"Beyond Privacy" ProjectCommunicationsLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

“Beyond Privacy” Project: The Prologue (on the education that our kids deserve)

Provisional book cover: Title :

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

As this is an open work-in-progress book drafting project,

please do not hesitate to comment!

Every input is precious to help improve it.


Life Lines


Let us imagine Sarah, a teenager who muses about how numerous information items link her to others. Shouldn’t we offer ourselves and our kids such an education?


My births

My foetal life was a pampered one. My mother closely watched over it. Both she and I enjoyed the support of caring relatives as well as of modern medicine. Thus long before my birth, my mother’s medical records already had stored up about me more than a hundred lines of text. Notes about observations, test results, diagnostic findings, prescriptions and medical procedures. Not to mention the thousands of lines of ultrasound images. Images of me which my Mom proudly displayed on her social networks’ pages. Sites that also displayed hundreds of lines of encouragements and advices from the people she meets there as well as from her obstetrician.

One échography, one relationships network: figure showing that fetus Sarah's echography links her to her mother, and the latter to her doctor and hospital on one side, and through social media, the mother to her family, friends, colleages and contacts

Barely out of the womb, the confirmation of my vital signs resulted in the opening of my very own medical record. I must admit that, for a time, it was identified by the bland first name of… “Baby”. Still, it was through the creation of this file that I finally became a “patient” in my own right, even after months of medical follow up.

My noisy and exhausting delivery was quickly followed by another birth. A more subtle but decisive one: that of a new citizen. It took place by writing of a few lines on a form for vital statistics registration. A seemingly minor gesture. But this act immediately made me the bearer of many legal rights and benefits – and later of obligations – among this society where accidents of history and genetics made me entered life.

And from “Baby”, I officially became “Sarah”.

This could have been another name. It could have been written differently. I quickly learned to identify myself to the word “Sarah”. And this is one of the words by which others identify me.

The recorded date of my birth decides of so many things. My privileges and duties change as this date makes me cross a threshold to a new period in my life. For example, when I reached the age of vaccination, then that of kindergarten, then of school. Today, adolescence makes me successively reach the ages when I become authorized to see certain movies at theatres and borrow new categories of books at the library. To participate in particular sports and cultural activities or to drive increasingly demanding classes of vehicles. The age to go to medical or psychosocial consultation without my parents. The ages when I become increasingly responsible for the consequences of my actions under civil, penal and criminal law. Soon, coming of age will mark the day of my legal liberation from adults’ tutorship. I will also acquire then the right to vote and even to become myself a candidate in elections. The list goes on and on. Indeed, there are thousands of rules where age – thus information items about my date of birth – is a criterion. Each time, the shift to a new status in my dealings with others will be certified by a line on some official card, form or document. Often a line as short as only eight or even six characters that specify the day, the month and the year.

The vital statistics registry where my birth was recorded also specifies the persons who identified themselves as my parents. From these few lines, they are thus recognized with direct responsibilities and authorities over my health, my well-being and my education. My parents. Their child. We are officially recognized as such. By all state agencies. Also by all private organizations. Also recognized as such by anyone around the world to whom a certified copy of this record could be presented. The line about this in Mom’s and Dad’s passports reassures the public carriers’ agents, customs officers, hotelkeepers, police officers, pharmacists and others people met while traveling.

Other descent lines compiled in the vital statistics registry inserts me in a web of relationships extending to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and even beyond. As I breathed my first puff of air, the registration of the death of a relative could have made me a beneficiary of some inheritance. Or to witness transfer into new hands the custody of the orphan that I would have become. No sooner had I suck my first milk that every new birth registration of a new member of these lineages extended my own potential family responsibilities, if any.

As soon as my parents gave me full name they used it to fill other forms. In my name, literally! Registration of these words made me an “insured person” of the public and private insurance plans covering my healthcare, medication and other risks. Again by registering of my full name, my parents named me “beneficiary” of their life insurances as well as of some savings accounts and other assets. In the same way, I became “patient” of a medical clinic, and future “child” client of a day-care centre. Each appearance of my first and last names on the lines of a form gave me a new status in relation to someone else.

