Technology and Society
March 8, 2019
John Warner had a perfect response to the news that Turnitin has been sold for big bucks. First imagined in 1998, it launched as an ed-tech product along with the Plagiarism.org site in 2000, but even then it had ambitions to be used in publishing as well. It has been bought and sold a number of times, most recently to Advance Publishing, which also owns Condé Nast, the Discovery Channel, and a majority share of Reddit, of all things. We know Turnitin as the strong-arm enforcer in the classroom for policing plagiarism at scale and at a distance.
There are all kinds of things wrong with this product, including the blistering irony of demanding that students surrender their intellectual property in order to detect theft of intellectual property, but as John points out, the real issue is that it undermines teachers and students by turning plagiarism into a machine-readable problem. Students cope by learning to fool the machine. What they don’t learn is how to write. Pedagogy always trumps technology, but it’s easier to spend money on tech than on teachers. And tech has marketplace value.
What particularly struck me is how perfect an example this is of Shoshanna Zuboff’s thesis in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (which, yes, I’m still reading – it’s long.) She describes this era of capitalism as a new economic order that claims human experience as exploitable free raw material for tools for prediction and behavior modification. That’s exactly what Turnitin has done. Step one: create the need – we don’t want to fund teachers and manageable class sizes, so we outsource the plagiarism problem to a for-profit company that has a side gig of promoting the importance of the problem it promises to solve. Step two: devise a way to grab volumes of data without paying those whose data is grabbed. Step three: !!!profit!!!
Dispossession, surveillance, power, and profit. This thing that just sold for $1.75 billion will not pay a dime to those who fed the machine close to two decades of content and labor, nor to the institutions who paid hefty annual fees to hire a digital rent-a-cop. As Zuboff points out, this isn’t just appropriation of things we generate in the course of our lives, it’s the appropriation of our freedom, all in the name of platitudes like “connecting the world” and “organize the world’s information” and “passionate about helping students learn.” These once human activities are now automated and insanely profitable, machines humming along learning about us and rendering our experiences into prediction and control in a digital world that is increasingly a hall of cloudy and crazed mirrors full of fakes.