Quotation-as-title by Marcus Aurelius. Image from top-linked post.
Tag: The Guardian (page 1 of 5)
Quotation-as-title by Elizabeth Bransco. Image from top-linked post.
In the UK, it used to be the case that children could leave school at 16. This was the reason for ‘O’ levels (which my parents took), and GCSEs, which I sat at that age.
However, these days, young people must remain in education or training until they are 18 years old. What, then, is the point of taking exams aged 16 and 18?
A group of Tory MPs has written a report, with one of the authors, Flick Drummond, making some good points:
The paper argues that preparation for GCSE exams means that pupils miss a large chunk of valuable learning because of the time taken up with mock exams and revision, followed by the exams themselves. “That’s almost six months out of a whole year spent preparing for exams,” said Drummond.
She said she was particularly concerned by the impact of exams on mental health, citing a report backed by the Children’s Society in August that ranked England 36th out of 45 countries in Europe and North America for wellbeing.
Richard Adams, Tory MPs back ditching GCSE exams in English school system overhaul (The Guardian)
Instead, the new report says, the exams should be replaced by a baccalaureate, which would cover several years’ study and would allow children more time from the age of 15 to settle on the subjects they wanted to study in the sixth form for A-levels or vocational qualifications such as T-levels and apprenticeships, and to explore potential careers in a structured way.
As a parent of children who could be affected by this, I actually think this should be trialled first in the private sector and then rolled out in the state sector. Too often, the private sector benefits from treating state school pupils as guinea pigs, and then cherry-picking what works.
Earlier in my career, when I worked for Jisc, I was based at Northumbria University in Newcastle. It’s just been announced that 770 students there have been infected with COVID-19.
As Lorna Finlayson, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Essex, points out, the desire to get students on campus for face-to-face teaching is driven by economics. Universities are businesses, and some of them are likely to fail this academic year.
[A]fter years of pushing to expand online learning and “lecture capture” on the basis that it is what students want, university managers have decided that what students really want now, during a global pandemic, is face-to-face contact. This sudden-onset fetish reached its most perverse extreme in the case of Boston University, which, realising that many teaching rooms lack good ventilation or even windows, decided to order “giant air circulators”, only to discover that the air circulators were very noisy. Apparently unable to source enough “mufflers” for the air circulators, the university ordered Bluetooth headsets to enable students and teachers to communicate over the roar of machinery.
All of which raises the question: why? The determination to bring students back to campus at any cost doesn’t stem from a dewy-eyed appreciation of in-person pedagogy, nor from concerns about the impact of isolation on students’ mental health. If university managers had any interest in such things, they would not have spent years cutting back on study skills support and counselling services.Lorna Finlayson, How universities tricked students into returning to campus (The Guardian)
I know people who work in universities in various positions. What they tell me astounds me; a callous disregard for human life in the pursuit of either economic survival, or profit.
This is, as usual, all about the money. With student fees and rents now their main source of revenue, universities will do anything to recruit and retain. When the pandemic hit, university managers warned of a potentially catastrophic loss of income from international student fees in particular. Many used this as an excuse to cut jobs and freeze pay, even as vice-chancellors and senior management continued to rake in huge salaries. As it turned out, international student admissions reached a record high this year, with domestic undergraduate numbers also up – perhaps less due to the irresistibility of universities’ “offer” than to the lack of other options (needless to say, staff jobs and pay have yet to be reinstated).
Lorna Finlayson, How universities tricked students into returning to campus (The Guardian)
But students are more than just fee-payers. They are rent-payers too. Rightly or wrongly, most of those in charge of universities have assumed that only the promise of face-to-face classes would tempt students back to their accommodation. That promise can be safely broken only once rental contracts are signed and income streams flowing.
I predict legal action at some point in the near future.
Adrian Daub, a professor of literature, takes issue with the tech sector’s focus on disruption:
Most of the discourse around disruption clearly draws on the idea of creative destruction, but it shifts it in important respects. It doesn’t seem to suggest that ever-intensifying creative destruction will eventually lead to a new stability – that hyper-capitalism almost inevitably pushes us toward something beyond capitalism. Instead, disruption seems to suggest that the instability that comes with capitalism is all there is and can be – we might as well strap in for the ride. Ultimately, then, disruption is newness for people who are scared of genuine newness. Revolution for people who don’t stand to gain anything by revolution.
Indeed, there is an odd tension in the concept of disruption: it suggests a thorough disrespect towards whatever existed previously, but in truth it often seeks to simply rearrange whatever exists. Disruption is possessed of a deep fealty to whatever is already given. It seeks to make it more efficient, more exciting, more something, but it never ever wants to dispense altogether with what’s out there. This is why its gestures are always radical, but its effects never really upset the apple cart: Uber claims to have “revolutionised” the experience of hailing a cab, but really that experience has largely stayed the same. What it managed to get rid of were steady jobs, unions and anyone other than Uber making money on the whole enterprise.Adrian Daub, The disruption con: why big tech’s favourite buzzword is nonsense (The Guardian)
Venture-capital backed tech companies providing profits through (what I call) ‘software with shareholders’ fracture our societies, destroy our communities, and enrich the privileged.
