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Wednesday
Mar282018

Readers' Advisory and online privacy

I actually appreciate the fact that, when I go to Facebook or see a panel of Google Network advertisements, I generally see advertisements for things I might, conceivably, be interested in buying. The most annoying thing about advertising, to my mind, is that for most of my life I have been deluged with come-ons for products I had no interest in: perfumes and luxury cars and the latest pharmaceutical advance that will alleviate some minor annoyance with the possible side effect of immediate horrible death. Sonny Bunch. Stop freaking out about Cambridge Analytics. Targeted ads are great. Washington Post, March 22, 2018
Amazon thinks I need a "mouse jiggler." For those of you in the technology slow lane*, a mouse jiggler is a $20 device that plugs into the USB port of you computer and simulate a mouse movement now and then so that your computer's energy saving mode doesn't kick and the screen doesn't go dark.  It is a tool for those working in environments whose paranoia-driven tech departments don't allow individuals to change the sleep settings on their computers, I guess. (Or for those who do not know their operating systems very well.)

So Amazon's ad on my Facebook page got it "sort of" right. I love tech gizmos, but I don't have a need for a mouse jiggler. It is kind of fun to look at the dodads that pop up every now and then for tech tools, hiking equipment, and books in the mystery and sci-fi genres that Amazon via Facebook thinks I cough up some dough for. 
The brouhaha over Cambridge Analytics use of Facebook derived data feels totally overblown to me. Analyzing one's audience so target marketing can be more focused is not exactly revolutionary or confined to the social media environment. During big election seasons, political groups know enough about individual populations (or think they do) to spend lots of money on TV ads in some areas and a good deal less in others for a long time. And who squawks?
My views of sharing personal information with others was probably shaped as a young librarian who provided readers' advisory service to my students. In helping students chose their next books to read, my first question was "What have you read recently that you enjoyed?" And if they divulged that "personal information" I could do a better job of recommending their next book. Now Amazon performs that function for me based on my prior book purchases and it would probably do an even better job if I actually rated those books after reading them.

As Scott Adams once wrote (and Sonny Brunch reinforces), data sharing is not by default a bad thing. Adams wrote:
  • Maybe you shared your medical history with your doctor and that allowed him to treat you more effectively.
  • Maybe you put your personal information on an online dating service and it helped you find the love of your life.
  • Maybe you showed your past tax returns to your bank and it helped you secure a mortgage to your dream house.
  • Maybe you were secretly gay or lesbian and it was a huge relief when you came out.
  • Maybe you installed a device on your car that allows your insurance company to track your driving history in return for lower rates.
  • Maybe you enjoy sharing your life on Facebook.
  • Maybe Google tracked your search history and later served up an ad that was exactly what you were looking for.
  • Maybe your favorite airline gave you a free upgrade because they know you fly with them often.
  • Maybe you put your work history on LinkedIn and someone offered you a job.

Good outcomes are usually the result of good inputs.

Concerns over data privacy are flooding schools right now. Who has student data, how it is being used, and can you track who has accessed it is a big deal right now. My crystal ball tells me that we will be spending lots of scarce technology dollars on systems that track these sorts of concerns - all to little purpose.

There are also rumblings of privacy advocates for making the use of online systems "opt in" or  "opt out." Hmmm, so if I don't want our family's "personal" data (phone numbers, addresses, etc) in the student information system, I can just say no? If I don't trust the teacher to protect the last score my kid got that social studies quiz, I can have the teacher just use a good old paper gradebook instead of the learning management system? And don't we all know those evil doers at SeeSaw are simply mining our kids info to sell to ... well, I'm not sure, but I bet they do.

Schools do store, access and use student information. And I believe we do it responsibly. The ability for a parent to "opt out" of electronic data storage makes about as much sense as me being able to "opt out" of the department of motor vehicles keeping info on my car registration in their database or asking my health care provider to keep all my test results in paper files.

So here's the thing. Let's stop looking at data use and data sharing as innately evil and instead:

  • Ask if there are positives in sharing information with others (no Trump campaign ads in my Facebook feed).
  • Understand how to control in social media what data is shared and with whom.
  • Adopt reasonable safeguards in schools to protect unauthorized use of student and family information (with the operative word being reasonable.
  • Teach everyone that there are some really stupid that people do that can lead to identity theft. 
  • Make sure people know that if one wishes to commit an illegal or immoral act using social media, the chances of getting caught are pretty damn good. As they should be.

In an earlier post on data privacy, I asked:

Assuming the majority is correct - and privacy is a good thing - you probably have examples from your own law-abiding life in which shared data created a lasting problem for you. Can you tell me a few stories like that?

