All posts by Sarah Niedoba

A constitutional black hole

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the four or so decades  since the term ‘Internet’ broke into the lexicon, technology has become irrevocably embedded into our everyday lives. Language scrambles to describe the rapidly developing tech industry.

In some cases, language fails to express concepts emerging from the technological world. There is perhaps no greater example of this than ‘the cloud.’

The cloud refers to remote servers. Rather than storing your data locally on your hard drive, you can store data remotely on servers owned by someone else. When you use Google Drive, Dropbox, or iCloud, you are using cloud servers to store data elsewhere, saving space on your computer so it runs efficiently.

It seems like a good deal, especially since, given the amount of space offered on free accounts, many people will never need to pay for cloud space.

Yet the concept of storing our data in a ‘cloud’ is problematic; it makes it seems like our data is somehow floating in space. It is rare that we are asked to picture the physical structure of the Internet — a material system designed to move binary information, or bits, from one place to another. In reality, ‘the cloud’ is a tangible network of computers. The computers are connected by bundles of fibre optic cables that run across land and sea, and by radio towers receiving and sending wireless signals. Its near seamless operation leaves our data as out of sight and out of mind.

Similarly, conceptualizing the scope and physicality of mass surveillance is challenging, as is acknowledging its consequences. But in our post-Snowden world, questioning the rhetorical power of the term ‘the cloud’ is important. Outsourcing our data is convenient, but it all too often exposes our information to security risks, and, more jarringly, to spying government agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA).

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As Canadians who often choose to store our data in the US, we should be concerned by the no holds barred approach of American intelligence and security agencies, and the near unrestricted access they are granted through cooperation with private corporations.

Increasingly, Canadian universities are outsourcing their email services to these companies in the name of convenience and affordability —  indeed, the services offered by Google and Microsoft far exceed those offered in-house by public institutions in quality, storage space, and features. Plus, they’re often free, while costly homegrown e-communications operations put a strain on IT departments and budgets. Nevertheless, there is a truth to be faced: outsourcing online communications comes with a distinct set of risks that put the privacy of thousands of students, staff, and faculty across the country at risk.

U of T outsources student email

In 2011, when U of T opted to outsource its student email services, both Microsoft and Google were courting Canadian universities with offers of limited-term free e-communications services.

Universities across the country were signing contracts with the two tech giants, and it was quickly becoming the norm to work with one of the two companies to get free student email and all the perks that come with it — including plenty of cloud-based storage.

The university took some measures to get students’ input on the change, including striking a consultation committee comprised of students, staff, and faculty. The university’s chief information officer, Robert Cook, issued a response to the findings in which he stated that if money were no object, the most “desirable route to follow” would be a U of T managed system.

“We have not pursued a detailed quotation, but it would obviously cost millions of dollars for hardware, software, system porting and ongoing development staff,” he wrote.

In a follow-up report issued by Cook in May of 2010, he specified that the estimated annual operating cost of maintaining in house UTORmail services for the 159 distributed email systems offered by different divisions at the university was roughly $1.44 million.

According to the students surveyed, the most highly desired email feature was a large storage quota, followed by an integrated calendar service, and online file storage. For faculty, who continue to use UTORmail, storage remains a major concern. Accounts typically have between 50 and 150 MB, opposed to the 50 GB to 1 TB typically available on outsourced systems. With so little space, users regularly have to empty their accounts in order to send and receive new messages, particularly if they contain large files.

Citing the ever-growing maintenance costs for UTORmail, the will of students, and preliminary research into outsourcing options, Cook recommended outsourcing email services to [email protected] with Microsoft Canada. The switch took place in September of 2011, with new students given Microsoft email accounts, and current students given the option to opt in or to keep their existing accounts. Soon, faculty will face the same decision.

“People weren’t raising hard questions”

Professor Andrew Clement from the Faculty of Information first heard that the university was considering moving staff and faculty emails to Microsoft services as well in the fall of 2013.

“It was mainly treated as an administrative change,” he recalls.

Several years prior, Clement had begun a research project on the movement of data between the United States and Canada, and the subsequent privacy implications and the risk of interception by the NSA. Knowing that Microsoft servers were housed in both the US and Canada, and that Microsoft was the first company to join the NSA’s PRISM program — which allows the security organization direct access to its data — Clement attended a town hall meeting on the potential switch to express his concerns.

Heidi Bohaker, a professor in the Department of History, also attended the meeting. Upon hearing that the new email service would be cloud-based, Bohaker recalls, “that raised a lot of interesting questions immediately to my mind, in terms of where the data is going to be stored.”

Bohaker then contacted Lisa Austin, a professor in the Faculty of Law, who also had concerns with the potential changes and connected Bohaker to Clement, who was organizing a ‘teach-in’ event in November to discuss the implications of outsourcing e-communications for faculty and staff.

The university had gone ahead with producing a comprehensive Information Risk and Risk Management Report on the proposal. “UTORmail, the University’s legacy institutional email service, is near end-of-life and requires significant investment to bring [it] up to current industry standards,” the report reads. It goes on to describe the success of the migration of student accounts to Microsoft services in 2011, with the stated objective of transitioning faculty and staff e-communications.

Clement contends that the university was “averse” to addressing risks from surveillance associated with migrating to cloud-based services. “People weren’t raising hard questions,” he recalls, “I think they… were very weak, and we shone a light on them.”

Clement also drew attention to the role of Microsoft employees in putting together the Privacy Impact Assessment cited in the report.

“[The university] got substantial help from Microsoft which is, in my view… quite inappropriate, for them to play such a strong role… so [Microsoft] actually wouldn’t want to draw attention to their participation in the PRISM program, or generally the surveillance risks,” he says.

Clement’s efforts to shed light on the privacy risks paid off — the university’s plans to migrate faculty and staff emails petered out, and UTORmail continues to provide centralized services for email addresses.

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Clement, Bohaker, and Austin united to produce the Seeing Through the Cloud report, released in 2015, which detailed outsourcing efforts across Canada, questioned the logic of Privacy Impact Assessments employed by universities in contracting Microsoft and Google, and highlighted the risks of outsourcing email services.

Of particular concern to Clement was the direct access that the NSA would have to Microsoft servers.

“If Microsoft was going to host the U of T email service in the US, then that’s all the communication — they [the NSA] don’t have to intercept it on the fly,” he describes, “Getting direct access to the server of Microsoft and others means they can go in at will and look back at previous emails… [T]his is a great deal more of a risk… and something that I thought needed to be debated on campus.”

“Getting direct access to the server of Microsoft and others means they can go in at will and look back at previous emails… [T]his is a great deal more of a risk… and something that I thought needed to be debated on campus”

The university struck a Faculty and Staff eCommunications Advisory Committee to submit a recommendation on email services. The committee recommended that the university negotiate a contract with Microsoft to extend UTmail+ to staff and faculty beginning with email and calendar services, although a small number of committee members did not endorse the recommendation and submitted a dissenting report. The committee also recommended that the university call for legislation to combat mass surveillance, develop an in-house encryption service, continue to offer UTORMail for divisions that opt out of UTmail+, and offer locally hosted file sharing.

Marden Paul, director of Planning, Governance, Assessment & Communications in the office of the Chief Information Officer, says that the university is still considering a number of factors in its decision making process. “We’ve heard from many faculty and staff members that the current communications and collaboration technologies don’t meet their needs, and for some time, the university has been working to assess the requirements for better tools,” he said in a statement to The Varsity. “The process has included in-depth assessments of privacy and security, analysis of risks and how to mitigate them, consultations with faculty and staff, review of reports from the IPC and other interested parties, and the overall benefits to be attained by university community from better tools.”

A national trend towards outsourcing

The university’s decision to outsource student email services came as part of a national trend towards outsourcing online communications in Canadian post-secondary institutions, beginning in 2006 with Lakehead University’s transition to Google Apps for Education.

The reasons cited by Canadian universities for the decision to outsource tended to centre around three main points: cut costs; students’ expectations of a faster, better service; and the depleting quality of older, in-house systems.

U of T was uniquely transparent during the process of outsourcing student email. The Information Risk/Risk Management Document remains publicly available for download on the Information + Services website. No other university can claim a publicly accessible Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA).

Despite this commendable transparency, the consultation process, like those at other universities, was insufficient. At several post-secondary institutions, students were asked to compare an “aging” in-house system with a state-of-the-art outsourced one; the option of an improved in-house system was not explored in depth and was consistently presumed to be prohibitively expensive, despite the absence of meaningful research.

Additionally, the university’s PIAs did not reflect the potential privacy risk of storing data in the United States (claiming the ‘similar risk’ argument, in which data stored in Canada and the US is presumed to be equally secure) and claimed that the level of privacy that should be expected was that of a postcard — that those using the service should accept the possibility their correspondence could be read, and behave accordingly. This sentiment stands in opposition to the Supreme Court of Canada’s statements that Canadians have the right to an expectation of privacy when it comes to their email.

John P. Dirks, a history professor and research assistant on the Seeing Through the Cloud report, recalls, “both in the PIAs and even in the contracts, but especially in the PIAs… there was a readiness to dismiss broader privacy concerns based on an assumption that while data is always shared between [Canada and the US]… Canada had a long-term intelligence sharing and information sharing protocol with the Americans… [The universities] were really dismissing it as a non-issue.”

“A constitutional black hole”

“From the legal policy standpoint, you can really see courts and legislatures struggling to keep up with the changes as they occur,” says Daniel Carens-Nedelsky, graduate student of law who worked with Austen to examine the legal policy at work in both Canada and the United States’ privacy regulations surrounding extra-national outsourcing.

