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Apple CEO Tim Cook on Facebook data leak: Regulation is necessary (Yahoo! Finance)

Part of the preparatory work I do as a teacher of college-level English is to make myself aware of the technological and pop culture elements of society that my students are likely to be aware of and use in their everyday lives. This process is known as gaining “cultural literacy,” and although it’s ultimately not as important in my preparation as knowledge of the intricacies of the English language, I’d argue that understanding young people’s culture is a necessity for any teacher who wants to do a good job of teaching young people. Not only does being able to connect the things I teach my students to their culture usually help them comprehend class material better, but doing so also helps breaks down the stereotype of college classes not being relevant to the “real world” students inhabit outside of academia.

I wouldn’t say that I immerse myself in young people’s culture; not only do I lack the time and resources to do so, but referencing that culture too much as a teacher can make it look like you’re trying too hard to be the “cool teacher,” and put you in the same league as Steve Buscemi in that one meme. I may not play games on my smartphone or tablet, but I try to have a working knowledge of the most popular games (mobile, console or otherwise) and how they operate. I don’t listen to every new album that comes out, but I try to know who the most popular musicians and bands in a number of different genres are, and have a general idea of “their sound.” I don’t go out to clubs and such, but I try to know what local places are popular for young adults (or, as has been the case for most of my teaching career, what kinds of places young people wish they could go to in their town). Having this knowledge in my head has helped me countless times in my classes, and I expect it will continue to do so for as long as I teach.

While it’s possible to live a life free of modern personal technology, it certainly isn’t easy. More than just the problems of having to deal with the social stigma of being branded  as a Luddite, technology has made large parts of society inaccessible to those who lack the tools and/or knowledge to make use of it, and unless someone is lucky enough to know other people as technophobic as themselves, they can easily be effectively shut out by modern society. Adjusting to these changes can be difficult, especially when technology feels like it’s advancing at a near-exponential rate, but this tide is going to keep coming in, and anyone who tries to stop it by standing on the shore is just going to wind up drowned.

I’d have an easier time listening to older people who complain about “selfie culture” and “screen time” and the like, and bemoan the supposed evils those things can cause, if these people weren’t some of the most megalomaniacal assholes I’ve ever had the misfortune of knowing. When you listen to their arguments closely, you quickly realize that the people who make them are obsessed with controlling all of culture — insisting that their religion is portrayed as the only “correct” religion, eliminating all visible evidence of the harm that their misanthropic politics cause, demanding unblinking obedience from everyone they consider to be beneath them — and see any subculture as a threat to their self-perceived authority in society. They understand that when young people have forums in which to celebrate their physical appearance, or social accomplishments, or pretty much anything they value, those people become harder to manipulate and take advantage of, and so these megalomaniacs dismiss young people who use these technologies as vain and empty-headed and the like. (Sound like any debates about gun control you’ve heard lately?)

More to the point, young people do not use modern technology just for social and recreational purposes; having worked with college-age people for over a decade, I can safely say that today’s teenagers have much more hectic lives than my generation could have ever dreamed of, and managing all of their commitments and responsibilities would be almost impossible without smartphones and similar devices. On a personal level,  I also need this technology as an independent author, because not only would much of my work have never been published without recent advances in publishing, but since I don’t have the marketing arm of a major publishing house to let people know about my work, I need to use social media and the like to help get the word out about my books and all my other projects. Again, while it technically wouldn’t be impossible for me to publish books and such without 21st century technology, the trade-offs in convenience and such would probably defeat my chances at having even the modest amount of success I’ve had as an independent author so far.

This is why people who say “no one really needs Facebook” are incredibly short-sighted. Even if you accept their premise that the enjoyment some people get from playing games and such on Facebook is a “waste of time” that doesn’t help people’s brains decompress from the stresses of modern life, and even the premise that socialization (through social media or in other ways that are enabled/enhanced by social media) doesn’t benefit some people’s overall well-being, the fact is that Facebook, just like so much of modern technology, can be as much of a tool for some people as it is a toy for others. As many negative aspects as Facebook has, it’s benefited a great number of people, and its sudden disappearance would cause much more harm than just saddening some teenagers.

I had plenty of problems with the way Facebook conducted itself long before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and suffice it to say that I’m even more upset with them now. My level of trust in the company and its practices is as low as it’s ever been, and little of what Mark Zuckerberg has said and done these past couple of weeks has made me feel like my opinion of Facebook will improve in the near future. Having said that, I simply can’t afford to delete my Facebook account, even in the wake of all these new problems. Beyond the difficulties I’d have staying in touch with some of my friends if I were to stop using Facebook, I rely on social media for my writing career in a very substantial way, and not using the publicity tools that Facebook provides to me would severely curtail my ability to make money through my books and other endeavours.

Facebook may be a private company, but it’s reached a point where its actions (or lack thereof) can cause very serious harm to a broad section of the public. While the platform it provides can be a boon to many, the abuse of that platform has caused irreparable harm to other people, and as much as Facebook should be applauded for the good they’ve done, it is that capacity to hurt others which creates the necessity for regulation. Just like the older people who struggle to keep up with modern personal technology, we all have to tread some very rough waters and unknown territories when we consider the best ways to keep social media open and free, but still curtail its capacity for causing damage. If we don’t take on that difficult task, though, people’s livelihoods — and lives — will continue to be at risk.

I also need to be conversant with modern technology for my teaching career is because I need to know the distorted narratives and outright lies that are allowed to pass as “news” on social media these days. Especially as a teacher of rhetoric, working with students whose previous education failed to provide them with the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate the veracity of these “news stories,” I need to be proactive in learning about the disinformation streams out there, so I can contextualize not just individual stories but also the greater cultural trends behind this phenomenon. This work doesn’t lead to as many smiles as when I can slip a pop culture reference into my class, but it’s even more necessary, and as long as Facebook makes this aspect of my professional life harder for me, that leaves me even less time to use Facebook to promote my books, connect with my friends and just have fun. I want a world where everyone, young and old alike, has the ability to use all this wonderful new technology to have fun, but until we take the necessary steps to ameliorate the problems with platforms like Facebook, we’re going to remain a long, long distance away from that world.

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