Saturday, November 28, 2015

It's their game, but you don't have to play

I was reading a post at Curmudgucation about all the information our shiny K12 education overlords now want to collect and datamine for their own amusement and/or enrichment (see also this one expressing skepticism about technology that will solve all educational problems).

It got me thinking about how much truth to tell, or not tell, about the increasing demands for data we're getting.

Does Facebook need to know my actual date of birth and educational information? Nope. Does it know them? Nope. If it's optional, I leave out the information. If it's not optional, I make something up.  I understand that this is part of the new social contract--getting "free" content in exchange for looking at ads--but the rest of the information isn't part of the bargain.

I'm convinced that this is a good principle, not only because of identity theft cautiousness but because of a little something we used to call "it's none of your business."  When I used to answer surveys once in a while (because of good citizenship or something--this was before the ubiquity of push polls made me stop answering my phone), I'd tell them that I'd answer questions but nothing demographic about age, income, children in the household, etc.

But there's a creeping (or creepy?) need to know more and more on the part of organizations.  For years I subscribed to Consumer Reports because I thought that's what grownups did and because it had useful, data-driven information about what appliances worked and which ones broke down.  I answered their annual surveys (good citizen, remember) about consumer products and felt as though it contributed to a useful aggregated whole.

The most recent CR survey, though, didn't care if I had car trouble but did want to ask me a bunch of squishy questions about attitudes, which is in keeping with its new USA TODAY-ish emphasis on infographics with no actual information.  The survey wouldn't let me answer anything about products unless I answered the squishy questions, so I bailed out, pursued by a lot of angry-sounding emails hounding me to finish the survey.

The same creeping information collection is occurring professionally, too, with more and more surveys sent out from various university departments or offices, always with more and more assurances that even though you have a unique identifier, the results are completely confidential.  They ask you questions, you decline to answer one, and they won't let you go on to the next page until you do.

The survey designers seem to think that answering all the questions is mandatory. They couldn't be more wrong, because even if the good citizens have dutifully invested some time in answering, they'll bail out in a heartbeat because they know it's really voluntary. The survey designers can and will pursue you by email (thanks, "anonymous" unique identifier!), but it's your right not to answer.

And our beloved Megahuge Literary Aggregation now demands a lot of demographic information. I could understand answering honestly about salaries, because it has a sliding scale of membership fees. But now it wants mandatory data about degrees, date of birth, and the rest. You can't pay your fees online unless you choose a year of birth, although you can respond "prefer not to answer" for gender.  What do you do? My answer: refuse to re-up online; write them an actual paper letter complaining about their intrusive demands, and make them send me a paper version for which I will send a check, which is more inconvenient for both of us. Update 2019: MLA no longer requires a date of birth to join the organization or renew membership.

Remember, it's their game, but you don't have to play.

No comments: