Access Denied, Internet Dark: Technology, Prison, Education
April 13, 2015
On Sunday, April 5, an invaluable opinion piece was published in the New York Times: “Help Us Learn in Prison” by John J. Lennon. An inmate at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Lennon makes a nuanced request about education and technology within the American prison. He considers why inmates are allowed and even encouraged to watch television all day while their access to the Internet is limited or more often than not prohibited. He ends with a plea: why not change the accessible technology of choice from TV to MOOCs?
In this post, I’d like to use Lennon’s piece as an opportunity to continue several avenues of thinking and activism of grave concern for me, namely:
- a situated critique of MOOCs
- a situated critique of education and technology in the prison
- a situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube and social media more generally
As a founding member of FemTechNet, the collective that successfully offers the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) at places of higher learning around the world, I have worked with others to criticize MOOCs from feminist perspectives on education, technology, and neo-liberalism. One of our ongoing claims is that education needs to be situated in the lived environments of learners, whether that be institutional (are you at a community college or an art school?), regional (California or Calcutta?), cultural (what traditions and values matter where we live and learn and how do we speak about them?), or personal (what matters to me?) In their top-down, one-size-fits-all, elitist, scale-and-profit-driven underpinnings, most MOOCs are not particularly responsive to or even interested in the situated, lived differences that make learning (and teaching) both exciting and challenging.
This situated critique of MOOCs allows me to heartily second Lennon’s request. I believe that MOOCs are terrific for prisoners and support unlimited access to them as part of a technologically-assisted education.
I began to understand a critically unnamed truth about social justice and social media only made visible through the structuring denial of access to the Internet and other technology as a fundamental feature of contemporary punishment: technologies of care, conversation, and personal liberation through education need no more tools than access to each other. I was more than ready and able to teach about YouTube this Spring without an Internet connection. I was going to assign books on the subject (with a few pages excised, mostly due to their discussion of sexuality on YouTube), exercises where prisoners would write screenplays to be shot by their fellow-students who had access to cameras and the Internet, and conversations about the meanings of all of our varied and regulated access to technology. (Along this vein, prisoners’ near universal access to cellphones as a contraband of choice, despite prisons’ concerted efforts to keep phones out of the prison, radically underlines what it means to say “prisoners don’t have access to the Internet or social media.”) I had learned before that while the prison and its administrators can systematically strip me, and my students, of tools and technologies (pens, videos, the Internet), our desires and abilities to communally learn—and thereby escape its lines, signs, limits, and holes of available information, if only fleetingly—falls completely outside the of logic of technology-based punishment.
That is until I was denied access to teach and learn inside.
Which gets me to my conclusion: my situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube. For I am indeed teaching the class, again, for the fifth time since 2007 at Pitzer College. I did not get to stretch and learn and teach as I had hoped with my prisoner students who have so much to teach us about technology, as they are denied access to social media and are therefore uniquely situated to see it, but I have learned about social media and social justice this semester from other students and teachers.
Since I began teaching the class in 2007, in the matter of just these few short years, access to social media has exploded (for those not denied it as a condition of their punishment). We have been told (and sold) that this access is critical for our expression, community-building, political citizenship, and well-being. We have been led to believe that access to social media is a form of liberation. As Nicole Rufus, a current LFYT student explains in her class video below, YouTube matters because it has made her a better person and contributed to her education, just as Lennon suggests.
But two more related things have also become quite clear in the 2015 iteration of the class Learning from YouTube (sans prisoners):
- In contra-distinction to the experience of prisoners, for my students, the Internet is the very air they breath in a way that was simply not true in 2007 (as much as my students thought it was). Young people today (as is true of their teachers) inhabit the Internet, speak its language, and have an agility, familiarity, and jaded acceptance of its norms and (aspects of) its history that is at once stunning and enervating (see Samantha Abernathey’s class video on memes below):
Stunning is the speed and complexity of this familiarity; enervating is its occlusion of familiarity with and interest in the other norms, places, and histories that we might once have understood as part of being institutionally, culturally and personally “situated.” The current version of the course makes me feel at once stimulated and enervated because I have seemingly nothing and everything to teach them. Nowhere and everywhere to go. “The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but not it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn’t see it. Because it has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time. Yet we’re still trying to climb on board, to get inside, to be part of the network, to get in on the language game, to show up in searches, to appear to exist.”
I long for the views of my prisoner students: humans who can teach us a thing or two about place, liberation, punishment and control sans the Internet.
- for, this place of liberation, the Internet, has quickly become its opposite (“emancipation without end, but also without exit” according to Aranda, Wood, and Vidokle)—a prison (although not a punishment, as it is always entered willingly and ever with the promise of pleasure); a highly-structured corporate-dominated sink-hole. “In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obvious. It is completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright control, and conformism. (Hito Steyerl)
“This moment,” according to my students, is defined by anxious, cynical, consumption-based Internet experience that is linked to ever more desperate Internet-based attempts at escape into a nostalgic (“old”) Internet that is imagined as low-tech, slow, user-made, fun, real, innocent, awkward, less-sexualized, and de-politicized (outside or before the petty, bitter Internet “politics” about the Middle East, feminism, racism, rape, and the environment from which escape deeper into the Internet is so desperately needed.) The new Internet is a prison from which escape is to fantasy of an older, innocent Internet.
In her contribution to the eflux journal issue “The Internet Does Not Exist,” from which I’ve been quoting extensively in this last section, video artist Hito Steyerl pens an article entitled “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” There she answers herself: “the internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all out. Or more precisely: it is all over.”
But of course, Steyerl knows, as must we all, that while the Internet feels like it is the whole world, or perhaps too much world, there are blank spots on the map where the Internet can not see, there are ways not to be seen, and there are dark spots in our situated communities where the Internet can’t or perhaps is not allowed to go.
If we theorize the Internet, or education, from these blank spots, from the place of too-little, (in)access, quiet, and darkness (as does Lennon), we see values, uses, and needs for MOOCs, YouTube, technology, and education that are not clear from an anxious state of hyper-abundance. This is not to romanticize the punitive lacks of the prison. Rather I ask us to draw from what becomes visible when we situate thinking about learning, technology, punishment and escape in places where education is not primarily linked to tawdry pop-songs, tutorials, consumer goods, flame wars, and self-reference to Internet culture but rather to the fundamental questions of liberation, learning, and empowerment that those stripped of technology have unique access to in the quiet and (in)access of their punishment.