A Distinct Lack of Change: Body Cameras as Institutionware [rough transcript] #rsa16

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.

On curation, technology, kids today, librarians, blogging, and privacy #dyr

A big part of this new age of creation is that you have infinite choice, and no clear concept of where to start...So what’s the fix? You need a filter. And I strongly believe that while algorithmical filters work, you need people to tell you about things you wouldn’t find that way.

technology has never been cold, impersonal, and industrial. We simply chose to understand it that way. Technology has always had a role in shaping the inner life, the intimate life. The telephone - surely a shaping force in the making and shaping of self. The telegram, the letter, the book.


Nor was there anything cold about how industrial technologies such as cars and trains shaped our sensibilities, our sense of self, of our sensuality, our possibilities. If we have succumbed to an ideology of technological neutrality that is something that needs to be studied as an independent phenomenon; it is not to be taken as a given.

whatever the flavor of the month in terms of new technologies are, there’s research that comes out very quickly that shows how it causes our children to be asocial, distracted, bad in school, to have learning disorders, a whole litany of things.

Davidson's youth worship, though extreme, is common these days among those who write about technology and society. Individuals born after the dawn of the Internet are not the same as you and me, goes the now-familiar refrain. As a result of their lifelong immersion in electronic media, young people's brains are "wired differently," and they require different schools, different workplaces, and different social arrangements from the ones we have. They are described, with more than a little envy, as "digital natives," effortlessly at home in an electronic universe, while we adults are "digital immigrants," benighted arrivals from the Old World doomed to stutter in a foreign tongue.

students rarely ask librarians for help, even when they need it. The idea of a librarian as an academic expert who is available to talk about assignments and hold their hands through the research process is, in fact, foreign to most students. Those who even have the word “librarian” in their vocabularies often think library staff are only good for pointing to different sections of the stacks.

Facebook and Twitter are too easy. Keeping up a decent blog that people actually want to take the time to read, that’s much harder. And it’s the hard stuff that pays off in the end.

Besides, even if they’re very good at hiding the fact, over on Twitter and Facebook, it’s not your content, it’s their content.

The content on your blog, however, belongs to you, and you alone. People come to your online home, to hear what you have to say, not to hear what everybody else has to say. This sense of personal sovereignty is important.

I have always been understanding that these tech giants need to make money. Supporting tens of millions of users takes time and a whole lot of resources. While it’s in Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn’s interests to attract as many users as possible – and clearly free is the way – there are obvious consequences: Users get to play without paying, but every few months we get kicked in the face when our digital profiles get abused.

employers are increasingly aware of and keen to use the huge informational resource that social media serves up on a plate; all kind of information is in the public domain, and incredibly easy to find – particularly if the applicant has an unusual name. As the chief executive of Social Intelligence has said, with something of a corporate shrug, "All we assemble is what's publicly available on the internet today". Nothing underhand going on here, they say; the company believes that the information is out there to be evaluated.

"The device came out of the box and my world was transformed." #wymhm

The first thing that happened was that New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof. The city I had tried to set to the page in three novels and counting, the hideously outmoded boulevardier aspect of noticing societal change in the gray asphalt prism of Manhattan’s eye, noticing how the clothes are draping the leg this season, how backsides are getting smaller above 59th Street and larger east of the Bowery, how the singsong of the city is turning slightly less Albanian on this corner and slightly more Fujianese on this one — all of it, finished. Now, an arrow threads its way up my colorful screen. The taco I hunger for is 1.3 miles away, 32 minutes of walking or 14 minutes if I manage to catch the F train. I follow the arrow taco-ward, staring at my iPhone the way I once glanced at humanity, with interest and anticipation. In my techno-fugue state I nearly knock down toddlers and the elderly, even as the strange fiction and even stranger reality of New York, from the world of Bartleby forward, tries to reassert itself in the form of an old man in a soiled guayabera proudly, openly defecating on Grand Street. But sorry, viejo, you’re not global enough to hold my attention.

"Books were good at developing a contemplative mind. Screens encourage more utilitarian thinking." #wymhm

A new idea or unfamiliar fact will provoke a reflex to do something: to research the term, to query your screen “friends” for their opinions, to find alternative views, to create a bookmark, to interact with or tweet the thing rather than simply contemplate it. Book reading strengthened our analytical skills, encouraging us to pursue an observation all the way down to the footnote. Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day. The screen rewards, and nurtures, thinking in real time. We review a movie while we watch it, we come up with an obscure fact in the middle of an argument, we read the owner’s manual of a gadget we spy in a store before we purchase it rather than after we get home and discover that it can’t do what we need it to do.

"that’s going to be the digital divide...the ability to deal with information" #wymhm

The assumption that today’s student are computer-literate because they are “digital natives” is a pernicious one, Zvacek said. “Our students are task-specific tech savvy: they know how to do many things,” she said. “What we need is for them to be tech-skeptical.”

Zvacek was careful to make clear that by tech-skeptical, she did not mean tech-negative. The skepticism she advocates is not a knee-jerk aversion to new technology tools, but rather the critical capacity to glean the implications, and limitations, of technologies as they emerge and become woven into the students’ lives. In a campus environment, that means knowing why not to trust Google to turn up the best sources for a research paper in its top returns, or appreciating the implications of surrendering personal data -- including the propensities of one’s bladder -- to third parties on the Web.

"The more you to do with robots the more you realise just how good humans are" #wymhm

"They should be able to do more," says Joseph Engelberger (pictured above), the founding force behind industrial robots and considered the father of the modern robotics industry. "We need multitasking robots that can think for themselves and do something useful. Working robots have to be something more than this," he says, referring to the impracticality of most robots, at least as far as the media's opinion goes.

"computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households" #wymhm

The Duke paper reports that the negative effect on test scores was not universal, but was largely confined to lower-income households, in which, the authors hypothesized, parental supervision might be spottier, giving students greater opportunity to use the computer for entertainment unrelated to homework and reducing the amount of time spent studying.

The North Carolina study suggests the disconcerting possibility that home computers and Internet access have such a negative effect only on some groups and end up widening achievement gaps between socioeconomic groups. The expansion of broadband service was associated with a pronounced drop in test scores for black students in both reading and math, but no effect on the math scores and little on the reading scores of other students.


"the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach" #wymhm

the most advanced models are fully autonomous, guided by artificial intelligence software like motion tracking and speech recognition, which can make them just engaging enough to rival humans at some teaching tasks.

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism.

Related to a recent tweet by @stevendkrause, a thought bundle on reading books and e-books, print and screen

we want the fruits of our labor to exist between hard or even soft covers in our own time and after us (and accept that the pages containing our being will turn brown and become brittle), it means something to us to see and speak of a book as a weighty tome or a slender volume, we like to be able to locate a passage we've already read spatially on a page, we are interested, even as we are dismayed, to discover that we are the first person in 61 years, eight months, and three days (according to the "due date" slip) to check a book out of the library, it pleases us to think of Whitman's leaves of grass as pages of a book
via tnr.com


For me, reading is a physical experience, one that vanishes, evaporates completely, the minute you read something on a screen. Books also have an architectural dimension. Rooms full of books are meaningful places where people assemble. And yet, one of the things that defines reading is its very intimacy—which is what I love about it.


So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn't wipe out horses. Movies didn't finish theater. TV didn't destroy movies. E-books won't destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print.


"The internet has quietly infiltrated our lives, and yet we seem to be remarkably unreflective about it." #wymhm

We're living through a radical transformation of our communications environment. Since we don't have the benefit of hindsight, we don't really know where it's taking us. And one thing we've learned from the history of communications technology is that people tend to overestimate the short-term impact of new technologies — and to underestimate their long-term implications.

We see this all around us at the moment, as would-be savants, commentators, writers, consultants and visionaries tout their personal interpretations of what the internet means for business, publishing, retailing, education, politics and the future of civilisation as we know it. Often, these interpretations are compressed into vivid slogans, memes or aphorisms: information "wants to be free"; the "long tail" is the future of retailing; "Facebook just seized control of the internet", and so on. These kinds of slogans are really just short-term extrapolations from yesterday's or today's experience.

While a definite qualifier for "tl;dr," it's worth a read for the clarifying perspective and reflection on what the internet is, does and could/will be.