Last Night We Lay Down In The Street To Protest Closed Door Meetings About Public Education in Philadelphia

Public education activists are living through an interesting moment now in Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission is being disbanded. In the coming months Mayor Jim Kenney will be appointing a school board from nominations put forth by a select panel. The process is murky, and a pattern of closed-door education policy decision-making has been established here, here, and here. Last night, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce held a ticketed event to discuss the future of business in our schools at Girard College, an important site of struggle in the Civil Rights Movement. You had to be a Chamber of Commerce affiliate to purchase a $35 ticket for the event, which included the following language on the event website.

Attendee Chamber Event

One of the lead sponsors of the night’s event was Comcast, the Philadelphia-based telecommunications giant that established a partnership with Khan Academy in 2013 and would benefit tremendously from increased digitization of public education. It appears the future of public education in our city is being mapped out by industry, venture capital, and well-connected non-profit and higher education partners.  The people, meanwhile, are left standing outside the gate. Last night, however, the real action WAS outside the gate as a dozen activists carried out an act of civil disobedience to contest policies of exclusion and shine a light on the mayor’s hypocrisy in casting this new school board as a step towards accountable local control. Because what does “local control” actually mean if educational policies are being directed by the hands of elite interests in Greek Temples with no teachers, students, or parents present?

On January 29, 2018 from 5-5:45pm we claimed the space in front of the entrance to the Girard College campus, carrying banners that read “Nothing About Us Without Us,” “Public Schools NOT Private Profit,” “Teachers Before Tech,” and “Our Children Are NOT Data, Human Capital, or Impact Investment Opportunities.”  This blockade compelled attendees to park along a nearby street and walk past the people to the gates where members of the Caucus of Working Educators pressed our demands for transparency in school governance into their hands. Click here for a copy of the handout we gave attendees. The video below provides a 15-minute overview of the action.

A second video features remarks directed to Mayor Kenney, including the following five demands:

No private “stakeholders” who have financial dealings with the Philadelphia public school system will sit on any policy boards or committees. The voices and needs of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over those of private interests, including corporations and non-profit organizations.

No public official or employee of the school system or school board may be present at any closed-door meetings where public education business or policies are discussed. Public education policy and business will NOT be developed in any venue that restricts public access. All provisions of the open meeting laws will apply: nothing about us without us.

Philadelphia’s corporations and non-profits are obligated to pay their fair of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for the full public funding that is needed to make our neighborhood schools whole.

Establish a clear public commitment to early literacy by reducing class size, restoring school libraries with librarians, and providing reading specialists to all schools. Refuse technological solutions, like Waterford UPSTART, and adaptive online learning systems that isolate and data-mine children.

The City of Philadelphia must take a public stand against the use of social impact finance “solutions” including Pay for Success contracts and social impact bonds to fund early childhood education, K12 education and workforce development. Public schools should be funded with PUBLIC dollars, not philanthropy or venture capital.

We have requested the Mayor’s Office of Education address our demands publicly by February 9, 2018. Please support us by asking our mayor to respond to these demands by tweeting a link to either video to @PhillyMayor and @OtisHackney (the Mayor’s Office of Education) using hashtag #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs and #PhlEd. Our demands are provided as the first comment in each video.

These are the prepared remarks issued via video by Alison McDowell, Philadelphia public school parent, to the Honorable Mayor James Kenney, at Girard College on January 29, 2018.

“Tonight the Chamber of Commerce is holding a private event here at Girard College with representatives of the Mayor’s Office of Education, The Philadelphia Education Fund, the Read By Fourth Campaign and various corporate and non-profit partners. They will be discussing their roadmap for growing business engagement in Philadelphia’s schools.

Students were not invited to this event.

Parents were not invited to this event.

Teachers were not invited to this event.

Unless you were affiliated with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, you did not even have the option to purchase a $35 ticket to this event.

The website for this event stated that pre-registration was required and that as a privately sponsored event no demonstrations or disruptions would be tolerated and that if there were dissent, those people would be removed and face legal remedies.

And so I ask:

Is this the type of partner you would want for your school community?

And why exactly should we trust the Chamber of Commerce with our children’s futures?

The Chamber of Commerce has presided over an economy that leaves a quarter of our citizens in poverty and twelve percent in DEEP poverty.

