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The Personalization and Privacy Paradox: How Much Data Collection is TOO Much Data Collection

October 4, 2015 Leave a comment
  • Wouldn’t it be great to come home to a house whose heating levels match your desired level, whose lighting levels are ideal from your perspective, but whose energy use is optimal?
  • Isn’t it convenient that Google retains your recent searches so that you don’t have to type in a lengthy url to get back to a web page you visited 5 days ago?

These questions are easy to answer because these are conveniences that make life easier for us… but both of them are indicative of the kinds of “personalized data collection” done by machines and computers that could ultimately lead to a world where machines ultimately define our desires and every message we read on-line is intermediated by an algorithm. Based on an article in today’s NYTimes by Quentin Hardy it appears that at least two CEOs see us headed that direction and have no hesitation to go that way. In “Business Technology Starts to Get Personal” Hardy describes the visions Apple CEO Tim Cook and GE CEO Jeff Immelt shared at a recent conference where they matter-of-factly described a future where personalized technology is used on every technological device and on every piece of equipment manufactured and the information gathered on each individual is fully integrated. This led me to pose these two questions, both of which reflect existing technology applications:

  • Wouldn’t it be convenient for teachers to be able to determine how much time a students spent trying to solve a mathematics question?
  • Wouldn’t it be ideal if meetings held in a conference room could be reduced to writing and disseminated instantaneously?

With education theorists and policy makers touting the virtue of “personalized learning” and the expanded availability of low cost web-based laptops, it is not inconceivable that teachers could require all classwork be done on a laptop and, in so doing, determine if students are spending sufficient time trying to solve a particular kind of problem or a sufficient amount of time writing a five paragraph essay. This would enable all teachers to help the student develop persistence, help the teacher determine the best way to present a particular concept to each individual child, and to help curriculum developers determine the optimal way to sequence the materials each student is expected to master.

A part of the “personalized learning” model is for parents, teachers, and the student to confer to develop a de facto IEP for them. This has been perceived as a daunting task… but with “…(e)quipment and software like whiteboards or conference-call phones record who is in a meeting or tag what was said” the paperwork associated with this undertaking suddenly disappears.

Neither of these potential education apps was described or discussed in Hardy’s article… but the article did note “peculiarities” about massive data collection foreseen by Erik Brynjolfsson,  a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the authors of “The Second Machine Age,” which he describes as a “…book on an industrial world enchanted by computing.”

“With enough data, you can infer drug use or political persuasions,” he said. “These are things that are racing ahead, and we haven’t thought them through.”

There will be benefits like buying a used car and knowing how it was driven and what is likely to go wrong with it. There may also be challenging effects from companies that collect and manipulate their data the best.

Mr. Hardy concludes his essay with this:

If it turns out like the consumer Internet, we’ll be delighted with the rewards of being spied on, even if we don’t know what they are yet.

At a conference I attended recently on climate change, one of the speakers talked about our culture’s blind faith in technology, which he called “technology fundamentalism”. He asserted that many believe there is no reason to be fearful of what we are doing to ourselves by spewing toxins into the atmosphere because eventually we will develop some kind of technology that will mitigate it and we’ll be able to continue living the way we are today. In effect, our belief that all data collection will ultimately be used for benign ends is a form of technological fundamentalism, and like all forms of fundamentalism based on faith, such a perspective requires us to collectively drop our guard.  I believe we should move ahead with technology applications, but we should also heed Mr. Brynjolfsson’s implicit warning and think things through NOW before we collect the billions of objective data points that could ultimately be used as dossiers that limit the ultimate development of each individual’s potential.

Lower Prices for TVs and Lower Wages Are Moving Us Away From Democracy

October 3, 2015 Leave a comment

Paul Theroux’s blistering op ed article that will appear in tomorrows NYTimes contrasts the billionaire’s magnanimous desire to “help the poor” in economically deprived nations with their practice of off-shoring jobs and neglecting the problems created here at home. He offers this blunt description of globalization:

To me, globalization is the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor; globalization means that, by outsourcing, it is possible to impoverish an American community to the point where it is indistinguishable from a hard-up town in the dusty heartland of a third world country.

Mr. Theroux could have written this article about New England mill towns a couple of decades ago when corporations decided to relocate their factories to the south in an effort to avoid paying union wages. There are communities in New England where most people made their living working in factories and now scramble to make ends meet…. and there are urban areas and Rustbelt communities that have the same third-world feel to them.

The problem is two-fold: shareholders and CEOs want to maximize profit and consumers want low prices. The deregulated capitalism and free trade advocated by political candidates in both parties reinforces this and the anti-government mantra of the right makes it even worse. Shareholders need to look at the effects of maximizing profits by moving jobs abroad and taking advantage of tax loopholes… and consumers need to ask themselves if they are willing to save money at the expense of their fellow Americans jobs… and we have to face the fact that the consequence of this will mean substantially lower incomes for the billionaires, higher corporate taxes, and a trade-off for rank and file workers of higher taxes and higher costs for goods in order to earn higher wages.

