Musing about a new kind of literacy

My thanks to Tochis for the wonderful photograph above.

A full twenty-six years after the eponymous year of Orwell’s dystopian novel, we are only just getting used to the idea of Big Brother watching us. For many of us, this sense of being watched seems to have been built around physical constructs, around the usage of devices such as cameras.

For the older ones amongst us, Big Brother may be less about devices and more about people: for people like me, the concept of a surveillance society may bring forth images more akin to the Cold War and to state control: twitching curtains, informers and spies. Even Spy vs Spy spies. Especially Antonio Prohias’ Spy Vs Spy spies.

My thanks to arkworld for the lovely tribute to Mad Magazine’s Spy vs Spy series above.

I get the impression that the post-Vietnam Space Invaders generation thinks of a surveillance society differently; they view things much more in a Star Wars kind of way, particularly in the sense of the Strategic Defense Initiative, so the attention shifts to a postmodern Military-Industrial complex. We all have our crosses to bear.

My thanks to Karf Oohlu for his fantastic creations above.

As we all know, those days are history. There’s a new game in town, where the surveillance is all digital. Where everything we do is monitored and recorded and analysed and used, ostensibly to help us. Ostensibly. A world of digital fingerprints.

My thanks to Caroline Bosher for putting the concept above together so elegantly.

We’ve gotten used to the idea of people “following” us in a digital world, subscribing to stuff we publish. Here we know that others are watching us. It is completely within our individual gift.

We’ve gotten used to the idea that when we visit somewhere, our web browsers may accept tiny little poison-pill cookies. While these beasties are capable of being used as spyware, we appear to be able to stop our browsers accepting them, we can clear them from our caches, we seem to be in control.

Some of us have even gotten used to the idea that we can keep rough track of the number of people that have accessed a particular site, what browsers they used, how they got there, where they went to, a whole pile of stats. Just take a look at an example of what StatCounter tells me about this blog:

It’s not just about where we go on the web, the metadata that attaches to our actions is pretty rich already. Take a look at what the Exif data holds for a normal Flickr photograph that I uploaded. If you’ve used flickr, you’ve probably done the same.

These are all things we’re getting used to.

But there’s stuff we’re not yet used to.

And it’s all to do with the concept of privacy. Whose privacy is it anyway?

If I upload something on to the web, and I want to know who sees it, do I have the right? Or do you have the right not to tell me you saw it?

Let’s say that what I “uploaded” is a blog post. Then it’s easy, you’re probably in your comfort zone. What happens if what you looked at is my music playlist? You’re still pretty cool about letting me know you saw it. So let’s make it a little harder. What happens if what you were looking at is my CV. Now sometimes you don’t want me to know that.

Whose privacy is it anyway?

Incidentally, sometime ago, I had to wait up for one of my children to get home. So I was idly looking at “watcher” statistics on Wikipedia, randomly trying to see what gives there. Who or what is watched the most. How do different groupings of people or things do? So here’s some of the highlights. First I name the article, then the number of watchers.

  • Obama 2024. Bush Jr 1922. Bill Clinton 833. Hillary Clinton 778. Saddam 766. Churchill 760. Bin Laden 748. Palin 697. Blair 691. Cameron 248.
  • Gates 901. Jobs 696. Berners-Lee 237. Zuckerberg 141. Page 94. Ellison 85.
  • Gandhi 931. Lincoln 916. Martin Luther King Jr 858. JFK 747. Queen Elizabeth II 740. Mandela 603.
  • Jesus 1483. Mohammed 1240. Scientology 977. God 920. Darwin 854. Hawking 715. Dawkins 599.
  • Lost 1155. Simpsons 1149. Heroes 791.
  • Manchester United 712. Liverpool FC 563. Chelsea 531.
  • Google 1336. Microsoft 889. Facebook 766. Apple 673.
  • Lady Gaga 496. Ashton Kutcher 129. Ev Williams <30.
  • Abortion 697. AIDS 687. Climate change 258.
  • Michael Jackson 1463. Madonna 734. Dylan 730. Lennon 724. Presley 676.
  • India 2270. US 1658. China 923.

But the overall winner from about a hundred I tried?

Katrina at 2872. Even the September 11 attacks could only muster up 1337.

Many of the things we do are recorded, and we know about it. Many of the things we do are recorded, and we give permission for that recording to take place. Some of the things we do are recorded with our permission and we don’t understand enough about it.

So we need to know more about all of this. Which is something that the VRM people are working hard on.

