Tag Archives: identity politics

A Mass Market of Individuals

Shhh, I’m not really here.

Yesterday I listened to the latest episode of Note to Self, which investigated a tech startup called “AltSchool.” Founded by a former Google executive, AltSchool is “disrupting” elementary school by catering to each student’s educational profile and learning styles, tracked and measured using surveillance technology. Preliminary results seem promising, with highly engaged children partly directing their own learning, all with the help of their handy tablets loaded with personalized curricula.

The episode touches on many implications of this controversial model, and I’d be interested in an entire series on this enticing and alarming incubator. For one thing, the consumers (perhaps more aptly, beta-testers) are children, an ethical grey area the show doesn’t get into. Host Manoush Zomorodi and NPR education reporter Anya Kamanetz do highlight the fact that these beta-testers are not representative of the demographic realities of their communities, and question the business model of an educational institution that has to answer to shareholders. For his part, founder Max Ventilla argues that children should be allowed a period of no-holds-barred wonderment, and questions the idea that the world is a terrible place that kids need to be prepared for.

What stopped me in my tracks was the whole idea of personalized education.

When every child’s every unique preference and need is catered to so consistently, how do they learn to be part of a group? To compromise their unique needs with those of others? What happens to social norms in such a population? Do we rebuild them from a ground made of disparate special snowflakes, creating social norms from a cacophony of difference? I can see that working, I suppose. After all, that is what many coalitions attempt.

This can get into the dicey area of identity politics. The concerns of marginalized people who aren’t served by the status quo are important to take seriously. I admit that it can be easier for me to conform to existing social norms than it is for some people. Society and its norms should be questioned and challenged if society is to become egalitarian. That’s not what I’m trying to get at here. I’m not saying social norms shouldn’t change to reflect the lived realities of the many types of people who make up a civil society. I’m simply wondering how children will learn social norms in the first place if they’re not taught to forgo their personal preferences in favor of the needs of the larger group. Without that guiding principle, we’d risk social chaos.

But maybe my alarm is off-base, and what really troubles me is that so many “solutions” to social problems are increasingly coming at things from an individual perspective. That and the fact that the organizations piloting these solutions are venture capital-backed tech startups that exist to turn a profit. (I do so wish they’d stop meddling.)

Pernicious individualization strikes me as a dangerous marketing ploy, as a symptom of a consumer culture so invested in getting people to think of themselves as special that they’ll buy anything to prove it, including a personalized education. This is a tech start-up after all. The same type of company that got us to go for a car service that exploits workers and dinner boxes that produce mountains of waste. It’s personal convenience at the expense of the public good. We’re allowing ourselves to get distracted from our collective consciousness of the structural problems that create symptoms like ineffectual schools.

As the individualization trend grows and consumerism takes over what were once public services (e.g., education) what becomes of our society? I maintain that a certain measure of conformity is critical to living and working with other people. And that systematic change, not micro-disruptions, are crucial to positive social transformation.

So enough with the money-grubbing disruption, the expensive band-aids that bill themselves as cost-effective lifestyle enhancements. Let’s instead identify our common needs and mold our institutions into something that serves them.

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Technology

Forcible Consent: (in)Humanity & Submission on Star Trek

About a month ago, I sat through a season four episode of Star Trek: Voyager that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. No, not the one where B’Elanna succumbs to oxygen deprivation and declares her misguided love for Paris. As troubling as that installment was, it was an arc in the first few episodes of season four, culminating in “The Gift,” that had my jaw on the floor.

A brief background on the episode before we wade into the (un)ethical subspace of the Delta Quadrant:

After striking a tenuous alliance with the Borg to defeat a common enemy, our wayward crew finds itself playing host to Seven of Nine, a member of the Borg whose connection to the Collective has been severed for the standard techno-magical reasons. A few other Borg henchmen are unceremoniously dispatched from Voyager after they betray the crew’s trust, leaving Seven of Nine to advocate for itself. (It should be noted here that the Voyager crew think of Seven of Nine as female, although at this point the Borg probably considers such gendered designations Irrelevant.) The crew digs into their effective captive’s history, discovering that Seven of Nine was once a little girl who was abducted and assimilated by the Borg. At that point, Captain Janeway makes it her mission to bring Seven of Nine back into humanity’s fold.

