together in the same place – to see a pageant, to listen to a speech.

there are new, high-impact technologies and these produce largely ephemeral images. The images create a pseudocommunity, the community of those who have seen and heard what they perceive to be the same event that others, who happened not to have watched or listened, missed for good.

Since normally only a fraction of the pseudocommunity become members of the real and active community, the possibility of forming such groups may be greater in the case of broadly based international concerns that are “the far” for most viewers than in the case of specific problems of “the near.”

There is a lot of talk about global crises and “our common future.”8 However, there is far too little discussion of the structuring of the future which global applications of modern technologies carry in their wake.

Whenever human activities incorporate machines or rigidly prescribed procedures, the modes of human interaction change.

technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity. Reciprocity is some manner of interactive give and take, a genuine communication among interacting parties.

For example, a face-to-face discussion or a transaction between people needs to be started, carried out, and terminated with a certain amount of reciprocity. Once technical devices are interposed, they allow a physical distance between the parties. The give and take – that is, the reciprocity – is distorted, reduced, or even eliminated.

reciprocity is not feedback. Feedback is a particular technique of systems adjustment. It is designed to improve a specific performance.

Reciprocity, on the other hand, is situationally based.

It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.

these technologies have no room for reciprocity. There is no place for response. One may want to speculate for a moment whether this technological exclusion of response plays a part in the increasing public acceptance of the depiction of violence and cruelty.

technologically induced human isolation:

even in the universe of constructed images and pseudorealities there still exists a particular enclave of personal directness and immediacy: the world of the ham-radio operator. It is personal, reciprocal, direct, affordable – all that imaging technology is not – and it has become in many cases a very exceptional early warning system of disasters. It is a dependable and resilient source of genuine communication. I am citing this example so as not to leave the impression that the technological reduction of meaningful human contact and reciprocal response is inherently inevitable.

the growth of prescriptive technologies provided a seed-bed for a culture of compliance.

Technology has been the catalyst for dramatic changes, in the locus of power.

Any task tends to be structured by the available tools.

Tools often redefine a problem.

The real world of technology is a very complex system. And nothing in my survey or its highlights should be interpreted as technological determinism or as a belief in the autonomy of technology per se. What needs to be emphasized is that technologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. They arise out of a social structure, they are grafted on to it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable. In this complex world neither the option that “everything is possible” nor the option that “everything is preordained” exists.

A change in one facet of technology, for instance the introduction of computers in one sector, changes the practice of technology in all sectors. Such is the nature of systems.

I much prefer to think in terms not of systems but of a web of interactions.

When women writers speak about reweaving the web of life,5 they mean exactly this kind of pattern change. Not only do they know that such changes can be achieved but, more importantly, they know there are other patterns. The web of technology can indeed be woven differently, but even to discuss such intentional changes of pattern requires an examination of the features of the current pattern and an understanding of the origins and the purpose of the present design.

1740s, a very influential book was published by La Mettrie called L’Homme-machine

the discovery of the body as object and instrument of power led to a host of regimes of control for the efficient operations of these bodies, whether they were the efficiencies of movement, the measured intervals of the organization of physical activities, or the careful analysis and timing of the tasks bodies could perform, usually in unison.

It was into this socially and politically well prepared soil that the seeds of the Industrial Revolution fell. The factory system, with its mechanical devices and machines, only augmented the patterns of control. The machinery did not create them.

To plan with and for technology became the Industrial Revolution’s strongest dream. The totally automated factory – that is, a factory completely without workers – was discussed by Babbage and his contemporaries in the early nineteenth century.

While the eighteenth century exercised control and domination by regarding human bodies as machines, the nineteenth century began to use machines alone as instruments of control.

For the British manufacturers, machines appeared more predictable and controllable than workers. The owners of factories dreamt of a totally controlled work environment, preferably without any workers. If and where workers were still needed, they were to be occupied with tasks that were paced and controlled by machines.

Industrial layout and design was often more a case of planning against undesirable or unpredictable interventions than it was of planning for greater and more predictable output and profit.

a clearly perceived loss of workers“ control and autonomy. It was not resistance to technology per se so much as an opposition to the division of labour and loss of autonomy that motivated the workers” resistance.

