Quote from Edward Snowden's Permanent Record

There is something both strange and familiar about Permanent Record, Edward Snowden’s autobiography. The book traces Snowden’s story to now. Whether it is being mesmerised by his father’s Commodore 64, pulling apart a Nintendo as a six year old, growing up online, hacking his education by acing tests, but refusing to submit homework, automating work wherever possible or teaching others about the web, each act recounted is seemingly fated to produce the same extricable outcome – Snowden’s revelations NSA’s surveillance of the world and his life since.

Although raised in a world away from my own, there was something relate-able about growing up during the same time. Whether it be my own hand-me-down Apple IIe and then a Nintendo, I too was lucky enough to grow up with and alongside technology. However, I have never quite taken this fascination to the point where I truly appreciate the ghosts in the machine as Snowden has. Although venturing on the web at school and tinkered with my own computer, my family did not get the internet til late and I did not really grow-up in message boards. There seems to be something privileged about those who were on the early web. This maybe what helped created the close sense of community. (Listen to Howard Rheingold’s interview on the Modern Learners Podcast for an example.)

Although Permanent Record talks a lot about technology, it is far from just another technological book. Even with the discussions about privacy, content and metadata, this is not so much about ‘how to’, but rather a why. For me, the book is first and fore-mostly about humans, society and democracy. Therefore, I think it is best considered as a meditation on the world we want today and tomorrow.


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Tufekci on Informed Consent

There have been a lot of discussions lately about Facebook, social media and connected society in light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Here are my thoughts on what it might mean to be more informed consent.


Secret and Safe?

At the start of Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins inherits a ring from his cousin, Bilbo Baggins. He is unaware of the power it holds. After leaving Frodo to find out what it is, Gandalf returns. He promptly askes Froddo,

Is it secret, is it safe?

Still unaware of the ring’s power. Gandalf explains to the hobbit the gift he has been bestowed and the journey he must go on.

I think that connected education and social media pose us with the same challenges. There comes a time, when after signing up and dipping our toes in, we need to stop and ask ourselves,

Are we secure, are we safe?

Our responses to this can go in a number of directions. On the one hand we can don our silver suits like Chuck in Better Call Saul and become possessed by fear.

via GIPHY

Or we can become completely paranoid like Elliot in Mr Robot, where we always think the worst and react accordingly.

via GIPHY

We need some sort of compromise. We need to, together, demand better.

Informed Era

A few years ago, Doug Belshaw made an attempt at mapping the internet. He divided it into five eras:

  • 1993-1997: The Information Superhighway
  • 1999-2002: The Wild West
  • 2003-2007: The Web 2.0 era
  • 2008-2012: The Era of the App
  • 2013+: The Post-Snowden era

I have been thinking lately, with fake news and data breaches, maybe we are entering a new era, what Belshaw mooted as an ‘informed era’.

Although there has been a call for companies to improve the clarity of their terms and conditions and governments to put in place policies to protect citizens, I think that ‘informed consent’ needs to go beyond that. If we are to demand better then the conversation needs to go beyond the features and affordances of digital technology. For tools themselves are just one actor in a larger play.


“EdTech Enablers – Modern Learning Canvas” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

A useful framework for making sense of technology is Belshaw’s Eight Elements of Digital Literacies. Split between four mindsets (Critical, Civic, Confident and Cognitive) and four skillsets (Creative, Communicative, Constructive and Cultural), these elements provide a means of appreciating the complexity at work.


“The 8 Essential Elements of Digital Literacies #digilit” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

These elements though do not provide a checklist to tick off, but rather the start of a richer conversation. They should not considered all times, but they help in realising that there are always other aspects to consider.

Take for example an application like Hapara. It provides an added layer of control on top of GSuite, which allows teachers to organise and manage learning in the classroom. Using digital literacies as a lens provides an insight into a number of aspects which help to inform our use.

  • From a cultural perspective, Hapara posits that teachers are largely responsible for creating the conditions for learning.
  • Cognitively, it involves new ways of working. Although it may be more efficient, if you have been using GSuite, these are still habits to unlearn and relearn.
  • Constructively, there is a blur between empowering students with the power to participate in actions and the dangers in excessively moderating their learning.
  • From a communicative point of view, GSuite allows a number of ways to engage, Hapara provides the means to manage and moderate this within different cultural norms.
  • Connecting with GSuite through the use of APIs, Hapara has the ability to both hinder and help the creative process depending on how it is deployed.
  • From a critical and civic point of view, it is important to consider why there is a need to manage learning at all and the consequences associated with such actions.

What this example highlights is that you cannot meaningfully consider all these elements at once. Each offers the possibility of digging deeper or stepping back to develop a wider perspective.

Becoming Informed

One of things I have noticed about the current discussions around Cambridge Analytica, fake news and polarisation is that there are no quick fixes or simple solutions to any of this. As Seth Godin points out,

Advertising has shaped our culture. Not the ads, but the money. And Facebook’s woes are a symptom of that.

Being informed is not some sort of process where one day you wake up certified. This is a problem with things like cybersafety programs. They are often designed to get everyone to a particular level of knowledge, but fail to address the mindset and ongoing practice. The real problem that needs to be addressed is what next?

The challenge as I see it is to understand that consent is something that we inadvertently give each time we tap into an application. I would argue then it is a constant state of becoming more informed. In an ever changing world, with goals forever moving, it is a case where we can never quite be fully informed. Here then are some strategies to start with.

Critically Reflect and Ask Questions

I think that the most important thing we can do is wonder. This helps go beyond the how-to to the how-do-they-do-that. Ian O’Byrne has written a useful series of posts with questions to consider in staying safe online. He touches on issues such as passwords, backing up and protecting your connection. In part, I think this a part of the push for computational thinking.

Learn from and through others

For me, being informed takes a village. If we are to ask questions, then it is useful to have people to talk about them with. Dean Shareski wrote a post a few years ago that that has really stuck with me. In it, he spoke about leaving conferences with new connections, not just new content. I think that this is important. Meeting people beyond your own context helps extend your thinking and develop new ideas.

Engage in new challenges.

Reflecting upon his digital workflow, Clay Shirky talks about each year getting rid of perfectly good habits. He fears that if he doesn’t he will stop noticing the ever changing digital environment around him. For me, such change starts with reading widely. There are so many places to find content these days. Whether it be on social media or reading books. I am an advocate for feed readers. All you need to do is find a few interesting sites, add the feeds and you are away.


So to come back to the start: “Are you secure? Are you safe? And are you informed?” Maybe the answer is actually the question itself? As always, thoughts and comments welcome.


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