After a small time out coinciding with my trip to Germany, The Big Idea is back, and to get us back into the swing of things, we’ve got an interesting one for you by my friend Lauren McLaughlin, whose new novel Scored imagines a world where monitoring and testing is taken to its final analysis conclusion — and the results, while perfect in their way, are also not exactly what would fill most people with joy. How did Lauren get from today to a world of “perfect” testing and surveillance? It started with a walk to the park.
A few years ago, I was living in the Hackney section of London on a street known as “murder mile.” It was an area which would later erupt in a storm of sudden vandalism during the London riots. Despite its grim reputation, it was actually a great place to live and very close to London Fields. On sunny days, I would venture out to that park to have lunch under one of the giant oak trees in the company of black crows. The walk to London Fields took me past a series of abandoned warehouses and every day there were usually one or two cars with their windows freshly smashed in. Hackney was living up to its reputation.
But one day I noticed that I hadn’t seen a smashed-in window in quite some time. Following the path of a crow alighting on something above me, I noticed the bright reflective lens of a brand new surveillance camera. Looking up and down the street, I saw about six more of them. The window-smashers had obviously seen them too and decided to change their ways.
But when I wandered down a different street–one where surveillance cameras had yet to be installed–I discovered two more cars with smashed-in windows. The criminals hadn’t changed their ways. They’d merely adapted. Here, I thought was the perfect test case for the effectiveness of surveillance in crime prevention. And the takeaway lesson was obvious: put surveillance cameras everywhere and there’ll be no more smashed-in windows.
This was a lightbulb moment for me. I already knew the arguments against ubiquitous surveillance. I’d read 1984. I opposed the Patriot Act’s warrantless wiretapping. I worried, as did so many, that England was “sleepwalking into a surveillance society.” But what I had never understood until the moment that crow landed on that camera was how seductive surveillance could be. Despite everything I knew and believed about government overreach and the potential for abuse, I wanted those cameras there. I appreciated their protective gaze as I walked to London Fields. They made me feel safe.
That is when I became truly frightened of surveillance–not because it would be foisted upon us by a domineering government or a corporate giant, but because we would invite it. It simply had too much to offer.
Shortly thereafter I moved back to the US and became aware of the debate raging about high stakes standardized testing in the schools. Again, I knew the arguments against it: an overemphasis on testing reduces class time to little more than test prep and replaces rich educational experiences with rote memorization and gamesmanship.
But there’s an upside to standardized testing too. It provides a means of evaluating teachers and schools in ways that can help those students currently underserved, to the point of betrayal, by their education. Additionally, it can provide an end run around a poor school system for those bright students who score well.
In short, standardized testing promises true meritocracy. Who isn’t in favor of that?
So what would happen if you combined ubiquitous surveillance with high stakes testing? What if instead of filling in those little bubbles on a written test, students were simply observed in their day to day lives by innocuous-looking little dome cameras so numerous you hardly noticed them any more. And what if a software program could crunch all of that data, along with information about their web habits, phone conversations, schoolwork, emails, etc. in order to produce a monthly score that represented their overall mental fitness?
Sound like a nightmare? Or the promise of true meritocracy finally delivered? In the world of Scored, there is no gaming the system. There’s no Kaplan Test Prep. No tutors for rich kids. Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, you are the sum total of your observable behaviors. How you walk, how often you swear, who you hang out with, how much time you spend on homework are all fed into the system. The software constantly learns from these observations, fine tuning its scoring algorithm until its results are indisputable. The highest scorers get into the best colleges, qualify for the best jobs, earn the most money. The lowest scorers fulfill their destiny as misfits, delinquents, and the permanently dependent. No one can argue with the accuracy of the score because there are no exceptions to the rule. Society doesn’t allow it any more.
But there’s no way we would actually allow something like this to happen, right? Surveillance cameras in parking garages are one thing. Reducing our children to a number is absurd. We’re smarter than that. We know how complex and unpredictable humans are. We’d never funnel our children into predetermined futures based on what a software program told us.
Consider this. The majority of US colleges and universities rely on the SAT to filter out students. The SAT was originally created to predict a college freshman’s academic performance. Do you know how often it accurately makes this prediction? Seventeen percent of the time. That means that four out of five times the SAT gets it wrong.
Did you know that boys routinely score higher than girls on the SAT but that girls routinely outperform boys in college? Is this fair? Is this merit?
The SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. But when people rightly pointed out that it did not, in fact, accurately test for scholastic aptitude, they changed it to the more generic Scholastic Assessment Test. This wasn’t much better as critics, again rightly, pointed out that it did not accurately “assess” anything other than the ability to take the test itself. Do you know what SAT stands for now?
It tests nothing. It predicts nothing. It disadvantages girls unfairly. And we’re still using it. Why? Because it promises meritocracy. It claims to take the chaotic unpredictable nature of human intellectual capacity and turn it into something neat and rankable.
And we love that, don’t we.