The Chamber of Commerce sees a future where corporate interests mine Philadelphia’s abundant poverty for profit. The social impact investment economy they envision will employ technological “solutions” to privatize public services through outcomes-based contracts while at the same time using Big Data to profile children as human capital commodities. The incubator for these programs is the ImpactPHL initiative.

As concerned citizens, we will not stand idly by and let that happen.

WE are the true stakeholders of public education.

We are parents and teachers and community members who know that our children deserve better than to become pawns served up to industry as a just-in-time, precariat workforce, trying to scrape by in an increasingly automated gig economy.

We stand here today to demand fair and transparent governance of our public schools.

We demand our schools be managed as a public trust for the people, not for private profit.

We demand an end to closed-door meetings where government officials make plans for our children that prioritize the interests of corporations and their non-profit and higher education partners.

We demand education based in human relationships and well-resourced classrooms that promote curiosity and community.

We demand supports for literacy that include reduced class sizes, certified reading specialists, certified librarians and functioning school libraries.

We reject a model of education that ties our children to digital devices designed to extract their data and generate profit for private interests. We reject online learning programs like Waterford Upstart online pre-school.

We demand our city publicly renounce outcomes-based government contracts, pay for success and social impact bonds to finance public education and other human services. Such “innovative” financial instruments use Big Data to profile children as human capital commodities.

We stand here today in this highly symbolic space where in 1965, for seven months, Cecil B. Moore and the youth of North Philadelphia led pickets around this wall. They fought tirelessly to access educational opportunities denied them based on the color of their skin.

We stand here today on their shoulders as our schools disintegrate and our children and teachers face unhealthy building conditions, overcrowded classrooms, and a profound lack of resources. This is due to intentional austerity. Public funds withheld from public education to create impact investment opportunities for venture capital. It is strategy perpetrated by those who attend tonight’s event, cloaking themselves in false charity.

Mayor Kenney, our schools are not a charity. Cardboard checks and volunteers do not make up for the tax revenue our children lose to abatements for the elite. These so-called community partners have an obligation to pay their fair share of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for full public funding for our schools. Even as you laud this moment as one of progress, we stand here exposing the truth. Local control means nothing if exclusive events like this take place with participation from the Mayor’s Office of Education. We stand here witness to a fraud.

In addition to being a parent of a Philadelphia public school student, I am also a member of the Saturday Free School. We meet weekly at the Church of the Advocate and on February 23 we will launch a year of reading the visionary scholar, writer, and activist William Edward Burghardt DuBois. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth we are inviting people from all over the city to join us as we experience and discuss his revolutionary writings. Through education for liberation, we believe we can reclaim our humanity and build the kind of future our children deserve.

In closing I share these words from his essay The Immortal Child published in 1920 in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil”

“Can we teach Revolution to the inexperienced in hope that they may discern progress? No, but we may teach frankly that this world is not perfection, but development; that the object of education is manhood and womanhood, clear reason, individual talent and genius and the spirit of service and sacrifice, and not simply a frantic effort to avoid change in present institutions; that industry is for man and not man for industry and that while we must have workers to work, the prime object of our training is not the work, but the worker-not the maintenance of the present industrial caste but the development of human intelligence by which drudgery may be lessened and beauty widened.”

 

A Community of Resistance: Building Sanctuary Part 6

When I started writing this story, a few people suggested I include some hope in it; good organizing comes when you have anger, hope, and a plan. I’ll admit that hope is hard for me. I tend towards the dire, the energetically dark even. I know too much. My preference, of course, is that you all read this, and we begin to organize and resist to avoid full lock down. But if that doesn’t happen, what then?

Can a just society be rebuilt in the ruins of a Smart City or not? The next two installments are informed by my experience attending the Saturday Free School here in Philadelphia. I try to evoke elements of the black radical tradition and marronage, though perhaps not as successfully as I would have liked. Once I wrap this series, if there are others who would like to write an alternate ending, I would certainly be open to posting it. My goal with this project is to create a base of knowledge off of which others might riff, in new stories, graphic novels, plays, or visual art. The themes here need to be explored in other media, and I see this as a jumping off point. If this interests you drop me a line in the comments. To start this story from the beginning click here for Building Sanctuary Part One: Plugging In.

Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work

Part Three: Smart and Surveilled

Part Four: Data Mining Life on the Ledger

Part Five: Automated Education

It had been a challenging spring for Cam and Li’s family. Uncontrolled fires burned through California, disrupting both the tech and entertainment industries. Virtual Reality and gaming companies were recycling old content rather than offering new gigs, so the family’s income suffered. What made it worse was that Talia had entered into an income-sharing agreement to pay for VR classes, and their devices constantly buzzed with aggressive complaints from her investor.