What the Luddites and other groups of the period clearly perceived was the difference between work-related and control-related technologies.

somehow I find no indication that they realized that while production could be carried out with few workers and still run to high outputs, buyers would be needed for these outputs. The realization that though the need for workers decreased, the need for purchasers could increase, did not seem to be part of the discourse on the machinery question. Since then, however, technology and its promoters have had to create a social institution – the consumer – in order to deal with the increasingly tricky problem that machines can produce, but it is usually people who consume.

Technology has changed this notion about the obligations of a government to its citizens. The public infrastructures that made the development and spread of technology possible have become more and more frequently roads to divisible benefits. Thus the public purse has provided the wherewithal from which the private sector derives the divisible benefits, while at the same time the realm from which the indivisible benefits are derived has deteriorated and often remains unprotected.

The global environ mental destruction that the world now has to face could not have happened without the evolution of infrastructures on behalf of technology and its divisible benefits, and corresponding eclipsing of governments" obligation to safeguard and protect the sources of indivisible benefits. Whether the task of reversing global environmental deterioration can be carried out successfully will depend, to a large extent, on understanding and enforcing the role and obligation of governments to safeguard the world’s indivisible benefits.

Prescriptive technologies are a seed-bed for a culture of compliance.

Many technological systems, when examined for context and overall design, are basically anti-people. People are seen as sources of problems while technology is seen as a source of solutions.

the “technological imperative.”

whatever can be done by technological means, will be done.

the need for a credible long-term enemy.

the changes that technology has brought to the part of citizens in war preparation and warfare. Just as fewer and fewer unskilled workers are needed in a modern technological production system, a country now has little practical need for raw recruits to operate its modern technological destruction system. Abandoning compulsory military service is not so much a sign of peaceful intentions as it is a sign of galloping automation.

Military service from citizens is no longer a prerequisite for war. What is a prerequisite is the compulsory financial service of all citizens, well before any military exchange begins.

Planning, in my sense of the word, originated with prescriptive technologies. As prescriptive technologies have taken over most of the activities in the real world of technology, planning has become society’s major tool for structuring and restructuring, for stating what is doable and what is not. The effects of lives being planned and controlled are very evident in people’s individual reactions to the impingement of planning on them. The real world of technology is full of ingenious individual attempts to sabotage externally imposed plans.

A common denominator of technological planning has always been the wish to adjust parameters to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

holistic strategies are, more often than not, intended to minimize disaster rather than to maximize gain.

planning as part of the strategy of maximizing gain, and coping as central to schemes for minimizing disaster.

the real world of technology denies the existence and the reality of nature.

the prediction of a senior official at IBM, in an article called “The Banishment of Paperwork.” He confidently forecast the total absence of paperwork in 1984: Computers, within two decades, would have become the sole medium of communication, while all that burdensome paper would have vanished from our desks.

Ivan Illich pointed out in his 1981 essay, Shadow Work,1 that prescriptive technologies, particularly those in the administrative and social-service sectors, produce the desired results only when clients – for instance, parents, students, or patients – comply faithfully and to the letter with the prescriptions of the system. Thus, advanced applications of prescriptive technologies require compliance not only from workers, but also from those who use the technologies or are being processed by them. Illich stressed the role of individual and group compliance by citizens in this process of making prescriptive technologies work.

as more and more of daily life in the real world of technology is conducted via prescriptive technologies, the logic of technology begins to overpower and displace other types of social logic, such as the logic of compassion or the logic of obligation, the logic of ecological survival or the logic of linkages into nature. Herbert Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, speaks of this overpowering.

a “mechanical bride,” the term used by Marshall McLuhan to describe the relationship between car and owner.

It is aimed at creating an atmosphere of harmless domesticity around the new technology to ease its acceptance.

If one doesn’t watch the introduction of new technologies and particularly watch the infrastructures that emerge, promises of liberation through technology can become a ticket to enslavement.

The authors of this prognostication evidently assumed that the introduction of the sewing machine would result in more sewing – and easier sewing – by those who had always sewn. They would do the work they had always done in an unchanged setting. Reality turned out to be quite different. With the help of the new machines, sewing came to be done in a factory setting, in sweatshops that exploited the labour of women and particularly the labour of women immigrants. Sewing machines became, in fact, synonymous not with liberation but with exploitation.

What turns the promised liberation into enslavement are not the products of technology per se – the car, the computer, or the sewing machine – but the structures and infrastructures that are put in place to facilitate the use of these products and to develop dependency on them.

