Public Schools and Surveillance

From the Series: Evil Infrastructures

Photo by Franck V..

The transformation of the core instructional infrastructures of public education from a collection of chiefly analog materials—people, loose-leaf paper, glue, desks, books, pencils, markers—to a heterogeneous collection of both analog and digital materials—laptops, smartphones, commercial software platforms, standards, free-to-use collaborative editing software, people, books, pencils, markers—has sparked intense debates about social justice, particularly in the communities where people of lower socioeconomic status send their children to school (Saltman 2016). Public-facing institutions have undertaken massive infrastructural investments to expand the use of computers and computer-like devices in teaching (for instance, One Laptop per Child, or the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Common Core Technology Program), ostensibly to compensate for a lack of technological access in the home. This social justice claim relies on a straightforward calculation regarding the benefits of inclusion in digital culture and economies, but it ignores fundamental costs. Apart from the information it mediates, networked computing infrastructure produces a number of reciprocal demands on its users—on the very students, teachers, and communities such innovation is meant to enrich.

In my own research on the use of apps, smartphones, and tablet computers in public schools in South Central Los Angeles, these costs include the hours that teachers and students spend laboring to actualize the “gerunds that animate the myth of the paperless office” (Gitelman 2014, 128): formatting, updating, repairing, importing, downloading, reformatting, counting, exporting, and configuring. But another cost, one harder to quantify, comes in the diffusion of surveillance technologies into the captive audience of public school students and their families.

For many scholars, the cost of surveillance in public schools is self-evident: the most popular theories of surveillance, based as they are on the Foucauldian articulation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, hold that the glut of various forms of digital data constitute an all-seeing enclosure in which institutional power overrides individual agency (e.g., Ambrosio 2013). It is a compelling argument, especially given the proliferation of apps and other forms of “ed-tech,” the use of every variety of which binds each student to a regime of data collection, aggregation, reuse, and resale via a terms of service or end-user license agreement. These highly technical and legally sophisticated instruments turn students into users with a single click, a recontextualization that is deeply troubling.

Yoking public school students to exploitive and invasive data-collection regimes inspires deep unease in observers (and, encouragingly, in state lawmakers), but the exact nature of the threat of surveillance remains elusive. That is to say, what kind of evil is the surveillance of public school students by private technology companies that act, via opaque and idiosyncratic contracts, as agents of the state? Fictional models of surveillance present sinister intelligences at the center of surveillance regimes, but my own research shows something else, something more chaotic and less organized; truth is, after all, stranger than fiction. Another possibility for understanding surveillance emerges from the ways that subjects of surveillance hide in plain sight. Surveillance might, then, be thought of as a kind of theater—a dramaturgical approach to surveillance as opposed to one reliant on surveillance’s guiding fictions (as portrayed by Orwell, Kafka, Dick, Bentham, and others).

My research shows that surveillance regimes demand particular kinds of performances— the exchange of various tokens and displays—such that the actors involved can satisfy the demands of the system and then get on with whatever they were doing in the first place. Students compelled to report the progress of college applications on their devices uploaded gibberish documents to a content management system, knowing that they would be marked as having completed a required task because the system could only distinguish the file format and word count of an attachment. This hack spread through gossip and email. Teachers (themselves subject to new forms of surveillance) made shows of punishing student iPad users for accessing forbidden content by verbally reprimanding them and subjecting them to embarrassing inspections, yet they rarely instituted punitive responses to the frequent, pervasive use of school computers for noneducational media consumption. School administrators, newly empowered to collect all manner of data on teachers and students via the proliferation of screens and software, balked at using such data to punish teachers for the academic performance of their students, despite the availability of clearly intelligible metrics devised specifically for that purpose. In these and many other situations, surveillance routines became decoupled from the behavior they were meant to police.

I do not wish to diminish the harm to human dignity of surveillance abuse; rather, I want to open up a space to think about what modes of digital surveillance in all their guises might mean in the context of public education, particularly in minoritized communities. As Simone Browne (2015) points out, black bodies have long been subject to pervasive, often lethal, forms of surveillance. Likewise, Virginia Eubanks (2011) predicts the spread of the extreme digital surveillance to which the poor are subjected. My analysis is meant to find ways to think about the heterogeneous qualities of surveillance—its uneven coverage, its contradictions, and its incompetence—so that we might find ways to thwart the dangerous social control that is the central motif of dystopian fiction.


Ambrosio, John. 2013. “Changing the Subject: Neoliberalism and Accountability in Public Education.” Educational Studies 49, no. 4: 316–33.

Browne, Simone. 2015. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Eubanks, Virginia. 2011. Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. 2014. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Saltman, Kenneth J. 2016. Scripted Bodies: Corporate Power, Smart Technologies, and the Undoing of Public Education. New York: Routledge.