Who Owns Your Data?

Tweets from the #edinnovation Summit
There was much hand-wringing over privacy and data ownership at the recent ASU/GSV conference.  Serious people in designer suits explained that security is expensive, must be shrouded in secrecy and is never full-proof.  Sounds like a great fear-sell for cash infused education systems (sic).  Fortunately you can’t really oversee it either because that would be a breach of security; it’s a brilliant piece of hard-salesmanship with minimal oversight.

Listening to the urgency and paranoia in these discussions had me thinking about how privacy and data ownership are framed in digital environments.  I’m the first to suggest we be cautious with how student data is shared, but the idea that anything digital can somehow be locked down and owned is ridiculous.  I’ve heard ed-tech ‘experts’ go on about walled gardens at length.  You can leap over any of those walled gardens with a simple screen capture or text grab, and then it can go viral on the wild internet.  Trying to keep data in check is like trying to hold back Niagara Falls with a door, digital data is incredibly fluid, that’s why we can do so much with it.

The second tweet at the top sheds some light on how we are misframing data as an ownable entity.  Like your appearance or your reputation, the data you give off is information you emit socially; you can’t own your data any more than you can own your appearance or your reputation.  In all three cases you can, of course, influence the social outputs you’re giving, but you can’t own them.  Realizing this would stop us from trying to control the uncontrollable and instead let us begin teaching students (and everyone else for that matter) best practices for creating desirable data emissions (there has to be a better word for that, digital reputation? digirep? virtual scent?  vBO?).

If we begin to see digital data emissions as a natural byproduct of online interaction (and make no mistake, they are), then the idea that if we throw enough money at it we can make everyone safe gets questioned.  You’re never going to hear education technology companies that market based on security suggesting this mindset, there’s no money in it.

The other side of this is privacy.  The idea that we can suddenly have privacy now when we’ve never had it before is baffling to me.  Before we became industrialized we were mostly geographically locked to where we were born.  Without the ease of fossil fuel powered vehicles most of us never travelled more than a dozen miles from where we were born.  Do you think anyone had privacy in those circumstances?  You were a well established element in a fairly static society.  The idea that you could shield your actions from the public eye only really began in the twentieth century.  Industrialized anonymity was as much curse as it was something desirable.  It was only in the conformity forced on us by industrialization that the illusion of privacy existed.

If the NSA and CIA can’t stop it, do you think that edtech companies can?

We are emerging from that drab, industrial anonymity caused by cookie cutter conformity.  The digital world doesn’t expect us to be passive eyeballs counted as ratings in front of a TV screen, it demands interaction and individuality and it restores our voices.  As we emerge into an individually empowered, digitally driven world of shared information, expecting privacy is a wish for a poisonous illusion that never really existed.

Privacy isn’t dead, it never existed.  Prior to industrialization we had no social privacy at all and during industrialization we were dehumanized into bricks in the wall and given the illusion of privacy because we barely mattered as individuals.

When you’re online nothing you do is private, nothing you do is owned by you.  Just as you can influence your appearance by good hygiene or your reputation by performing right action, you can affect your data-appearance by presenting yourself well, but ultimately any data you give off is out there and can spread easily, just like gossip.

The nascent study of digital citizenship addresses a lot of this, but like other digital skills it is an afterthought, never integrated into core curriculum.  No wonder men in expensive suits can make lots of money preaching fear and convincing educators to spend their budgets on myth and innuendo.  Perhaps one day educators will take the job of understanding and teaching digital skills seriously and ignore the snake oil.

Influence Without Affluence

After a Social Media gathering a couple of weeks ago and a rewatch of We Are Legion I’ve been pondering what social expectations we’re developing in our new digital society.  Why would I do this?  Since our students are immersed in this radical, unprecedented counter culture it might behoove us as educators to have some idea of what cultural norms are coming out of it.  Recognizing what is normative online behavior goes some distance toward explaining the seemingly bizarre responses teachers are seeing in class.

If you think the buttoned down 1950s era teacher had trouble understanding the hippy counter culture student of the sixties, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  What technology is offering students today is nothing short of an entirely new social medium to inhabit, and what that is doing to early adopters (like teens) is nothing short of a paradigm shift in social behavior.

A number of years ago (2006!) WIRED did a quick piece on GENERATION XBOX, in which they talked about the expectations of gamer culture and how different they are from preceding (non digital) generations.  This short list hit the gaming ethos precisely: arrogant, hacking (competitive, results focused regardless of rules), insubordinate… sound like anyone in your classroom?  That gaming ethos has done a great deal to influence online presence.  The egalitarian nature of the gamer is clearly seen in internet cultures like Anonymous where there is a strong emphasis on your contribution rather than your social standing in the ‘real’ world.  What matters is what you say and how well you say it, not how much money your parents had or who you’re the boss of.

