Illustration showing a greyscale, blurred screenshot of a Zoom conversation

I re­cently wrote about the pri­vati­sa­tion of uni­ver­sity build­ings1 and how that’s a Bad Thing™.

Between the time I en­rolled and grad­u­ated at Camberwell College of Arts, the build­ing went from be­ing largely open to the pub­lic to a sit­u­a­tion where ac­cess to the build­ing, and move­ment in­side it is tightly con­trolled by ac­cess cards, re­mote-con­trolled gates, cam­eras, vis­i­tors lists, fenc­ing, and pri­vate se­cu­rity guards. The Royal College was al­ready in a sim­i­lar state when I got there (plus the pri­vate land­lord adding their own power mech­a­nisms to the pile in the form of in­spec­tions, de­fen­sive ar­chi­tec­ture, and se­cu­rity more se­cu­rity guards).

The move to on­line teach­ing over the last few days is a dra­matic es­ca­la­tion of this same move­ment. While our de­part­ment heads are do­ing their best to get every­one onto Zoom calls or Hangouts as soon as pos­si­ble, let’s re­mem­ber what these apps are: en­tirely pri­vate, ven­ture-funded2, data-col­lect­ing, ex­clu­sive to any­one with­out high-end in­ter­net, for-profit spaces de­signed to re­pro­duce the hi­er­ar­chies of busi­ness meet­ings. Access is finely graded and re­vok­able at any time if you stop pay­ing your sub­scrip­tion fees or oth­er­wise be­come a nuis­cance to the in­sti­tu­tion.

Zoom, which has some­how be­come the de­fault choice for on­line teach­ing, em­bod­ies all of these at­trib­utes. It’s a par­tic­u­larly good ex­am­ple of how in­sti­tu­tional power struc­tures are hard-coded into these apps, be­gin­ning with who gets to con­trol the knowl­edge about what’s hap­pen­ing on the plat­form:

Zoom al­lows ad­min­is­tra­tors to see de­tailed views on how, when, and where users are us­ing Zoom, with de­tailed dash­boards in real-time of user ac­tiv­ity. Zoom also pro­vides a rank­ing sys­tem of users based on to­tal num­ber of meet­ing min­utes. If a user records any calls via Zoom, ad­min­is­tra­tors can ac­cess the con­tents of that recorded call, in­clud­ing video, au­dio, tran­script, and chat files, as well as ac­cess to shar­ing, an­a­lyt­ics, and cloud man­age­ment priv­i­leges.3

Nothing es­capes the ad­min­is­tra­tive gaze. Further, it can look be­yond what hap­pens in any given Zoom meet­ing and reach into what­ever phys­i­cal space we hap­pen to be call­ing in from:

For any meet­ing that has oc­curred or is in-process, Zoom al­lows ad­min­is­tra­tors to see the op­er­at­ing sys­tem, IP ad­dress, lo­ca­tion data, and de­vice in­for­ma­tion of each par­tic­i­pant. This de­vice in­for­ma­tion in­cludes the type of ma­chine, specs on the make/​model of your pe­riph­eral au­dio­vi­sual de­vices like cam­eras or speak­ers, and names for those de­vices (for ex­am­ple, the user-con­fig­urable names given to AirPods). Administrators also have the abil­ity to join any call at any time on their or­ga­ni­za­tion’s in­stance of Zoom, with­out in-the-mo­ment con­sent or warn­ing for the at­ten­dees of the call.

With shared work­spaces shut­tered and every­one forced to con­nect from home, this data now il­lu­mi­nates for­merly in­ti­mate spaces: my IP ad­dress no longer bounces be­tween cof­fee shops, uni­ver­sity, and the li­brary, but in­vari­ably points to my house, and my de­vice in­for­ma­tion now de­scribes hard­ware I keep in my bed­room.

