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Meet members of the 2013-2014 Berkman Community: Sara M. Watson and Yang Cao

This week we are featuring two interviews with 2013-2014 Berkman Fellows as part of an ongoing series showcasing individuals in the Berkman community. Conducted by our 2013 summer Berkterns, the mini-series highlights the unique and multidisciplinary group of people within the Berkman community exploring the many dimensions of cyberspace. This week we highlight Sara M. Watson’s investigation of self-tracking and the ways in which we can generate and use this data to improve society as well as Yang Cao's research on indirect infringement when governing the internet and his overall excitement about joining the Berkman community.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center’s community in 2014-2015? We are currently accepting fellowship applications - read more here.

Q+A with Sara M. Watson

Berkman Fellow | @smwat

interviewed in summer 2013 by Berktern James Mariani

Sara M. Watson is joining Berkman a fellow. She will be working on the book she is coauthoring with John Battelle (working title: if/then) about our future data society. Her recent research at the Oxford Internet Institute looks at the personal data interests of the Quantified Self community. Sara’s research interests include personal data and the digital self, and society’s understanding of emerging technologies and infrastructures.

Very simply and broadly, what is Quantified Self?

Quantified Self is a lot of things to a lot of different people. For the purposes of my thesis work, the Quantified Self is a group of people around the world who are interested in self-tracking, and sharing their self-tracking experiences through Meetups, conferences, etc. But the lowercase use of the term has been applied to all manner of smartphone applications, wearable sensors, and Internet of Things devices that generate data that gives us more detail on our lives. The name comes from Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, where they were noticing people in Silicon Valley doing this self-tracking.

How does Quantified Self play a role in your everyday life?

Me, personally, I track a bunch of different things. I use health apps, such as fitness apps like MyFitnessPal and Fitbit. I also use management tools like Wunderlist, RescueTime, etc. But I also do more qualitative stuff. For example, currently I use a website called which is a blank page that encourages you to write 750 words a day with streaks and incentives. I also count the data in things such as Foursquare, Twitter, and other social media platforms that other might people might not consider Quantified Self. To me though, it is all in the realm of the personal data and ecosystem of data about myself that I am generating. I’ve created data that has some value to me, whether it be in that present moment or later on in the future.

In your experience, how do most people react to the idea of Quantified Self?

The public reaction often has a lot to do with the portrayal in the media. It’s the extreme cases that make good stories but that make it hard for the average consumer to relate to. We are all tracking something, and we’re all generating data about ourselves, but we differ on how we use technologies. A lot of it has to do with the difference between active and passive tracking. For a lot of people the extreme examples are extreme because they take a lot of effort on the part of the self-tracker. This is where it breaks down I think. As we move more toward passive tracking, with apps that take advantage of data that is already there, and make it easier to track by doing it automatically, self-tracking is becoming more accessible.

Why do you think this differs from the way people feel about tracking their life on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.?

To me, social media is just one input into Quantified Self. It's our social element, it's what we're thinking about, where we've been. All of that is potential input into the larger dataset of you. And that's natural - we can already see the social value of creating that data and of sharing it with other people. I think it's harder for people to wrap their heads around things that relate to tracking their bodies, though a lot of people already do that without calling it Quantified Self or without creating the data digitally.

How do you think Quantified Self can improve our society?

This is something we want to address in the book. There are two important levels here. The first obvious impacts are in self-management applications and the awareness that tracking introduces. If you are actively tracking your diet, you might think differently about certain choices you make throughout your day. That has the potential to help shift healthcare into preventative modes, or gives us lots more detail to support patient/doctor conversations. Self-tracking whether it is at the moment, or in the aggregate, has the potential to help us make better choices. As long as we have some agency in taking on that change, it can have some benefit on a larger scale.

The more important bit to me, which is why I'm studying the Quantified Self in the first place, has to do with creating a greater literacy about personal data in our everyday lives. We're all generating lots of data, but we're not all doing things with it. There are a lot of reasons why that's hard right now; walled gardens, APIs that require some advanced knowledge, etc. Currently, the Quantified Self community is limited from doing some very interesting things with their data because they can’t access all the data about themselves that they know is out there. The right to use my data—if it’s about me I should be able to do something with it. Quantified Self is raising the awareness level of how any average consumer might want to use their data, and they are also helping build the tools to make that more easily accessible.

How did this recent opportunity at the Berkman Center arise?

When I previously worked as a technology analyst I paid a lot of attention to what the Berkman Center was doing and attended a lot of the talks and presentations around the Center. The Berkman community greatly influenced my decision to go back to school to focus on personal data issues. I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that I would love to join the Berkman ranks in a more official capacity after I wrapped up my program at Oxford. I applied, knowing I’d be back in Cambridge wanting to work on the book people that could push my thinking and help me engage with the public understanding of these issues. The Berkman Center is an academic center but it is also in touch with how this all influences society and policy; that balance drives my work.

What do you hope to accomplish throughout your Berkman fellowship?

