Category Archives: politics and global justice

Conversations Below Sea Level: Rob van Kranenburg

Ambient Dominance and the Public — An Interview with Rob van Kranenburg


(Photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

For the last interview in this series, I sat down to talk to Rob van Kranenburg. Rob works at Waag Society, a new media think-tank that “wants to be on the forefront of developments by creating a consensus among as many of the stakeholders as possible (companies, government, citizens, European laws and professionals) to anchor values [such] as solidarity, sharing, learning to learn, creativity, beauty and a sense of change and innovation as deep as possible within the code and infrastructure.” Rob is head of the Public Domain program. A large part of his work deals with the problematic shift (evident in technologies such as RFID) from “privacy compliant applications to privacy compliant technology.” We met at the Waag offices in Nieuwmarkt, Amsterdam, on June 17.


Ulises Mejias: Since a lot of your work has to do with Ambient Intelligence, why don’t you start by telling us what that is? You have a phrase here, in one of the essays you gave me, about “outsourcing memory and agency to an ever more seemingly controllable environment on an individual level that is perceived as convenient.”

Rob van Kranenburg: Let’s start with the example of a pencil. As you write things down, you are outsourcing your memory into the environment. That’s how the Western notion of technology has worked. But now the idea is to hide all these functionalities into our environment. Like electricity, basically. It’s been hidden. All we see is the On/Off switch. Nobody knows how it works. If there is a power break, everything breaks. The same goes for our computer. The idea behind Ambient Intelligence, Pervasive Computing or whatever you want to call it, is to take the intelligence out of the computer box. I should make my environment ‘intelligent:’ I should make my clothes intelligent, my chair intelligent, so they recognize me. The walls in my house should sense whether I’m depressed. So this promise that the world can recognize you every step of the way, and give you everything you need, is very powerful. But the thing is that this notion of Ambient Intelligence can only work on a very stable environment. If the environment changes, it has very big consequences, on an interface level. Change must be minimal. It’s a totalitarian logic, within the whole system. Because it assumes it needs to be stable in order to “live.” We will have new generations growing up dumber in their interfacing activities with these environments, because there’s no need for them to think otherwise; they are being taken care of. Continue reading

Conversations Below Sea Level: Geert Lovink

Geert Lovink

The networked society and its outsides: Interview with Geert Lovink

(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

Geert Lovink is a media theorist, net critic and activist (bio, blog, publications). He is the founding director of the Amsterdam-based Institute of Network Cultures, where I sat with him to chat on May 22.


Ulises Mejias: Have you heard about It’s a search engine for the Black community. It’s in English, and I guess the idea is that it functions as a Google for Black people. Whatever search they perform, it’s going to organize and bring up results that the search engine thinks are of more interest or relevance to the user. And obviously the next step is that we have a search engine for Muslims, and a search engine for Gays, and a search engine for every minority. So I guess my question is basically: Will there still be margins within the information society when everybody has their own custom-designed search algorithm?

Geert Lovink: Well, one of the margins is the relative drop of the importance of English on the Web because of the growing presence of other languages. It’s a relatively small group of people who speak English and so its influence is shrinking very rapidly. That’s a fact. If we look at the search engine market, there are very serious competitors to Google, and they are not where we might look. The biggest one is Baidu, which is in Mandarin only. Google has no entrance to the Chinese market to speak of, and it’s the fastest growing market of internet users. Is that a margin? No. Is Baidu going to focus on a certain type of identity? No…

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Politics and the Web

royalholloway.JPGEarlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to London to attend Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference, hosted by the New Political Communication Unit (NPCU), Department of Politics and International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The theme of the conference was summarized as follows:

Has there been a shift in political use of the internet and digital new media – a new web 2.0 politics based on participatory values? How do broader social, cultural, and economic shifts towards web 2.0 impact, if at all, on the contexts, the organizational structures, and the communication of politics and policy? Does web 2.0 hinder or help democratic citizenship? This conference provides an opportunity for researchers to share and debate perspectives.

The conference was in large part the brainchild of Andrew Chadwick, Founding Director of the NPCU. There were 120 papers organised into 41 panels, and over 180 participants from over 30 countries. Some of the conference topics included: Parties, Elections and Campaigning; e-Governance; Constituency, Mobilisation and Engagement; The Politics of Blogging; Platforms, Power, and Politics; Young People, the Internet and Civic Participation; New Perspectives on e-Democracy; and Theorising Web 2.0.

What follows is a review of some of the presentations I found relevant to my interests (a summary of my paper is provided towards the end).

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Confinement, Education and the Control Society

PrisonPerhaps it’s not surprising that Foucault, the “panopticon guy”, is characterized as a thinker of power, discipline, and punishment. But as Deleuze (1995) points out, Foucault also believed that we are increasingly moving away from being societies based on discipline to societies based on control. According to Deleuze’s reading of Foucault: “We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis).

