I am not at all surprised that Cambridge Analytica was using our Facebook data without our knowledge. I am surprised however, at how many people are surprised. I don’t know if this is a generational or educational difference, but it’s something we need to acknowledge as information professionals. The reason Silicon Valley has seeped into our everyday lives so seamlessly is because their products are generally useful, intuitive, and designed to be addictive. What is the magic brew that keeps our eyeballs affixed? User data! Some may see no harm in Amazon being aware of the frequency at which we purchase paper towels, but most would agree that when our Facebook Likes are used to sway elections and therefore global politics, we should pay attention.
As librarians it is important that we talk about this new reality. Public Librarians tend to shy away from discussing anything that could be viewed as political, but I stress that most of the community hasn’t had a library education and may not be aware of how intertwined personal data is with their digital presence. The truly interesting fly in the ointment is our own staunch dedication to privacy and the reality that this has ultimately hindered our ability to keep up against titans like Amazon and Google. How many times have we heard people reluctantly tell us that they love libraries but using Amazon is just so easy. Libraries are still difficult to use. OPACs are still clunky and Dewey is still dated. People are willing to pay for convenience, even if that price includes their privacy. These are the hard truths, and it’s time we acknowledge it. Obviously, the critical difference between ourselves and Big Tech is that we are focused on the common good and not profits. Ultimately though, innovators like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon, have raised the bar on standards for user experiences and our communities now expect easy.
Luckily, we don’t have to live in extremes. Libraries can learn a lot from the user experience models created by Silicon Valley while maintaining core standards of ethics. To do this we have to question some long-standing norms we’ve come to associate with the profession. The risk of irrelevancy is high. On that same note, Silicon Valley could take a cue from libraries regarding our long-standing commitment to protecting user data. A recent study conducted by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center queried experts on the future of physical and mental wellbeing as our digital life continues to evolve. The results show 47% believe we will be more helped than harmed by an evolved digital presence, 32% feeling we’ll be more harmed than helped, and 21% believing there won’t be much change. With these results some themes emerged on how we can address the major threats to our well-being. Themes included reimagining systems, reinventing tech, and redesigning media literacy.1 If that doesn’t sound like a library call-to-action I don’t know what does.
- The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/04/17/the-future-of-well-being-in-a-tech-saturated-world/.