The university’s decision to outsource e-communications services was based in part on the notion of the similar risk of state surveillance, and state access to, e-communications, regardless of whether data was stored in Canada or the US. The Seeing Through the Cloud report claims that this argument is based on “faulty assumptions, factual errors, and a surprisingly limited expectation for privacy in eCommunications.”

Carens-Nedelsky explains that the similar risk argument emerged from a 2005 Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) review, when a group of IBC customers issued a complaint over concerns about the USA PATRIOT Act, because the company was contracting in the US.

According to Carens-Nedelsky, the privacy commissioner found that the complainants concerns were legitimate, but that the Canadian government had a similar ability to access their information; and hence made the similar risk argument. The commissioner ruled that the focus should be on each individual contract, not on the country in which the data is being stored.

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The 2005 FIPPA ruling has been invoked widely and in a variety of cases. The argument is simple: it doesn’t matter where you store your information, the risk is the same. Yet, according to Austin and Carens-Nedelsky, this assumption is patently false.

“[Similar risk] is thoroughly incorrect but makes some sense coming from the FIPPA context,” explains Carens-Nedelsky. “What they’re used to dealing with is looking at company’s internal policies and contracts, [and ensuring that those are] properly protective of privacy. Are they abusing customers’ private information? Are they selling it to third parties? That’s what it’s designed to catch. It’s not designed to catch this comparative constitutional law question.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms limits the government’s ability to access individual’s private information. Yet the question remains, how best to deal with privacy protection across jurisdictions?

More troubling is that neither country’s constitutions protect the communications data of a non-American citizen that is stored in the US, or vice-versa. A Canadian resident whose data is stored in the US will not necessarily be granted protection from third party access. According to the Seeing Through the Cloud report, their data falls into “a constitutional black hole, where the constitutional protections of neither country apply.”

“We have this 2007 ruling that says when you’re not in Canada, you don’t have the constitution applied to you,” says Carens-Nedelsky. “You’re bound by whatever legal standards there are where you are. In the US, there was a corresponding ruling that said, US constitutional privacy protection [doesn’t] apply to non-American citizens, or people without substantial connection to the US”

According to Carens-Nedelsky, this black hole presents a major problem. “[The data] has no constitutional protection… when something has no constitutional protection, it doesn’t immediately mean the government can access it, but it means the government can write whatever legislation it wants and there will be no ability for judges to say that’s unconstitutional legislation,” he explains.

“[The data] has no constitutional protection… when something has no constitutional protection, it doesn’t immediately mean the government can access it, but it means the government can write whatever legislation it wants”

So what does this all mean for student and faculty privacy? “For academics in particular, there are some specific concerns around academic freedom,” says Carens-Nedelsky. “Both of ability to criticize the US government and… [there is concern for] exchange students from  countries who are writing very private confidential reports that may be critical of their own regime. [They] are writing in Canada on the presumption that this will be well protected… the risk that this could get out is material and worrying,” he says. “Academics routinely deal with highly confidential information [and] confidential sources… much [of] research works on the assumption that this will be held confidential. If you’re storing this information on US servers, that is not actually a statement you can make with any confidence.”

The physical internet

At the bottom of the legal uncertainty surrounding data movement between the US and Canada, is the concern that the US government is able to collect a vast amount of information from citizens of other countries. Email communications are easily intercepted by American institutions because of the flow of Internet data; a lot of international data passes through routers housed in the United States.

“We live in a post-Snowden world,” says Dawn Walker, a student at the Faculty of Information and a research assistant on the Seeing Through the Cloud report. “For most people, that means absolutely nothing but for other people, it’s totally changed how… they’re navigating the world and their relationship with their government and their relationship with the American government.”

All communication on the Internet is based on packet switching. Every piece of communication transmitted over the Internet — for example, an email — is broken down into a series of small packets upon sending. These packets contain both the content of the message, as well as several pieces of metadata, including a header with the message’s source and destination IP addresses.

The packet then moves through several routers which read the header to see where the packets are going and pass it to the next router on the way. Once the packets arrive at their destination, they are reassembled into the original message.

Boomerang routing is when packets begin and end their route in the same country, but pass through another one on the way. This often convoluted path is rarely the most efficient.

“[Boomerang routing] isn’t the fastest way to route data,” explains Clement, “It’s kind of a myth that the Internet routes to optimize the speed of transmission. More important than that is the arrangement that the various carriers make between each other as to who they hand off traffic to.”

Large carriers have vast numbers of routers inside large, unmarked buildings in major urban centres, which are linked to one another through fibre optic cables that can transmit tens of billions of bits per second. The decisions these companies make with respect to whether, and how they allow other carriers to connect to their networks, influence the paths that information takes as it is sent across the Internet.

