Author: Schiller and Yeo

Academic Surveillance Complex

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

Wiring Education 

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.[4] 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.[5] Already prominent in South America and East Asia, for-profit educational institutions are today making additional inroads in Africa.[6]

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Counter-Power?

The presidential inauguration, and the Women’s March on Washington the next day, revealed the extent of the social and political polarization that exists in the United States: glimpses of the right-wing surge around Trump – and of counter-power, stoking a possibility of radical change.

The incoming Republican president’s inner circle of advisors and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are committed to an authoritarian plutocracy at home, and an abandonment of multilateralism in favor of power politics abroad.[1] Only slightly distanced is a Republican-controlled Congress that is dead-set on cutting already-insufficient wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that is eagerly directing attacks against poor people, women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBQT community. Violations of the human rights of the US people are spreading:  Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries does damage both domestically and internationally – and his support for torture presages more.

The new administration presides over a political party system that is in disarray. Trump’s candidacy came as a deep affront to members of the Republican Party establishment, whom he knocked off one by one.  Beginning his run for the nomination as an outsider, he climaxed it by taking over the Republican Party. The results of the election then blasted the Democrats into near-inconsequentiality. Trump’s presidency therefore did not emerge out of the party structures that shape – and strangle – US political life: He is a loose cannon, and this goes beyond his temperament.

Considerable contingency also suffuses the counter-power.  The overwhelming success of the Women’s March – people in the millions turning out, not only in Washington but also in hundreds of other US cities and around the world – made it the largest day of protest in US history.[2] Included were many who demanded an end to racist violence and gender discrimination, and who insisted that the United States be restructured in radical and inclusive ways. Many other participants wanted chiefly to vent their angst and fury at Trump’s ascendancy:  Socially and politically, it’s a complex formation.  The strategic question is whether it will become a bearer of “resistance,” as Angela Davis hopefully put it, that goes on to contest each violation perpetrated by Trump’s four-year incumbency.

It’s early days, but it’s already clear that the new Administration’s forceful threats to our public information system will figure in deciding this question.

Attention has aptly focused on “Alternative Facts”: the term with which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway attempted to deflect NBC journalist Chuck Todd, when he challenged her on the new Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie: that the audience for the Trump inauguration was the largest in US presidential history.[3]  More revealing was Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s intervention. Preibus told Chris Wallace on Fox News “The point is not the crowd size, the point is that the attacks and the attempts to delegitimize this president on day one – and we’re not going to sit around and take it…there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.  We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”[4]  Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, then declared that the media are the “opposition party”[5]; and, the next day, Trump himself echoed Bannon’s words.[6]

Some may compare these attacks on the press to those of the Nixon Administration. Remember Vice President Spiro Agnew, who cried out that the media were “nattering nabobs of negativism;” recollect Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy, which became his Administration’s top-gun against commercial newscasters as well as PBS officials – for producing news and documentaries that it deemed inimical to the US war on Indochina. Even-keeled analysts, however, also need to recall a more immediate precursor, the Obama Administration, whose anti-press measures were considered the most extreme since Nixon and even garnered a report from the Committee To Protect Journalists.[7] That report quoted New York Times reporter David Sanger that “this is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”[8]  Obama’s efforts at media control persisted, furthermore, into the final days of his presidency. Before leaving the White House, Obama quietly gave the green light (buried in the provisions of the 2017 Defense Authorization Act) to create a Global Engagement Center (GEC) housed within the State Department. The purpose of the GEC is to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.” [9] The little known GEC will become part of a massive and longstanding US global propaganda machine.

Trump’s people are indeed indulging in innuendo and smears, and adopting Nixon’s preferred strategy of direct government intimidation to create a chilling atmosphere.  However, to take full measure of what is occurring requires that we move beyond journalism, to sketch a more far-reaching campaign to uproot and transform our overall system of public information. This many-sided endeavor is also, crucially, anchored both in ideology and political-economy.

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Silicon Valley Candidate

By refusing to release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton cast doubt on her independence from the crooks who run the financial system.  By contrast, Clinton’s program for “technology and innovation policy” has been an open book since June 2016.  What she publicized is as revealing – and as disturbing – as what she tried to keep secret.