Well?

*OK, I didn't know what a mouse jiggler was either.

Tuesday
Mar272018

Solutions that are neat, plausible, and wrong

Caution: geezer rant follows...
From sexting to cyberbullying to FOMO, social media sure has its share of negatives. But, if it's all bad, how did 2,000 students protest their school system's budget cutsHow are teens leading the charge against cyberbullying? How did they organize a national school walkout day to protest gun laws? Easy: savvy use of social media. Caroline Knorr 5 Reasons You Don't Need to Worry About Kids and Social Media, Common Sense Media, 3/14/18
The most tiresome solution I hear to "technology-caused" problems is a simple one: take the technology away. No smartphones, Chomebooks, iPads, etc., no problem. Games causing a distraction? Block games. Kids abusing the chat window in apps. Close it down. Social media - ban its use.

The removal of an abused thing is often the first reaction we have when we don't really want to think too hard about the problem or use creative approaches to solving it. While I am not a fan of assault rifles, to think that outlawing them will prevent school shootings is wishful thinking. To tax soft drinks or reduce the size of the Big Gulp cup will end the obesity epidemic is naive. Delaying the construction of oil pipelines will not stop the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels. Hate to say this, but there were distracted drivers and automobile accidents before there were smartphones. 

Personal computing devices, guns, Pepsi, fossil fuels, and smartphones are not going away. And sadly, by taking a one-right-solution approach to the problems, disagreements that degrade into either-or thinking block collaborative, innovative problem-solving efforts.

Personally, I am a little tired of proposals that are designed simply to create outrage. Any proposal to ban a thing that I would listen to needs two elements:
  • Acknowledgement of there may be positives to the thing being banned (social media in schools can be used by students to create positive change)
  • Acknowledgement that a more nuanced, thoughtful, comprehensive approach to the problem is necessary - that banning a thing may be part of a solution to a problem, but only a part. (Teaching time management skills and raising awareness of technology addiction are part of good technology management plans in schools.)
For those outrage-fueled adrenaline junkies, this is probably too much work. But remember the words of H.L. Menken "there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”
Wednesday
Mar212018

I expect my grandchildren to get a college education and ...

Whatever complaints people may have about their local school or college costs, most have no doubt that their children need a good education. People see it as the most reliable path to a good life, and they are right.

The unemployment rate for college graduates is a mere 2.3 percent. College graduates earn vastly more than non-graduates. Educational gaps in life expectancy and health status are growing too.

When you start to dig into the education skepticism, you find that much of it collapses. Those journalists and academics publicly questioning the value of education? Many are desperately trying to get their own children into strong school systems and colleges. Their skepticism apparently applies only to other people’s kids. David Leonhardt, March 18, 2018

My grandmother kept a plastic piggie bank on a kitchen counter of her small home. It was my college fund. Each day as I was growing up, she put a silver coin (no pennies) in that bank. When the pig filled up, she and I ceremoniously took it to the bank to deposit the contents in a special account with a handwritten update in the paper bank book meticulously added. By the time I graduated from high school in 1970, I had $600 - probably about $6000 in 2018 dollars - in the account. It was Grannie's way of showing me, as well as telling me, that I was expected to go to college.

My four-year college degree was a first in my family.

I thought about this when my grandson Paul and his dad came to do a college visit to the U of Minnesota campus last weekend. Paul's parents and all his grandparents are college graduates, most of with advanced degrees. That Paul and his brother would go to college more or less has gone without saying.

I've read some of the same concerns about the "value" of a college education that Leonhardt refers to in his NYT piece quoted above. Massive post-college debt and low entry level salaries raise the question of whether college is still a good financial move. But personally, I think that people who graduate with huge college debts were not really smart enough to go to college in the first place.

My concern about sending kids to college is that it very much inculcates social conformity and compliance. The rabblerousers, the entrepreneurs, the artists, the change agents are often those without post secondary degrees. College (well any formal education) is a test that society gives to determine whether you are willing to play by the rules.

Playing by social rules and obeying social norms is not necessarily a bad thing. A regular income, a good neighborhood, decent medical care, time and funds for recreation and hobbies are not exactly exciting, but one can find happiness and contentment in them. So one might "sellout" but the price for which one sells one's freedom is a pretty decent one for most of us who have shown we will be model citizens by going to college.

I would like it both ways for my grandsons. I would like them to get good educations and have solid careers. But I also hope they have the courage and confidence to challenge systems when needed. To risk that comfortable place in society where the education has placed them when the need is there.

Is this possible? Are you encouraging your children and grandchildren to pursue a formal post-secondary education?