"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: the ‘Introduction’ chapter

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This post is about the “Beyond Privacy” Project: LIVING BETWEEN THE LINES information society through our personal information.

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Introduction

In Lines Societies

 

Digital technologies are transforming our world a little more each day. Enough to say that we are experiencing a revolution. Understanding information and its roles leads us to a familiar and ancestral invention: writing.

 

Information, you say?

The computer has been invented some three quarters of a century ago. Its countless electronic avatars have scattered everywhere, even in our pockets. Mankind has accelerated its production of “bytes” and “data” in ever greater astronomical quantities. Still, how many of us do understand these “information” objects? How many perceive the different roles that humans can make them play? How many know how can we use them ourselves? How can we influence the uses that others make of them when they affect us? The education of our Sarah in the Prologue, despite its obvious necessity, is still largely fiction. Yet, this book demonstrates how little it takes to lay the foundations of it.

This is because the presence of information items surfaces more and more in the open. Day after day, all around us. The growing popularity of digital applications and social networks multiply our opportunities for learning and experimentation. And our culture already offers us several keys for their understanding and their mastery.

In fact, the information items that our digital machines process are far from being a recent invention. Even the word “information” is relatively old. Its use has been detected in the in XIV century’s English language, originating from a Latin word used more than two thousand years ago. Over the following centuries many professions (such as police and journalism) and sciences (such as physics and mathematics) also adopted the word. Each jargon then assigned to it a new specialized meaning. It is therefore necessary to specify which of these “information” make the subject of this book. For now, let us say that it is not only the objects handled by our digital machines. We include all the products of this invention dating back to some 6,000 years ago: writing.

Indeed, the fifth of the world’s population still do not have access to literacy or the circumstances to achieve it. Even in developed societies, too many people are unable to read this book (so please relay them its lessons should an occasion presents itself). However, a practice as powerful, ancient and widespread as writing does leave its marks across culture. All of us understand, at least intuitively, how individuals, groups and communities can make use of letters and words. Which purposes calculus, this particular use of writing, may well serve. And, for sure, what is money, this invention almost as old as writing.

Money for example

Money. Currency. Inscriptions on flat pieces of metal. Inscriptions on banknotes, checks or various slips of paper. Sequences of numbers and letters displayed on screens. The word “money” refers to one of the most abstract information objects ever conceived by humanity.

Yet, almost every one of us can easily understand what those information pieces are. What “purchasing power” they represent. What is their “worth” regardless of the insignificance of the metal, paper or pixels carrying them. We can guess the different functions that money can have in relationships between buyer and seller. Between employer and employee. Between banker and client. The different roles they may play – just like the insidious poison they may become – in relationships between parents, spouses or friends.

We know how to discuss money. In practice, we debate a lot about it. Often passionately. In private and in public. At work and home, in cafes and bars. We are not only talking of our own money. We are also much interested in that of others. Not to mention the money our communities should collect or not in which pockets to operate which public institutions. Or provide us which goods or services. Or to distribute it to which individuals, businesses or populations. Our discussions – as our actions – about money are often emotional, passionate. Our arguments and behaviors feed from personal experiences, common sense as well as more or less well anchored values and beliefs. Our arguments or justifications also rely on the work and opinions of professionals from various disciplines.

A simple glance at the shelves of bookstores and newsstands confirms our obsession for money. No need to even check the topics. It is enough to detect only the titles that include the word “money.” They are found in almost all departments. Here is a small sample listed in the text box.

Some titles that include the word “money”

