Needless to say, when two of my favorite contemporary sociologists write a book together, on a topic of high relevance, lately – surveillance – I jumped on it. Liquid Surveillance – A Conversation is actually a dialogue via email between Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon. The conversation revolves around the two major concepts that have shaped these men’s intellectual career: liquidity for Bauman, and the surveillance society for Lyon. So, it was only natural for their conversation to revolves around joining these two themes.

On that, the book does not disappoint. At the same time, because the conversation assumes at least some familiarity with the works of both men, it might not be as accessible to a non-academic audience as one might hope. It does seem, though, that whoever edited the book wanted to reach a wide audience through a short book, written in a relatively casual style and conversational tone. The book works on those aspects.

Another aspect of the book that makes it easy to follow is that the two sociologists do not seem to disagree on anything. So, each chapter basically revolves around one theme organized through an email exchange, where Lyon sets up the question, and then, Bauman compliments him for hitting the nail right on the head. Things go back and forth a bit until the end of the chapter. And the cycle starts again in the next chapter.

The overall theme of the book then joins two conceptual and theoretical apparatuses that truly seem to belong together: that of the liquidity thesis (the contemporary modern era where individuals have to find individualized solutions for structural and systemic problems in the context of precarization and risk society), and that of the surveillance society as tied not just to the state and governmental surveillance, but also that of consumerist surveillance promoted by large corporations, and the ties between the two types. A big chunk of the discussion questions whether Bentham’s Panopticon image is still relevant, and if not, what has replaced it as the image liquid surveillance. That is what the two sociologists explore.

“Surveillance is a growing feature of daily news, reflecting its rapid rise to prominence in many life spheres. But in fact surveillance has been expanding quietly for many decades and is a basic feature of the modern world. As that world has transformed itself through successive generations, so surveillance takes on an ever changing character. Today, modern societies seem so fluid that it makes sense to think of them being in a ‘liquid’ phase. Always on the move, but often lacking certainty and lasting bonds, today’s citizens, workers, consumers and travellers also find that their movements are monitored, tracked and traced. Surveillance slips into a liquid state.” (Loc. 32)

The way the liquidity thesis and the surveillance society thesis join together goes like this:

“‘Liquid surveillance’ is less a complete way of specifying surveillance and more an orientation, a way of situating surveillance developments in the fluid and unsettling modernity of today.” (Loc. 70)

At the nexus of state, private sector, and surveillance, one encounters the now ubiquitous idea of “security”, whether it is protection against terrorist threats or corporate fears of hackers of all tripes. The whole idea is that the risk society surrounds us and security measures have to be adopted to protect us all from all these risks. It is for our own good and we need to accept it.

“As Didier Bigo points out, such security operates by tracking ‘everything that moves (products, information, capital, humanity)’. So surveillance works at a distance in both space and time, circulating fluidly with, but beyond, nation-states in a globalized realm.” (Loc. 107)

And everything that moves includes, of course, one’s cursor on a computer screen, the clicks on links, the online movements and purchases one makes, the games one plays and the communication one engages in. From this perspective, social media is one giant surveillance apparatus where human beings are turned into little (or big) pile of data that then gets manipulated, repackaged, and sold. Surveillance within social media is pretty much an accepted fact of life. As much as one might get enthusiastic on the use of social media for social movements (as we have seen in the past few years on a global scale), the use of social media is always at the discretion of the corporations that own the platforms and based on state oversight.

A key concept invoked repeatedly by Bauman to define the nature of liquid surveillance is that of adiaphorization in which systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality.” (Loc. 132). Contemporary technologies of surveillance allows its extension to great distance, creating an almost complete separation between the watchers and the watched (think drone operators and their potential targets and victims).

Adiaphorization also applies to all the different ways in which human being are disembodied and turned into piles of data, whether it is biometric data gathered at the borders, or genetic information collected through medical testing, or consumer profiling through sites like Amazon. These aggregated data are then used as “standing in” for the person who has been in effect disappeared in favor of a substrate that is easier to classify, categorize, select or exclude, through statistical means as run through massive servers. Indeed, one can invoke the fact that “dealing with data” is a morally neutral activity, even though, it obviously is not.

