Digital Detox #6: Radical Resistance

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So. What if we just say no?

In today’s post, I want to talk to you a little more directly about what resistance looks like in the context of our digital detox. Indeed, I want to talk to you about what radical resistance looks like in the context of our digital detox. The common factor in all of the egregious practices we’ve discussed at length this month is data. What happens when we choose to withhold our own, or when we choose to make better choices with the data over which we have a fiduciary responsibility?

I know, I know. I promised you that this detox was not going to be about abstinence. And it’s not — not really. But you may find that the most powerful tool you have at your disposal is the right to refuse your engagement with services that trouble you, and that goes double for those of us who make decisions about where to place other people’s data and who we should trust in those transactions.

About two months ago, I gave up my Facebook account for good. It was a long time coming, but also a really fraught decision: there are lots of people I know I won’t hear from anymore after cutting that cord. But Facebook is objectively an extremely gross company (and I’m a hypocrite, because I still use Instagram). I’ve also made the choice to never use my son’s name or post his picture in open on-line spaces — too many years as a public-facing feminist on the internet has placed me on a bunch of target lists and taught me about just how gross other human beings can be to one another. But my life and work afford me a lot of privilege around choice in the systems I use. And it got me thinking about “unplugging,” and who can afford to do it, and to what extent.

What Makes it Radical?

In simple terms, I’m imagining that resistance is when we say no, and radical resistance is when we say no while asking a lot of noisy, troublesome questions on the way down. Resistance is refusing to use a service or opting for a different way of doing things; radical resistance is telling students or colleagues why, and encouraging them to consider doing the same. And, importantly, radical resistance considers the ethics of the labour involved, and makes certain that one’s own choice to engage in resistance isn’t just downloading labour to someone else.

Early in my academic career, I knew a professor who didn’t do email. Just, like, a policy statement. No email. Not for me. Now, believe me, I get it — I am staring at an inbox with 150 messages and have been writing “inbox zero” on my to-do list for two weeks, each time with an increasingly panicked series of exclamation marks — but what was wildly instructive to me about this was watching how the situation was handled. He didn’t miraculously not get email. One of the department administrative assistants was tasked with printing out his emails and putting them in his mailbox; he would scrawl long-hand responses, and she would type them and send them back to the original sender. When department cuts required downsizing the administrative support staff, this became the job of a (surprisingly, always female) graduate student research assistant.

So that’s resistance, sure. But it’s not radical. If he had a major critique of the practice of using email, I don’t think anyone ever heard it. And he didn’t really worry about whose labour was picking up the slack, or the optics of it, or the way limited department resources disproportionately supported his chosen workflow.

Not radical.

But resistance can be radical in its ethics and outlook, when it’s not focused just on what we are choosing for ourselves, but when it considers the systems as a whole and enables other people to resist, too.

Within education, the place where I see resistance most commonly is in instructors choosing to move outside of the Learning Management System (LMS), particularly at institutions that use a for-profit LMS and in the wake of news like a private equity bid of $2B for Canvas that raised questions about the value of the student data it holds and potential plans to monetize it. In this context, resistance can look like anything from choosing to opt out of digital tools entirely to building a rogue WordPress site outside of institutional systems. Radical resistance would pair that choice to not engage with the LMS with information for students about why, questions for administrators about data practices, and perhaps sharing the tools built outside the system with other colleagues (indeed, radical resistance goes hand-in-hand with radical openness, which is the topic of the next post).

Of course, all of those radical options involve risk and labour — the risk to speak about institutionally-mandated systems, the labour involved in doing something new — that some members of our educational community are more able to undertake than others. 

Who Gets to Resist?

Access to resistance, radical or otherwise, isn’t equal.

I can quit Facebook. I will miss hearing from some friends and family, but I can make that decision for myself. It’s annoying, sometimes, to try to find out when a local business is open without it, but that’s pretty minor. My workplace can’t compel me to use it, my livelihood doesn’t depend on it, and my closest friends and family understand my choice and communicate with me in different ways. But even from my position of wild privilege, I can’t really ever disconnect; I have a toddler in daycare and parents far away, and those responsibilities look different today than they did fifteen years ago: my connection to my smartphone is an expectation, not a choice.