Did Foucault prematurely announce the end of confinement? It sure looks like it when looking at the US, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. According to government statistics, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, even while the crime rate continues to fall. By June 2004 there were 2.1 million people in US jails, or one in every 138 residents (ref, ref). Race has everything to do with this issue: “blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested… and 49 percent of those in prison… One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995.” (ref).

And that’s just at home. The US is also in the business of confining people abroad. According to the article American Gulag in Harper’s Sept. 2006 issue, 450 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, approximately 13,000 in Iraq, 500 in Afghanistan, and an estimated 100 in secret CIA “black sites” around the world. They have not been formally charged, and have little legal recourse. In essence, they are guilty until the US decides they are innocent. While the man in charge of the facility “firmly believes” that there are no innocent men in Guantanamo, a report based on data from the Dept. of Defense indicates that 55% of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies (ref, ref). According to Harper’s, 98 Guantanamo detainees have died to date, it is safe to assume not from natural causes.

But it’s not simply the case that this society is a bit behind in the transition from discipline to control. It is actually advancing equally well on both fronts. In fact, increased control goes hand in hand with increased confinement because increased control means more precise ways of identifying those who fail to perform to society’s expectations. In a technocracy, control is surveillance: the continuous monitoring of public, private and work life, and the “intelligent” identification of any deviance. But while new control technologies afford more effective and efficient methods of management and surveillance, you still need an apparatus for controlling those who fall outside the established parameters. This group includes those who have failed in the educational system and therefore cannot productively contribute to the service economy, enemies of the state (preemptively defined), non-conforming minorities, etc. (I’m not suggesting there are no criminals in prison; I’m merely drawing some conclusions from trends in the makeup of the prison population). The trick is then to turn the confinement of these ‘burdens’ of society into a business opportunity by benefiting from their cheap labor or by privatizing the industry of confinement itself (think Halliburton).

I hinted above at the role of education as a control mechanism that helps differentiate the productive members of society from those who should be confined and disciplined. The fact that the same groups who are disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population are also those most likely to drop out of the educational system is not a coincidence (only about half of Black and Hispanic youth graduate with a high-school degree; ref). But for everyone else who succeeds, what does education look like? The answer is: continuous control. I was struck by Deleuze’s comments regarding the changing nature of education in a control society:

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business. (1995, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The constant student is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Thanks to distance education, e-learning and technologies such as the Learning Management System (LMS), education becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which —more importantly— can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ career of the individual. Thus, assessment-based education helps reconcile control and discipline in society by helping to effect, in the case of those who fail, a transition from controlled subject to disciplined object.

I want to go back briefly to Deleuze’s comment about control societies also operating through “instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis). It would make sense to assume that, in a crude way, control societies would want to control communication. But that is not the case. According to the standard technophile discourse, thanks to technology our societies enjoy an unprecedented freedom of speech and expression. Communication technologies with low operational cost and low barriers of entry (such as blogs) are praised for giving “everyone” a chance to express themselves. But Deleuze points out that “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves… What we’re are plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements” (1995, p. 129). Deleuze is suggesting that there is a connection between control and an over-abundance of (meaningless) expression. More of this type of communication has not resulted in stronger social bonds, but in increased isolation: concurrent with advances in ICTs, the last U.S. census shows that 25% of the nation’s households (27.2 million) consist of just one person, compared to 10% in 1950 (ref).

This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.

Offline Reference:
Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press.

Creative Commons photo credit: thost

“Socialist” Software

A case can be made that Social Software contributes to the commodification of knowledge and social interactions, or that it is simply a way for companies to make money off your labor/data. But as we know, there’s more to it than that. Social Software can also embody a set of social practices that are downright, well, socialist!

I was thinking of that as I was reading Andrew Feenberg’s essay Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom (originally published in 1992, before social software and the internet were really mainstream). Feenberg speaks of technology in the context of democracy. A truly democratic society is one where people have a say in determining what technology will produce through their labor, and Feenberg uses Marx’s concept of socialism to refer to a society where political agency is derived from work:

[Marx] claimed that we will remain disenfranchised and alienated so long as we have no say in industrial decision-making. Democracy must be extended from the political domain into the world of work. This is the underlying demand behind the idea of socialism. (p. 652)

How we work is a very political issue, and democracy (in this Marxist view) is the result of a system where workers have control over production processes and the fruits of those processes.

