Information without Borders and News without Literacy

If you’ve been online in the past few weeks, it was hard to miss the NSA/Snowden affair/uproar. If you’ve been around me in the past few weeks, it was hard to miss my “but that’s not metadata they’re talking about!!1” cries and tantrums.

Hello, internet. My name is Shir and one of the things I get paid for is being a metadata information professional. And so far, no government has asked me to spy on its behalf. And what I would like you to do now is to go back to another post of mine and read about the differences between data, metadata and paradata, and then we might be able to think it through.

Yes, state surveillance is creepy. But no, it’s not because “the internet killed all dignity and integrity”, or because government wants to know the color of the pants you just ordered, or because “there’s no more privacy”.¹ Spying on you is just as easy as it was before the internet, and in your offline lives. If it seems unfair, it’s just the world we live in, combined with the false assumption that nobody can really know who you are online.

So here are some of the evil, vile things I do with metadata in my workplace:
› I categorize, describe and submit open access educational resources for free access in a portal designed for this purpose.
› I look for better ways to make these resources more available to the public. That might require checking paradata from time to time, seeing how people used certain keywords and if they were helpful for them.
› I educate people from different backgrounds on how to use these resources and open access educational resources in general.
› I help to raise awareness to best practices approaches for k-12 and academic staff about using open educational resources in class and write a newsletter about this and other related topics.

And unless I meet them in person in conferences, I usually have no idea who the persons on the other side of the keyboard and type the queries are. My only concern is how to help them find the information they’re after faster and better, and for free (for them).

So that’s it, in a nutshell. I’m all for checking and questioning privacy issues and government and business responsibility, but that usually starts with being bothered enough to read the agreement terms of the program you’re installing as an end user. What I can’t encourage is a moral panic about privacy, big data, personal data and the government (and, mostly, using the wrong terms to describe your concerns with. Seriously, it’s paradata, guys. It always has been, because that’s where the personal and the public commingle).

In the end, if you truly think that paradata is metadata is data, then you might deserve to live in a society with shitty information policies and shitty information work; a society in which it’s hard to tell the difference between different phenomena, and where it’s impossible to analyse current affairs, your lives, global transitions, your local government and even your favorite TV show. It’s called information literacy, and it’s a very important literacy to have, especially in these days and age where questions of privacy, anonymity, public space and news are being questioned daily. Because context matters, and in information without border markers, news without literacy and reducing people to simple algorithms of activities, no long term value can be found.

¹ This post isn’t the time or the place to discuss the implementation of the idea about private and public in the 19th century anglo-american world, but you may want to read about it before jumping into conclusions about what is private or public. I’ll also say for the 1,000 time that there is a difference between private and personal and that what happens on the internet these days is a good lesson for everyone on this topic. Also, let’s not go Victorian again, people. It’s bad for your health.

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