Cam has been logging extra hours of SkywardSkills when she normally would be reading. The college prep partner she goes to once a week is running a competition, and the student who logs the most time gets a substantial payment to their Citi Badge account. Cam has put a lot of pressure on herself to stay ahead of the other students, but everybody is desperate for Gold Coin, and as the deadline approaches it is harder and harder to keep up. She’s lost a lot of sleep the past couple of weeks and it is getting harder and harder to focus.

Li responds to the stress by shutting down. She refuses to log on to her education modules, and it is getting harder and harder to drag her out of the house, even to go to her maker space placement. Her relationship with her AI learning assistant is on the rocks. She’s been entering false information into the social emotional surveys as a way of rebelling against the system, without realizing the long-term implications her actions will have.

Academic participation by minors is a key indicator that affects the family’s citizen score. If Li’s activity levels dip any further it will likely trigger a home visit, something Talia wants to avoid at all costs. Cam harbors suspicions that Li might be cutting herself. Even though temperatures are rising, Li hadn’t pulled out any t-shirts, preferring long sleeves even when it gets into the 80s. She doesn’t want to alarm her mom, but clearly Li needs professional help. All the local clinic can offer is an evidence-based chat-bot therapy program. That won’t be enough.

Cam is vaguely aware that her mom has been meeting with grandpa Rex online and has an uneasy feeling about it. Talia calls a family meeting to discuss a possible solution. Rex had been living alone in the family home after Talia’s mom died of medical complications after the lockdown. He’d been able to hold onto his property through the Bitcoin crash, but now seemed like a sensible time to let it go.

He’ll move in with them into the apartment in Queens. It will be tight to have all four of them there, but the proceeds from the house will surely be enough to pay for real therapy for Li; therapy with a real person, off the books, with no data collection. They expect it will be expensive, but worth it. Through word of mouth they find Mak, a counselor who still offers a face-to-face treatment.

Mak is an outsider who keeps his personal life under wraps. He sees clients in an office located in a former library in Queens. He serves mostly off-liners, doesn’t take Gold Coin, and prefers payment in bartered goods or services, especially books. Public libraries had been shut down years before the Solutionists finally seized power. As people were drawn inexorably into the digital life, fewer and fewer read actual books.

Some libraries were turned into maker spaces or even micro-schools, but the Richmond Hill branch, an antiquated building dating back to the Carnegie era, was deemed too small to be useable. The city simply closed it up, locked the door and walked away. Even though the building has much more space than he needs for his practice, Mak acquired it with the intention of supporting broader organizing, political education, and resistance efforts. He eliminated all sensors and removed RFID tags from the remaining books. He doesn’t take clients with chips, and no devices are allowed in the building. Anyone with an IoT tattoo must remain outside.

The building sits on a small triangle of land along a commercial corridor situated a half-mile from Forest Park between the Maple Grove and Cypress Hills Cemeteries. There are five rooms, in addition to Mak’s office in the basement. One is a reading room, another a spare parts and bicycle repair space, a third holds clothing and domestic items (non-IoT) for sharing, while the fourth is set up as a communal food prep area. The fifth, locked, is used for resistance strategy meetings.

An expansive arbor shades the south side of the building and provides a space where visitors who have IoT tattoos are still able to gather and join in discussions. As long as the weather cooperates, weekly political education sessions take place there in the shade of the grape, melon, and squash vines. The sound of jazz and blues emanating from the hedge is a sure sign people are sitting out. Music sets the mood and masks conversations from noise sniffers. Sometimes there is live music, but often it’s vinyl recordings. They never use digital, because authorities are keen to identify those accessing revolutionary music through streaming services.

Even though Mak owns the building, the community directs how it is used and gives the space its vitality. Most people come from the cemetery encampments at Maple Hill and Cypress Grove, settlements created shortly after the work camps closed. Targeted by the authorities, people of color, immigrants, the homeless, and veterans comprised the first wave of forced labor. Disenfranchised, lacking papers, or with mental health diagnosis, they found it impossible to acquire Citi Badges.

They were the original off-liners, people who never had to unplug, because they’d been written out of Solutionist society from the outset. They gathered together among the gravestones under the shelter of venerable trees to build their own community. With no stake in the old system, the cemetery contingent became the core of resistance in the borough.