Of course, technology is a part of all aspects of our lives, not just work. Accordingly, Feenberg sees democracy as being enacted in everyday social life through the technologies we use. In other words, democracy is closely tied to how technology is actualized or put into practice. One of the problems of our age is that we tend to see our use of technology as inherently de-politicized. To save democracy, according to Feenberg, we need to stop thinking of it as something that politicians enact in government buildings, and start thinking of it in terms of our everyday technological practices:

The common sense view of technology limits democracy to the state. By contrast, I believe that unless democracy can be extended beyond its traditional bounds into the technically mediated domains of social life, its use value will continue to decline, participation will wither, and the institutions we identify with a free society will gradually disappear. (p. 653, my emphasis)

This point might sound familiar to those who have read Lessig’s (2004) views on free culture, in particular the way he associates the technological practice of ‘re-mixing’ content with a healthy democratic culture, and the way this practice is currently endangered by those who put unreasonable costs on our ability to remix. The irony is that many times those costs can be enforced by the same technologies that allow re-mixing! That is why Feenberg’s rejects views of technology as deterministic or neutral, and instead sees technology as “a scene of social struggle, a “parliament of things,” on which civilizational alternatives contend (p. 656).” To him, technology is not a static given but something that needs to be interpreted:

As a social object, technology ought to be subject to interpretation like any other cultural artifact, but is generally excluded from humanistic study. We are assured that its essence lies in a technically explainable function rather than a hermeneutically interpretable meaning. (p. 656)

Which is why Actor-Network Theory, I guess, sees technology as an actor in a complex network of associations, an actor whose role is open to interpretation depending on where you are standing. When I speak of the open affordances of technology, I refer to this issue: the fact that the same technologies can be used for different purposes according to different political agendas, and evolve accordingly. Feenberg argues that:

…differences in the way social groups interpret and use technical objects are not merely extrinsic but make a difference in the nature of the objects themselves. What the object is for the the groups that ultimately decide its fate determines what it becomes as it is redesigned and improved in over time. If this is true, then we can only understand technological development by studying the sociopolitical situation of the various groups involved in it. (p. 657)

So when people complain that social media undermines final communities and real commitment (Dreyfus, Borgmann), that it commodifies knowledge (Lyotard), or that is sets up a virtual domain that undermines reality (Baudrillard et al.), they are right to the extent that they are describing how technology is being used by a hegemonic authoritarian system. But that doesn’t mean that this ‘machine v. (human) nature’ model is the ONLY way technology can be used:

This is the point of Herbert Marcuse’s important critique of Weber. Marcuse shows that the concept of rationalization confounds the control of labor by management with control of nature by technology. The search for control of nature is generic, but management only arises against a specific social background, the capitalist wage system. Workers have no immediate interest in output in this system, unlike earlier forms of farm and craft labor, since their wage is not essentially linked to the income of the firm. Control of human beings becomes all-important in this context. (p. 657)

Which brings us back to technology, socialism, and democracy. Technological rationalization that puts emphasis on efficiency at the cost of the workers’ freedom is a function of capitalist reasoning, not just any kind of logic. Alternatives exist. Of course, some of those alternatives are now failed experiments (the wise words of Homer Simpson come to mind: “In theory, Communism works. In theory.”). But as Feenberg acknowledges, at least in socialism the democratization of technology was formulated as a goal. Unfortunately, because this point was made by Marx (and anything related to Marx must be evil and why don’t I go back to Russia), the power of this critique has been lost:

Machine design mirrors back the social factors operative in the prevailing rationality. The fact that the argument for the social relativity of modern technology originated in a Marxist context has obscured its most radical implications. We are not dealing here with a mere critique of the property system, but have extended the force of that critique down into the technical “base.” This approach goes well beyond the old economic distinction between capitalism and socialism, market and plan. Instead, one arrives at a different distinction between societies in which power rests on the technical mediation of social activities and those that democratize technical control and, correspondingly, technological design. (p. 658)

What Feenberg describes here (democratizing technological control and design) is starting to sound a lot like (certain applications of) Social Software. But the majority of applications do not aspire to this goal because, as Feenberg argues, hegemonies legitimatize certain applications of technology and not others:

The narrow focus of modern technology meets the needs of a particular hegemony; it is not a metaphysical condition. Under that hegemony technological design is unusually decontextualized and destructive. It is that hegemony that is called to account, not technology per se, when we point out that today technical means form an increasing threatening life environment. It is that hegemony, as it has embodied itself in technology, that must be challenged in the struggle for technological reform. (p. 663)

But how do we challenge the hegemony that has been coded into the technology? How do we set about reforming technology? Is violent revolution necessary or do we need, as Latour would say, to change the way we change?

The legitimating effectiveness of technology depends on unconsciousness of the cultural-political horizon under which it was designed. A recontextualizing critique of technology can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices. (p. 658)

In other words, we need to un-think the encoded hegemony by becoming conscious of the agendas that motivate a particular application of technology, by questioning the choices embedded in the machine. This is similar to the notion of the digital divide as paralogy I’ve been thinking about recently.

