14 May 2014

On Free Speech and Social Justice, or, Just Who Should Speak at Commencement

Oh, dear. The Establishment media has ratcheted up the hand-wringing machine again. Those pesky kids are creating a ruckus, and It Needs to Stop.

This time it’s over commencement speakers. This morning, both Vox and The Christian Science Monitor ran stories about college students opposing controversial commencement speakers. (Interestingly, both describe the same incidents and both lead with pictures of IMF Director Christine Lagarde—Vox’s Libby Nelson wins with the facepalm pic—which makes me wonder who pitched the story to begin with. But that’s another lecture.) They have been successful, forcing at least five speakers and one honorary degree recipient to withdraw or have invitations rescinded.
Update, May 14, 15:52: My colleague Quinn Koller pointed out that Slate was also in on the issue last night, and takes first prize in the headline division: “Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers.” Seems like plenty of others jumped on the story at some point today, led largely by the Legarde withdrawal at Smith College.
This is, of course, a dire threat to the future of the Republic. In Vox, The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg argues that this represents a return of an “anti-liberal left” that is [GASP!] more concerned with social justice than with free speech. CSM trots out Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (an organization deeply concerned with the rights of conservatives students) to bandy about the “right to not be offended” trope. Both agree that these trends are deeply, deeply distressing to those concerned with academia as a place for the free exchange of ideas.

I call bullshit. (This is getting to be a habit.)

12 May 2014

Coming to UVU Peace and Justice Studies this Fall: Information and Social Justice

I'm excited to be joining the UVU Peace and Justice Studies program as an adjunct instructor this fall. I'll be offering a special topics course on Information and Social Justice based on my current research. The class is limited to 24 students, so it will operate more as a seminar than a lecture. That's especially good since there really is very little work done in this area; students in the class will be building concepts and practices rather than just studying them.

Here's what we're tentatively taking on in the course.

As information has become more ubiquitous, it has also become more contentious. Issues such as privacy and control have long been recognized. Recently, however, the question of how information and the technologies that create it affect groups in society differently has begun to challenge both activists and information technologists. This course explores the ways in which information presents concerns about social justice: the distribution of resources among and power relationships between social groups. We will study particularly how surveillance and big data challenge social justice, then consider whether open data, privacy, civil rights, hacking, and citizen data science can contribute to more just data practices. Hands-on work in the course will include using Structured Query Language to build a database (you will learn to code in this course!), blogging and other participation in social media, and a major project analyzing a data system of your choice from the perspective of social justice.

If you're interested in the course, feel free to email (jeffrey.johnson@uvu.edu), tweet (@the_other_jeff, call (801.863.8993), or drop by my office (BA203f) and we can talk about the course. If you have any suggestions for topics or readings, I'd love to see them in the comments section.

Details follow after the jump.

23 April 2014

On Climbing Walls and "Class" Warfare

Enough already with the amenities!

No, no. Not like that. That's been beaten to death. I'm all right with student amenities. I'm just tired of hearing about them.

One of the popular villians for those critical of the increasing costs of higher education are student amenities. The climbing wall seems to be the primus inter pares here, the Skeletor ruling over the Castle Greyskull that the student union has become. But "gourmet" dining options (which, judging by what I've seen, are an improvement over the classic school cafeteria but are on par with your local Golden Trough Buffet) also come up a lot, and every once in a while I hear of that most egregious fault: maid service in dorms (gasp!).

No one is (openly) criticizing these in themselves. The criticism seems to be that these costly (we presume; I haven't seen anyone actually provide numbers) amenities are taking money away from academics, costing departments full-time faculty positions and exacerbating the casualization of teaching.

I call bullshit.

25 February 2014

Data as Reality Made Legible

A fragment written for an upcoming paper on the construction of student data in higher education.

The ubiquity of data in contemporary society hides its peculiarity. Data is a very specific form of information, one in which the subject is broken down atomistically, measured precisely (in the sense of being measured to quite specific standards that may or may not involve a high level of quantitative precision), and represented consistently so that it can be compared to and aggregated with other cases. That this form of knowledge is more common in highly structured institutions and rose to ubiquity with the modern, bureaucratic state and the capitalist enterprise should surprise no one. Creating data should be regarded as a social process in which reality is made legible to the authorities of an institutional structure.

10 January 2014

On (Failed) Satire and Shitty Frat Boy Humor

I have a satire problem. Not a problem with satire, mind you. My Twitter avatar has a poster from Dr. Strangelove in the background, in German, no less. Clearly I appreciate good satire. It’s actually the opposite problem: I see satire whether it is there or not.

Part of that is simply due to the fact that I want to see satire. I really do believe that it is one of the most effective tools against the powerful. So much of power is the belief among the powerless in power’s legitimacy. Satire undermines that legitimacy, and lays bare the exercise of authority and force.

