July 3, 2024

Roderic Crooks’ Access Is Capture: How Edtech Reproduces Racial Inequality 

Categories: Connected Learning, Critical Perspectives, Edtech, Equity, Featured, Research

Racially and economically segregated schools across the United States have hosted many interventions from commercial digital education technology (edtech) companies who promise their products will rectify the failures of public education. Edtech’s benefits are not only trumpeted by industry promoters and evangelists but also vigorously pursued by experts, educators, students, and teachers. Why, then, has edtech yet to make good on its promises? In Access Is Capture, Roderic N. Crooks investigates how edtech functions in Los Angeles public schools that exclusively serve Latinx and Black communities. These so-called urban schools are sites of intense, ongoing technological transformation, where the tantalizing possibilities of access to computing meet the realities of structural inequality. Crooks shows how data-intensive edtech delivers value to privileged individuals and commercial organizations but never to the communities that hope to share in the benefits. He persuasively argues that data-drivenness ultimately enjoins the public to participate in a racial project marked by the extraction of capital from minoritized communities to enrich the tech sector.


This book starts and ends with this persistent and appealing trope: the story that pervasive racial inequalities can be addressed through access to some form of computing. In every version of this story, whatever kind of computing technology has been proffered embodies a limitless, futuristic, and benevolent force in a world riven by crusty analog hierarchies. If the disruptions they make are yoked to the right values, it is presumed, a “more human and fair” world will result (as John Perry Barlow famously predicted in his 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”). The appeal of this access story turns equally on an ideological belief in the power of digital technologies to determine the shape of the future world, and a deep ethical conviction that the benefits of technology to society should be shared in the present, especially with those who have previously been shortchanged by racism, poverty, or precarity. This belief requires an absolute separability and distinction between racism, poverty, precarity, and computing, a commitment that technology is somehow highly active in giving the future world shape, but completely outside the dynamics of present inequalities. While this story about access is tired and may not be as plausible as it once seemed, it still has force. The desire for access motivates investments in public infrastructure; it gives professionals a sense of purpose; it animates massive fundraising efforts and bolsters laws, statutes, and policy.

In the United States, access to technology as an engine of social, political, economic, and racial equality appears against the backdrop of a number of endemic, ubiquitous failures: the failure of Black and brown people to use the proper kinds of computers in appropriate and productive ways; the failure of working-class people to continually cultivate marketable skills; the failure of public schools to confer middle-class status on their racially segregated student bodies. These failures, each a deeply moral indictment, haunt empirical social science and constrain the public imagination. The failures that access to technology is supposed to fix are as varied and changeable as the uneven social terrain produced by racial inequality in the United States and its attendant economic, social, political, and cultural consequences. To fixate on access is a way to take race and other socially consequential forms of difference out of the frame, and to implicitly explain away inequality among people by looking at the distribution of things: computers, routers, cables, software packages, tutorial videos. As many scholars have noted, technology has not only failed to address the structural conditions that reproduce racial inequality; it has, in fact, exacerbated them. Critical scholarship frequently presents this stubborn reality as a case of false consciousness among influential figures in the philanthropic, academic, policy, and tech sec- tors, as if a few high-minded but credulous figures had seen their innocent technological ambitions deformed by the intrusion of the social world.

In journalism and tech-focused scholarship, these benevolent intentions absolve technologists, academics, policy makers and others from the actual consequences of their relentless efforts to spread, configure, and maintain access on behalf of others. Less remarked upon is how constant investments in various forms of access produce real profits for a variety of actors, although almost never for those whose abjection initially inspired these professional saviors in the first place. Policy and research on access to computing remains doggedly uninterested in the specifics of daily life, technology use, computer non-use, and other aspects of vital significance, including costs associated with getting and keeping access. Questions about the actual benefits of access are thus seen as beyond the reach of cost-benefits analysis and even evidence altogether; who truly benefits from access is no longer an empirical question.

Access has many variations and many adherents, but my interest here is primarily in what happens after this familiar access story is told and enacted: I am thinking about what happens in the aftermath of access. I am less interested in the self-important delusions of tech sector workers or the altruistic gibberish of Silicon Valley philanthropists; instead, I want to think with and about the everyday experiences of people who live, study, and work with modes of access that have been foisted on them for one reason or another. I am thinking not of professional trendsetters or evangelists who craft better futures for the rest of us to buy, but of the teachers, students, parents, and organizers who have to get on with the business of living in communities hollowed out by public disinvestment, gentrification, and over-policing. I am thinking of people who roll their eyes, wait a beat, then get on with what they were trying to say; of people who improvise, work around, cheat, hack, half-ass, and ignore with great creativity and style. I am thinking of people who may or may not put stock in the vision of a liberatory technological future, but who will nonetheless find ways to pursue their own programs and solve their own problems with whatever materials are at hand.


Excerpted from Access Is Capture: How Edtech Reproduces Racial Inequality, from University of California Press. Now available for pre-order at this link.  

Post by Roderic Crooks

Roderic Crooks (he/him) is an associate professor in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine. His research examines how the use of digital technology by public institutions contributes to the minoritization of working-class communities of color. His current research explores how community organizers in working-class communities of color use data for activist projects, even as they dispute the proliferation of data-intensive technologies in education, law enforcement, financial services, and other vital sites of public life. His first book, Access Is Capture: How Edtech Reproduces Racial Inequality, will be published in the Fall of 2024 by the University of California Press.