There are tools I disagree with philosophically but can’t actually quit. I work as an Educational Technologist at a university that uses an LMS — it happens to be an open source one, and I have far fewer ethical qualms with supporting it than I might if it had deep integration with a for-profit textbook manufacturer, for example, but I still don’t think it’s a particularly good pedagogical tool — but I don’t get to quit it. But I can resist it in this context, too, because of my position: I can write things like this Digital Detox, I can encourage my colleagues to look at different options, and I can rail about the issues I do care about, and I’m protected in doing all of this because I’m a tenure-track faculty member with academic freedom. I can defend my positions, and I’m not libelling anyone, so I have a right (a responsibility!) to critique these tools, even those that my institution supports the use of.

The casualization of academic labour reduces the number of people within the institution who have the security necessary for most forms of resistance. If you’re a term-to-term sessional with no other form of income or support, making yourself into an institutional pain-in-the-butt, no matter how much you believe in the kinds of issues we’ve been talking about this month, is probably not a longterm recipe for success in most contexts. And not all institutions defend and support academic freedom equally for all ranks of faculty, and indeed within some institutional contexts it doesn’t exist at all. People in staff positions, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and community college faculty may all have different access to protections, depending on institutional practice.

But that is exactly what makes radical resistance the responsibility of those of us who do have structural and institutional support. I’m looking at you, tenured faculty. Particularly in a social moment when the systems that protect faculty critique are under attack, anyone with security has a responsibility to speak openly for those who are unable. This doesn’t mean everyone can fight every fight — burnout and overwork are real — but as I look at our neoliberal institutions and their drive towards efficiency, and the introduction of tools that have very real negative consequences for student data, privacy, access, and by extension of all of this, their learning, I increasingly cannot see the point of tenure that isn’t leveraged in service of equity. (And I’m not letting tenure-track faculty like me off the hook; I understand the institutional pressures to keep our heads down until we’re through the process, but I also know there’s very little data to suggest that faculty become more radical after tenure.) Resistance isn’t futile. I don’t believe it possibly can be.

But even if it was — what’s the other option?

So if you think Turnitin is bad, resist institutional demands to use it, and forego it in your own classes. If your students ask why another instructor uses TopHat and you don’t, talk to them about its data use practices. If a colleague asks for your academia.edu account, explain why you don’t have one. Challenge the adoption of new technologies at your institution and ask hard questions about how student data is stored, who has access to it, and how student data serves the company’s valuation. Once you know, if you have the security and support of your role within your institution, you can’t un-know — there is therefore a responsibility to act accordingly.

Looking Outside the Academy

The variance in who can choose resistance is not just an issue for the academy — it’s true of all technological tools we use. This is, of course, why the traditional conception of the digital detox as an experiment is abstinence is so flawed: it treats technology as a luxury instead of an integral component of work and life for so many people. Unplugging is not easy. Indeed, recent thinking on abstaining from technology suggests that those who are most in need of the mental space “unplugging” can bring are least able to achieve it. And the choice to unplug at all belies a society that is still digitally divided between tech-haves and tech-havenots. Does the status of unplugging further underscore social inequities?

This is why resistance isn’t enough, and why we need to invest social capital in asking difficult questions about how technology works, and insist on better practices whenever we can. Where we are responsible for the data of others — our students, or our families — and where we are in a position to help shape societal norms, radical resistance is essential. As we’ve seen today, radical resistance isn’t really about unplugging. Sometimes, and perhaps more usefully, radical resistance comes in the form of asking good questions and withholding our decisions until we get good answers. And how we frame those questions — and what we do when we find the answers — is part of the next piece of this conversation. Next time: radical openness, and why you might want to try doing all of this without a net.

In the meantime, some questions:

  • Where you have attempted to resist a technology, what has that looked like for you? Do you consider your resistance radical?
  • What resistances do you have the power to engage in in your life and work? What would radical resistance look like in that context?
  • Where do you feel powerless to resist, radically or otherwise?

