‘DigCiz Weaponization of Care’…by Autumm Caines and Sundi Richard

This year’s conference theme for OER20 is around The Care in Openness and asks “in the age of data surveillance and significant risk on the open web, how can we map out and give visibility to the critical component of care practices?” We have found this particular aspect of the conference theme to be a difficult one as it is often care itself that is used to justify data surveillance. We are referring to this phenomena as “The Weaponization of Care” and we would like to start a conversation about it in open education – as we often start open conversations – using the hashtag #DigCiz; as well as the conference tag and site, digciz.org, and other avenues.


During these remaining weeks before the conference we have some questions about care, openness, and surveillance:

  • What is the relationship between openness and surveillance?
  • What is the role of, not just transparency, but understanding in consent?
  • Where does education fit in these roles and relationships?
  • How is care understood by those who are surveilling and those being surveilled?
  • Who is benefiting from the surveillance and at what scale?
  • Who decides what surveillance is beneficial and what is harmful?


Luke Stark and Karen Levy (2018), outline and give many examples of what we are seeing as this weaponization of care. They give it the frame of the “surveillant consumer” which they further define into two facets: the consumer-as-observer and the consumer-as-manager. These two sides of this concept align nicely with Nel Noddings’ (2005) distinctions between relational and virtuous care in education. Noddings puts relational care (care aligned with interpersonal connections and development of trust with students) above virtuous care (care aligned with the delivery of goals). However, the weaponization of care does not make a distinction and uses all forms of care as a way to justify perpetual surveillance.

Stark and Levey’s consumer-as-manager frame is aligned with Noddings’ ideas of virtuous care or in other words ‘caring about’ more than ‘caring for’. Here we see care weaponized as it is manipulated into feelings of convenience and control. Examples from Stark and Levey include pizza tracking apps, Uber, Taskrabbit, Airbnb and other sites which enable consumers to act as managers and surveil low-wage workers on individual jobs, tasks, or gigs. The consumer cares about how soon their pizza is coming and has little responsibility to care for the worker who is bringing it.

What is more chilling and concerning is Stark and Levey’s consumer-as-observer frame which weaponizes what Noddings would consider relational care through surveilling some of our most intimate relationships. Examples include LENA an audio monitoring device that a young child caries in their pocket which records, catalogs, and analyses all sounds around the child to determine quality of linguistic inputs; to monitoring ankle bracelets and diapers for infants; to tracking and surveilling devices for the eldery. Stark and Levey write:

In  this  paradigm,  surveillance  is constructed  as being normatively  essential to duties of  care across the lifecycle. Watching and monitoring are construed not merely as the rights of a responsible parent, dutiful romantic partner, or loving child—but as obligations inherent in such roles.”

No matter the type of care, it can be weaponized to justify surveillance. However, it is important to point out that the nature of surveillance has changed. In talking about the weaponization of care to justify surveillance we wish to draw out a distinction. Perhaps care (both relational and virtuous) has been aligned with surveillance for some time but something is different, and of higher stakes, when we are talking about a digitized and networked playing field that now includes a third parties who are capitalizing on data collection.

Surveillance in Education

Whether we like to admit it or not, many everyday teaching practices with long histories are rooted in surveillance. Long before the digitization and datafication of our education systems, teachers were using the ability to watch, track, and analyze their students as a means of teaching. Proctoring is surveillance. Attendance is surveillance. Checking text from a student’s paper to see if it is plagiarized, is surveillance. There are those of us, many of us in the open communities, who reject these practices but we can’t ignore their existence and that there are teachers who use these approaches and do so out of some sense of care – even if it is but Noddings’ virtuous care, which likely cares most about learning outcomes and goals.

Again, we want to make visible that distinction between what was maybe a kinder gentler surveillance of yesteryear and what happens today once third-party companies are involved. That, taking attendance on a sheet of paper or a private spreadsheet for individual classes is enormously different from entering attendance data into a database that is connected to permanent records and cross-referenced between courses or perhaps even schools. Having a human proctor in a room as a student takes a test is vastly different from having cameras, eye tracking software, and a heart rate monitor on a student as they take a test. And feeling like something is fishy with a student’s writing and checking different sources or otherwise looking for plagiarism is different from subjecting that student to a system that asks them to relinquish their intellectual property for the profits of the company.

We are looking for others who are interested in engaging with these questions. We are holding two live streamed video chats leading up to the conference.

Our first will be with Post-doctoral Fellow, filmmaker, and educator sava saheli singh and Chief Innovation, Community and Technology Officer, and developer Martin Hawksey on February 21st from 11:30 am – 12:30 pm (EST), 4:30 pm – 5:30 pm (UST).

The second will be an open community call on March 23rd from 2:00 – 3:00 pm (EST), 5:00 – 6:00 pm (UST).

We are also encouraging blogging and tweeting using #DigCiz and #OER20 leading up to the conference to continue to engage this topic. We also hope that you will join us in person at OER20 in London for our session “The Weaponizations of Care” where we will reflect on what we learn together online over the next two months leading up to the conference.


Noddings, N., (2005). Caring in Education. InFed.org. Retrieved from http://infed.org/mobi/caring-in-education/ 1/21/20

Stark, L., & Levy, K. (2018). The surveillant consumer. Media, Culture & Society, 40(8), 1202–1220. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443718781985