They are a creative bunch, devising ingenious guerrilla tactics that target the Solutionists’ surveillance and police systems. The expertise of veterans has proven invaluable, as they have direct knowledge of the technologies’ military applications. A number of edge-computing technicians, software engineers, and roboticists have found their way to the encampments. Most went underground in the months prior to the lockdown, knowing that refusing to comply with authoritarian demands would lead to their execution.

These experts, in collaboration with encampment residents, continue to refine low-tech ways to decommission IoT monitoring systems, robot patrol charging stations, and the solar Bitcoin dust miners that keep the ledger running. Nan is one of the Maple Hill Cemetery elders. She retired from a career in telecommunications, and saw the Internet evolve from broadband to 5G and edge computing. People look to her for her technical insight, foresight, and people skills. Nan has been a guiding force in efforts to destabilize Solutionist control of their sector. The resistance has been able to secure a corridor of relatively free movement between the encampments and Forest Park and hopes to expand its reach into Flushing Meadows once they train more teams.

The resistance cautiously embraced Mak when he arrived two years ago; access to power, water, and secure storage was a compelling reason to partner. The cemetery contingent shares provisions they scavenge and help keep the space secure, while Mak provides a satellite base of operations where members of various encampments can come together and strategize. Behind the locked door in the basement, the inner core of the resistance has been working on a lab to investigate more technologically advanced techniques to undermine the Solutionists’ systems.

That first year they bestowed the name “Wheel House” on the library, understanding that a wheel steering a course forward was a powerful image, even if the final destination remained unknown. Bringing people together to imagine a world in opposition to the terror of the Solutionist regime keeps hope alive. It is a space where each person, like the spokes on a ship’s wheel, is essential, and by coming together around a central hub they will move in a new direction. In a surveilled, digitized world, the Wheel House offers a safe place where people can strengthen the relationships needed to build a different future.

Mak comes from a moneyed family, a sanctuary family, which is how he was able to acquire the Wheel House, and why he is so concerned about technology; he knows its power. He grew up on Gonave, an island off the coast of Haiti. Before he was born, Gonave was sold to an investment consortium that expelled the local population and remade it as a sanctuary zone. He grew up surrounded by self-absorbed people whose lives revolve around what they own. Most made their fortunes in defense contracting, software development and social impact investing, as militarism and rising global poverty created unlimited financial opportunities.

Mak never fit in there. As a child, he spent most of his time reading and hanging out at the helipad chatting up pilots about the larger world. Rather than material wealth, Mak is interested in books, ideas, and the natural world. He has a rebellious streak. His late father named him after Francois Mackandal, the eighteenth-century revolutionary who believed in freedom for all people and used his knowledge of native plants and medicine to wage guerrilla warfare against Haitian slave owners. Mackandal’s weapon of choice was poison, because the slaves had no guns. He understood that you use the knowledge at your disposal to disrupt oppressive systems.

As a teen, Mak became increasingly disaffected with island life. His mother, an executive with a global VR outfit, eventually packed him off to New York for a community service placement, feeling certain the harsh environment there would be such a shock that Mak would run back home, chastened. This didn’t happen. Instead, Mak trained in social work and made a life for himself in a world unlike anything he had ever known.

Sanctuary kids are raised with very little technology. Being raised on an island community, the small population means everyone knows everyone else’s business. You can find space to be alone, but you really have to go looking for it. When Mak first arrived in the states, the level of social isolation he felt in the midst of so many people was hard to process. Everyone was absorbed in a world of their own, mediated through devices. He’d never seen anything like it.

Mak joined a large health system once he completed his training. It was run by Alphadata and specialized in urban populations with “complex” mental health needs. He left that position after less than a year. It hadn’t taken long to realize that the protocols that had been developed were intended to force to people conform to and manage themselves within the Solutionists’ oppressive systems rather than lead them to healing.

There was tremendous pressure on counselors to expand caseloads to the point that they were primarily data managers and had very little time with patients. Treatments like Virtual Reality, prescription video games, and text supports had taken priority over face-to-face treatment. This approach generated the data demanded by the municipal contracts, but did little for his clients, many of whom were veterans of the drone wars before operations shifted to AI and facial recognition.

After leaving Alphadata, Mak spent several more years in self-directed training, finding through informal networks elders who knew the work before it became data-driven and had experience with alternative, non-digital therapies. He returned to Queens and slowly began to build a network of contacts. He gets no algorithmic referrals, has no online reviews, no online reputation presence at all. In fact, you can only find him by word of mouth, and since few people actually speak to one another anymore, those who end up on the doorstep of the Wheel House are generally of a like mind.