Next, my name made countless appearances of my parents’ texts, images and videos. Many were exchanged with their relatives and friends. Several were published on websites. Some, on restricted access web pages. Others, on public pages explored by search engines, therefore reachable by anyone on the planet.

My education

Obviously, I only understood all those details much later. That was when I learned reading, writing, drawing and photography. And mostly, when I was brought to discover the nature of words, numbers, sentences, sounds and images. What they can represent. How they can be handled. And most importantly, what are the roles they play in my dealings with others.

This is how, for example, my parents, teachers and others explained to me my school report card. What are the meanings of each of these rows and columns of marks, notes and comments? Who produces each of these elements? How? For what purposes? How these information items speak about me? And how do they speak about others than me? As indeed, these rows and columns are as equally telling about other students of my class, about my teachers, about my school.

The lesson continued. How can I – must I! – use the content of the report card to better focus my learning efforts? How my teachers and parents can and should use it to guide me and help me to succeed? How they use the report card by the end of year to decide on my access to the next grade level and to specific courses? How my report cards were used to decide on my admission to my current secondary school study program? Will eventually be used for my admission to postsecondary schools and programs? And afterward, to decide on my hiring, my promotions, my salary?

Similarly, I was explained how the school principals compile the students’ report cards of all my class, of my whole level, of the entire school, of the entire region, of the whole country. How they use these compilations to measure the strength of groups. Use them to identify and count the gifted students and those having difficulty. Assess the work of teachers and other professionals. Organize the best possible allocation of available personnel, facilities and money.

Compilations of educational outcomes are also used to rate my school and ranked it among others. In return, the classifications given to my school bring many to qualify the value of my personal academic performance. Parents use the same ratings to choose the school where to admit their children. Teachers do the same to check at which school they would prefer to work. Universities and employers to select among many candidates.

This goes beyond individual decisions only. Compilations, scores and rankings and other numbers are used to assess administrations. School and governmental authorities, parents, researchers, journalists and other citizens, political parties and other groups employ these statistics. Numbers and indicators are milked to appraise the performance of schools and principals; the means at their disposal; the curricula and teaching methods; and ultimately, the government’s action.

Sooner or later, in one form or in another, information items from my report cards are used up to judge and to decide.

Often, I witnessed discussions about the report card. Often heated debates. To whom the report card is primarily aimed? The teacher? The parent? The student? Or the school authorities? Should the card specify if a student has achieved or not a specific educational goal? Or should it rather rank the student in relation to others? Should the results be in numbers, letters or percentages? Is the meaning assigned to each mark clear and useful? Why do the ratings, rankings and statistics produced on a same school, but by different organizations, often contradict each other? Is publication of a particular type of information helpful or harmful? What exactly means the figures on graduates’ numbers, on absenteeism and dropout rates, or on performance of our country’s students in international tests? What do they tell us about the state of our education system? And even about the state of our society? Conversely, which information items are lacking about significant issues? Or how do the available information sets divert our attention from important topics? Obviously, information items derived from my report card produce as many questions as answers. As many conflicts as agreements. And as much incomprehension as knowledge.

It is fascinating. So many people interact through the report card. Me first among them all. So many opinions or conclusions are generated and so many decisions taken from the marks and annotations that the card aligns, horizontally and vertically. So many other conclusions and decisions are made from the statistics produced from those same marks. So many actions by so much people. So much that I am caught by vertigo when examining and deciphering each latest report card.

My trainings

The report card is but one example. My parents, my teachers, my classmates as well as various sites and publications are constantly explaining to me how to detect signs of use of personal information items around me. The questionnaires I am asked to complete. The text entry boxes to be filled on my web profile or publication pages. The slips and receipts I am given. The litany of statistics quoted to me at school or in the media. Cookies which my web browser allows or disallows to be stored on my computer. Files about the sports players and teams or about the entertainment celebrities I like to refer to.

