digital rhetoric

privacy, pedagogy, and 5000 days

Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired, among other things) speaks here at the EG conference on the next 5,000 days of the Internet

One of the interesting remarks he makes here is about privacy. Kelly sees that over the next decade or so we will increasingly come to view the Internet as a single (albeit distributed/networked) device that we accessible through a variety of means. In order to make best use of that device, we will need to share a great deal of information with it. If you can imagine a world of ubiquitous computing where nearly everything is tagged, you are also looking at a world where the granular elements of your personal information are tagged and shared with the web.

Admittedly it seems a little creepy, right? And yet we need to recognize that our notions of privacy are cultural and historical. If you lived in a small rural town or area in the 18th century (or earlier), as nearly everyone did, your "world" was pretty small, and it’s likely that everyone in your world knew your business. There’s a kind of evolutionary thing here, I think, where we are social animals and our success comes from knowing things about our community. On the other hand, I think about my life today. I live in a home where my kids have private bedrooms. I have a separate room for my office. I have friendly but fairly distant relations with all my neighbors. They don’t know my business. I have a private office at work.

I go online in search of communities. I write this blog to connect.

My point is that I believe the experience of privacy that might typify middle-class American life is an anomaly in general human experience. Sure this is the first period in human history where you could look into your webcam and make confessions to a billion people. Yes we are increasingly sharing our preferences, even our unconscious ones with the computing cloud. Picture tying together your buying habits (via online accounts and swipes of your shopper cards) with television viewing and search habits and data mined from your social networking sites. You’ll share this "private" information for the same reason we watch commercials on television: putting up with the commercials means getting free/cheaper entertainment. In this case you get free online services. And I put "private" in scare quotes here b/c I think the notion of what is private is relative.

But there’s more to it than that. Sharing information online will allow us to connect in more powerful and granular ways than we have in the past. This is the point that Kelly makes. In the past we shared pages, linking page to page, in the future we will link on a more semantic level, word to word, meme to meme. Of course there are privacy issues here! Who will be able to do what with your information? And I’d be more concerned about governments or corporations than shady individuals. These are issues that we’ll have to deal with, and not resolve once and for all, but continually revisit. Nevertheless this would appear to the direction of the next 5,000 days.

So that brings me to pedagogy, specifically public, online pedagogy. I appreciate the concern faculty have with the idea of students learning and communciating in public spaces. There are legitimate concerns. I also know that faculty are very good at raising problems about practices that they don’t want to do themselves. I do think that those who worry about what students write in an online class probably haven’t spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos or reading Facebook. If Kelly is right, then we are headed toward a time when we will all have extensive networked identities. The parts of those identities that we actively compose will be our best, subjective opportunity to engage in that process.