This summer I am teaching “Digital Media Culture” at John Cabot University in Rome. Two of my favorite things in life: teaching and Italy! I am very grateful.
My students are mainly from the United States, some matriculated at John Cabot, some here for their summer sojourn abroad. Two students are Italians. One is from the Ukraine, another from Egypt. I take note that when I talk about U.S. history, it would appear that the students who are not from the United States know more about it than the ones who are. I am also fortunate to have a member of the staff at John Cabot sitting in on the course. She is our embedded librarian, and is wonderful because she does in fact look up facts such as dates or details to fill out the landscape of the culture, law and politics of the Internet that is the focus of our discourse.
Here are some of the highlights so far: I have explained that when I refer to the Internet it is not to the technology per se but the world-historical phenomenon. That observation necessarily leads us to a discussion of Lessig’s four factors analysis: market, law, technology and social norms. Today we talked about public and private space in the physical world and in cyberspace that naturally flows into a discussion of corporations and property law.
Of the belief that the substance of this course is being written every day, we opened the New York Times and there were two articles on the front page of interest: the new head of the NSA who spoke about his approach to the “Snowden” affair and the latest Facebook debacle. We will get to government surveillance later in the course. For now, I could not have asked for a better example to test Lessig’s analytic four-factors tool than the Facebook dust-up. We will continue to use it as an example for as long as I can milk instruction out of it.
To be sure, the most important lesson to be learned is how private corporations, some of the most monitized in the world such as Google and Facebook, make money from “free services.” A little lecture on data-mining as a technology goes to its function as a business model. Students already get targeted advertising; why shouldn’t they? They have grown up with it. One student even made the case for why it is beneficial: he gets free services and is not bothered by ads irrelevant to him.
But profiling is another matter. When I described the depth of what companies know about each individual person, and how through every keystroke companies come to know it, I see a little light of recognition hit them. It is not the ah-ha of intellectual insight, but more the jab of recognition that late adolescents might have to discover that their parents already know a secret, for example that they are on the pill or carry condoms in their wallet … forget the subtlety: they are having sex. Or drink under age. Or maybe are gay … Unfortunately my student who advocated targeted advertising yesterday was not in class today. Google probably already knows why, but I don’t. We will ask him tomorrow if he feels as sanguine about being profiled as he does about targeted advertisements.
I relived a little of my own personal history with the Internet during the instruction. I talked about my first computer, whose word processing function made it possible for me, a little dyslexic, to write a doctoral dissertation. I told them about my first partner getting me a modem when the Internet went public. After I graduated from law school -- the first student with what would come to be called a “laptop computer (Toshiba)” -- I did legal research online. The attorneys for whom I worked thought I was brilliant because I would come back within an hour to a legal question that previously had taken the best of clerks hours to research and Shepardize. It was fun for a few minutes to imagine myself in the light of their compliment, but I knew it was not true. I had and knew how to use new tools to expedite the process.
Finally, I told them of my ah-ha moment with Google. Asked to give a presentation as an applicant for the job I later held at Cornell for over 12 years, I turned to my second partner’s father, who had worked with computers, and asked him over Christmas dinner how anyone found things generally on the Internet, searches outside of a specialized database such as Westlaw or Nexus-Lexis. It was in the last days of the year 2000. There is a new application, he said between bites of lamb and Yorkshire pudding, I’ll show you after dinner. It’s called Google.