To expect that a social media company will help societies to deal with the public expression of hate is remarkable for two reasons.
First, the expectation outsources the responsibility of controlling the outbreak of a destructive emotion like hatred. It suggests nothing less than the abdication of a role social institutions, including the ones run by the state, ought to play. Second, the idea of letting a social media company deal with the problem implies an enhanced sphere of its operations. Already, that sphere is believed to include canvassing for elections. To assign the reduction or removal of hateful expression to the owners of digital platforms implies letting them figure out, through digital tools, who harbours what emotions and values.
This is, of course, not the first time that mature liberal democracies are posing a readiness to compromise with their commitment to privacy. Erosion of the citizen’s right to privacy is no longer newsworthy. In societies like America, and not just China, the citizenry has comfortably bargained several of its older freedoms for cheap conveniences. As a nation, we have been ahead of many others in establishing the right to freedom of all kinds of expression, irrespective of the medium used. In that sense, we have been more tolerant, and after each attempt to suppress freedom, there has been an adequate expression of outrage. But things are changing. The temptation to let technology monitor unacceptable speech or writing has been growing as part of the general dependence on digital devices.
Let us take an example from higher education. Education of the young is believed to be a relevant sphere for the growth of moral awareness. Institutional ethos and considerate pedagogic practices are known to nurture the kind of temperament and values that civic life demands. In higher education, an important value everyone is supposed to learn is that the knowledge one has derived from the writings of someone else needs to be acknowledged. When students write a thesis based on their own research, you expect that they have not stolen — that is, used without acknowledgement — ideas or text from an existing source. Until a few years ago, that trust was cultivated and exercised by the teacher under whose guidance the thesis was written. A software has now replaced the teacher. Under the rules in place now in all universities, all dissertations must submit to this software and get a clearance before the university will accept them for further examination. This requirement is an affront not merely to the student but also to the supervisor. Among the 46 designated spaces where a supervisor is now required to put his signature when a thesis is about to be submitted, there already was one where the originality of the student’s effort was certified. That declaration by the teacher will now be confirmed by the mechanical plagiary check.
The message is clear: The university does not trust the teacher any more. When exactly did this accident occur is not a relevant question. It is not as if there was a sudden flood of plagiarised dissertations at some point, which forced the University Grants Commission to institute the system of plagiary check before submission. What seems to have happened is that this tool became available in the market and it created the need it could fulfil. The implications of using the tool were never contemplated. Turning to a mechanical device which promised to do a function that teachers were supposed to perform seemed like a good idea. Prevailing stereotypes of teachers must have helped to rationalise the switch over. As one might expect, the transfer of a moral function to technology marginalised the teacher’s human agency further.
Opinion | An education policy for the 21st century
Something similar happened in schools, but there one can date the beginning. It was sometime during Sheila Dikshit’s first term as Delhi’s chief minister that an experimental programme to install CCTV cameras in a few schools started. By then, many private schools were already using them. It is not as if these private schools had any doubts about their teachers’ devotion to work. The principals justified the cameras in the name of pedagogic quality. I remember a principal joyfully claiming that he can see what teachers are writing on the blackboard. By the time private schools started making their classrooms “smart” with a range of equipment, government schools started to install more CCTV cameras on a large scale. Transparency was the buzzword. It was supposed to deliver the moral value called accountability. Easy demonisation of the school teacher paved the way for surveillance technology to enter every classroom. It has now entered a new stage where parents can check a few times how things are going for their child at school.
This story is just one among a hundred wherein social spaces and functions are handed over to technology. In day-to-day general governance, transparency tools have acquired routine roles. In academic institutions, public disclosure of decisions and plans, faculty profiles, financial details, etc, has been going on for some time now.
Educational institutions invest considerable effort and resources to ensure that their websites have a competitive market appeal. Regulation and accreditation now constitute the official diction of public policy in higher education. The newly announced policy in education underlines the role of digital resources in these spheres. It says that the apex regulatory body in higher education will “use technology to reduce human interface to ensure efficiency and transparency”. As if this is not clear enough, the next sentence says that the “underlying principle will be that of a faceless and transparent regulatory intervention using technology”. The human face has apparently become the object of celebration and suspicion in equal measure in our times.
The hope that faceless exercise of regulatory authority will lend greater impartiality, and therefore more efficiency, to our higher education system is a precious gift of the great faith that digital technology now wields. Perhaps we have entered a new era. It is no longer necessary to work out why a certain value that has eluded us so far will be attained. Once again, ethics are believed to arise from faith.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2020 under the title ‘Faith in the machine’. Kumar is former director, NCERT and author of The Child’s Language and the Teacher.
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