7 of 9 borg

Seven of Nine, badass Borg

This is not the first time Janeway’s leadership has made me uncomfortable. I’m not sure I’d follow her home, especially if the option of joining Holo(hottie)-Chakotay in his coup were to worm its way out of its interactive fictional exercise and into reality. The point is, Seven of Nine wants to return to the Collective, or, barring that, be dropped onto the nearest hospitable world. Both of these requests are denied, as is her more basic request to maintain her personal (or species?) agency.

A crucial aspect of “The Gift’s” plot revolves around the ethical question of whether to return Seven of Nine to her original human state. Because she is no longer connected to other Borg, the Doctor determines that the human parts of her body are rejecting the Borg technology. Captain Janeway seizes upon Seven of Nine’s biological history as proof positive that she is fundamentally human and must, deep down, wish to become so again biologically. Janeway denies Seven of Nine the choice of whether to undergo what amounts to both major invasive surgery and a change in biological identity, instead claiming this as her prerogative, citing Noble Human Reasons.

In doing so, Janeway denies the Borg as a species the dignity of personal agency. And since what little humanity is left within Seven of Nine doesn’t readily (or recognizably) asset itself, Janeway takes it upon herself to speak on its behalf and give it more weight than the (very loud) assertions of the Borg part of Seven of Nine. Thus Janeway leverages her power as captain to declare Seven of Nine’s Borg identity invalid, clinging to the idea that what was once human must still be fundamentally so. She orders the Doctor to medically extract and enhance Seven of Nine’s available human biology, enabling it to completely eject her Borg DNA and technology. The Doctor, for his part, enables Janeway, and Seven of Nine is forced to become human against her will through a process that amounts to medical torture.

Why the Doctor doesn’t invoke his Hippocratic oath, as he did when Tuvix expressed his desire not to die (season 2, episode 24), is a major unanswered question. The Tuvix episode did a much better job of representing the complexity of the ethical dilemma at hand. There’s little such nuance here. Viewers are made aware of the opposing arguments [read: Seven of Nine’s position about her own body] only so they can be shut down by the characters who occupy the positions of power in the Federation hierarchy and along the moral axis of the cast.

One of the most maddening weaknesses of Star Trek‘s otherwise inclusive philosophy is its insistence that humanity is the pinnacle of existence. The episode is SO SURE of Janeway’s moral high-ground that it’s disturbing, which points to Star Trek‘s occasional failure to achieve the progressiveness it prides itself on espousing. Janeway’s position amounts to one of human species supremacy, echoing centuries of colonial white supremacy, and she imposes it on a being who is already in a disadvantaged position and has little recourse. Janeways repeatedly ignores Seven of Nine’s clearly stated desires and staunch refusals to grant consent. But in a heartbreaking irony, resistance for this Borg is indeed futile.

7 of 9 human

Seven of Nine, reluctant human

Once again, the female body is stripped of its agency and remade into society’s image. This time literally. Viewers are meant to side with Janeway’s view of the situation and cheer when humanity triumphs and they are able to count Seven of Nine (see what I did there?) as one of their own.

Perhaps contemporary discourse surrounding consent and identity politics is what’s causing me to react so negatively to this plot and character developments. I don’t doubt that the episode’s moral stance was better received when it aired in 1997. But today, these blatant denials of someone’s personal agency simply do not fly (puns are always intended).

In the Delta Quadrant, the perception of humanity eclipses even the Prime Directive.

3 Comments

Filed under Beginning of the Body, Gender Trouble, Power, Television and Movies

The Problem with Identity

This is a series of questions that circle back on one another. I do not have answers.

Anthropology seems at odds with itself. As a discipline, it’s charged with understanding people from their own cultural perspectives, maintaining that meaning arises from use. Thinking through these tenets, it leads to a tension between intention and interpretation. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of identity and personhood–who someone is, how that “who” comes into being, and who has the power to determine who the “who” is.

Continue reading

5 Comments

Filed under Gender Trouble, Power