Tech Regrets and The Ethics of Ed-tech

There’s a new tale that’s being told with increasing frequency these days, in which tech industry executives and employees come forward – sometimes quite sheepishly, sometimes quite boldly – and admit that they have regrets, that they’re no longer “believers,” that they now recognize their work has been damaging to individuals and to society at large, that they were wrong.

These aren’t apologies as much as they’re confessions. These aren’t confessions as much as they’re declarations – that despite being wrong, we should trust them now that they say they’re right.

The Tech ‘Regrets’ Industry

I’ve been following the humane tech and tech ethics beat for awhile. As part of that, I collect tech regrets into Twitter moments. Here are the past several months worth.

Many of us tech workers are grappling with the ethics of what we have wrought. Pieces from high profile developers and designers on our ethical failures are regular features.

If we cannot ask why we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say no we lose the ability to stand and fight. We lose the ability to help shape the thing we’re responsible for shaping.

Technology companies call these people edge cases, because they live at the margins. They are, by definition, the marginalized.

We’re killing people. And the only no I hear from the design community is about the need for licensing. If why and no are at the center of who we are, and they must be, the center has not held.

We need to slow. The. Fuck. Down. And pay attention to what we’re actually designing. We’re releasing new things into the world faster than Trump is causing scandals.

Yes. You will sometimes lose your job for doing the right thing. But the question I want you to ask yourself is why you’re open to doing the wrong thing to keep your job.

Twitter’s profit came at the cost of democracy. When an American autocrat chose it as his platform of choice to sow hate, disparage women and minorities, and dogwhistle his racist base Twitter rallied.

Profit justifies everything. Silicon Valley, the engine that powers the end of America needs profit to survive, and it needs them at scale. We remain enamored with our ideas, and blind to their effects.

we’re just beginning to realize how dangerous software can be, especially in the hands of companies led by ethicless feckless men.

Source: Design’s Lost Generation – Mike Monteiro – Medium

Though many of these tech regrets are performative and lacking in apology, they’re something. Ed-tech needs to do this self-examination too, and do it better.

Because this is where we’re at.

‪Ed-tech combines the dismal ethics of tech, Silicon Valley, and market fundamentalism with the dismal ethics of behaviorism and the deficit model and mainlines it all into public ed.‬

Source: Ryan Boren on Twitter: “Ed-tech combines the dismal ethics of tech, Silicon Valley, and market fundamentalism with the dismal ethics of behaviorism and the deficit model and mainlines it all into public ed.”

The zero-sum games of attention and engagement…

Facebook’s DNA is that of a social platform addicted to growth and engagement. At its very core, every policy, every decision, every strategy is based on growth (at any cost) and engagement (at any cost).

Facebook is addicted to growth and engagement. Engagement gets attention, and attention is a zero-sum game. Time spent on Facebook (or Messenger, Instagram, or WhatsApp) means that’s attention not spent on Twitter, Snapchat, or anyone else who dares to compete with them.

Source: The #1 reason Facebook won’t ever change – Om Malik

…and the corruption of exponential growth…

There is no higher God in Silicon Valley than growth. No sacrifice too big for its craving altar. As long as you keep your curve exponential, all your sins will be forgotten at the exit.

It’s through this exponential lens that eating the world becomes not just a motto for software at large, but a mission for every aspiring unicorn and their business model. “Going viral” suddenly takes on a shockingly honest and surprisingly literal meaning.

The goal of the virus is to spread as fast as it can and corrupt as many other cells as possible. How on earth did such a debauched zest become the highest calling for a whole generation of entrepreneurs?

Source: Exponential growth devours and corrupts – Signal v. Noise

…are not things to invite into public education, yet we have. We have reduced kids, learning, and childhood to a business model.

Our tech regrets must extend to ed-tech. So far, I’m not seeing much in the way of ed-tech regret from the tech side. Bill Gates, for example, hasn’t learned.

Millions of students harmed.

The damage done to public schools most likely unable to be repaired in my career.

