rDigital News: Gene patents, selling your data, and losing weight on the web

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This week on rdigitaLIFE, Ramona spoke with Barbara Pantuso and Brian Shuster about how online social networks and virtual worlds both simulate real life and drag us away from it. Our online identities and networks are becoming a greater and greater priority over our presence in the physical world.

So in our weekly recap of some of the most intriguing, startling, amusing or scary headlines in tech, we’ll look at three stories that involve either losing or gaining agency over ourselves through technology.

Angelina Jolie's New York Times op-ed brought greater attention to the gene patents debate (Photo by Richard Hebstreit / used under Wikimedia Commons license)
Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed brought greater attention to the gene patents debate (Photo by Richard Hebstreit / used under Wikimedia Commons license)

Angelina Jolie and the gene patents debate

Angelina Jolie made headlines early this week when she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times announcing and examining her decision to undergo a preventive double mastectomy due to the presence of a particular gene that suggests a higher likelihood of developing breast cancer. While she was mostly applauded for her candor and honesty, some took issue with the fact that testing for this particular gene, BRCA1, is expensive and can only be done by one company, Myriad Genetics.

That’s because of something commonly called “gene patents,” the ability of companies to patent isolated genes, giving them a legal monopoly on testing. (Which, in turn, can keep the cost of testing prohibitively high.)

At rdigitaLIFE we often talk about the idea of a robot evolution, where technology is augmenting and improving our natural physical capabilities. But at what point are we allowing our bodies to be treated as a piece of technology in and of itself? Should a corporation really be granted legal providence over a naturally-occurring organic substance in your body?

Check out these links to learn more about the gene patents debate:

Selling your own information

Unbeknownst to the majority of Internet users, companies are constantly tracking what you’re doing, compiling the data, and selling it to marketers, with your consent being written into privacy agreements that we’re all too eager to click through and ignore.

Data mining is big business, and in the digital age, we’re the source of the raw material, yet we don’t see a dime.

Avner Levin of Ryerson University's Privacy & Cyber Crime Institute
Avner Levin of Ryerson University’s Privacy & Cyber Crime Institute

Well an NYU grad student is trying to change that. He set up software to compile data from all of his Internet usage over 50 days, and he’s offering to sell it to anyone who might be interested.

Federico Zannier took on the project as part of a graduate thesis, to shine a light on how much we’re giving away to data-mining companies. More information can be found on his (beautifully-designed) website.

Avner Levin of Ryerson University’s Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute spoke with Ramona Pringle about how unaware people often are of how much they’re being watched. ” People don’t perceive it in the same way they would in the physical world,” he said, “(where) someone would just be looking at them with binoculars or something like that.”

Getting fit in your Second Life

The University of Kansas Medical Center released results of a study that suggested that Second Life, the massively-popular virtual reality social network, can be effective in helping people lose weight.

The study suggested that weight maintenance behaviours like attending meetings and planning meals were more effective in the group that carried out those activities through Second Life than in the group that met face-to-face.

The idea was that the game helped the subjects of the study overcome their anxieties about going to the gym, eating healthier and tracking their caloric intake. These behaviours then translated better to the real world.

Brian Shuster, the founder of virtual world Utherverse, spoke with rdigitaLIFE and talked about how “there are actually many people who essentially will practice their communication skills (in online environments), they’ll practice their approach, learning how to talk.

“And then, with success in the virtual world they’re able to bring that to the real world and interact better with people in the real world.”


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