  • Arts: Money and Artist’s Condition, Movies’ Money;
  • Astrology: Zodiac and Money (it is telling that this is a favorite theme of divinatory arts);
  • Comics: Uncle Scrooge’s Money, or that delightful heading Smoking Money Makes You Poor;
  • Cooking: Taste, Health and Money;
  • Dictionaries: Money Dictionary, About Money: Dictionary of Quotations;
  • Economics / Management / Personal Finance (spoiled for choice here) Investing Money in Stocks, Money Through the Windows, Towards Electronic Money, Where Does Your Money Go, How to Earn Money on the Internet;
  • Education: Money and Decimals;
  • Esotericism and Religion: The Soul of Money, Money in the Bible;
  • Essays: Crazy Money, Death of Money;
  • History: Marriage and Money, Land and Money;
  • Human Culture / Popular Psychology / Psychology: Taming Money, How to Talk Money with Your Child, Money in Psychoanalysis (also a recurring theme here);
  • Law: Divorce Money, Money Laundering;
  • Literature: Money or Life, Dirty Money, Stories on Money, Weapons and Theft (motivation of many crimes and intrigues);
  • Philosophy: Morality and Money, Philosophy of Money;
  • Politics: Oil Money, Terrorism Money (add any words you want before Money…);
  • Social Science: Money in Politics, Women and Money;
  • Sport: Sport’s Money.

Such widespread (and often justified) attention toward this particular form of information should question us. Indeed, are we not citizens of information societies? So why do we not find as many titles in bookstores about all other types of information? About personal information, for example? Should we not also seek to understand these other types of information that are often processed by the very same machines that handle money? Why can we not discuss as much the as important roles all these other information play in our individual lives? And in the lives of our organizations and of our society?

Familiar newness

Countless expressions proclaim our entry into a new world: “Information Society”, “Knowledge Economy”, “Cyberspace”, “Digital Revolution”, “Dematerialization of the Economy”, “Virtual Universe” etc.. These terms refer to societies where objects called “information” and computers play increasingly important roles. A bit like capital and the steam engine have engendered industrial economy and modern society. These expressions thus suggest the idea of revolution. Its course would transmute societies, economies, human relationships, cultures, political systems.

However, the nature of the wide variety of information elements involved still remains quite unclear to many of us. The same is true for the nature of their handlings with digital tools. I dare add that this is true even for some of the prophets, pioneers and architects of this revolution. Under these conditions, how can individuals and groups steer their pursuit of well-being, freedom and happiness in such world in turmoil? How can our societies ensure a minimum democratic mastery of change? Critical questions indeed.

However, let us take the proper measure, of not only the challenge, but also of already acquired cultural acquaintance. Because we are far from inexperienced.

Literate citizens are already familiar with many forms of writing. By definition, they know what is to read and write. This is my case, since I wrote these lines. It’s yours, since you read these at some time later. We appreciate writing, if only as a practical tool for communication and knowledge. But perhaps also for the aesthetic pleasure of a well-turned sentence, an eloquent statement, or an elegant calligraphy. We know how to count and calculate. We know numbers. Particularly those representing money, noticeably.

Every day we are exposed to hundreds of written messages at work, on the street and at home. Many are advertisements and other communications designed to capture our attention, if only a fraction of a second. We learned to read, understand, assess and respond to more or less sophisticated combinations of texts, images and sounds. We are familiar with the different forms that information items take. That, even when we do not conceive them as “sets of information”.

We also know to read and complete those inescapable forms. Most of the time, at least. Indeed certain forms, such as those for income tax returns, are so complicated or trying that we prefer to entrust their completion to specialists. Our forms completion training began as we entered school. Remember those multiple-choice exercises and exams in which we had to circle or tick the right answers. Or those with boxes we were asked to fill with text, numbers, or geometric shapes. Then the world outside has persisted in submitting us to thousands of questionnaires, forms, reply cards, or fields-boxes. More or less consciously, we became accustomed to this cutting of reality into predetermined, predefined, pre-coded, pre-solved, pre-regulated categories. Compartmentalisations of reality. Categorizations of our individual lives, in particular.

Often, it is through forms that we encounter law. The form and its processing grant or refuse us a service, the exercise of a right, a license, an income, a subsidy. Law uses writing to set and proclaim categories, principles and rules imposed on us all. When a proposed bill, regulation or contract concerns us, we can read it or have it read. We can attempt to assess its effects on us or our close ones. Eventually, we can contact a member of legislature, a regulatory authority or some other decision maker to influence the final content of the text.

These experiences form a solid foundation for understanding the nature of information objects and their roles. Although, as we will see, several mechanisms governing us are now designed by engineers rather than by legislators. Their rules are written in lines of computer code rather than English. And these rules are recorded in the belly of ATMs, computers and familiar devices rather than in texts available at the library or on the web.