But we must be careful to avoid falling into a chicken-egg trap here: Which comes first, the sociopolitical systems that engender truly democratic technologies, or the technologies that facilitate more democratic societies? Neither. Remember, we are talking about “a scene of social struggle, a “parliament of things,” on which civilizational alternatives contend (Feenberg, p. 656),” not a zero sum game of good v. evil that will be decisively won at some point in the future.

Technology can facilitate more than one type of technological civilization, and each generation must struggle to define which type of civilization it wants, or have someone else’s desires imposed on them. There is no point in waiting for the democratic technologies of the future, because they have always been at our reach. This is certainly true when we look at what is going on in the Open Source, Open Content and Open Learning movements (greatly facilitated by Social Software). And it is also true when we look at other grassroots expressions of democracy that do not require the kind of affordances embodied by Social Software (let’s not assume that only a society with access to these technologies can give expression to democracy!).

The Open Source, Open Content and Open Learning movements might seem like an insignificant contribution in light of the magnitude of the World’s problems, in particular when we take into account the small percentage of people involved in these movements. But as I have noted before, these movements can transform the benefits of Social Software into other kinds of benefits for larger sections of the world. And as far as manifestations of democracy go, I believe they are a worthy challenge to a status quo that revolves around private ownership and profit.

If —by whatever combination of strategies and happy historical accidents— Social Software manages to change the way we produce things (artifacts, knowledge), will these changes in the means of production result in more egalitarian societies? In other words, will Social Software prove Marx was right about the link between democracy and technology?

Feenberg, A. (2003). Democratic rationalization: Technology, power and freedom. In R. C. Sharff & V. Dusek (Eds.), Philosophy of technology: The technological condition: An anthology. (pp. 652-665). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. Accessed on May 5, 2006 from

Flickr Photo Credit:
Kim Pierro


Telepistemology, Combat Robots, and Human Pacman

[The following comments were presented during the War and (Computer/Video) Gaming session at the Occupied Spaces Symposium, Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, April 8 and 9, 2005.]

First, I want to thank Patty Zimmerann for inviting me to this symposium. Patty played a vital role in my intellectual development when I was an undergraduate student here, and is one reason Ithaca College has a special place in my heart.

Video gaming is not one of my research areas, but I hope I can make a couple of meaningful comments to contribute to this discussion. My focus will be on the role of technology in facilitating knowledge and action at a distance, and how computer games can place that knowledge in the service of destruction or understanding. I should mention that I am publishing these comments on my blog, in case anyone is interested in reviewing some of the resources I will be discussing.

Telepistemology: Knowing at a Distance

Let me begin by making an observation about the role of technology in the development of our understanding of the world, specially our understanding of things that are not part of our immediate surroundings. It used to be that the farther things were from us physically, the more difficult it was to acquire empirical knowledge about them. In other words, geographic distance largely determined what was available for us to know, and to an extent, what we cared about. In that unmediated context, knowledge about and empathy towards a member of my community was greater than knowledge about and empathy towards someone in a distant land I could hardly begin to imagine.

Today, thanks to information and communication technologies (ICTs), geographic distance is not such a big factor in determining what is accessible to our understanding and empathy. This is what telepistemology means: knowing-at-a-distance. Furthermore, technology has enabled not only our ability to know at a distance, but also to act at a distance. Telepresence means being able to commit an act here with repercussions that are felt there, such as petting a chicken.

This is of course redefining our relationship to the world. What is spatially far can become epistemologically or ontologically near (through very different processes of mediation that I will ignore for the moment). Many people refer to this phenomenon as the Death of Distance. I don’t particularly care for that term, as it tends to hide the politics behind this shift. Distance is not dead. The terms of discourse have merely shifted in such a way as to devalue some things and value others. For example, what I call the irrelevancy of the near means that we can develop relationships with what is far at the expense of what is immediately around us. This is what allows us, for instance, to collaborate with peers in a global network while ignoring the decaying state of the communities outside our offices. In this example, poverty in our immediate surroundings has simply become irrelevant in relation to our existence in virtual communities.

Killing at a Distance

So while we struggle to balance our knowing and acting across the near and the far in order to bring about greater understanding and empathy, the history of knowing and acting at a distance to facilitate warfare goes way back. In fact, warfare since the bow and arrow has been all about action at a distance. Weapons have become increasingly sophisticated with regards to maximizing their destructive potential while keeping the soldier at a safe distance, and computer games have played a crucial role in familiarizing us with the types of user interfaces required to manipulate remote-killing weapons.

talon.gifConsider the TALON robot, shown here. It’s currently being tested in Iraq. Its intended use is mostly for what is called explosive ordinance disposal (EOD), but one article (Robot Warriors Are Heading to Iraq!) already talks about mounting heavy weaponry on the TALON. If this future sounds too much like a Terminator movie, you’ll be happy to hear (I’m being sarcastic) that a developer of the TALON says: “For the foreseeable future, there always will be a person in the loop who makes the decision on friend or foe. That’s a hard problem to determine autonomously.” I wonder if once the ‘foreseeable future’ comes and goes, it will become more acceptable to let the machine make such decisions, and tolerate the margin of error.