There is a soft power side to surveillance practices in liquid times, its carrot side: the fact that a great deal of information and data comes from us. We voluntarily submit data to a variety of organizations because we get little things in exchange. When Amazon asks us to rate and review our purchases in order to provide us with a more customized experience, we comply and volunteer our free labor as data because we get something in exchange: a more fun Internet and purchasing experience overall. The same goes for Facebook, Google and a lot of other companies. So, we trade a bit of privacy and data in exchange for some reward in a variety of forms.

The end result, though, of all these forms of surveillance, whether public or private or partnership of both, is social sorting: defining classes of individuals as worthy of state or commercial benefits or excluded from those. These benefits though may very well be life chances and opportunities, and results in +and – in terms of social rewards and privileges or their absence.

So, is the old Panopticon dead or have we entered the post-Panoptical era? It is not clear-cut. With the greater presence of ever smaller drones, Google Streetview, etc. we are more than ever subject to surveillance but we never really know when and by whom. That’s the contemporary, ubiquitous Panopticon. On the other hand, social media also hold the promise of constant sociality: you are never alone on Facebook, Twitter and all the other social media platforms. These platforms hold the promise of never being alone, but also of never being invisible, ignored, neglected, etc. They even offer the possibilities of seemingly freely chosen presentation of the self (paging Erving Goffman). Out of the loss of privacy came the pleasures of being noticed and recognized (and how has not checked their Klout scores??). But this means that we also turn ourselves into commodities.

At this point, though, both Bauman and Lyon fall prey to digital dualism while opposing the strong ties of communities and the weak ties of networks, privileging the former over the latter:

“Belonging to a community is a much more secure and reliable condition than having a network – though admittedly with more constraints and obligations. Community watches you closely and leaves you little room for manoeuvre (it may ban you and exile you, but it won’t allow you to opt out of your own will). But a network may care little, or not at all, about your obedience to its norms (if a network has norms to obey, that is, which all too often it doesn’t) and so it gives you much more rope, and above all will not penalize you for quitting.

(…)

All in all, the choice is between security and freedom: you need both, but you cannot have one without sacrificing a part at least of the other; and the more you have of one, the less you’ll have of the other. For security, the old-style communities beat networks hands down. For freedom, it is the other way round (after all, it takes only one press of the ‘delete’ key or a decision to stop answering messages to get free of its interference).” (Loc. 558)

One would hope that this is a dualism that we would have buried once and for all. This opposition is much too simplistic than Bauman and Lyon make it sound. After all, a lot of Facebook users, for instance, use the platform to reinforce their bonding social capital and not exclusively to increase their bridging social capital. I don’t think these oppositions hold empirically.

But this is well in line with a general pessimistic tone that persists throughout the book, and not just on the subject of surveillance but on the larger subject of social networks. In Bauman and Lyon’s discussion, there is little hope for any positive aspect of social networking technologies. It may very well be that one gets different types of relationships through social media than face-to-face (and again, this would need to be demonstrated empirically rather than just asserted), but this whole formation of hierarchy of relationships by medium is getting old and tiresome. There is no reason to assume a priori that face-to-face interactions are more authentic or deeper than digital ones. And yes, one has the freedom to leave a network without constraints. But local communities can be hotbeds of oppression that may impossible to escape, especially for women and girls in highly patriarchal environments. And yes, social networking platforms are as reflective of patriarchy as brick-and-mortar institutions.

Ok rant over on the digital dualism thing. Moving on.

Here is a good question though, and a very relevant one these days:

“If social media are actively used by people for their own purposes, then what happens when those purposes are opposed to the corporations or governments who might be thought of as using them?” (Loc. 625)

In the context of the whole NSA / Snowden fiasco, this is important and we saw how crucial it is when it was revealed that some of the major media players had willingly collaborated with NSA surveillance.