You might think this is socialist, but it really isn’t, it can be crushingly cruel and direct and has no patience for bullshit or spin.  Everyone isn’t equal, though everyone does have equal access and ability to contribute.  This ties organizations, especially politically powerful ones, in knots, especially when they expect the same kind of submission they can force in traditional media in an open digitized space.  I suspect it’s hitting a lot of people who are used to the benefits of their social circumstances hard.

If suddenly all of the benefits you had (race, socio-economic status, education, family) are ignored, how do you establish yourself as an alpha?  Especially when you’re used to having it handed to you.  In the last post I tried to push privacy and ownership of information as far as I logically could considering the near friction-less information we find online.

If you can’t own information because trying to hold it is impossible when it can be copied and spread with no real effort, and privacy is irrelevant because anyone can copy and paste your information, and almost everyone has a media recording device unimaginable 20 years ago and can capture you at any time regardless of whether you want to be seen or not, regardless of whether you yourself are online or not; how do we understand what is ours?  Ownership is at the foundation of how we relate to other people in society.  With no ability to own material and with information being so slippery we can’t regulate who sees it online, how do we establish social dominance?  If we can’t flash the car, the house, our jobs, or even our educations at people and expect benefits, what value do these things have?

The tendency would be to fall back on existing power structures, to try and exercise the same protections that advantage us in society in an online milieu, but this has been shown to fail again and again.  Digital information does not work in a personal context the way that social status does.  The only thing that makes you special is what you’re doing right now.  Your interaction is your credibility online.  If you try to game the system and people can find that data, they can make you look the fool.  If you are able to maintain an honest and insightful digital footprint, you come as close as you’re ever going to get to being untouchable in the Wild West of the internet.

Someone who puts Ph.D. after their name online is as likely to be made fun of as they are to be respected.  If that same person does not advertise their traditional social standing, but produces excellent ideas clearly   and accessibly through an understanding of the tools available, then they will gain online currency.  If the approach is one of indirect, politically motivated self interest, then the proliferation of digital information makes it very difficult to game the truth, or play people.  That email or DM where you instruct other people to do something that you wouldn’t want everyone to know?  It’ll end up buried in your back.  You can’t stop the signal.  If you’ve done it online, it’s obtainable.

I still maintain that radical transparency is what will evolve out of this startling social evolution.  Say what you mean and do what you say, be consistent and don’t be afraid.  If you make a mistake own it, and if you can’t handle what’s happening don’t advertise it by leaving a permanent record.  Lurking is a perfectly reasonable place to back away to online.

I suspect that many of our students lurk online because they are trying to parse the wild west that they see out there.  They don’t want to make fools of themselves, but they are also wrestling with what they know happens in the real world (you can get away with lying, deceit and social/political games quite easily in a world where information is ownable – especially if you’re the beneficiary of racial, social or cultural advantage).  Online the powers aren’t powers and the socially weak can suddenly become something else if they have the voice and the will to do it.

Being hacked may not be a bad thing if it keeps everyone honest.  The threat of hacking is what prevents many of the ‘real’ world powers from abusing the internet (that and it has insinuated itself into business and society to such a degree that pulling the plug would be a disaster).  Marx may not have taken down capitalism, but online society offers the kind of radical egalitarianism that wraps monopolistic capitalists in knots.

The other thing about this radically flat mediascape is that hierarchies that force group think tend to fail.  Rather than being threatened into following the crowd, you are free to disappear online.  You aren’t beholden to social context in the same way you are in the real world.  This means you can do things online you’d never do in ‘real’ life.  Like the guy who screams obscenities and gives the finger to others while driving who would never do the same thing while walking down the sidewalk; the person online is removed and empowered in an interesting way by the machines that isolate them from their social context.

I’ve enjoyed watching the dismantling of these assumptions in a number of large organizations.  I’ve been frustrated by others that claim democracy while really wanting to enforce an existing hierarchy.  Online society is the most radically democratic ideal we’ve ever created.  Access is cheaper and more available than citizenship in the first world (arguably the previous means of access to political control).  As we miniaturize and mobilize computing and billions more people come online and realize that they are not powerless in their societies (and that they belong to a larger, more pervasive and more powerful online society), the world will change, and the ones who will suffer are those that have benefited from history the most.