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A novel idea

June 1, 2011

A week or so ago I was directed to an interesting article through American Libraries Direct, the regular e-newsletter for the American Library Association.  The name of the article was Our data, ourselves  by Leon Neyfakh.  I found it to be really insightful.  The gist of the article talked about how Americans feel that data is theirs, that they own it and how keeping it locked up and private might be hurtful to our communities.

I have to admit, on the surface I totally agree with the idea of my information.  I mean I’m a librarian, I’m all about privacy.  But the more I read of the article the more I understood what it was trying to say.  Is it moral to hide so much data about ourselves that we impede growth for our world?  I was in high school when the .com era started.  Everyone in the world was talking about privacy and how anyone could find you now.  I was feed fear of the system because I could be hunted by some crazy online predator that would take advantage of me at minimum and kill me at worst.  Truly, that’s what I was told.  I skirted online technology since and in all honesty didn’t understand the utilization of social media up until about 2.5 years ago.  Oh, I’ve always thought the possibilities were amazing, they get me excited, but the fear was always greater than those possibilities.  In my current professional life I have since had the brilliant opportunity to work with individuals that have helped shape my thinking in different ways.  Now I’m swimming in technology and still learning more about every day!  And I LOVE it!

The article by Neyfakh attempts to make the case that we just might have a civic obligation to turning over some data.  A large amount of the commentary for this was cited from Brooklyn Law School professor Jane Yakowitz.  Her proposed paper (Privacy and the Public Interest: An Appraisal of the State of Law on Public Releases on Research Data) is said to discuss how a “data commons” could collect large amounts of anonymous data for research and public service purposes.  The key word there being anonymous.  I know the argument there is going to be that nothing online is anonymous.  Yakowitz seems to think that fear might be misplaced and perhaps she has a point.

I couldn’t help while reading through this thinking about the differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures.  The United States is an individualistic culture so we own our data.  I wonder if that mentality, in terms of data, has been adopted from more collectivist societies, i.e. Japan.  Then you have issues on net neutrality that can be explored because not everyone’s web is wide open, maybe not even America’s depending on whether you’re a conspiracy guru.  In Neyfakh’s paper Yakowitz states, “Property rules are where people end up going when something is new and uncertain, when we aren’t sure what to do with something new, there are always a lot of stakeholders who claim a property interest in it. And I think that’s sort of what happened with data.”  There is also a “big government” argument in there I’m sure of it.  🙂

A complicated issue.  But the library fits into it somewhere.  I’m of the opinion that libraries are really about information, not books per say.  Well what is information if not just a collection of possibly analyzed data?  If that’s the case and if libraries are about free access to information couldn’t we also make the argument that this “data commons” is a good thing?  The average American going to the library might find need in some of that anonymous data, to say nothing about a researcher.  Stats on medical treatment success, behavior therapy options, addiction recovery, school success rates, and not just simple things like how a school performs, but how a 6 yr old white suburban girl might do in an inner city magnet school.  Could creating those access points be a part of the libraries future?

Sounds kinda Google doesn’t it?  Wow!  Libraries and Google!  Together???  Well holy cow a similar mission.  Go figure.

I don’t mean to simplify this.  I understand (and even still have the fear) of turning over huge amounts of personal data, anonymous or not (do I have any “tree of knowledge” people out there?).  But maybe it could be for the public good.  I don’t know how or when or who but maybe somebody, sometime, with integrity.

What do you think?  Would you be ok with handing over data for the public good?  Is it possible?  Does it make you get butterflies in your stomach to even think about or are you wide open and transparent?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Theresa permalink
    July 14, 2011 5:24 pm

    I myself have thought about the idea of owning our own data. Being a child of the 90s, I don’t agree with default settings that make everything publicly accessible; I am also a private person so I tend not to share much online that I would be uncomfortable with anyone knowing but there seems to be an attitude (I have no idea where it comes from) that the sort of personal data made available has some innate value that should be more respected.

    However, having lived in Japan and realizing the impact that speaking the language and being in the culture had on my outlook, I feel reasonably confident in saying that they have a marvelous way of protecting their data, that we as Americans would do well to adopt. There is a concept, of honne and tatemae, meaning one’s true feelings versus the way one behaves and speaks in public. Coupled with this are giri and ninjou, duty/obligation and one’s “human feelings”/personal feelings. The result of a culture and language that stress these four concepts is that people view their tatemae as something they are obligated to have, and to share. It’s very, very easy to get someone to reveal their tatemae, and very, very difficult to get to the honne. Social obligation is designed for the benefit of the community at large, and there is never a moment when one is free of one’s obligation to society: be a useful member. To that end, they feel no ownership of the tatemae whatsoever (that I observed) and it’s precisely that information which is what most librarians mean when they talk about the concept of “owned data.” The honne is something (again, in my experience) that was always approached obliquely, and even then within certain mechanisms and structures. The Japanese language and culture is rife with idioms meant to enable someone to express honne within a socially acceptable means.

    Perhaps, if all of us were taught to share certain parts of information, and keep what is private to ourselves, there would be benefit to the public good that we can all agree supercedes personal privacy. A great example are people who are resistant to releasing their age and just the state they live in, with no other identifying data. This is useful for census purposes, only to name the biggest benefit, with near-zero risk to the person.

    • July 14, 2011 9:22 pm

      I’m so glad to have an opinion here that demonstrates a non-Western societal view.  Thank you Theresa.  I find it fascinating to think of all the small ways the western and eastern ideologies differ and then speculate on what that means in BIG ways.  It is so easy for people to forget that there really and truly are other valid points of view.  The opposite of what you think and feel can and does hold true for someone else.  Thanks for stopping by and leaving insights – fantastic!

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