Mak’s treatment goals are to connect his clients with their humanity and empower them to find personal agency in a world where Solutionist systems undermine both. A key part of this approach is connecting his clients to community. In this sector of Queens, a community has grown up in the encampments, at the farm, and at the Wheel House. They are a community of the unplugged. Through their connection to Mak, Li, Talia, Cam, and Grandpa Rex have been brought into the fold.

Continue to the final segment: Choices

Supplemental Links

Income Sharing Agreement: Link and Link

Chat / Text Therapy: Link and Link

Social Impact Bonds and Behavioral Health Home Visits: Link

Gonave Island, Haiti: Link

Francois Makandal and Haitian Revolution: Link

Closing Libraries: Link and Link

RFID and Internet of Things: Link

Micro Schools: Link

Marronage: Link

Citiblock Health Care: Link

AI Drone Warfare: Link and Link

Drone Swarms: Link

Robotic Security: Link

Saturday Free School: Link

League of Revolutionary Black Workers: Link

Social Impact Investors Eye Public Education Market in Philadelphia

I would like to share a comment I made yesterday in response to this op-ed published in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “The city needs a transformation to improve education, not jut a new school board.” The piece was written by Paul Perry, a director with San Francisco-based Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies.

Paul Perry

In the summer of 2016, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia published a white paper positioning the Philadelphia region as a “unique center for the impact economy.” That same year, an influential group of venture capitalists under the leadership of Ben Franklin Technology Partners launched ImpactPHL, an accelerator for social impact initiatives in the region. Below is a relationship map that shows the founding members. Click here for the interactive version.

ImpactPHL Founding Members

In July 2017 a $15 million fund was created to support early-stage technology start ups with a social impact focus. The US Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship pitched in $250,000.

“The EDA Regional Innovation Strategies Seed Fund Support grant will support the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern PA to develop the Greater Philadelphia Impact Partners, a fund to spur growth of impact-focused ventures that  provide qualified opportunities for investment. True to Benjamin Franklin’s dictum of, “Doing well by doing good,” the Greater Philadelphia Impact Partners will create a scalable framework to promote growth of investment capital, venture creation, jobs and revenue, all focused on profitable businesses that address the modern societal challenges present in our region, and worldwide.  Greater Philadelphia Impact Partners is one element of a broader regional impact strategy being undertaken as part of a  collaboration among the region’s business, investment, higher education, government, philanthropic and economic development communities.” Source

The final sentence from the quote above is reinforced by this map of ImpactPHL’s steering committee members and advisors. There are many powerful interests pushing the development of technology-based impact investment “solutions” to “manage” Philadelphia’s deep poverty problem in a way that will maximize profit for private interests. Click here for an interactive link.

ImpactPHL Advisors

Deployment of “innovative” technological “solutions” is central to social impact investing, because profit is generated by combining predictive analytics with Big Data “impact” metrics. Services addressing social problems must increasingly be delivered through digital platforms that extract the data demanded for program evaluation and profit-taking.

Those receiving services, including public school students who spend their days slogging through benchmark tests and online modules and who are often tracked via classroom management apps, generate vast data-sets that can be used to profile them and inform future “impact” investments. “Success”=profit. Success is determined as meeting narrow, specific targets defined in terms of data points. The need to generate outcomes then shapes how services are delivered, more screen time and less face time. See the rise of ed-tech “solutions” forced on our public schools and on refugee populations.

We are seeing this dehumanizing shift in service delivery take place not only in public education, but also in healthcare, social services, and mental health treatment. Mr. Perry’s op-ed signals that Philadelphia is entering a new phase of the privatization battle, one that will be less about charters and vouchers and more about online learning and behavioral management systems and data-driven “wrap-around” services provided by non-profits working hand-in-hand with impact investors. These systems prioritize profit over children and will install data-driven interfaces that dehumanize students as well as the staff that will be forced to provide the “innovative” technology-based “services.” If you read Mr. Perry’s piece you can see their plan is to sell it under the guise that they actually care about the poor, when in reality Philadelphia’s poverty is just another investment opportunity.

