In previous work, I have suggested understanding certain kinds of proprietary software as “institutionware,” i.e., software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. Characteristics of this concept include the compliance and containment of users and features. Among the clearest examples of institutionware are Blackboard and Turnitin, whose continued successes are tied to the institution of higher education. Institutionware is thus marked by a distinct lack of change. And I see an opportunity here with #RSA16 to extend this concept to hardware. Namely, I want to suggest body cameras as institutionware.
That body cameras emerged from the rhetoric surrounding Ferguson and less so demilitarization, increased training, or any other police reform as a solution is telling. If institutionware describes hardware/software that maintains tradition under the guise of providing a service, body cameras are surely that. Body cameras allow the police to operate with little to no change in official policy. If body cameras can be turned off and footage accessed only by police, for example, such technology is representative neither of a public service nor a solution to the problem. Documents and recordings already exist, yet the problem, however defined, persists. Visibility may increase, but justice has not.
And rather than general observations about body cameras as institutionware, I want to focus on body cameras in Atlanta. Not only was it the first city in which Michael Brown’s parents stopped to call for body cameras on cops but Atlanta was also among the first cities post-Ferguson to research and ultimately require body cameras on police officers. I therefore seek at #RSA16 in Atlanta what body cameras alter, even if I already fear the answer is “not much.”
But before getting into all of that, I think it’s important to explain this institutionware concept a little more, to lay out in clearer and maybe more relatable terms just what I’m talking about. First, I must give credit and inspiration to Georgia Tech professor and game designer Ian Bogost. In a 2013 Gamasutra column, Bogost recasts gamification, the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users in solving problems, as “exploitationware.” This is a rhetorical move for Bogost as he aims to connect gamification to “better known practices of software fraud,” to “situate gamification within a larger set of pernicious practices in the high-tech marketplace.” I see this move as following through on the need emphasized by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe in “The Rhetoric of Technology” to “recognize the high costs of hardware and software, recognize that computers can, and often do, support instruction that is as repressive and lockstep as any that we have seen” (61). So, I provide the name institutionware as a rhetorical move to draw further attention to such costs. I also consider the following to be another moment of identifying, according to Nancy Bray, “when the discomforts of technology should not be ignored.” Institutionware is an uncomfortable word for an uncomfortable thing, for our uncomfortable reality.
So, here’s a definition: institutionware is software that supports and maintains traditional ideas under the guise of providing a service. The clearest examples of institutionware may be Blackboard and Turnitin, those products and services whose successes are most tied to the practices, customs, and traditions of higher education. Neither Blackboard nor Turnitin is out to question education but to scaffold it in particular ways. Their very names alone are evidence of traditional methods and values of classroom instruction. Institutionware is about keeping the institution as it is and has been, enhancing and supporting rather than challenging or threatening.
Enhancement of and support for the institution comes in the form of two overlapping characteristic goals: compliance and containment. In naming compliance as a characteristic goal of institutionware, I invoke here Douglas Rushkoff’s comments about Blackboard: “From the student or teacher's perspective, Blackboard is terrible. It's just awful. You run up consistently against these terrible obstacles and extremely difficult things, ways you've got to wrap your whole self and brain and course and life around what this program needs needs from you in order to comply with it. And most of us look and say, "Ugh, this is just an awful thing. This software is awful." If you look at it from what I'm calling the programmer's perspective, you see, "Oh no, Blackboard is brilliant." Because Blackboard wasn't written for me. Blackboard wasn't written for me as an educator or for that person as a student. Blackboard was written for the Blackboard company to dominate education in a very particular way. Blackboard was created…not to promote the user's agency, but to decrease the user's agency and increase the institution's dependence on this piece of software.” The actions Blackboard asks users to execute represent a sort of endless acquiescence, an indicator of eternal compliance, a user’s inability to do anything but accept. Users come to institutionware subservient in spite of their own abilities and power. Institutionware holds it own, external demands over the internal, individual desires of its users.
Institutionware is also about containment. Features of institutionware aren’t so much offered as they are contained, kept within an overall system so users have less reason to go elsewhere. For example, Blackboard contains blogs, discussion boards, journals, and wikis, all things freely available and customizable on the open web. Feature containment ensures that we can’t possibly take advantage of everything institutionware offers and also that we don’t use something else, much less have the time to experiment with other options. In this way, feature containment leads to and reinforces user containment.
And just as Paul LeBlanc observes that “software programs are not neutral,” there is very little that is neutral about institutionware. Leveraging it for good or bad is inconsequential. When we use institutionware, we decrease our agency and encourage collective dependency on it. Institutionware signals stagnation, if not regression or reversion. Institutionware also suggests no possibility of escape and that is by design; any advocacy regarding flexibility remains within the confines of the program itself. The near ubiquity of institutionware indicates a sort of stasis, that our paying attention, however vigilant, signals little beyond a shrug and an acknowledgement that Blackboard is terrible.
In arguing for an understanding of proprietary software as institutionware, I have so far attempted to explain pernicious aims (i.e., compliance and containment) and to better our understanding of what we might be doing when we use Blackboard or iTunes or Microsoft Word or even Twitter. But, as I mentioned earlier, that’s not all I want to do today. I want to also extend the concept of institutionware from software to hardware, specifically body cameras. And we’re in a rather unique situation here in Atlanta regarding body cameras, too, so let’s get to that.
The technology quickly emerged as a potential new method of accountability in fatal encounters between law enforcement and civilians, following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014. In September 2014, Atlanta City Council approved a feasibility study to determine whether to move forward with buying the devices. In September 2015, Atlanta City Council voted to buy 110 body cameras for police offers under a six-month $112,000 contract. In January 2016, a judge put Atlanta’s body cameras on hold due to a lawsuit brought against the city by a Decatur-based manufacturer accusing the police department of steering its body-camera contract toward two other companies in an “erroneous, arbitrary, [and] capricious manner.” As of this writing, police officers in Atlanta are without body cameras, but there are plenty in the surrounding area who are or will be equipped with the devices. Furthermore, body camera footage of what media outlets are calling an “officer-involved shooting” in Athens and a “fatal encounter with police” in Coweta County has been released in the last month.
Mirroring much of the national debate on body cameras, local police and politicians often talked up the devices as agents of change that will increase accountability, safety, and transparency for citizens and police. While some initial research supports such claims, more recent research does not. In fact, the authors of a just-published study observe that “there is a worldwide uncontrolled social experiment taking place—underpinned by feverish public debate and billions of dollars of government expenditure. Robust evidence is only just keeping pace with the adoption of new technology” (Ariel, et al 2016). Atlanta is among a growing number of U.S. cities standing as an example of a technology first, policy second approach to body-camera implementation.
Furthermore, implementing body cameras as the solution to the killing of unarmed black men also lends the devices a presumptive function, that the problem isn’t police brutality, only that officers aren’t “transparent” when committing murder. And whether or not officers are committing murder is but one part of the complex, contentious problem of policing in this country. And if we understand policing as a problem, as this kind of problem, body cameras can never be seen as any kind of solution. Again, this has to do with the two premiere characteristic aims of institutionware: compliance and containment.
Just as Blackboard holds its own external demands over the individual, internal desires of its users, body cameras make both the police and the public secondary. Individual officers may or may not have control over the devices, what is recorded and when, and the same goes for everyday citizens. There are also substantial and valid concerns over the storage, analysis, and dissemination of body-cam footage as well as associated monetary costs. Such concerns are left unaddressed even in light of knowledge that Taser International, a company whose successes have direct ties to the police as an institution, is one of the technology companies often responsible for access and storage.
Storage, of course, is a form of containment, but there are others to consider here, too. Body cameras contain both the police and the public, often only benefiting the former. Yes, officers wearing the devices appear as arms and hands holding guns accompanied by disembodied voices, revealing a dehumanizing element, but things are arguably worse for anyone more completely in the lens. Many civil rights groups note that body cameras are not pointed at the police, but the public. We may only see, again, from yet another angle and perspective, African Americans as a threat, as a target, as something to fear and to shoot. And as the number of black and brown bodies contained by body cameras grows, issues of justice and privacy, of profiling and surveillance, will only persist.
The more we depend on technology as a fix, the less we are able to question it. This combined dependence and inability via compliance and containment serves the market, too. It’s worth noting again that it was only another technology company that has so far prevented the Atlanta police department from deploying body cameras. The Atlanta Citizen Review Board, an independent, city-wide forum responsible for assessing complaints and promoting public confidence in law enforcement, issued in September 2014 a comprehensive study and discussion of concerns and recommendations on body cameras. This report emphasized body cameras as but one small part of a much larger initiative to address privacy, access, retention, operation, redaction, and training. “It cannot be stressed enough,” wrote the ACRB, that “[body-worn cameras] alone will not yield the anticipated results unless there is strong policy, effective management and enforcement, and a general change in policing culture.” But Atlanta City Council and police department went ahead without any real address of these concerns and recommendations. With body cameras, we have yet further evidence of a persistent lack of change, and we remain without necessary consideration of what such technology will do for and to us.
In a pointed, impassioned column for the New York Times, Roxane Gay writes that “one of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that dash cameras on police cruisers and body cameras on police officers are tools of justice. Video evidence, no matter the source, can document injustice, but rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent future injustices.” If I have not been successful in explaining and extending this institutionware concept to you, then I ask that you listen to Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others whose words and lived experiences speak in ways I cannot.
Thank you for your time and attention today.