This 2nd blogpost on Calculating Coloniality dovetails beautifully with a request from AdvanceHE to present a short video provocation, available here, on the future of higher education, as part of a panel with Vasengelis Tsiligkrisis and Mark Burkin.
In the previous post, I argued that coloniality and current dominant extractive business systems both use technology for the primary purpose of profit making and market expansion.
It is impossible to talk about the future without acknowledging that we are in the middle of a pandemic. What is interesting about Covid-19 is that while everyone recognises the horror and terrible impact of Covid19, in education the pandemic has also been described as an unanticipated and even exciting digital education experiment - indeed that the pandemic has been seen an opportunity to leapfrog into a digital future.
I am worried about that digital future. I think that the pandemic has seen numerous practices which were already of concern pre-Covid, become entrenched, and that without intervention, 2030 will see higher education fully colonised by extractive technology-based business models.
The word colonised has been used metaphorically by scholars (describing for example data colonialism or digital colonialism) yet strictly speaking denotes, as Maldonado-Torres (1) “political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation”
So, I prefer the term coloniality which, instead, he explains as “long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations”(1).
The point is that such colonial ways of being have become normalised, they are acceptable ways of engagement and of treated as the default terms of relationships. And while they don’t take traditional historical forms of direct subjugation of one nation by another, fundamental patterns, behaviours and relations of power persist and are reinscribed today.
New systems of extractive technology-based business models are an important vehicle for this reinscription, enabling the ultimate end goal of profit making and market expansions. While they hold out promises of progress, they require buy in to a system characterised by inherent inequalities, shaped by a homogenising world view and underpinned by new forms of exploitation.
To talk about new forms of profit making and market -making in education, it is necessary to engage with the impacts of digitisation in society more generally. Unfortunately, so far, Higher Education is proving to be a mere subset of these broader extractive systems, unable as yet to provide robust alternatives as we are still in the early stages of imagining, researching and testing what these might be.
Numerous scholars have described how technology is being appropriated and shaped by neoliberal systems. The culmination of this scholarship is provided in the detailed synthesising and analytical account of Zuboff’s work, on surveillance capitalism (2) which she succinctly describes as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales”*. Interestingly she also describes it “as an expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of people’s sovereignty”. It is striking how this loss of sovereignty is at the heart of the colonial project.
Under colonialism individuals were themselves a form of capital through their labour, forced, indentured, and enslaved while their assets such local knowledge, land, natural resources fed the new economy. These relations persist, albeit rebranded under a contemporary veneer. But individuals now provide an additional form of capital: their data a powerful financialised asset (3)** exponentially growing in value through the collated minutiae of the total human experience- what people do, their habits and behaviours, where they are, the moves they make, the views they express and so on.
The marketisation of HE has already become pervasive. Extractive business models are not limited to the big tech companies, they provide templates for businesses everywhere including in education. It is no co-incidence that there is currently increased investment in educational technology. Not only did the online pivot provide business opportunities, but ed tech companies are leveraging and experimenting with ways (described as innovative) of exploiting student data and experience for profit. The opportunities of the grand experiment afforded by the pandemic and of algorithmic academia has seen an annual investment growth rate of 16.3% expecting to reach $404 Billion by 2025 (4).
The fact that so much of the technological infrastructural investment is being made by venture capitalists with their profit-making agendas is a cause for concern. For digital infrastructure to be fairly and equitably available, it needs to be a public good which public universities should be able to leverage.
It is not simply the provenance but also the nature of that business model, premised on data extraction and financialisation which is especially worrying.
People often understand this data to mean the extraction of private information (like a name or number) and while this is important, what is even more important is what companies originally called digital “exhaust” . This is where it turns out the value lies- in other words the content is less important than the metadata and the “ambient” data that digital services collect. This is what we listen to, where we linger, who we connect with, what we prefer, what we say in passing, what we ignore, the list goes on and on). This data is collected to build models which can both predict and influence, which can shape behaviour and thought.
It is still early days to understanding this in society in general, and even earlier days in higher education.
The marketised nature of universities has been recognised for decades, and the term academic capitalism has summed up how knowledge has come to be understood as a private commodity rather than a public good. Prior to Covid, the platform university exemplified the role of big tech companies and their practices shaping academia. What has been illuminated in recent times is how the pandemic has been a catalyst for the extension of surveillance capitalism into HE academia, as universities everywhere invested in services and platforms to service the over 200 million university students who “pivoted” hurriedly online. Relationships with companies such as Online Programme Managers have substantially increased (4) as well as with a whole range of companies providing unbundled services for the entire student journey – from student applications to online proctoring, as well as the student experience through learning analytics and the like.
Even in the emergency rush online, the question of student data privacy has received some attention. In some universities and countries attention is being paid to the ownership of academic content through data privacy regulations and increasingly through data privacy positions. Much less attention is being paid to the “digital exhaust”, and to the control of extracted data. In contemporary business models, students are not owners of all their data; the risks are therefore considerable with student ambient data being consolidated into broader digital economic ecosystems. Even if the core data content is made private, the digital exhaust as an asset adds value.
Let’s take Google for Education as an example. It offers a collection of tools to collaborate (Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drive, Jamboard) and communicate (Mail, Meet, Chat), for classroom management (Classroom, Assignments, Forms) and administration (Keep, Calendar). These tools are a subset of the larger Google ecosystem (think of Maps, Translate, Chrome, Youtube etc). The promise of easy integration is paid for by consolidated and manipulatable data sets of students who will become in future consumer citizens. Catch them young and they are hooked into the entire system for life.
Through the shift to ERT, universities have delivered an entire generation of students to extractive business systems driven by profit seeking imperatives.
There is no time now to talk about the co-operation between big tech companies, nor their special relationships with third parties, although there is evidence that this is exists.
What is critical though in the Google example, is the centrality of Google search at the heart of the Google Alphabet behemoth. Prior to the pandemic, it was already understood how search played a gatekeeping role in knowledge formation. Google has over 90% of the search engine market and is so popular its brand has become for a synonym for search.
A 2020 investigation (5) showed that a significant percentage of search results on Google search front page results point to Google’s own products- such as Youtube and others. If profit-making rather than relevance or neutrality determines which information is found online this has real implications both knowledge comprehension and for knowledge creation.
It is significant that it is a decolonial scholar, Mbembe (6) , who has warned of knowledge systems worldwide being underpinned by the logic of value extraction (6) thus subverting the knowledge agenda.
I will end where I began - with coloniality. Maldonado-Torres reminds us, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day. What this means is that these extractive practices are not outside of us as citizens, as educators, as academics and as students. We are participants and we have responsibilities.
In short, extractive economic systems are shaping the future of education and unless policymakers and knowledge makers act soon, fast mutating forms of coloniality will be imprinted in the DNA shaping the future of the university and the higher education sector.
*In an interview 9 Harvard professor says surveillance capitalism is undermining democracy – Harvard Gazette) , Zuboff stresses that although it was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioral data, more than what they needed for services, and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers, in this case advertisers, surveillance capitalism is no more restricted to that initial context than, for example, mass production was restricted to the fabrication of Model T’s.
In other words, it is this model which provides a template which is being explored and exploited in higher education.
** Komljenovic makes a compelling argument for digital data to be understood as assets rather than commodities, for reasons more complex than it is possible to summarise here. Best to read her excellent article.
I am a professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, interested in the digitally-mediated changes in society and specifically in higher education, largely through an inequality lens