Terms and Conditions Do Apply

By: guest contributor Dustin Fife

I was planning on writing about this topic before life became completely tentative and 2020 was basically cancelled. This crisis has made this topic even more consequential (even though everyone is vying for your attention with their super-important, paramount, most-consequential topics). I am going to keep this short, but I will give you links to several other articles on this topic that should inform your daily practice. I want to articulate two responsibilities that all educators, librarians, and educational institutions have, and I hope that they resonate with each of you. 

  1. You are responsible for reading and understanding the terms and conditions of every technology you bring into your organizations, classrooms, and practice. You have to understand their data practices, security practices, and what they do and do not collect from your constituents. And you need to be transparent with your students when you have no idea.
  2. We have to stop normalizing surveillance capitalism that preys on the data, work, and physical bodies of our students. 

In almost every library or educational organization in which I have been involved there has been an explicit acquiescence to the inevitable intrusion of ed-tech into our students’ lives. We have to resist and demand that technology meets our educational and community values, rather than the other way round. Audrey Watters (2019), articulates this tension beautifully. 

Or that’s what the proponents of ed-tech would want you to believe. In order to prepare students for the future, the practices of teaching and learning – indeed the whole notion of “school” – must embrace tech-centered courseware and curriculum. Education must adopt not only the products but the values of the high tech industry. It must conform to the demands for efficiency, speed, scale…To resist technology, therefore, is to undermine students’ opportunities. To resist technology is to deny students’ their future. (para. 1-2)

I am no luddite, and my many subscriptions can confirm, but to resist the values of technology that are incongruent with libraries and education is not to deny our students and patrons opportunities, but protect their future and demonstrate principled decision making.

SurveillanceSurveillance capitalism exploits the same mechanisms and ubiquitous intrusions into our lives. Each of us is millions of data points to be bought and sold. Those data points are shaping the world we see and interact with, and we need to fight against the culture of normalization in our organizations. We all have to incorporate different technologies and tools into our practices, but are we aware of what we sacrifice? Jessica Baron (2019) of Forbes writes,   

In an age of overworked teachers and understaffed schools, many administrators have found technology to be the answer to monitoring students more closely. Parents have willfully signed on to this, thinking that their kids are getting more attention and that the data produced will help rectify any intellectual or behavioral issues. (para. 8)

Are we adopting technologies and practices because they are the best tools available or because we feel like we are out of options? Plagiarism checkers are being purchased by media conglomerates, LMSs are being purchased by hedge funds and private equity firms, and remote teaching tools are failing with the most basic of security protocols. What is going to happen with all of the data we have given them and how will it affect the students for whom this has been normalized? 

I know they can be hard to articulate at times, but our shared values should be apparent in the contracts we sign and the tools and technologies we use. Let’s all ask ourselves how our tools reflect our commitments to equity, access, justice, intellectual freedom, and education rather than silently acquiescing to the values of tech companies, publishers, and surveillance capitalism.     

For more on the casual perfidy of surveillance capitalism please read: “Super Bowl Commercials while Librarianing” by myself and Callan Bignoli.

To learn more about the physical toll of surveillance capitalism and ed-tech read: “Our Bodies Encoded: Algorithmic Test Proctoring in Higher Education” by Auraria Library’s Shea Swauger 

To learn more about how to push back against companies that do not maintain ethical practices read: “New Campaign Calls for Zoom to Implement End to End Encryption to Keep People Safe” from Fight For The Future.




Dustin FifeDustin Fife is the Director of Library Services at Western Colorado University.