Data Mining Life on the Ledger

This installment of Building Sanctuary features digital identity and social credit scoring as it relates to purchasing and access to life opportunities for citizens living under authoritarian power structures. This is the fourth in a seven-part series that follows the digitally-quantified lives of sisters Cam and Li in a a near-future “Smart” City dystopia. If you wish to start reading from the beginning, follow this link to the introduction and Part One: Plugging In.

Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work

Part Three: Smart and Surveilled

Solutionists maintain control over society largely through the ledger. The ledger evolved from Blockchain, a technology first used to process digital-currency transactions like Bitcoin, Global Coin’s predecessor. But corporate and government interests saw it had far greater potential. It started out as a decentralized online system through which transactions of all sorts (purchases, education credentials, marriages, property transfers etc.) could be permanently recorded in blocks that were secured by elaborate cryptographic protocols. Over time, private blockchains came to dominate the system. These were gradually consolidated by those allied with the Solutionist agenda.

Now there is one ledger that keeps track of everything and everyone: inputs and outputs; ownership and debt; locations, activities, functions, and compliance. The ledger is the master accountant that is everywhere and nowhere. It lives on a distributed system of computers. It’s promoted as infallible, untouchable. The Solutionists suppress any information that might undermine public faith in it. In a world of uncertainty, the ledger is a held up as a symbol of unquestioning trust.

In addition to facilitating and recording transactions, the ledger also calculates citizen scores, something no one with a Citi Badge can escape. These scores rise and fall based the data each person generates within the Solutionists’ “smart systems.” People are constantly evaluated against the norms set by the authorities. If your behavior, or that of your family or even friends or acquaintances, deviates from these standards, your score drops.

People who question the system have low scores. People with extensive social networks have low scores. People who travel widely have low scores. People who access “the wrong” online materials have low scores. People who are financially unstable have low scores. Your score can be lowered for being too educated or not educated enough. People who use public services have low scores. If you have a low score, you become a target of social impact interventions, programs underwritten by private investors designed to bring your score up and reorient you to the values Solutionist society demands.

Citizen scores determine access to jobs, housing, leisure opportunities, and social relationships. They affect the prices people pay for goods and services and even the type of education and medical treatment they get. At birth Cam and Li, like everyone born outside a sanctuary zone, were assigned unique identity numbers linked to retinal scans and were each issued a Citi Badge. Their Citi Badges are connected to the ledger and hold funds from their Global Coin government stipend, student vouchers, and data currency transactions.

Both badges are tied to Talia’s, so the family’s citizen scores rise and fall together. When Talia or the girls make purchases in the real world or in a virtual world the cost is directly debited from their Global Coin balance after biometric authentication. This can be accomplished via facial recognition, retinal scan, thumbprint or heartbeat/ECG signature. Prices and fees paid are dynamic and influenced by their scores. Low score? You can expect to pay more for food, rent, and medical care. High score? You get across the board discounts and special perks like invitations to official receptions and preferential treatment when filing government paperwork.

The ledger asserted its influence slowly but insistently as people’s quantified lives were integrated into the data stream, and the real world melded with the virtual. At first, people eagerly adopted wearable technologies that augmented reality through data overlays. Phones, devices, headsets, and smart contact lenses created blended experiences that could be both innovative and disturbing. Today, wearables are no longer a novelty. People are expected to use them to manage their existence and document it through data. For instance there is now an understanding that everyone will regularly monitor their brain waves, heartbeats, sleep patterns, and other bodily functions. It calls to mind the antiquated practice of documenting oil changes and maintenance on one’s car to keep the warranty valid. Gaps in one’s health data profile could be grounds for being denied medical treatment.

As the economy was digitized, transportation and movement became increasingly circumscribed. No one has personal vehicles anymore, so unless you are walking or have a bicycle, you have to use DigiGo, the autonomous ride sharing system. The system requires you to have a Citi Badge. Access to different sectors of the city varies depending on your citizen score. Each sector has a digital border. Many opt to get implanted Citi Badge chips, which allow you to travel between sectors without manually checking in at each crossing. Citi Badge interfaces are cumbersome, and many of the newer operating systems no longer process device-based transactions.

People without chips spend a lot of time waiting; but Talia still wasn’t going down that path. The girls IoT pathways tattoos are as far as she is willing to go. They are, in theory, temporary and can be removed. She scrupulously limits the data shared about her family to the bare minimum. She kept their outdated devices, even though they are on their last legs and barely hold a charge. Whenever possible they walk, restricting their use of DigiGo to situations that absolutely demand it. They hope one day their budget will allow them to get their hands on a few refurbished bicycles. If you have a worthwhile barter, you can often find an off liner with one to trade. They are sensor free, and if outfitted properly allow flexible travel well beyond the authorized network of corridors used by self-driving vehicles.

The planet’s resources had been all but exhausted, and eventually oil and mineral mining yielded to data mining. Enormous energy demands created by the transition to Blockchain depleted the last of the petroleum reserves, forcing a rush into alternative energy infrastructure projects that could support the mining operations demanded by the ledger. Authorities had not planned ahead. Energy needs were so pressing that the systems being rolled out were not well tested, and installations often failed or created dangerous conditions for the installers and those who lived nearby.

In short order, bio-capitalist data-mining operations became nearly as profitable for investors as the extractive industries they had replaced. The automation of huge swaths of labor markets initially posed a serious problem for global capitalists. With a majority of people now jobless, what good were they to the economic system? Sure, they could still consume some products since Citi Badge provided a basic income, but how else could value be extracted? Consumption on a basic income would have to go down.

Alphadata, the world’s most powerful cloud-based computing company, had anticipated the answer. The company deftly maneuvered to a spot at the top of the extraction pyramid by providing “free” online services: communications, software, and data storage. Data would be the new oil, and the convenience the company prudently offered the world built a level of corporate wealth in data that was unsurpassed.

The complete privatization of public sector services combined with outcomes-based government contracting created a windfall for the data-mining industry. To expand these programs, success would have to conform to specific metrics that could only be cheaply aggregated via digital platforms. As global poverty rose, prospects for the data-mining sector seemed rosy indeed. Looking back, people realized how false the narrative of “free” services had been. They had given away their most valuable assets, their identity, without blinking an eye. Their online lives, their digital shadows, were now contained within the Alphadata cloud. It was a parallel universe of millions of digital lives pooled to fuel machine learning. It was these storehouses of data that powered the company’s research in artificial intelligence and led to innovations that put so many out of work.

People had been handing off their data to more companies than Alphadata, of course. All the social media platforms and e-commerce sites mined data, too. More and more people clamored for data control and ownership, which was eventually granted through digital sovereign identities stored in the ledger. Essentially, Citi Badges now serve this function. The datasets they hold are private, but people have the option of making them available for a price.

Progressive interests pitched digital identities as a way for people to monetize their data, perhaps enhance their meager Global Coin stipends. In the Global North, digital sovereign identity was ushered in through adoption of municipal identification programs associated with Smart City improvements, the precursor to Citi Badge. The technology had been beta-tested on the Global South and refugee populations years prior. Perpetual war and displacement created an ideal laboratory in which to refine these new technologies.

Data banks replaced blood banks. In a pinch, the poor could sell themselves to get by, while the rich could sit on their personal data treasure and maintain their anonymity. Even for those for who lived comfortably, data sharing was still a tricky matter. In the abstract you could attempt to keep your data from ending up on the ledger, but practically speaking no public services were accessible if you refused to participate in the biometric data system. Everything was tied to outcomes-based Pay for Success contracts, including public education. If you or your children wanted access to services, the price was entering the ledger’s data stream.

Talia hated to relinquish the family’s data, but found it necessary at times. For example when Li broke her arm in the maker space loose parts play area, Talia initiated a data currency transaction that released two years worth of the family’s purchase data to cover the unexpected medical costs. And Cam and Li’s educational data is, by default, part of the stream. The Solutionists have full access to it for the purposes of evaluating Cam and Li’s citizen scores and pay-for-success contracts with their education providers.