If the connection between the TALON and video games is not already obvious, I would like to direct your attention to the Operator Control Unit (click image to enlarge): Which one of us brought up in a video game culture would not know almost intuitively what to do with that interface? All you need to look for is the joystick and the red button.

Killing at a distance does not always involve weapons. Knowledge-at-a-distance can have less belligerent but equally destructive ends. Consider what Tolstoy said in his essay Confession, when he lamented that unlike the old days of hand-to-hand combat, nowadays we kill people “through such a complex process of communication, and the consequences of our cruelty are so carefully removed and concealed from us, that there is no restraint on the bestiality of the action” (p. 100). We only have to look at how mass media makes the case for wars by providing us with very carefully orchestrated knowledge-at-a-distances packages to begin to realize what Tolstoy meant.

War Games & Disobedience Games

In the remainder of my comments, I would like to talk about a response to telepistemology that also involves technology, and what alternative role computer games can play. While one branch of technological development has concerned itself with knowledge and action at a distance, another has focused on reintegrating individuals to their surroundings, to the near, in augmented ways. I do not mean to imply that technologies that facilitate telepistemology are bad while those that facilitate embeddedness are good. Obviously, the devil is in the details. I merely want to contrast some applications.

When people find war morally reprehensible, one of the few options they have at their disposal in a so-called democracy is to protest the war. Here, I want to draw attention to the phenomenon of Smart Mobs as a recent example of strategies used to organize civil protest. The phenomenon, described by Howard Rheingold in the book of the same name, involves the use of common tools such as email, cell phones and social network services (such as MeetUp) to organize mass movements in highly effective ways.

What is the connection to video games? Just as we have an arsenal of computer games that train people on the mechanics of killing-at-a-distance, I think we need to start designing games that teach people how to organize against war using new technologies. Some examples are beginning to emerge, such as the upcoming release A Force More Powerful, a nonviolent strategic simulation game produced by BreakAway Games, which according to its authors is “designed to teach political activists how to plan and execute strategic non-violent warfare.”

cbob.pngIn addition to having games that simulate the logistics of activism, we could have games that actually allow for its practice. While, to my knowledge, no such games exist yet, it is easy to imagine adapting the technology behind things like Human PacMan, a game in which human beings play the characters of the popular video game, and the game space is transposed to the player’s surroundings. Another example is CatchBob, a game that involves players using WiFi-enabled PC tablets to coordinate actions between members of a team.

Learning how to coordinate peaceful social movements with the aid of simple and cheap technologies can become a useful skill developed through computer games. But needless to say, the same tools and training can be used by groups with very different agendas. Which brings me to my last point. While it is tempting to fall back on the argument that technologies are neutral, this kind of argument will not take us very far. Technologies reflect the values of their creators, and are applied not in a vacuum but in specific social contexts, so they are anything but neutral. I do believe that technologies exhibit what I call open affordances: one technology can be adapted —within limits— to do something entirely different from what it was originally intended to do. But figuring out where those limits lie, how far we can change the technology before it changes us, is perhaps an even more important skill to develop.

Obviously the games we play shape our epistemologies. Someone playing Kuma War is going to have a very different disposition towards the world than someone playing A Force More Powerful. But I am also interested in the broader, and sometimes less obvious question of the epistemic and ontological shifts brought about by doing anything online. While I think we can design normative ways of knowing and acting at a distance, and use computer games to foster such behaviors, I’m also interested in exploring how these can be balanced with a re-engagement with the near. Or, more precisely, how the near will cease to be defined by space, and how technology —given the right pedagogies— can facilitate the projection of empathy.

Un-Empathic Nation?

According to exit polls in the recent 2004 elections, 22% of respondents identified ‘Moral Values’ as the most important issue in the presidential race (CNN, 2004). Of the seven issues presented in the survey (Taxes, Education, Iraq, Terrorism, Economy/Jobs, Moral Values, and Health Care), ‘Moral Values’ ranked the highest, slightly above the Economy/Jobs (20%) and Terrorism (19%). What exactly ‘Moral Values’ means to these voters is unclear, and the polls do not provide any additional clarification. In reality, Americans probably hold very diverse views of what constitutes moral behavior, with that 22% of voters representing but one perspective. Nonetheless, one assumes that such high regard for moral values is an overall indication of this country’s desire to behave morally.

