Solitude & Connectivity

What is solitude? Many may perceive it as isolation, loneliness, withdrawal or various other negative connotations. This is understandable because we as a society have grown accustomed to this type of definition, but as we all know, that is not always the case. In this day and age of smartphones, social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and easy access to the WiFi (I am writing this blog at a Second Cup that offers free WiFi for customers), we are constantly connected one way or another. The elderly are becoming more involved in learning and using these applications. Companies are constantly updating their own Facebook pages and the like. We see social media everywhere. It seems like we just cannot escape it, even if we wanted to. I believe that this is all bittersweet. On one hand you have convenience (text messages, emails, etc.) and you’re constantly connected with others regardless of who they may be and on the other hand, you sacrifice your privacy and solitude.

Before our lives became consumed by all of this, we were able to leave our workplace and find a sense of “solitude” once we stepped out. Not solitude in the conventional sense (I’m thinking of a cabin in the middle of the woods), but solitude within your own life. What I mean by this is that once you left work, there was nothing following you. No emails, no phone calls, etc… You would be able to leave work and enjoy your time and claim it as your own. There was no smartphone that followed you. There were no computers, laptops, gadgets waiting for your arrival at home or anywhere else for that matter. You were able to be alone in basically every sense of the form. I feel as though nowadays, due to our (well more like everyone else’s) thirst for more (more Facebook, more Twitter, more social media apps), we have unknowingly accepted a trade-off: our privacy and solitude for a fake sense of belonging and popularity (amongst other things). In my opinion, it’s a thirst: A thirst for knowledge. A thirst to be seen and heard. A thirst for recognition and fulfillment. Alex Mar is a writer who was forced to take a residency in order to write a new novel without any distractions. The solitude was welcomed until they noticed that they were able to get internet access on their phone while standing in the corner of their cabin porch in freezing weather. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/books/review/one-hundred-seconds-of-solitude.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 I probably would have done the same thing. The thought of being alone in the middle of the woods with no access to others is very daunting.

There are people (me being one of them) who realize the loss we are facing. Yes it’s great that I can communicate with my grandmother in England or my cousins in Australia, but getting constant text messages or notifications on my phone when all I want to do is just relax and unwind is just not fun. Someone calling you 2 a.m. for whatever reason is not nice either. The question now is this: can we have a balance of both. Clara Moskowitz wonders the same thing in “Net Loss: Is the Internet Killing Solitude and Downtime?” http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recommended-net-loss-is-the-internet-killing-solitude-and-downtime/ “… society to stop and think about protecting some aspects of our pre-Internet lives, and move toward a balanced future that embraces technology while holding on to absence.” I believe that there is a possibility, but it comes down to individuals rather than corporations or institutions. An individual needs to recognize the value of having time to themself and I don’t mean just physically, but wirelessly as well. William Deresiewicz in “The End of Solitude” presents a case about someone who sends roughly 3000 text messages a month. He points out that that is about 100 messages a day and approximately 1 per every 10 waking minutes, therefore she is only “alone” for no more than 10 minutes. You can find the article here: http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708 I have noticed that I send more than 3000 text messages a month and breaking that number down to about 6 minutes a day really bothers me. If people took into account how much time they spent on text messages and social media and how much time they have to themselves, I believe that many would at least acknowledge that there is an issue at hand. As for how many would try to cut down, that I can’t predict nor can anyone else.

Many believe that there is a huge issue in regards to the eroding of absence. There are a handful that believe this (the internet, social media) is actually helping our society. In “Using the Internet to Find Empathy in Solitude” by Alexandra Samuel http://www.alexandrasamuel.com/relationships/using-the-internet-to-find-empathy-in-solitude, she argues in favour of the internet and social media. She believes that this engages us both in solitude and its opposite because we are communicating with others while being alone. I disagree with this. Just because this (Facebooking, Tweeting, etc.) can be done alone by no means implies that there is any sense of solitude at all whatsoever. If you leave work, your employer can contact you through various venues for whatever reason. If you are on a vacation, friends and loved ones can always keep track of you through various apps (WhatsApp and Viber are popular apps). On your way home? You have your smartphone and lately, tablets that you can use constantly to do as you please. Where is the solitude in that? We are evolving into a society that cannot live in solitude, which cannot bear the thought of living without their phones and social media, a society that has created a false sense of connection and community. We are a society that lives in constant motion/connection, but who are alone. Maybe Alexandra Samuel was right, but not in the way she hoped.

Online Education: Where Are We Today?

Online education may seem like a somewhat relatively new concept especially considering that mainstream Internet has been around for less than 20 years. The surprising thing is that it has actually been around for decades. It was created in 1959 by David Alpert and Don Bitzer. They had set up a classroom with a small number of computers equipped with over 15,000 hours of lessons on various topics. It wasn’t until 1976, where Open University set up the first online course for academic credits that post-secondary institutions began to slowly implement these courses into their own curriculum. (Lepi) Fast forward nearly four decades and online education has grown into an industry on its own. It has gone past the traditional notion of teachers posting long videos of lectures and a list of readings to do in lieu of tete-a-tete with a professor; it has now evolved into an industry where anyone with a computer and internet service can access hundreds of different courses, free or for a fee. Prior education no longer applies to sites although they will warn you if you need prior knowledge of a particular type of topic. 

There is a countless number of websites offering free or paid courses online. Many are topic specific such as coding or anything to do with science or technology while others boast topics about pretty much anything and everything. Here is a list of some of the most popular sites out there right now.

Coursera is probably the most popular and most known site out there at the moment. Co-founder Daphne Koller initially created this as an open network for Stanford students to sign up for several online courses for free and the response was overwhelming. This was back in 2007 and Daphne saw an opportunity to expand on this idea. She wanted to teach people around the who normally would not have access to the types of courses that Coursera offers especially those from top Ivy league schools (they offer courses from Yale and Stanford to name a few). (Severance 9) 

Udacity and CodeAcademy are more for those individuals who are interested in learning about technology, web development, and specifically coding. People normally spend thousands of dollars learning how to code by taking courses at school or sometimes even hiring a professional to teach them the basics. These sites have removed all of that and packaged it into an easy to learn format that is easy to follow. “The gamified aspects of the site make it kind of addictive and far too much fun for something educational.” (Gorman)

Back when online education started to creep into traditional courses, those students who took these courses were forced to come to a classroom and use one of their computers. Now due to the technology that is readily available, students and professors alike are able to learn and help teach through various outlets. TEDEd and Udemy are prime examples of websites utilizing these outlets to the fullest extent. Udemy allows students to take courses using their PCs, laptops, tablets, and even their phones. This allows users to learn wherever and whenever best suits them. They could even learn on their commute to and from work if they pleased. TEDEd uploads videos of professors, professionals, students, entrepreneurs, etc who discusses everything and anything. These videos are not only found on their website, but also on YouTube which people can share using social media. 

For some time, many traditionalists worried about the impact that online education would have especially when online courses would be considered equivalent to regular classroom courses. They believed that it is not a fair comparison and that there should be two different sets of accreditation. “… questions about the soundness of its pedagogy… concerns about accreditation, which at present applies standards for traditional courses to online courses rather than establishing standards specific to computer-mediated environments.” (Busch and Hostetter 1). That may be the case for some, but many (students and professors alike) believe that this mode of education helps in a multitude of ways. People with busy schedules are able to learn at their own pace during their own time. Those who are unable to afford post-secondary education now have access to free education. Online education tends to be a lot more interactive than say in a lecture hall or tutorial. Students are able to communicate amongst one another through forums. Professors are able to directly answer questions through video or in a post. Studies have been conducted to decide how best to run these courses and how they can be successful without having to be in the confines of a classroom. Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles was conducted through a study to see how best to run online courses. “The seven principles are contact between students and faculty, cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, and respect for diverse talents and ways of learning.” (Busch and Hostetter 1)

There will always be those who would prefer the traditional route (in classroom lectures) and others who go for more modern route; it is not to say that one is better than the other. Both have their pros and cons. While the traditional route has been in place for centuries if not millennia allowing them to go through the cycle of trial and error, it is now time for online education to through its hardships until it has found how to best educate millions who are seeking education through this venue.

Bibliography

Busch, Monique and Hostetter, Carol. “Measuring Up Online: The Relationship Between Social Presence and Student Learning Satisfaction.” Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 6.2 (2006): 1-12. Print.

Gorman, Linda. “Top 5 Sites for Online Learning.” (2013) http://infospace.ischool.syr.edu/2013/05/10/top-5-sites-for-online-learning/

Lepi, Katie. “Who Actually Started Online Education?” Edudemic (2012). http://www.edudemic.com/online-education-starters/

Severance, Charles. “Teaching the World: Daphne Koller and Coursera.” IEEE Computer (2012): 8-9. Print

 

Is Internet Privacy Becoming Public??

            With the revelations of Edward Snowden about the massive amount of government surveillance of individuals worldwide, and the almost endless amount of news stories regarding the lack of privacy on the internet, the issue of data mining by the government and private businesses is of increasing concern to Americans.

            Many agencies of the government, including President Obama have defended the collection of phone records and Internet use data by stating that these efforts are key to the global fight against not only terrorism, but also financial crime, sexual crimes and surveillance by foreign powers. Many people in America and elsewhere are very concerned with the ramifications of these programs. Privacy issues (vis-a-vis the government and private business interests) are at the forefront of this concern, but there also issues of personal security, government intrusion and potential limits on freedom of speech.

            One of the most interesting aspects of this entire issue is how much information we voluntarily give to the government and to private corporations. A couple of years ago, and continuing to this day, a debate began about police officers downloading smart phone information without a warrant during routine traffic stops.  Many smart phones contain GPS tracking software that can tell the police, and its manufacturer where you have been. The most well-known of these phones is the Apple iPhone. There was an uproar over this information when it was disclosed, and it was also reported widely that there is an easy way to disable this feature, yet most people do not, and their information continues to be collected.