To recap: many new technologies and their products have entered the public sphere in a cloud of hope, imagination, and anticipation. In many cases these hopes were to begin with fictional, rather than real; even in the best of circumstances they were vastly exaggerated. Discussion focused largely on individuals, whether users or workers, and promised an easier life with liberation from toil and drudgery. Discourse never seemed to focus on the effects of the use of the same device by a large number of people, nor was there any focus on the organizational and industrial implications of the new technologies, other than in the vaguest of terms.

once a given technology is widely accepted and standardized, the relationship between the products of the technology and the users changes. Users have less scope, they matter less, and their needs are no longer the main concern of the designers. There is, then, a discernable pattern in the social and political growth of a technology that does not depend on the particular technical features of the system in question.

how teaching, research, and practice in most areas of science and technology follow essentially male patterns by being basically hierarchical, authoritarian, competitive, and exclusive.

Major facets of technology are related to prescriptive practices and thus to the development of instruments of power and control.

The great contribution of women to technology lies precisely in their potential to change the technostructures by understanding, critiquing, and changing the very parameters that have kept women away from technology.

What does it say about our society, when human needs for fellowship and warmth are met by devices that provide illusions to the users and profits to the suppliers?

as a response to loneliness, it seems to me deceitful and fraudulent.

the disregard that technical designers can have for the needs of operators. Typists not only got awkward machines, but they – and the telephone operators – also encountered the usual division of work that has become part of mechanization and automation. As the technologies matured and took command, women were left with fragmented and increasingly meaningless work.

The way of doing something can be “holistic” when the doer is in control of the work process. The way of doing something can also be “prescriptive,” when the work – whatever it might be – is divided into specified

steps, each carried out by separate individuals. This form of division of labour, historically quite old and not dependent on the use of machines, is a crucial social invention at first practised in the workplace.

I hold that, in fact, we have lost the institution of government in terms of responsibility and accountability to the people. We now have nothing but a bunch of managers, who run the country to make it safe for technology.

I firmly believe that when we find certain aspects of the real world of technology objectionable we should explore our objections in terms of principle, in terms of justice, fairness, and equality. It may be well to express concerns as questions of principle rather than to try to emphasize merely pragmatic explanations – for instance, that objectionable practices may also be inefficient, inappropriate, or polluting.10 The emphasis on a pragmatic rationale for choice tends to hide the value judgements involved in particular technological stances.

When my colleagues in the field of cold-water engineering speak of “ice-infested waters,” I am tempted to think of “rig-infested oceans.” Language is a fine barometer of values and priorities. As such it deserves careful attention.

Let’s make a checklist to help in the discourse on public decision-making. Should one not ask of any public project or loan whether it: (1) promotes justice; (2) restores reciprocity; (3) confers divisible or indivisible benefits; (4) favours people over machines; (5) whether its strategy maximizes gain or minimizes disaster; (6) whether conservation is favoured over waste; and (7), whether the reversible is favoured over the irreversible?

redemptive technologies

the development and use of redemptive technologies ought to be part of the shaping of a new social contract appropriate for the real world of technology, one that overcomes the present disenfranchisement of people.

“protest and survive.”

“Let us understand, and on the basis of our common understanding, protest.” We must protest until there is change in the structures and practices of the real world of technology, for only then can we hope to survive as a global community.

If such basic changes cannot be accomplished, the house that technology built will be nothing more than an unlivable techno-dump.

many such communications have to be regarded as messages looking for receivers.

I have never liked the term cyberspace because it neither describes a space nor does its current use reflect the concepts of control and systems-design implied in the term cybernetics, after which the term cyberspace was patterned.

I got into real trouble once, when I suggested that the Internet could be looked at as one giant dump: people and organizations dump information in bits and pieces; they also retrieve whatever is of use and interest to them. What is found by the scavengers depends on where they dig, what was dumped, and what is considered useful or relevant enough to be retrieved. There is no pattern in the digging or reassembly, no one path through the dump, no compulsory reference to the scource of the bounty. And since the Internet contains information rather than stuff, the same treasures, or junk, can be retrieved again and again.

measured time and experienced time.

The role of asynchronicity in unravelling social and political patterns without apparent replacement with other patterns cannot be overestimated.

Many people have experienced the asynchronous forms of labour and have felt their consequences; the impact often includes the lack of work-related solidarity and selfidentification that can have profound social implications.

Women in particular have often treasured the opportunity to work asynchronously – getting a bit of writing done when the kids are asleep, sneaking in a slice of private life into their tightly structured existences. But I see a real difference between supplementing a rigidly patterned structure with asynchronous activities and substituting synchronous functions by asynchronous schemes.

