In this unit, students will analyze and discuss several aspects of privacy as it connects to their own digital lives. Students will have the opportunity to develop their own thoughts, independently through their analysis and synthesis of various texts, and then as a class by sharing, debating, and refining their thoughts in class discussion. Each week, students will encounter and grapple with a different guiding question that focuses on a different aspect of privacy. All of the lessons that week will aim at helping students develop an independent response to the guiding question by looking at it from different perspectives. Students will be asked to draw on a wide variety of texts each week including fiction, poetry, essays, legal documents, visual art, and excerpts from film.
In the first week of the unit, students will begin defining the term privacy in a general sense. The guiding question is self-reflective, asking students, “What role does privacy play in your life?” Readings will focus on Cory Doctorow’s short story, “Scroogled;” contemporary news stories that present views of privacy; selected writings from Wordsworth on solitude, and foundational documents (such as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States) that elucidate differing views of privacy. Students will also be asked to assess their own digital lives by looking at their online presence through the lens of an outsider: what are they telling the world about who they are?
During the second week of the unit students will contemplate the question, “How does the influence of others affect my thinking?” Students will begin working with the core text, George Orwell’s 1984, focusing on setting and character as developed throughout the first 50 pages of the novel. One of the key aspects of Winston’s character, seen through the diary he begins keeping, is self-thinking, his ability to think outside of the confines of his society’s dictates. This reading will be coupled with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Self-Reliance,” and class discussions will focus on comparing Emerson’s thoughts on independence to those of the students. Students will also analyze legal documents and news articles that connect to the foundational and contemporary American idea of freedom of speech and of expression.
The third week’s guiding question asks students whether or not the government should have access to their personal information and conversations. Students will complete reading Part 1 of Orwell’s 1984, and class discussions will center on the role of Big Brother in the lives of Oceania’s citizenry. Students will take a deeper look at Big Brother’s conversion of language to Newspeak, a way in which the government can better control the thoughts of the citizens. Students will also take a look at nonfiction readings about the three technology giants (Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba) that are redefining the way citizens in China are being constantly watched and controlled by the government. An excerpt from the film Enemy of the State will also form a piece of the readings for the week.
During the fourth week, students will consider the ways in which both age and peers influence one’s perceptions of privacy. The idea that adolescents think about privacy very differently than adults is explored in danah boyd’s book, It’s Complicated. In her book, boyd explains, “When teens--and, for that matter, most adults--seek privacy, they do so in relation to those who hold power over them.” In other words, adolescents are not directly concerned with the government or corporations seeing the intricacies of their day to day lives, but it is their parents and teachers from which they wish to remain private. (9) Students will read excerpts that discuss how and why these differences exist and apply to their own concepts of privacy. In Orwell’s 1984, students will read the first half of part two; discussions will center on the differences in the generations that Winston notices, both in his interactions with the older proles and in his relationship with Julia.
Week five will take a look at digital data mining and the ways in which corporations turn data pulled from our digital lives into profits. Students will answer the question, “To what extent should corporations be able to share the information you post on social media?” Students will finish the reading of part two of Orwell’s 1984, paying careful attention to the fictional writings of Goldstein’s book in those chapters. Students will also read an excerpt from Dave Eggers’ The Circle to consider how interconnected we have become by digitally sharing every aspect of ourselves and what that means for our personal and communal privacy. Students will also analyze an excerpt from Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. According to Zuboff, it is corporations such as Google and Facebook that are leading the charge in exploiting our digital footprints to make money and to shrink the sphere of our own private lives.
Week six, the focus will switch to anonymity in a digital world with increased storage of and access to personal information online. Students will grapple with the guiding question, “Who should own and control information on the internet that is about you?” They will complete the reading of Orwell’s 1984. Students will be asked to draw connections between the final stages of Winston’s torture and the idea of digital anonymity that was at play in the 2014 European court case that deemed it the responsibility of Google to remove, at the request of involved individuals, certain results that searches returned. (10) This became known as the right to be forgotten. Though this law hasn’t made its way to the United States, the question of who has the right to control what information stays on the internet is still relevant and important.
In the seventh week, students will be asked to look at the issue from the other side. The final guiding question asking, “What have we gained through digital technologies?” It can’t all be bad—otherwise we wouldn’t shop for the latest gadgets and upload ourselves into the digital cloud. What we gain must hold more than basic entertainment value. Students will look at a variety of short fiction and nonfiction pieces that explore the benefits of our interconnected digital world.
The final week of the unit provides students a chance to process, coalesce, and express their thoughts on the topic of privacy in their digital lives, drawing on the material they have discussed and synthesized over the past weeks. Students will compose an argumentative essay defending their stance on the debate between our loss of privacy and benefits gained in our digital lives. This essay will go through a process of peer review and revising.
Throughout this unit of study, students will be asked to reflect on their personal experiences through the lens of the material they analyze. Part of the engagement that will make this a high interest unit for high school students is the fact that much of what they read and discuss will be applicable to their own lives, and not just to their classwork. By thinking about the applicability of what they are studying to their own lives, this unit might have a positive impact on their habits. At the very least, students will be required to think about and debate the effects of their digital lives.