Digitally Literate #211


A long & difficult journey
Digitally Lit #211 – 8/24/2019

Hi all, my name is Ian O’Byrne and welcome to issue #211 of Digitally Literate.

In this newsletter I distill the news of the week in technology into an easy-to-read resource. Thank you for reading. Please subscribe if you haven’t already.

This week I shared the following:


How Facebook tracks your data (3:30)

What makes you tick, who you know, where you go, even where you might end up. The information you share in your profile is a mere snippet of what Facebook and its partners really know about you.

Facebook tracks what you do even when you’re not on Facebook, like the products you shop for, the political candidates you donate to, and the porn you watch, using tools like Facebook Pixel, a small piece of code deposited on millions of websites across the internet. The social network uses that information to target you with personalized ads—a business model that is now worth billions of dollars.

Kevin Roose, a technology columnist for The Times, explains.


Facebook’s emails reveal Cambridge Analytica complaints started months earlier than originally claimed

As we have noticed over the years, Facebook slow walks, obfuscates, and generally avoids any indication of errors that may have made (& continue to make). One of their techniques for trying to cover up is to release details late on Friday afternoons in a blog post on their site.

This week’s evidence comes from a post titled “Document Holds the Potential for Confusion”, which was released late on friday.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked Facebook when it came to light last year, but these new documents contain internal Facebook conversations released jointly by Facebook and the District of Columbia attorney general show that the company was already investigating complaints about Cambridge Analytica potentially abusing data as early as September 2015, months before the December date that Facebook has repeatedly testified to.

Why is this important? Cambridge Analytica was at least on Facebook’s radar for potential policy violations as early as September 2015. More importantly, Facebook’s team was woefully unprepared for the level to which Cambridge Analytica (and similar firms) were abusing its policies to gather your data. Do you trust that they have remedied these practices?

You Can Finally See All Of The Info Facebook Collected About You From Other Websites

The social media company finally announced Monday it’s rolling out the feature, now called “Off-Facebook Activity.” This should allow you to view…and delete…the information they collect about you off-platform. People in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain will have access to the tool first, and it will be rolled out in the coming months to all Facebook users.

After digging a bit deeper, it appears there is a “loophole” to how much control you have over this information.

Even if you turn off Facebook’s ability to use your browsing history for ads, Facebook will still collect that information, and it will still be connected to your account for up to two days. Buried in a Help Center post behind a drop-down menu, Facebook clarifies: “Your future off-Facebook activity will be disconnected within 48 hours from when it’s received. During this time it may be used for measurement purposes and to make improvements to our ads systems.”

Even after 48 hours, the Off-Facebook Activity controls won’t actually delete your browsing data from Facebook’s servers. It merely decouples the information from your personal profile. Your data will still show up in aggregated contexts.

Why is this important? Facebook is essentially saying that it will still collect your data, but it won’t connect it to unique profile on the network. It also appears that this change is happening to help engineers centralize their databases…and not to protect your data.

The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media

Social media was supposed to liberate us, but for many people it has proved addictive, punishing and toxic. What keeps us hooked?

The machine benefits from the “network effect”: the more people write to it, the more benefits it can offer, until it becomes a disadvantage not to be part of it. Part of what? The world’s first ever public, live, collective, open-ended writing project. A virtual laboratory. An addiction machine, which deploys crude techniques of manipulation redolent of the Skinner Box created by behaviourist BF Skinner to control the behaviour of pigeons and rats with rewards and punishments. We are users, much as cocaine addicts are users.

I don’t like comparisons between screentime and addiction. Especially comparing these practices to those of “cocaine addicts.”

The author, Richard Seymour, does connect this to the arguments about gambling, and some of the work of Tristan Harris. I think there is a lot to consider in terms of behaviorist philosophies and technology use.

On me, and the Media Lab

A lot of discussion has happened since the death of Jeffrey Epstein, the deceased financier who was accused of trafficking in underage girls.

One of these threads involves the connections between Epstein and higher ed, especially work in ed tech. Some of this came to a head this week as Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT indicated that he was resigning in protest over revelations that the center took money from Epstein.

These revelations have shaken up work at the lab, and connections across the field.

There are other connections between Epstein, higher ed, and edtech. Audrey Watters discusses some of this in issue 316 of her weekly newsletter. We have serious questions to ask about power, money, and social structures. We also have to come to terms with how we relate to the answers.

Towards a Gentle Academic

I’ve been doing a lot of research into “social justice education” as I revise a pub. At the same time, school years are starting up, and many of my colleagues have been sharing a post detailing guidelines about how to be “a gentle academic.”

I tried to find the original author…the closest seems to be gaspss-s. This link shows up as a dead link in Tumblr…so the trail ends there. If you can identify the source…please share.

Nevertheless, the list is as follows. I see natural connections between social justice education, open scholarship, and (my) thoughts about education.

  1. be up front and honest about the things you do not know
  2. acknowledge the intrinsic value of others’ knowledge bases, even if they do not seem important to you from your institutional context
  3. do not feign mastery where you have none
  4. respect the gaps in others’ knowledge bases
  5. be generous, not only with others
  6. but also with yourself
  7. you overwork yourself at the risk of legitimizing a culture of overwork
  8. privilege voices and perspectives that have historically been left out of the academy
  9. nothing is ever neutral or apolitical
  10. support the progress of other scholars
  11. collaboration over competition

No alcohol, no problem: How to make complex, balanced zero-proof cocktails

Here are some tips to make better non-alcoholic drinks:

  • Go better with bitter
  • Taste for texture
  • Find a new hook
  • Don’t overthink it

The post shares a ton of cool recipes I’ll try out. This includes the Cherry Vamp (a mix of sour cherries and bitter chocolate), The Nilsson (a mashup between a daiquiri and a piña colada), and the No-Booze Penicillin.

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What follows is a long and difficult journey.

Dai Barnes

If you haven’t already, please consider the request from Doug Belshaw to send along an audio clip as a memorial to Dai Barnes. He is using Speakpipe to collect these audioclips and use them in an upcoming episode of the TIDE podcast.

The quote above is from this post. I’ve been listening to old episodes of TIDE, and re-reading some of Dai’s old work over the last week or two. Thinking a lot about this digital residue and what happens after we pass on. Perhaps a future blog post…

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I’m thinking a lot about changing my practices and tools to be more focused on privacy and security online. This also has connections to our use of the earth’s resources and sustainability. Listen to this podcast about “The Internet’s Carbon Footprint” and check out this list of eight ways to reduce your digital carbon footprint.

Digitally Literate is a summary of all the great stuff from the Internet this week in technology, education, & literacy. Say hey with a note at or on the social network of your choice.

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