Contrast, for example, Dr. Strangelove with its contemporary, Fail-Safe. As frightening as the scenario is, as brilliant as Henry Fonda is as the President, as compelling a case for nuclear disarmament as it made, Fail-Safe still legitimates the President, the military leadership, and intellectuals as the ones to decide on the policy issues. That legitimates the decision itself even when those leaders reach the opposite conclusion. “Gentlemen, Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” undermined any claim the Washington establishment had that its decision was the right one.

What passes for satire gets dicey, though, because the subject of the satire and its object are potentially different. When the subject of a joke is the oppressed, the challenge is to identify whether the object is the oppressor or the oppressed. In the former case, satire retains its power for the weak, as in Mel Brooks’ treatment of racism in Blazing Saddles. In the latter case, the joke is not a satirical tool against the powerful but rather a way of perpetuating domination. Identifying whether a joke is satirical or oppressive is a true challenge, important as it is difficult.

Last night, for example, Rhonda Ragsdale retweeted:
First, a bit of advice: if @profragsdale is calling something out, she’s probably right; save yourself the trouble, take her word for it, and learn something.

16 September 2013

Rendering Students Legible: Translation Processes in Private, Institutional, and Government Higher Educational Data Systems

This is an extended version of the proposal I submitted to the 2014 WPSA conference today. It builds on, and contributes to, the general ideas of my information justice paper from the 2013 MPSA conference.
To say that data is constructed seems trivially true; data architecture is a basic competency of data scientists and database design a core concern of information technology staffs. But embedded in this conventional view is an understanding of data consistent with scientific realism: the data that is available to us may be limited, but it nonetheless objectively represents the reality of a datized moment, interaction, or condition. In this view, the choices made in data architecture have at most minor substantive influence on the data itself.

This paper subjects educational data to a constructivist analysis that goes much further than the mechanics of database design. Students’ interactions with the institution, the state, and private actors present a problem of legibility for those actors, which is solved by datizing those interactions through a series of translations in the data process. The information that student databases contain is structured primarily by transformations in the data process and not the datized moment itself. I show how data is substantively constructed through its collection and management by conducting structural analyses of the data systems commonly used at Utah Valley University: Canvas, Banner, the Utah System of Higher Education reporting process, and IPEDS. I describe a series of characteristic transformations that take place in the collection, storage, and retrieval of data in these systems:
  1. from relevance to existence,
  2. from contingent to essential,
  3. from narrative to nominal,
  4. from complex to categorical (or plural to monistic), and
from diversity to normalcy. These transformations reduce the many ways of understanding reality to a single interpretation embodied in the data. Though reality does both provide inputs into the transformational process and constrains the ways that the process can transform those inputs into outputs, the choices made in developing data processes make impossible a database in which there is a one-to-one correspondence between reality and data. The information output is underdetermined by the datized moment itself, resulting in a Rashomon-like one-to-many correspondence that is reduced to a single output only with the conclusion of the data process.

This is more than merely suggesting that there are errors or biases in the data. In a realist view of data, errors and biases can be corrected by validating the data against itself or the reality it purports to represent. But the self-correcting process of scientific realism cannot do so within the kinds of transformations described in this paper. The transformations are consistent with reality because they follow the rules chosen for a specific data process. Actions are consistent with the conclusions drawn from that data because the data process has legitimized that data as the only acceptable representation of reality; all else can be dismissed as anecdote. Constructive data can only be challenged in confrontation with other constructions that may have been possible given alternative data processes.

Policymakers can gain much from understanding the transformations that govern the data that they use. Understanding them helps, first and foremost, determine the extent to which a data point--or combination of points--is an appropriate operationalization of a concept of concern, for example, when analyzing along a combined race-gender classification is more useful than analyzing by race and the gender sequentially. Such understanding also makes us aware of blind spots in our data where deviation or perceived irrelevance has been excluded. Finally, understanding the constructive nature of data is an antidote to a number of scientistic fallacies that can undermine data analysis and action.

But the deeper concern is for the injustices that can enter higher education through these translations. These translations exercise and distribute power between students and institutions, between institutions and the state, and among institutions by creating privileged representations and embedding both new and existing such representations in the data that is used in decisionmaking.

07 June 2013

Constraining the NSA with Deweyan "Expansive Privacy"

I can't say that I'm surprised about the NSA revelations. Pissed, yes, but when they have to build a new power plant in your area to power the NSA data center that I go past on the way to work every day, you know there's a lot of data being collected.

The constitutional implications of this are undoubtedly alarming. Some are arguing that this is a massive constitutional overreach, a total disregard of the Fourth Amendment. I'm worried that their wrong, though. I'm worried that NSA has simply embraced the logical implications of relying on pre-Internet privacy concepts to govern data, with the consequence that they've broken the Fourth Amendment's protections for the political process altogether. But I think John Dewey can fix it. In part because Dewey can fix anything, but mostly because his concept of the public-private distinction adapts well to the kinds of communication at the heart of the NSA mess.

