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The Digitized and Quantified "You": Where Is Our Agency?

The enormous quantity of personal data may be getting out of hand.

Key points

  • Vast amounts of complex data are collected on us everyday, affecting the quality of many interactions.
  • The amount of data being collected on today's children is unprecedented in history.
  • It may be necessary to stop and reflect on the impact of the personal data economy before initiating more data-collecting.

I recently moved into a fully furnished flat. Unlike the sparkling kitchen, the computer had not been cleaned before the keys’ handover.

When I opened it, I could get access to the personal data of the previous owner—let's call her Anika. I could see the websites Anika visited, the photos she took, the private notes she wrote. With saved log-in details for her Gmail and social media accounts, I could have read the messages Anika sent, or the Facebook posts she posted in private groups. I never met Anika but with the neglected access to her personal data, I could have written a detailed biography about her.

The Enormous Quantity of Personal Data

You and I could compose several novels about each other based on our personal data. Personal data are the mini-expressions of your digital movements, such as your likes or shares of the Instagram photos you browsed. Personal data are your public Tweets or blogs, but also the digital traces you may not realise you leave behind, such as the length of time you spent on a specific website, for example. Not all personal data need to be online—for example, photos or documents can be stored on hard drives. Not all personal data need to be digital either; for example, biological information, such as genetic data.

Given the large proportion of time we spend online, it is only natural that a big proportion of our personal data are digital. For children born after 2010, the quantity of digital personal data is unprecedented in history. Data are contributed by their teachers (especially in cultures of data-driven instruction), caregivers (especially those who indulge in sharenting), as well as the children themselves (especially if children get hooked on TikTok or Snapchat from a young age). For some children, the trail of personal data starts before they are born, with ultrasound baby scans hung on fridge walls and virtual Facebook walls.

The Impact of Personal Data on Children

Personal data can augment children’s interactions in both positive and negative directions. On one hand, children get personalized learning recommendations that advance their knowledge in more structured ways than those possible with standardized curricula. With digital libraries, children can choose from sets of books that resonate with their interests and past reading history.

On the other hand, children’s actions are more than ever tracked and monitored, limiting children’s capacity for self-exploration and expression. Parents follow their child’s minute-by-minute activities through kindergarten CCTV cameras, shrinking children’s experiences to photographic evidence. With personalized apps, the difficulty level increases according to the child’s progress, leaving no room for serendipity or creativity. Whether personal data are used for ethically sound or dubious reasons, one thing is certain: the higher the quantity of data, the less an individual’s ability to control or manage it.

Unlike their parents, Millennials and post-Millennials do not need to locate themselves on a shared collective map. Quite literally, the blue dot on Google Maps adjusts the map to our specific position. The Map app tells us "you are here" and to go further, we need to follow the app’s instructions.

The problem is that each step contributes more data, and the data do not make us smarter—instead, they enrich the algorithms that process and monetize our data. It is much quicker to let Google perform a customized search than for us to search through countless pages. And so we have become accustomed to having our actions shaped by automated algorithms. Yet, the trade-off between machine-led and user-driven personal data is not an easy one.

Most adults have some awareness of how providers make money from personal data and how some (mis)use them for political ends. Children’s participation in the data-generating process is, however, largely not informed, regulated, or supervised. Data on, and from, children are sprinkled in various places and processed by various institutions, including schools and private companies. The focus of policy-makers has thus far been on protecting children from targeted advertising and profiting from children’s data for commercial reasons. What has been discussed less are the long-term impacts of data misuse on children’s sense of agency.

Loss of Children’s Agency

Agency is the human capability of making discerned choices. The personal data economy threatens the so-called “5 As of children’s agency”: Autonomy, Attachment, Authenticity, Aesthetics, and Authorship.

When children are offered genuine choices, they can be the Authors of their own stories, with their own drawings or music recordings, for example. Without agency, their creations become led by pre-designed templates of the providers, turning children’s authorship into empty consumption. When children’s Autonomy gets constrained with algorithms that automate their progress, children’s agency is replaced with dependency. Instead of feeling Attachment to their friends or family members, algorithms corrupt children’s agency into a desire to dominate. The Authenticity of children’s own creations fades away into counterfeit products and digitally perfected Aesthetics are paraded as superior to children’s own art.

With the enormous value of personal data for the present economy, the lack of children’s agency is being felt more keenly. Just like Anika’s data on an old PC, children’s data need to be better protected and properly managed. Urging for agency serves to control the exponential growth of personal data to preserve what makes us human: a powerful self-determination and vulnerable belonging to others.

References

Kucirkova, N. (2021). The Future of the Self: Understanding Personalization in Childhood and Beyond. London: Emerald Group Publishing.

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