And yes, the jury may still be out on the prospects of social movements that made skillful use of social media over the past few years, here in the US and worldwide, but Bauman and Lyon seem deeply set in their pessimism. But the issue for social movements is not either/or: on the ground or virtual. Analysts like Castells have shown that it is both. There is a two-way street between the virtual and the non-virtual, there is interdependence rather than opposition or hierarchy. As we saw last week with the case of HB5, the anti-abortion bill debated in the Texas legislature, there was ground action, and virtual activism as well. They combined and joined into a powerful demonstration of crowd behavior merging with mass behavior. And in that case, it was the online crowd who watched and monitored as political actors on the ground try to cheat on the final vote on the bill. Without the mass of virtual witnesses, this might have gone without much opposition. The virtual and the on-ground supported and sustained each other. So, again, I think both Bauman and Lyon are lacking imagination and optimism on this.

Back to the Panopticon 2.0:

“The panopticon is alive and well, armed in fact with (electronically enhanced, ‘cyborgized’) muscles so mighty that Bentham or even Foucault could not and would not have imagined them – but it has clearly stopped being the universal pattern or strategy of domination that both those authors believed it was in their times; it is no longer even the principal or most commonly practised pattern or strategy. The panopticon has been shifted and confined to the ‘unmanageable’ parts of society, such as prisons, camps, psychiatric clinics and other ‘total institutions’, in Erving Goffman’s sense. How they work nowadays has been superbly recorded and in my view definitively described by Loïc Wacquant. In other words, panopticon-like practices are limited to sites for humans booked to the debit side, declared useless and fully and truly ‘excluded’ – and where the incapacitation of bodies, rather than their harnessing to useful work, is the sole purpose behind the setting’s logic.” (Loc. 763)

This is a point that is well demonstrated in Eugene Jarecki in his documentary on the War on Drugs, especially as commented by The Wire’s David Simon. US prisons are warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized.

But Bauman takes this point even further: in the old conceptualization of the Panopticon, there has to be an external watcher. But the Panopticon was a modern construct:

“Having considered bureaucracy as the fullest incarnation of modern rationality, Max Weber proceeded to enumerate the features which any purposeful arrangement of human activities needs to acquire and strive to perfect, in addition to strict hierarchies of command and reporting, in order to come close to bureaucracy’s ideal type and so climb to the peak of rationality. At the top of Weber’s list was the exclusion of all personal loyalties, commitments, beliefs and preferences other than those declared relevant to serving the purpose of the organization; everything ‘personal’, that is not determined by the statute books of the company, needed to be left in the cloakroom at the entry to the building, so to speak, and collected back after the completion of ‘office time’. Today, when the centre of gravity, burden of proof and responsibility for the result has been dropped by managers, as team leaders and unit commanders, on to the shoulders of individual performers, or ‘contracted out’, ‘outsourced’ or ‘hived off’ laterally and judged according to a seller–buyer pattern rather than a boss–subordinate relationship, the aim is to harness the totality of the subaltern personality and their whole waking time to the company’s purposes.” (Loc. 798)

And so, we all become our own watchers:

“Servitude, along with surveillance of performance twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, is becoming fully and truly a DIY job for the subordinates. The construction, running and servicing of panopticons have been turned from a liability into an asset for the bosses, written into the small print of every contract of employment.

(…)

Just as snails carry their homes, so the employees of the brave new liquid modern world must grow and carry their personal panopticons on their own bodies. Employees and every other variety of the subordinated have been charged with full and unconditional responsibility for keeping them in good repair and assuring their uninterrupted operation (leaving your mobile or iPhone at home when you go for a stroll, and thereby suspending the state of being constantly at a superior’s beck and call, is a case of serious misdemeanour).

(…)

Tempted by the allure of consumer markets and frightened by the new freedom of the bosses to vanish, together with the jobs on offer, subordinates are so groomed to the role of self-watchers as to render redundant the watchtowers in the Bentham/ Foucault scheme.” (Loc. 817)

And so, in the Global North, we carry our own personal Panopticons, and in the Global South, the semi-periphery, factory workers get locked up in unsafe plants to make goods for our consumption, under the brutal watch of old-fashioned floor foremen (think Foxconn or the dead workers in Bangladesh). The Panopticon also applies to the marginalized mass of Manuel Castells’s Fourth World, wherever they are in the world (as welfare recipients have to agree to subject themselves to degrading forms of surveillance through testing if they wish to receive ever more meager benefits).

