More Thoughts on Pasquale’s “Black Box Society”

When I finish reading a good book, my sense of satisfaction and fulfillment tends to be a rather private happening. I finish the book and even as I move on to the next (and there is always a next one), I still spend a fair amount of time processing the last. Since I’ve been blogging, I have used this space to share more thoughts about recent readings and that has felt somewhat liberating.

This summer I even went so far as to tweet out a picture of my proposed reading stack of 4 books:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidiche, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Black Box Society by Frank Pasquale and Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier. Three quarters of the way done, I find my mind twisting and turning to accommodate so much new and rich input. Only Data and Goliath remains and as a back-to-back read with The Black Box Society, I feel adequately steeled for whatever fresh insights on  data vulnerability it may bring.

Here I want to focus , however, on Black Box because I feel like I will find no peace until I have shared as much as possible while the ideas are still so active in my mind.  In an earlier blog post I noted parallels between Pasquale’s illustrations and the Harry Potter series. (Seriously.) In a nutshell, Black Box Society examines the role of algorithmic decision-making in the areas of reputation (how we appear to external parties), search (what we look for online and how the selection and ranking of responses takes place and may impact us), and finance (the business of making (much) more money out of some money). I read it because someone I deeply respect recommended it. Before I started I was already a little apprehensive.

While reading The New Jim Crow presented challenges in the form of emotional labor, I was concerned that Black Box Society might be a bit beyond me. I had reservations about my capacity to grasp all the topics author Frank Pasquale was planning to cover: intricacies of the tech industry and finance. I even wrote a sticky note to myself for a potential blog post: How to read a difficult text:
*go slowly
*talk back to your negative self-talk (that keeps saying you won’t get it)
*be patient
*allow not knowing
*come back to it again & again – build stamina over time

The sticky note is stuck just inside the front cover. As it turns out, however, I didn’t need it, per se. I made it through the text and felt well guided throughout. This was the first text in a long while that I read with pencil in hand. I underlined a lot and put notes in the margins. I got involved with the text and found unanticipated connections (i.e., to Harry Potter). And, I dare say, I had fun, even reading about finance because it was explained both generously and with significant intentionality. Particularly when the discussion turned to CDSes (credit default swaps), CDOs (collateral debt obligations) and MBSes (mortgage-backed securities) which stood at the center of the financial meltdown of 2008, Pasquale provided the necessary scaffolding for me to make sense both of the crisis itself and the underlying assumptions that made it possible.

As I read I kept coming back to thoughts about privilege, wealth and status. Whether describing the titans of Wall Street or Silicon Valley, Pasquale captures a very wealthy, white male demographic who wield an immense degree of power and influence in both the private sector as well as in government. And their ability to carry out so many of their transactions behind various cloaks of secrecy and complexity or “black boxes”, reinforces and expands the wealth and privileges this group continues to amass. As an African-American woman, an educator – I found myself reading and thinking that there are few who  expect me to read and be up on this stuff.  I find myself in this narrative as the clueless user/consumer who stands largely at the mercy of these gigantic corporate structures whose services I engage to write this post, to make it findable on the web, to purchase more books, to tweet more links, to tout my professional skills, connect with hundreds of other educators, and so on.

Frank Pasquale is extremely candid in his assessment of the current state of affairs:

What we do know is that those at the top will succeed further, thanks in large part to the reputation incurred by past success; those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages. Despite the promises of freedom and self-determinism held out by the lords of the information age, black box methods are just as likely to entrench a digital aristocracy as to empower experts. (p. 218)

Think about that for a moment. “Those at the top will succeed further…those at the bottom are likely to endure cascading disadvantages.”
This captures our society with alarming accuracy. And we can be certain that black boxes abound, especially in areas where power is increasingly consolidated. I cannot help but think of the aggressive pursuit of corporate interests in K-12 and Higher Education where transparency and openness can quickly become casualties in the fight to “reform” public education through various forms of privatization. I must also consider the prison-industrial complex which provides shareholder billions as the United States has the highest rate of incarceration of its citizens in the developed world. As Michelle Alexander asserts in The New Jim Crow, the war on drugs has enabled the creation of a new social undercaste whose political, economic and social disenfranchisement underscore  the essence  of “cascading disadvantages.”

While reading Black Box Society I was frequently reminded of an essay by sociologist,  Tressie McMillam Cottam whom I quoted in a previous blog post:

…give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics.

There seems to be no escape from the political no matter where I turn.  Completing The Black Box Society becomes a political act,  as is reading The New Jim Crow and Data and Goliath. This is me “getting up on politics.” Getting informed, adding depth to my otherwise fuzzy notions of impending social and economic demise. It is impossible to read Pasquale and not become politicized.  He writes:

Internet and finance firms “set the standard” for our information economy. So far they have used their powers to know the world of commerce ever more intimately…Knowing more than a rival, or simply knowing it faster, is the key to vast fortunes.

But what if economic success were based less on information advantage and more on genuine productivity? Distracted from substantive judgments on what the economy should produce, we have been seduced by the mysterious valuations that Wall Street and Silicon Valley place on goods and services. But their algorithmic methods framed as neutral and objective, are predictably biased toward reinforcing certain hierarchies of wealth and attention. (p. 187-88)

The choices we have become very narrow very quickly unless we take steps at the very least to understand the evils to which we appear to be wedded. My attempts to comprehend the scope of  algorithmic dominance in our information economy seem to have been a wise and useful step. Following @FrankPasquale on Twitter has also broadened my perspective on related topics. This is not about learning the ins and outs of  a subject area. Rather this is about opening my eyes to what is unfolding right in front of me and has a daily impact on how we function as a society. We can’t see everything at once. But we can train our eyes on a specific field for a time in order to gain perspective, insight, and cause for further observation.