Clinton paints her tech agenda in appealing terms.  She says it’s about reducing social and economic inequality, creating good jobs, and bridging the digital divide. The real goals – and beneficiaries – are different.  The document is described as “a love letter to Silicon Valley” by a journalist,[1] and as a “Silicon Valley wish list” by the Washington Post.[2]

On the domestic side, Clinton promises to invest in STEM education and immigration reform to expand the STEM workforce by allowing green cards for foreign workers who’ve earned STEM degrees in the US. The internet industry has been lobbying Congress for years to reform US immigration policy to gain flexibility in hiring, to ease access to a global pool of skilled labor, and to weaken employees’ bargaining power.[3]

Clinton’s blanket endorsement of online education opens new room for an odious private industry.  With buzzwords like “entrepreneurship,” “competitive,” and “bootstrap,” Clinton wants to “leverage technology”: by “delivering high-speed broadband to all Americans” she declares it will be feasible to provide “wrap-around learning for our students in the home and in our schools.”[4] Absent an overt commitment to public education, this is an encouragement to online vendors to renew their attack on the U.S. education system – despite a track record of failure and flagrant corruption. Still more deceitful is Hillary’s lack of acknowledgment of a personal conflict of interest.  According to a Financial Times analysis, after stepping down as Secretary of State in 2013, Hillary accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches to private education providers; her husband Bill has “earned” something like $21 million from for-profit education companies since 2010.[5]

Clinton’s proposal for access to high-speed Internet for all by 2020 would further relax regulation to help the Internet industry to build new networks, tap into existing public infrastructure, and encourage “public and private” partnerships. These are euphemisms for corporate welfare, after the fashion of the Google fiber project – which is substantially subsidized by taxpayers, as cities lease land to the giant company for its broadband project at far below market value and offer city services for free or below cost.[6] Clinton’s policy program also backs the 5G wireless network initiative and the release of unlicensed spectrum to fuel the “Internet of Thing.” (IoT). 5G wireless and IoT are a solution in search of a problem – unless you are a corporate supplier or a business user of networks.  This is an unacknowledged program to accelerate and expand digital commodification.

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Betting The Farm

Condescension toward farmers has been a bedrock historical fixture of urban middle-class understanding (In the United States, “clod-hoppers” is one of the more polite disparagements).  After World War II, U.S. social scientists incorporated this prejudice into what they termed “modernization theory,” which they developed as a rationale for compelling indigenous peoples to abandon “traditional” village life.[1] Walt Rostow’s formulation of the “stages of economic growth” became ubiquitous.[2]  In this conception, “development” took the form of a repeated sequence:  out of agriculture, into industrial manufacturing, and then on to the production of services.  In this scheme, the U.S. – conveniently – constituted a paragon of developed modernity.  Modernization theory was far from being merely an academic daydream.  The U.S. Government packaged its foreign policy toward the then Third World under the motto of “development” – and used it, among other things, to sell what was called the “Green Revolution.”  The Green Revolution pushed to increase agricultural productivity via “technology transfers.”  Fertilizers and pesticides and high-yield seeds from the U.S., alongside intrusive management practices, were the standard package.

Capitalist agriculture was thereby given a giant push. And the ratchet continues to turn:  capital has continued to transform agriculture. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that farming should increasingly exhibit some of digital capitalism’s trademark features.

Alongside the Green Revolution, industrial capitalist agriculture brought about massive land grabs, widespread destruction of biodiversity, climate change, environmental pollution, and unsustainable use of water resources. Heralding that the same social forces that caused the problems now will fix them, corporate capital is calling for a “digital revolution” and a shift to more information-intensive farming practices.

Drones, driverless tractors, sensors, robotics, mobile apps, global positioning system satellites, and cloud-based data storage are sweeping across the agricultural sector, as well as below and above, the landscape.[3] Farming is being digitized and data codified throughout the agricultural lifecycle – from the cultivation of soil, to plant breeding, to planting schedules, to pest control, to irrigation, to crop monitoring, to harvesting, to food production and distribution, all the way to ultimate consumption. Companies including Monsanto, John Deere, Cargill, and DuPont are at the forefront of this process. The public relations industry has been hard at work creating happy-talk names for what they’re doing: “maximizing crop yields,” “sustainability” farming, and so on. Broader social and economic ramifications are ignored, as is the fact that this initiative stems not from social-justice activism, or even from good-Samaritanism, but from a familiar drive for profit.

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Billionaires who owe their wealth to information

Bloomberg has recently released a list of the world’s 200 wealthiest people based on their net worth. From Boomberg’s list, IO collated the billionaires who have accumulated their wealth from information and communication – “Telecommunications, Media and Technology,” or “TMT,” as this sector is called in the world of finance of which it’s such a big part. The TMT industries supply a hefty proportion of billionaires.