Here’s the bottom line: If everyone dug a little deeper to pay taxes and spend more on consumer goods we COULD restore the economy in our country. Otherwise, we will continue devolving into a plutocratic oligarchy. I’m willing to pay higher taxes and pay higher prices on my “fixed income” to help my neighbors in Arkansas, Detroit, California, and New England earn a decent living and have an opportunity to advance. Is anyone else ready to do the same?

Duncan Steps Down… Replaced by Another “Reformer”…

October 2, 2015 Leave a comment

The NYTimes just reported that Arne Duncan will be stepping down in December and will be relaxed by John King, who stepped aside recently as Commissioner in NYS. I can’t wait to see Diane Ravitch’s reaction AND the reaction of her commenters…. and I am willing to bet Mr. Duncan will soon be heading a Think Tank or maybe an urban school district seeking a privatizer par excellence.

“Philanthrocapitalism”: Giving Away Seed Money that Yields Profits

October 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Truthout article by Cynthia Liu describes Eli Broad’s plan to create charter schools to house 130,000 Los Angeles students as an act of “philanthrocapitalism”, which she defines in this sentence:

“Philanthrocapitalism describes a certain kind of “weaponized generosity” where donors offer their self-interested charitable giving to remedy the very lack they create elsewhere.

Liu offers this description of how philanthrocapitalism served Eli Broad in another venture in LA:

For example: originally, Broad wanted to lease the expensive downtown Los Angeles parcel the Museum sits on for $1 a year over 99 years. Said one county supervisor, “Instead of a project that generates sales and property taxes, we’ll now have an art museum that generates no property or sales taxes and Mr. Broad will get the land for free.” It’s now leased for $7.7 million a year for 99 years, and the 501c3 Broad Foundation housed inside the museum still doesn’t put much by way of revenue back into the city.

Liu shows how Broad, like many “philanthrocapitalists”, funds opposition to initiatives that are intended to provide additional funds for public education and funds support for initiatives that are designed to undercut unions. The ultimate goal in this case is to ensure that their taxes are minimal so that their profits can be maximized.

I look at philanthrocapitalism as a means of giving away seed money to garner profit… in some cases the money goes to political leaders to pave the way to enable for-profit charter schools to thrive and in other cases giving away technology that is on the cusp of being obsolete to prime the pump for future acquisitions. Eva Moskovitz’ benefactors made large campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo and the apparent quid pro quo was assurance that Ms. Moskovitz’ schools would continue receiving rent-free space in NYC public schools and Mayor de Blasio’s control would be limited to one year at a time. The bait-and-switch with computer donations is also a way for technology companies to reap multiple benefits. They get a tax deduction for the giveaway; a de facto tax deduction because the school district budgets in their community do not require the district to spend on the initial acquisition of computers, and the added benefit of effective dictating the operating system and software a school district will be using for years to come, providing them with a new revenue stream.

As Liu suggests, “(t)he cure for oligarchy is more democracy“, which means that parents need to get engaged in the governance of schools. When parents stay home on election day, opportunistic oligarchs will seize the opportunity created by apathy to gain control of the local school board and open the doors for profit-making charters to move in. And school boards, PTAs, and administrators should beware of corporations bearing gifts or grants that require the use of technology: the strings attached will likely cost more money in the long run than the size of the gift. The ink purchases for your printer might be a guide for this reality!

NYS Businesses Solution to Common Core: “Re-Branding”

October 2, 2015 Leave a comment

In one of the most disingenuous ploys ever concocted, High Achievement New York, a self-identifed “coalition of teachers, parents, civic, civil rights and business groups who share a commitment to a brighter educational future for every child in New York” is advocating that the state stay with the Common Core standards and offer a seven step plan for implementing them. Here’s the first step of the groups plan:

  1. Renaming the Standards: Several states have dropped the “Common Core” moniker to put their own stamp on the standards, something Chancellor Tisch suggested last week.  For instance, the standards in Arizona, Florida and Iowa are now known as “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards,” the “Next Generation Sunshine State Standards” and “The Iowa Core,” respectively.  Survey after survey shows strong support for higher learning standards in ELA and Math, and annual assessments of college and career readiness, but support drops when those components are called Common Core.

One of the Uniserv reps I worked with in MD had a great aphorism for this kind of thing: “You can’t paint C-O-W on the side of a horse and expect to get any milk”… and re-jiggering these standards or shortening the time for summative assessments will not address the fundamental problem, which is the use of common core test results as the sole metric for determining “success” in school and now, in NYS, “success” as a classroom teacher. Nor will it address the fundamental assumption of the common core, which is that all children are expected to develop at the same rate intellectually in all content areas, an idea that is preposterous on its face yet implicit in the way the common core is presented. We won’t get better performance from a re-branded set of standards any more that we could get milk from a re-labelled horse.