My comment on the Notebook article:

It is important to note that Mr. Perry identifies himself as a “social impact strategist.” Social impact investing is a global financial scheme set up by the Rockefeller Foundation and GIIN under the leadership of former UPenn president Judith Rodin to mine profit from the misery of global poverty. More here.

Central to this method are outcomes-based government contracts that employ Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds to extract profit from those enmeshed in oppressive social systems. Technology is key to this strategy, as “impact” data must be seamlessly collected for cheap, scalable deal evaluation. This, along with the rise of IoT monitoring, Big Data, behavioral science (economics-nudge) interventions, gamification, and blockchain digital ID (many of which are being researched at UPenn) will lead to the platform delivery of human services, including but not limited to public education, over the next decade. See also tele-health, tele-therapy, VR counseling, prescription video-gaming, etc.

GIIRS based in Berwyn (home of the Wharton venture capital crowd) has set up all the metrics for impact evaluation. Sure, fair trade textiles and shade grown coffee provide a veneer of respectability to this new form of “sustainable” corporate organization-B Corps or benefit corporations. However, below the surface will be automated smart contracts that are fed data by ed-tech digital platforms of the kind promoted by iNACOL, one of the many pro-tech, pro-impact venture capital entities for whom Mr. Perry works. CBE, which he pitches, is largely online education, something the telecommunications companies (Comcast) so desperately want. It’s “Facebook” Zuckerberg-funded playlist education delivered by algorithm. Kids and parents in districts across the country are organizing against platforms like Summit Basecamp now.

What Perry writes, if you have no background in social impact investing, may sound reasonable. I’m here to pull back the covers and tell you there is much more to this story. Impact investors are not about helping the poor. We are in an age of bio-politics where people (children!) are increasingly mined for data against their will. Data is the new oil. Schools are poised to be a primary site of extraction. Lives will be governed by computer code and algorithms.

Philadelphia, don’t let that happen. Hold your mayor accountable. Demand the city refuse to participate impact investment schemes not only related to education but also to social services the families of our city so desperately need. Needing help should not mean you have to be digitally profiled for someone’s profit. MBA impact venture capitalists should not get to benefit from the deep poverty so many Philadelphians experience.

The Economy League sees impact investing as our future economic engine. They are planning to build an economy that mines poverty for profit. Programs like The Germination Project are even training promising high school students at Wharton to run these programs. They are planning decades ahead. None of this is about fixing structural systems that cause poverty. No, these systems are meant to maintain poverty and use it to control the general populace and maintain racialized systems of power rooted in white supremacy.

Our schools are not charities. Education is for the people. We claim our schools. They will be sites of resistance.”

Automated Education: Building Sanctuary Part 5

We are entering an age where companies can be composed of code rather than people; where philanthropy can be managed by artificial intelligence; and where citizens exist as datasets to be quantified and mined. Part five of this series examines how the ledger (blockchain) emerged as the force that enabled the complete automation of education and poses the question “What does education mean for those living on the margins outside the Citi Badge system?” To read from the beginning, follow this link to Part One: Plugging In.

Part Two: A World Without (Much) Work

Part Three: Smart and Surveilled

Part Four: Data Mining and Life on the Ledger

The total reinvention of public education could not have happened without the ledger. The ledger makes it possible to disconnect students from school buildings and human teachers and shift to a learning ecosystem model. For years the mantra had been “any time, anywhere learning.” By the time lockdown came, deferred maintenance had resulted in such horrific building conditions that few neighborhood schools could maintain their occupancy permits.

It was cheaper to send older children home with a device and farm the younger ones out to community-based partners. With IoT sensors that could sync with learning management systems through xAPI, whatever children “learned” could be recorded automatically without the need for a human instructor. Most educational content had been broken down into such small standards and micro-credentials that it was almost impossible for human teachers to keep up with all the data entry as the system transitioned.

Internet of Things technology, combined with Citi Badges, allows the ledger to control Cam and Li’s access to online education resources. Besides the ability to edit or veto the content of the online modules, education administrators have the ability to adjust algorithms to steer students towards certain pathways, into VR warehouses, or in extreme cases offline entirely.

Cam knows that the playlists Li has been accessing, online sets of educational activities the algorithms provide, are very different from the ones Cam had just a few years ago. Cam isn’t sure if it is because the content has been removed, or if it’s that Li is being fed different information based on her behavioral profile. Outside the sanctuary zones, knowledge is strictly “need to know.” The Solutionists have the power to decide who needs to know what and ration information accordingly.