Here, Lyon borrows an interesting concept from Didier Bigo: “ban-opticon“:

“Bigo proposes ‘ban-opticon’ to indicate how profiling technologies are used to determine who is placed under specific surveillance. But it emerges from a full theoretical analysis of how a new ‘globalized (in)security’ emerges from the increasingly concerted activities of international ‘managers of unease’ such as police, border officials and airline companies. Transnational bureaucracies of surveillance and control, both businesses and politicians, now work at a distance to monitor and control population movement, through surveillance.

(…)

The outcome is not a global panopticon but a ‘ban-opticon’ – combining Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of the ‘ban’ as developed by Agamben, with Foucault’s ‘opticon’. Its dispositif shows who is welcome or not, creating categories of people excluded not just from a given nation-state but from a rather amorphous and not unified cluster of global powers. And it operates virtually, using networked databases to channel flows of data.” (Loc. 836)

This is a very important point:

“The strategic function of the ban-opticon diagram is to profile a minority as ‘unwelcome’. Its three features are exceptional power within liberal societies (states of emergency that become routine), profiling (excluding some groups, categories of proactively excluded people, because of their potential future behaviour) and the normalizing of non-excluded groups (to a belief in the free movement of goods, capital, information and persons). The ban-opticon operates in globalized spaces beyond the nation-state, so the effects of power and resistance are no longer felt merely between state and society.” (Loc. 846)

Emphases mine. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. The point of all surveillance (state or commercial) is as much to exclude as to include, and both flow from the same processes. But in some cases, we have created some in-between spaces: the refugee camps, the detention centers for immigrants and asylum seekers, where people are warehoused until a given entity, state or otherwise, makes a decision on inclusion v. exclusion. Snowden is in some such space right now, as countries decide whether to grant him political asylum or not.

In addition to the ban-opticon, Bauman and Lyon borrow another related concept, synopticon:

“Thomas Mathiesen’s neat neologism that contrasts the panopticon’s ‘few watching the many’ with today’s mass media, where as he puts it, ‘the many watch the few’.” (Loc. 936)

How many of you watch The Kardashians? Real Housewives of Wherever? The synoptic is not a contradiction to the panoptic. They work together. Or, as I mentioned above, the 100k+ people “watching” the Texas legislature via Twitter or streaming media.

But in the end, panopticon, synopticon, or ban-opticon all work through databases. And by definition, these databases dehumanize and depersonify (if that is a word), but they do categorize at distance, in absentia.

“Every and any kind and instance of surveillance serves the same purpose: spotting the targets, location of targets and/or focusing on targets.

(…)

Instruments of surveillance installed at the entrances of shops or gated communities are not equipped with an ‘executive arm’ designed to annihilate the spotted and pinpointed targets – but their purpose, all the same, is the targets’ incapacitation and removal ‘beyond bounds’. The same might be said of the surveillance used to pick out the credit-unworthy from among aspiring clients, or of the surveillance tools used to set apart the penniless loiterers from the promising clients among the crowds flooding the shopping malls. Neither of those two varieties of contemporary surveillance has the purpose of causing physical death; and yet what they are after is a sort of death (the death of everything that matters). It is not a corporeal demise, and moreover not finite but (in principle) revocable: it is a social death, leaving open, so to speak, the chance of a social resurrection (rehabilitation, a restoration to rights). Social exclusion, the raison d’être of the ban-opticon, is in its essence analogous to a verdict of social death.” (Loc. 1233)

Which gets us back full circle to adiaphorization, which is a central concept to all this.

While exploring that concept, Bauman takes the opportunity to debunk the trope that technologies are neutral while their uses are not (the high tech version of “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” All technologies are produced out of socio-political-economic arrangements that are by no means neutral within specific social institutions, marked by social relations of power. Nothing neutral about any of that.