19 Responses

  • IMHO your example of the professor who ‘didn’t do email’ is not an example of resistance, per se, but rather an example of privilege, and downloading onto a person of lesser privilege.

    • I was going to say this as well. Imagine the gall to assume someone (probably preferably female, I’d imagine) could just serve him, so that Monsieur isn’t required to lift a finger to learn email.

  • These are difficult issues to wrestle with, and it starts the moment you connect something to the internet.

    https://pixelprivacy.com/resources/windows-privacy-settings/
    https://mashable.com/article/apple-macos-privacy-settings/

    Both Microsoft and Apple are avid data harvesters.

    I try (as much as possible) to resist the use of Microsoft and Apple products, although it is very difficult.

    My work Apple laptop is a tool very fit for the many purposes I require.

    Likewise my personal laptop (Windows) is fit the the purposes I use it for. (Entertainment primarily.)

    Luckily I spend a fair amount of time in command line linux and feel very safe when I’m there. Except that in command line linux you know there are thousands of super kids in darkened rooms who can digitally mop you up without breaking a sweat.

    I also find it kind of bizarre ‘fighting the good fight’ outside of the education world. Too many people don’t seem to care or see the big deal in someone else having all your personal data. Never stung, not shy, I suppose.

    I recently got berated by a family member for not posting a steady stream of vacation photos to Facebook. I tried to explain a vacation is about the experience not the proof of experience, but I was unsuccessful.

    The Top Hat article you link to raises another really good point. When the primary business model is data harvesting quite often the product itself is of very low quality for its “marketed” purpose.

    Anyway, those are some initial random thoughts.

    • It’s true, it’s true, it’s true… I wonder, though, if that damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t aspect of the world of connecting online is part of the problem you describe in trying to make people care. Like, if true unplugging is not an option for most (though on my venture north this week I think I met some folks who were giving it the college try!), does hearing over and over again about privacy just become noise? And if so… how do we cut through? Is this a plug for my Data Privacy Day event on Tuesday? It’s not *not* a plug (Student Street, 8-11 am).

    • The people on this digital space have an advantage in that we think about this stuff a lot. We know better than most the data collection and privacy leaks that occur. When dealing with relatives it’s hard to get them to get it sometimes. Then I see something like this:
      @ShaneMorris: “My fridge has an RFID chip in the water filter, which means the generic water filter I ordered for $19 doesn’t work. My fridge will literally not dispense ice, or water. I have to pay @generalelectric $55 for a water filter from them.”

      And the recent case of EA pulling Tetris
      https://www.androidcentral.com/ea-killing-tetris-android-and-ios-april-2020
      and this isn’t just a case of not supporting the game
      “Players can continue to enjoy the games if they already have it installed, but they will become unplayable after April 21, 2020.”

      You are the product not the games, appliances or photo sharing.

      I am struggling with leaving Facebook as well. In my volunteer time I help with social media for a few different organizations in town and I need Facebook to advertise film screenings, beer events etc.

  • I am very much enjoying these posts, even if I’m struggling to keep up and contribute as much as I want to, but thank you for the time and effort that clearly go into writing them. Thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    In my previous role I did have success in resisting various technologies (and a decisive hand in which ones we used and what happens to the data within them, mostly). If I were to pick an example though, I’d choose the work we did to resist wholesale outsourcing of video transcription to off-shore gig-economy workers, hidden behind some opaque transcription “platform”. Instead we used automated transcription and employed our own students to do the finessing required. It gave secure, well paid meaningful work to students and in at least one case offered employment where the student’s options were otherwise very limited. We wrote the project up here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/subtitling-media-pilot

    In terms of whether it was radical, I would say yes, because I stood up and asked whether we were comfortable as a well resourced elite University to use casualised outsourced off-shore labour to fix our accessibility issues. In an environment where everyone is looking for a quick fix to legal compliance concerns that’s a tough question, but a morally right one to ask. I have to give a shout out at this point to a wonderful colleague, Dr Karen Gregory (@claudiakincaid on the Twitter), who’s research on the gig economy and labour practices has inspired and guided my thinking, and who has personally made me braver.

