Blog / Edtech

The Infodemic, Technology and January 2021

Updated Jan 20th, 2021.

I intended the first blog post of 2021 to be an easy-going set of reflections on the year that was 2020 for emergency remote teaching and learning, and what it means for the future. I’m preempting that for a few words on why the infamous break-in at our neighbour’s house on Wednesday 6 January 2021 in Washington is extremely relevant to information technology folk and art and design educators alike.

As the World Health Organization indicated we’re fighting an infodemic as well as a pandemic: fake news and bogus conspiracy theories are spreading “faster than the virus” and it’s technology platforms that have enabled the spread. While the social networks have claimed to address misinformation on their platforms – many are unconvinced – and the rhetoric does not align with reality. Which brings us to Wednesday 6 January 2021.

Why is this relevant to Cybersecurity and IT Professionals?

Even Olaf the magical snowman from Disney’s 2019 Frozen has a theory about technology and its influence on society:

“my theory about advancing technologies as both our savior and our doom?”

Olaf the magical snowman from Disney’s 2019 Frozen 2

It’s relevant because this trouble was enabled by advancing technologies that we clearly do not have a handle on.

There are multiple cybersecurity angles to the events in Washington on January 6th. As already acknowledged by cybersecurity pros, many of the workstations in the capital were left unlocked during the invasion into the Capitol Building. Nancy Pelosi’s office was breached and many are wondering “why wasn’t her computer locked?”

Having the Capitol Building overrun is clearly a situation that IT staff either never contemplated or relaxed controls to reduce user friction: one would expect with the US Government to have fortress-like security. Friction is no fun, and I’ve been that user sometimes: “Why is this invasive security thing turned on? It’s killing performance!” And that resistance to friction appears to be one motivating factor to creating exceptions to exceptional users. It’s more than Alanis-Morrisette-level-ironic that on Pelosi’s screen were emails about the most recent hack of the US Government by a foreign government (again, likely the Russians) hacked the US Government in 2020 via a Solarwinds firewall update patch, and they’re still trying to figure out what happened. It’s now come to light that a laptop was also removed from Pelosi’s office: one must ask if there a strong password on it, with full-drive encryption, and a management client running on it so it could be located and wiped. Later, it became clear that the person who stole the laptop had been arrested, and planned to sell it to a foreign intelligence agency via an intermediary.

Many question why was the law enforcement response so permissive and weak by comparison with the BLM protests, and how does racism figure into the enablement of the attackers and the response to them. Given US resources for military, law enforcement and technology, was there not a plan for a possible terrorist attack on the Capitol and how did cybersecurity figure into that plan?

Although what happened on January 6th was a physical assault, the virtual assault on democracy started in 2016 when the Russians hacked the election. While you might not like that fact, it cannot be disbelieved as there is too much evidence that cannot be disproved. Social media networks provided the means to suppress voter turnouts in regions that would be considered hostile to the aims of certain political candidates and needed to be suppressed, as documented by David Carroll and Carole Cadwalladr in The Great Hack. Social media platforms – just like the political enablers – do not get a cookie for blocking political actors for inciting violence just when it seems politically convenient to do so because they appear on the wrong side of history.

It’s a bit late for the actions of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to be convincing: critics have been calling on the social media platforms to address hate and misinformation for quite a while in a variety of ways. There are plenty of examples of high-tech companies who are held accountable for their mistakes in the media, and then do an abrupt accountability check and take action. The past practice of inaction by the social media networks shows us that it’s not inherently in the self-interest of the networks to rein in bad behaviour, because friction generates attention. I imagine it’s up to us to lobby our governments to provide guardrails to protect our free speech, truth and freedom from chaos, hate and lies.

The riot and assault on the Washington Capitol Building of Wednesday 6 January 2021 was deeply disturbing to this Canadian, our Prime Minister – and if you listen to the CBC – more than a few others including our colonial forebearers. The attack was disturbing not only its physical assault on democracy but an example of the racism that BIPOC folks experience daily. And it was enabled by technology.

Why is this relevant to art and design education?

After watching the news of the riot and attack on the Capitol Building, I retired to bed early in the hopes of having a fresh start, but was awakened later by what was clearly turning over in my mind. When I woke, I found myself watching James Scott’s documentary “Love Bite” on Laurie Lipton, the LA based gothic-dystopian artist who draws haunting visions of a possible future – or our present – in meticulous pencil at large scale. Lipton has been drawing since she was a child, envisioning the darkest of human landscapes and emotions with a pencil: slowly, with precision, in a very literal fashion. Lipton’s London years found her eclipsed by the cool Britannia of Damien Hurst and the Young British Aritists (YBAs) and you can see why. The 80s English probably thought Lipton’s work was a bit naff: too literal and on the nose. But I like that sometimes, and speaking the truth can be unfashionable. Lipton’s work combines the nightmarish reality of the Surrealist dreamscape with the frankness of the Flemish School reality, and represents a stark opposition to the detached impenetrability of some of the post-modern work by Hurst and others.

In “Love Bite,” there’s a moment where Lipton describes an experience of watching a live CNN story documenting the bombing of Iraq.

“I was watching CNN. And they were showing bombing… Iraq. And I was sitting there eating. And these people screaming. Bombs are falling. It was actually happening… And I’m just sitting there eating. And there’s a commercial. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is sick … sitting here, in the comfort of my own home, I’m actually watching death happen.’ I just sat there and ate my supper. And I thought ‘I was being manipulated, by the graphics, everything, all the information they fed me, has just made me go to sleep.’”

Laurie Lipton, from “Love Bite”

Lipton’s work illustrates why we need to be critical and aware of ourselves, and that art and design practice can be revelatory.

Laurie Lipton's work about Afghanistan
Still from “Love Bite” documentary about Laurie Lipton that aired on TVO

While eerily similar to myself watching the events unfold in the Capitol on TV and social media, what’s different this time is that many are examining the videos published online using the lens of race and class, and acknowledging that the way that Wednesday 6 January 2021 at the Capitol building transpired is totally dissimilar to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations earlier in 2020.

Dori Tunstall, Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD U said this best when she noted, “Decolonization is the work of white people”.  White people need to acknowledge the systemic racism and prejudice built into our education systems and make change. As art and design educators, we need to encourage and promote our students to ensure their unique voices are being heard, particularly those Black, Indigenous and students of colour whose voices have historically been marginalized.

What are we going to do?

Clearly we need to do more than we’re doing now and more words need to be written on the subject.

We need to support the Fourth Estate of the free, critical and professional news media through our governments and subscriptions.

All of us need to acknowledge that cybersecurity is not someone else’s responsibility and that we all have a part to play. IT Professionals need to help our community and provide comprehensible education and better solutions. We need to advocate for strong privacy legislation that ensures our data is looked after no matter who is the steward or custodian and that we have some agency over that data.

With regard to the social media networks, Jaron Lanier offers a compelling critique in his book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” on free speech and social media and this kind of influence. Lanier suggests we should be more like cats than dogs when it comes to social media: be unpredictable and domesticate the network, don’t obey their every command. Lanier argues that we’re being manipulated for the benefit of a third-party in “civilly destabilizing ways” due to advertising. Lanier’s suggestions ring with the obvious truth of Laurie Lipton’s drawings: we need to be more critical of our personal use of technology and keep their most poisonous features out of our educational technology.

What are we not going to do?