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The Trifecta of Roommate Selection Technology: Privacy, Prejudice, And Diversity
Evan Selinger   Jul 25, 2014   Forbes  

Over at The New York TimesNatasha Singer discusses the pros and cons of universities providing incoming students with online technology that helps them select roommates. She does a great job of identifying salient points. But I think it’s important to augment the story by adding some remarks on privacy and prejudice.

One of the technologies Singer focuses on is Roomsync, “a matching app on Facebook…that lets students search for and select their own roomies.” Designed to appeal to a generation “raised on Netflix, Amazon and other recommendation engines,” the tool spins disclosures of personal information into anxiety-minimizing gold: curated lists of “suggested roommates…complete with…names and profile photographs, ranked in order of compatibility.”

As Singer notes, Roomsync (and technologies like it) have lots of benefits: they give students an opportunity to participate directly in a process that can deeply impact what their college experience will be like; they introduce more accuracy into the roommate selection process than typically occurs when parents fill out profile information and—due to idealization and denial—provide unrealistic data; they help students cultivate relationships prior to arriving on campus to begin the school year; and, they decrease the chances of academically destructive conflict occurring early on that can be difficult and costly to remedy.

But as Singer also mentions, there’s a potential downside to automating affinity: “homophily”. Put in more colloquial terms, this is the issue of birds of a feather flocking together. When technology makes it easier for students to select roommates who appear to strongly embody their own values and tastes, freshman can miss out on chances to broaden their horizons. Even worse, they might try to use the tech to prejudicially filter class, race, or sexual orientation.

In general, I’m sympathetic to the concern that customization can be an ally of homogenization and segregation. And, as someone who believes the university should do more than impart vocationally-oriented knowledge and skill, but also prepare students to be citizens of a global world filled with diversity, I worry about efforts that can undermine this charge. However, I still believe that the types of roommate matching technology that Singer covers are good tools.

It’s an understatement to say that dorms don’t offer much privacy. Rooms tend to be small with nearly everything you and your roommate do occurring in plain sight. Throw communal bathrooms into the mix, and there’s precious little breathing room to be found. Add in the stress of doing well at school (which can be especially acute, if you’re accruing massive student debt), and it’s easy to see why students need a safe space where they can let down their hair and recharge.

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Evan Selinger is Associate Professor of Philosophy and MAGIC Center Head of Research Communications, Community & Ethics, both at Rochester Institute of Technology. Evan publishes extensively in the areas of philosophy of technology, privacy, and ethics/policy of science and technology. To enhance public debate about ethics, Evan regularly supplements his peer-reviewed scholarship with outreach articles in places like The AtlanticWiredSlateForbes,The Wall Street Journal, and The Nation.



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