Strangers on the Web

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Judith Donath on Signaling, De... David Gelernter on Consciousne...

down online.jpg What do you tell others about yourself- purposefully or not- via your online persona? How can we ensure that our communication remains "honest enough to function?" How will what we protect about our identities online and how we do it change over the decades to come? In this week's conversation, EconTalk host Russ Roberts welcomed Judith Donath to talk about how technology affects the social world, along with her new book, The Social Machine.

As always, we'd like to know what thoughts and questions this week's episode prompted for you. So let's hear it; we love to hear from you.

1. Share a question (or more!) that arose in your mind sparked by Roberts's and Donath's conversation.

2. In their discussion of online community building, Donath stresses that the robust examples that exist are in private spaces, whereas what we tend to see are public spaces, such as this very one. At the same time, Roberts bemoans our own attempts to build community. So what do you think...Could we build a vibrant EconTalk community in a private online space? What would that be like?

3. What does Donath mean when she says that in the near future, "our whole notion of what is a stranger will really kind of disappear?" What do you consider a "stranger" to be, and how has your own definition changed with the advent of the digital age?

4. The latter part of the conversation is concerned primarily with issues of privacy. Donath is more worried about personal information in the hands of corporations, while Roberts is more concerned about manipulation by government. Which worries you more, and why?

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COMMENTS (2 to date)
Shane McAllister writes:

I'd like to take up the challenge of providing input on data harvesting by corporations vs governments.

As a former business owner, the data that corporations are interested in are very narrow and self-serving (to the corporation). Small companies like ABC Family Shoe Depot (fictional) don't care about your interest in hi-tech, non-stick frying pans in the exact same way (and for the same reasons) that they are not interested in your annual contribution to the Vietnamese Yak-Herder Pension Fund (also fictional, I assume).

It cannot help them pry open your wallet and land your wages into their cash till, so even if they were accidentally granted this type of data, it would be considered irrelevant and discarded.

Same goes for Nike.

As for government, we have strong evidence that they gather most of the information on the internet (and always have) and parse the data. However, with all that data in hand, I still encounter ill-timed intersection lights on my roads, entire subdivision development plans that don't account for grocery purchases and proliferation of bike lanes in a city that regularly reaches -30 degrees in the winter (and in Canada that accounts for 4 months). One might think that more data leads to better decision-making, yet it seems to bring about ever larger examples of what appears to be unintended incompetence.

Reframing your question, is it more worrisome to have some of your data discarded as meaningless, or to have all of it misused in the pursuit of public policy?

Amy Willis writes:

@Shane, I LOVE the way you rephrased that question...Thanks!

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