In the listing, individuals whose wealth stems from companies based in TMT accounted for no less than 46 of the top 200 – including numbers 1, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 15 on the list.  The one percent is top-heavy with TMT, as we might expect in our era of rampaging digital capitalism.

Technology outstrips both Media and Telecommunications. Not only are 31 of the 46 members of this elite ranking from Tech; but Tech also accounts for a greater share of overall TMT wealth: some $600 billion out of an estimated total of around $765 billion.  We know some of these men – there are only three women on the list – by the fawning publicity that they are routinely accorded: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page. In an afternoon, they may lose or gain hundreds of millions of dollars in net worth, exceptionally even more.[1]  Extending a trend first clarified by Leo Lowenthal in 1944, these men are accorded the status of heroes – idols.[2]

It’s also significant that nearly three-quarters of the reigning titans of information and communications are domiciled in two countries.  More than half – 25 of the 46 (if we count both Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch as Americans) – are US inhabitants.  Another nine are from China.  After this, a limited diversity presents itself: Three are from Japan; two from India; two from France; and one each from Mexico, the Republic of Korea, Germany, Canada, and Italy.

Wherever they may live, these are the capitalists who occupy the citadels of power.  For this reason, it’s worth knowing their names.  After all, we know the names of the eighteen countries whose Gross Domestic Product exceeds the $765 billion possessed by these 46 billionaires.[3]

[1] Tom Metcalf, “Bezos Tops Slim With a $6 Billion Gain on Amazon Results,” Bloomberg, April 29, 2016.

[2] Leo Lowenthal, “The Triumph of Mass Idols,” Literature, Popular Culture, and Society (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1961).

[3] List of countries by GDP (nominal)

Name Net Worth (Billion) Sector Rank
Bill Gates $84.20 Technology 1
Jeff Bezos $58.10 Technology 4
Carlos Slim $55.50 Telecom 5
Mark Zuckerberg $50.80 Technology 8
Larry Ellison $42.70 Technology 10
Larry Page $36.90 Technology 11
Seregey Brin $36.20 Technology 12
Jack Ma $33.10 Technology 15
Steve Ballmer $22.00 Technology 30
Pony Ma $19.80 Technology 35
Michael Dell $17.60 Technology 41
Paul Allen $17.60 Technology 42
Laurene Powell Jobs $17.50 Media 43
Charlie Ergen $15.10 Media 54
Azim Premji $14.60 Technology 57
Robin LI $14.10 Technology 63
Rupert Murdoch $12.00 Media 76
KunHee Lee $12.00 Technology 78
Dustin Moskovitz $11.50 Technology 86
Shiv Nadar $10.80 Technology 97
Masayoshi Son $10.70 Telecom 99
Elon R Musk $10.60 Technology 101
Phil Anschutz $10.50 Telecom 103
Si Newhouse $10.50 Media 105
Hasso Plattne $9.90 Technology 114
Eric Schmidt $9.90 Technology 115
Takemitsu Takizak $9.80 Technology 116
Donald Newhouse $9.50 Media 119
Jan Kou $9.30 Technology 123
Yeung Kin-Man $8.80 Technology 130
Jim Goodnight $8.80 Technology 131
William Ding $8.40 Technology 140
John Malone $8.10 Media 145
Blair Parry-Okeden $8.10 Media 146
Jim Kennedy $8.10 Media 147
Patrick Drahi $8.00 Telecom 149
Xavier Niel $7.60 Technology 161
Silvio Berlusconi $7.50 Media 167
Richard Liu $7.40 Technology 168
Lei Jun $7.20 Technology 174
Pierre Omidyar $7.10 Technology 177
Zhang Zhidong $7.10 Technology 181
Sherry Brydson $7.00 Telecom 182
Hiroshi Mikitani $6.60 Technology 192
Zhou Qunfei $6.60 Technology 195
David Geffen $6.50 Media 198

Source: Bloomberg

 

 

 

 

Strike

After nine months of frustrated bargaining, 39,000 workers from Virginia to Massachusetts called a strike against Verizon on 13 April. Represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), these telecom workers are pushing back. Their goal is to preserve job quality and security. They want to prevent further off-shoring and out-sourcing of jobs and additional call-center closures; and they want to make Verizon stop transferring technicians to work sites far from home, for up to two months at a stretch.[1] The walkout is about preserving the kinds of high-pay, high-skill jobs that used to be held by millions of working-class Americans.

