• 13Feb

    (I know I’ve been MIA. I have all kinds of ideas, but just haven’t had time to get them down. I’m not giving up, though!)

    Yesterday, ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination organized an event with visiting author Cory Doctorow to discuss issues of hacktivism in light of Aaron Swartz’s recent suicide. I was honored to be invited to take part in the discussion. The full name of the event was “Hackers + Activism: Aaron Swartz, Anonymous, and the Ethics of Digital Community.” (The full video of the event is also available at that link if you’re interested in seeing it.)

    Before the panel, I jotted down some notes to myself, as I thought through the panel topic and had a few ideas about where the discussion might lead. Some of the points came up in our conversation (which was really a lot of fun), and some didn’t. I thought I’d post them here, as much for my own eventual future reference as to share. Who knows, maybe we can continue the conversation in this different context? I’d love to know how other people approach these issues.

    Hacking is a complex, contested term. In my understanding, it refers to a set of skills that can be used to circumvent boundaries or reframe, remix, re-elaborate systems or processes. This skill set–like, say, knowing how to hotwire a car–can be used for a variety of purposes, some more legal and/or ethical than others.

    Hacking culture is about creative disruption. It can be done purely “for the lulz,” for relatively harmless trolling; for criminal purposes, like theft or blackmail; or for the collective good. The latter would be what we typically refer to as “hacktivism.” In general, hacking culture is built around principles of freedom and flexibility. Many people are uncomfortable with anonymity, but want their own privacy. The issue is where to draw those boundaries. Who gets to have privacy, and who is required to be transparent?

    The problem, of course, is that “good” is also a relative term. Whose good? Who is the collective? And more importantly, what political, economic, and/or cultural power structures are being disrupted by the hacking? This is where things get sticky.

    We have institutions, like corporations and governments, which are embedded in larger legal and economic systems. These institutions and systems are pretty well entrenched and are built around order and restrictions of movement. This is the kind of power they rely on. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that: it’s good to know what the laws are, so you know if you’re breaking them, and to have some reasonable expectation that they’ll be applied consistently. We want to know that our currency will be accepted in exchange for goods and services.

    The problem is that these systems are wholly inadequate when it comes to addressing today’s knowledge and information environment. Institutions change slowly, and those who have benefited from the status quo aren’t very eager to give up their power and economic interests. So, creative disruption can be a force for change. Legal systems don’t much like change, as a rule, and so often become even more rigid as a result–like a hedgehog.

    Last week, in my social media class, I had students look up the Terms of Service of some of their favorite social media sites. Many of them were appalled when they saw what they’d agreed to when joining these sites. What rights they’d given up, in some cases, and even more often by what rights the sites took for themselves. These terms are usually written using very broad language by lawyers who want to leave their clients plenty of leeway for future technological advances and… commercial opportunities. In the case of Aaron Swartz (and others who’ve been prosecuted based on the CFAA, or Computer Fraud & Abuse Act) these TOS agreements have been treated less as private contracts and more like actual laws, with much more severe penalties.

    They say that history is written by the victors. Recently you’ve probably all heard the story about the scientists who unearthed the bones of England’s Richard III, who has a pretty terrible reputation as a monarch. But there’s long been evidence that he was beloved by many of his subjects, and he instituted some important reforms, like actually taking away taxes after they’d raised sufficient funds for wars, or trying to make the legal system more equitable. The Tudors, anxious for the throne, had a vested interest in ensuring that Richard and the Plantagenets went down in history as terrible leaders, the better to reinforce their own “obvious” superiority as leaders of the populace.

    Everyone wants to be the voice of history. Hacktivists, I think, see themselves as having a moral duty to use their specialized knowledge and skills to prevent those with economic and political power from being the ultimate victors. Meanwhile, the powerful have both the interest and the means to depict these creative disruptors as threats to security, to privacy, to society. And using ambiguous language (like the term “hacker,” as far as the general public is concerned) is a big part of how they do it. And when the war of language and public opinion isn’t enough, they can unleash their institutional power to crush those who pose a real threat to the system.

    This, it seems, is where Aaron Swartz ran into trouble. He was too creatively disruptive for his own good. A lot of people see him as a hero for the work he did against SOPA, but he made a lot of powerful enemies in the process (as well as with the PACER incident, even before JSTOR).

    In a lot of ways, unfortunately, his situation proved his larger point: freedom of information and knowledge is the only way to empower citizens to fight against actors and institutions who seek to limit their access, and it’s the one thing those actors and institutions really fear.

    At the same time, information as power means that, if knowledge is freely available, power will also fall into the hands of people with nefarious goals. Of course, there are certainly malicious hackers, and sociopathic trolls who don’t care who they harm or what damage they leave in the wake of their lulz. This can make it even harder to figure out who the good guys are. And even good guys can make mistakes, or push too far.

    The only defense we have is to become knowledgeable about the subject, which in turn leads to responsibility. This includes the responsibility of demanding that our lawmakers and law enforcers understand the online environment. It’s easy to feel as though these are topics far away from us, personally, that we don’t really have an individual stake in them, especially for those of us who aren’t technologically inclined. But we who are privileged enough to be educated and who work in media-related careers should understand clearly that our current laws actively prevent much of our collective knowledge from being shared with the public, and there are immense pressures on legislators to restrict access even more. I think that being a hacktivist, or even just a regular activist, is an ethical imperative for those who really understand the issues at stake. If we create a caste system of access to knowledge–or harden the existing barriers even further–then we’ll just increase the divide between haves and have-nots in terms of political, economic, and cultural power.

