Time to Focus

A few weeks ago I played with a cousin’s four-year-old daughter.

“Look at the map!” she cried, laying out a Lego theme park map on the ground. “First we have to go through the ninjas, then we have to go get Hercules.” We ran around the park, her one-year-old brother wandering as we zipped by. She kept yelling out commands, and I’d ask her what we had to do next.

Suddenly, this morphed into a game of whales and humans. Namely, we kept being turned into whales and needing to turn back into humans. We did so by “eating” ice cubes that we had dumped on the ground. Every time she pointed at me, I bellowed like a whale.

Eventually, another child joined in and this turned into a game of house. We each claimed a tree and rushed back and forth, bringing each other cakes and omelettes and turning into superheros and stealing each other’s cars.

Preschool age children are full of energy and love make-believe. Engaging with them can be exhausting, but I found it freeing. I could say or do anything and she’d run with it. I declared we’d found a safe zone, I taped silly glasses to my face, I made strange noises, and she took it all in stride.

A few years from now, she’ll outgrow this tendency toward fantastical exuberance. She’ll go to school and focus on learning how the world works and managing a social life. I won’t be able to run up to her and say, “Bloooooooop” with pink flowery glasses taped to my face. In Deleuzian terms, her attention will be territorialized — marshaled into familiar, conventional, and normalized ways of thinking.

I feel myself making a similar transition from doctoral student to ABD. Since advancing to candidacy in May, I’ve been excited to write my dissertation proposal. Finally, I get to focus on the whole reason why I entered the PhD program in the first place. But writing the proposal means I have to focus. The floodlight of my academic gaze must sharpen into a spotlight. And that makes me a little sad.

I now look back on the past year and see it as a period of academic fantastical exuberance.

What’s epistemology? What’s ontology? What did Foucault and Latour and Haraway and Barad say? What’s my theoretical perspective? I’m an interpretivist. No, maybe I’m a critical researcher. Ooh, what is post-humanism. What happens if I drop terms like assemblage and actant and materiality into conversation? Do I want to do ethnography? Is my work content analysis or textual analysis? What discipline am I in? I’m in social computing. No, computer-mediated communication. Ooh, what if I call myself an internet studies researcher. Maybe I’m in media studies.

Hey, look at all these citations! What’s that? And that one? And that one? Let me download the article right now. And these books, let me get them from the library. Oooh look, these other books seem relevant too; let me check them all out. Here’s some sociology, some anthropology, some communication, some feminist scholarship, science and technology studies work, some cultural studies, ooh, political theory, whoa, I didn’t expect to go there, but OK, sure.

What has agency? Hmm, I didn’t think that was relevant to my research, but alright, let’s do that. Oh, you want deconstruct binaries. Fine. Subject/Object. Nature/Culture. Human/Thing.

And I’ve loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. But I can’t possibly read everything I’ve downloaded and checked out before writing the dissertation proposal. I can’t trace the history of all the theories I’ve started learning about.

Yes, the reading and the note-taking and the conversations will continue. But if I want to stay on track, more of that work needs a clearer purpose than simply, “Oooh, that sounds interesting.

I’m hitting a new academic stage, and it’s time to focus.

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Escaping the Trepidation Trap

In the first sentence of his chapter “On Recalling ANT,” Bruno Latour lists four things that “do not work” with actor-network theory: “the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen! Four nails in the coffin” (p. 15). Apart from its bluntness, this sentence stands out because Latour is one of the creators of actor-network theory.

Any theory has its proponents and critics. One person finds a particular theory useful to inform a worldview or structure a research project, while another finds that theory bunk and proclaims so loudly. Such is the world of academia. We read what others have written, we think about it, sometimes supporting that thinking by studying something empirically, and we write. Often, our writing engages directly with what others have written — affirming, refuting, re-interpreting, critiquing the work of others, taking their work in a new direction, arguing that their work is flawed.

It is a world I happily inhabit, largely because of this focus on writing. I wrote poems and novels as a child, studied journalism as an undergraduate, and consider writing for the public a core part of my personal mission. I’m a published writer, and I don’t fear being published. I entered a PhD program in part to connect my writing with theory, yet I also approached this work with some trepidation.