The inhabitants of the City of Bits are still real live human beings, yet nature, of which humans are but a small part, appears to have no autonomous space in the bitsphere. There are no seasonal rhythms, no presence of the land nor the ebb and flow of individual lives, even though these are the synchronous patterns that have shaped culture and community throughout the time and, through their patterns, have provided a source of meaning to people for many generations.

the difference between a mechanism and an organism.

the biosphere and the bitsphere

Within the biosphere, human beings have attempted to codify and transmit their understanding of the world around them by ordering their experiences into general schemes and structures.1 Myths, religion, and science have endeavoured to transmit knowledge and experience so ordered as to convey sequence and consequence as ordering principles. Learning to recognize such ordering principles has been traditionally part of growing up in a given society. Ordering schemes help us to evaluate and interpret new knowledge and experience.

One of the most striking attributes of the bitsphere, on the other hand, is the absence of structure.

Unfortunately, the new technologies have entered the realm of education largely because they were regarded as production improvements, promising better products and faster or bigger production runs, and not because they were deemed to offer enrichment to the soil. Thus it is not surprising that the electronic classroom raises the same types of problems and exhibits the same social and political difficulties that one encounters in the realm of work or governance in the real world of the new technologies.

the displacement of people by devices

When external devices are used to diminish the need for the drill of explicit learning, the occasion for implicit learning may also diminish.

As considerations of efficiency and cost-cutting shift the balance of synchronous and asynchronous classroom activities, the balance of explicit and implicit learning is changing. While the pool of information available to the students may increase, the pool of available understanding may not. This has considerable consequences for social cohesion and peace and deserves careful attention.

how and where, we ask again, is discernment, trust, and collaboration learned, experience and caution passed on, when people no longer work, build, create, and learn together or share sequence and consequence in the course of a common task?

where, if not in school and workplace, is society built and changed?

the practice of democratic governance is in grave question and the advancement of social justice and equality appears stalled in a labyrinth of random transactions.14 This does not have to be so. The interface of the biosphere and the bitsphere not only poses problems and precipitates crises but it offers new opportunities to advance the common good. It will take the collective thought, moral clarity, and strong political will of many people to move towards this goal rather than away from it.

This is a collective endeavour that no group or conglomerate can do on its own. Most of our social and political institutions are both reluctant and ill-equipped to advance such tasks. Yet if sane and healthy communities are to grow and prevail, much more weight has to be placed on maintaining the non-negotiable ties of all people to the biosphere.

Audrey Watters

This Is Not Fine

Credits: KC Green

Audrey Watters

Notes from Questionnaire

12 min read

Here are my notes from Evan Kindley's new book Questionnaire. I think this is an incredibly important book for those interested in the histories of educational testing as well as the futures of learning analytics. Hopefully I'll carve out time to write a longer review:

The fact must be faced: for many of us, under the right circumstances, filling out forms is fun.

The word “questionnaire” appears first in French, in its modern sense, in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the word’s early usages suggest persistent associations with the Catholic practices of catechism and confession, as well as governmental inquisition and interrogation. (In the eighteenth century, the term “questionnaire-juré” described a torturer.)


the importance of blank “job-printed” forms to the rise of bureaucracy and the consolidation of the new capitalist economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Blank forms, Gitelman argues, are the ultimate bureaucratic objects: bland, impersonal, utilitarian documents designed to help officials process and sort large groups of people.

The history of the questionnaire is the history of attempts to make interacting with such dreary objects more and more fun for more and more people.

people can actually enjoy interrogation by questionnaire,

The history of the questionnaire is thus also a history of psychological manipulation, and of salesmanship: a series of attempts to find the magic words that will open the heart of the public.

“they will be used only as data for general statistical conclusions.”

On Galton: * a raft of dubious generalizations. * a definite methodological success.

More than any other single scientific work, English Men of Science established the self-report questionnaire in the United Kingdom as a legitimate instrument for the collection of empirical data.

In his work on heredity, he took the first steps toward solving a major practical problem for the social sciences: how to convince people to overcome their disinclination to provide personal information about themselves.

he exploited financial instincts, offering cash prizes

The emphasis was on the generation of family heirlooms rather than of experimental data.

With this stratagem, Galton invented the baby book, a popular genre that continues to flourish today.

A combination of rationalism, progressivism, and narcissism drove the early development of the questionnaire.

