In the following blog post, Roderic Crooks shows the insights from his article titled “Cat-and-Mouse Games: Dataveillance and Performativity in Urban Schools,” which was recently published in the journal Surveillance & Society.
For the last five years, I’ve been thinking and writing about the impetus to be data-driven in the context of civic life, the seeming inevitability of commercial technology’s takeover of public services, including public education. I’ve studied this infiltration of consumer technology into education here in Los Angeles in what researchers call urban schools, high-poverty, public schools that serve minoritized communities, primarily black and Latino. Racially segregated urban schools are sites of extensive surveillance regimes that depend increasingly on the capture, aggregation, and analysis of digital data produced in the course of mundane, daily activities such as schoolwork, personal communications, and social media updates. Scholars and organizers concerned about the ever-expanding creep of surveillance regimes spread via so-called edtech have rightly pointed out that technological interventions in urban schooling have exacerbated economic inequality, overpromised educational benefits, and refused to address the harms of data-intensive surveillance (i.e., dataveillance). In many quarters, a sense of helplessness pervades, a feeling that there’s nothing minortized communities can do to resist the voracious extractions of technology companies and the chronic disinvestment of the state.
For over two years, I visited a high school in South Los Angeles that was in the middle of a dramatic experiment with education technology: a one-to-one tablet computer program, wherein every student, administrator, and teacher was issued a tablet computer and a set of apps. These programs flourished in Southern California between 2013 and 2017, before bad press, lawsuits, and electoral change in the schoolboard resulted in most such programs being cancelled. I was interested in how changes in educational infrastructure produced new opportunities for dataveillance in an educational environment already inundated with digital and analog modes of surveillance.
Our understanding of dataveillance depends very heavily on fictional and speculative accounts about what digital technology can do.
I watched dataveillance up close, as a series of conflicts that complicated the idea that more sophisticated modes of dataveillance increase the ability of school authorities to control student and teacher behavior. While data capture was ubiquitous, a paradox emerged: school authorities could not necessarily use what they had learned to control student or teacher behavior. Narrow, provisional species of resistance opened up in some cases, instances where clever students or reluctant teachers could refuse to play along with the administration’s data-intensive vision of schooling. People found ways to manipulate the ambiguous relationship between data and the things that data are supposed to represent, tactics that let them evade the control of administrators.
Our understanding of dataveillance depends very heavily on fictional and speculative accounts about what digital technology can do. I hope my work in this single case can be part of a more empirical reappraisal of what kinds of control digital data can produce. In our guiding fictions of surveillance, authorities are all-seeing and all-knowing. If we are to mitigate the harms to minoritized communities (and to civic life more broadly) inherent in surveillance abuse, we should include studies about how people evade, confuse, thwart, and ignore surveillance regimes as part of everyday life.