Physically, the infrastructure of the Internet is both stunningly massive and virtually invisible, contained in bundles of wires and unremarkable buildings packed to the brim with computers, and packaged to consumers simply as ‘the cloud.’

Through the PRISM program, the NSA has access to stored Microsoft data, as well as stored data from Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple — this was the crux of the argument against outsourcing e-communications at U of T to Microsoft. But the NSA can also access data in motion through its programs that intercept communications while in transit.

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In order for the NSA to access data in transit, they have to engage with carriers who can create splitter sites. A copy of all data in transit is sent to these sites through the creation of new fibre infrastructure that supports surveillance. Clement’s IXmaps project serves to both illustrate Internet traffic and boomerang routing by showing the routes of various messages, and to identify NSA “listening posts” to show where users’ data is most likely being intercepted.

In the pursuit of countering terrorist activity, former NSA director General Keith B. Alexander adopted a “collect it all, tag it, store it” strategy according to a former US intelligence official quoted in The Washington Post in 2013, who added, “Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, his approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack.’”

Walker points out that upstream data capture by the NSA adds another layer to concerns over email outsourcing. “If your thing is on the Internet, it’s captured,” she says, “So is that the point of where you want to focus your attention here? Or do you want to focus on more technically secure email systems?”

Policy solutions

So what options are available to organizations? According to the Seeing Through the Cloud report, at least, U of T should keep its faculty email services in-house for the time being, while a conversation about the way forward takes place on campus and alternatives are seriously considered.

“What I would really like to see happen here at U of T is a really vigorous discussion about that,” says Bohaker. “With everything on the table, including… the value of our metadata.”

Aside from holding off on transitioning faculty e-communications, there’s also the possibility of letting students opt out of the outsourced services.

In order to address privacy concerns related to outsourcing, the report suggests institutions like U of T could regularly update PIAs, take measures to keep data local, and make risk assessment documentation public to ensure transparency.

In contrast to university reports related to outsourcing, Clement contends that in-house email services may be a viable option. British Columbia, for example, has developed cloud services for public institutions to store data in-province, where the outsourcing of data is provincially prohibited.

“It depends on the priorities of the university,” Clement explains. “If [U of T] decided that this actually was a priority, they could do it — they could bring back email services… They could develop as has happened in British Columbia… It’s not perfect, but there’s certainly options. It could be wound back if there was a will.”

Another option is to continue to use vendor services, revisit contracts, build policies that define stricter privacy requirements or create local infrastructure, and require vendors to keep data local. At the provincial level, as in British Columbia, politicians can craft policies to keep data local to better protect data security and privacy.

“There’s multiple challenges to privacy, to our civil liberties, to our public institutions when our data is not protected,” says Clement. “Universities do have a responsibility. If your university is not fulfilling that responsibility, then that I think becomes a concern.”

Looking forward

Like the term ‘the cloud,’ the term ‘email’ is misleading when you consider the way the Internet operates. We think of the postal service as relatively secure — we know it is illegal to open another person’s physical mail, and while it may be intercepted on the way to its destination, the risk is higher that it will simply get lost.

Often, we view our email with a similar expectation of privacy; but while the idea that email is ‘like a postcard’ fails to hold water from a policy standpoint, it may be a functional reality when it comes to the security of our data, and especially our metadata.

Bohaker notes that a lot of people seem to not care about their data being exposed to intelligence agencies.

“[O]ne of the responses I’ve had [to the Seeing Through the Cloud report] is people say, ‘well, I don’t do anything… that is problematic behaviour… [If] people want to look at my cat videos and my knitting blog, what’s the big deal? … I find [it] quite disconcerting because I don’t think people quite understand how privacy laws are necessary to protect us all.”

You may not care about being surveilled by the US government or other countries’ intelligence agencies because you have nothing to hide. But from a security perspective, when your data is stored on cloud servers there is a risk that your data could be exposed to others, which could include your peers or colleagues.

“Some [students] definitely are… at greater risk than others,” Clement says.

Privilege plays a major role in who can be less concerned about mass surveillance. Students from countries governed by authoritarian regimes, for example, have more cause to be concerned about Microsoft servers abroad. Students who are involved in activism have more cause to be concerned about their organizing being surveilled. And of course, faculty conducting particularly controversial research in the eyes of governing bodies would have cause to be concerned about freedom of thought if their e-communications data were stored remotely.

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“[E]ven if at the present time you don’t… particularly care about where your data goes and who’s looking at it, there might be a time when you do, and also, we’re not just individuals who have concerns about ourselves personally, but we’re concerned our friends, our family, our neighbours, the people we work with, and they may be at risk,” says Clement, adding, “If we don’t stand up for some basic rights, then we’re harming people we care about.”