Actor-network theory is well known and widespread. Actor-network theory is also recent enough that the people who created are still alive. Meaning they can see and respond to the ways that others use or critique their theory. While reading “On Recalling ANT,” I envisioned myself in Latour’s shoes. How would I feel if I invested countless hours into developing a theory, only to see others misunderstand or misinterpret it, or take it in directions that go against its original intention? How would I respond if people challenged my work or pointed out its flaws? Publishing theoretically informed research felt more vulnerable to me than other types of writing because it meant opening myself to critiques that my thinking was wrong. Which to me felt tantamount to critiquing my existence.

Last year, I wrote a paper in which I took a theory in a different direction. I wasn’t sure whether I correctly applied the theory, but the paper survived the peer review process and was published. Shortly after publication, I was invited to present the paper at a workshop that the theory’s founder helped organize. If I had applied the theory incorrectly, I’d find out now. The theorist gently critiqued a few other presentations, but mine proceeded unscathed. Though relieved, I wondered what would happen the next time I used a theory in my work. And the next time. Approaching my research with trepidation seemed exhausting.

Earlier this year, I found my way out of the trepidation trap. I was at another workshop, this time sitting in the audience listening to a theorist whose work has resonated with me for years. While summarizing her research, she remarked, offhandedly, “I’m still figuring out” the theory.

This stunned me. This theorist has published books and articles on this theory; her name is almost synonymous with it. If she’s still figuring it out, that means that any of us who use the theory are also figuring it out. And that means there’s no one “correct” way to interpret or apply the theory.

Someone may dedicate their entire professional life to developing a particular idea; indeed, their name may become synonymous with the idea. But ideas don’t belong to one person. The acknowledgements page in any book reveals the multitude of people involved in developing an idea. And, in the spirit of ANT, we must not forget that non-human actors also play a role. The library, my computer, and my glasses deserve as much credit as the people around me for bringing ideas to fruition.

So if ideas exist separately from authors, then critiques of ideas exist separately from critiques of authors. There’s no reason for me to equate a critique of my thinking to a critique of my existence. I escape the trepidation trap by letting go. I let go of the assumption that thoughts define me. I let go of the sense that there’s a “right” answer. And most important, I let go of the fear.

After re-reading the theory I used in the paper last year, and reading other work that engaged with the theory, I recently wrote another paper on this theory. In it, I critiqued my prior use of the theory and offered a more nuanced analysis. I felt comfortable doing so because theoretically informed research is not some pedestal I’m trying to climb onto. It’s a messy, iterative practice, just like everything else in life. We read, we write, we engage, we reflect, we read more, we write more, we revise, we clarify. We change. Bruno Latour himself moved away from the social constructionist views that pervaded his earlier work.

But separating the idea from the author is not a license to disengage. On the contrary — Latour ended his chapter, “On Recalling ANT” with this:

“[Y]ou cannot do to ideas what auto manufacturers do with badly conceived cars: you cannot recall them all by sending advertisements to the owners, retrofitting them with improved engines or parts, and sending them back again, all for free. Once launched in this unplanned and uncharted experiment in collective philosophy there is no way to retract and once again be modest. The only solution is to do what Victor Frankenstein did not do, that is, not to abandon the creature to its fate but continue all the way in developing its strange potential” (p. 24).

And that strange potential includes possibilities for illumination, not just openings for critique. One person recently told me they found the theory paper I published last year helpful because they had never thought of using the theory in that way. And that, more than anything else, is why I do this work in the first place.

A Crack and a Relief

It happened. The crack, when “you can no longer stand what you put up with before, even yesterday” (Deleuze & Parnet quoted in Jackson & Mazzei, 2013); when “one can no longer think things as one formerly thought them, [and] transformation becomes both very urgent, very difficult and quite possible” (Foucault, quoted in St. Pierre, 2014).

For the past several months, I’ve been trying to understand epistemology and ontology — what they mean, what they mean for me, and what they mean for my research. I read “The Foundations of Social Research” by Michael Crotty. I read “The Body Multiple” by Annemarie Mol. I read other articles, mostly from communication, science and technology studies, and cultural studies.

I continued to analyze quantitative and qualitative data and write papers, but I felt increasingly perturbed, as if this work wasn’t adequately capturing what the research team said we were studying. I kept spouting my one-line summary of my dissertation research: “I study how parents post pictures of their kids online and what that means for kids’ identity development, sense of self, and understanding of privacy,” even after realizing that I’m not actually studying parents or kids or online or identity.

Epistemologically, I sensed that I wasn’t a positivist, but I couldn’t figure out whether I was a constructionist or a subjectivist. Theoretically, I didn’t think I was an objectivist, and I sensed that I might be an interpretivist who could one day become a critical scholar. I could be doing phenomenology, or potentially hermeneutics, or maybe symbolic interactionist work. I remained unsure of aligning myself with any methodology besides “qualitative,” which I do primarily through the methods of interviews and textual analysis.