The Victorians loved questionnaires because they pandered to their faith in science, their earnest desire to improve the world around them, and – most important, perhaps – their intense interest in the quotidian details of their own lives.

the mania for anthropometric questionnaires bears a curious similarity to another contemporary trend among the British middle class of the late nineteenth century: the vogue for confession albums, which were a popular parlor game in the 1870s and later.

Like the personal details that circulate on today’s social media, these revelations were not true confessions but symbolic tokens meant to be shared.

“le questionnaire de Proust.”

“the advantage of questionnaires, from a financial point of view, was that not one of the celebrities who agree to submit [answers] expect to be paid.” [Note: this is so very similar to the extraction of data via quizzes today. Lots of pageviews; little to no payout for participants and/or writers]

In 1905, the French psychologists Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon developed a scale to measure the intelligence of children aged three to twelve. Lewis Terman, a psychology professor at Stanford, revised it in 1916 to create the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, which in turn provided the model for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the first national standardized intelligence test in the United States, introduced in 1926.

Tests like the Binet-Simon, the Stanford-Binet, and the SAT, by contrast, were used for evaluative purposes, and thus had an immediate impact on the life chances of those who took them.

The immediate aims of the Alpha and Beta examinations were pragmatic: they allowed the Army to identify exceptional individuals who might be suited for officer training, and consign the lowest-scoring recruits to labor battalions and other menial posts. But the project also enabled psychologists to amass an unprecedented amount of anthropometric data on the American population.

The Alpha tests were far from what we would now call “culture-blind”: that is, what they measured was not “intelligence” (whatever that means) so much as familiarity with a specific cultural context.

In scientific terms, as measurements of intelligence or ability, such tests are virtually useless. Nonetheless, the study’s findings were almost immediately weaponized by the antiimmigrant nativist movement.

Stress Disorder (PTSD). The severity of the epidemic led the Army to experiment with more rigorous screening of recruits for psychological instability, the governing assumption being that only the mentally weak would “crack up” under the strain of combat.

the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory,

Industrial, or “applied,” psychology came into its own as a field, taking its place alongside Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management as a major influence on the culture of capitalist production.

Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale

testing was a management science, and, like Taylorism, it was often put to antiunion purposes.

Bernreuter Personality Inventory, the Worthington Personal History Blank, the Thurstone Personality Schedule, the Adams-Lepley Personal Audit, the Allport Ascendance-Submission Reaction Study, the Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey

The Organization Man

Whyte’s book was a national bestseller, and it inaugurated a vicious cultural backlash against mandatory personality testing. Psychological tests at work began to seem like the epitome of totalitarian thought policing, and were thus susceptible to attack from both the left and the right as the 1960s wore on.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act made companies reluctant to use tests that might be shown to have a systematic bias against minorities. In 1966, Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. of North Carolina convened a hearing on Privacy and the Rights of Federal Employees that specifically targeted personality inventories as an unacceptable invasion of privacy.9

the steady drumbeat of scientific skepticism about its basic validity and value. Intelligence testing had been controversial from the beginning: it was opposed especially vociferously by anthropologists

confirmation bias.

In Mischel’s view, then, the fundamental premise of personality assessment – that individuals possess core psychological traits and attributes that remain consistent across different situations, contexts, and life stages – was simply wrong. All previous attempts to “test” for personality were based on a fundamental fallacy about human behavior, and should therefore be thrown out.

In the 1940s, Myers read an article in Reader’s Digest about the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale entitled “Fitting the Worker to the Job.” The MBTI, modeled on the Humm and other industrial “people-sorters” but grounded in Jungian type theory as opposed to the categories of eugenic psychiatry, was conceived as a career-placement tool that would help employers identify the strengths of job candidates and individuals find their proper line of work.

Beginning in 1962, it was carried by the Educational Testing Service, the publishers of the SAT

Of all of the personality tests developed in the twentieth century – and there have been hundreds – the MBTI is the closest to the language of pop psychology and self-help.

“The Indicator’s unfailingly positive tone blends seamlessly … with our society’s emphasis on promoting self-esteem,” the journalist Annie Murphy Paul has noted.

Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA)

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard

In the mid–1950s, publishers of personality tests began to require their customers to be accredited by the American Psychological Association, thus cutting Hubbard off from access to more legitimate scientific instruments. But it also allowed the church to shape the test to its own institutional requirements.