But does the rest of the world see the U.S. as a moral nation? Responses to a recent survey by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC, 2003) show that 50% of participants from 10 countries described the U.S. as a religious country (compared to 34% who described it as a non-religious country). This would suggest, assuming that most people associate religion with positive moral values, that half of those interviewed probably see the U.S. as a nation of solid moral principles. However, 65% of the same respondents also described the U.S. as an arrogant nation (compared to 15% who described it as a humble nation). And when all was said and done, six out of the ten countries participating in the survey disagreed with the statement “America is a force of good in the world.” According to the survey, 79% of Americans, however, whole heartedly agreed with that statement.

At the risk of making a generalization, I would argue that the U.S. is not as moral a nation as it would like to think it is. World opinion seems, by and large, to corroborate this perception. My thesis is that the reason Americans are  seen in this light is because, in general, they are becoming increasingly unable to demonstrate empathy—both towards the rest of the world, and towards each other. My goal, however, is not merely to bash the United States. I want to look at the problem of empathic deficiency in the U.S., its  causes, and consider some solutions. I will suggest ways in which empathy can be cultivated and moral development nurtured amongst the people of the U.S., not because they are the only ones in need of doing so, but because I believe an un-emphatic disposition, combined with nearly absolute economic and military power at a global scale, is a recipe for catastrophic disaster. If the U.S. sees itself as a moral nation, but the rest of the world sees Abu Ghraib, there is reason to doubt a peaceful coexistence.

What is the relationship between acting morally and the ability to feel empathy? Empathy, as defined by Hoffman, is the ability to experience “an affective response appropriate to someone else’s situation rather than one’s own” (Gibbs, 2003, p. 79). Empathic arousal triggers emotions and behaviors intended to align the subject with the victim’s plight. From an anthropological perspective, empathy has played an important role in the survival of our species; empathy promotes pro-social behaviors, which guarantee the strength and prosperity of groups. It is “the glue that makes social life possible… a biologically and affectively based, cognitively mediated and socialized predisposition to connect emotionally with others” (ibid). So empathy functions as the basic mechanism that impels subjects to behave morally, which in this context means that someone who observes the suffering of others feels compelled to help them as opposed to ignoring them, thus ensuring the survival of the group as a whole.

But what is it that prevents humans from forming such an emotional connection? Unfamiliarity and distance can play a part (Gibbs, 2003), but here I will focus on three specific biases that have, in my opinion, atrophied the ability of the U.S. to display empathy (these biases have atrophied all of humanity’s ability to feel empathy, but for the reasons outlined above having to do with the balance of power in the world, I am selectively focusing on the U.S.). The three biases are: the disproportionate egocentric bias, the bias towards mediated experience, and the bias against diversity. Next, I will examine each one of these biases individually, and later I will discuss some strategies for how they can be collectively contested in the context of the United States.

Let’s begin with an analysis of the disproportionate egocentric bias. To an extent, egocentrism can function as a survival mechanism intended to preserve the self. However, excessive or disproportionate egocentrism has anti-social consequences: a society in which people are concerned with satisfying only their personal desires is a society destined to collapse unto itself. Unfortunately, that seems to describe in many ways the postmodern condition. A detailed analysis of what Marcuse calls the “transplantation of social into individual needs” (1964, p. 8) is beyond the scope of this limited essay. Suffice it to summarize this transplantation by quoting Norbet Elias:

Whereas previously people had belonged, whether from birth or from a certain point in their lives, to a certain group for ever, so that their I-identity was permanently bound to their we-identity and often overshadowed by it, in the course of time the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme. The we-identity of people, though it certainly always remained present, was now often overshadowed or concealed in consciousness by their I-identity (1998, p. 213).

The United States is recognized, without doubt, for its cult of individualism, so it can be argued that the disproportionate egocentric bias finds its epitome here. The culture revolves around the freedom to choose how to satisfy one’s own needs, which while having a positive effect on the human spirit can also promote an anti-social attitude of competition and isolation instead of collaboration. Of what consequence is this bias to the development of empathy? According to a cognitive-developmental approach to morality, such as that espoused by Piaget and Kohlberg, morality develops from early stages of superficiality and self-centration to higher stages of decentration and eventually moral reciprocity (Gibbs, 2002, p. 17). This means that it is expected that young children will focus on situations only egocentrically or superficially (i.e., by paying attention only to the salient aspects of a situation, those that appeal to the self), and that they will find it hard to empathize with others or be able to assume their plight because they are exclusively centered on, or preoccupied with, themselves. This is a natural reaction to the world for a child, and it might even be essential for the survival of the adult individual. However, it is expected that adults, unlike children, will be able to engage more fully in decentration, or adopting the perspective of others as a way to empathize with them. In other words, adults can be expected to interpret a situation not only from the perspective of their own needs, but from the perspective of others. The disproportionate egocentric bias works against this process by making it culturally permissible to indulge in an un-empathic behavior at the expense of pro-social behavior.