First priority is the manuscript of our book. It's called if/then, and it's an archeology of the future. We're looking at how the technologies of today, when mass adopted, will change society. So take a Fitbit, as an example of a Quantified Self wearable sensor. What happens when a million, or even a billion people start wearing those devices? We're looking at these objects as a lens through which we can talk through all the implications and changes that might take place over the next generation. A lot of that has to do with talking through policy changes, and normative changes. It comes down to asking a lot of the questions and providing a frame so that people can answer those questions for themselves: what kind of society do we want to live in as data becomes a part of our everyday lives? I’m also really excited to engage with the rest of the Berkman community through working groups and reading groups. I think that kind of exposure and interaction will be beneficial and stimulating to our work.

What do you plan on doing for fun throughout your next year in Cambridge?

I’m thrilled to be back home in Massachusetts. Namely, I’m looking forward to real craft beer that’s cold, after the room-temperature pulled pints in Oxford! But I’m also excited to be able to go to places like the Harvard Film Archive and the Brattle Street Theatre. I have a background in film studies, so I’m excited to be back in a place with really good art cinema.

Interview with Yang Cao

Vice Director of the Intellectual Property Research Center at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law

Berkman Fellow

Interviewed in summer 2013 by Berktern Sanna Kulevska

Growing up in a rural area in China’s poor west, Yang Cao completed his PhD at Fudan University with a major in international law and a focus in Trade Related Intellectual Property Law. He currently works at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law (SHUPL) as an associate professor and as Vice Director of the Intellectual Property Research Center. He is also a part time lawyer at Dacheng Law Firm. His major interests include intellectual property and internet law and governance, topics on which he has published several books and articles. He aims to continue his research in these fields during his stay in Cambridge.

This year, Cao hopes to investigate the best ways to govern the internet. In the fast transforming cyber world that we live in today, Cao notes that there is no effective way of governing the Internet as of yet. He believes that the efforts that have been made mainly focus on controlling instead of governing, something which he maintains is something that will harm internet freedom and justice.

When asked what he believes are the greatest challenges that China faces regarding counterfeit products on the Internet, a form of intellectual property theft, and whether it is desirable to force China to enact Western laws in order to continue global trade, Cao asserts that:

“To force less developed countries to follow Western laws is a terrible idea. I think every country has the right to choose the laws which conform with its economic, social and cultural situations. TRIPS is a good example. WTO has to extend the transitional period for least developed countries, which means the one-size-fit-all theory is not suitable for an IP regime. Western IP laws have been slow to develop from low-level to high-level protection. So why should the less developed country accept a law which they are reluctant to follow? The counterfeit products in the Internet are really big problems in China. In my opinion, the big challenge is law enforcement. China now has good laws in place to control counterfeit law on the Internet, but law enforcement is a problem. The selective and non-uniform enforcement procedures are harmful to combat counterfeit on the internet.”

In his article titled, “Indirect Infringement in Internet world in China: a Comparative Perspective,” Cao highlights the big problems associated with Chinese laws regulating online indirect infringement. He believes that there are big problems that arise with implementation of the laws, particularly considering the the different standards of the Chinese courts and the ambiguous nature of the laws themselves:

“Because online indirect infringement is developing rapidly, China should adopt clearer laws regulating the online environment. Another challenge for China is to gain better understanding of how the indirect infringement develops and how to effectively cope with those developments.”

The issues regarding indirect infringement is an area of copyright law that Cao would like to pursue further during his time at Berkman. In the article mentioned above, he discusses the reasonable standard for an Internet Service Provider’s knowledge in indirect infringement cases. He believes that:

“ISP is an intermediary for internet service, which is a necessary channel for enjoying internet service. Exerting too heavy duty of knowledge for ISP is harmful for internet development. So the knowledge standard should be more relaxed in indirect infringement for ISP than for those of direct infringement. In my opinion, only when the ISP has specific knowledge of specific infringing activities, can knowledge standard meet.”

Cao is also interested in investigating the idea of virtual freedom during his tenure at Berkman. Virtual freedom is a broad term and a certainly complicated question, with standards that differ from country to country. However, according to his preliminary research on virtual freedom, Cao believes that three principles are important to follow:

“First, virtual freedom means users can freely explore the Internet world without harming others. Second, virtual freedom means users should follow their own social, cultural and legal norms. Third, virtual freedom means the relevant government authorities are obliged with duty to intervene less and pronounce every rules and actions they took on the Internet.”

Cao hopes researching at Harvard and living in Cambridge will add to his professional life in a way otherwise impossible if he stayed in China. He's excited by the chance to interact with the international faculty, fellows, students, and affiliates – a mix that he believes represents the real Berkman charm and an opportunity that he believes will be invaluable to his future academic research.

This post is part of a current series of interviews with members of the Berkman Community. Previous entries: Kate Darling, Hasit Shah, and J. Nathan Matias; Jeff Young and Sonia Livingstone; Shane Greenstein, Niva Elkin-Koren, and Amy Johnson.

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