A corporate-driven society overseen by a complicit state, the United States is being steadily saturated by surveillance tools and practices; indeed, surveillance studies is today a substantial field of academic inquiry, with research published regularly in Surveillance and Society, as well as in a growing number of books. After Edward Snowden’s exposures of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s mass surveillance in 2013, thousands of academics rightly signed a letter condemning the US government’s spying program. However, surveillance-sensitive academics have turned a blind eye toward academe itself.
Surveillance technologies have encroached far into the work-lives of students and faculty, to the point that we may speak of an Academic Surveillance Complex (ASC). To “improve” student performance and to “scientifically” smooth and speed student progress, “data driven education” programs are capturing, tracking, collating, and analyzing data on student learning and social behavior; on students’ interactions with teachers; and on the labor of teachers themselves.
The pretense is that this is all positive – an enhancement of the educational process. The emergence of an ASC, however, is better understood as an offshoot of a multifaceted structural transformation of higher education, which has been underway for half a century. This metamorphosis is both technological and institutional. By enabling the social relations of learning and teaching to be revamped, networking technologies are driving forward a sweeping trend to commodification: they are helping to turn education into a profit-making business. Today’s emerging ASC is a part of this encompassing shift.
At its outset during the early postwar decades, robust US economic growth and robust state and federal support for public universities both stimulated and restrained the process of wiring education for profit. (A convenient historical marker is provided by an organization called Educom, which has tried since the 1960s to insinuate networking technologies.) In today’s context of chronic stagnation, by contrast, “disrupting” education in order to render it a site of capital accumulation has become a determining trend. As we write, for example, Purdue University has signed an agreement to acquire Kaplan Higher Education – a for-profit chain – and to re-establish it as a free-standing subsidiary of the Indiana-based university system. All told, global education is estimated to be a $5+ trillion market, eight times the size of the commercial software market and three times that of the entertainment market. Already prominent in South America and East Asia, for-profit educational institutions are today making additional inroads in Africa.