Surveillance Capitalism and Education

Paparazzi in La Dolce Vita. From The Kramer is Now blog.

I came late to the book club. Too late. Bryan Alexander has been reading Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, and while I’ve acquired the volume (my, it is large) and have it in The Stacks, I haven’t read it yet. So, this reflection was prompted less by the primary source than by Bryan’s concluding observations about the lack of a discussion of value in Zuboff’s analysis. To take a key phrase:

You see, Zuboff posits an opposition between a good life with privacy and the bad life after social media, yet that duality doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Before Web 2.0 many people already lived with many privacy violations.

Alexander, Bryan. Linked above.

It is my own observation that privacy, being a rather variable concept, is violated with impunity in relation to the value that is provided in exchange. There is some discussion of the “creepiness” of Alexa/Siri/Google listening in on conversations, but I have not heard many people indicate that they have turned off these services. As an analogous observation, people are deeply offended by advertising, but interestingly, line up to watch ads from the US Super Bowl. This is because we are put off by advertising that returns no value.

This question of providing value in exchange for adjustments in that variable term privacy is central to the challenges and changes facing society and subsequently, higher education. We are seeing a deep shift that is variously termed the Digital Wealth System (Toffler/Toffler), the Second Machine Age (Brynjolfsson/McAfee), or the Fourth Industrial Revolution(Schwab). In this shift, information is processed at speed and volume to create value. We see the potential to create value at the individual level in spite of population numbered in billions. For higher education, this development creates a demand for graduates, both in type and number. Meeting that demand asks for a transformation that requires the very capacities that create the demand.

Many times, when we look to use data, machine learning, and artificially intelligent agents to address a challenge, we tend to look at the challenge as we originally understood it. This is a mistake. When we do that in higher education, we will then put the institutional concerns at the center of our thinking. This is not out of any malice. This is simply because that is how the institution exists. Without the developing power of data analytics, we needed institutions to order massive numbers of people. We needed programs of study. We needed systems and processes to order the flow of people. We needed rules and timelines to keep the institution functioning. The institution came first.

Our capabilities are growing. We have developed data stores, compute capacity, and algorithms that can give us insight into massive oceans of data. So in this light we look to our challenges differently. How can we change what we are doing to provide value to the individual we are serving? Each individual out of thousands. If the student at our university receives value as an individual, then the system will address the challenge, be it recruitment, retention, completion, or alumnus lifelong learning.

To be clear, privacy is a challenging space that must be considered in the context of a full ethical framework. But this awareness that privacy has a relationship with value is one that pushes us to consider more intentionally the value we provide, and therefore we shape the institution to the student more than the traditional reverse. In this way we will see a growth of student success, academic diversity, and greater value provided to answer the demands of the developing Digital Wealth System.

Thanks for the great thinking fodder, Bryan. I’m looking forward to the book.

Originally published 11 June 2019 at

What do you think?