I confess to losing interest towards the end of the book, when Lyon gets all religious-y about all this.

But apart from that, I think this is a very relevant book. As I mentioned above, it helps if readers are already familiar with both sociologists. But they tend to avoid too much jargon (except for the few, highly important, concepts I noted throughout the post).

As I noted above, I have a few disagreements here and there and I do think they are both very pessimistic about future prospects. But otherwise, this book should be read discussed not just in academia but in activist circles as well, especially those groups concerned with surveillance.

In his latest book, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in The Internet Age, Manuel Castells tries his hand at public sociology. Those of us who are regular readers of Castells’s work know him for a very dense writer of massive opus. In this particular – and shorter – book, Castells links his conceptual apparatus and interest in current protest movements in a way that is more concise and readable for a general audience.

I have already dedicated a post on Castells’s concept of power. But Castells’s conceptual toolbox is more complex than this, developed at length in Communication Power. In Networks of Outrage and Hope, Castells provides a simplified and more concise version of the arguments made in Communication Power and then applies them to the various social movements that have grabbed public attention and shaken democratic governments and dictatorships alike around the world. For Castells, these movements represent a new form of social movements in the context of the network society.

Power is the first concept of Castells’s grounded theory of communication power. A second major concept is that mass self-communication, using the Internet and wireless networks as platforms. The mass communication part of this is obvious. The self-communication part might be less so:

“It is self-communication because the production of the message is autonomously decided by the sender, the designation of the receiver is self-directed and the retrieval of messages from the networks of communication is self-selected. Mass self-communication is based on horizontal networks of interactive communication that, by and large, are difficult to control by governments and corporations. (…) Mass self-communication provides the technological platform for the construction of the autonomy of the social actor, be it individual or collective, vis-à-vis the institutions of society. This is why governments are afraid of the Internet, and this is why corporations have a love-hate relationship with it and are trying to extract profits while limiting its potential for freedom (for instance, by controlling file sharing or open source networks).” (7)

In addition, the concept of networks in a global context is relevant as well. Rather than go through the details of Castells’s nuanced description of the various networks involved, I summarized the idea in the image below:

Networks

There should be more arrows, obviously, but it might get crowded. You get the idea. In these flexible and changing network configurations, the state and political systems still have a preeminent place. Indeed, states still provide for the stability of the overall system through institutions and regulations. After all, it is states that came to the rescue when the financial global system collapsed in 2008. And, in a Weberian fashion, Castells reminds us that, ultimately, the state has the monopoly on the use of force. The state is the default network for the proper functioning of all the other networks.

How do networks connect with each other? Through a mechanisms Castells calls switching power: the power that programmers have to connect or disconnect networks, and the power that switchers have to operate the connections between networks (politicians, lobbyists, financial elites, media corporations, etc.). But, in a very Foucauldian way, Castells notes that power always produces resistance in the form of reprogramming networks and disrupting dominant switches.

And when it comes to resistance to power, social movements are the main actors. The success social movements is highly dependent on autonomous communication, that is, communication that is autonomous from state or corporate control. Traditionally, modes of mass communication were entirely under state control. Castells argues that is no longer the case with the Internet and wireless networks. What makes current social movements different is their hybrid nature: extensive use of online tools and physical occupation of urban space. For all the “cool” factor of the virtual aspect of social movements, Castells argues that physical occupation of urban space is crucial for three reasons:

  1. It creates community and allows participants to overcome fear, a fundamental threshold to solidify social movements;
  2. It emphasizes the symbolic nature of the specific space that is being occupied;
  3. It creates a Habermasian public space for deliberation and sovereign assemblies.

Hybrid space 2

Armed with this conceptual apparatus, Castells sets out to analyze the major social movements of the past few years, starting the precursors (Tunisia and Iceland), then turning to the Egyptian revolution, the Arab Spring, the Indignadas in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street. Out of all these separate cases, Castells creates an ideal-type of the social movement in the network society.

