PROJECT UPDATE #4

by | 1st December 2020 | Project Update

Through its institutional processes of normalization, power hides rather than reveals and interprets the relationships that characterize its control over society and life.

Hardt & Negri, Empire 

What colour am I? On growing up

I’d like to revisit something I mentioned briefly in my last project update: identity. I’m not sure if this is an experience felt across a general population, or if it’s just me, but the older I get the more I realise how much the journey of understanding my ‘self’ is implicated in the kinds of research I do. Re-reading my last update about open and transparent education research, I can’t help but think about the limitations of my own research design in terms of personal bias. If I am to look at bias in algorithmic systems I should at least try to understand my own biases first, no? So, this project update is one that reflects on a limitation of my research project: me.

With this kind of mindset, I’ve started wondering more about how much of my history (phenomenal and social) affects the things I choose to research and how I go about research design and development. For example, what kinds of assumptions and values ground my project? What baggage am I bringing with me? And how might I minimise the extent to which my biases affect the way I approach and listen to others during the research process, especially individuals holding opposite worldviews to my own? In light of the current climate in the UK around critical race theory and the curriculum, I’ve also started to better understand how using particular approaches to research and asking particular kinds of critical questions while omitting others are political acts.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would one day turn my attention to SDG4, focusing on Official Development Assistance (ODA) contexts. You see, while I grew up in Australia, my roots are in Africa. I was born on the continent of Africa, yet for much of my childhood I had no idea I was of Africa, and I never identified as African. Some of my family members, Creoles of African and French descent, and who knows what else, explicitly identified as French or with France, the country which had colonised my place of birth in the 1700s. France lost control of the island to the UK during the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s. My country of birth was handed from one body to the next like a pass the parcel game. Fortunately, the prize at the centre of the parcel was independence in the 1960s.

In short, I grew up ignorant of my own beginnings, my own history. I’m not sure if I should view that as a sad thing, an embarrassing thing, or a wtf? thing. Regardless of how I approach the matter, it’s the realisation of not knowing that gets me the most… not knowing what blood runs deep in my veins; not knowing the myth and magic animating ways of being that belonged to my ancestors; not knowing where my own genesis lies thus rendering me unable to make proper sense of who I am in the midst of a larger historical narrative, a narrative that may not have portrayed and/or treated my own kind fairly. I think the worst part of not knowing is when I finally did come to know, the realisation of the psycho-social violence inflicted on ‘self’ was soul-shattering. If I am honest with you about my more personal motivations for this project, I would have to be open about the fact that while I designed Fair-AIEd to research the use of and ethics around new technologies in schools, learning about my own history was perhaps a more sub-conscious motivation drawing me back to my origins, back to Africa.

School time

I spent my K-12 years in Catholic school during the time when Sydney, Australia, was becoming a little more diverse. I was the only non-Caucasian student in my grade when I started Kindergarten in a classroom of about thirty boys and girls. We split off into boys only and girls only schools when we reached Grade Five. I guess the nuns were trying to nip in the bud hormonal shenanigans that might occur on school grounds. However, old school sorting doesn’t really work when one accounts for actors in the larger environment, such as the birds and the bees… Anyway, my foundational years in school were made more difficult in that I spoke French as my first language with the exception of a few English words I had learned from watching Dr Who (circa Tom Baker). I knew Dalek, the Doctor, and exterminate! exterminate! none of which helped me bond with my peers during class. I instead sought solace in books and video games.

It wasn’t until Grade One that another non-white kid came along. She spoke Spanish and taught me how to swear. Through broken English mixed with French, Spanish, and Franglish-inspired sign language, L, let’s call her, and I built a firm friendship. We got up to mischief at school more often than not. Even though the punishments we faced were quite atrocious when thinking back – canes, wooden rulers smacked on the hand or between each finger where bruising is allegedly harder to spot – the fun we had was well worth any short-term sting. Little acts of rebellion were our way of distracting and protecting ourselves from constantly thinking about and being reminded of how different we were to the white kids. It saddens me to think about how assumptions and presumptions about me in terms of a lack of were drawn from the colour of my skin even at the ripe old age of four. My own perceived lack got so bad, I remember racing home from school one day, I was about twelve, rushing to the bathroom, trying to scrub the colour out of my face, my arms, my legs… I remember sitting on the bathroom floor crying and wondering Why? When I read some of the more worrisome news stories now, I still ask the same question: Why?