Ultimately, though, the responses given to these particular questions don’t matter very much, as it appears to be impossible to achieve a “good” score on the OCA.

the test was rigged to produce a negative result

Where the Myers-Briggs test flatters and protects those who take it, revealing to them their special psychological gifts, the Oxford Capacity Analysis is designed to tear your personality down, in order to rebuild.

“Your opinion of you,” then, is that you are a problem only Scientology can solve.

With the birth of the scientific opinion poll, Gallup attests, the long search for that Holy Grail of representative democracy – an accurate gage of popular opinion – was finally reaching an end.

the semantics of interrogation

The whole project of opinion research is predicated on the assumption that people can tell you what they really think.

The rise of the personal questionnaire broadly parallels the rise of women’s literacy, which soared across class divisions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Questionnaires, then, could be mechanisms of psychological control, but also portals to self-reflection, instruments of what the women’s movement of the 1970s would call “consciousness-raising.”

Popenoe founded the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR), the nation’s first marriage clinic, in Pasadena, California, in 1930.

“the JTA’s statistical assumptions and assessment protocols allowed men much greater deviation [from the norm] than women”: even the math behind the JTA’s was sexist.

the fundamentally conservative enterprise of marriage counseling made some accidental contributions to women’s liberation nonetheless.

Quizzes played an important role in defining this hypothetical individual.

To take a psychological test is to put your trust in science (or pseudoscience, as the case may be). To take a quiz is to put your trust in an omniscient, benevolent magazine editor. Both of them involve a sort of quasi-religious faith. It’s a type of faith based on familiarity, which can often shade into contempt without undermining the basis of the faith, and it has been essential to the development of passionate online fan bases for quizzes, personality tests, purity tests, and other questionnaire-based forms. Even if you don’t share your answers with anyone, you’ve given up a part of yourself to a higher authority: you have confessed.

It allowed questionnaires, freed from any requirement to be accurate, to be fun.

the questionnaire as the basic building block of their information architecture.

In the mid–1950s, at the apex of his fame as a marriage counselor, Popenoe collaborated with computer scientists at Remington Rand on the world’s first computer dating program.

eHarmony, founded in the year 2000 by Neil Clark Warren, a Christian marriage counselor in Popenoe’s adopted hometown of Pasadena. In its early years, it was affiliated with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who got his start in the 1970s as one of Popenoe’s assistants at the AIFR.

All computer dating programs are built on a quasi-eugenic premise: that the fitness of a potential mate can be determined objectively, thus allowing “inappropriate” sexual partners to be screened out.

Without subscribing to their racial theories, they share with Popenoe and Galton a belief that human qualities can be quantified and that, once this data is collected and correlated, a better social order can be engineered.

it is becoming increasingly clear that they do far more with their users’ personal data than use it to set them up. A case in point is OkCupid. While it is far from the most successful dating site in raw numbers, OkCupid has had perhaps the greatest influence on the style of contemporary Internet culture at large.

Data is data, and when enough of it is compiled, patterns of some kind will inevitably emerge.

That raw data is used to match OkCupid’s customers, but it’s also sold (as Paumgarten reported in 2011) to academic social scientists, and probably to other outside parties as well.

none of the people represented in this data set agreed to be part of a study, nor did they sign the informed-consent agreements that are prerequisites for any legitimate research on human subjects in the social sciences.

“siren server”

a powerful computer network with exclusive access to a specific type of data (in this case, answers to personal questions relating to dating preferences) and proprietary sorting algorithms to help make sense of it all.

the quality of the typical answer matters less than the quantity of total answers.

quizzes are still a consistent traffic driver for BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed has denied that it’s selling the user data generated by quizzes, or even collecting it beyond basic metrics like how many people have taken the quiz, whether they share it, and their final results.

As soon as you land on any BuzzFeed page, Barker notes, custom variations to the site’s Google Analytics code allow it to see whether you’ve arrived via Facebook, your age, gender, the country you’re currently in, and how many times you’ve shared BuzzFeed content in the past. In the particular cases of quizzes, the site also records each “event” (i.e., each click on the page). “If you click ‘I have never had an eating disorder’” (an actual checklist item from the “How Privileged Are You?” quiz) “they record that click,” Barker writes. This means that, in theory at least, BuzzFeed is in possession of some extraordinarily sensitive information about their users.

they have both the technological capability and a strong economic incentive to do so.

The politics of Big Data are still up for grabs, though it’s difficult to believe that things won’t ultimately tilt in the direction of management rather than labor.