In Pennsylvania, Race Results in Lower State Funding, Diminished Opportunity

October 1, 2015 Leave a comment

I have written many blog posts on funding inequities and the reasons behind those inequities. The primary reason for funding inequity is our country’s reliance on property taxes to fund public education. The suffering of children in communities with depressed housing values and/or the lack of a business tax base is compounded because it often means that they reside in substandard homes and their parents have difficulty ending work. Like most Americans, I want to believe that the disparate funding formulas that result from this vicious cycle of poverty created by reliance on property tax is free of racial bias. As an article in yesterday’s Atlantic indicates, however, this is NOT the case in Pennsylvania where Gillian White shares the findings of a report written by data scientist David Mosenkis. In examining funding data from Pennsylvania, Mosenkis made an “unsettling” finding:

“If you color code the districts based on their racial composition you see this very stark breakdown. At any given poverty level, districts that have a higher proportion of white students get substantially higher funding than districts that have more minority students.” That means that no matter how rich or poor the district in question, funding gaps existed solely based on the racial composition of the school. Just the increased presence of minority students actually deflated a district’s funding level. “The ones that have a few more students of color get lower funding than the ones that are 100 percent or 95 percent white,” Mosenkis said.

Fixing this disparity will be extraordinarily difficult because over the past several years STATE funding for schools has withered. Consequently, in order to develop a funding formula that restores level funding for these minority districts and restore the funds cut during the recent downturn in the economy, the legislature will either need to increase taxes or redistribute the scarce funds they appropriate to schools. Since neither of these options is deemed to be acceptable, Pennsylvania has not passed a budget and those schools that rely on State funding the most, the schools serving poor students and especially poor minority students, a struggling mightily. And there is no end in sight. Ms. White offers a bleak outlook in terms of finding a remedy for the funding and racial inequities:

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that has a problem with poor minority schools and rich white ones. White flight has left low-income, minority students in failing urban public schools. The compounding issue of low-income neighborhoods and scarce (or biased) funding leaves such schools with little money or resources to educate their students, and thus little hope of breaking the poverty cycle. These disparities become especially disheartening when looking at the current state of school segregation. Purposeful attempts to create more integrated schools, like busing, are virtually nonexistent in the present day. And even changes that would unintentionally result in greater student diversity, like redistricting, are often passionately rejected by the inhabitants of richer, whiter, districts.

In 1954 the Supreme Court rendered a decision that effectively required the end of segregated schooling and the “separate-but-equal” standard that was purportedly in place for the preceding sixty years. Sixty years later we have the worst of both worlds in Pennsylvania: the schools are more segregated than ever and more unequal than ever. Here’s hoping that the people of good will and fairness will raise up their voices to help break the cycle of poverty and end the racial injustice that is embedded in the funding of their public schools.

Two Articles Draw One Conclusion: Being Born Poor is a HUGE Obstacle

September 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the past month I’ve read several articles describing the deep hole those born into poverty must dig out of in order to improve there economic standing… and increasingly African Americans are experiencing far more poverty than their white counterparts.

In early September Bloomberg Business published a short article by Victoria Stilwell titled “Here’s How Growing Up in Poverty Hurts American Adults” that offered three factors that described three “…things that tend to happen to Americans who grow up poor“:

  1. They have a harder time finishing high school or college
  2. They struggle to keep jobs as young adults
  3. They have higher rates of teen pregnancy

All three of these factors lead to poverty in adulthood… and citing research from the Urban Institute, the article notes that while 15% of children are in poverty during any one year,

Some 39 percent of children are poor for at least one year before they reach their 18th birthday, according to Caroline Ratcliffe, a senior fellow and economist at Urban. For black children, that statistic is 75 percent, compared with 30 percent of whites.

Michelle Chen, a staff writer for The Nation, wrote an equally gloomy assessment of the effects of poverty in an article that appeared earlier this week titled “In America, the Poorer You Are the Poorer Your Children Will Be”. Drawing on information from a new book “Too Many Children Left Behind,” by Bruce Bradbury, Miles Corak, Jane Waldfogel, and Elizabeth Washbrook, Chen describes how 

…poor children in the US are “doubly disadvantaged relative to their peers in the other three countries (the UK, Australia, and Canada)” because the government’s “social safety net and supports for working families do the least among the four countries to combat inequality”—particularly our national lack of guaranteed paid time off and vacation.

Compounding the lack of a safety net is the increase in expenditures on “enrichment activities” by affluent parents, which is having the effect of widening the gap between rich and poor kids in our country. Looking at this situation, Chen writes:

So poor parents struggling just to cover basic food and shelter face both massive income inequality in their day-to-day lives, plus a seven-fold gap in the amount they can “invest” to help their children thrive in the futureGiven that social mobility is already suppressed at all income levels—with children’s future earnings highly correlated with the earnings of their parents—the Herculean amount of “catch up” poor parents must undertake just to get on the same footing as their higher-earning peers makes the great American wealth gap seem even more devastating, for both today’s working households and generations to come.

The solutions to this situation are familiar to readers of this blog and any writings on social justice: better pay, more flexibility in the workplace, universal prekindergarten, access to quality daycare… in short providing the children of low wage workers with the same baseline of services and education that the children raised in affluence receive.

We could make this happen if we lent a helping hand to those children raised in poverty… but to do so would require helping their parents and that seems less and less likely in today’s world of social Darwinism.