My differences were also pointed out in the contested space of cultural norms; through how my teachers and some of my friends’ parents tried to ‘civilise’ me. Like others before me, many of whom suffered under much worse conditions, I was on the path to being civilised by my teachers modelling how to speak English like an Australian (or Strayan as some would say). I was civilised by being put in after-school detention or hit because I questioned the logic behind the things I was being taught about life, the Bible, and Catholicism, things that just didn’t make sense. For example, why is it a sin to wear different kinds of fabrics at the same time? If we can never know what God is, why is God usually depicted as an old, white, bearded, floating man? Is God a little bit like Darth Vader? Why is Wonder Woman not in the Bible? Why can’t women be priests?

Selena, be silent!

*Smack!*

This is the Golden Lasso. Besides being made from indestructible material, it also carries with it the power to compel people to tell the truth. — Queen Hippolyte

There were explicit and tacit norms and codes that school and ‘the social’ more broadly drilled into me, regarding where I fit into the grand scheme of things as well as the everydayness of life. I borrow Michel de Certeau’s (1984) idea of “everyday life” to highlight that it is the practice of repetitive and unconscious daily existence where sometimes the most interesting discoveries can be made, especially in light of the impacts of the pandemic and increasing reliance on remote technologies for education (e.g. AI-driven, data-driven). This everydayness is of interest to me also because of my awareness of how it is within and through these spaces that the more subtle power of education technology is enacted and oftentimes escapes unnoticed. How, then, are new technologies shaping or guiding repetitive everyday education practices? How is the unconscious in everydayness being impacted by new technologies? I think what I am trying to get at again is biopower inasmuch as how are new technologies, in this case AI, being used to manage populations through training of self? When I use the term biopower, I am referring to the optimisation of life through technical and regulatory apparatuses that monitor, categorise, order, personalise to optimise [school] life. One my of initial interests here lies in how text/talk as well as the symbolic exercise certain kinds of power in the intersection of AI and education.

If I return to my own experiences in school, I can explain away many issues related to biopower in re how through Information Communications Technologies (ICT) dominant norms, values, and ideologies became a part of who I am. With intelligent innovations in ICT, AI, MOOCs, mobile devices, platforms, advertising precision, and so forth, I continue to wonder about how biopower now fits with analyses of educational technology and development. It is no surprise to me that in the rush to adapt to current circumstances, not all educational initiatives have been, are being, or will be created with the best interests of students and teachers in mind (Nemorin-Seed Project, 2018). So as countries around the world scramble to keep educational systems progressing, are the solutions being chosen the best solutions for meaningful and accessible education?

In praise of lo-tech

Education, technology, and ideology

When I reflect on both being a student and then teaching in K-12, character education and religious education in school were quite possibly the most effective ways students were moulded into the kinds of citizens considered desirable and necessary in the world. The text books used during my time as a K-12 student were – put simply – racist and sexist across all modes, whether through the written word, image, audio-visual… This text-book tendency persists, with a recent example found in an A-Level history textbook (2016) about the benefits of colonialism, pertaining to economic investment, rule of law and the end of “abhorrent practices, such as cannibalism and human sacrifice.” I recommend reading the original Twitter thread on the matter @DavidVeevers1 as an illustration of how social media is being used to highlight areas of educational / social concern and agitate for change.

An excerpt from an A-Level history textbook in the UK, published by Hodder Education in 2016. Source: @DavidVeevers1

With regards to being able to save useful stories or find helpful information, Twitter has been a boon. For example, it was on Twitter that I found information about how the South African government will spend R1.5 billion per year buying textbooks from Oxford University Press and Pearson instead of using open and free text books created locally by African scholars (via Twitter: @NimiHoffmann). These kinds of ideological moves through curriculum content should illustrate that the curriculum is not a neutral instrument.

While the kind of ideological disciplining or “correct training” (Foucault, 1992) I experienced in my own schooling manifested as physical and psycho-social, it has also been the invisibility of certain things in the cultural media environment that shaped me into what I am today, consciously and sub-consciously. For example, growing up there was primarily white representation in the mainstream media, while representations of non-white groups ranged from non existent, barely there, to stereotypical and/or racist. Other images of non-white countries and populations were abundant in the context of famine, extreme poverty, war, drugs, and crime. Although the colour of my skin is not white, I only ever understood myself from within a white, western context and from the perspective of a very Eurocentric media assemblage. I imagine it’s because of these confusions about my identity that throughout my life I’ve largely felt most at home on the fringes—belonging yet not belonging. This strange in-flux experience has been captured by scholars, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and his articulation of ‘double consciousness’. He writes:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

 

It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.

Frantz Fanon reflected on similar experiences of the psyche, primarily in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and Wretched of the Earth (1961). Fanon offers psychiatric analyses of the dehumanising effects that colonisation wrought upon individuals and groups, and how these subtle methods of maintaining power was to continue to deploy a particular narrative into the [psycho]-social environment, a very effective form of public pedagogy, so to speak. When I think about the images I used to see in the mainstream media about Africa while I was growing up, and the kinds of imagery used now on various fronts to portray Africa to others, and the very real effects that narratives [discourse] can have, I am reminded of the writings of Achille Mbembe who reflects on the way Africa is constructed in and by the west for western consumption. Mbembe (2001) reasons:

In several respects, Africa still constitutes one of the metaphors through which the West represents the origin of its own norms, develops a self-image, and integrates this image into the set of signifiers asserting what it supposes to be its identity. And Africa, because it was and remains that fissure between what the West is, what it thinks it represents, and what it thinks it signifies, is not simply part of its imaginary significations, it is one of those significations. By imaginary significations, we mean “that something invented” that, paradoxically, becomes necessary because “that something” plays a key role, both in the world the West constitutes for itself and in the West’s apologetic concerns and exclusionary and brutal practices towards others. (p.2)

In light of this focus on the psycho-social as well as the material, the Fair-AIEd project seeks to present empirical evidence about a range of implications actually and potentially emerging from introducing new [AI] technologies in school communities. As I have highlighted previously, a general aim is to make sense of the benefits and challenges new technologies pose for schooling in an effort to inform the development of fair educational technology policies. My project also aims to understand the more subtle ways that new technologies and their associated assemblages work to shape narratives and perceptions, and how processes of algorithmic standardisation, normalisation, categorisation, personalisation, and optimisation work in tandem to shape education. As such, I am very interested in the way these new technologies are used as tools for exercising biopower through control by numbers.

Front and back cover of Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness

My own everyday life in school may have been different qualitatively from the general experience of students in school now, but the common thread that endures is one that Foucault (1995) captured in Discipline and Punish: The primary role schools play in disciplining student populations. Unlike the brute force of the leviathan, which I raised briefly in my last project update, the use of discipline in the digital context works with increasing algorithmic precision for optimising populations. This discourse of optimisation is found in a range of documents related to public-private partnerships (P3 or PPP) in AI and education (Nemorin, 2018), and is an area of research I intend to continue to pursue during the Fair-AIEd project.

Granular details

With regards to the everydayness of project management, I have started to feel as though Fair-AIEd is finally taking shape. It’s strange to think that this imaginary shape I am attributing to my project is largely because I have been able to organise most of the administrative details that must be attended to prior to doing in-field research. These details range from understanding procurement to raising purchase orders; from accounting for time differences and sketchy internet connectivity when scheduling meetings to submitting documents as part of fellowship processual requirements; from completing risk assessments to gauge the safety of particular regions to getting the wording correct for recruitment notices and project partnership legal contracts… the list is long.

As for theory, I continue to read Foucault’s work closely as I am very interested in focusing more on the role of biopower in the current educational context. Latour remains on pause for the moment as I try to make sense of how Foucault and Mbembe might work together to illuminate issues pertaining to post-colonial perspectives on AI, ethics, and educational development. I’ve had a chance to sit and think about the way I might approach building a data visualisation that illustrates social, political and economic AIEd relationships at a global scale. Suggestions are always welcome. I have also continued to read more about hermeneutics as a policy approach, which for me is useful for thinking about how evidence-based policy for social justice can be incorporated as a guide for the project.

I would like to welcome the University of Cape Coast (Ghana) as a Fair-AIEd project partner. We have already had fruitful conversations about areas of research focus, and I am very excited to move forward with our collaboration. I must also say thanks to those of you who disseminated the call for the postdoctoral research fellow position, and those of you who applied. I have received applications from an impressive selection of candidates.

Last of all, my next project update will be on January 1, 2021. Till then, I would like to wish you and your loved ones happy holidays!

Be well,

Selena

 


References

De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. (Trans. S. Rendall). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folks. UK: Clydesdale.
Fanon, F. (1961). Wretched of the Earth. New York, NY: Grove Atlantic.
Fanon, F. (1952/2008). Black Skin, White Mask. London, UK: Pluto press.
Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Vintage.
Mbembe, A. (2001). On the Postcolony. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Nemorin, S. (2018). Mapping the implications of AI in educational development discourses: Public-private partnerships. CCM Seedcorn Grant. Awarded as an interdisciplinary project with my colleagues Doctors Andreas Vlachidis (UCL) and Ana Basiri (University of Glasgow).

Selena Nemorin

Selena Nemorin

Author

Dr Selena Nemorin is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and lecturer in sociology of digital technology at the University College London, Department of Culture, Communication and Media. Selena’s research focuses on critical theories of technology, surveillance studies, tech ethics, and youth and future media/technologies. Her past work includes research projects that have examined AI, IoT and ethics, the uses of new technologies in digital schools, educational equity and inclusion, as well as human rights policies and procedures in post-secondary institutions.

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