Talia hopes she never has to sell that to a third party; because she knows it could impact the girls’ ability to access income sharing agreements in the future. But many parents in her sector have to make hard choices to pay the rent. The Citi Badge stipend only goes so far each month, and selling educational data is a common way to make ends meet. Selling that data can lead to problems for children down the line. Data that implies academic or behavioral weaknesses can lead to students being excluded from learning opportunities; being denied opportunities to secure loans to cover tuition; being relegated to the lowest paying jobs. Nevertheless, people have to eat and keep a roof over their heads, and data currency transactions are the most common fallback they have.

The only way to leave the data stream is to go offline, which means disconnecting from the Global Coin economy entirely and losing access to all public service supports, housing, and employment. It also means finding ways to be fully human outside a digital platform, to relearn how to simply be with others without a buffer, without data, to embrace speech and touch and even the written word. People are understandably fearful of off-liners. Their rebellious insistence to exist, even in such dire conditions, outside the structured confines of Solutionist society, is a fact that has the potential to destabilize the whole enterprise.

Most try to ignore them, but a few harbor quiet hopes that a new non-digital economy might somehow, miraculously emerge from the lives they live. Such hope flickers in the hearts of a handful of hardy souls who hold fast to the possibility of a future built on trust in one another rather than trust in the ledger. Though she only admits it to herself, Talia is one who still thinks another world may be possible. How could she not? She has young children whose futures are yet unwritten. Falling into despair would hurt not only herself, but her entire family, too.

Supplemental Links

Blockchain: Link

Blockchain Universal Basic Income: Link

Smartphone Augmented Reality: Link

Sesame Credit: Link and (long read but worth it) Link

Entrepreneurial Finance Lab Harvard: Link

MIT Digital Currency Lab: Link

Aadhar National Identity System India: Link

Aadhar Biometric Payments: Link

Biometric Bitcoin Wallet: Link

Heartbeat / ECG Biometrics: Link

Retinal Scan Payments: Link

Biometric Capitalism Talk Keith Breckinridge: Link

Black Mirror Episode Nosedive: Link

Cambridge Analytica: Link

Blockchain Technology of Trust / Goldman Sachs: Link

Blockchain Economy: Link

Blockchain Energy Consumption: Link

Dynamic / Personalized Pricing: Link and Link

Lucyd AR Glasses: Link

AR Contact Lenses: Link

Transference VR Horror Game/Film Experience: Link

IoT Digital Health Monitoring: Link

Implantable Chips for Access: Link and Payment Link

Biocapitalism: Link

Google’s Eric Schmidt Data is the New Oil: Link

Google AI Awakening: Link

Self Sovereign Identity: Link and Link and Link

Decode Digital Identity: Link

UN ID2020: Link and Link

Blockchain Data Monetizing Platforms: Link

Municipal ID Card / Payment Programs: Link and Link

Digital Colonialism: Link and Link

Who Is Pulling The Muppet Strings?

Sesame Street is an iconic brand that embodies humor, acceptance, and humanity. Who doesn’t love a muppet? So, on December 20 when the MacArthur Foundation announced they were giving Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee $100 million to educate young children from displaced Syrian families and help them deal with “toxic stress,” most people were thrilled. While the optics were great, I’m here to tell you these muppets are definitely not the type of “friends” Syrian refugee children need.

How will Sesame Workshop and the IRC spend the MacArthur award money? Much of it will be spent on educational technology:

  • Sesame-branded educational content delivered on televisions, phones and digital platforms
  • home visits reinforced by digital content and parenting resources provided via mobile devices
  • child development centers equipped with video-clips pre-recorded on projectors and activity sheets

This approach exactly reflects concerns raised by an April 2017 report published by Education International  on the education of Syrian refugee children. The report found that many donors were providing “decontextualized interventions” that focused too much on technology.

A follow-up story by Anya Kamenetz noted that such an approach was highly problematic in settings with limited access to electricity. Ed-tech is not what the schools and teachers needed or wanted, but for every one donor offering to provide a soccer ball, there were ten who wanted to provide tablets and online learning systems. It is rare for funds to be provided for basics like teacher salaries, books, instructional materials, even latrines.

Instead, NGOs and entities like the World Bank and UNESCO have been diverted to pushing digital technology solutions to deliver educational services to refugee children and families.  Financial interests claim digital platforms are a cost-effective way to supplement teachers, but instead children are being subjected to dehumanizing device-based instruction of the type promoted by Bridge International Academies. Such an approach also disregards growing concern about health and mental health risks associated with screen time and children.

Muppet Data Extraction

Few people are aware of the extent to which Sesame Workshop has embraced educational technology. They created the Joan Ganz Cooney Lab a decade ago to promote digital learning for young children. These efforts are supported by tech companies including Intel, Microsoft, Motorola and Cisco. The Gates Foundation is involved as is the Bezos Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and social impact bond underwriters like the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. In 2016 Sesame Workshop used proceeds from its sale of Sprout to launch Sesame Ventures with the Collaborative Fund and Reach Capital. They created two venture capital funds that provide technical support and funding to early-stage ed-tech startups aimed at both individual consumers and school districts. Jeffrey Dunn, current president of Sesame Workshop, said in an interview that a typical venture-capital portfolio aims to earn three to five times a return on investment. Dunn notes that Sesame Ventures is also an extension of Sesame Workshop’s past digital and commercial ventures, in which he played a part.

That same year Sesame Workshop also partnered with IBM to develop branded artificial intelligence apps for literacy and social-emotional learning. They will use the Watson AI platform to provide “personalized” learning content based on the data they mine from children’s online interactions.  The apps were piloted in Gwinett County, GA schools. Now, with the MacArthur award, Sesame Workshop and IBM have access to an additional 1.5 million children to refine their digital education “solutions.”

Very disappointed with Grover here:

More data will be uploaded to devices during home visits and in informal learning settings. Who will have access to the data? Could it be used to profile children and families? Surely there will be some who will be hesitant to submit their children for social-emotional screening  by US-affiliated organizations. Might that information identify those families as potential security threats? What happens if they refuse to participate? These are important questions to ask, especially given IBM’s history of business dealings with authoritarian regimes-see Thomas Watson’s medal for service to the Third Reich,  Hollerith cards and the holocaust.

It is important to note that another partner in this project is The Behavioural Insights Team. BIT, also known as the nudge unit, is a social purpose company jointly owned by the UK government (the developer of social impact bonds) and Nesta. The company uses behavioral science and digital platforms to “address social problems” by encouraging people to make “better choices” that make public service delivery more “cost-effective.” Additionally, the IRC is a member of ideas42 based in the United States. They, too are an organization that aims to use behavioral science to create scalable solutions for “social impact.

The device-based education approach Sesame Workshop and the IRC have proposed is about extracting profit and generating data for impact investment and behavior modification.  When “brought to scale,” the digital services will bleed money from world funds earmarked for refugees. They are using muppets as a smokescreen. Their talk of helping children work through trauma, digitally, is disingenuous. If the International Rescue Committee truly cared about the mental health of these children, they could put the $100 million into humane treatment solutions based in human relationships and community.

The 100 and Change award aligns closely with MacArthur’s digital media and learning and impact investment activities. Many of members of the IRC board and overseers are involved in global finance and U.S. foreign policy. Goldman Sachs, J. P. Morgan, the Rockefeller Foundation and numerous venture capital groups are represented.

While the MacArthur competition purportedly aimed to “solve” a critical world problem, its primary function was to promote the profit-taking social impact investment agenda, which has been advanced  by the Rockefeller Foundation over the past decade. MacArthur is both a member and a funder of their Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). The non-winning proposals were put into a database, a “Solutions Bank,” of potential future investments. It was an 18-month exercise that vastly expanded infrastructure for the impact investment sector.   See Tim Scott’s excellent  piece for a detailed investigation into how philanthropists seed impact investment markets.

Governments all over the world are now adopting policies that employ “innovative finance” to outsource education and other critical public services to private profit-extracting partnerships. These public-private partnerships are often supported by “philanthropic” partners who are now free to make “mission related” for-profit investments.  Enormous and expensive data-collection is linked to their outcomes-based contracts. For more information see this post, Gambling On Our Futures: Big Data, Global Finance and Digital Life. When one hears “pay for success,” “social impact bonds,” and “what works,” realize that this is what is actually meant.

Sesame Workshop’s program with Syrian refugees is an example of how foundations are paving the way for education to be reinvented as an exercise in data-driven, behavior modification. Over the course of this five-year project, traumatized families will be used to refine scaleable online education and behavioral treatment models that generate data and profit for private interests. These efforts will be subsidized by foundations and made possible with assistance from complicit non-profit actors. The products developed from the digital labor of these children will be deployed not only in future “humanitarian” efforts, but also among the growing ranks of children living in poverty in the United States and other countries. The $100 million was not a charitable award; it was a business investment.

These muppets are not our friends. They are merely puppets whose strings are being pulled by predatory impact investors and Silicon Valley executives. This is not a “feel-good” story. The MacArthur Foundation should be ashamed of their treatment of these children and for using plush characters to provide cover for a repugnant agenda.

In this era of US imperialism and late-stage capitalism it seems the monster at the end of this book is in fact the non-profit that opens a door and allows venture capitalists to harm a million and a half vulnerable children. I hope Sesame Workshop will reconsider their direction, disavow their ties to education technology, and instead use MacArthur’s $100 million to provide the non-digital human services Syria’s refugee children so desperately need. I have to believe Jim Henson would want that.

Moster at End of Book

 

“Smart and Surveilled:” Building Sanctuary Part 3

This installment highlights  smart city surveillance and the Internet of Things. Cam and Li’s lives, including their educational experiences, are shaped by ubiquitous algorithms that align their behaviors to the economic and social expectations put in place by the Solutionists. This is the third installment in the series. If you want to read from the beginning use this link to access the introduction and Part 1: Plugging In.

Cam and Li have grown up in a world controlled by sensors and data. All day, every day sensors watch, track and transmit information. The devices that make up the vast web of Internet of Things are tiny, but their combined power is incalculable. The most common IoT sensor in the pre-lockdown years was the smart phone. Practically anyone over the age of ten had one. Acting as a sensor, people’s phones were a primary means of data collection, logging information about how people interacted with each other, with systems, and their physical world.

The first sensors were created to monitor global supply chain shipments. Then, corporate, government and academic researchers devised a dizzying array of sensors to transmit data about most aspects of the physical world and how people live their lives in it. Instead of tracking pallets on cargo ships, they now track people, buses, energy, animals, art, storm water runoff, even sounds and footsteps. Each processor gathers a particular type of information that can be merged into the data stream for analysis. Predictive analytics algorithms, complex mathematical equations that anticipate future outcomes, tap into the data stream. Such algorithms can be used to predict when the bulb in a streetlight will fail, when a storm sewer will overflow, or even where a crime will happen.

For years authorities quietly built datasets that digitally documented community life using police body cameras and later cameras embedded into robot patrols. It showed incredible hubris to roll out such a program under the guise of citizen protection. The cameras, of course, were always looking out at the people, not at the police. Even with footage, police were rarely held accountable for crimes committed. Meanwhile, all aspects of people’s daily lives were taken in; faces, routines, social connections; anything within the field of view of the camera was absorbed by Oracle.

That such data would be turned against citizens in times of civil unrest should have been anticipated. Some who lived in communities that had experienced the evolution of brutal policing were indeed skeptical, but many held on to the idea that the cameras were well intentioned. Cam’s mother vividly remembers the week of the lockdown, how teams were deployed strategically throughout the city in ways that made resistance futile. All those years, the police state’s neural networks had been “learning” their neighborhoods and their faces all in the name of public safety.

Post lockdown, sensors and technology have been integrated into more and more aspects of daily life, pressuring people to make “good decisions.” Strivers feel less and less in control of their daily activities. They await the next haptic pulse that will direct their attention and actions. Cam might crave a pint of chocolate ice cream, but her minder is watching the refrigerator and uses guilt to pressure her into choosing carrots and celery instead. If she doesn’t comply, it will most certainly go into her health data log. Maybe Li wants to sleep late. Well, the sleep monitor strives to keep her on a productive R.E.M. cycle, so it raises the shades in her bedroom and turns on the shower down the hall at the appropriate hour. Is Talia driving to the corner store when she should be walking? Well, her auto tracker knows, as does her step counter, which means her insurance providers know, too. Maybe she can get away with it early in the month, if she has time to make up her activity quota before the 31st. Resources for healthcare are so constrained that people must demonstrate through data that their personal routines and lifestyle choices optimize preventative health protocols.

The Nudge Unit is constantly looking for new ways to incorporate behavioral triggers and feedback loops into online education and VR platforms, too. Buzz, buzz, a text appears. “Cam needs more points on Skyward Skills. It’s time to log on.” Or the pulse monitor indicates Li is too tense. Buzz, buzz, “Take a mindfulness break kid,” breathe and reflect. Buzz, buzz, “Talia step away from the screen and walk around the block to avoid blood clots.” Action triggered, data logged, repeat has turned life into one unending Pavlovian experiment.

Existence has subtly shifted to align to the Solutionist outlook. Economic forecasters rely on people being rational actors as they develop financial projections, and if technology can be used as a tool to shape human behaviors and enforce “rationality,” it is all the better for the global financiers who generate their wealth by speculating on the lives of everyday people. For the strivers, optimization has erased freedom and personal agency.

In the post-labor era, people have become more valuable for the data they produce than for their capacity to do physical work. Thus all but the off-liners have been integrated into the global corporate value chain as commodities. With biometrically-enabled Citi Badges, Cam and Li are not unlike tagged calves or farmed salmon, managed and processed without agency or recourse; lives controlled for the profit of others. The bio capitalist economic model values them only to the extent that they contribute their digital labor to the Solutionists’ data-driven system of outcomes-based results.

Algorithms hold tremendous power over Cam and Li. Using data generated through the Internet of Things, Oracle can make predictions about the type of adults the children are likely to become. What their cost to society will be. What they might contribute as human capital. Should their family should fall into poverty, Oracle can evaluate how much profit there could be made providing services to “impact” their situation through Pay for Success contracts. Would the predicted rate of return on their lives justify expending the Global Coin required? The Solutionists say, “Just run the data; the data will tell us.”

Talia tries to shelter the family from the data stream as much as possible, but that is has proven difficult. Accessing any public services demands data. Walking outside means you are under surveillance. Even at home devices keep tabs. Data has also become a currency people use to supplement their insufficient Global Coin stipends. The pretense that a person “owns” their own data and can monetize it is supposed to make them feel better about their situation. It doesn’t. Each data transaction puts another piece of one’s soul on the auction block, scrutinized by a predatory system that thrives on want and suffering. And it’s always a buyer’s market. No person in need is going to get ahead selling bits of data. These transactions are just stopgaps until the next Citi Badge stipend hits, a release valve that has thus far kept rebellion at bay.

At first the sensors seemed innocuous, uploading information about when a trashcan was full or telling people where parking spots were available. There were sensors that monitored air quality and ones that made sure streetlights were efficiently managed. People were enthusiastic. But then came the noise sniffers, and the motion sensors, and the drones. Parks and recreation officials were brought on board and encouraged to incorporate cyborg roses into public landscape projects. When first introduced, people were astonished at Eleni Stavrinidou’s work transforming plants into transistors, and now there were rumors of computational forests being grown in remote outposts. Once plants had sensors, people started to get really worried.

Teachers never imagined how sensors would alter classrooms and eventually eliminate them altogether. Adoption of 1:1 devices eroded teacher autonomy until students were spending most of their day with volunteer aides, eyes glued to screens. The teachers that remained were left evaluating student data. In classes where teachers were still allowed to lecture, movement, vibrations and sounds were monitored through sensors embedded in seats. The aim? Supposedly to provide continual feedback regarding student engagement and quality of instruction, but everyone knew it was really to keep track of the content delivered and how students responded. It was chilling.

