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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Do I have a right?

Homeless by Carl Lovén

Homeless by Carl Lovén

Author’s note – much of what you’re about to read is inspired by the juxtaposition of articles featured on BoingBoing.

I spent this morning sharing iCivics and its marquee title, “Do I Have a Right?”, with local colleagues. “Do I Have a Right?” is an resource management game in which the player assumes control of a firm specializing in constitutional law. Players must evaluate potential clients’ complaints to determine whether or not the clients’ rights have been violated. If the player determines that a client’s claim has merit, the player must then match him or her with a lawyer who specializes in the relevant amendment. The client and lawyer then poof out of existence to attend court before reappearing with “Prestige Points” a short time later in the game. The player uses “Prestige Points” to hire new lawyers with needed specialities and to buff out the firm.

My colleagues and I met at one of our school system’s high schools as part of our division-level professional development day. As I walked from the parking lot to our classroom, I was struck by the number of security cameras I saw. I wondered about my rights. I wondered about privacy and surveillance.

I wonder about those things a lot lately as a teacher biased toward a tech-rich classroom and as a reader biased toward current events and near-future science fiction.

We live in a society – and world – making sense of itself and the new rules we make in response to new technologies and behaviors.

For example, there’s the case of Tyrisha Greene as relayed by . According to the linked article, Greene videotaped the arrest, attempted flight, alleged resistance, and police beating of Melvin Jones III in November, 2009. The video is upsetting and contains strong language. It is also the subject of a criminal complaint filed against Greene by Michael Sedergen, one of the offices involved in the Jones incident. Sedergen claims that Greene broke an illegal wiretapping law and violated his rights by secretly videotaping him.

So, do I have a right to privacy in public if I am unaware of the presence of a video camera? I mean, does the creation of a recorded electronic version of any public act I make create a legal copy of “me” open to permissible scrutiny from by my government? Is there a rider in my contract that says I agree to be surveilled in the course of my work? What do I think about surveillance cameras in schools and what biases do I have about the kinds of schools that I might expect to have cameras or not have cameras? What biases do I have about where I would both expect and accept a camera? Is it a moral obligation to act against any egregiously unfair biases I might have? What do I think about cameras on school busses? About the rights of children?

Yeesh, Sansing – why so worked up about cameras?

Well. For lots of reasons.

First, consider this Guardian article by digital bon vivant Cory Doctorow: Why CCTV has failed to deter criminals.” Doctorow writes that the theory of CCTV-deterrence “[relies] on the idea that the deterred were making smart choices about their futures and would avoid crime if the consequences might catch up with them.”

What if you surveil a group of people who have a biologically-impaired understanding of consequence? What if you surveil a group of people with little hope for the future?

To be direct: what if you surveil teenagers with little hope for their futures?

Perhaps you wind up watching the UK riots and flash mob robberies.

Perhaps you forget about conditions and flash mobs like these.

We have these technologies that cooperate with our behaviors, but it seems that we in the United States of America – and perhaps the West – indulge in those technologies and behaviors that most expediently and ruthlessly assign and act on blame.

Feel free to comment below on the state of your own feeds, but, while my friends are not planning any mobs or riots, it’s not as if the adults I follow on Facebook are unanimously using it for good. There isn’t this adult world of altruism in our social media that somehow counterbalances whatever it is that we fear from our youth.

Am I for robbery? Destruction of property? Anarchy?

No. But in our words and deeds as educators, parents, and adults, are we sufficiently against poverty, destruction of hope, and the market-driven suppression of political power?

I am not a fan of our educational unions for my own reasons, but I’ll say this: if we depend on money to have political power, and we accept that some of our neighbors, based on the educations we’ve provided, can at best secure part time jobs that require them to keep quiet and to not organize, then what are we doing? It’s a paltry, weak sham of a democracy that prefers some voices strong and others weak.

In reading Steven Brill’s Class Warfare this week, it’s abundantly clear to me that a few rich people control public education in the United States of America. By “a few rich people,” I mean fewer people than you would find a standard high school government class.

While some of us might agree with the Broads, Gates, and Kleins of the world – while we might agree that teachers matter most to student achievement – don’t we have a moral obligation to involve ourselves more in how and why we educate our children? If we’re unwilling to oppose the philanthropy of our American giants, does that require us to be so quiet at schools about poverty? Sustainability? Alternative education?

Regardless of the educational merit of pop reformers’ plans for American schools, our pursuit of a middle-class status quo for struggling urban and rural schools will not change our ideas about what school can be, nor will it assuage poverty today or create a more altruistic middle class tomorrow.

We all need to make our own personal decisions to learn about the things that upset us, and perhaps then we’ll take action to help one another end mission-critical upsets – like poverty and industrial-era schools – that threaten our country’s democracy and our citizens’ empathy.

Or we could continue on hurting and blaming one another. I see some of the UK youth in Sedergen: someone has judged me; I want to judge them back.

Which brings me back to cameras.

Yesterday I read a keynote that science-fiction author Charles Stross delivered to this year’s USENIX conference.

In his keynote, Stross spends a significant amount of time speculating on the future of lifeblogging – an individual’s use of cameras and biometric sensors to broadcast and/or record the individual’s life. Think The Truman Show, but with Truman independently choosing to record his life in the real world. Or with Truman choosing to record portions of his life in the real world as required by his job.

How would lifeblogging have impacted the Jones incident? The UK riots? How would it shape the behavior of members of a flash mob? How would it help further define and muddy the difference between different kinds of speech and action under law?