This is the biggest U.S. strike in five years – in fact, since CWA last took action in 2011.  This is telling, because it shows that the telecommunications sector remains a bastion of organized labor’s strength – in a country where just 6.7% of the private sector is unionized.[2] Right away, despite the company’s use of ten thousand non-union Verizon employees as scabs,[3] the strike began to slow new installations of Internet and television service.[4] If the past is a guide, soon it will hit at corporate users’ more complex and sensitive telecom needs.

However, labor’s strength is concentrated on just one side of the networking industry: CWA and IBEW represent workers in Verizon’s wireline business.  Services delivered over copper wires and optical fibers accounted for just three-tenths of the company’s revenue and a mere 7 percent of its operating income in 2015.[5]  In the face of mounting competitive pressures in its wireline business,[6] furthermore, Verizon is revising its profit strategy.  On one hand, it has invested a couple of hundred billion dollars in wireless systems and in what it calls FiOS – a bundled service of internet, telephone and television run over a fiber-optic communications network built and maintained by unionized workers.  On the other, hoping both to increase the profitability of this gargantuan network investment and to steal a march on new “over-the-top” competitors such as Netflix, Verizon has been purchasing digital content and advertising services,[7] and selectively pruning its wireline assets.  Last year, notably, it sold its copper-wire and FiOS West networks to Frontier Communications despite heavy opposition from telecom workers, who demanded unsuccessfully that the Federal Communications Commission block the deal.[8]

The proceeds from this sale to Frontier helped Verizon to pay for additional spectrum with which to expand its wireless services.[9] The company’s 112 million wireless subscribers account for the majority of its outsized profits – not surprisingly, given that the wages and benefits drawn by its wireless workers are lower than those of their peers in its wireline segment.

This disparate working environment, as CWA posted on its website, results from the fact that “Collective bargaining rights and the right to organize have been under corporate assault for three decades”[10] – and telecommunications workers have been directly in the line of fire.  As recently as 2005, Verizon’s workers were nearly 70 percent unionized; today it’s about 27 percent.[11] Verizon was only able to introduce and expand mobile systems and services as a union-free zone, however, because of pro-corporate government policy changes. Market liberalization and deregulation were, as we’ve explained in a previous post, code words under which to attack working-class living standards and self-organization in telecommunications.

This, finally, is why the high-level political attention drawn by the Verizon strike is important.  Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (probably reluctantly) have offered words of support to the strikers; Sanders marched with the CWA members whose union had endorsed his candidacy.[12] It’s too soon to suggest that the political pendulum may begin to swing in a different direction.  However, the Verizon strike adds momentum to a gathering trend.  The Chicago Teachers’ Union is standing up, both to the city’s mayor and the state’s terroristic governor,[12] while movements are building nationwide to organize fast-food and Wal-mart employees and to introduce a higher minimum wage.  Change is in the air.

[1] Standing Up to Verizon’s War on Unions, Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1250, April 22, 2016

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members 2015

[3] Ryan Knutson, “Verizon Turns To Shadow Workforce Amid Strike,” Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2016

[4] Reuters, “The Verizon Strike Is Already Hitting New Customer Installations,” Fortune, April 15, 2016

[5] Noam Scheiber and Brian X. Chen, “In Verizon Strike, Blue-Collar Stress Hits Sidewalks,” New York Times, April 14, 2016

[6] The Lex Column, “Verizon: Cutting the Cords,” Financial Times,  April 19, 2016

[7] Hassan Ali, “Verizon Communications Inc and Hearst To Jointly Acquire Complex Media,” Bidness, April 19, 2016.

[8] Andrew Stewart, The Verizon Standoff and the Future of Labor, Communication and Privacy, counterpunch, September 15, 2015; “CWA, IBEW Protest Proposed Verizon-Frontier Communications Deal,” Maritime Trade Department, AFL-CIO, April 10, 2010

[9] Kevin Rizzo, “What’s Going on with the Verizon Strike?” Law Street, April 16, 2016

[10]Collective Bargaining,” Communications Workers

[11] Mackenzie Baris, “Five Reasons to care about the Verizon Strike,” Jobs with Justice, April 11, 2016

[12] Mike Snider, “Sanders, Verizon Spar Over Striking Workers,” USA Today, April 15, 2016 ; Sean O’Kane, “Verizon Workers Take Over Mid-Town Manhattan in the Second Week of Their Strike,” The Verge, April 18, 2016

[13] Juan Perez, Jr., Monique Garcia, and Celeste Bott, “CTU’s Lewis Calls Rauner ‘the new ISIS recruit,’” Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2016