The university commodity

The concern with on-campus contact tracing and testing is not privacy; it is the conversion of students into customers. Photo by Harry Wyman | The Signal

As we move towards October, the Mayo Clinic’s estimate of Georgia attaining 20,000 new daily COVID-19 cases throughout September seems needlessly dour. Testing data suggests a seven-day moving average peaking at 7,000 – a more achievable number than 20,000, but an attainable number still easily surpassing our previous record-highs in January. 

You are probably aware that Georgia State has been conducting coursework primarily in-person this semester, following a national tide of reopening with the arrival of (essentially promising) vaccines. You are less probably aware of the public health apparatuses which accompanied this return to campus.

The modes of surveillance by which our nebula of institutions have tracked and worked to curb the pandemic are not a novel topic of conversation, sure. However, any meaningful discussion over the last year has been nonexistent. 

In these discussions, we encounter the same deficiencies which made the National Security Agency’s repository of text messages and emails a punchline – which filed Edward Snowden away as a kitschy bit of memorabilia, trotted out on rare occasions. 

Plainly: we are concerned with a “liberty” we do not understand and a “privacy” which realistically weighs little on our lives, on our political existence. We note the massive means of collecting data funded and constructed via the pretenses of a pandemic, though we return to the same stale questions, that is. 

Privacy and liberty are fantastic. Yes, I will let you treasure these concepts – as will every actor involved in these modes of surveillance, too.

“Big data” does not care about you in particular; let us be clear on this point. You, as the individual, are almost entirely irrelevant to the larger schema. The intimate details of your walk to and from class or your proximity to others are of no interest here. 

Instead, what is of interest is extrapolated from the aggregate data on you and 2,000 others’ walks to class.

What is at stake is the creation of types and trends, not with the goal of some extraction of your strange, dearly-held secrets – but instead towards a much bleaker, much more practical purpose: developing a world which can extract the most value out of you, the consumer. 

Our anxiety towards contact tracing at Georgia State should not be one of them robbing us of our “privacy,” some clerks thumbing through our daily tasks. It should be the more mundane but potent fear of Georgia State joining the clientele of analytics firms interested in remaking the university as a tightly-run business. 

We would be narcissists to assume that the opacity of data collection on COVID-19 has the goal of unraveling the most well-kept stories of being. 

The past provides us with a much less exciting use for our data. However, a less exciting utility stunts our quality of life. 

The long-term use of contact tracing, of granular data collection on students, is the same as any data collection done via apps like Facebook Pixel or Google AdSense. 

These “public health apparatuses” signal a clear inroad for the university to enhance its operations not as a school but as a private entity – using data on its students to treat them as consumers.