‘Prohibition Will Get You Nowhere’: Writer and Activist Cory Doctorow’s...

EdSurge Podcast

‘Prohibition Will Get You Nowhere’: Writer and Activist Cory Doctorow’s Message to Schools and Educators

By Tina Nazerian     Aug 28, 2018

‘Prohibition Will Get You Nowhere’: Writer and Activist Cory Doctorow’s Message to Schools and Educators

It’s not unheard of for an instructor to tee up a YouTube video for a lesson, only to have the content blocked by the school or district’s censorware. And while administrators might have good intentions when they decide to use censorware, censorship is often only effective for those who play by the rules.

It’s one reason why writer and activist Cory Doctorow thinks schools and educators should rethink their approach to surveillance and censorship. In science fiction novels like “Little Brother,” he has explored the implications of mass surveillance, and on the popular blog Boing Boing, he has written on topics such as net neutrality, open access and user privacy.

EdSurge recently sat down with Doctorow in San Jose, Calif. at Worldcon, a science fiction convention, to get his take on everything from surveillance in K-12 schools to open access publishing in higher education.

To listen, you can subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or, you can read highlights from the conversation below, which have been edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Schools today expose students to technology in a variety of ways, be it through Minecraft or an iPad. Do you think that the way schools are exposing kids to tech is helping them be creative, or are those ways too stifling?

Doctorow: The promise of technology is its ability to provide individualized interactions for the people who use it, and education is clearly not a one-size-fits-all activity. One of the crises of education, especially tech education, is that we try to walk this line between the things that we are afraid of kids doing, and the things that we hope they’ll do. And it requires, or it results, at least, in a high degree of control.

So, I don’t know that I have any great answers about creativity. When I think about electronic media and pedagogy, though, the thing that I worry about is how our systems of protecting kids from the real dangers of the internet revolve around surveillance. And [schools] normalize surveillance, so [students] are necessarily incompatible with any kind of self-help measures to understand surveillance and to eliminate or moderate the amount of surveillance [they’re] under.

So, if you are a student whose school is completely reliant on surveillance tools to stop you from seeing genitals or whatever it is they’re worried about, then anything you do to learn about how that system works and how to stop it ends running against the school’s own core defense mechanism.

We really do need kids to understand and be literate about surveillance. We’re in this great global conversation about social media and what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” and kids are perfectly capable of understanding that stuff. If there’s anyone who understands what it means to be manipulated by people who think they have your best interest at heart, it’s kids. And I think we need to re-think the whole program because it can’t be grounded in surveillance if we are also going to produce good citizens who understand and resist surveillance.

There’s an argument being made these days that there’s a need for more surveillance in schools. Where do you stand on that issue? How much surveillance do you think is appropriate?

The reason the debate is hard is because we are talking about short-term instrumental goals and long-term strategic goals. So, obviously, a school’s purpose is to produce well-rounded, self-actualizing, self-starting, full-fledged citizens who are capable of participating in a democracy, and being in the workplace, and having good interpersonal relations.

If you took another domain like interpersonal relations, you could say, “Well, bullying is a problem.” Bullying is a problem. The problem of bullying could be prevented by just not letting kids talk to each other. That would be a short-term instrumental goal that would absolutely take a real bite out of bullying, but we can understand immediately why it’s not a good one.

And so, normalizing surveillance for kids on the one hand ill-equips them to be literate about surveillance in the world. But on the other hand, it means that a lot of the things that we hope that they’ll learn to moderate on their own instead gets moderated by extrinsic motivations. Instead of having good interrelations with other people because good interrelations are fulfilling and produce good outcomes, your good interrelations exist as a formal exercise that you engage in for fear of reprisals.

Whenever we talk about education, we struggle with intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. We want intrinsically motivated students, but extrinsic motivation is powerful. It’s quick, and it achieves instrumental goals.

So, at a certain point, we say, “Well, we don’t care if the reason you’re not bullying the kid next to you is because you’ve realized that bullying is wrong, or you’re afraid of being punished for bullying; what we care about is that the kid next to you isn’t bullied.” And that is a totally legitimate argument, but it also produces someone who, as soon as the fear of reprisal goes away, may return to bullying.

If we are going to use surveillance of kids to achieve some instrumental goal, it has to be as a wedge to open a space in which we can teach kids to achieve the same goal without that extrinsic threat of retaliation.

You’ve written a lot on the issue of net neutrality, which was recently reversed. How do you think that reversal is going to affect higher education institutions?

It affects higher education institutions as a subset of the way it affects all of our lives because, of course, the internet is like the nervous system that binds together everything we do in the 21st century. Everything we do now involves it and everything we’ll do shortly from now will require it.

Allowing cable operators and phone companies to act as gatekeepers means that all the things that we rely on pluralism or competition to promote, are endangered. It’s not like they’ll be killed, but they’ll be harmed, and there’s a kind of spiral where the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer. The people with a lot of eyeballs will get more eyeballs, and the people with fewer eyeballs will have a harder time getting a foothold on an eyeball. I guess that’s kind of a weird metaphor.

I think [reversing net neutrality] is catastrophic for all human endeavor. But I also think it’s a mistake to think of net neutrality as being won or lost.

Do you think that higher-ed institutions will be at the forefront of that struggle?

Well, they have been. You have things like WiscNet in Wisconsin, where there are statewide fiber networks—really, really good next generation networking—being done through a combination of an academic project and a kind of self-help measure because Wisconsin is very rural. You have these state institutions that are really spread out. I think that there are lots of educational institutions that are de facto [internet service providers].

I wanted to ask you about OERs. It seems like open educational resources are something that people always think are about to take off, but they never really do take off. Why do you think that is? Why do you think they haven’t had their lasting moment?

Well, I think that they have [taken off] in the sense that the fight is over about Wikipedia. Any educator who says, “Don’t use Wikipedia,” instead of teaching their students how to use Wikipedia is an idiot. You’re just doing it wrong at that point because even if you hate Wikipedia, your attitude should be harm reduction—because prohibition will get you nowhere.

In terms of open access [journals] like [Public Library of Science]… they’re leading edge. Nobody anymore says, “Oh, a PLOS isn’t a real journal.” They may say, “Well, in my discipline, I am much more likely to get tenure if I’m publishing in a, you know, Springer Journal.” But nobody is like, “I’m going to look down at you because you’re in PLOS ONE.” Being in PLOS ONE is a big deal.

I think the short-run of open access has been less successful than its most enthusiastic boosters would have hoped. But its long-term trajectory is really obvious because we have such a broadly-indexed set of [articles at the pre-publication stages].

What else should our audience know about the work you’re doing?

I always meet students. When I go and do young adult tours, and I go to secondary schools, I meet students who’ve read “Little Brother,” and they’re like, “How do I hack my school’s censorware?”

I always say, ‘Don’t do that,’ because if you do that, you could get expelled. Or you could even be charged criminally under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It’s really risky…. What you need to do is do ethnography. Go and ask your fellow students and teachers about over-blocking and under-blocking. And then, ask them about their circumvention methods because the other thing we know is that these tools don’t work. They only block people who are playing by the rules, but it’s not hard to defect from playing by the rules. So, document the ways in which these are inadequate to the purpose that they’re set for.

Then, learn how to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out how much your school board has paid for this censorware. Then, learn how to use stock market filings to figure out who is behind your censorware because they’re the dirtiest companies in the world—their primary customers are not corporate America, and they’re not schools; their primary customers are repressive regimes in the Middle East, and Asia and sometimes in autocratic African states. And they repackage stuff that’s used by dictators to spy on their population to help corporate America and educational institutions spy on their stakeholders, their users. So, find out who the war criminals are who get to see all of your data, who get to offshore every click you make.

And then present it. Present it at the PTA. Present it at the board meeting. Call up local journalists and say, ‘Do you know how much my school district paid out of your tax dollars to buy inadequate software from war criminals that everyone knows how to get around, and interferes actively with our education, while letting us see eye-watering pornography that none of us want to see?’

And that, I think, is an exercise that teaches real media literacy and also has a chance of affecting change. Even if it never affects any change, those kids will leave the school understanding how to think in the round, holistically about the economic, technical, social and market forces that surround the technologies they use.


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