OPINION: It’s time to claim ownership of our digital lives

Either we start changing the model or we stop playing, writes Professor Vincent F. Hendricks, director of the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Information and Bubble Studies.

OPINION: It’s time to claim ownership of our digital lives
File photo: Thibault Camus/AP Photo/Ritzau Scanpix

This opinion article was originally published in English on ScienceNordic

Kurt Cobain, former lead singer of Nirvana, famously sang, “Just because you're paranoid don't mean they aren't after you.” And ‘after you’ seems to be exactly what they are. I am referring to the tech-giants who are collecting, analysing and peddling user data, controlling the information super highways, and harvesting, bundling, and selling it off to advertisers.

Their prime asset is information – our attention.

Back in 1971, Nobel Prize Laureate in economics, Herbert Simon, prophetically noted this about the information age that was yet to come: “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

READ MORE from ScienceNordic: The price of digital citizenship and the forfeit of autonomy

Presumably there have always only been 24 hours in the day, and attention has always been a limited resource, but we live in a time where information is available in an abundance never seen before.

Information and data in such large quantities, volumes, magnitudes and attention in such short supply makes for an environment prone to speculation. Speculation as to what sort of information users are willing to spend their time on, and what the collected data may be used for in terms “enhanced customer experience,” surveillance marketing, and possibly behavioural modification of users to suit whatever agenda the customers are paying for.

READ MORE from ScienceNordic: Digital knowledge is a poor substitute for learning in the real world

We must all realise that the business model of social media is to make the users the products, to keep us plugged in, and sell our attention to the advertisers who are the real clients.

Just like Robert De Niro says in the movie Casino: “In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”

And as the data-mining company Cambridge Analytica just seems to have demonstrated – to achieve this, you may use every trick in the book – the dirty ones too apparently.

READ MORE from ScienceNordic: Facebook is not about stimulating Democracy

About one third of the world's population uses Facebook (approx. 2.1 billion people in December 2017), making them products on the shelves of the biggest store in the world.

But Facebook doesn’t seem to be taking particularly good care of their products—selling them off to a third party without checking much as to how they will be used, selling airtime to parties interested in rigging elections, causing democratic havoc, and so the list goes on.

Perhaps it is about time for the users to claim ownership of their data, to take back their digital authority and renegotiate the conditions of their digital citizenship on social media.

And where to start? Well, laws are being put in place, for instance in the EU as the amendment to the General Data Protection Regulation. Starting in May 2018, this intends to offer protection to the users of social media, and not the social media companies themselves.

And one more thing: As long as you are like the player in the Casino, you’ll lose in the end the way things are now.

Either we start changing the model or we stop playing – and no, this is not being paranoid.

This article was originally published on ScienceNordic

READ ALSO: Danish TV station takes two weeks off Facebook

For members


OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories