by Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

Freida’s finger hovers over her screen, the “Click to Accept Terms” button flashing green and gray. She knows that once she taps the buttons, the camera on her laptop will turn on…and stay on. She also knows that she has to accept the terms. This is, after all, the only way she will remain eligible for her scholarship at Moranda University. Use of WATCHER24/7 room and behavior scanning software ensures that Freida studies efficiently and doesn’t engage in behaviors that “distract” her from her studies. At least, that’s what the university has told her. She closes her eyes and taps “accept.”

This scenario may seem outlandish to you. But, if you have taken time to read the terms of service for any digital tool you use, you might recognize that the story is not too far removed from the present. The pervasive digital surveillance we experience is considered the cost of participating in the digital world and digital economy, even the “digital” university. Not only is it embedded in technologies we use daily–and in the case of the fictional Moranda University, embedded in policies that require students to engage with surveillance in order to remain students in good standing–but technology companies “engage in obfuscatory strategies and tactics that cultivate the perception that efforts at control are pointless,” leaving us feeling powerless to resist the surveillance practices,what Nora Draper and Joseph Turow have termed “digital resignation.”

The story I made up about Freida could be considered speculative fiction. Speculative fiction imagines possible and impossible futures. You have likely read speculative fiction, perhaps in sub-genres like science fiction, fantasy, or alternate history. Speculative fiction can be found in other creative realms such as art (example) and design (examples). While it may be created for entertainment, many creators use it to explore visions of the future with the goal of shaping our actions today to work toward or against possible futures. Thus speculative fiction can be considered both future-oriented and present-oriented, as Shandell Houlden and George Veletsianos write:

“While such engagement can propose possibilities for what could happen, both in terms of risks or threats and in terms of positive change, it also informs our understanding of present moments as the very conditions for those possible futures. Indeed, an argument could be made that the imagined possibilities of futures so impact the way we behave in the present that futures are indeed made manifest now…”

Educators have used speculative fiction, especially dystopian fiction, to deepen students’ critical analysis skills with regards to technology. Casey Fiesler uses the dystopian show Black Mirror with students to raise ethical and regulatory issues in technology. A.M. Cox and Nettrice Gaskins suggest that speculative fiction can help us explore the benefits and risks of AI, Machine Learning, and robots in higher education, and to interrogate the data extraction and surveillance that accompany those innovations. This is important given the range of surveillance practices that technology has already enabled in schools and the risks of raising questions about such technological implementations. Jen Ross and I wrote that speculative stories about educational surveillance offer “a deeper understanding of the role surveillance has played and continues to play in universities and tactics and strategies for interrupting and perhaps reducing or reconfiguring its impacts. This requires a willingness to speculate that some of the surveillance roles we have come to accept could be otherwise, along with an acknowledgment that we are implicated in what Lyon terms ‘surveillance culture’ (2017) in education. What can we do with that knowledge, and what culture shifts can we collectively provoke?”

To address those questions, Jen, who recently published a book on Speculative Futures for Learning, and I co-founded an organization called Higher Education After Surveillance (HEAS) in 2019. Later that year, a group of HEAS members created the Data Stories project, which aimed to create a digital tool for co-creation of speculative stories about the future of surveillance practices in higher education. The Data Stories Creator tool prompts users to write stories through a series of prompts and a mapping tool that helps users to arrange their responses into a narrative arc. Stories are then published anonymously on the Data Stories website. The resulting stories offer sobering visions of the future, but also glimpses of what might possibly thwart or subvert such futures (Ross & Wilson, 2022). Though our work on the project was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have used the Data Stories tool in workshops and professional conferences to stimulate public discussions about surveillance in higher education. These public discussions encourage us to reflect on how current actions might enable or prevent certain futures and help change our behaviors today. But is it enough to spark the public conversations, or is more needed to move the futures we want forward?

Here we turn to the work of Black feminist technoethicists and community organizers, such as Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, that connects speculative approaches to social change, noting that “all organizing is science fiction,” driven by the speculative question, “what is the world that we want?” Walidah Imarisha coined the term visionary fiction to describe this intersection of speculative fiction and social change, arguing that in visionary fiction “change happens via collective action” and requires radical reimagining of structures and systems of power. Collective action is what moves us from the realm of imagination and into creating change. We are now seeing examples of speculative fiction being used with policy-making and policy-facing entities, in addition to community organizations, to help organize and align collective action. However, as we think about how to move forward, we must be willing to tamper with existing power structures, many of which have a vested interest in maintaining their power. Both our stories and our subsequent actions must contend with and subvert the powers that shape our present reality (in particular, white supremacy, colonialism, heteropatriarchy) and that cannot remain unchanged in the futures we imagine.

So, can stories like Freida’s change the future, helping us to make changes now in higher education to address the pervasive and growing surveillance our students, faculty, and staff face? The answer might be “yes,” but only if we are willing to provoke critical reflections and conversations that incite collective action to change what we are doing today and what we are willing to accept today.

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