Companies, colleges, and columnists gush about the utopian possibilities of technology. But digital life has a bleaker side, too. Over the weekend, a cross-disciplinary group of scholars convened here to focus attention on the lesser-noticed consequences of innovation.
Surveillance. Racism. Drones. Those were some of the issues discussed at the conference, which was called "The Dark Side of the Digital" and hosted by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee's Center for 21st Century Studies. (One speaker even flew a small drone as a visual aid; it hit the classroom ceiling and crashed.)
After a week of faculty backlash against online education, including the refusal of San Jose State University professors to teach a Harvard philosophy course offered via edX, the down sides of digital learning emerged as a hot topic, too.
In a talk dubbed "Courseware.com," Rita Raley, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, described how societal and technological changes had "reconditioned the idea of the university into that of an educational enterprise that delivers content through big platforms on demand."
Much discussion followed about the implications of that shift—in Ms. Raley's talk, in other sessions, and in informal chats among participants.
'A Built-In Inequality'
The conference's organizer, Richard Grusin, a scholar of new media, worried about the potentially "dire" consequences of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs.
Education, Mr. Grusin said in an interview, is about teaching people how to think, how to question, how to sit in a room with someone and express a different opinion. Equating it with simple content delivery "denudes" what it means to teach and learn, in his view.
What's more, when colleges start to award credit for MOOCs serving thousands of students, the result could be a reduction in the need for faculty members to teach those courses, said Mr. Grusin, a professor of English at UW-Milwaukee with a history of tech experimentation. Much of that reduction, he added, would hit teaching assistants. Rather than teaching their own sections or classes, they may find themselves managing online discussions.
Online courseware could create inequalities among colleges, Mr. Grusin added, as he and other professors discussed Ms. Raley's talk over lunch. "Power gets aggregated by elite universities," he argued. "Because it's not San Jose State professors or UW-Milwaukee professors sending their lectures to Harvard students. It's Harvard professors sending their lectures here. And so, not only is there already a built-in inequality, but this technology is going to enable that to be multiplied and leveraged, to even create a further inequality."
Ms. Raley, for her part, also offered a dystopian take on the extensive data tracking in MOOCs, which harvest detailed information about students' online behavior.
Proponents present data mining as a way to improve the experience. To Ms. Raley, it means "disenfranchised students" become "mere statistical material, bodies from which data is extracted, their function to provide the metrics that will legitimate the restructuring of educational institutions as mere automated enterprises."
Other Internet trends discussed were more obscure. Take "scam baiting." Lisa Nakamura, a professor of American culture at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, explained that scam baiters are online vigilantes who fight back against potential scammers by trying to waste their time and resources—and by humiliating them.
The baiters respond to the scammers by pretending to be willing to send money as requested—if only the scammers do some absurd act to prove they are real. The vigilante might say, "We want to give you money for your cause, but we really need you to pose pouring milk over your head" because "our church does that as a ritual," Ms. Nakamura explained after her talk, called "Spambaiting, Dogshaming, and the Racial Violence of Social Media."
Some news accounts have portrayed scam baiters as noble crusaders for Internet justice. Yet Ms. Nakamura described how their high jinks can escalate into degrading images, typically of African men, that circulate across the Web completely out of their original context. She drew a parallel between those images and colonial-era racism, when spectators flocked to museums to observe "professional savages."
"Racial violence is absolutely the foundation for all the images I've shown," Ms. Nakamura argued. "These images are so overtly about trying to emasculate African men."
'A Loss of Control'
Another talk, by Julie E. Cohen, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, addressed a policy problem: that policy gets made as if people were perfectly free and able to evaluate the choices that technology presents to them. That's not the case, said Ms. Cohen, author of Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, 2012).
Increasingly, networked technologies track everything about us, creating records of where we go, what we buy, what we read, what we like, and who our friends are. The structure of our environment has changed so radically as a result of this, and the choices we're presented with have been shaped so differently, that it's changing how we understand the world, Ms. Cohen said in an interview.
For example, think about the difference between a road map and the step-by-step instructions of a GPS-enabled device. Maps forced you to consider neighborhoods and topography. GPS directions remove the need to be aware of anything other than how to move from one point to another, Ms. Cohen said.
Or take the process of reading and seeking information. The terms in which you participate in political discussions are shaped by the fact that when you look for information online, what is shown to you is already manipulated to conform with what is likely to interest you. That makes it harder for people to have dialogue with those who don't share their beliefs, Ms. Cohen said.
Or take our changing relationship to culture. Throughout history, Ms. Cohen said, people have created art by copying other artists. But if you want to borrow and mash up a clip from your DVD of Pocahontas or Pulp Fiction, she said, you'll need to engage in significant technological maneuvering.
"There's a loss of control that we don't really even see," Ms. Cohen said. "So we have this illusion that we have so much more control over ourselves because the Internet creates all these opportunities. And we do not see what's going on inside the technology, and what kind of interests are driving the decisions about the technology."
"We talk about the rule of law as being a system in which people have a say in how they're governed," she continued. "When the world of information and opportunity is pervasively shaped in ways you don't understand and have no control over and can't see, you're being governed. And I think it's important that we learn how to have a say in that."
The Value of Uselessness
The event sometimes veered into a dense fog of theoretical jargon. During her talk, Ms. Cohen said she had spent part of the conference "writing down statements that, if uttered in a room full of lawyers, would cause people to roll on the floor with tears of laughter streaming down their faces." As she put it: "Necropolitics versus thanatopolitics—what the hell?"
If law is to derive insight from critical theory, she said, "we need a project of translation." And people need to move beyond critical purity to produce "good enough" proposals for actually dealing with problems, she added.
On this subject she got some pushback from Mr. Grusin, who spoke up "on behalf of the dark side of critique." Translation shouldn't replace that critique, he contended.
Critique, he said, is free to ponder issues without having to be pragmatic. Mr. Grusin argued that one of its values, perhaps its deepest value, is "uselessness."