“Throughout history, social movements have been, and continue to be, the levers of social change. They usually stem from a crisis of living conditions that makes everyday life unbearable for most people. They are prompted by a deep distrust of political institutions managing society. The combination of a degradation of the material conditions of life and of a crisis of legitimacy of the rulers in charge with the conduct of public affairs induces people to take matters into their own hands, engaging in collective action outside the prescribed institutional channels, to defend their demands and, eventually, to change the rulers, and even the rules shaping their lives. Yet, this is risky behavior, because the maintenance of the social order and the stability of political institutions express power relationships that enforced, if necessary, by intimidation and, in the last resort, by the use of force.” (219)

And while I don’t agree with Castells that all human behavior is based on six fundamental emotions (fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness, anger), because that is too sweeping a statement, it is not hard to see how anger is the trigger and fear is the repressor that needs to be overcome through the process of communicative action that gives rise to collective actors.

But, the specific structural factors of increased inequalities and crisis of legitimacy combine with an emotional trigger (a specific event such as the public immolation in Tunisia) based on outrage against injustice, but also hope for possible change. Beyond that, here are the features of the ideal-type of a social movement in the network society:

  • These social movements are networked in multiple forms (multimodal, on/offline, using various platforms, existing and new… strength of weak ties, anyone?), without a central node, and with a decentered structure.
  • The social movements involve occupation of urban space.
  • This creates a hybrid space of autonomy that is the new spatial form of networked social movements.
  • This also creates its own form of time: timeless time based on the timeless nature of virtual space and the day-to-day structuring of physical occupations.
  • These movements start spontaneously, following an emotional trigger.
  • These movements are viral.
  • These movements transition from outrage to hope after they create a space of autonomy based on deliberation, and leaderless structure.

Here is a graphic summary of the consensus flow in Occupy movements:

Consensus_Flow

  • These movements are based on horizontal networks that facilitate cooperation, togetherness and solidarity that undermines the need for formally identified leadership.
  • These movements are highly self-reflective.
  • These movements are confrontational but non-violent. They did engage in civil disobedience.
  • Unless the goal of the movements is to take down a dictatorship, these movements are rarely programmatic. They are more aimed at changing the values of society. This particular aspect of OWS used to drive the media nuts as they wanted to know what the occupiers wanted, specific demands and political platforms. But these movements are political through and through as they practice direct, deliberative democracy.

So, for Castells, the Internet is both a tool but it is also an essential condition to create and maintain leaderless, deliberative and participatory movements, and to foster a culture of autonomy. Autonomy is central to Castells. Whereas Bauman and Beck argue that a major trait of contemporary society is individualization, Castells argues that it is through individuation that autonomy becomes possible:

“Individuation is the cultural trend that emphasizes the projects of the individual as the paramount principle orientating her/his behavior (Giddens 1991; Beck 1992). Individuation is not individualism, because the project of the individual may be geared towards collective action and shared ideals, such as preserving the environment or creating community, while individualism makes the well-being of the individual the ultimate goal of his/her individuated project. The concept of autonomy is broader, as it can refer both to individual and collective actors. Autonomy refers to the capacity of a social actor to become a subject by defining its action around projects constructed independently of the institutions of society, according to the values and interests of the social actor. The transition from individuation to autonomy is operated through networking. which allows individual actors  to build their autonomy with likeminded people in the networks of their choice. I contend that the Internet provides the organizational communication framework to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy.” (231)

There is a lot more detail in the book about each specific social movements but Castells only presents part of the picture. First, I think he is a bit too optimistic about the liberation potential of the Internet and wireless networks. We have seen that governments and corporations are quite adept at using these technologies for their own purposes, in terms of surveillance and data mining. That aspect is completely absent from the book.

Also, the book is focused on specific, and largely progressive, social movements. It ignores the rise of reactionary social movements, whether it is the reaction against the legalization on gay marriage in France (probably, that happened after the book got published), or the rise of fascist movements in countries that got hit the hardest by the recession, whether it is the Tea Party movement in the US, Golden Dawn in Greece, and other resistance movements from the far right. These movements address the legitimacy crisis from a completely different angle. But they would require different conceptual tools.