But the most dystopian Zoom fea­ture of all has to be Attendee Attention Tracking. In a 2018 ar­ti­cle the com­pany de­scribes the fea­ture and its po­ten­tial use in schools as fol­lows:

Cool fea­ture alert! Attendee Attention Tracking in Zoom can help you mon­i­tor your stu­dents’ at­ten­tion to your shared pre­sen­ta­tion. Whether it’s a video, a pow­er­point, or your desk­top, if Zoom is not the app in fo­cus on a stu­den­t’s com­puter you will see a clock in­di­ca­tor next to their name in the Participant box […] It may also be help­ful to let your stu­dents know that you will be grad­ing this met­ric. In the vir­tual class­room, any­thing you can do as ed­u­ca­tors to fa­cil­i­tate en­gage­ment and at­ten­tion will trans­late to con­tin­ued suc­cess in the class­room.4

Again, this in­for­ma­tion only flows up­ward, to­ward the ad­min­is­tra­tion (and in semi-anonymised form to Zoom and its ad­ver­tis­ing part­ners 5. Attendees (remember when we were stu­dents) are seen, but can’t them­selves see be­yond what­ever ma­te­r­ial the or­gan­i­sa­tion has made avail­able.

Complex flow diagram
Google, 2012: *Method and ap­pa­ra­tus for fo­cus-of-at­ten­tion con­trol* (Patent Drawing)

patents.google.com/​patent/​US8913103B1

Management at the Royal College have an­nounced they will be rolling out Zoom to all stu­dents, but it is un­clear which of its ad­min­is­tra­tive fea­tures they’re plan­ning to use, what in­for­ma­tion they’re stor­ing, and for what pur­pose. But even if they did­n’t use any and stored noth­ing, the fact that these con­trol mech­a­nisms are built into the plat­form to be turned on at any mo­ment with­out any real op­tion to dis­sent, is dam­ag­ing enough. You can’t prac­tice in­sti­tu­tional cri­tique when the in­sti­tu­tion is sit­ting on a gi­ant mute but­ton6.

Not that this kind of pri­va­tised soft­ware-space is new to ed­u­ca­tion. Other ed-tech junk like Edublogs, Moodle, Panopto (nice), Connect2, G-Suite, and The Intranet” fit largely sim­i­lar de­scrip­tions. But un­der so­cial dis­tanc­ing, these apps have be­come im­pos­si­ble to avoid.

This is why it is now more nec­es­sary than ever to in­ter­ro­gate these vir­tual spaces as we would the class­room and, as Hal Foster puts it, find fis­sures within this world, to pres­sure these cracks, and open up a lit­tle run­ning room”7.

Some of this has al­ready started: pub­lic Whatsapp groups pro­vide an un­of­fi­cial com­men­tary track to most of­fi­cial Zoom meet­ings. Multiple pro­grams at the RCA have taken over their for­merly mar­ket­ing-ori­ented Instagram ac­counts and are us­ing them to cri­tique the in­sti­tu­tion. Official emails are screen­shot­ted and dis­cussed in cross-in­sti­tu­tional Slack chan­nels. This is­n’t to say that these plat­forms don’t have their own prob­lems, but by cre­at­ing our own spaces within them, we’re at least avoid­ing the most im­me­di­ate level of ad­min­is­tra­tive con­trol. The next step is to think about how we want this on­line-learn­ing thing to work, and build­ing our own sys­tems (not nec­es­sar­ily tech­no­log­i­cal) to sup­port that. 8

  1. maxkoehler.com/​2020/​junk-city ↩︎

  2. Crunchbase, Zoom Video Communications. Available at crunch­base.com/​or­ga­ni­za­tion/​zoom-video-com­mu­ni­ca­tions ↩︎

  3. Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2020: What You Should Know About Online Tools During the COVID-19 Crisis. Available at eff.org/​deeplinks/​2020/​03/​what-you-should-know-about-on­line-tools-dur­ing-covid-19-cri­sis ↩︎

  4. Zoom Blog, 2018: Zoom Tips For Educators: Attendee Attention Tracking. Available at blog.zoom.us/​word­press/​2018/​01/​26/​zoom-tips-for-ed­u­ca­tors-at­tendee-at­ten­tion-track­ing/ ↩︎

  5. Vice, 2020: Zoom iOS App Sends Data to Facebook Even if You Don’t Have a Facebook Account. Available at vice.com/​en_us/​ar­ti­cle/​k7e599/​zoom-ios-app-sends-data-to-face­book-even-if-you-dont-have-a-face­book-ac­count ↩︎

  6. It took the Royal College of Art ex­actly two weeks to use that mute but­ton for union bust­ing. twit­ter.com/​RcaUcu/​sta­tus/​1225471357275770883 ↩︎

  7. Hal Foster, 2013: Running Room. In: Junkspace with Running Room, Notting Hill Editions. ↩︎

  8. This was first pub­lished in Content Free ↩︎