Walking across campus this morning, I passed a couple dozen students with laptops open, sucking the wifi network. I wasn’t trying to snoop, but I noticed that well over half of them had browsers open to Facebook. It struck me that they are spending much of their time pumping content and data into a proprietary commercial venture. And they’re fine with it. I’m pretty sure they’re capable of understanding what it means to provide so much information about themselves – what they like, who they know, what they’re doing, the music they listen to, the books they read, their vocabulary, things they’re selling/buying, etc…
But, I fear they don’t actively think about what it means to give this personal data so freely to a commercial venture that has one singular purpose: to profit from their information, in any way possible.
And Facebook isn’t alone – we’re using Google Docs and the rest of the Google Apps suite, essentially teaching Google’s advertising engine with the most intimate and powerful data about ourselves. The Google Toolbar tracks what we search for, and what we see.
Universities are also guilty in this – we compel students to publish their content within the confines of the sanctioned LMS, where it can evaporate at the end of each semester. We provide them with email addresses, web space, etc… all of which evaporate when they graduate, and are not truly “theirs”.
It strikes me that an entire generation of our upcoming best-and-brightest minds are developing in an environment where they are comfortable not owning their own information, and even worse – they are comfortable with corporate entities mining every bit of minutiae about themselves in order to make a buck. In a “best case” scenario, these students simply aren’t aware of what this means, and this becomes an education issue. In a “worst case” scenario, they are aware, consenting, and active participants in this.
This scares the hell out of me. These students will be forming our governments in a few years, and running our companies.
How do we steer this ship onto a more wholesome, individual-centric course, where individuals not only want to own their own information, but also to effectively control who has access to it, and what they can do with it?