Note: What follows is really speculative and not really researched. I'm relying on memory of past work, especially on the Dewey stuff. If you see anything really inane in this please bring it to my attention now before I shoot myself in the ass in a venue that is less speculative.

The Fourth Amendment establishes the fundamental constitutional constraints on the collection of data by the government, establishing that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." In practice this has been held primarily to apply to criminal justice matters; it was not explicitly an issue, for instance, in the controversy over the data collected by the US Census Bureau even when that collection was challenged as intrusive. With regard to searches, the operational standard established in Katz v. United States (1967) is that a search has occurred when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to the object of the search.

Therein lies the problem with regard to NSA collect of both telephone metadata and PRISM data. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to telephone metadata because that metadata must be shared with the service provider to make the telephone call. The same is true of packet metadata in Internet communications. In the case of PRISM data, the expectation of privacy is even less reasonable. This is information that we are deliberately sharing with others, at the least intentionally sharing with the service provider (as opposed to incidentally, as in the case of metadata) and quite often sharing it with the service provider for the purpose of sharing with other users of the service. And in both cases, a reasonably well informed person should know that the service providers are using the data for their own purposes as well as ours. An expectation of privacy is (at least in the empirical sense, i.e., that the data will be treated as private regardless of one's expectation of whether it ought to be) entirely unreasonable. Far from an abrogation of constitutional principles, the NSA revelations should be seen as the logical conclusion of our existing understanding of what constitutes an unreasonable search.

Yet something doesn't sit right about this. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's advice that "Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that is brand new" was treated not as the stately voice of reason but as the imperious voice of deception, and rightly so. The constant criticism of Facebook for violating its users privacy is but one of the more prominent examples of a broad concern with abuse of the data users give service providers. While it is analytically unreasonable to see a Facebook status update that is restricted to one's friends as private, I think it unrealistic to say that society is unprepared to see such an expectation as such, and it is society's willingness to accept the reasonableness of the expectation rather than a lawyer's or academic's analysis that is the standard established in Katz.

Even if society were unwilling to accept this expectation of privacy as reasonable (and the criticism of millenials as prone to oversharing via social media suggests that at least some members of society are), taking the Katz standard to its apparent conclusion makes the Fourth Amendment essentially useless. The overarching purpose of our protections against unreasonable searches is to protect political participation from abuse of the criminal process by the state. If a police officer must show probable cause before searching the home of a government critic, then the government can't use the police to silence criticism by fishing for trivial crimes. But if the major means of communication and document storage are no longer private, the Fourth Amendment can't do that.

So what is needed is some way of rethinking when we have been searched that is meaningful for electtronic communication and data storage. One consideration that I've seen mentioned (but not substantiated) in this debate is the idea that a search doesn't take place until the data is queried rather than when it is collected, implied by the procedures outlined in Director of National Intelligence James Clapper's statement. I don't think this is adequate. A constitutional provision prohibiting unreasonable searches works to protect participation not only by keeping the police from acting beyond their authority but also by making sure the people know this. When potential participants know that the data is there waiting to be queried, that's likely to have a chilling effect on participation (especially when they are also aware that the court protecting their data from being queried didn't reject a single request last year). The data collection establishes a disciplinary process that keeps citizens within the bounds of criticism that the state is willing to permit.

My thought is instead to look to John Dewey's understanding of the public-private separation. Traditionally that's been seen as a categorical distinction: either something is entirely public or entirely private, with the categorization based on the subject matter. Dewey, though, rethought that in The Public and Its Problems. For him, the private was the realm of action in which only the participants experienced the consequences of the action; once the consequences went beyond the participants the matter was public: the distinction was not substantive but pragmatic (in the technical sense of connected to actions and their consequences).

That breaks down the categorical aspects of the distinction as well. Actors can bring the affected third-parties into the action, for example by allowing them to participate in its development or by compensating them for the effects of their action. This in some sense privatizes the action by eliminating third-parties; everyone affected is a participant, and no one outside the action has any standing to seek the intervention of the state (assuming, of course, that the incorporated parties have no reason to challenge the terms of their inclusion). This essentially creates a kind of "limited publicity": matters in which some but not all members of society have a right to participate based on the consequences of the action of them. And the counterpart of limited publicity is a notion of "expanded privacy." Once all of those members are participating fairly, the matter is private with regard to other members of society. Those other members would have no right to participate in the action. Action is thus public with regard to those who suffer its consequences and private beyond that point.

I think this gives us leverage on why the data collected by NSA appears simultaneously public and private. Ultimately my status update is a communication between me and the friends I include in its privacy settings. (No, boss, you don't see all of my posts even though you friended me. Live with it.) Facebook delivers that communication and as such is part of the process; my update is public with regard to Facebook. But beyond Facebook and my friends list, that communication is private. I have a reasonable expectation that it will not, as Helen Nissenbaum argues, be used out of the context in which it was communicated, for example as an endorsement of some advertisers's product. Such a realm of privacy would almost always exclude the state, protecting citizens from the mess that the return of the imperial presidency has created.