The second bias, the bias towards mediated experience, explains the technological mechanisms that facilitate the first bias (the bias towards disproportionate egocentrism). Modern communication technologies and media facilitate telepresence, or the experience of being somewhere without having to be physically there. This mediated interaction with the external world can be accomplished from the safety of our rooms. While it increases our access to people and places beyond the limits of our physical reach, it also reduces the richness of that communicative experience to whatever is allowed by bandwidth (telepresence can also, in theory, increase the reach of our empathy by enabling decentration, but that’s a separate discussion). The external world accessed through telepresence, therefore, becomes a simulacrum—something contrived and artificial. Emotional indicators are reduced to abstract signs (smileys, for example), in contrast to the hundreds of small body gestures that our senses are able to decipher. This technological mediation, I hypothesize, along with the disproportionate egocentric bias, leads us to make superficial emotional connections with a focus towards satisfying our individual needs. Telepresence is entirely egocentric, in that it allows us to be selective about whom to engage and when according to our own interests (That we can train those interests to be more empathically and morally oriented is a pedagogical issue that I will not address here. Suffice it to say for the moment that even more ‘immersive’ technologies will not result in an increase in empathy without conscious efforts to reconceptualize telepresence).

If the egocentric bias makes it culturally permissible to focus on our needs at the expense of the needs of others, the bias towards mediated experience further justifies this shift. It accomplishes this by making it technologically possible to reduce interaction with the external world to mediated representations through which I can focus not on the emotions of others, but on my own reaction to the emotions of others. Importance is transferred to how *I* feel about the plight of others, represented through layers of mediation. Action (no longer classifiable as moral) becomes centered on how I can alleviate my own distress, not the distress of others, which results in further egocentrism. The last bias to be discussed here, the bias against diversity, explains the natural outcome of this process, and closes the loop.

As Gibbs points out, “difference impedes empathy” (2003, p. 11). We tend to feel empathy towards those who are similar to us, which makes sense in terms of guaranteeing the survival and prosperity of our social group. But what happens when the welfare of each group depends on the welfare of the others? What technology and progress have made possible—the interconnectedness of all human beings—we have not yet been able to support empathically. The United States is a case in point, although by no means the only one. Because of its history, the U.S. has always been a nation conformed of different peoples. But empathy has not emerged easily between the newer immigrant groups and the established groups and social classes. Tensions have not always been resolved in peaceful ways. The modern project of multiculturalism has attempted to create a positive discourse around difference, with various degrees of success. But despite the rhetoric, difference in the U.S. continues to be something that, at best, needs to be tolerated (like one tolerates a bad smell), and at worst, eliminated. Again, the bias towards mediated experience has exacerbated the problem by extending the formation of communities of interest and identity even when they are no longer spatially possible, so that confronting difference becomes even less of an eventuality. Egocentrism, reinforced through mediated experiences, results in a mistrust of anything different, which promotes un-empathic dispositions and in turn furthers egocentrism. It’s a vicious cycle.
Having analyzed these biases, I will now attempt to briefly propose strategies for breaking that cycle, and for nurturing empathy and morality in the U.S. These suggestions revolve around the recognition that decentration, or social perspective taking, promotes pro-social behavior (Gibbs, 2003, p. 3).

  • Abandon discourse of national exceptionalism. While ethnocentrism is not an exclusive U.S. phenomenon, it has become particularly noxious when combined with national exceptionalism, or the belief that the U.S. is unique, omnipotent, and without par (summarized by the uniquely American sentiment: ‘U.S. # 1’). It’s almost as if internal differences can only be superceded when it comes to defending the role of the U.S. as the world’s only superpower. The average American’s dismal knowledge of the rest of the world (perpetuated by the educational system) mirrors an un-empathic disposition towards it: Why should I learn about something I don’t care about, and why should I care about something I don’t know anything about?  Empathy is also prevented from developing by a defense mechanism of victim blaming: If the rest of the world is a miserable place, it is because it is lazy. This defense mechanism also serves to hide the ways in which the U.S., as a superpower, is responsible for some of the misery in the world.
  • Make inductions part of the public discourse. Inductions occur, according to Hoffman (2002, p. 143), when parents try to make the child aware of the perspective of the Other, pointing out the Other’s distress, and identifying how the child’s actions cause such distress. In other words, inductions force the subject to face the conflict between his or her own egoistic desires and the Other’s needs. Inductions are rehearsals for moral encounters (ibid, p. 144), and eventually they disappear as the subject becomes able to empathize without the need of the external induction. Public figures (from the political, religious, educational and entertainment spheres) could play a key role in making this process more culturally prevalent (provided they themselves are capable of empathy).
  • Seek to balance mediated experiences with direct experiences. Metacognitive tools need to be developed for transforming mediated experiences into experiences of decentration that can result in empathy. Mediated experiences should be accorded their place in our networked societies, but they should be seen in the context of larger systems of action. In essence, this means finding ways for us to re-engage our immediate surroundings, with all their diversity: Instead of decentering ourselves to empathize with people far away (which, as I argued, ultimately leads to focusing on our own emotions), we need to decenter ourselves to empathize with the people around us. This kind of empathy has firmer foundations, which can then be exported in more sustainable ways to mediated experiences.
  • Seek a balance between empathic emotions and reason as basis for morality. Part of the problem is that morality is seen as a set of absolute principles that can be applied to any situation. The rational aspect of morality is emphasized over its emotional aspects. And yet, it is the emotional aspects that allow us to apply morality in a contextualized way. Emotions respond to the specifics of a situation, whereas trying to approach a moral dilemma from an exclusively rational perspective will ignore the specifics. At the same time, focusing entirely on emotions can result in relativism. Recognizing the value of ‘rational emotions,’ or a balance between emotions and reason, is a step towards creating a more empathic society.