Today, all of that fell apart and also came into sharp relief, thanks to readings on “New Materialism” and a conversation at the weekly journal club of my university’s physical cultural studies program.

I realized that I’ve been using what St. Pierre (2016) calls “conventional humanist qualitative methodology” — interviewing people and coding the data as a way to capture some aspect of their lived experience. I thought I’d sidestepped positivism because I don’t offer “hypotheses,” don’t calculate “inter-rater reliability,” and don’t purport to “predict” behavior. But I do define “research questions,” collect “data,” and code it to fill a “gap the knowledge” — all trappings of logical positivism.

And this would be fine, except that I’m also discussing Foucauldian analysis and Actor-Network Theory and assemblage. And I dig it. It resonates with me and it’s informing how I approach my dissertation. So no wonder the conventional research process I’m using feels stale — it does not align with the new (to me) theory/methods that are shaping the way I understand the world and the research that occurs in it.

But doing research from a Foucauldian or ANT or assemblage (or feminist or queer or post-structuaralist or post-colonial or post-humanist or…) perspective requires more than rethinking methods. It means letting go of a belief that any research, no matter how rigorously or reflexively it is done, can capture what is “going on.” It means accepting that research, and the production of knowledge, is always partial, always incomplete. It means that no matter how precisely or evocatively we write about our research, it remains a semblance.

But nevertheless, I feel this work is urgent. I know this work is difficult. And yes, I believe that it is possible.

(And while I will continue doing research in the conventional humanist qualitative vein, because learning new things takes time, Jackson & Mazzei show how to use these theories to think with typical interview data “within and against intepretivism.”)

On Assuming Mental Paralysis

A fellow graduate student recently asked me how I approach literature reviews. This question of how to find, read, and synthesize a body (or more) of research is central to producing good academic work. Yet it brings to mind Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault in Gringotts, where every paper you read yields six more until you’re neck deep with no foreseeable way out.

When I first started studying parents and social media use, I was content with Irwin Altman’s definition of privacy as controlling access to the self. Digging deeper, I learned to think of privacy as contextual integrity (thanks to Helen Nissenbaum) and as boundary management (thanks to Sandra Petronio). As I continued studying privacy over the years, I learned that lawyers, psychologists, communication scholars, economists, and computer scientists all conceptualize privacy in different ways. During my first year in the PhD, I considered creating a disciplinary map of privacy for a class project but quickly realized that was a much bigger undertaking than I imagined.

I’ve grown familiar with the feeling. I took a seminar with Jason Farman on “Place, Space, and Identity in the Digital Age,” and saw that entire careers can (and have) been built around each of these concepts. Place isn’t just a label on a physical space, it’s objects and bodies and relationships and memories and information flows and more coming together in a particular arrangement at a particular moment. Identity isn’t just a list of demographic characteristics, it’s the facets, fragments, memories, experiences, beliefs, roles, imaginaries and more that constantly intersect and intertwine into you. And this morning, while reading John Law’s “Objects and Spaces,” I realized that we can’t even take physical, 3-D, Euclidean space as a given.

Sigh.

It’s easy to see moments like these as overwhelming, paralyzing even. Especially when you do interdisciplinary research and plan to borrow theories and methods from other disciplines. Or to see these moments as challenges, as piles of reading to conquer so that you can one day claim the prize of “knowing” something.

But these moments keep happening. So the options are to feel constantly overwhelmed or to see grand quests pile up, neither of which is healthy (nor encouraging). I’ve come to an alternate response after starting a daily meditation practice: Let it go.

Let go of the overwhelm. Let go of the fear. Let go of the burden. Worried you don’t have time to read everything? Let it go. Concerned that you might overlook something? Let it go. Dreading the moment another scholar tells you, “Yeah, but what about [totally separate body of work that may or may not be relevant to your topic]?” Let it go.

It sounds simple, I know. But these three words, combined with the acknowledgement, acceptance, and even embrace of the vast, unimaginable, and ultimately unknowable amount of prior work out there is freeing.

I spent all day brainstorming the verb for this post’s title. When I do literature reviews, and when I do research in general, I want to assume mental paralysis. Meaning, I want to assume that I will experience moments of mental paralysis, of viewing the work ahead as a sheer, insurmountable rock wall I somehow have to climb, as a tangled thicket in dark jungle through which I have to chop my way out.