By that point, the last remaining veteran teachers abandoned the profession. Eventually teacher shortages, austerity budgets, and the corporate education lobby’s campaign for “anytime, anywhere” learning ushered in IoT-enabled learning ecosystems. No one had invested in public education infrastructure for years. Sending everyone home with a device meant there was no longer the expense of feeding poor children. Students too young to stay at home and whose parents were working strivers were packed off to community partners. These partners had been carefully prepared for their role providing standards-aligned summer and out of school time programs. Plus this approach brought education completely under the umbrella of social impact investing, which pleased the financiers. All in all it was a pretty seamless transition. Given how punitive the instruction had become, most felt a sense of relief when the time came to phase out schools entirely.

Ten years out Cam and Li, like the characters in Isaac Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had, have no idea what “going to school” means. Some nights before turning out the lights, Talia tells the girls stories that give them a glimpse into that past. Yet, it is so far removed from their reality that neither can imagine what it must have been like to learn with a group of other kids. To have a human teacher and books, and go to a school building and spend the day there is a frightening prospect. People live isolated lives. Encounters with others are carefully managed. To spend a full day as part of a group, talking no less, seems a perilous and fraught enterprise.

Now everyone is assigned an Artificial Intelligence (AI) “assistant,” a lifelong learning guide when they receive their first education voucher. Cam tolerates hers, but Li is another story. They have quite the adversarial relationship. Li accuses her AI of giving her assessments that underestimate her actual ability, so she has to spend days and days going over material she already knows. Her games are always shorting out at a critical moment, right before her points are logged. The algorithm gives her essays failing marks, even though her mom and Grandpa Rex both say she has a gift for creative writing. Cam says that because the companies are rolling out so many new programs, glitches just going to happen and to not take it personally. People have always had frustrations with their devices, from autocorrect fails to systems freezing unexpectedly, but now that devices control so much more of people’s lives their faults are harder to tolerate. Talia often finds herself having to get up from her work and do a hard shutdown of Li’s tablet to give them both a time out.

The AI conversational agents and the platforms that host them employ a variety of tactics to ensure that Cam, Li, and all the children remain on task. Devices record ISPs and timestamps for logins. Keystroke and facial recognition data is stored, too. Wearable and biometrics are part of the equation. The early headbands and wristbands were incredibly clunky, but five years in they switched to IoT temporary tattoos with sleek designs that prominently identify each child’s designated pathway and rank.

It’s a major milestone when a student attains enough credentials in their portfolio to upload and claim a pathway. The tattoos, not unlike military insignia, help communicate social order and expected etiquette when new people meet. A picture is worth a thousand words, and in a culture that is increasingly non-verbal, a pathway tattoo is an important tool.

To maintain order, the Solutionists knew behavioral engineering had to become central to the educational system. With little meaningful work, systematic mental health training was needed. They wanted people neither too depressed nor too rebellious. Resilience, and grit were traits instilled through apps and gamification; children’s mindsets tracked as closely as the knowledge they acquired. The system was calibrated to identify mental disorders and dissidents early, flagging them for intervention. Both Cam and Li knew kids who had been forcibly plugged into remediation, but it wasn’t discussed openly.

The isolation that resulted from cyber education took a toll on many. Social networks withered. Kids rarely spent time with friends face-to-face. Text-support only went so far in beating back the darkness. Suicide rates climbed, affecting younger and young children. Programmers scrambled to develop new monitoring procedures. The Global Well Being Program was a leader in the field, their cutting-edge algorithms effective, but expensive.

Despite the high cost, sector education officials from all but the poorest communities debited funds for the monitoring service directly from student vouchers to cover the cost. Timely intervention was a matter of life or death, and people were willing to pay. In the post-labor world, monitoring and treating depression was a growth market. Before long tele-therapy and mental-health VR surged past bio-pharmaceuticals as darlings of the venture capital investment crowd.

By 2025 most major and mid-size cities had become “smart cities,” integrating IoT sensors into a wide variety of infrastructure projects. In doing so, officials created a ubiquitous layer of surveillance across the public sphere. Now, in order to access communal spaces, residents had to acquiesce to being watched. Management of the complex IoT systems required expertise far beyond the in-house capacity of most cities; as a result, outsourcing to global corporations became commonplace.

Over time, voters found they had less and less voice in government. Officials kept up appearances for several election cycles, but it became obvious that technology companies like Sysko were really the ones in charge. People wanted to believe elections still mattered. The history modules made a point of expressing how hard people had fought for the right to vote and to fix problems like gerrymandering, but it the years leading up to lockdown it became a hollow exercise. Talia had memories as a teen of the media stirring up outrage over voting irregularities. Looking back, they should have realized something was amiss. The solution to this “problem” was to switch to voting on the Blockchain using Citi Badges. Of course that shift effectively shut all of the off-liners, those who had no badge, out of the process.

Democracy was exposed for the charade it had always been, and it became clear to all that they had been living under fascism for a very long time. The cloud-based computing, telecommunication, and global finance interests united under the Solutionist banner and ensured authoritarian control was firmly in place. Global law enforcement working through the Blockchain Collaborative backed the technocrats in their coup. Now for Cam and Li, voting was a topic touched upon briefly in history modules where it was framed as a messy process no longer suited to the well-structured, transparent society the Solutionists had devised.

As the end game neared, secure and exclusive sanctuaries modeled after billionaire and media mogul Richard Braddock’s island home began to appear. He was among the first to bring world thought leaders together to discuss ways to build and scale Blockchain applications. These thought leaders sold everyone a utopian vision of trust, transparency and collective support. Those purported values fell by the wayside, though, shortly after the lockdown.

People with knowledge of edge computing, IoT, and Blockchain deployment and who had the money constructed sensor free zones to which they could retreat. Of course kids like Cam and Li will never be able to obtain access to such sanctuaries. That world is limited to families that can afford the astronomical costs of having human teachers for their children, whose social networks are such that they don’t need citizen scores or e-portfolios to assert their value to society. Sometimes Cam and Li wonder about the sanctuary kids. Surely there aren’t many of them. Are they lonely? Do they feel isolated, too? Are they glad to be unplugged? Do they know about life on the outside, life on the ledger?

Continue to Part 4: Data Mining Life on the Ledger

Supplemental Links

Internet of Things IBM: Link

History of IoT Sensors: Link

What is Blockchain: Link

Supply Chain IoT: Link

Cash VS Digital Economy and Online Payments: Link

Sidewalk Labs: Link

Smart Cities / Noise Sniffer: Link

IoT and Predictive Policing: Link

Police Body Cameras and AI: Link and Link

Patrol Robots: Link

Street Lights and IoT: Link

IoT Parking: Link

Storm water IoT: Link

Smart Trash Cans: Link

Sensors and Smart Cities: Link

Cognitive Drones: Link

Cyborg Roses: Link

Internet of Battlefield Things: Link

Pay for Success and Big Data: Link

Blockchain Social Impact Token: Link

Human Capital Analytics: Link

Nudge Unit: Link and Link

Game Theory, Human Resources and Social Skills: Link

AI Nudge Bots: Link

Behavior Change for Good: Link

Haptic Devices: Link

Rational Choice and Behavioral Economics: Link

Education and Biocapitalism: Link

Behavioral Science and Social Impact: Link

Making Behavior Change Stick: Link

IoT Classrooms: Link

Sensors Determining Education Quality: Link

Affectiva Emotion Sensing Software: Link

Behavioral Biometrics: Link

World Well Being Project: Link

The Fun They Had: Link

Device Use Behavior Tracking in Education: Link

Virtual Agents / USC Institute of Creative Technologies: Link

AI Conversational Agents / Amelia IP Soft: Link and Link

AI Teaching Assistant: Link

Conversational Agents / Articulab: Link

Applied Gaming and Mental Health: Link

Brainwave Data Collection: Link

IoT Tattoos / Duoskin: Link

Pathways to Prosperity / Jobs for the Future: Link

Characterlab / Grit: Link

CASEL / Social Emotional Learning: Link

Serious Games and Mental Health: Link

Government as Platform: Link and Link

IBM Smart Cities: Link

Cisco Smart Cities: Link

New York Smart City: Link

Blockchain Voting: Link

Neckar Island Blockchain Summit: Link

Edge Computing: Link

Blockchain Cryptoeconomics: Link

Blockchain Alliance: Link

A World Without (Much) Work: Building Sanctuary Part 2

This is the second of a seven-part series that outlines a potential future where online education is surveilled by authoritarian interests, and strivers, like Talia and her daughters, attempt to secure a precarious living within the constraints of oppressive “Smart” City policies. The introduction to the series and Part One: Plugging In can be read here.