    I also started to write some thoughts about the world of academic publishing, in case we went down that road, but since those aren’t written in complete sentences (and we didn’t address the topic in the panel discussion) I’m going to leave those out for now. It’s definitely a related subject, though, insofar as it’s another case of entrenched knowledge systems in which many actors have vested economic and cultural stakes, which finds itself at odds with a fast-changing world of rapid reorganization and an increasing demand for open access to knowledge.



  • 21Jul

    I mentioned the other day on Google+ that I’d signed up for a class on gamification at Coursera.  I had two reasons: first and foremost, I include a section on gamification in my social media class, and it’s very popular. (It’s also one of my favorite topics to cover–badges and leader boards, what’s not to like, right?) I welcome the opportunity to take a six-week course focusing on the subject, taught by an expert, for free. The more I know and understand about the subject, the better I’ll be able to serve my students.

    Also, I’m curious about this burgeoning world of Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs, a rather unfortunate acronym). One of my tasks this fall is to rework the social media class for delivery as an online class, and even though the format is quite different (not to mention the smaller class size–I hope!), I want to see what the experience is like nowadays. I’m hoping to learn a few pedagogical tricks that will help me do my job more effectively.

    Well, it looks as though I signed up for that class just in time for the requisite periodic debate about online education in the Chronicle.

    There are some viable points raised, in both the article and the comments, about assessment and scalability, as well as the need to exercise caution about using technology simply for the sake of novelty. And I agree that it’s worrisome that many institutions seem to be both rushing and flailing their way into online curricula, terrified they’ll miss the train, unsure of whether it will take them where they need to go, and with no idea how to finance the trip (or pay the conductor).

    Okay, enough with the train metaphor.

    But a lot of the discussion surrounding online education typically seems to be driven by knee-jerk reactions against perceived failings that don’t always reflect an understanding of reality. Some people assume that all online or other distance learning is inherently inferior to what takes place in a traditional classroom. The Internet becomes a specter representing the imminent demise of public education, a bogeyman of bits and bytes.

    Death, wielding its scythe on traditional higher ed

    Death image by Mirari Erdoiza

    Data point: I earned my master’s degree online. I was living in Italy, and the only options for an advanced degree in public relations/media were in the United States. I couldn’t relocate, since among other things I had my own business, and for the same reason couldn’t afford lengthy on-site residency sessions that some of the hybrid programs (such as Syracuse) offered at the time. The University of Memphis had one of the first fully-online programs [PDF] in the field, so that’s what I chose.

    We had synchronous classes, scheduled according to the US Central time zone of the university, which meant that I would attend three-hour seminars from, say, 1-4 or 2-5 am my time. Which is why it took me four years rather than the recommended two to complete the degree. Meanwhile, I was running my own business and contracting out as a partner to a local PR agency. To say I was busy would be putting it mildly, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

    Was it worth it? Absolutely. Not all of the instructors were adept at the synchronous online model — remember, this was more than a decade ago — (yikes!), so there was some variety in the level of effectiveness. (One in particular tried to take classroom lectures and deliver them in the chatroom-style format we used. I can tell you there is nothing more mind-numbing than sitting in front of a computer at 2 am, watching a 40-minute lecture appear on your screen, line by line, at 1- to 2-minute intervals.) But I find that’s true of all kinds of classes. Most of the professors I had at UMemphis understood the need for what we now call a “flipped classroom” in that setting, and we had some truly excellent discussions of the material with classmates from all over the world.

    I have never had any reason to doubt the quality of the education I received through that program. As far as I’m concerned I attended an AEJMC-accredited program at a respected university. The online platform was just a different mode of delivery. (An often buggy and unreliable mode of delivery at the time, too, but we rolled with the virtual punches.) I certainly didn’t feel underprepared compared to the other members of my PhD cohort who had attended traditional master’s programs, and my master’s thesis became the foundation for the book I later wrote with Priscilla Murphy.

    Like any other form of education, you get out what you put into it, and I put a lot into it. I’m satisfied. I’m sure many others can say the same.

    Things have come a long way since then, technologically. This advancement has opened up terrific new opportunities to offer high quality educational modules at low cost to a vast number of people. As someone all in favor of more education for everyone, however they can get it, I think this is a great thing. Meanwhile, we also now have well known for-profit institutions that are often conflated with online education in the collective imagination. The lack of accreditation of many of these institutions, and the controversial consumer model that many feel undermines the integrity of traditional higher education, raises doubts in many people’s minds about the value of online courses. Combined with the aching budgets of most public university systems, it’s no wonder people are suspicious that these new programs are just the big box stores of higher ed, designed to deliver the minimum value deemed acceptable by the largest number of consumers for the highest possible profit margin.

    I don’t think online classes are a panacea. For example, I think online PhDs are a terrible idea, because a large part of a doctoral education has to do with socialization into the academic profession through research and teaching assistantships and immersion in the environment. There are also clearly some subjects, such as those requiring a laboratory component, that don’t transfer well to the online format. And as I mentioned above, there are many legitimate hurdles to be dealt with regarding assessment and scale that still need to be worked out. From a faculty perspective, since (so far) these courses are designed and offered separately from the regular campus curriculum, I wonder how universities and/or the MOOC providers are handling compensation, and what sort of recognition (if any) participating faculty gain as a result of providing these courses on behalf of the institution.

    These are all matters that need to be worked out before everyone rushes out to embraceIn any case, I’m keeping an open mind, and looking forward to learning a lot about gamification in a few weeks.