After cloud-based computing came on the scene, the powerful tech industry entered the education sphere. Thousands of start-ups now compete to design adaptive software systems that curate “personalized” resources for educational playlists and facilitate behavior management. Foundations and benefit corporations poured in money to ensure these markets took hold. With children reading fewer books, digital media – particularly games – have become the primary form of education delivery. Executives in the entertainment industry are thrilled since they, along with the tech executives, had long sought to eliminate local oversight of curriculum and the influence of elected school boards.

Investors need their products to demonstrate impact on student achievement. However the impacts they seek prioritize efficient human capital management over personal fulfillment. Online programs dole out basic information aligned to set standards. Education is consumed passively, and students are expected to demonstrate “success” by improving their scores, collecting badges, and providing evidence of an appropriately resilient or gritty mindset.

If an investor’s online systems can attain “evidence-based” status, it is given a preferred ranking in the Citi Badge platform, which means significant profits. It’s every programmer’s dream to create the next Skyward Skills, the global ed-tech giant that has dominated the market since it had been introduced into regular schools twenty years ago as a blended learning program.

The ledger also links the sisters to project-based learning opportunities in their community. Algorithms match Cam and Li’s varied learning styles, academic talents and behavioral factors with available placements. These placements have taken on great importance as education has moved away from intellectual engagement towards a program of workforce-aligned skill development. Coding is king, and education administrators have complied with industry demands, stripping arts and humanities from the curriculum and giving exclusive attention to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Most project-based learning programs are STEM-aligned.

Talia remembers the shift to community-based learning. It was pitched as a way to reduce education costs and provide free labor for local companies. Parents wanted to believe the reformer’s pitch that their children would be able to “follow their passion” through “hands-on learning” opportunities. But, it is hard to rouse much passion for the job placements provided. The apprenticeships are rarely as exciting as those featured in the exuberant promotional videos. Corporate partnerships tailor students’ educational experiences to very specific industry needs. This model permits companies to have the public underwrite their training costs and gives them opportunities to screen potential employees.

Starting in middle school, children are matched through Future Jobs+ to apprenticeships. Apps track and evaluate their performance according to character trait metrics associated with workforce readiness. Project-based learning opportunities allow Solutionists to monitor skills like empathy and collaboration through face-to-face encounters and compare that information with the data gathered by gamified education platforms. Cam has participated in three Future Jobs + programs so far, most of them related to the community’s assigned labor sector of healthcare. Li, age 10, is still too young for an apprenticeship, but she’s been doing maker space programs since she was three. Since she hates online learning, her hours at the maker space are some of the few enjoyable moments of her week.

Whenever Cam or Li demonstrate mastery of a certain standard, a smart contract written in computer code sends a Global Coin payment to the online provider or project-based learning partner. Through the ledger, payments are debited from their Citi Badge accounts, and badges and micro-credentials are uploaded. IoT sensors monitor all educational activities.

For years activists had petitioned the government to implement weighted student funding: this meant allocating more money to students living in poverty as well as to students whose first language was not English and students with special needs. No one realized then that education funds would wind up in Citi Badges rather than school budgets; that weighted funding would make vulnerable children targets of predatory education schemes; and that in short order school buildings would disappear entirely. No one expected Artificial Intelligence philanthropy would replace public funding for education, either.

As austerity ate away at funding for education, foundations, benefit corporations, and impact investors used outcomes-based smart contracts to direct private dollars into communities using the ledger. Dwindling public funds opened the doors to this private investment, but a condition of that investment was that it had to yield measurable results. Education administrators in the various sectors now redistribute private education investments into students’ digital wallets according to weighted formulas.

At first the program was well received. Once Pay for Success rate cards were approved by municipal procurement, and learning management systems were selected, the process of securing online learning services became fully automated. Now it is the ultimate free market with deliverables in student data driving access to and pricing of various platforms. Payments are contingent on student performance. If an educational app is not meeting required growth targets among users it can be put on probationary status and may ultimately become ineligible for Citi Badge compensation. The most popular apps tend to be the least expensive, but for strivers who have money to supplement their account, specialized instruction is available at higher price points.

The structure of the payment system means most instruction now takes place online, though with Tin Can API, even non-digital activities can be captured and uploaded for evaluation. Every time Cam or Li finishes an e-book, watches a video, or participates in an activity, documentation of the standards that have been met is uploaded via Citi Badge to their e-portfolio. That way Oracle can keep track of what everyone knows and what information they are accessing at all times.