Learn a lesson: Billionaires do not teach kids. Money does not teach kids. Businesspersons do not teach kids. Politicians are dumb as dirt on education issues.

Source: Angie Sullivan to Bill Gates: No Thanks for the Sand | Diane Ravitch’s blog

much of the $15 billion Gates has put into education projects and programs since the organization was founded has gone to companies not schools (and that’s not counting the Gates grant money that schools have been awarded and then directed to companies too).

“Evolving.” Why make this speech now? Why does Gates want to project a willingness to learn? (I mean, other than everyone’s supposed to have a “growth mindset” these days.) Does Gates wish to differentiate himself and his organization from others in education reform? (And do others in education reform wish to differentiate themselves from the Trump Adminstration?) Who cares if you’re “evolving”? The damage is done. “Evolution” doesn’t undo that.

Source: ‘I Can Change’

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could have saved itself millions and taxpayers billions if they had the humility to heed the rebel principals’ advice. However, even after the findings of the final report they have no regrets and instead blame the victim. In a statement to Business Insider, Allan Golston, who is in charge of the foundation’s education initiatives, said, “this work, which originated in ideas that came from the field, led to critical conversations and drove change.”

Change for the sake of change — the nearly $1 billion project in disruption. I wonder what “growth score” Golston will get in his evaluation this year.

Source: How the Gates Foundation could have saved itself and taxpayers more than half a billion dollars – The Washington Post

So many technologists–particularly ones with billions–seem really bad at systems thinking. Their prescriptions for education never get beyond more deficit model, more assessment, more behaviorism, more mindset marketing, more surveillance, more “accountability”, more data, and more software to feed on all of it. Their solutions are always to look to psychology, behaviorism, manipulation, and compliance for ways to “fix kids” instead of fixing our systems. This is a total failure of empathy and imagination. Their pedagogy lacks any sort of confrontation with injustice. “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student”, and mainstream ed-tech has chosen to damage students.

There is no path toward educational justice that contains convenient detours around direct confrontations with injustice. The desperate search for these detours, often in the form of models or frameworks or concepts that were not developed as paths to justice, is the greatest evidence of the collective desire among those who count on injustice to give them an advantage to retain that advantage. If a direct confrontation of injustice is missing from our strategies or initiatives or movements, that means we are recreating the conditions we’re pretending to want to destroy.

Source: Paul C. Gorski – Grit. Growth mindset. Emotional intelligence….

Fix injustice, not kids. Channel tech regrets into building an indie ed-tech that confronts injustice instead of amplifying it. Let’s get structuralsocial, and equity literate instead of repeatedly, endlessly bikeshedding the deficit model with new coats of mindset marketing and behaviorism.

And I think there’s something about all these confessional narratives (and their hopes, I think, of becoming redemption narratives) that is also deeply intertwined with individual rather than structural change. These stories rarely situate themselves in history, for example, and as such really cannot offer much insight into how or why or even when things might’ve “gone wrong.” They rarely situate themselves among other thinkers or scholars (or activists or “users”). They are individual realizations, after all.

So then, I have to wonder: why should we trust these revelations (or revelators) to guide us moving forward? Why not trust those of us who knew it was bullshit all along and who can tell you the whole history of a bad idea?

Source: The Tech ‘Regrets’ Industry

December Education Reading

Imagine that, instead of fawning over future-oriented “trends” or the future promise of products – be they virtual reality or “personalized learning” or “flexible seating” or what have you, that education technology actually centered itself on ethical practices – on an ethics of care. And imagine if education’s investors, philanthropists, and practitioners alike committed to addressing, say, economic inequality and racial segregation instead of simply committing to buying more tech.

Source: The Business of ‘Ed-Tech Trends’

My Writing

I chilled in December, resulting in only a couple posts with education relevance:

Older Pieces

Older pieces that I updated:

The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2017)

I highly recommend Audrey Watters The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology. She watches the stories ed-tech tells us and the money it spends. Each of the eleven parts is worth the time.

Previous years:

Continue reading “December Education Reading”