How would it impact schools?

Would we understand schools more if teachers lifeblogged on the job? Would we broaden our definition of exceptional teaching and learning? Would we discover or validate previously hyper-local practices and assessments? Would we understand students better if they lifeblogged while at school? How would a permissions form look for lifeblogging? How would we teach and learn differently if we we’re broadcasting? If we could replay a day’s performance? If we knew a supervisor or more lateral coach was going to replay it? If we knew our lifeblogs could be FOIA’ed? If we knew a vendor would have access to our lifblogs to determine the level of fidelity with which we implemented an intervention program? (Is anyone willing to recruit teachers and dissertate on any of this?)

How would our behaviors change? How would our students’ behaviors change? How would our relationships change? How would labor relations change?

I can see lifeblogging on the job as an imposition, but I can also see it as a bold act of self-evaluation and an assertion of the profession.

How to lifeblog – or whether or not to lifeblood on the job – is a problem worth considering before we get there. Stross estimates that we’ll have the bandwidth and memory necessary to lifeblood as a society by 2061. While constant government and private surveillance might not deter crime, perhaps purposeful, personal self-assessment could provoke us to do better by ourselves, our students, and neighbors.

Do I have a right? Yes, I do. I have a right to turn away that I exercise far too frequently. I am often no better than a camera. I am often worse in that I choose what to ignore; there is no one to blame but me for my memory dumps.

Would lifeblogging curtail a painful expression of hurt like the UK riots or a robbery? Probably not. How do you deter someone who’s understanding and/or fear of deterrence are compromised?

I think you (and by “you,” I mean “I”) would have to watch your life and look for those moments when you turn away so that tomorrow you can try to face your problems (and by “your problems,” I mean “our problems”) head on with all the accumulated strength of those evidenced – but inadmissible – moments of compassion, joy, and love we routinely capture in our cameras’ unblinking eyes and then delete from our cities’ bursting memories.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


5 thoughts on “Do I have a right?

  1. The scary thing for me, Chad, is that there are already schools here in Philly that have installed cameras in classrooms to record what’s going on. Ostensibly, their purpose is to protect teachers and to record student behaviors and testy situations that may happen in the classroom. However, what scares me is taking situations out of context. Sometimes, as a teacher, we need to make decisions and conduct ourselves in ways that, out of context, may seem unprofessional. I’m not talking about hitting kids or cursing, I’m talking about those conversations about religion, sex, violence or even sharing of personal stories that some might find inappropriate for the classroom, but which often are vital to the growth and learning of young people. What if a camera caught 2 students screaming and yelling at each other? What if this was the beginning of a healing process, not just an arbitrary fight? What if the teacher noticed that something non-academic was getting in the way of learning and decided to stop a math lesson to address it?

    You get the point.

    In addition, what about those who love attention or, as you state, are not concerned with consequences? We already have a movie genre based around recording the actual death of other human beings!

    It is a fine line that we draw between keeping us safe and invading our privacy rights.

    Posted by marybethhertz | August 19, 2011, 10:33 am
    • The power is in both the hands of the medium (and how it shapes behavior) along with the one who edits the video to tell a story. To me, that’s the real danger. It’s not just the fact that we have no privacy, but that we somehow view video as being essentially neutral.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | August 19, 2011, 11:23 am
  2. Chad, These are such huge and important questions–straight up immense–that I have had the sense for a long time that issues of privacy and surveillance are going to be at the center of new definitions of identity and humanness. How do we know ourselves? By watching ourselves, or being watched by others? How is self constructed? And by whom? Using what media?

    As you know, Foucault had a lot to say about this, when writing about the Panopticon.

    I’m just going to say thank you as always for pushing these questions, and they’re a part of what I’m thinking about, in the new world we live in. This is an ongoing, and very complex set of learning questions for me. While at the same time, when in really steamy conversations about the panopticon, I was always in the wondering–who could possibly care about surveilling me? There are a lot of us on the planet.

    Getting all Buddhist on you here.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 21, 2011, 3:36 pm
  3. Thank you, MB, John, & Kirsten –

    My point might be this: given that the use of surveillance is becoming increasingly, paradoxically indiscriminate (UK) and and discriminatory (see my questions about cameras in schools), would it be best for us to record our own lives and to reflect the empathy or lack of it we discover therein?

    Certainly posting here (and on our own blogs) is a kind of on-the-job lifeblogging (or perhaps I should use the term “lifelogging”). I feel like I benefit from it as a person learning to care more about people and learning than about statistics and the approval of a system.

    How different would it be to record and reflect on my teaching (or for any of us to record and reflect on our work) than it is to blog about the strengths and weaknesses of public education? How does our selectivity here and deference to print keep us from discovering things an audio-visual record would show, and who should be responsible for finding those things?

    With the kind of stats tracked by adaptive intervention software, I think we’re only a few steps away from dehumanizing teaching further. All this goes back to previous posts about vendors, products, and the possibility of a bifurcated profession of teachers on the sales floor (who facilitate student consumption of products) and teachers working for a gift economy of authentic, democratic, and free learning. We might be there already, but I see assessment and compensation differences around the bend (though we might be there already). So, I, for one, would rather record what I do and respond to it than wait to be called into my principal’s office for not implementing this program or that one faithfully – according to logged statistics or surveillance records.

    Thoughts? A new Coöp YouTube channel?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 22, 2011, 5:38 am
  4. A quick note: we have cameras in our building this year.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 6, 2011, 10:57 pm

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