I was very excited the other day when I heard that celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Scott, and Kate Upton had their iCloud accounts hacked and nude photographs of them were being posted all over the internet -- but not for the reason you might think.
This semester I'm teaching a class called "Communications Media," a look at the various ways people have found to trade information back and forth over the centuries, from cave paintings to Instagram. This celebrity hack raises many questions about privacy and safety in the digital age, and I think it could offer a teachable moment. In a few weeks it will almost certainly form the basis of a question my high school students will have to answer.
I'm not entirely sure what the question will be yet, exactly. I've only had these students a week and I don't have a sure sense yet about where they stand on related issues. But I have had opportunity to watch them and the smart phones surgically attached to their hands. It's no different than in any recent year; since smart phones gained such ubiquity (and cheapness), it is now exceptional when a student of mine doesn't have one.
In the first week of school, I've observed or interrupted two streaming movies, a bunch of Facebook status updates, dozens of selfies, tons of text messages, scores of songs and, in one egregious case, a game of "NBA 2K14" on an iPad. I know that I use my smart phone more than I should -- as I'm typing this I'm severely jonesing to get back to my game of 2048, for example -- but the way members of this generation integrate the phone into everything they do all the time is downright scary.
I say this (I hope) not just as an old man who wants these kids to get off his lawn or a teacher worried about attention span. Indeed, I look askance at complaints like Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (which he expanded into a book-length rant called "The Shallows"). The human race has weathered massive upheaval in means of communication, from the development of written language -- Socrates, for one, was sure that would be the end of civilization -- to the printing press to television to the internet, and every time come out better off for it.
Even today, the ubiquity of smart phones and wireless networks has led to some radical positive change, from organizing democratic protests in the Middle East to rooting out abuse by police here at home. I continue to be amazed that any nation would try to wage war today when their actions are so well documented across social media for the world to see.
The ability to collaborate easily and ply social networks for ideas and information has made everyone's lives easier, and the lack of gatekeepers to information has infinitely expanded our choices of music, news, and other entertainments. Clive Thompson's "Smarter Than You Think," which addresses a lot of this social change, is a nice antidote to the panic of Carr's "The Shallows." (My students will read excerpts of both, though.)
To be sure, my business -- education -- has a lot of catching up to do to get to where this generation already is. When every "fact" in the world is in your pocket, there's no incentive (or real reason) to learn any. You can begin to understand then why "NBA 2K14" is more interesting than whatever's in the book. Instead we have to work with students on how to decide which facts are important to learn, and how to critically read the "facts" out there for context and quality and usefulness.
But far more importantly, we have to work with students around issues of privacy, propriety and safety.
When I started in this business, in the last millennium, the drug-dealing students still carried pagers and no one else had anything like a cell phone. I hand-coded the html for school web pages. And the big freak-out at the time was making sure there was no identifying information about students on the web -- no photos, no last names, and certainly not any addresses or phone numbers -- because the internet was full of predators and our students would surely turn up dead and abused in ditches if anything like that got out. And by no means, ever, should students visit sites like Black Planet, a proto-Facebook that was more popular with my students in 1999 than anything I could ever hope to offer them.
Today, of course, you can look at the MPS home page, or any school site, and see all kinds of pictures of kids hard at work and being cute. And on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever secret network the youngs are on that we olds don't know about, their personal information is everywhere. Their music and their documents and their photos are out there in the cloud.
And here's where we come back to Jennifer Lawrence and the iCloud hack. News reports have pointed out that the kind of criminal who hacked these celebrities is out there stealing naked photos from normal people all the time. It's not hard, we were told this last week, to troll someone's social media to learn their mother's maiden name or what street they grew up on or what kind of car they used to drive. Heck, "Throwback Thursday" seems designed by identity thieves for identity thieves, when you think about it.
There's no question that only the hacker himself is culpable for what happened (as voice of the millennial zeitgeist Lena Dunham pointed out on Twitter, blaming the celebrities for taking nude selfies is like blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt). At the same time, knowing that the cloud is more vulnerable -- I mean come on, the metaphor is a cloud! -- than your house or your physical wallet or even the hard drive on your computer means that an extra moment of thought needs to be taken before you send something up there.
Twenty years ago, they told us never to put anything in an email that you wouldn't want to be made public. Maybe that same rule needs to be applied to the cloud -- don't send anything up there that you wouldn't want to come back down.
The question is, will my students think through it like that? Or will they just try to sneak another selfie?