The current explosion of digital applications represents only the most recent acceleration of a revolution that began… 6000 years ago, with the invention of writing. So inserted on as a wide horizon, the contemporary upheavals appear far less explosive, exotic, or incomprehensible. And even, somewhat less uncontrollable.

This book

The main purpose of this book is to present some basic concepts for understanding our digital world and participating fully in it. These concepts offered by informatics, linguistics and social sciences will allow to explore with you the following questions:

  • What are these information objects that our machines produce, communicate and process in ever greater colossal quantities?
  • What are the properties of these information objects that make them as effective and powerful, but limited, media for knowledge and action?
  • How are these information objects playing increasingly important roles in the lives of individuals, organizations and societies?
  • How are handlings of information objects materializing an increasing share of the relationships between individuals and organizations?
  • How do the lives of individuals, organizations and societies thus become transformed?
  • How come those information objects, their processing as well as the devices that support them are involved in a growing number of conflicts?
  • How can these conflicts be managed peacefully and democratically?

From your part, I hope that you will read the following chapters while keeping in mind how the offered concepts can serve you to better:

  • detect uses of information around you;
  • recognize how these uses of information organize your relationships with others;
  • identify issues, challenges and effects of these uses for yourself and others;
  • participate in decisions of interest to you relating to the production of information objects and their uses, and therefore
  • develop your individual autonomy and that of your organizations and communities.

The chapters are short. This is for easy reading, of course. But above all, it is for clearly distinguishing each of the concepts discussed.

To help understand the links between concepts and chapters, the whole presentation is organized from a single, simple general statement:

Personal information objects play an increasing role

in the lives of individuals, groups and societies.

This statement acknowledges a finding that each of us can already make. This notion is the subject and the conclusion of the story told by character Sarah in the Preamble. From here, each chapter will detail an element or dimension of this general statement.

Such an organization for the book provides an anchor for reading. Especially when, as often, reading is done with interruptions, by jumps from one part to another, or for searching specific answers. Relying on an easy to remember sentence as anchor also facilitates assimilation of knowledge.

Personal information is used as a starting point. Because, as they talk about us, these objects concerns us, immediately and personally. Gradually, we will go from the individual to the societal, and vice versa. Indeed, the proposed notions and ideas generally remain valid for any information in any situation.

We will see that the issues, challenges and implications of the computerization of our world are countless. Knowledge presented in this book does not survey them exhaustively. Far from it. It only provides some keys opening access to their understanding.

I hope that the exploration offered will be both useful and pleasant.

h2/em



  1. Karine says:

    Bon début, clair et bien énoncé…j’ai hâte de lire la suite! Bon succès, Karine

  2. Anne-Marie Théorêt says:

    L’écriture correspond bien à un ouvrage de vulgarisation. Rappel historique en intro : j’aime ! Personnage de Sarah : très intéressant. Je la verrais en ouverture de chaque chapitre, dans une mise en situation concrète à laquelle s’identifierait le lecteur. (Situation vécue au quotidien, par exemple.) Cette mise en situation serait évidemment en lien direct avec le thème développé dans ledit chapitre. Le lecteur se sentirait concerné : « Ça m’est arrivé à moi aussi… » Titres de chapitres avec jeux de mots récurrents : très accrocheurs. Appropriés à un ouvrage de vulgarisation.

    Question : Sera-t-il question dans cet ouvrage des répercussions juridiques par rapport aux données personnelles inscrites sur Facecebook, par exemple ? Y aura-t-il des cas cités où il y a eu poursuite pour menaces, injures, etc., et quoi faire pour éviter de tomber dans le piège de l’impudeur ? Enfin, qu’advient-il de toutes ces infos personnelles circulant sur la Toile au décès d’une personne ? Abordera-t-on la question du testament numérique ?

    Voilà ! Tu as piqué ma curiosité. Bonne continuation !

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Merci aussi. 🙂

      Sarah: je lui consacre tout le Prologue (qui fait l’équivalent de trois chapitres), ici en français http://pierrot-peladeau.net/fr/archives/3535 (and in English here http://pierrot-peladeau.net/en/archives/3535 ).