Part 2: A World Without (Much) Work

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution got underway, automation wiped out more and more jobs. The disappearance of industrial work was grudgingly accepted. Then self-driving vehicles replaced truckers, bus drivers, delivery people, and car services. Even so, many were taken aback when digitization came for the service sector. As Artificial Intelligence hit its stride, teachers, nurses, therapists, paralegals, actuaries, financial advisors, film editors all found themselves cast aside, scrambling for new careers. It seemed everyone who could work switched to coding and cyber security. The threat posed by hacks to the vast Internet of Things had spiraled out of control, and they needed more and more people to build and maintain the simulations.

After tech and energy, the entertainment sector experienced some of the biggest growth from the shift to digital life. Talia supplements the family’s meager digital stipend working as a Mechanical Turk. She picks up gigs, small jobs, coding bits of virtual worlds when people go off the scripts prepared by the Entertainment Software Group. Having a background in art gives her an advantage. Talia’s high creativity ratings keep her near the top of the MicroWork platform where freelancers compete for short-term or even micro employment.

These days, though, it’s getting more and more difficult to earn hard digital credit. Many posted gigs are now issuing payment in skill points that can boost a person’s citizen score but can’t be exchanged for durable goods or used to pay down debt. If things don’t let up soon she’ll be forced to figure out some other way to meet monthly expenses that often exceed what’s deposited to their Global Coin account.

As living wage jobs disappeared, social unrest grew. The Solutionists recognized it was dangerous to have young people together in one place where frustrations might coalesce into a challenge of state authority. Neighborhood schools in particular were a point of concern, since they were one of the few remaining civic spaces where people routinely gathered. Device-based education provided an answer to this thorny problem. They would market it as “Future Ready,” an innovative new approach in which students would get a “personalized” education that, incidentally, was also surveilled and isolated.

It would play well to American ideals of individualism and consumerism. Promotional literature described this transformation as a learning ecosystem where “the city is your classroom;” only in reality most of the instruction took place online. Spread out in homes or small non-profit or faith-based settings, students would be easier to control, especially given universal adoption of smart home technology, always-listening AI personal assistants, and Domain Awareness public surveillance systems.

Online learning management systems also allowed authorities to carefully regulate educational content. Adoption of Open Education Resources meant Solutionists could edit, delete, or suppress information that might lead to troubling questions or dissident thoughts. Editing history could be easily accomplished with a few clicks via the Learning Registry. Orwell had laid it out years before, and now these addictive devices had evolved, as he predicted, into tele-screens that gazed out at citizens while citizens gazed in at them.

A few times a week students unplugged and participated in a community-based learning program related to their career pathway, but RFID chips associated with their Citi Badges ensured they remained visible to the system. Any organization accepting even a micropayment from Global Coin vouchers like maker spaces, art studios, community theater, and apprenticeship programs had to comply with set standards and participate in evidence-based, outcomes-driven programs that fed children’s data back into government systems. Student data was used to assess a program’s “success” and determine payments to the service provider and those who had invested in it.

When the Solutionists rolled out learning ecosystems, they also made skill dashboards public. Skills dashboards are dynamic visualizations of each person’s academic, behavioral, and job training data. The dashboards, tied to Citi Badges, foster a culture of fierce competition among citizens since choice opportunities are limited, of course, to top performers. As long as most people remain strivers and focus on competing against one another to get to the top, organized resistance remains unlikely.

After the lockdown, the expectation was that everyone would be required to participate in lifelong learning tied to workforce development. Industries that still employed actual people demanded a “just-in-time” labor force. No in-house training or professional development was provided. Instead, citizens were expected to self-finance their continued education, storing skills in an online learning locker with the hopes that they might successfully run the gauntlet and secure full-time employment. Few got that brass ring. Instead most were left with punishing debt for online course tuition that never led to paid work.

The decision to swap human teachers for online systems meant less money needed to be spent on salaries. As a result, more money could be directed to the tech and telecommunications industries. It also boosted data collection. All of that data allowed the Solutionists to profile citizens from very young ages. After they took control of the global economy, a decision was made to upload all digital interactions to a data network known as Oracle.

Communications, interactions with gaming and instructional platforms, home-monitoring updates, work activities, and Citi Badge transactions were all funneled into the system. That way if a person was accused of a crime, all their data could be easily queried for evidence. As new laws were imposed, authorities could also run queries of past conversations, searches, and educational resources that citizens had accessed to predict who, based on their history, was likely to break the new law and tag them for increased surveillance. Not quite pre-crime, not quite Minority Report, but close.

Securing all of that information was a challenge, but the ability to store digital data in DNA came just in time. Government server farms like the NSA Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah took an incredible amount of energy and water to cool. Rising fuel prices and prolonged drought made maintaining those dated systems nearly impossible. DNA storage centers were less resource-intensive. They could be distributed throughout the country, their operations largely, but not fully automated.

Crews of disposable children labored around the clock finessing millions of vials of DNA into housings that linked their valuable contents to the vast dataset in the cloud. With their keen eyesight and nimble fingers, children were perfect for the work. Their little bodies darted cautiously and continuously among the tightly spaced racks and industrial processing machinery. These were kids who never got to upload or declare a pathway, but hadn’t yet been off-lined. As long as they remained small, they could work in the claustrophobic data-mines doing Global Coin piecework. It was a grim existence, one evoking days of textile mills and child doffers.

In another age Talia would have been the type to homeschool her kids. Given the option, she’d prefer to stay out of the Oracle system entirely. Ironically everyone is now “homeschooled,” and the freedoms the approach had originally promised have been subverted. Kids are homeschooled AND surveilled. Even though she’s a gifted technologist, Talia resists the virtual.

She held onto her books and even keeps a small stash of transit tokens in the junk drawer of the kitchen. Cam has caught her fingering them absentmindedly, trying to conjure memories of a time when you could move anonymously through the city; at least as far as the subway line would take you. Today access to transportation is all done through Citi Badge. Everyone’s movements upload to Oracle and anything out of the ordinary could trigger a visit from a representative of the traffic analysis review board. No, anonymity is now a privilege of sanctuary citizens, the elite who live in sensor-free compounds far from Smart Cities like New York.

While Li might have liked to hang out with friends in the park, Talia doesn’t want to have her identified as someone who regularly travels there. Parks are not viewed as productive spaces. Parks represent an earlier age of leisure, informal socializing, and connection to the natural world, all frowned upon under the Solutionist regime. She doesn’t want to expose Li to the robot patrols either. Li is not yet savvy about the ways of the world. She must instead settle for an hour in an online chat room every once in awhile, but it’s not the same. Cam sees her younger sister becoming more irritable and withdrawn, but there is no easy remedy. She keeps her worries to herself hoping Li won’t be forced into a prescription video game treatment program.

Just before she goes to bed, Cam contemplates logging in to complete one more module of SkywardSkills, the supplemental program all the kids are supposed to participate in on top of their online schoolwork. If she can get enough points to bump her Lexiles, reading metrics, to the next level, maybe the system will cut her some slack and let her enjoy a book for just for fun. If she doesn’t hit her projected target in a timely fashion her device starts to buzz with texts and emoticons that encourage her to login in for more “growth.”

But today it’s late, and the dry non-fiction pieces are likely to put her to sleep, a fact that won’t be lost on the algorithm that monitors her keystrokes and eye movements. Going too slow or too fast means Cam will be coded as disengaged which will actually lower her score. So instead, she decides to turn out the light and call it a night.