            In just briefly perusing two main social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, one can easily observe that the public voluntarily gives up privacy information. When we write something inane and innocuous like “Going to Applebee’s”, software easily picks this up, collects it, compares it with other information, and then gears advertisements on our most used web pages based on our interests. These advertisements then send reports back to various companies, logging the popularity of their products, and other usable data regarding the user’s interest level. The same geared advertisement occurs when we post about TV programs, music, politics, and sexual habits. People seem to act as if their Facebook page is their own property, and are seemingly shocked when the information they think is “private” is mined or revealed. However, as many people do forget, a social media account is a service that is provided, not a right. Many people do not ever bother to read the “EULA”, or “End User Privacy Agreement” that is frequently offered at a stage before software or web-page use, and many times there are provisions within the “EULA” that allow for the anonymous use of your data. There are also very important questions about our society involved in this, such as the lack of discretion and shame sometimes shown on the Internet.

            This is not to say that there are not serious issues at stake, and that the public should be prepared for and accept the secret use of their data. We are still in the beginning phases of a new stage in how information is passed on, and we know from the long history of humankind that technology always runs ahead of the laws that limit it or its use.  It is almost impossible to predict the technology of the future and all of the uses it could be put to, and this is what has happened with the Internet and the mining and collection of data.

            Of immediate concern regards the intrusion of the government (especially those of the military, intelligence gathering and law enforcement branches) into the private lives of individuals, or of institutions. Recently it was alleged by Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that the CIA had hacked into Senate files and removed sensitive information that the Agency did not want the committee to have. This is something that should concern every American, for while it seems necessary that there be some monitoring of internet traffic, the American tradition of checks and balances on power seem to warrant an independent oversight of these activities by the elected representatives of the people.

            Another threat to our privacy comes from the collection of private data by corporations in the pursuit of profit. The fear here is not necessarily what these companies are doing now, but what they could do, or what they could be compelled to do with that information. Your preferences in, or issues surrounding, purchases, hobbies, travel, spending, mates and sex (from dating sites or Facebook, for example), and health might possibly be used by insurance companies, lenders, employers or potential employers, and of course, the police, to use unfairly against people.

            The collusion between government and private business is also a threat. This can come voluntarily, with the corporation, such as Google or Yahoo, providing information about web pages or chat rooms that seem to contain information about potential violence, crime or terrorism.

            This also is a threat to private enterprise as well. The use of AT&T’s information collecting ability via wiretapping and collection of its data by the government in the mid-2000’s is an example. The National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting the data of many of the major phone providers in the United States (AT&T, Verizon, BellSouth, etc.) in order to discover what it said were patterns that could help them detect terrorist activity. It was disclosed that information about the phone calls of ordinary Americans (within the United States) were recorded, and beyond that, that there was monitoring of actual conversations, and that AT&T representatives, for example had entertained themselves by listening to the intimate sexual conversations of others. The program apparently went way beyond the scope of what was originally disclosed. Besides the obvious threat to privacy, there is another threat. Hanging over the corporation itself was the implicit benefits or handicaps to the company in cooperating or refusing cooperation with government programs such as this. The airwaves and telephone lines/cables of the country are ruled and regulated by the government. Contracts, mergers, and patents, are all under the control of the government. A corporation that does not cooperate could likely find itself losing out on contracts and business to competitors who do. This in turn, gives the government even more power over the individual.

            Obviously, there must be a balance. In an age of increasing anonymity and mass culture, freedom of expression and privacy are more important than ever. This must be balanced with safety in an age of terrorism and of weapons of mass destruction. The key is the oversight of data collection, and possibly the oversight of the oversight (“Who is watching the watchers?”), and the vigorous prosecution of anyone or any entity that breaks the law. Including the NSA.

           

References

 

 

Cauley, Leslie . “USATODAY.com – NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls.” USATODAY.com – NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-05-10-nsa_x.htm (accessed May 26, 2014).

 

Leiderman, Lucy. “How Intrusive Can ‘Acceptable’ Online Advertising Be?.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/lucy-leiderman/adblock_b_5078210.html (accessed May 28, 2014).

 

Marwick, Alice. “How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined by Alice E. Marwick.” How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined by Alice E. Marwick. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jan/09/how-your-data-are-being-deeply-mined/ (accessed May 28, 2014).

 

Simon, Stephanie. “Data mining your children.” POLITICO. http://www.politico.com/story/2014/05/data-mining-your-children-106676.html (accessed May 28, 2014).

 

Williams, Jake. “Mining of student data raises privacy concerns.” FedScoop Mining of student data raises privacy concerns Comments. http://fedscoop.com/mining-of-student-data-raises-privacy-concerns/ (accessed May 28, 2014).