People often ask me about my stance on Facebook products. They can understand that I don’t use Facebook itself, but what about Instagram? And surely I use WhatsApp? Nope.
Given that I don’t usually have a single place to point people who want to read about the problems with WhatsApp, I thought I’d create one.
WhatsApp is a messaging app that was acquired by Facebook for the eye-watering amount of $19 billion in 2014. Interestingly, a BuzzFeed News article from 2018 cites documents confidential documents from the time leading up to the acquisition that were acquired by the UK’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. They show the threat WhatsApp posed to Facebook at the time.
As you can see from the above chart, Facebook executives were shown in 2013 that WhatsApp (8.6% reach) was growing rapidly and posed a huge threat to Facebook Messenger (13.7% reach).
So Facebook bought WhatsApp. But what did they buy? If, as we’re led to believe, WhatsApp is ‘end-to-end encrypted’ then Facebook don’t have access to the messages of users. So what’s so valuable?
Brian Acton, one of the founders of WhatsApp (and a man who got very rich through its sale) has gone on record saying that he feels like he sold his users’ privacy to Facebook.
Facebook, Acton says, had decided to pursue two ways of making money from WhatsApp. First, by showing targeted ads in WhatsApp’s new Status feature, which Acton felt broke a social compact with its users. “Targeted advertising is what makes me unhappy,” he says. His motto at WhatsApp had been “No ads, no games, no gimmicks”—a direct contrast with a parent company that derived 98% of its revenue from advertising. Another motto had been “Take the time to get it right,” a stark contrast to “Move fast and break things.”
Facebook also wanted to sell businesses tools to chat with WhatsApp users. Once businesses were on board, Facebook hoped to sell them analytics tools, too. The challenge was WhatsApp’s watertight end-to-end encryption, which stopped both WhatsApp and Facebook from reading messages. While Facebook didn’t plan to break the encryption, Acton says, its managers did question and “probe” ways to offer businesses analytical insights on WhatsApp users in an encrypted environment.Parmy Olson (Forbes)
The other way Facebook wanted to make money was to sell tools to businesses allowing them to chat with WhatsApp users. These tools would also give “analytical insights” on how users interacted with WhatsApp.
Facebook was allowed to acquire WhatsApp (and Instagram) despite fears around monopolistic practices. This was because they made a promise not to combine data from various platforms. But, guess what happened next?
In 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19b, and promised users that it wouldn’t harvest their data and mix it with the surveillance troves it got from Facebook and Instagram. It lied. Years later, Facebook mixes data from all of its properties, mining it for data that ultimately helps advertisers, political campaigns and fraudsters find prospects for whatever they’re peddling. Today, Facebook is in the process of acquiring Giphy, and while Giphy currently doesn’t track users when they embed GIFs in messages, Facebook could start doing that anytime.Cory Doctorow (EFF)
All of this creates a profile. So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.
Do I have to connect the dots here? This is a company that sells targeted adverts, the kind of adverts that can influence the outcome of elections. Of course, Facebook will never admit that its platforms are the problem, it’s always the responsibility of the user to be ‘vigilant’.
So you might think that you’re just messaging your friend or colleague on a platform that ‘everyone’ uses. But your decision to go with the flow has consequences. It has implications for democracy. It has implications on creating a de facto monopoly for our digital information. And it has implications around the dissemination of false information.
The features that would later allow WhatsApp to become a conduit for conspiracy theory and political conflict were ones never integral to SMS, and have more in common with email: the creation of groups and the ability to forward messages. The ability to forward messages from one group to another – recently limited in response to Covid-19-related misinformation – makes for a potent informational weapon. Groups were initially limited in size to 100 people, but this was later increased to 256. That’s small enough to feel exclusive, but if 256 people forward a message on to another 256 people, 65,536 will have received it.
A communication medium that connects groups of up to 256 people, without any public visibility, operating via the phones in their pockets, is by its very nature, well-suited to supporting secrecy. Obviously not every group chat counts as a “conspiracy”. But it makes the question of how society coheres, who is associated with whom, into a matter of speculation – something that involves a trace of conspiracy theory. In that sense, WhatsApp is not just a channel for the circulation of conspiracy theories, but offers content for them as well. The medium is the message.William Davies (The Guardian)
I cannot control the decisions others make, nor have I forced my opinions on my two children, who (despite my warnings) both use WhatsApp to message their friends. But, for me, the risk to myself and society of using WhatsApp is not one I’m happy with taking.
Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Header image by Rachit Tank