Continue to Part 3: “Smart” and Surveilled Link

Supplemental Links:

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Link

Jobless Economy / Automation: Link

Just In Time Labor: Link

Amazon MTurk Wages: Link

Orwell’s Technology: Link

Learning Registry: Link

Oracle: Link

Virginia CyberRange: Link

IoT Home Monitoring: Link and Link

Automated Drones: Link

Mechanical Turks: Link and Link

Gamified Human Resource Platforms: Link

Entertainment Software Association: Link

UpWork: Link

Koru Predictive Hiring: Link

Unilever Game Based Hiring: Link

Online Reputation Management in the Gig Economy: Link

Universal Basic Income and Blockchain: Link

Biometric Government ID Systems / Aadhar: Link

Sesame Credit China: Link

Social Media Ranking Systems/ Black Mirror “Nosedive” Episode: Link

Online Skill Portfolios: Link

Bluffdale Data Center: Link and Link

Storage of Data Inside DNA: Link and Link

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Orders): Link

IoT Transit / Parking: Link

Prescription Video Game Treatments: Link

Attentiveness Algorithms Online Education: Link

Building Sanctuary: A Dystopian Future We Must Fight To Avoid

The next wave of education reform is one part of a much larger societal shift that hinges on the use of Big Data, predictive analytics, and digital profiling to control populations in a world of growing economic uncertainty and unrest. What follows is a speculative dystopian scenario, a world that could very well emerge from systems being put in place right now. It centers on two sisters, Cam and Li, who live in a near future New York where authorities have come to view human life primarily as a source from which to extract financial profit. Many elements of the story read like science fiction, but they are not. I’ve included links to sources at the end of each post so you can explore this reality for yourself.

The future is uncertain and unlikely to play out exactly as described. Nevertheless, we must begin to comprehend how technological developments combined with concentrated power and extreme income inequality are leading us to increasingly automated forms of oppression. My hope is that communities will begin to incorporate an understanding of this bigger picture into resistance efforts for public education and beyond. Let us join together, embracing our humanity, to fight the forces that would bring us to “lockdown.” How can we preserve our lives and those of our loved ones outside the data stream? How can we nurture community in a world where alienation is becoming normalized? What do we owe one another? What are we willing to risk? I have divided my story into seven parts. I hope you’ll read along and consider sharing it with others.

Building Sanctuary

Part 1: Plugging In

The year is 2040. Cam is thirteen. She should be an eighth grader, but after the government dismantled schools, lifelong online learning replaced classrooms and grades. Now she’s just another free-range kid with a tablet, username and login. She dreams of building an e-portfolio that’s competitive enough to land a job that will keep her out of the state’s virtual reality (VR) warehouses.

In a world increasingly without work, many people opt to go the avatar route. Plug in and you can curate your own online brand; refine the essence of your character into a parallel, gamified version of yourself and craft your own reality. Digital currency buys so much more in the virtual world that people choose to spend most of their waking hours there. It kills their intellect, but at least keeps them from overdosing in parks, libraries and cars, as was the case at the height of the opioid epidemic. Virtual reality is a socially acceptable addiction. Less deadly than heroin, it keeps bodies intact for continued data extraction.

It was ultimately fortuitous that the retail apocalypse shuttered so many shopping centers. Investors seized the opportunity to transform them into networks of virtual reality warehouses with connected dormitories for those who had been evicted or lost homes. Capitalism had made the leap to the digital realm the decade prior. It seemed a logical next step. Some with insider knowledge anticipated the Bitcoin crash and scrambled to invest their phantom wealth in virtual real estate on the Blockchain.

Those in the know who shifted their investments made a handsome profit, but many more who did not change course lost it all. As poverty decimated the middle class, authorities rolled out a basic income program in digital currency called Global Coin. Everyone’s Global Coin account was linked to a unique digital identity through a system known as Citi Badge. The Citi Badge system relies on biometric information to confirm validity of payments and other transactions associated with a particular citizen.

For several decades behaviorists had been using popular world-building games and classroom management apps to condition children to change their purchase behaviors. Rather than actual physical goods, which were becoming harder to procure as the world’s resources were depleted, children were encouraged to embrace digital facsimiles. Who needed a closet full of real clothes when you could acquire a trendy wardrobe for your avatar at a much lower price?

Schools eagerly embraced the concept, encouraging kids who couldn’t yet read to code and program. In the minds of administrators, as long as students had a square on which to plant their avatar, they would have the freedom to choose their own version of the world, which they felt was a kindness. The real one was becoming more toxic by the day. Despite the initial novelty, there was a growing sense of unease and pushback, especially among the youth. They saw platform life for what it was, a hollow shell and a means to disempower their generation. In response they began adopting creative strategies to compromise the system by inputting bad data and refusing to comply.

There are some luxurious VR warehouses outfitted with ergonomic fixtures of the finest materials and lounges where people still have the opportunity to talk face-to-face and re-anchor themselves in reality. Most, however, are just sheds of dinged-up headsets and grimy mats. Once immersed in their virtual worlds, people don’t much notice, but it does take a toll on the body. After months of immersion people begin to lose muscle mass and often develop bedsores and joint pain from lack of movement.

Daily retinal scans are required for admission to the VR warehouses. Debt non-payment, dissident behavior, mental instability or a host of other qualifiers can shut down your Citi Badge, which permanently cuts you off from the digital economy and all services, including VR and shelter. For those who’ve been off-lined, access to even the grimmest VR warehouse is prohibited.

Those pushed off-line attempt to scavenge a living from the streets, but since much of the population has shifted to digital life in the warehouses, food is increasingly hard to find. Managers of the VR dormitories use tracking sensors to keep close tabs on nutrition shipments, and nothing goes to waste. Early on the Solutionists, the authoritarian technocratic governance council that took over after the lockdown, used robotic patrols to round up off-liners and put them in work camps. With less and less physical work to be done, the authorities were disinclined to continue supplying even basic provisions and shelter and eventually shut down the camps and left the off-liners to fend for themselves.

Drones with facial recognition quickly take care of the ones who pose a true threat, and having starving citizens in public view tends to keep everyone else in line. People prefer to distance themselves from this reality. The uncomfortable presence of the off-liners leads most strivers, those trying to work within the constraints of the system, to stay indoors as much as possible. No one wants to compromise their citizen score by lending aid to those in distress, and avoiding off-liners entirely has become almost impossible.

These days many kids get plugged in early, especially if they are black or brown or poor or an immigrant or have special needs. If the metrics indicate their human capital doesn’t justify continued investment, they’re culled from the education rolls. For every thirty children receiving online pre-k services, odds are only one will complete an educational pathway and attain regular paid employment. Investors aren’t inclined to waste crypto-currency on anyone who’s at risk of not meeting standards. Once a child reaches the age of nine, it’s all about triage. Students whose human capital is deemed insufficient for the actual workforce might be sent to do piece work in the data mines, or if they’re lucky added to the ranks of the data generators in the VR warehouses.

Of course, there are children who never make it that far. Mortality rates for the poor surged after adoption of personalized medicine smart contracts; treatment handed over to algorithms that determined when a patient could see a human doctor, which was rare. Fewer and fewer people wanted to train to become licensed doctors because crushing student loan debt, a daunting workload and bureaucratic micro-management made the profession increasingly undesirable.

Now, people train to manage tele-health chatbots. These chatbots are notorious for misdiagnosis and rigid enforcement of treatment compliance whether or not it’s effective or accepted by the patient. They may thoughtlessly prescribe medications that have become impossible to acquire if a person’s citizen score is too low, which means many of the most vulnerable are labeled “problem patients.” Because pay-for-performance determines how tele-health providers are paid, eventually such patients find it nearly impossible to access even online care. No health system wants to accept patients that will lower their rating.

