Blog Post

Can We Do Better Than a 10 Year Gap in Knowledge (re: digital privacy, ethics, etc)?

spiral clock with roman numerals

I have been chewing on a topic and I could use others' help. I, like many others, am frustrated by the enormous time gap between scholarly understanding of the privacy issues in digital media technology here in the U.S. and public and political awareness. 

This is an area of research and teaching for me, so I've long known about the monetization of data, the use of social media production in research in both industry and academia, and the incredible risks that some people face just in engaging online. Along with many colleagues in STS, Media Studies, Information Studies, and more, I've spoken on the issue, been asked to advise on the topic, and have written about some of the many topics in this complicated space.

Understanding that what we circulate in academic communities does not circulate as public knowledge, I work creating installations, data events, and writing for popular audiences. So do many other colleagues, some of whom have been working on these topics longer than I have.

I am glad that Facebook is in the hot seat. I'm glad that Mark Zuckerberg testified today. He and others (it's not just Facebook) should have to be accountable.

But I'm also feeling disempowered by the number of my colleagues who even today have to remind people that this has been going on for more than a decade. I'm frustrated that people still aren't hearing that it's not just Facebook. I'm upset that when hundreds of women and non-binary people called for attention to the sexist, racist, and transphobic behavior on the internet few listened. Too few still listen.

I feel entirely flumoxed that so many of my friends who are smart, educated people are just now discovering the profiling practiced by FB and so many other companies. 

I don't want to just say "we told you so" and I know that there is an enormous amount of knowledge to keep up with, so much that it might not fit into a life that includes caring for loved ones, for one's self, and perhaps also sleeping. I also know that this plays out differently in different communities - those whose lives are rendered most precarious by dominant culture have long since integrated this knowledge into their lives. (NB: Activist groups have long led the way and shared this knowledge among their communities to help keep them safe, but it's not their job to educate the general public)

I want to figure out how we can take all that telling that fellow academics have been doing and understand why it didn't break through to so many people. I want to understand how to better communicate what so many of us are doing to understand and address toxic cultural practices. I want to develop strategies to ensure that we don't have to wait another decade for people to finally hear the alarms. 

This feels particularly urgent in a moment when major groups are organizing to fund new research, which we need. But a lack of research wasn't the problem with much of what is going on with Facebook - it's a lack of awareness and/or a lack of will to do something about it.

Anyone have ideas about how we can make sure that we don't have another 10 year gap in knowledge?



Image: Time Spiral by Alexandre Duret-Lutz


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