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GAFAM Against Higher Education: University Centralised IT Has Failed. What Now?

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, Google, Microsoft, Servers at 12:03 am by Guest Editorial Team

Guest post by Dr. Andy Farnell

In this mini-series:

  1. YOU ARE HEREGAFAM Against Higher Education: University Centralised IT Has Failed. What Now?
  2. GAFAM Against Higher Education: Toxic Tech
  3. GAFAM Against Higher Education: Fixing the Broken Academy
  4. GAFAM Against Higher Education: Digital Crash Diet

Andy FarnellSummary: Today we commence a 4-part series about what has happened to British universities (probably not only universities and not just in Britain either), based on an insider, a visiting professor at several European Universities

An article I wrote for the Times HE on “Eliminating harmful digital technologies in education” generated some attention and comments. I’ve been asked “What can we do?” That is to say, I failed to properly address the implied call to arms and merely enumerated the technological problems in education. Smart people want to hear about solutions, not problems.

First I wanted to move the conversation beyond the self-evident and visible, like invasive CCTV cameras, card access systems (and soon phone tracking, fingerprint and face scanners) that give our places of learning all the warmth of a Category-A high-security facility for child sex offenders.

“Smart people want to hear about solutions, not problems.”This isn’t necessary. Visiting London I sometimes wander into the Gower Street quad to enjoy a coffee with my Alma Mater. In University College London, it’s possible and pleasant to wander the halls to reminisce. There are not too many cameras to spoil the architecture and security is still handled by the famous maroon jacketed Beadles. UCL seems to blend seamlessly into the leafy squares of Bloomsbury accommodating many buildings with open doors and welcoming receptionists. By contrast, other universities have degenerated into carceral gulags, accessible only by appointment, through turnstiles and scanners and patrolled by black-clad goonies.

Certainly we must keep reminding the world that a digital dystopia is inappropriate in the context of teaching and learning. Offensive technology must not be allowed to fade into the background, to become normalised, quiescent and acceptable.

But these are only the visible manifestations of a deeper malaise. Drifting from a public good into the waters of brutal corporate values, the academy – lured by the siren song of a security industry – has marked its own students as pirates and brigands.

One backwater university began blocking students from forwarding mail from their institutional Microsoft accounts to their personal inboxes, on the grounds that they might “exfiltrate teaching materials”. In a world where MIT and Stanford put their best courses online for free it beggars belief what goes through the minds of ICT staff so cloistered and divorced from core functions.

“Drifting from a public good into the waters of brutal corporate values, the academy – lured by the siren song of a security industry – has marked its own students as pirates and brigands.”Of course, in the name of fairness the same implied criminality and untrustworthiness is extended to staff. Anyone trying to run labs or prepare teaching materials for microelectronics, IoT, web technology, or cybersecurity, must face stiff resistance to any non-Microsoft activity that cannot be brought under boot of centralised surveillance.

I wonder, other than digital rights researchers like myself; who else is watching this death spiral in the academy? College unions like the UCU and NUS (student union) seem to have little or no awareness of the digital rights abuses perpetrated against staff and students in our universities under the banners of “security” and “efficiency”.

“It serves everyone but the key stakeholders in education; lecturers and students.”Offensive technology serves the chancellors, trustees, landlords, governments, industries, advertisers, sponsors, technology corporations, suppliers and publishers. It serves administrators who believe technology will deliver fast, efficient, uniform, accountable, secure, and most of all cheap education. It serves everyone but the key stakeholders in education; lecturers and students. The cost of draconian over-monitoring is that it corrodes our ability to teach and learn as fully human beings.

But again, monitoring and obstruction are only two aspects of the technological menace facing teaching. I was asked to look at all forms of harmful technology, and these cannot be located in specific systems or policies, Instead I enumerated broad categories of harm, namely technologies that;

  • disenfranchise and disempower
  • dehumanise
  • discriminate and exclude
  • extract or seek rent
  • coerce and bully
  • mislead or manipulate

On reflection I would add a few less general harms to the original Times HE list, being technologies that;

  • distract
  • waste time
  • waste resources
  • gaslight and disturb
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