Sunday, November 14, 2010

Identity Rental

Identity theft sounds bad, but does it have to be? What if someone stole access to your bank account and started depositing money there, making wise investments, and never taking a penny out?The point is, however, that the "theft" part doesn't refer to what is done after the assumption of identity, but the mere fact of donning it. I have a Facebook page mostly so someone else can't set one up for me (well, they could, but it would at least compete with the real one).

But sometimes we don't want to fill our own shoes. Wouldn't you like someone else to assume your identity for the purpose of paying your rent or house payment? That would be handy. Heck, imagine if you had a clone who could go to work for you. Essentially, this happens all the time: anytime something is done "in the name of" someone else, it's identity lending. So if the president sends a minion to your office with a "Simon Says" letter, the former's identity is lent to the latter. Identity has economic value.

In the academy one of the cardinal sins (in addition to voting against your own motion) is to assume let someone else assume your identity and speak for you. This is because the pecking order of scholarship depends on your own, presumably authentic, record. I have chosen a complicated way to describe plagiarism, but there's a reason for it. Consider the following quote from this Nov. 12th  article in The Chronicle entitled "The Shadow Scholar":
I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.
This is intended to outrage profs of all stripes, I'm sure. Underneath all the fuss is an assumption about the nature of the physical universe--that past performance predicts future performance. If a student buys a paper and passes is off as their own, it advertises a level of performance that doesn't really exist, and so if we give that student a diploma, the predictive value of that script is diminished. From the student's perspective, this may be a good investment, if at some ethical cost.

The inductive premise (i.e. that the paper predicts actual performance) fails on at least two grounds. First, although a student may have the resources to buy a paper now doesn't mean the same will hold true later. This is weak, however. Supply would quickly meet demand if there were actually a lot of call for such things post-graduation, and the cost would drop. In other words, if one were required to write term papers for one's occupation, these could probably be outsourced to India or something, for cheap. The other objection is more serious--the connection between writing a thesis and being able to think is real, and it's quite possible that the nice essay that was bought from a service does not reflect the student's ability to communicate or think. So the university may mistakenly graduate a student who can't write well or can't put thoughts in order.

What the academy is attempting (and apparently failing) to do is fix an identity to a track record of success. This is a very simplistic notion to begin with, and probably needs an overhaul. The government is interested too: see my post on "FUD." Consider this quote from the article:
[T]he lazy rich student will know exactly what he wants. He is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top.
Let's follow that to the logical conclusion. Suppose the lazy rich person (now: LaRP) can afford to outsource everything in his life. Heck, you don't have to be rich: people already outsource all kinds of things in normal life. See "Enlightened Outsourcing" or Tim Ferris's book The 4-Hour Work Week. But suppose that you could outsource everything you do at your job, and still turn a profit based on your salary. This wouldn't consume your whole day because other people are doing most of the job. So you could hold down more than  one job, maybe at the same company. This violates most preconceptions about what it means "to work somewhere," but whatever--it's a new century. As long as the job gets done, what difference does it make?

This sounds cynical, and certainly this attitude wouldn't find many takers within the academy, but imagine a Track B. Instead of actually doing your homework and taking tests and whatnot, you manage to get it all accomplished by third parties. The bar would probably have to be higher, since if you compare to what a Track A ("honest") student has to do to accomplish all this alone, the Track B student has more time on his or her hands. So double the work load. Or triple it. And don't hide the fact that everything is outsourced--the point is not that the Track B student can do differential equations, but that they can get it done by someone else. How many railroad ties did J.P. Morgan lay himself? Not many, I bet.

That won't happen. But it should be easy enough to detect exceptional performance from students. Something like FACS scores could be used to ascertain a baseline of thinking and communication skills, and partial and complete work could be compared against that benchmark. This actually happened to me once. Our whole senior high school class was bussed off to Rend Lake College, about an hour from my hometown of Pinckneyville, Illinois. We spent the day taking tests on various subjects, and I ended up getting the high score in math and tied for the high score in physics (trusting 30 year old memories here, so caveat emptor). But the word quickly circulated that the other guy who did well on the physics test (from a different school) was not very good at academics. He had just sat next to the proctor, who happened to foolishly leave the test key sitting there. Whether this is true or not, I don't know, but it illustrates the finely-honed human ability to judge ability and compare it against performance. This is why women sometimes look at my shoes when I'm out with my wife: they see us together and think she's too good for me, so they look down to see if the explanation can be found in expensive footware--a signal of wealth. That may be more than you wanted to know. :-)

More: here's another post on identity-for-sale.

Update: If you thought this issue was simple, check out this article in TechDirt: 200 Students Admit To 'Cheating' On Exam... But Bigger Question Is If It Was Really Cheating Or Studying


  1. Anonymous1:36 PM

    "What if someone stole access to your bank account and started depositing money there, making wise investments, and never taking a penny out..."

    Of course this is bad. First of all, if the money is not yours, it is unethical (and likely illegal) to keep it or try to use it. So you fail right away on ethics.

    Or, it could be a trap, someone is setting you up to be a patsy. So it is bad, just not yet. Doesn't anyone have any imagination anymore? Therefore you fail on pragmatic grounds as well.

    Thats enough, you fail. The rest of your post is interesting, but ultimately the work of a failure. Sorry.

  2. Ah, that might be true if I wrote it, but I pay someone to do these posts for me.

  3. Isn't Track B the same as executive management training? The righteous indignation concerning this issue is a little bit disingenuous. American society rewards those who get others to do the work for them, because it is a more efficient division of labor (as your citation of JP Morgan implies).

  4. Interesting idea. I don't know that much about management training, but track B would certainly be a hands-on approach. It will be interesting to see how this general issue evolves as technology grants more and more "offboard" power to our brains' native ability to offer up solutions. It would be nice if this led to a movement toward deeper understanding--let the automation or outsourcing do the easy part. I think one could create a whole curriculum around this idea.

  5. "But suppose that you could outsource everything you do at your job, and still turn a profit based on your salary. This wouldn't consume your whole day because other people are doing most of the job. So you could hold down more than one job, maybe at the same company."

    This is the basic justification for management of any organization (including universities) making anywhere from 2 to 400 times the salary of the average worker in the same organization: because they are "responsible" for getting the work done, even though they aren't doing it.

  6. I think there's a phase change here, though. A really organized and motivated person could "get done" the work of more than one person by clever outsourcing. But something else has to happen to get leverage on the order of 400x. I'm not disputing your point at all, but I think there's something interesting in the way it happens. A good leader will be able to redirect existing people and resources in a way that gives multiples like that. So it's not just about organization and energy but also about the creation of new information--some magic new combination of effort that multiplies the total result.