      L’idée de prendre des exemples le plus près du quotidien des gens est effectivement celle qui sera suivie. Mais sans ramener Sarah qui demeure un personnage circonscrit (âge, genre, occupation, etc.).

      Facebook et cie : il est évident qu’il faudra évoquer l’environnement des médias sociaux et applications associés (je le fais déjà dans le Prologue avec Sarah). Cependant, ce livre ne se veut pas un guide pratique. Surtout pas sur des questions qui évoluent aussi rapidement que les Facebook et cie. L’objectif est plutôt d’offrir des clés de compréhension qui resteront encore valables dans 10 ou 20 ans. Donc, plus des sortes de préalables aux guides pratiques ou à la discussion de problèmes particuliers.

      Sur les testaments numériques (autre thème qui sera évoqué, mais non solutionné), je peux référé à mon billet : Actifs et identités numériques en cas de décès ou d’inaptitude – Première récapitulation http://pierrot-peladeau.net/fr/archives/3361 qui réfère à d’autres sources.

  3. Pierrot Péladeau says:

    Commentaire reçu par courriel:

    « L’introduction devrait être plus courte elle aussi, plus directe et faire plus clairement le lien avec les thèmes abordés dans le Prologue et des chapitres à suivre. Il y a trop de généralisations, et d’affirmations qui sont floues, à la limite incompréhensibles. Par exemple, je ne comprends pas tes sections sections sur l’écriture et la monnaie. Il vaudrait mieux que tu définisses clairement ce que tu entends par “informations”, et le lien que tu fais avec l’écriture et nous dire concrètement à quoi tu fais référence quand tu parle des “produits de l’écriture” ? Le lien entre écriture et information est sans doute évident pour toi, mais il demande à être explicité. De même, la section sur la monnaie est pour moi incompréhensible: alors que le terme monnaie nous renvoi à l’espèce sonnante et trébuchante, tu nous dis qu’il s’agit d’une “information”: on comprends vaguement à quoi tu fais référence, ça demande à être explicitée. Par ailleurs, l’explication sera sans doute passionnante, mais est-ce bien la place de faire ceci dans une introduction?

    Je crois que tu devrais te rendre plus rapidement à la description de ce dont le livre va aborder, les différentes questions que tu poses à la fin de l’intro. Par contre, ton énoncé général à l’effet que “les informations personnelles jouent un rôle croissant dans la vie des individus” est d’une évidence incontestable: il faut y ajouter quelque chose, pour qu’on ai envie de lire le livre. Il me semble que de dire “Comment comprendre et mitiger l’impact des décisions concernant la création et les usages des informations personnelles sur notre autonomie individuelle et collective” serait plus invitant. »

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Plusieurs points intéressants dans ce commentaire. Il me pousse à reconstruire l’Introduction selon le même format que les autres sections du livre : une série de courts chapitres de trois feuillets.

      Intéressants votre commentaire sur l’absence de lien évident entre écriture, information et monnaie. Il faut donc expliciter. D’autant que la référence à la monnaie reviendra ailleurs dans le livre.

      Sur l’énoncé général « les informations personnelles jouent un rôle croissant dans la vie des individus », il faudra expliciter plus clairement que n’est que l’ancrage aux deux douzaines de notions qui seront abordées. Le recours à un tel énoncé « ordonnateur supérieur » est une méthode éprouvée pour l’enseignement de concepts. Un tel ancrage permet de :

      * rappeler à la personne qui lit qu’elle possède déjà des informations importantes ;
      * attirer l’attention sur ce qui sera important le texte qui suit ; et
      * mettre en évidence les relations entre les idées présentées.

      J’avais prévu faire systématiquement ces trois exercices à l’entrée — et possiblement à la sortie — de chacune des parties du livre (réunissant plusieurs chapitres). Probable qu’il faut faire de même en entrée et sortie de la Partie « Introduction ». Ou encore, en faire un chapitre en soi dans cette partie.

      Je vais aussi songer à faire des liens plus évidents entre ces chapitres d’introduction et le Prologue qui doit le précéder.

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