Fortunately Cam has been blessed with good health, and her student data dashboard indicates she has potential. It updates in real time, drawing information from her online activities and a variety of education-oriented Internet of Things (IoT) sensors embedded in her learning environments. She hasn’t given up hope that she will be able to maintain her striver status, get a job, and keep her family out of the virtual world. She knows it won’t be easy and is steeling herself for the many challenges that living life in the real world will pose.

She was assigned to the healthcare training pathway on her tenth birthday. That was when the ledger ran her academic, social-emotional, and genomic profiles and made the decision. She uploaded a year early, because participating in online pre-kindergarten gave her a head start building the dataset required. Healthcare is one of the three industry sectors assigned to her community. If she can earn enough badges in higher-level science and mathematics she just might be able to jump from the home health aide track to one for personalized medicine analytics. Those are the sought after jobs, some of the few that pay more than the Global Coin stipend.

Cam has always been motivated, so plowing through the soul-crushing online modules has been tolerable, but her younger sibling Li chafes against digital life. Li draws her energy from being with people, but opportunities for real interactions are few and far between. In a world where digital interactions are prized above face-to-face encounters, where control is valued over serendipity Li doesn’t really fit in. She’s the type of kid who has never met a stranger. She engages with everyone, which sometimes causes problems when the family leaves the house.

Li doesn’t really understand the difference between strivers and off-liners. Countless times her mom, Talia, has had to drag her away from street games with offline kids when they were out running errands. Play, in public? Even though one could make a case for it developmentally, this type of unstructured socializing was considered a spectacle, a dangerous one that could attract the attention of authorities. A few moments of parental distraction is all Li needs. The family’s reputation score is marginally above average, but they can’t risk being dragged down by her antics. Now that Cam is older she’s been assigned to be Li’s minder when they go out, which feels unfair. She’d much rather plug into edu-casts and get ahead on her modules than have to try and contain her sister’s exuberant energy.

Continue to Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work Link

Supplemental Links

Global Education Futures Forum Agenda: Link

Pain Management / Virtual Reality: Link

Learning Ecosystems: Link

Blockchain and Universal Basic Income: Link

E-Portfolios / Badges: Link

Cities of LRNG / Badges: Link

Online Preschool: Link

Hackable High School: Link

Open Education Resources: Link

Learning Registry (Department of Defense/Department of Education): Link

Career Pathways: Link

Workforce Readiness “Soft Skills” Diploma Seals: Link

Virtual Economies: Link

Behavior Management / Classroom Economy: Link

Virtual Real Estate on Blockchain: Link

Virtual Reality Studios: Link

Precarious Housing in Internet Cafes: Link and Link

Virtual Reality and Neuroscience: Link

Virtual Economies: Link

Fielding Graduate University: Link

Retail Apocalypse: Link

Minecraft Education: Link

RedCritter for Teachers: Link

Human Capital Investments in Education: Link

Third Grade Reading Guarantee: Link

Student Data Dashboards: Link

Scholarchip: Link

Gatekeepers: Philadelphia Education Fund Adopts New Paid Access Policy

Farah Jimenez is a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and current director of the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), a nonprofit that hosts monthly conversations on topics related to public education in Philadelphia. These days, if you want to attend one of their Education First Compact meetings, you’re going to have to jump through a lot of hoops. That wasn’t previously the case. Advance registration for meetings is now required, a policy put in place after Ms. Jimenez was hired in April 2016. When registering via the website, attendees are strongly encouraged to financially support the organization as either a series subscriber or by purchasing individual tickets. Corporate and foundation subscribers pay $750, while individuals pay $100; though there is the option to donate more.

PEF Subscriber

Until this month you could secure immediate admission to meetings via online registration without paying anything, as long as free tickets were available. However, a recent policy change states anyone who is not a paid subscriber is now automatically put on a waitlist. This policy will allow PEF to screen out people they deem undesirable, without requiring them to rescind tickets that have already been granted. PEF has done this to me twice, and not just to me, but to at least two other activists. There is a clear sense that Compact meetings are not meant to be truly “public” meetings, even though PEF’s mission revolves around public education. At the beginning of the December Compact meeting Jimenez stated that what was said in the room stays in the room; that nothing be shared via social media. I understood that to mean these are essentially closed-door discussions. So, moving forward if a person wants to have access to these discussions they have to 1) be willing to pay or 2) not voice any questions or opinions that might upset the people deciding if they get into the next meeting. That is a huge problem.

PEF Ticket Policy

This is my cancelled ticket for the November meeting. I did not cancel it, the Philadelphia Education Fund did.

PEF Ticket 5 Cancellation

I would like to share two videos I created using Facebook live that convey my experience at the December Compact meeting held at the United Way building. I had registered for the event and had a printed ticket. I was initially granted access but was then was asked to leave by a staff member who would not give her name. I was unable to embed the videos, so you’ll have to click the links to watch them from Facebook. But this image gives you a sense of the encounter.

Farrah

 

The first clip includes conversations with Mr. Otis Hackney, the invited speaker who was there on behalf of the Mayor’s Office of Education. The second clip includes conversations with Ms. Jimenez in which I attempt to get an answer about why my previous tickets had been cancelled. It concludes with Ms. Jimenez and Mr. Hackney having a private conversation about the situation at the end of the hallway. Ultimately, I was allowed to stay, but it was highly contentious, and my questions about why my tickets had been cancelled were never answered. I suspect PEF’s new RSVP policy is a workaround to avoid having to address complaints about their actions.

Paid supporters of the Education First Compact Series are guaranteed a seat at the reserved table in meetings where initiatives, with reform undertones like universal enrollment, are discussed among a group of like-minded peers. Ironically, the topic of the meeting they attempted to eject me from was about the district’s return to local control. Looking around the room that day I got the sense many supporters are “Big C” community partners, the type that worry me when people start talking about community schools, more here. Chronic, inequitable funding for public education has created gaps that have morphed into opportunities for nonprofits to expand their programs. These gaps also create openings for foundation and corporate interests to influence school policy and facilitate outsourcing of core programs once housed within schools while still appearing somewhat benevolent.

Sometimes PEF’s Compact meetings are held at tony venues like the Union League. This exclusive club with a dress code and a history of racial, religious and gender discrimination might seem an unlikely meeting location for a back-to-school kickoff event in a district where many student families live in deep poverty. Yet the September 2017 Education First Compact meeting was held there as PEF welcomed think tank member and author David Osborne along with Superintendent William Hite. Osborne, despite having no background in education, was on tour promoting his new book “Reinventing America’s Schools” along with expansion of “high-quality” charters. For those tempted to jump to the conclusion that this was a conservative guy pitching privatization, it turns out Mr. Osborne is a member of the so-called “Progressive” Policy Institute and is solidly in the neoliberal “Third Way” Democratic camp. Turning schools into data-driven profit centers is definitely a bi-partisan enterprise.

I’ll share two pieces of advice with any of you who might be inclined to want to attend an ed reform meeting at the Union League. 1) You should not wear jeans. 2) You should not arrive early to write “Philanthrocapitalism can take a hike (heart) Philly” in chalk on the sidewalk outside the venue. For details on the impromptu sit-in precipitated by Union League staffers grabbing me in the lobby that morning click here. Of course solutions that truly serve the most vulnerable children in our district will not be developed at a reserved table in the Master’s House, so I cannot in good faith actually recommend anyone invest time attending these meetings.

Philanthrocapitalism

It’s worth checking out the Philadelphia Education Fund Board here. Many represent the interests of the finance sector. Wells Fargo, Citi, Bank of America, Vanguard, and Morgan Stanley are all in the mix. It’s a perfect set up for social impact investing, which meshes nicely with growing local interest around developing Philadelphia as a social impact economy, see link and link. There is a lot of profit to be made from poverty. I fully expect a “Pay for Success” initiative or social impact bond focused on early literacy to show up on Philadelphia’s doorstep in the not-too-distant future. Other board members have ties to Big Pharma, regional higher education, law firms and companies in the technology (IoT sensors for Smart Cities!) and business development sectors. There are a couple (Drexel and the Free Library) that have ties to the MacArthur/Collective Shift badging/learning ecosystem initiatives. One board member is married to the head of the Mayor’s Office of Education. Philadelphia is such a small town. It’s important to note there are NO positions representing teachers, parents or students on PEF’s board. PEF’s mission is to support Philadelphia schools. So tell me how exactly do they determine what supports schools need if key stakeholders are not in the boardroom and they can’t even get into the Compact meetings?