My parents in particular relentlessly want to teach me “the value of information”. The one that we give. The one that we share. The information that is bought or produced at substantial cost. The one we prefer to keep to ourselves. The one that becomes the basis or the mere pretext for a decision. The information that marks one’s life forever.

My teachers ask me to identify what relationships others establish with me through particular information items. Through this form, am I the “client” of a vendor? Or that of the bank that support the sale? Submitting myself to a psychological test game, am I the “study subject” of a research team? Or just the “reader” of a magazine? Does the name I register make of me a “petitioner” addressing some public authority? Or a “potential customer” whose name will be sold to any who wants to buy my attention?

Relationship supported by information: example of the petition. Here, a petition connects Sarah and other citizens (acting as petitioners) to a public authority (acting as the petitioned party). The relationship is the act of petition.

Then class continue. We train our reflex to recognize who hide behind a form. Who decided on the questions, the categories and the possible choices of answers? Who decides on the meaning of the words and numbers that I put in or select? Who decides on their later use? Who decides on the consequences of one response compared to those resulting from a different answer? Is it me? Is it the clerk who helps me fill the form? Those who designed the form? Or those in charge of the service? Or those who developed the computer program? Democratically elected officers? Unknown technocrats? Sponsors organizations? Each of them a little?

Who decides?

Next, my teachers lead me to wonder about who can learns more about the other through this information? To possibly learn what? Then, who can take which decision that could affect the other?

Who decides?

I am constantly reminded of the benefits of building up throughout life a big contacts list. Colleagues, friends and relations. To establish and maintain good school grades, a good credit rating, and good personal and professional references. To control as much as possible what I publish about myself on the web, on message and posting services, discussion forums, blogs, albums, meeting and socializing spaces, or games in which I participate. I am also enjoined to check regularly what others communicate or publish about me. I am being explained how to react if lies, errors or omissions come out.

I am being taught how to find and use various sources of information. How I can generate statistics to verify, support or contradict an idea, an argument, a project. And of course, how one can bring these statistics to tell me one thing or the opposite.

Moreover, my parents particularly cautioned me against the false mirror of statistics. “Sarah, always remember that you are a unique human being! Never a mere statistic, nor a profile, nor a label!” Never mind the average age of the first kiss, first sexual intercourse or first car. Don’t care about predictions about life expectancy. About educational or professional success (or failure) rates. About average likelihood of marriage and divorce. Or about the supposed improbability of finding a mate once passed the 60, 50 or 40 years mark, or even the 30 years one! All these percentages and averages that flooded your readings and conversations embody neither normality nor fate.

Indeed, these numbers do speak of my world, my generation or my gender. But never of me in particular. “Despite your teenage doubts, you must never seek in them the answer about who you are or who you will be.” My parents insist on my condition of free and unique human being. “Never let anyone define you in statistical terms. Never let anyone decide about your life solely on a category appearing in a form or a chart.”

Often the lesson, easy to understand, is difficult to apply. In a video game, reaching such score, getting to this level, acquiring such status or resource, are only changes in the information items displayed on the screen. I should know. I should consider these information objects only as such. And so, return back to my homework, once completed the hour set aside to the game. But my relation to such information items is so addictive! It keeps me in the game. Same with texts exchanges with my friends. Confidences, gossips, reflections, arguments, regards, supports. I would have to sleep. My parents reprimand me, asking me to disconnect and sleep. But cutting me off on going exchanges is painful. These communications of information shots are also so addictive!

By dint of such teachings, I could only realize how I move about in a world that is organized through various forms of information. Increasingly, because the world still keeps on its digitalization and computerization. I am not only a member of a society where information dominates. The contours of my very existence within it are delineated by the life cycles of numerous information items. My life is completely crisscrossed over by them.

Our participations

Still, I also understood that being aware of the role of information in my world and in my life is not enough. I cannot leave the decisions to others. On the contrary, I want to have my say on the information items that others produce or use about me, my close ones and the society in which I live.

