3 Ideas – Digital Pedagogy Lab 2018 Reflections

Colleagues and I attended the Digital Pedagogy Lab at Mary Washington University in Fredericksburg, VA. I am usually one that tweets out quotes and ideas I think are important, retweets the important ideas from sessions I cannot attend, and adds light commentary on the event. This was my first time attending DPL, and I was not sure what the norms were and what my practice would be. I had followed threads from previous years and thought that I could do something similar.

It was recommended to me that I attend the Access, Privacy and Practice 4-day course. When I signed up I should have realized that my usual practice would not resonate with the content. Even with the invocation of Chatham House Rule I did not feel comfortable pushing quotes out to world as we talked about surveillance and data extraction. My internal dissonance was amplified because I had missed the one-day Privacy – A Cryptoparty course for travel, I needed to play catch-up with the rest of my cohort.

We started building a set of Keywords and Concepts to help build a common language and shared understanding while talking about some very heavy topics (with puppy and kitten videos inserted for emotional relief). This experience, combined with conversations throughout the event, inspired me to think about the knowledge and assumptions that I bring with me to these conversations, and what I could do to front-load that information and apply it to what I learned in the conversations about privacy and security.

There are three basic ideas that shape my thinking when talking about the Internet.

 

The Internet is a way to see information that is on someone else’s computer.

Multiple screens, same website.

By Intel Free Press [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If the Internet had started with privacy and security in mind it never would have been built. The goal was to share information, security existed but was not the top priority. Everything that we do to put our collective genies back in the bottle works against the Internet, “the global system of interconnected computer networks.” It is not an application that sits on our computers, it is ALL of our computers and the connections between them.

I cringe when someone asks “What is the Internet?” and someone answers, “Yeah, I have it on my phone,” or “Sure, that’s Internet Explorer, right?”

When we type a url (Uniform Resource Locator), or click on a link in an email or search results, we are sending a request across the Internet to another computer and asking it to send us the information in that web page. Most pages in the early days contained only text, maybe there was a table to organize data. Now we have dynamically built web pages that pull from many sources, some of them have embedded media from services like Flickr and YouTube. The page we see is the result of many requests to many computers, aggregated and arranged, then shared to our browser window.

Web browsers are one way we access the internet. We chat, email, make and accept appointments, and play MMORPGs, all of which require access to the internet.

Faculty and students need another way to visualize the complexity of the Internet. We are lucky at Middlebury to have ITS staff that are willing to give tours and show people the complex network of cables and computers that share information across our local network. One of our student staff said it best, “I did not realize how much happened on the other side of the wall!”

 

If I can see information that is on a computer, then that computer can see information that is on my computer.

Chat has been a very effective way of demonstrating the two-way communication between devices, one person types on their computer and another person sees it on theirs, then the second person replies. Neither typed on the other’s computer, yet they can both see the conversation. Expand the idea out to a Google Doc where many people can type at the same time and people start to get the idea.

The challenge is that the connection between computers is becoming less visible. Wireless, BlueTooth, and cell connections create invisible tethers to the Internet.

Activity Monitor screen shot.

Activity Monitor

There are ways to expose the invisible connections. Open up your Task Manager (Windows) or Activity Monitor (Mac) to get a glimpse of what is being shared from your computer to locations on the Internet. Packets In shows you how much information you are pulling from the Internet, Packets Out shows how much you are sharing with other computers. I also run Little Snitch on my Mac to see what applications are sending and receiving information to and from my computer.

 

Services on the Internet want me to put my information on their computer so they can exchange it with other people.

Companies are selling the fact that you are visiting their web site, some are sharing this information directly using hidden trackers, pieces of code that do not have a visible representation in your browser window. Applications ask you to log in with your Google or Facebook account information, the details of what is being shared are buried in complicated terms of service.

The information that I shared using chat, pine, and newsrooms (rec.music.a-cappella occupied a lot of my time) a couple decades ago was done using a keyboard with huge buttons displaying eerily green text on a dark grey screen built into a computer that was difficult to lift and tethered to a wall. Now our information and activities can be picked up by cameras and microphones on devices that we carry in our pockets and broadcasted around the world in real time. We share a tremendous amount of data with services that profit from the sharing out of this information, either financially or by building socio political capital. Some of this information we share knowingly, some of it is taken, collected and kept behind the scenes.

Browser extensions, like Ghostery, allow you to see what trackers are collecting your data when you visit a website, and Lightbeam will give you an interesting visual of the interconnected information. Am I unique? will show you your digital fingerprint and how you can be identified with basic information about your computer and browser. And in this week’s news, Google tracks your movements, like it or not reminds us that companies are not always transparent with their data collection.

 

My Twitter feed remained empty during the event, but I started to imagine a future where my refrigerator was communicating with my medical network. Do I want this? Not sure, but I do want students, and especially my daughters, to have these three important ideas in mind while they think critically about their own engagement with the Internet.

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