Digital Privacy

I subscribe to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, and a host of other websites that ask me to sacrifice my privacy for their use. They ask me to tag my photos, mark my location, and indicate when they were taken.  My browser tracks my searches and pushes marketing materials to me.  Yes, I looked on Amazon to see if HEPA filters were cheaper there. Now the edges of Facebook alight with advertisements for HEPA filters.

How do I feel about this?  Pretty creeped out. If a human being trackedGoogle my behavior this closely, I would report him to the police.  I’m being stalked.  And yet, I keep using these resources.  Why?  In part, because everyone else is.  It’s how I keep in touch with my friends around the country.  In fact more and more, it’s how all of us keep in touch.  Some articles suggest that sites like Facebook are killing events like the high school reunion. Who needs to go back to a smelly school when a web page can tell you what your high school nemesis is doing?

And with all that, maybe I don’t want everyone to know what I’m doing?  Maybe I want to hang onto an outmoded Aristotelian public/private divide that is no longer feasible in this hyper-connected society we live in. Marshal McLuhan described our increasing interconnectedness as a global village. In Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) he writes, “And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence” (32).  Like a village, everyone knows your business and you depend on them for your existence.

Is this the world we want to live in? Will we all write in Newspeak someday?

Check out Carnegie Mellon University’s privacy grade website to find out how your apps measure up.

Prosuming News

prosumerAs we start reading Wikinomics, I find the news full of stories about collaboration and prosuming.  In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” to describe the type of work new technologies would enable us to do.  Prosumers produce and consume the information marketplace. Or, that they actively participate in the creation new idea, products, and entertainment.

While this idea was radical in the 80s, prosuming is commonplace today. Entertainment franchises like The Matrix and Supernatural use consumer input to create storylines, build their worlds, and generate support for their shows. T-shirt shop Threadless asks consumers to rate and sometimes submit designs.

What’s more, is that more and more of our news comes from prosumers. In “How YouTube Changed Journalism,” Atlantic writer Matt Schiavenza suggests that YouTube is direct conduit between people who create/experience news and consumers. Some people claim that more direct involvement will democratize the news. If we can all participate in the message, somehow we may find more accurate and unbiased news.

However, as Schiavenza points out, this idealism maybe too simple. He cites Evgeny Morozov who warns against believing in cyber-utopias or the power of the internet to democratize the world.  I feel like I should note that I cited Morozov in my dissertation and I am sympathetic to his claims. Capturing a video does not mean justice will prevail. In fact, organizations like ISIS use YouTube and other video sites to share their extreme message and show violence.

In other words, maybe we need to be cautious about claims that being a prosumer means democratizing our information. Or, that collaborative creation always means more accurate stories and reporting.

Digital Affordances

On my day off from teaching, I am sitting in a coffee shop revising an article for publication. I’ve got Run the Jewels bumping through my headphones that are effectively blocking out an obnoxious conversation happening at the table next to me. I need to online_classesfocus because I hate revision and I find it so easy to put it off (notice me writing this blog post). Nevertheless, I decided to write because I realized how much technology has afforded me this opportunity.

A year ago in the middle of writing my dissertation, I spoke with one of my mentors about revision. He talked about writing passages by hand and cajoling his girl friend to type the pages for him. Apparently, I made a face because he quickly reassured me that he paid her for her skill – after all, typing on a typewriter was a lot of work. He said she paid her way through college by typing papers; she was fast and accurate. She charged extra for last minute projects.

Despite his reassurances, I was still shocked. Not just because his wife typed his dissertation (all 250 pages), but because I was horrified by the idea of trying to do meaningful revision with out the word-processing power of my laptop. I peppered him with questions:

What if you hated the order of your paragraphs?  What if you disliked a quotation? What if you wanted a new topic sentence? What about transitions? What did your works cited look like? What if you spelled someone’s name wrong? How did you do research? How did you find timely sources?

Of course, people wrote differently than they do today. Many authors composed and revised by hand before sharing their work. In manuscript culture, authors often produced a fair copy of a draft before circulating works among their friends or submitting for publication. Unfortunately for people who study textual production, most our revision is invisible. We revise as we type. Our computers erase our work. Writing in a digital environment hides our effort.