Therefore at my school, I am a member of the students committee who criticizes a proposed reduction of the teaching contents to focus primarily on the subjects measured in national and international tests. We are many students, teachers and parents to deplore this project. Because getting a high national or international score should remain a secondary objective. The aim of education is the acquisition of extended knowledge, skills and attitudes as well as a broad culture. Exams, report cards and school ranks should remain tools, not ends.

Another involvement. With thousands of other students from around the world, I participate in the testing of a digital application designed to help students to better manage their time. It is true that many of us do not spend enough time, for example, to study, sleep or exercise because too much to a hobby, a social network or a job. A digital application that easily compiles the minutes spent on each activity typical of student life could help me achieve the balance needed to achieve my personal goals. But it must be me, and me alone, and who gains control over my life. Not the developers of the application that would impose me some standard for good life. Nor my parents, teachers or friends who would track in detail the course of my days. Nor advertisers who would highjack my attention to their products. That’s why so many of us discuss the qualities and defects of the application project with its promoters. Maybe trying to discipline ourselves through a gadget is a bad idea to begin with. But I want to check it myself.

I also support a campaign launched by a consumer association and directed at banks, shops and landlords. The objective is to remind them that the lack of a credit history does not equal having bad credit. Many young people I know are denied a loan, goods, services or apartment or are imposed onerous conditions, even if they have income, money at the bank, a job. Because they never borrowed money, they do not have to file at a consumer reporting agency. Many merchants use decision criteria that give bad credit score to people without a file. This even encourages many young people to seek a credit card or even a small loan they do not need only to cause the creation of a credit file. These merchants need to adjust their decision criteria to reality.

Also, many of us discuss and seek to influence the kind of control social networks give us over our own information items. The amount of personal information items required to participate in some contests. The quality of the questions asked in surveys about our beliefs and our lifestyle. The access to the statistics that organizations produce on our health or our usage of various goods and services. The appetite of employers and police for monitoring the slightest activity we might carry on the internet.

Discussing and seeking to influence the information handlings about us quickly becomes a habit. It is a reflex adopted by more and more of us, all around the world. The practice is getting widespread. It is recognized as socially useful. Governments and companies will therefore escape it less and less.

My life, our lives

The smallest of my actions might cause a trace in the form of information items. Lines after lines then define, embody and support the relationship I establish with others. And the relationship that others establish with me. Other lines feed my decisions. The same lines or other ones, their decisions. And many of these decisions will directly affect me.

Various digital devices can carry information bits about our actions, our relationships and our decisions over very long distances. They can multiply those bits. Save them for only a fraction of a second or in perpetuity, long after our mortal bodies will be gone. Forms and programs channel, regulate our actions, our relationships and our decisions.

I understand that I grow up through countless lines of text, signals and programs.

A substantial part of the world and a substantial part of me can be found as enclosed between these lines.

Conversely, a fair share of the understanding of the world and of me comes out of the handling and interpretation of these same lines.

In a word, I find out that during all my existence I will have to live between the lines.

  1. Pierrot Péladeau says:

    Comment received by email:

    “This is simply excellent. I love the concluding line, and plan on making my students read this when the book comes out.

    Great work.”

  2. Pierrot Péladeau says:

    Commentaire reçu par courriel:

    « Les sous-titre du prologue induisent à confusion: on a l’impression que c’est de toi que tu parles, avec “mes naissances, mon éducation mes apprentissages”. Je penses que tu devrais raccourcir d’au moins la moitié ce prologue qui est beaucoup trop long, et omettre les sous-titres, tout simplement. »

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Si le Prologue vous apparait long, serait-ce parce qu’il vous apparait redondant ?

      L’objet de ce texte est d’incarner les notions exposées tout au long du livre dans l’expérience d’un seul personnage. Ma crainte était, au contraire, qu’il soit trop dense et pas assez redondant…

      C’est probablement cette incarnation de notions abstraites qui m’a valu des réactions en sens opposé de la part de spécialistes. Une prof d’université a trouvé le Prologue « simply excellent » et allait le donner comme lecture à ses étudiants. Quelques jours seulement après sa mise en ligne, l’éditeur d’un périodique professionnel états-unien (qui ne fait pas dans les oeuvres de fiction) m’a demandé d’en publier de larges extraits dans son numéro de novembre.

