Column: digital citizenship
Have you seen The Social Dilemma? For many, watching this controversial Netflix docu will have been a sobering experience. In case you missed it: the film provides a glimpse into the true workings of social media, namely the unbridled collection of user data in order to ultimately influence the behavior of those same users.
According to various insiders, this has disastrous consequences and goes much further than being able to predict which ad will be clicked. Tim Kendall, a former Facebook executive, fears that the massive online polarization in the US will soon lead to a real civil war. And tech philosopher Jaron Lanier even predicts the end of the world.
It is not the first time that these kinds of doom scenarios have been sketched. In 2019’s The Great Hack (also on Netflix) the story behind data company Cambridge Analytica and its questionable role in the previous US presidential elections was told. What both documentaries also have in common is that it’s former insiders who get to tell their stories. Certainly with The Social Dilemma that feels a bit strange. After all, isn’t it easy to be critical after having held a prominent, well-paid position at Facebook, Twitter, Google or Instagram for years?
In a critical article titled The Prodigal Techbro, author Maria Farrell argues that when collaborators she believes are co-responsible for today’s tech dystopia now lead the critical dance, it will never be possible to truly invent what the machinations behind social media companies are. Isn’t enforcing regulation of those same companies much more a role for the government, which is advised by independent experts?
So it comes down to sincere and independent criticism. Which also brings me to libraries, because after all, we also play a role in this debate. When we speak of digital inclusion and digital citizenship, we enable people to deal independently as much as possible with what passes by in (digital) life. Being able to critically use technology becomes increasingly important.
Libraries therefore pay a lot of attention to this in their programming. Maker spaces in libraries, for example, are places to learn how things are made and how they function. As a result, you are much better able to have an opinion about that. With a method like the Data Detox Kit, libraries enable people to regain control of their personal data, without having to give up the technology they use. And in The Netherlands librarians help people with the national Corona app (CoronaMelder). They do that not only through assistance with installation, but, at least as importantly, also by advising on the considerations that you can make beforehand. How do you make an informed decision whether or not to use the app?
The starting point is that in libraries the human aspect is paramount. What role do you play as an individual or group of people in the use of technology? And what questions do you ask yourself and each other? Ultimately, the first realization the next time you get the message “We added a series for you” on Netflix will be that it didn’t come out of the blue.
This column was originally written in Dutch and published in the 50th anniversary magazine of NBD Biblion.