“Even if at the present time you don’t… particularly care about where your data goes and who’s looking at it, there might be a time when you do”

Outsourcing email services may seem like a step forward for U of T — but is it really the future we want? The university’s agreement with Microsoft allows the company to move your data around the globe, excepting a few embargoed nations, and to have it on hand for the NSA. The physical infrastructure of the Internet puts our data in constant flux, with our metadata readily on hand for the peering eyes of government agencies and more.

While the problem, like the notion of the cloud, may seem intangible, it’s an infrastructural issue that relates to the way the technology that runs the Internet is built and the struggle of law and policy to catch up to its rapid development. The idea of the cloud obscures the reality that there is no cloud at all — there are only other computers, that together can store a lot of information in the same physical space. These are maintained by large corporations that can access your data with relative ease — and they can help other people access it, too.

Living in a material world

When I was growing up, my favourite game was one of my own invention titled “Runaway.”

As the name suggests, the game involved me oh-so-stealthily sneaking out of our house and into the great wide world until whoever had the misfortune of caring for me that day came and dragged me haphazardly homewards.

The escape itself, however, was only one aspect of the activity. The other, more important component was deciding which of my worldly possessions I would take with me on my journey. This was the root of my continual failure — I could never part with any of my things, and so, inevitably, always ended up heaving a comically large suitcase full of beanie babies down my driveway.

It’s been quite a few years since these  escapades, and although the possessions I value may have changed from children’s toys to Apple products, the physical objects in my life still manage to hold a great deal of importance.

Our identities are made up of a series of choices — what we do, what we say or don’t say, and who we surround ourselves with all factor into our senses of selves. Often, things end up carrying much of the weight of who we present ourselves to be. We relay our identities through our clothes, the furnishings of our homes, the cars we drive, and the technology we surround ourselves with.

But with so many using material possessions as a form of expression, there are some who make the conscious choice to define themselves through the lack thereof.

“There are as many different types of minimalism as there are minimalists,” Sara*, a member of a local Toronto group of minimalists, informs me.

Sara, who chooses to remain anonymous due to the complex personal role minimalism plays in her life, goes on to explain that some people prefer the term “simplify” since it denotes less of a harsh or stark lifestyle.

She is part of a local subsection of a larger minimalist movement. “The Minimalists” is the title given to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, founders of and authors of books such as Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists; Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life; A Day in the Life of a Minimalist; Simplicity: Essays; and Essential Essays — many of which have debuted at number one on Amazon.

The website’s so-called “elevator pitch” for minimalism reads that, while it may seem surprising, Millburn and Nicodemus are “not fans of oversimplifying things.”

Trying to condense a complex movement into a single definition is a difficult task, but their attempt reads as such: “Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.”

They go on to say that there are “many flavours of minimalism” — a “20-year-old single guy’s” interpretation may be very different from that of a “45-year-old mother.” Regardless of one’s specific approach to the idea, however, the end result will be “a life with more time, more money, and more freedom to live a more meaningful life.”

They end their post with an open-ended question: “How might your life be better if you owned fewer material possesions?”

Millburn and Nicodemus, however well known, represent only one faction of the broad range of people who identify by the minimalist lifestyle.

“If there’s any group or organization that people have the hardest time with, or consider militant — which they aren’t, but they seem to get the most flak [for] — it’s The Minimalists,” explains Jo Bennett.

Bennett is a life coach and organizer, founder of SOLOMOJO Coaching, as well as the creator of the blog “Minimalist Self.” Bennett’s blog covers all manner of topics from “mindfulness” to “motivation.” Currently, there are 34 entries under the subheading “minimalism.”

One post, entitled, “Jo’s story,” describes Bennett’s shift towards her own personal minimalist lifestyle.

“It was about fifteen years ago when I felt the first shift toward simplifying my life,” reads the post, going on to explain that, after redefining a primary personal relationship, Bennett started prioritizing “quality over quantity,” and through having fewer physical objects in her life, could further see what was needed to bring herself greater happiness.

“I use the word minimalism,” says Bennett. “I think they’re all the same; to simplify, to reduce. I think that people sometimes worry about the word minimalism… it sometimes can be associated with a very stringent militant view of reducing [the possesions in one’s life].”

But for Bennett, the physical is only one element of choosing to identify as minimalist. She explains: “I use the word minimalism… to me it’s what I use to incorporate the actions of mentally, emotionally, and physically de-cluttering. So for me it’s not just about physical possesions, but it’s about sort of paring down the way we think, the way we process information, our relationships, how we cope, planning, time management — it’s all part of the same thing.”

For the last 15 years, Bennett says she’s been applying the process to her career, finances, health, and relationships — and it’s one that’s ongoing.

She discusses mentally reducing by choosing the activities we do or don’t need in our lives, emotionally reducing by choosing the relationships to prioritize and the ones to let go, before mentioning the physical aspect of things.