Having briefly enumerated these suggestions, I realize they must appear incredibly naïve and unrealistic. Perhaps so. Adapting them would mean undertaking the seemingly impossible task of changing the power relations that maintain things the way they are, at a time when the country seems more determined than ever to head in the direction that it is currently going. However, to continue down the path of devalued empathy is only to ensure our own demise, so we must try.

British Broadcasting Company. (2003, May/June). What the World thinks of America. Retrieved November 4, 2004 from

Cable News Network. (2003, November 2). U.S. President / National / Exit Poll. Retrieved on November 4, 2004 from

Elias, N. (1998).  The Norbert Elias reader: a biographical selection. (J. Goudsblom, Ed.), Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers

Gibbs, J.C. (2003).  Moral development and reality: beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman.  Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE

Hoffman, M.L. (2002).  Empathy and moral development: implications for caring and justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marcuse, H. (2002).  One-dimensional man: studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. [New ed.]. Routledge classics. London: Routledge

Norbert Elias: Technology and Momentary Lapses Into Barbarism

In his essay Technization and Civilization, Norbert Elias discusses how technologies can bring about more civilized as well as more barbaric behaviors.

Because societies and technologies are mutually-determining (they shape one another), we cannot draw a simple cause-effect relationship between technization and civilization. According to Elias, technologies regulate behavior, requiring more civilized conduct, but technologies are produced by humans living in civilizations, so neither technization nor civilization can be said to be the first in the process.

But Elias’ more interesting observation is that “it can indeed be observed that a spurt in technization and a spurt in civilization quite often go hand in hand in societies. [But] It quite often happens that a counter-spurt also occurs at the newly-reached stage of technization, a spurt towards de civilization.” (Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Mennell (editors). The Norbert Elias Reader: a biographical selection. 1998: Blackwell Publishers p. 214)

Elias considers the example of the development of motor-vehicle technologies. Nowadays we can all assume, for the most part, that all drivers will adhere to certain civilized behavior (by ‘civilized,’ Elias means a degree of standardization that allows more complex societies to function; he does not mean ‘civilized’ as in ‘nice’) . However, the introduction of this technology did not proceed smoothly. Car accidents and fatalities were much higher (in relation to the number of cars on the road) than today. People got hurt. People abused the new technology. Drivers, passengers, car manufacturers, and civic authorities had to come up with external constraints to correct this ‘uncivilized’ behavior.

The move towards decivilization introduced by new technizations makes me wonder about our experiences with technologies such as the internet. Is the prominent prescence of pornography, or the ease with which people feel they can ‘flame’ others online, or the abandonment to meaningless virtuality, signs of such decivilization?

The following excerpts from Elias are a useful reminder of the opportunities as well as the challenges that we face in the information age:

The advance in technization has brought people all over the globe closer together. But the development of the human habitus is not keeping with the development of technization and its consequences. Technization encourages humankind to move closer together and to unify. The more this happens, the more will the differences in human groups become apparent to human awareness. (ibid, p. 224)

The triumphant advance of the aeroplane [or the internet, for that matter], as a medium for global traffic in peace and war, has decisively contributed to the growing interdependence of all states on the globe and, at the same time, is also its product. It has enormous civilizing influence, by bringing people from all regions closer to each other…. [However,] [n]o group of people is pleased when it realizes that it is now more dependent on others than before. (ibid, p. 225)

This last quote is not really about technization, but I found it very inspirational:

The world in which we live is an emergent world, it is humankind on the move. We obscure our view of the process that we as humankind experience, if instead of accepting the world as it really is, we judge it as if it were an eternally unchanging world… That is what one does when one represents the world as bad or good, as civilized or as barbaric. Humanity is in a great collective learning process… We can see today that the task that lies before us is to work towards the pacification and organized unification of humankind. