Today I was Yelling On The Internet that this New Inquiry piece by Nathan Jurgenson required a disclosure statement. As Alan Jacobs pointed out, Jurgenson works for SnapChat, and the type of digital engagement that Jurgenson is advocating in the piece is precisely the type that SnapChat provides. I said so and they have, to their credit, said that they’ll append a disclosure statement to the piece. I think that’s the right decision.
But as often happens, indicting someone else’s behavior got me thinking about my own. (If you think it would be more constructive if that happened in the opposite order, you’re correct.) It occurred to me that I have recently written a major policy document on college assessment. And in the past, I’ve done some light editing and content development for Pearson, a company which also provides assessment materials, including for colleges. That’s potentially a conflict of interest. Now, I can think of many reasons why it isn’t a problem. I did that work years ago; I actually worked for a professor who was the one who actually hired me; the work I did was busywork, mostly just proofreading and coming up with questions for readings; the textbook and assessment sides of Pearson are different parts of a very large company; I have publicly criticized Pearson’s role in the K-12 testing industry in the past; I didn’t endorse or even mention any of their products in my white paper; I am unlikely to work for them in the future. New America gave me total carte blanche to say what I felt was true about testing, including a limited and qualified endorsement of one of the testing instruments of a competitor of Pearson’s, which happens to be developed by a nonprofit that repeatedly denied my requests to provide me with data for my dissertation. (Which I’m still mad about.) I can say with confidence that my past work for Pearson didn’t even occur to me when I wrote the report.
But I would say that, wouldn’t I! And Jurgenson could faithfully report, I’m sure, that he really thinks the things that he wrote, and that his work for SnapChat did not influence his ideas in this regard. I’d believe him to be sincere if he said so. But the fact of the matter is, none of us can be perfectly objective arbiters of our own conflicts of interest. That’s the whole reason for disclosure. My own tendency will always be to dismiss the importance of my prior employment, no matter how dedicated I am to ethical practice. And as much as there was a wall between me and Pearson — a wall made not of ethics, mind you, but of their indifference to me and the minor nature of the work I was doing — the fact of the matter is that in the past I got paid real money by a company that does educational testing, and I now engage politically and academically on issues of educational testing.
Of course, you can always go deeper. I also did some transcription and coding for a professor who was working on a research project for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here the problems seem even more dubious to me — I wasn’t vetted or approved by anybody at the Gates Foundation, my contact was 100% through the professor, nobody but she and I even really knew I was involved, I made only a few hundred bucks — but again, I can’t be the judge of my own potential conflicts of interest. And, I mean, for the past five years I’ve been paid by Purdue University, a school that receives massive research funds from the defense and agribusiness industries. That’s to say nothing of the tuition dollars that pour in from students who face uncertain financial future. Etc.
These problems only deepen in the “gig economy.” The gig economy, where you work for a variety of companies as a freelancer rather than have one job for a long period, is one of these things where magazines like Forbes take economic developments that are just bad for workers and try to spin them as positives. Freelancers don’t enjoy many legal workplace protections; they almost never get benefits; it’s incredibly hard for them to organize a union; they lack stability and the knowledge necessary to plan for their financial future; they are easy to let go, for any reason, including nefarious ones. This is all spun as new found “flexibility” for workers, who in my experience will almost always prefer stability, workplace power, and robust benefits and protections over flexibility. (Unemployment: the ultimate in flexibility!) Anyway, one of the consequences of the gig economy is that you have to have your hand out to more and more companies. When you don’t have a steady job, the financial pressure to accept work from wherever you can get it grows only more acute. That in turn makes disclosure more difficult; if you’re not careful, your disclosure statements could become huge.
Of course, the ways to get around this don’t often appear to be particular enlightened. If you have a steady job then you are beholden to the various conflicts of interest that job entails. Or else you might be independently wealthy, which comes with its own set of political and practical problems. As Doug Henwood says, you can’t have clean hands in a dirty world. Capitalism makes us all complicit; the desire to avoid sweatshop goods is a noble one, but you always end up asking about all the other forms of exploitation that go into what you consume. Socialism would not eliminate conflicts of interest or our complicity in exploitation entirely, but it would be a much better world, and one with more artistic, political, and intellectual integrity, if everyone had their material needs provided for.
None of this means I was wrong; I think Jurgenson should just say “Full disclosure: I work for a digital social media company” when he writes about these issues. I think that’s the right decision. There’s no magic bullet to disclosure or ethics, and we have to sort through these various issues with discrimination, looking at particular cases and using our adult human judgment. I don’t think I was wrong to want disclosure from The New Inquiry. But I am going to write to my contact at New America and mention that I used to do freelance editing work for Pearson. He probably won’t care. But I care, and I’m going to be chewing on this stuff for a long time.