But I also want to take up the mental paralysis, to wear it as a badge, to make it part of me. Because even after I climb this wall or chop through those vines, there will be another wall, another tangle. And by accepting that, I hope to take greater joy in those moments when I DO learn something, when a concept finally DOES click in my head, even if it falls apart again a moment later. By acknowledging and expecting the complexity, I release the sense that I need to master it, to someday “figure it out.”

And that, I suppose, is how I approach literature reviews.

(Oh, and for anyone who wants actual advice on how to do a literature review, Raul Pacheco-Vega has a series of relevant blog posts.)

 

Designing Resources to Help Kids Learn about Privacy Online @ IDC 2018

What types of educational resources would help elementary school-age children learn about privacy online? Below I share findings and recommendations from a paper I co-wrote with Jessica Vitak, Marshini Chetty, Tammy Clegg, Jonathan Yang, Brenna McNally, and Elizabeth Bonsignore. I’ll present this paper at the 2018 ACM Conference on Interaction Design and Children (IDC).

What did we do? Children spend hours going online at home and school, but they receive little to no education about how going online affects their privacy. We explored the power of games and storytelling as two mechanisms for teaching children about privacy online.

How did we do it? We held three co-design sessions with Kidsteam, a team of children ages 7-11 and adults who meet regularly at the University of Maryland to design new technologies. In session 1, we reviewed existing privacy resources with children and elicited design ideas for new resources. In session 2, we iterated on a conceptual prototype of a mobile app inspired by the popular game Doodle Jump. Our version, which we called Privacy Doodle Jump, incorporated quiz questions related to privacy and security online. In session 3, children developed their own interactive Choose Your Own Adventure stories related to privacy online.

What did we find? We found that materials designed to teach children about privacy online often instruct children on “do’s and don’ts” rather than helping them develop the skills to navigate privacy online. Such straightforward guidelines can be useful when introducing children to complex subjects like privacy, or when working with younger children. However, focusing on lists of rules does little to equip children with the skills they need to make complex, privacy-related decisions online. If a resource presents children with scenarios that resonate with their everyday life, children may be more likely to understand and absorb its message. For example, a child might more easily absorb a privacy lesson from a story about another child who uses Instagram than a game that uses a fictional character in an imaginary world.

What are the implications of this work?

  • First, educational resources related to privacy should use scenarios that relate to children’s everyday lives. For instance, our Privacy Doodle Jump game included a question that asked a child what they would do if they were playing Xbox and saw an advertisement pop up that asked them to buy something.
  • Second, educational resources should go beyond listing do’s and don’ts for online behavior and help children develop strategies for dealing with new and unexpected scenarios they may encounter. Because context is such an important part of privacy-related decision making, resources should facilitate discussion between parents or teachers and children rather than simply tell children how to behave.
  • Third, educational resources should showcase a variety of outcomes of different online behaviors instead of framing privacy as a black and white issue. For instance, privacy guidelines may instruct children to never turn on location services, but this decision might differ based on the app that is requesting the data. Turning on location services in Snapchat may pinpoint one’s house to others — a potential negative, — but turning on location services in Google Maps may yield real-time navigation — a potential positive. Exposing children to a variety of positive and negative consequences of privacy-related decision making can help them develop the skills they need to navigate uncharted situations online.

Read the IDC 2018 paper for more details!

Citation: Priya Kumar, Jessica Vitak, Marshini Chetty, Tamara L. Clegg, Jonathan Yang, Brenna McNally, and Elizabeth Bonsignore. 2018. Co-Designing Online Privacy-Related Games and Stories with Children. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Interaction Design and Children (IDC ’18). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 67-79. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3202185.3202735

Parts of this entry were cross-posted on the Princeton HCI blog.

Kids and Privacy Online @ CSCW 2018

How do elementary school-aged children conceptualize privacy and security online? Below I share findings and recommendations from a paper I wrote with co-authors Shalmali Naik, Utkarsha Devkar, Marshini Chetty, Tammy Clegg, and Jessica Vitak. I’ll present this paper at the 2018 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW).

What did we do? Children under age 12 increasingly go online, but few studies examine how children perceive and address privacy and security concerns. Using a privacy framework known as contextual integrity to guide our analysis, we interviewed children and their parents to understand how children conceptualize privacy and security online, what strategies they use to address any risks they perceive, and how their parents support them when it comes to privacy and security online.