“For physical… we literally and figuratively have these desks, in minds and in our home offices… there’s always too much stuff on the go… people who take on too much… what happens is they get stretched thin,” she says.

After giving more examples of how someone might approach a minimalist lifestyle, Bennett explains, “Something I like to emphasize about minimalism, [is that] it’s not just about reducing things — emotionally, mentally or physically — I find that it’s true that when you reduce things it reveals your truth, what’s really going on in your world… The important part about minimalism is what I call ‘the glorious choice of deciding what to put in its place’ — so you can either enjoy the freedom of the space, or you can choose [what to replace what you’ve taken away with].”

For context, she explains, “Some people do enjoy living out of a suitcase… you know, just five shirts or four pairs of jeans… but the idea is that the jeans that they are going to put in there are the ones they’re going to enjoy and get use out of… so the idea is that there’s meaning in what we’re surrounding ourselves with.”

For those questioning whether a minimalist lifestyle would be best for them, Bennett recommends careful personal consideration: “Rather than listening to what other people have to say… I think ideally it would be best that somebody spend a minute being mindful of their life…. take a moment to just notice how you’re feeling. If the pile of papers on your desk and the way your taxes are filed doesn’t bother you, then there’s probably no reason to minimize… but really get to the truth of it — what barriers can [you] take down, what do you have too much of? Really it’s just about taking the time to sit down and just look at yourself.”

She adds, laughingly, “I’m going to take the next hour and just ponder my life… I mean what better homework is [there] than that?”

If anything can be understood from the movement and its many different interpretations, it is that it acts as an agent for expressing oneself.

“A message I glean from the design world is that minimalism is not about reducing expression,” reads a post on Bennett’s blog. “Rather than just appreciate that a space is empty, I can also contemplate what beauty has been revealed as a result.”

*Name changed at source’s request

Help me, I’m 20

Growing up, I was always very excited about the idea of my “twenties.” Network television had led me to believe that this would be the prime of my adulthood, when I would have the freedom I so desperately desired, be strangely attractive, and get up to all sorts of shenanigans with my friends, all while obtaining some sort of glamorous job that would fall under broad categories like “publishing,” “journalism,” or maybe even “law.”

The twenties are a messy time — we’re trying to fit ourselves into the role of young adult that hasbeen assigned to us, without any definitive understanding of what that means.

The difference between where we’ve been and where we find ourselves now comes down to our newfound ability to shape the direction our lives are going to take. Often, small hurdles get in the way of seeing the bigger picture — university can seem like a blur of malnutrition and sleep deprivation, small moments of camaraderie mixed in equal part with isolation and indecision. We may not have the answers or be prepared to admit them honestly, but less awkward than our teenage years, we are equipped, at the very least, with perspective.

It is no easy feat to navigate, and it’s different for everyone — but what follows are a series of observations, questions, and rants from my experience of the enigma of young adulthood.

What’s for dinner?

Or, the sometimes more accurate, what is dinner? I think most people would agree that food is pretty great. In an ideal world food can provide elements of nutrition, happiness, and that sometimes evasive thing called social interaction. Yet with the often draining existence that is student life, food can become a chore — something that takes up time and money that no one seems to have to spare. Eating in a nutritionally sound way is often forgotten in the flurry of busy schedules and, as it turns out, it is impossible to survive on nothing but coffee for a startling amount of time.

“What’s for dinner?”

Can I afford to go out tonight?

A wise friend once said, “The irony that between the money I spent on coffee and the money I spend on alcohol I am literally pissing my savings away is not lost on me.” It’s hard to budget in a way that takes into account future savings when we’re so caught up in either the world of library cramming sessions or stress relieving nights out — not to mention cost of living in a city as expensive as Toronto.

Although budgeting is a hard skill to master, it is one that needs to be developed, and fast. The “work hard, play hard” philosophy brings all kinds of results —and one of them is a decidedly lighter wallet.

“Can I afford to go out tonight?”

We should grab coffee sometime!

At any given time, it is only possible to maintain so many close friendships. It often feels impossible to make time for your current friends, without even taking into consideration keeping up with your old ones.

Friends start to grow apart. The tricky thing is that often the friendships we lose are the ones we told ourselves we wanted to keep. As we get older, we gravitate to those people who we spend the most time with — either because of a shared area of study or simple proximity. We make endless coffee dates, but sooner or later accept that the friends that are meant to stay just will.

“We should grab coffee sometime!”

What are you planning on doing after finishing your degree?

Most of us get better at providing an answer to this dreaded, ominous question the longer we stay in school. You either tell them something that sounds good to avoid judgement or explain your actual dreams only to be told that there’s little chance you’ll achieve them “in today’s market.” Another good option is to say, “Oh, I’m just considering my options right now.” Perhaps you, like me, entertain an option that includes dropping out of school and maintaining a small but peaceful sheep farm in New Zealand.