No one particularly likes relying on private investors to fund public education, but the Solutionists claim it is efficient, transparent, and keeps everyone accountable. The ledger, remember, is all about trust. People’s feelings changed dramatically, however, after DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) took over. DAOs run smart contracts automatically, without any human control. Once put into place and activated, they draw on vast pools of capital from a growing network of benefit corporations and can run indefinitely. The system, designed to generate “impacts” upon which venture capital profits are built, completely disregards human life. When problems arise, as they inevitably do because glitches and hacks are intrinsic to the system, no humans are there to address it.

There have been years when data from Cam and Li’s learning sector didn’t meet the terms of the contracts. When that happened, students were cut off from enrichments and project-based learning opportunities. Turnaround sectors can use Citi Badge payments only for drill and kill online courses until scores improve. Students spend most of the day on Skyward Skills, which is enough to make any child mentally shut down.

During those years, Talia opted to go into debt to pay for outside enrichment for the girls with the hope that their sector data would improve and get them out of turnaround status before the next round of payouts. At the time, the family’s risk score was ok, and they were able to secure a repayment program that still left room in their budget to eat, but just barely. They have friends whose families don’t have that luxury. It is not uncommon for children in turnaround status, after being force fed Skyward Skills day after day, to just drop out of public educational altogether and check into a virtual reality warehouse.

As far as education, the off-line children are an anomaly. They exist outside of the structure of the formal education system. They are still connected to the real world, because revocation of their Citi Badges means they have no access to the VR warehouses. Many spend their days pushing DNA vials through the claustrophobic corridors of the data mines. Unlike their badged counterparts, the off-line children can’t be paid in Global Coin, so their labor is informally exchanged for a bit of nourishment and the chance to be out of the elements. After their shift, they drift off to one of the off-liner encampments that emerged in old cemeteries in the post-lockdown years. There, tree cover and gravestones offer some protection from drones and robot patrols.

For off-liners, education is visceral and grounded in harsh life experience. Being in the real world without the safety net of digital supports is terrifying and immediate. This is a feeling those in the VR warehouses and the strivers plowing through Skyward Skills modules will never know. Off-liner children learn from peers and elders. You learn fast or you don’t survive.

No matter their age, citizens of the off-liner encampments generously share their skills and knowledge. They need one another. Disconnecting from the data dashboards freed them from the cutthroat competition of life on the ledger and opened space for them to find their own ways to meaningfully contribute to the eclectic communities that grew out of their expulsion from the Solutionist world. Off-liners bear witness to the grim reality the terrorist regime has imposed in a way that strivers, who have become accustomed to their oppressors’ controls, cannot. Being off-line means being anchored in reality, morality, and humanity. It is in this space that the possibility for revolutionary thought is sustained.

Continue to Part 6: A Community of Resistance

Supplemental Links

Learning is Earning / Edublocks: Link

A Learning Day 2037: Link

Gig Economy / Teaching Workforce: Link

Open Education Resource Commons: Link

Beacons in Education: Link and Link

EU Blockchain in Education: Link

Blockchain E-Portfolios: Link

Learning Registry: Link

Playlist Education: Link

Jefferson Education Accelerator / UVA: Link

Educational Savings Account Debit Card Arizona: Link and Link

Reed Hastings / School Boards: Link

Smart Contracts and Learning Ecosystems / Knowledgeworks: Link

Hackable High School: Link

ImBlaze Salesforce/Big Picture Learning: Link

Big Picture Learning: Link

Bechtel Foundation / Character Development: Link

CASEL: Link

Skills Gap: Link

STEM Push: Link and Link

Coding Automation / Low Wage: Link and Link

Learning on the Block / Knowledgeworks: Link

Blockchain and Badges: Link

Digital Credentials: Link and Link

Blockchain Identity: Link

AI Philanthropy / Giving Unchained, Philanthropy and the Blockchain: Link

Weighted Funding, Digital Learning Now P. 8: Link

Pay for Success / Brookings Institute: Link

Pay for Success / Outcomes Rate Cards: Link

Municipal Smart Contracts on Blockchain / Procurement: Link

Pay for Success Rate Cards: Link

Open Badges IMS Global / Mozilla / Collective Shift: Link

Microcredentials: Link

xAPI / Tin Can API: Link and Link

IoT Classrooms / Wildflower Montessori Slippers: Link

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations: Link

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.

Continue to Part 5: Automated Education

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