The impending dissolution of the School Reform Commission has left many hopeful there will be more transparency around education decisions in our city. But moving forward under mayoral control, I wonder what role PEF will play? The head of the Mayor’s Office of Education and Ms. Jimenez did appear to have a close working relationship. What standing will non-profits, foundations, and business interests have to influence education policies that directly affect our children? Whose voices will be heard? Which people will be excluded? If you are willing to speak truth to power, will you be removed even if you are a parent with a child in the district? My encounters with PEF have not been positive, and I am not hopeful. I will be sharing this post with Mayor Jim Kenney and plan to ask him to reevaluate the City’s relationship to PEF as well as to any other group that purports to represent the interests of Philadelphia’s students while excluding actual stakeholders. We can do better. Philadelphia’s children deserve a humane education, one that values small class sizes, a rich curriculum, libraries in-school supports, safe and healthy buildings, clean water and extracurricular activities provided by school staff. We don’t want a system that looks at our children as human capital to be “fixed” and “molded” to suit some targeted workforce development slot. We refuse educational policies that serve the interests of those seeking to profit off of the misery of childhood poverty. Keep social impact investing out of education. We’re on to your game.

Money for what Mr. Kuhn? A Big Data, Future Ready Superintendent Promotes Funding Equity for NPE

This week the Network for Public Education launched another video in their series on the privatization of public education. The video featured John Kuhn, superintendent of the Mineral Wells Independent School District in Mineral Wells, Texas. Kuhn, an admittedly charismatic speaker, discussed the important issue of funding inequities and how lack of funding hurts students in low-income school districts. I was curious where Mr. Kuhn’s school district was located, because I have been following the work of a number of intrepid parent activists in Texas who have been busy exposing the next wave of privatization in the state including: education savings accounts, social impact bonds for mathematics instruction, and districts of innovation.

When I pulled up the Mineral Wells ISD website, I was surprised to see a link for “Future Ready” in the “Learn More About Us” footer of each page. I had shared my concerns regarding the “Future Ready” pledge last October. You can read about them here. If you want the short version, the program is affiliated with the reform outfit The Alliance for Excellent Education and funded by the Gates Foundation, Google, Apple, Pearson, Summit Learning and the Carnegie Corporation, among others. Those who sign the pledge commit to “implementing meaningful changes toward a digital learning transition.” The “About the Effort” page of the Future Ready website makes it clear pledge signers support the idea that “personalized” learning is about adoption of digital technologies: “We believe every student deserves a rigorous, personalized learning environment filled with caring adults and student agency. District leaders must recognize the potential of digital tools and align necessary technologies with instructional goals to support teaching and learning.”

The Future Ready link on the Mineral Wells ISD website takes you to a page promoting many elements of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda: flipped classrooms, hybrid-distance learning, and gamification. The first thing that struck me was a description of how the district is using Google hangouts for so-called “peer” learning experiences. I found the associated image really upsetting. The district was promoting a pre-school age child being plugged into a headset and tablet doing a read aloud with a fifth grade student. Where are the children’s teachers? Where are the actual books? What data is being captured from this online interaction and for what purpose? There is absolutely no pedagogical reason this “Future Ready” approach should be imposed on young children. It is not developmentally appropriate, it erodes teacher autonomy in the classroom, and it is dehumanizing.

Kuhn 3

Kuhn signed the pledge while working at his former district Perrin Whitt in Jack County, Texas. Gail Haterius, who preceded Kuhn at Mineral Wells, signed the pledge on behalf of her district at the time. Kuhn, upon taking over Mineral Wells, maintained the district’s “Future Ready” status. If you’re wondering where NPE stands on the “Future Ready” pledge, Diane Ravitch’s blog lauded it in a post from February of 2015 featuring Thomas Ralston, a superintendent from my home state of Pennsylvania. Ralston was at the launch of the initiative in Washington with Arne Duncan. At the time “Future Ready” was being pitched as an antidote to high stakes testing, though we later figured out the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda was designed for technology-based all-the-time testing, including data collection on workforce-aligned soft skills. If you read the comments on Ravitch’s post, it is clear parents and teachers know something is not quite right and push back against the program’s technology focus. It turns out Ralston is part of the “Remake Learning” initiative in the greater Pittsburgh region, a program that aims to implement badge-based learning ecosystems as part of the MacArthur Foundation/ Collective Shift funded Cities of LRNG program. This foresight document “The Future of Learning in the Pittsburgh Region” from Knowledgeworks is a real eye opener, I assure you.

Future Read Kuhn

Many have said Mr. Kuhn is a wonderful person. I am certainly willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is why I tweeted him a few questions about this Google hangout peer learning program and what his funding priorities would be as an avowed “Future Ready” school superintendent. I was also curious about an infographic promoting “grit.”  I am still waiting to hear back, because neither he, nor NPE, nor Diane Ravitch have acknowledged or replied to my tweets as of the time of this post. See: link, link, link, and link. If you would like to hear their responses, consider helping me out by retweeting. If I get an answer, I will be happy to post them here.

John Kuhn

Kuhn says he wants equal opportunities for poor children. Ok, so if he were to switch places with the superintendent of the poor district described in the video, and the funding inequities were addressed, how exactly would he spend that money? All children deserve cruelty-free education. Having more money doesn’t guarantee the education being purchased is humane, especially if it is spent on devices that are designed to employ learning management systems, gamification, and big data to profile students based on their academic performance and behavioral compliance. See Kuhn’s opening remarks in this piece written for other school superintendents.

So, with whom do you stand Mr. Kuhn?

Carnegie or children?

Gates or teachers?

Pearson or Parents?

Future Ready Funders

As a Future Ready signatory would you spend increased funding on literacy coaches, librarians, real books, foreign language teachers, and reduced class sizes for poor children? Or, with the Alliance for Excellent Education and their cloud-based partners looking over your shoulder, would you instead spend it on intelligent tutoring systems like Dreambox, Duolingo, online classes, and grit training? The NPE video tells part of your story. It’s the story people want to hear. But buried underneath is a murkier truth; one you share with fellow superintendents as you pitch “ethical” Big Data solutions for childhood poverty. In various articles Kuhn’s language aligns very closely with that of social impact investing-stay tuned, my instincts are pretty good.

I encourage education activists to please pay attention to what is NOT being said as much as what IS being said. That is an important skill. Sins of omission are sometimes hard to spot. Knowing the onslaught of online learning that Texas teachers are facing at this very moment, it is telling that Mr. Kuhn does not speak to that threat nor does NPE surface it. My concern about TASA and online learning in Texas goes back almost two years, details here. As many unthinkingly consume superficial content that tugs at the emotions but doesn’t promote organized resistance, urgent new threats are taking over classrooms one chromebook, one tablet, one headset at a time. This is not the time to sit disconnected, absently clicking “like.” We must build communities of resistance and begin to take direct action. I will close with a comment I shared on my personal Facebook page about this situation. It’s time to do the work folks. It’s well past time.

“Future Ready schools are the next privatization threat. I’m sure it is very hard for people who have embraced Mr. Kuhn and his message to accept that they have been manipulated. For people who really need a ray of light, having a shadow cast upon it seems unfair and a huge blow to teachers who have lost so much. I get it. But his adoption of this corporate agenda that will further data-driven profiling of children, particularly the most vulnerable among us, means he cannot be the role model we need. We need to acknowledge that and move forward. I am offering no apology nor looking for others to apologize for actions taken or not taken. There is work to be done. It’s time to organize and do the work. We know what has to be done, and that is unplugging kids, protecting them from predatory community partnerships looking to profit from their data and “fixing” them via evidence-based programs, and standing up for humanity. For goodness sake, isn’t it about time?”