Few of us leave this school with the degrees we initially envisioned we’d have, and even fewer enter the workforce in careers related to their studies. At the end of the day, we’d all like to be happy, and know that we’ll be steadily employed in a few years — if only this was an acceptable response.

“What are you planning on doing after finishing your degree?”

How’s your love life?

This question can be dangerous for two reasons — either you’re still navigating being single, or are in an established relationship.

In the first case, there really is no great way to answer the question — you’re left with trying to find a middle ground between “I’m just having fun and not worrying about it right now” and “I’m going to be alone forever.” In the second case, you’re put in a position of evaluating how serious your relationship is, where it’s going, and how this person is going to fit into that whole adulthood thing you’re working on. Is what you’re doing matching up with what everyone else is? Are you meeting the standards set by your friends, family, and nosey acquaintances? And like, have you tried that whole Tinder thing yet?

“How’s your love life?”

Arts on campus

With three campuses and a massive undergraduate population, U of T boasts a staggering number of different communities for the artistically inclined. Here are a few of the most notable examples, broken down by interest. It’s important to keep in mind that, while many groups centre around a specific college, the majority accept members from any college or faculty. Don’t be afraid to explore; take advantage of the first few weeks of school to try your hand at different activities before deciding on the one that’s best for you.


Getting involved in theatre on campus can be intimidating, but there’s a place for just about anybody. There are opportunities to get involved with theatre tech, and shows are always looking for stage managers and sound, lighting, and set designers. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask to shadow people — you will be welcomed with open arms and spike tape.

U of T Drama Coalition

There are several drama societies at U of T, often based around individual colleges. The U of T Drama Coalition brings all colleges together into one large theatre community. The coalition sends representatives to review all campus shows, and organizes the annual U of T Drama Festival and end-of-the-year Drama Coalition Awards. Email for more information.

Hart House Theatre

A fixture of the St. George campus since 1919, Hart House Theatre is an amazing resource for students. Not only can you audition to be part of its four-play season (this year featuring the highly anticipated Jesus Christ Superstar), but the theatre also offers a wide array of volunteer opportunities for those who want to know the ins and outs of the dramatic arts. Contact education and production coordinator Gillian Lewis for more details (Email).


There are many opportunities to be involved in photography on campus. Student-run publications are always on the hunt for photographers (hint, hint), and colleges often seek out camera-savvy students to capture their events.

Hart House Camera Club

The Hart House Camera Club, which is open to students, faculty, and alumni, holds outings and workshops. Membership costs $25, but the fee covers the cost of training and equipment for the darkroom.


U of T has a thriving film community, largely affiliated with the Innis College Cinema Studies Institute. Even if you’re not part of the program, there are plenty of opportunities on campus to attend screenings and even create your own work. Here’s a tip: the University of Toronto Students’ Union offers discounted movie tickets for $9.07 that can be picked up at the union’s office.

Cinema Studies Student Union (CINSSU)

While the CINSSU is made up of, and is technically for, students in the cinema studies program, it offers a number of events for all movie-lovers on campus. It hosts free movies every Friday at the Innis Town Hall, and publishes the annual Camera Stylo, the Cinema Studies undergraduate journal. Email for more information.

Hart House Film Board

The Hart House Film Board holds filmmaking workshops and lends out professional quality film equipment for aspiring filmmakers. Membership to the club costs $25, but it’s a small price to pay for access to expensive equipment.


There’s a range of dance groups at U of T, both for those who’ve been dancing for their entire life and for those who are just getting started. These are two of the main dance companies that U of T has to offer.

Silhouettes Dance Company

Silhouettes is a respected performance dance troupe based out of U of T that performs at a number of events around the city throughout the year, including its end-of-year showcase. Auditions are held every year in September. Email for more information.

Only Human Dance Collective (OHDC)

The OHDC has an all-inclusive mandate, which means it accepts all dancers regardless of experience. The group aims to train those who are interested in learning about different styles of dance and create a home for students who are away from their own studios. Their year-end dance production features a variety of styles including jazz, modern, ballet, hip-hop, latin, and ballroom. Email for more information.


If you’ve been itching to get your writing published, U of T provides plenty of options, from department-based academic journals to student newspapers and magazines. There has never been a better time to hone your writing skills, and unlike many professional publication contests, no application fee is required.

Literary Reviews

Many of U of T’s colleges have literary journals, such as ACTA Victoriana of Victoria College, the Trinity College Review, and the University College Review. Most of these anthologies accept short stories, poetry, art, and photographs. Pick one up for free and give it a read to get inspired.

Hart House

Hart House features a wide range of opportunities for the literary-inclined. You can apply to be part of the Hart House Literary and Library Committee — which, among other things, manages the Hart House Library. There are also creative writing groups operating within Hart House that meet weekly for members to find time to write. Finally, the Hart House Review is a Canadian literary and arts magazine that is managed by students and is distributed on a national level. Students can submit work to the review and enter various contests.