But beyond that, this book feels like “Castells for Beginners”, written for the general public, and not the usual academic audience. The analysis of actual movements is a bit rosy-eyed and I think there should be some debate regarding Castells’s overall analysis of these social movements, regarding their effectiveness and persistence (or lack thereof, on both counts) but I do agree with Castells’s contention that the Occupy movements were more about consciousness-raising than programmatic politics. However, the jury is still out on the success of movements in the Arab world despite the success in overthrowing dictatorships in a few countries.

But one cannot fault Castells for engaging with the current issues, using his sociological toolbox, and for doing so in an accessible way.

 

By SocProf.

So, here we are again. MOOCs are very much still the talk of the academic town. And I am still working my way through a few of them. I actually just completed edX’s Statistics 2.1x – Descriptive Statistics out of BerkeleyX. The course itself, I thought, was very good and very well done. It was a 5-week long course, with strict deadlines, weekly graded assignments, a mid-term and a final. The courseware itself consisted of videos of about 15 minutes (except for the last week where one of the videos was 39 minutes long… Yikes). The main instructor was Berkeley’s Ani Adhikari and she was an excellent teacher. Overall, the again, the videos were well done (mostly powerpoint-style presentations with voice-over, both – video and pdf files – downloadable), the content was perfectly appropriate, the teaching sound, the exams quite rigorous but quite doable if you paid attention to the lectures (and you needed to pay very close attention). This was not a casual course. So, that is for the positive aspect.

The main negative thing, for me, was the discussion board. In MOOCs, discussion boards can be used for peer review grading or simply for discussion and for students to get some help if they get stuck. By definition, a MOOC will not offer access to professors the same way that credit-bearing course will, no office hours. So, a message board can be a valuable tool. Except, in this case, the board was terrible. Very clearly, in this course, with about 47,000 students, message boards can get crazy. In this case, the population for the course was obviously very diverse, with a lot of non-English speakers, people with different levels of education, age, occupations, and Internet access. Let us not forget that MOOCs do nothing to alleviate the digital divide. In this sense, they are not as open as one might think. They are open to those with time, access to hardware, software and skills.

So, after the very first few days, the message boards were inundated with a lot of overlapping posts, protesting the tight deadlines, a few typos and errors in Week 1 assignments, the video streaming speed, the number of possible submissions for graded exercises (“Coursera allows 3, Udacity, as many as you need, why are getting only one or two?”) and pretty much everything that could possibly be protested (including a quite funny argument regarding the meaning of GMT that Ani Adhikari herself blogged about… and yes, she has a blog specifically for her MOOC experience). There were initially breaches of the code of conduct where students posted answers to the graded exercises (or asked directly for such answers). Now, obviously, with so many students, even if a minority never participates in the message boards, only 5 to 10% participation can create a gigantic mess.

The nasty part was when what seemed to be a tight groups of students who had already taken edX courses (and therefore knew the format) took it upon themselves to police the message boards. They started berating the other students, sometimes being downright insulting. Then they would pat each other on the back for their wit and smarts, and how everybody else was stupid. Overall, they behaved like a pack of bullying juniors and seniors in high school going after hapless freshmen. This was very unpleasant, and, in many ways, inappropriate. I don’t know if these students were tasked by edX to manage the boards. If not, then they had an enormous amount of time to devote to the task anyway as they were omnipresent, always at the ready to slam down other students. And from the comments they made, I gathered that at least one of them had behaved the same way in a previous course. At one point, she commented that boards need order, and, apparently, she decided it was her job.

I know message boards are supposed to be self-managed and it would take a lot of resources for MOOC providers to have full-time moderators but it is simply not acceptable to have one group of people bully everyone else who dares show up on the board without what these students considered to be appropriate behavior (I did struggle as to whether I should step in and push back a bit, ultimately, I decided to stay away from the boards… cowardly, I know). And if a few students fought back against the bullies, then, the immediate retort was that they should not complain because the course was free so they should be happy with what they were given. No teacher would let such dynamics develop in-class or online.