How did we do it? We interviewed 26 children ages 5-11 and 23 parents from 18 families in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. We also walked through a series of hypothetical scenarios with children, which we framed as a game. For example, we asked children how they imagined another child would respond when receiving a message from an unknown person online.

What did we find? Children recognized how some components of privacy and security play out online, but those ages 5-7 had gaps in their knowledge. For example, younger children did not seem to recognize that sharing information online makes it visible in ways that differ from sharing information face-to-face. Children largely relied on their parents for support, but parents generally did not feel their children were exposed to privacy and security concerns. They felt such concerns would arise when children were older, had their own smartphones, and spent more time on social media.

What are the implications of this work? As the lines between offline and online increasingly blur, it is important for everyone, including children, to recognize (and remember) that use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and in-home digital assistants can raise privacy and security concerns. Children absorb some lessons through everyday use of these devices, but parents have an opportunity to scaffold their children’s learning. Younger children may also be more willing to accept advice from their parents compared to teenagers. Parents would benefit from the creation of educational resources or apps that focus on teaching these concepts to younger children. The paper explains how the contextual integrity framework can inform the development of such resources.

Read the CSCW 2018 paper for more details!

Citation: Priya Kumar, Shalmali Milind Naik, Utkarsha Ramesh Devkar, Marshini Chetty, Tamara L. Clegg, and Jessica Vitak. 2017. ‘No Telling Passcodes Out Because They’re Private’: Understanding Children’s Mental Models of Privacy and Security Online. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 1, CSCW, Article 64 (December 2017), 21 pages. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3134699

Parts of this entry were cross-posted on the blogs of UMD’s Privacy Education and Research Laboratory (PEARL) and Princeton HCI.

Privacy Policies, PRISM, and Surveillance Capitalism in MaC

I recently published my first journal article in a special issue of Media and Communication (MaC) on Post-Snowden Internet Policy. (Unfortunately, the editors misgendered me in the editorial).

In my article, Corporate Privacy Policy Changes during PRISM and the Rise of Surveillance Capitalism, I analyzed the privacy policies of 10 internet companies to explore how company practices related to users’ privacy shifted over the past decade.

What did I do? The Snowden disclosures in 2013 re-ignited a public conversation about the extent to which governments should access data that people generate in the course of their daily lives. Disclosure of the PRISM program cast a spotlight on the role that major internet companies play in facilitating such surveillance. In this paper, I analyzed the privacy policies of the nine companies in PRISM, plus Twitter, to see how companies’ data management practices changed between their joining PRISM and the world learning about PRISM. I drew on my experience with the Ranking Digital Rights research initiative and specifically focused on changes related to the “life cycle” of user information — that is, the collection, use, sharing, and retention of user information.

How did I do it? I collected company privacy policies from four points in time: before and after the company joined PRISM and before and after the Snowden revelations. Google and Twitter provide archives of their policies on their websites; for the other companies, I used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to locate the policies. I logged the changes in a spreadsheet and classified them into substantive or non-substantive changes. I then dug into the substantive changes and categorized them based on how they affected the life cycle of user information.

What did I find? Seventy percent of the substantive changes addressed the management of user information and data sharing and tracking. The changes related to management of user information provided additional detail about what companies collect and retain. The changes related to data sharing and tracking offered more information about companies’ targeted advertising practices. These often appeared to give companies wider latitude to track users and share user information with advertisers. While these policy changes disclosed more details about company practices, the practices themselves appeared to subject users to greater tracking for advertising purposes.

What are the implications of this work? Collectively, these privacy policy changes offer evidence that suggests several of the world’s largest internet companies operate according to what business scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls the logic of surveillance capitalism. Participating in PRISM did not cause surveillance capitalism, but this analysis suggests that the PRISM companies further enmeshed themselves in it over the past decade. The burgeoning flow of user information into corporate servers and government databases exemplifies what legal scholar Joel Reidenberg calls the transparent citizenry, where people become visible to institutions, but those institutions’ use of their data remains obscure. This analysis serves as a reminder that public debates about people’s privacy rights in the wake of the Snowden disclosures must not ignore the role that companies themselves play in legitimizing surveillance activities under the auspices of creating market value.

Read the journal article (PDF) for more details!

Citation: Kumar, P. (2017). Corporate Privacy Policy Changes during PRISM and the Rise of Surveillance Capitalism. Media and Communication, 5(1), 63-75. doi:10.17645/mac.v5i1.813