U of T is rife with musicians, both in the Faculty of Music and among all of its students. Practice space can be booked through the music faculty, and many other campus buildings offer access to pianos. Some colleges have separate choirs, such as the Vic Chorus, and you’ll certainly be seeing the Skule™ Stage band marching around during frosh.

Hart House

Hart House acts as a student hub when it comes to music. Sammy’s Student Exchange Café is frequently rented out for open-mic nights and cabarets. There are also many musical clubs, including the Hart House Singers and the Hart House Chorus (the former being more informal, and the latter requiring an audition), as well as the Hart House Orchestra.

Off-campus arts spots


Soulpepper Theatre Company

Soulpepper Theatre Company consistently produces some of Toronto’s best theatre. Youth (under 21) rush tickets are absurdly cheap for $5 at the door.

Toronto Reference Library

The Toronto Reference Library is a great place to study and to get your literary fix. Programming is constantly going on, such as author talks, art exhibits, and classes on how to use different forms of literature-related technology.

Lee’s Palace

Lee’s Palace has been a staple of the Toronto music scene for years. Its grungy, graffitied walls welcome big names and smaller indie acts. Make sure to check out a show, and head upstairs to Dance Cave afterwards. Admission to Dance Cave is free with the presentation of a student ID every Friday and Saturday night.


The luxury of being ordinary

“You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal?” asks Sam, before leaping to her feet and flailing her arms above her head, making squeaky, nonsensical noises, “I make a noise or I do something that no one has ever done before, and then I can feel unique again, even if it’s only for, like, a second.”

This is a scene from the 2004 film Garden State, in which Andrew, played by Zach Braff, encounters Sam, Natalie Portman’s character, and falls in love with her. Andrew begins the film a depressed, heavily medicated twenty-something, returning to his hometown from L.A. after the death of his mother. After meeting Sam, his life changes for the better, and he has a series of epiphanies that lead him to forgive his estranged father, abandon prescription medication, and go out into the world to pursue “something greater.”

The scene is meant to show the originality of Portman’s character — a unique young woman, endearing to Andrew and the audience for her ability to embrace her strangeness in a genuine way.

But this same character has also been criticized as a fundamentally inauthentic archetype. Many terms could describe Portman’s character in the film — quirky, energetic, spastic, whimsical. Film critic Nathan Rabin would use all of these, and one more: Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG).

Anatomy of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Rabin coined the term in 2005, describing Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film Elizabethtown: “that bubbly, shallow, cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Once the term was coined, it was applied by many film writers to a number of female characters found in film: Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, and virtually every character Zooey Deschanel has played in the last five years.

The trope’s existence is clear, but whether it is problematic is less so. A group of U of T students were asked to watch clips from Garden State and give their initial impressions.

Some students recognized the trope present in Portman’s character immediately. Lauren Dineley, a fourth-year student minoring in cinema studies, watched the clip and promptly added a link to the Wikipedia description of MPDGs. Dineley defined the type as: “Not realistic — idealistic for the demographic of the film — indie hipsters who think they are different but really aren’t.”

Two other students who were shown the clip were able to identify the trope, and even some who didn’t were skeptical of the authenticity of Portman’s character. “I would describe her as a romanticization of a person,” said Sarah Bowser, a third-year English specialist.

Characters identified by critics as MPDGs are considered both authentic-seeming characters by some and romanticized figures by others. However, the problem with the trope doesn’t lie in the audience’s perception of the MPDG as realistic or not. The problem with the artificial nature of the character is the reason for which she is contrived in the first place — to capture the imagination of the male protagonist.

Words used by critics to describe the MPDG were echoed by U of T students: quirky, whimsical, witty, cute, likeable. Whatever else the trope may be, it creates a girl who is undeniably interesting — but her entire personality is designed to captivate her oh-so-sensitive, bookish male protagonist.

The male protagonist does not have to be extraordinary — he does not need to justify himself as the titular character or inspire a love interest to make himself worthy of the audience’s attention. The Zach Braffs of the film world revel in how downright ordinary they are. It is up to the MPDG to provide spark and life to the male’s story — she doesn’t have the luxury of being ordinary.

The MPDG trope has implications outside of the fictional world in which it was created. It’s natural for us to grow up idolizing characters in the media we consume and in the fictional stories we are told. It would make sense then for viewers to internalize the MPDG as both someone to desire and someone to imitate. If the only type of woman being put forward in a film matches the MPDG model, it is not a great a leap to assume that actual women growing up watching such characters might change themselves to emulate them. They may think that they will only be valued if they conform to a fantasized version of their gender.

The MPDG trope creates a world in which, if women are to serve a purpose, they must capture the attention of men; to achieve that end, they may end up being denied the privilege of being themselves.