      Voilà qui me fait songer à :

      * modifier le chapeau d’ouverture (et le texte lui-même) afin de mieux mettre en évidence son intention, c.-à-d. offrir une synthèse des notions expliquées ;
      * peut-être, transférer ce texte à la fin du livre pour en faire plutôt un Épilogue récapitulatif (mais j’en doute).

      Dans tous les cas, votre commentaire me pousse à sonder d’autres non-spécialistes sur leur lecture du Prologue.

  3. Pierrot Péladeau says:

    Commentaire reçu par courriel:

    « Rapidement, j’ai trouvé ça dense mais je vois que je n’ai peut-être pas été la seule. Bonne idée d’ajouter des illustrations. Tout le temps que je lisais j’avais l’impression de lire un synopsis. Une image vaut mille mots. Tu écris bien et j’aime l’idée d’ancrer ton propos dans un personnage.
    (…) Je ne doute pas du bon timing du sujet. L’effort de vulgarisation que tu fais est une nécessité citoyenne. »

  4. Alain Bellemare says:

    Le personnage de Sarah est très réussi et a captivé mon intérêt. Mais c’est long! Il n’y a qu’une seule idée dans ce chapitre: faire voir la toile d’informations qui encadre nos existences. Il me semble qu’une fois cette idée comprise par le lecteur et illustrée par un certain nombre d’exemples (après «mon éducation», peut-être?), tu pourrais résumer le reste en quelques phrases en nous avertissant que c’est ce que nous comprendrons de mieux en mieux dans le reste du livre (je suppose que c’est ton plan). À mon avis, pas nécessaire d’être exhaustif dans ce prologue. Ne pas lasser le lecteur qui a compris ce que tu veux faire et qui a hâte de plonger dans l’action!

    Je ne sais pas si tu t’occupes de ça à ce stade, mais il y a une tournure qui revient de temps en temps et qui ne me semble pas correcte (alors que ta plume est même élégante en général). «les enregistrer que pour une fraction de seconde…» : cette utilisation du «que» est agaçante. Ou bien ajouter «ne», ou bien remplacer «que» par «seulement» ou un synonyme.

    • Pierrot Péladeau says:

      Je prends d’autant plus note de cette perception de longueur du Prologue du fait que d’autres commentaires aussi le trouvent long, d’autres qui le trouvent dense, en contraste avec d’autres qui, au contraire, le trouvent « excellent ».
      Il m’apparait que la perception de longueur, de redondance, de densité ou d’adéquation varierait en fonction de la familiarité et de la sensibilité aux sujets. Des spécialistes y retrouveraient une illustration de nombreux cas de figure et questions. Les néophytes se retrouveraient face à beaucoup de matière nouvelle à intégrer. Les personnes se situant entre les deux, y verraient plutôt trop de redondance.
      Le premier lectorat visé n’étant pas les spécialistes, le défi serait donc de rendre digestible le contenu aux néophytes, d’une part ; et plus explicite aux gens ayant déjà une certaine familiarité, d’autre part.
      Objectivement, la longueur n’est pas un problème. En effet, le texte actuel du Prologue tient en cinq pages et demi d’un livre en format A4 ou cinq en format lettre. Beaucoup de prologues et d’introductions sont au moins aussi longs.
      Le problème semble donc en être un d’organisation des contenus.
      Une solution serait de faire, comme je l’ai déjà décidé pour l’Introduction, à savoir la réécriture du Prologue en trois chapitres distincts de 2 pages côte à côte. Les néophytes s’y verraient offrir des bouchées plus digestibles. Les plus familiers, un propos plus synthétique avec déclinaisons plus explicites. Dans tous les cas, il deviendra aussi plus facile de survoler ou sauter des sections entières.

  5. Pierrot Péladeau says:

    J’ai repris plusieurs de vos commentaires pour publier une nouvelle version de ce prologue plus courte d’un tiers :

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