Digital Citizenship | Elizabeth Dubois | Walrus Talks

Digital Citizenship | Elizabeth Dubois | Walrus Talks


Hi, my name is Elizabeth Dubois, I am an academic, a community organizer and a citizen. We leave traces of ourself with every click and every swipe. Our stories are told and interpreted for us and around us, these are stories about how we connect with our community, what we want for and from our society, these are traces of citizenship. Whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, every single day you leave traces. Every tweet, like or share, every time you use GPS, every time you choose to login or not to login; in a digitally enabled Canada, this is an act of citizenship. Our legs on social media are used by journalists to determine and report public opinion. GPS is used by city planners to develop better public transport and aggregates of our information are used by governments and political parties to profile us to try and understand our needs and our wants, and our streaming habits are used by Netflix to create the next severely addicting television show. Just like Netflix makes use of our watching habits to determine what to produce next and what to suggest for us, our government can use our online habits to prioritize the next services to be developed and deployed. This can be incredibly empowering for us, it’s another tool in our belt to connect with those who govern, but there are risks. While there are many positive aspects to the computational approach to understanding citizens, we have issues that we need to deal with. Correlations among the various aspects of our digital being, their biographies that are being authored by algorithms, algorithms that are not transparent and which are ever-changing. But, for a second, let’s consider some opportunities. The Government of Canada, knowing you care a lot about national parks because you tweet about them, maybe they invite you to that online consultation. Political parties, rather than bombarding you with emails on every issue every day, they figure out which ones matter most to you and then target advertisements to you on that specifically. This could go a long way to alleviating information overload, that sense that there’s just too much coming at you at all times. But there are problems; digital traces can be incomplete, they can be unexpected and they can be exclusionary. First, the digital traces we leave tell only partial stories. I might not tweet about the issues I care most about, I might not even tweet about issues that matter at all to me and those personal, deeply important ones? Maybe I keep them out of the digital sphere altogether. Second, digital traces are not exactly what we expect. So, did you know that one of the strongest indicators of intelligence that researchers have found is liking the Facebook page for curly fries? Yes, so, think about it, are you a curly fry liker? Why is this? Well, it’s probably because the first people who liked that page happen to be intelligent and they have intelligent friends who then liked the page and the cycle continued. And this pattern, we see it everywhere, we call it “homophily”—young people they hang out with young people, athletes associate with athletes, people who pretend to text in awkward situations, they like other people who pretend to text in awkward situations, that’s an actual category Facebook uses of over 52,000 to classify its users. The third problem, and perhaps the most important, is that not everybody gets to leave digital traces that get counted. If you live in a remote area with limited internet access, your traces will pale in comparison to somebody living in a large urban centre. And if you’re homeless and don’t have internet access at all, you’re lost at sea. If you’re not speaking in the language of those who are collecting the data or if you’re not acting in the digital spaces that governments and political parties have determined are most likely to be full of citizens, it doesn’t matter, not a trace. We risk also being caught in filter bubbles where we keep getting more of what we already like and this means we don’t get the chance to learn about new services or policies or candidates—somebody else has already assumed we won’t care. A political party has a finite number of resources, so it makes little sense to target somebody who’s an unlikely voter and one single post during an election period or one friend saying that they voted, those things make you likely, then you get counted. But, we as a society, we need non-voters to be invited in, we need to encourage participation not write them off and ignore them. So what do we do? We need to insure every citizen has access to the internet no matter what. We need to make sure that there is good education about how our data is gathered and stored and used, citizens deserve the opportunity to make informed decisions about how they will navigate this digital world, how they will enact their own citizenship. Finally, we need to make sure that our internet is inclusive and it is open to all. It needs to be a respectful place that brings people together. Traces of citizenship can indeed be a very powerful tool for us, it can help lead to better policy, better government services, a better democracy and, I hope, a better Canada. Thank you. [Applause]

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