    Now in a new role in a new institution I find myself feeling my way back through just exactly where I stand, what’s possible, and whether I even know the full context in which I’m working yet. Which is a new experience and worth considering thoughtfully.

    Reading this post has brought me back to an excellent paper from last year though – “Knowing Neoliberalism” by Jana Bacevic (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02691728.2019.1638990?journalCode=tsep20)
    It’s a dense read, so this companion blog piece might be a faster overview: https://janabacevic.net/2019/07/23/knowing-neoliberalism/

    Essentially she argues that we in the academy spend a lot of time critiquing neoliberalism, but not a lot of time resisting it, and imagine what might be possible with all that energy.

    • I think about the line between resistance and critique a lot. A lot more than is probably productive. I’m bookmarking that article to read later, thank you.

      One of the ways I see your captioning project as being radical (along with lots of your projects that I know about!) is that it inspires and empowers others to take similar action — one of the critical ways in which outreach and engagement functions.

      • Thanks very much Brenna – and you’ve made a really good point there about visibility in resistance. Where we have the security and the power to do so, it’s incumbent on us to share these stories and examples too. It gives support and power to others. This is the point as well where engagement with social media can become positive. Use these tools to spread an alternative message and make visible alternative futures.

        Which reminds me of book I was reading recently: “Dream or Nightmare: Reimagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy” – http://www.stephenduncombe.com/dreampolitik/

        It draws out a lot of thinking around the idea of the “Ethical Spectacle” (https://beautifultrouble.org/theory/ethical-spectacle/) which I think is a concept that might particularly appeal to you… 🙂

  • This post hits *very* close to home for me. I share a lot of the concerns you’ve expressed in this series, and am frequently put in a position where our team is asked to support a technology that is problematic on ethical grounds.

    I wish I could just say a hard “no” in many of these situations. And sometimes I do. But that is not always so straightforward. Sometimes the request is from a freshly hired sessional instructor who has never taught their assigned course before, and who is grasping at proprietary courseware for support. In moments like that, it’s hard not to see the relationships between precarity, casualization, and ed tech as a form of covert privatization.

    There was a case last week where the US National Archive was rightfully criticized for altering anti-Trump photos from the Women’s March, and thankfully the original photos were restored and the Archives apologized: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jan/18/national-archives-sign-womens-march-photo

    There was a lot of righteous indignation on social media, and calls for the senior Archivist who approved the alteration (an Obama appointee) to be fired. But I could not help but wonder about the pressures that person might have been under in an environment where the political interests are all-too-ready to leap onto some outrage to justify deep cuts or even the abolition of public institutions. And how vulnerable these organizations already are.

    So, the Archivist acted in a way contrary to the ethics of the profession. And I am guessing they felt truly horrible doing it. But I am guessing they were worried not only about their own jobs, but also the jobs and the working conditions of their staffs. I know I find myself making those calculations when trying to decide whether an issue is worth digging in and fighting about. Sometimes it is. But those battles come at a cost that often extends beyond the issue at hand.

    I hate to sound like I am offering a defense of cowardice. And there isn’t a lot of sympathy for senior administrators in higher ed these days. But if we expect principle and courage, I think we will continue to be disappointed so long as current conditions prevail.

    • So, I’m not sure if I’m wading into profoundly foolish waters here, but caution hasn’t ever been my strong suit in these matters.

      Hi, Boss. So, structurally, I haven’t targeted this post at administrators, and that’s intentional. Part of your gig is concerning yourself with the practicalities that I don’t have to deal with — HR, job descriptions, demands. It seems to me that, structurally, in a unit like ours, the purpose of having people in this space with protection and academic freedom is so that we can push hard on these issues, knowing that sometimes we don’t get to win because of reasons we don’t always get to know about. I think the ideal here is that we trust the administrator in question to do what’s best within a constellation of constraints. (I’m lucky, because I do.)

