Death in the classroom (2)

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This post is excerpted from a much longer piece I once wrote to explain the genesis of my policy on phones in the classroom. It continues where the preceding post left off. (A number of my original citations for this section have gone missing, which I’ll attempt to restore at another time.)

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The Pen-and-Paper Lab (2)

Study here, get world-class Wi-Fi

For college administrators there’s a bigger agenda at work. They’re plagued by chronic underfunding, poor student morale and the conundrum of the university’s would-be role in the job market. Digital technologies are the go-to panacea for all that ails them. Buying flashy new gear that’s blazingly fast and easy to use is far more appealing as a remedy than overhauling the curriculum or training academics to teach better. A big black box with blinking lights that only the IT guys understand is one thing. On the other hand, tinkering with long-standing faculty roles is perceived as a threat to vested interests, not as a remedy. In the ivory tower, territory beats reform every time.  Continue reading

Death in the classroom

Technology totem, Tate Modern

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It starts again on campus next week — persuading 20-something digital addicts to surrender their phones for the duration of my classes.

I’ve been confiscating phones from students for about six years. And the whole idea is still wildly unpopular. Instructors don’t want any confrontation. Administrators don’t want to treat their customers like they’re wrong. Parents don’t want to lose touch. The only interested parties who see the positive outcomes are the students themselves — after they’ve had a few weeks to try on this new lifestyle.

The problem is everyone treats 20-somethings like they’ve got privileged access to the digital domain: We’ll let the kids keep their phones, while we treat technology as a way to rescue the classroom doldrums. The idea that personal technology makes education better just won’t die. Take the story that ran recently on NBC under this surprising headline…

No, the surprising part isn’t the phone ban. It’s the attempt to achieve journalistic “balance” by giving opponents their say. If you take phones from students to eliminate classroom distractions, well… the joke’s on you! Because these kids won’t just get distracted by not having the original distraction. They’ll also get anxiety! Continue reading

Sidewalk Toronto looks a lot like another Internet gatekeeper

Sidewalk Toronto will let you kayak right up to your “smart” condo

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Last week, I attended a public lecture given by Andrew Clement, professor emeritus at the U of T Faculty of Information, and longtime advocate for the public interest in the digital life. His subject was the Sidewalk Toronto project, known as Quayside — aimed at building an honest-to-goodness Smart City on a 12-acre parcel of land on Toronto’s waterfront.

The project is controversial, not surprising since it’s the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs (SWL) — in turn the brainchild of Alphabet and “sibling” of Google. SWL isn’t an ISP and Google isn’t readying one of its Google Fiber deployments up here. Still, SWL is clearly emerging as the kind of gatekeeper that inspires mistrust and suspicion — just like the incumbents who control our Internet access.

Privacy, meet information asymmetry

Clement provided a balanced but highly critical account of how Google and Waterfront Toronto got us into what promises to be a hot public policy mess. He did so by presenting what is known about the project, then asking a lot of challenging questions. Many were related to the issues of jurisdiction, ownership, control and, most importantly, how the public will actually benefit from the deal while having their, our, welfare protected. Prof. Clement was particularly concerned about the delicate topic of the risks Quayside might unleash on privacy — already a lively part of the debate in the media. Continue reading

How convenience is killing our online privacy

A growth industry

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The massive corporate hacks just keep coming. Let’s embrace the good news — they’re shining a long-overdue spotlight on the real villains.

Facebook’s September data breach affecting 50 million users was child’s play compared to the 500 million accounts compromised by Marriott in November. Except Facebook has so many other things to apologize for this year — the latest phase in what Zeynep Tufekci refers to drily as Zuckerberg’s “14-year apology tour.”

Last week another screwup exposed photos stored by 7 million Facebook users in so-called “private” folders — Facebook’s answer to the wireless carrier’s “unlimited” data. Their PR lede: “We’re sorry this happened.”

Web destinations like to keep costs down, what business doesn’t. Unfortunately, that means cheaping out on security. American firms keep getting away with this outrageous corner-cutting since there are no serious, government-imposed consequences for lousy security, regardless of how many users have to suffer the inevitable result.

Continue reading

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub? Continue reading

Internet good or bad? Yes (2)

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The Internet keeps getting busier — more people going online and spending more time once they get there. It’s also becoming a worse place to be, on almost any objective measure: mental health, privacy, safety, social cohesion, cyberwarfare, etc.

Can we love the Internet and still hate what it’s doing to us?

In two reports released in April, the Pew Research Center provides some surprising answers. The first report doesn’t bury the lead. It’s entitled “A Declining Majority of Online Adults Say the Internet Has Been Good for Society” But there’s a sharp counterpoint accompanying that finding. These respondents see good for themselves as individuals — but for society, not so much (gen-pop survey here). Continue reading

How to mitigate digital harms? First, be very patient (3)

And on to the third and last main question of the Pew/Elon survey. The tough one — ok, smart guy, you got any solutions? Or to quote the original:

“Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?”

I’m a pessimist about the harms but an optimist about solutions:

  • Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.
  • No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology

So, “yes” is the answer here. And finally…

“Please elaborate on your response below about why you do or don’t think there can be actions taken to mitigate potential harms of digital life.” Continue reading

The digital life is killing higher ed (2)

Yesterday I described the latest Pew/Elon survey on the future of the Internet. The first of three main questions for the participants asked whether the digital life will help or harm our personal well-being. Harm, says I.

The next question asks for a personal anecdote to illustrate some of the concerns being aired:

“Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about technology’s impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”

Another easy choice. Here’s what I wrote in my survey response: Continue reading