Blackboard by day: a shiny, user-friendly interface that lets students access useful academic and extracurricular information and allows them to communicate easily with professors and fellow students. Password protected so that others can’t access your personal information.
Blackboard by night: a shiny, user-friendly interface that provides administrators and professors with information about student users. Password protected so that you can be watched. When you log on to Blackboard, your professors and preceptors – if they choose to – can find out. They can find out how long you’re logged on for, and which of your classmates’ postings you’ve read (and thus, by implication, if you’ve read any at all). One student, whose name will remain confidential, was called before the Honor Committee and nearly suspended because someone had logged on to Blackboard under her username while she was supposed to be taking an exam.
There is a room on the third floor of Frist, dark and narrow and usually locked, with a one-way mirror that looks out onto an adjacent classroom. Rumor has it that the room is used to conduct psych experiments upon unsuspecting subjects. Blackboard, the ultimate one-way mirror, was introduced to the university community within one year of Frist’s opening.
But even if all of this admittedly circumstantial information (circumstantial vis-à-vis the harder evidence gathered by Blackboard and the psych researchers) is true, it nonetheless seems trite to probe it for conspiracy. In the university setting, surveillance is less dystopic evil than banal, circumstantial fact of life. Case in point: this Friday, April 23rd, university administrators – after being tipped off by a misaddressed email – conducted a sting operation on students intending to sell Newman’s Day tee-shirts. Hardly “The Net.” Techno-conspiracy theories are inattentive to the scattered and analytically inefficient shape of human life, and thus usually too neatly sexy for their own good. Blackboard is not exactly Big Brother; I’m presuming (and hoping) that most professors are too busy to be interested to check who’s reading which posting, unless as a curious amusement on a slow day.
Perhaps my blasé attitude is really a mechanism for handling the awareness of being surveilled; perhaps being blithe is also being naïve to the genuine dangers of the digital age. Still, it is hard to get too upset about what is out of one’s control, and this failure of public outcry is precisely why Blackboard is a Fristified space: like our campus center, we cannot avoid using Blackboard. Like the soullessness of our unfailingly spotless campus center, the only way to resist Blackboard is to recognize that its darkness is not buried below its trimly utilitarian interface. Its spies are not shady gray-economy figures like in the characters in the mid-nineties movie “Hackers.” In 2004, at Princeton University, the darkness and the glossy surface, the spies and the ambitious administrators, are one and the same.
The light and the chalk: If Fristification is the process gripping our university, “Fristification” is our resistance text.