The Internet of Toys is normalising surveillance in the child's playroom https://t.co/RKHKekiVWd
— Ben Williamson (@BenPatrickWill) January 28, 2017
This article caught my attention because of its focus on how the use of digital technologies changes social practices, in this case by normalising a culture of surveillance:
These technologies also normalise surveillance as a cultural and social practice, in the context of the parent–child relationship or children’s relationship with institutional and commercial actors. Children are monitored or encouraged to monitor their own activities (be it health, school performance and/or play practices).
Growing up in a culture where (self-)surveillance is normalised is likely to shape children’s future lives in ways that it is hard to predict.
The article’s focus on digital technologies’ influence on culture echoes Bayne’s (2015) challenge to the notion of technology being neutral and separate from social practices. Bayne, citing Hamilton & Frieson (2013), uses the perspective of science and technology studies to suggest that the narrative surrounding use of digital technologies, and particularly technology within education, is overly simplistic and reductionist, framing technology as either instrumentalist or existentialist:
Where essentialism attributes to technology a set of ‘inalienable qualities’ immanent to the technological artefact, instrumentalism constructs technology as a set of neutral entities by which pre-existing goals (for example, ‘better’ learning) can be achieved.
The datafication of childhood experience that the articles argues normalises a culture of surveillance isn’t just implicit in the SmartToys it talks about, however. Digital technologies have enabled schools to keep more in-depth records on student behaviours and performance, and this record keeping has a significant impact on both the lives of teachers and students. Supposedly, better record keeping, through tools such as ‘Target Tracker’ schools can improve student progress. However, they simultaneously work to normalise notions of progression and learning as definitively linear, and routine across students. Similarly, persistent behavioural records which are transferred between schools and across levels of schooling frequently establish behaviour as something in need of modification, without addressing underlying social circumstances. One example of the latter is ClassDojo. According to Williamson and Rutherford (2017):
ClassDojo reinforces the idea that it is the behavioural mindset of the individual that needs to be addressed. Many ClassDojo resources refer to ideas such as ‘character development’ and ‘growth mindset’ that emphasise developing individuals’ resilience in the face of difficulties, but this doesn’t address the social causes of many difficulties children encounter, such as stress about tests.
It is clear in these examples that technology is not neutral, but rather influences the culture and practice of both learning and teaching, and more generally, of childhood. Yet, we are also not merely at the whim of technology – for example, it is school (and at times government) policy which dictates whether applications such as Target Tracker and ClassDojo are used. The relatively widespread acceptance of their use (in my experience within multiple schools) suggests that (wrongly or rightly) societally we already accept surveillance. Of course, tracking micro-levels of learning (though not terribly effective in my mind) is slightly less creepy than a doll asking a child about where he/she lives and what mummy and daddy do.. I’m interested in others’ thoughts – is there actually a difference between surveillance by SmartToys and surveillance by schools, or do we -as a society- need to reconsider the latter as well?
Bayne, S. (2014). What’s the matter with ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’? Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1). DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2014.915851
Williamson, B. & Rutherford, A. (2017). ClassDojo poses data protection concerns for parents [blog post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/2017/01/04/classdojo-poses-data-protection-concerns-for-parents/