Reports of Silicon Valley

There are reports of Silicon Valley parents requiring nannies to sign “no-phone contracts”36 and opting to send their children to schools in which devices are banned or introduced slowly, in favor of “pencils, paper, blackboards, and craft materials.”37 Move Slower and Protect People? All the while I attend education conferences around the country in which vendors fill massive expo halls to sell educators the latest products couched in a concern that all students deserve access – yet the most privileged refuse it? Those afforded the luxury of opting out are concerned with tech addiction – “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” one CEO said of screens.38 Many are also wary about the lack of data privacy, because access goes both ways with apps and websites that track users’ information.

In fact the author of The Art of Computer Programming, the field’s bible (and some call Knuth himself “the Yoda of Silicon Valley”), recently commented that he feels “algorithms are getting too prominent in the world. It started out that computer scientists were worried nobody was listening to us. Now I’m worried that too many people are listening.”39 To the extent that social elites are able to exercise more control in this arena (at least for now), they also position themselves as digital elites within a hierarchy that allows some modicum of informed refusal at the very top. For the rest of us, nanny contracts and Waldorf tuition are not an option, which is why the notion of a personal right to refuse privately is not a tenable solution.

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The New Jim Code will not be thwarted by simply revising user agreements, as most companies attempted to do in the days following Zuckerberg’s 2018 congressional testimony. And more and more young people seem to know that, as when Brooklyn students staged a walkout to protest a Facebook-designed online program, saying that “it forces them to stare at computers for hours and ‘teach ourselves,’” guaranteeing only 10–15 minutes of “mentoring” each week!41 In fact these students have a lot to teach us about refusing tech fixes for complex social problems that come packaged in catchphrases like “personalized learning.” They are sick and tired of being atomized and quantified, of having their personal uniqueness sold to them, one “tailored” experience after another. They’re not buying it. Coded inequity, in short, can be met with collective defiance, with resisting the allure of (depersonalized) personalization and asserting, in this case, the sociality of learning. This kind of defiance calls into question a libertarian ethos that assumes what we all really want is to be left alone, screen in hand, staring at reflections of ourselves. Social theorist Karl Marx might call tech personalization our era’s opium of the masses and encourage us to “just say no,” though he might also point out that not everyone is in an equal position to refuse, owing to existing forms of stratification. Move slower and empower people.