Frank Pasquale, The  Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2015.



Knee-Jerk vs. A Stone’s Throw

photo via
photo via

I read that article. Yes, that article. You know the New York Times article about Success Academy Charter Schools; about how they employ rigid and punitive teaching and management methods to produce very strong standardized test results. Yeah, that article. You read it too, right? And what was your response? Outrage? Indignation? Horror?

In my Twitter feed (which is how I was introduced to the article in the first place), I found an assortment of these reactions which, not surprisingly, resonated. No, I would not wish for my own children to experience that type of schooling. Yes, I find it deplorable that public shaming of underperforming students  is relied on as a viable teaching and motivational strategy.  Yes, I concur that the definition of academic success as evidenced by high test scores is narrow and misleading. And no, I do not believe for a moment that Ms. Moskowitz and her billionaire backers care as much about the improvement of outcomes for poor brown and black children as they claim to.

After reading and re-reading the article, I found my desire and need to cast the Success Academy Charter Schools and their feckless CEO, Eva Moskowitz as the obvious villains nearly irresistible.  Because we have a narrative here. And our brains are hard-wired for stories. The story goes: innocent poor brown and black children and their families become pawns in a much larger political and financial shell game in which obscenely wealthy hedge fund managers use education reform efforts as a cover for protecting their financial gains in the short and long term. (See this article for more.) Poor brown and black families in this narrative lack agency and wits to do much beyond make the most of the hands they are dealt. At the same time, middle class liberals protest on the street and via social media while sending their own children to imperfect yet workable public and private schools.  This is what I perceive to be a widespread narrative. It is simplistic, has fairly flat characters and beyond the occasional ideological skirmish, offers little in the way of visible action.

The reality, however, is and must be so much more complicated, messy and multifaceted than this particular narrative. Each intersection of individuals – students, teachers, parents, principals, charter CEO  –  yields a host a perspectives and ideas which may blend, align, collide, or explode at various junctures. That’s the picture that is so much harder to show. Because it’s more than a picture; these are phenomena unfolding in real-time where not all elements are on display or available for armchair interpretation. While the flat narrative fits nicely with my pre-selected biases, my thinking, and worse, my potential understanding are weaker for taking this story at face value.  If I step away from the flat narrative, then I must also acknowledge all the things about which I know next to nothing.

I do not teach and have never taught in a public school. Or in a charter school. I do not live in New York City nor have I ever. I am African-American and my upbringing was distinctly middle class. I have never lived in poverty and I cannot claim to know that experience. The list could go on and on. What I do have are beliefs about society, about education, about the power of writing, about the power of reading and dialoguing to further and deepen my understanding of the world you and I inhabit. I also have my unique life experiences which inform and also filter my perceptions of what is and what is true.

While I find the portrait of  Success Academy Charter Schools and their model of academic progress depicted in this single article both troubling and frightening, I must also recognize that I am not that parent whose child is thriving in that environment. I am not that student who feels like this teacher cares about her more than all her previous teachers. I am not the young ambitious educator out to change the world who gets promoted to principal at 25. There are beneficiaries in every system. My point here is that in our eagerness to judge, judge, judge, we are deeply prone to dismissing the experiences of those whose achievements we might well applaud in other contexts which align more conveniently with our unique set of biases.

One of the questions that came up for me as I continued to turn these contrary thoughts in my head was: Could it be that this portrayal irks us so much because it reflects how we actually do much of school, just taken to an ugly extreme?  Because looking at my own teacher behaviors: I line kids up and walk them from place to place, I shush them, I insist on quiet when I am or others are talking, I have shamed children, I have not allowed every child to use the toilet when he or she wanted. Again my list could go on. Many of the practices which offend our particular sensibilities that appear in the article may prove to be extreme versions of what many of us do already.

In the course of my reading yesterday, I came across a post calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against corporations which feed off the prison economy. While the context of the remarks below refer to the blatant injustices of penal culture in the US, this passage strikes me as painfully applicable here:

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow,” is outspoken about the imperative for organizing to fight back. In a speech at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in March she told her audience: “Jesus taught that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Well, we have become a nation of stone throwers. And in this era of mass incarceration it is not enough to drop your stone. We have to be willing to catch the stones raining down on the most vulnerable. And we must be willing to stand up to the stone throwers and disarm them.”

“We have become a nation of stone throwers.”  This sentences hits home on so many levels. Whenever I deign to talk about what education should be, particularly for other people’s children, then I need to check and see which stones I am carrying and prepared to cast. Which assumptions am I holding that may cloud my capacity to see what I wish was not there? How and to what degree am I perpetuating and further entrenching negative practices?  Hard questions and very necessary questions.  We cannot go on espousing the importance of critical thinking for our students, in our curricula, throughout our standards, if we are not willing and able to deconstruct the narratives we create and support in our own minds.

Stop and look at the stones you are holding.


Hat tip to my Twitter dialogue partners who really helped me arrive at a deeper level of reasoning on this topic: @Sisyphus38 @JustinAion @pepinosuave @LubaSays @NA_Dellsey  Thanks, all!