      The casualization and precarity of the institution means there are fewer people like me to raise hell, and I think sometimes it has a chilling effect when I think it should really mean that people like me — and especially people more secure than me — need to be louder than ever.

      TL; DR: It’s my job to resist and it’s your job to sometimes not resist. I gotta believe that the university made my job a faculty position at least in part because there’s a recognition of the important role of radical resistance in this field. Either that or they’re like really surprised and a little chagrinned; I guess I’ll find out.

      • You made your structural focus on the faculty position clear. And I do hope the more secure members of the academic community will engage technology concerns that extend beyond their own convenience.

        I truly appreciate that you take the role seriously enough to be bringing these issues to the forefront so soon after you’ve joined us. It’s a welcome voice, and I’ve rarely been so happy to have extra work to do as when they concern accessibility and ethics.

        As something of an aside, I am remembering I used to resist a lot more when I was a staff member with little standing and a skimpy CV, on a temporary contract and with a young child at home. Then again, back then my actions probably wouldn’t harm my colleagues if things went sideways.

        And staff can bring a lot to the table. Ian Linkletter wowed the ETUG Gasta sessions with a tale of principled resistance that was both chilling and inspiring. It adds another dimension to the risks of standing on principle and how it may play out. If anyone hasn’t seen it, I urge them to check it out: https://vimeo.com/343713628#t=855s

        And if you follow Ian online (https://twitter.com/linkletter), you can see he hasn’t exactly been backing down.

        I love how Ian ends his talk:

        Look out for each other.
        Stand tall.
        We got this.

        • That is an astonishing story. And you’re right to underscore it. Many of the most interesting and radical teachers I have known were also the most precarious, and I don’t discount that at all. If anything, it should be a reminder to those with more security and privilege that they have a responsibility to do this heavy lifting, and that their comfort shouldn’t be at the cost of someone else’s risk.

  • I have to say that I am feeling incredibly “empowered” by this post and the subsequent commentary! As a tenure-track faculty, I have been very cautious about how radical I want to go with my teaching and have been thinking that Tenure may allow for more freedom.
    Also, I was beginning to think that I am one of the only weirdos that does NOT use facebook! (I purposely did not capitalize that:-)) In fact, I have NEVER signed up for FB nor do I have Instagram, linked-in or any other social media app – besides What’s App, which I use for student communications all the time.
    On a personal note, however, I have the luxury of being “off-grid” most weekends at our cabin, but recently purchased an internet dish so that I could use internet when I need to work on the weekends. For example, putting together a Promotion & Tenure package is a task that I find having internet useful! But having that technology out in the woods feels like an invasion to my soul! Just something that I thought of while reading these.
    Thanks!

  • A late and much appreciated compliment, Brenna, for the Detox series and thoughtful posts. I’ve struggled when attempting to teach this awareness how to avoid what seems like to be an inevitable “what can I do?” helplessness. Even myself, as I make a list of services I am part of that I know are likely “doing something” with my data; at least I have another list of ones I have extricated myself from.

    It’s also refreshing to see a valuable stream of thoughtful responses that you do not see or not even possible in social media.

    “Radical” is a worthy call, though it can carry negative connotations, of needing to be maybe confrontational? But the adjective does not matter as much as the distinction you are making by starting with some maybe small acts of resistance, then going beyond to be if not”radical” maybe “vehement” “fierce” “extreme”? Find one that works.

    I don’t think any system, be it LMS/institution/platform, can prevent one from acts of critical resistance. There are always ways to subvert, use a system creatively, and not have to be burning it down.

    That itself is a human characteristic, finding the end arounds, and finding others who see it similarly.

    Keep on the good work here.

    • Thanks so much for these generous, generative thoughts, Alan. (There is no late! Though a colleague did remark to me last week that two posts a week in the inbox is A Lot for January. Taking things under advisement.)

      The helplessness is hard to avoid, but I don’t think we move forward without it. But we do move forward all the same. I like thinking it’s a human characteristic. That helps.

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