In the end, I would be curious to know what percentage of the initial 47,000 completed the course. As we know, completion rates tend to be abysmal in MOOCs, as demonstrated by this rather not-very-nice interactive graphic (thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan to the left (Alberto Cairo might have a heart attack). It is interactive, so, click on it to go play.

Overall, it shows that the MOOC with the highest completion rate got about 20%. Everything else, is very low. Auto-graded-only courses seem to have slightly higher completion rates. Those are usually math or computer science courses. Peer-graded-only courses seem to be at the bottom, and that includes an introduction to sociology (:-().

Maybe courses that require more reading, writing and discussions have higher drop / non-completion rates than courses, like statistics, where the completion of problems and exercises is straightforward. If that were the case, this would be rather indicting for the format especially for those who think that freshmen survey courses should be offered as MOOCs as cost-saving. As we already know, MOOCs will not save money. And at this point, there is actually no business model for MOOCs.

I am currently enrolled in other MOOCS (statistics again, but this time, at Coursera) and I plan on taking Stats 2.2 with edX again. That is the thing about MOOCs, though, they don’t seem to be full of students. They seem to be full of people like me: with jobs, middle age or around that, mostly there for knowledge and professional development, or refreshers on the topics.

For those of you who read French, check out this report from Remy Besson from Culture Visuelle, after is MOOC experience at Coursera, taking E-Learning and Digital Culture.

Also check out Sister Edith blog post on why we should not be so hung up about the poor retention / completion rates in MOOCs (the sister is, like me, an alumna of Alberto Cairo’s first MOOC on infographics and data visualization).

By SocProf.

Thanks to Google Glass. Specifically this:

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them. I’ll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally – here’s where the problems really start – you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.

Now pretend you don’t know a single person who wears Google Glass… and take a walk outside. Anywhere you go in public – any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway – you’re liable to be recorded: audio and video. Fifty people on the bus might be Glassless, but if a single person wearing Glass gets on, you – and all 49 other passengers – could be recorded. Not just for a temporary throwaway video buffer, like a security camera, but recorded, stored permanently, and shared to the world.

Now, I know the response: “I’m recorded by security cameras all day, it doesn’t bother me, what’s the difference?” Hear me out – I’m not done. What makes Glass so unique is that it’s a Google project. And Google has the capacity to combine Glass with other technologies it owns.

First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.

Finally, consider the speech-to-text software that Google already employs, both in its servers and on the Glass devices themselves. Any audio in a video could, technically speaking, be converted to text, tagged to the individual who spoke it, and made fully searchable within Google’s search index.

Now our stage is set: not for what will happen, necessarily, but what I just want to point out could technically happen, by combining tools already available within Google.

Let’s return to the bus ride. It’s not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google’s search index. Permanently.

I’m still not done.

The really interesting aspect is that all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it. Any video taken by any Google Glass, anywhere, is likely to be stored on Google servers, where any post-processing (facial recognition, speech-to-text, etc.) could happen at the later request of Google, or any other corporate or governmental body, at any point in the future.

Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device – every single day, everywhere they go – on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

Just think: if a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you’ve ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google’s cloud – whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between – will instantly bring up documentation of every word you’ve ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.

This is the discussion we should have about Google Glass. The tech community, by all rights, should be leading this discussion. Yet most techies today are still chattering about whether they’ll look cool wearing the device.”

All this is, of course, highly reminiscent of Minority Report, depicting a futuristic society where your retina is the source of constant stream of information, advertising and surveillance (both public and private), and where the only escape is to literally get a new set of retinas on the black market. A more advanced version of this technology was also deployed in David Brin’s Existence, combined with some “Wisdom of Crowds” stuff.

The worst part of it is that we will get used to it.

I am currently reading Evgeny Morozov’s new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (you can find my review of Morozov’s previous book, The Net Delusion here. In this brief interview, he explains how the impact of companies such as Facebook and Google is far from neutral politically, and how the concept of “openness” should be critically examined rather than embraced unquestionably, hence his concept of “open-washing” (think green-washing or white-washing). I think Morozov is one of the most interesting thinkers on the relationship between technology, ideology and society. Check it out.