A new kind of literacy is needed. Many are working on this, but we all need to think harder about it.

Incidentally, the millenials may be more clued up on privacy than we give them credit for. Their views are different, their values are different, they may start off naive and trusting, but they cotton on fast. So when you take the privacy settings on facebook, my gut feel would be that people under 28 would be more inclined to have sorted out their privacy settings to their satisfaction than people over 28.

Any views?

13 thoughts on “Musing about a new kind of literacy”

  1. Going on a little tangent here, but Ben Elton’s Blind Faith depicts a different and deeply disturbing kind of surveillance dystopia where the voyeuristic streaks that are becoming prevalent in our society are pushed to 11.

    It’s clever, because then you don’t need much of a surveillance structure: behaviour is enforced through the knowledge that at any time somebody (usually lots of somebodies) are watching you.

    A recommended (if somewhat chilling) read…

  2. Your ‘watcher’ stats made me think there could be a Trending Topics feature in Wikipedia. Possibly it would be as annoying as the Twitter equivalent but given the context it might actually have some value. I guess it would be more like Flickr Interestingness or sports rankings, giving more weight to current activity than historical and not simply rewarding longevity. It could combine authorship metrics and viewing metrics. There would be ranking lists in different categories so I could see the most interesting pages on Cricket, for example. The data is all there, not sure if it’s all public: how can I find out which pages are viewed the most?

  3. I think we sometimes (or is it often?) give permission for a recording of our online behaviour to take place, without really thinking about it, or caring about it, or perhaps even both…its sort of become a fact of (online) life. Sometimes I am truly surprised by the amount of information that we (knowingly or unknowingly) provide about ourselves. Or should I say I am surprised by the ingenuity of folks who write code to harvest data/statistics from the simplest of online acts…

  4. Hi JP. Thinking about this from a teacher’s point of view I wonder about several things:

    1.) Is the ability to monitor what we watch, who watches us, and to understand the implications of privacy online a new form of literacy or does it fall under the umbrella of “skill?” Possibly semantics but possibly having important implications.

    2.) The concept of critical literacy (which this may fall under) is under huge pressure. While readers have always needed to be critical of the information they consume (and those who put it together for them ie: editors, etc) when we all work as our own editors and information collectors tis becomes much more vital. The concept of monitoring information production and evaluating it for “truthiness” is a deep and important web skill that unfortunately far too few students are exposed to and forced to work with at any level. These skills become increasingly important when we deal with information in forms we are not familiar with, from communities we are not familiar with, and about topics we are not specialists in. See the work of Howard Rheingold on Crap Detection 101 and Ethan Zuckerman on being bridge figures. Global Voices Online is a favourite of mine to use in the classroom.

    3.) The concept of participatory literacy is not new for those under the age of 25. While some of us of certain ages are still sometimes amazed by privacy settings, global conversations and the entire concept that we can participate in these discussions, for those younger than us, they have a “gut feeling” that they should be able to. They may not have the tech skills or the deep understanding they need to fully evaluate the information and understand the implications of it; but they expect to take part.

    A slight tangent, but my thoughts.

  5. @andrew yes it will change. and they will be the agents of those changes. but they have different values to those of preceding generations, so the rest of us will have to change as well. their approach is closer to a symmetric model than an asymmetric one.

  6. One of the key literacies is for everyone to know how others can use the data they leave behind. much of this can be used for good. this is not a Big Brother worry article. rather, I seek to point out that education and awareness need to be stepped up.

  7. @clarence not a tangent at all. I think there will probably be some sort of continuum between literacy and skill and expertise in this context. but it starts with literacy. and that literacy must cover knowing who can see what you do, how your trails can be used (positively or otherwise), how to manage your online existence, what rights you have, what duties you have.

    the skill bit will extend to bullshit detection, web numeracy, ability to understand provenance and “truthiness”, critical analysis.

    and expertise …. well that’s a whole different ball game…. with no bell curve in sight….

  8. a recent tv ad shows a small newborn baby in a hospital bed, wafting off its skin are auras of colours, the announcer is heard to say this is a statistical generator, supplying source data day in day out for the new Children’s General Hospital. Give generously to our campaign to upgrade our computer systems. ….

    we’ve moved beyond McLuhan’s digital village and now swim in and spawn digital trails of statistical data across a sea of moving trends. Statistical people, known only by the series of numbers that string along behind their passage like some pheromone trail.

Let me know what you think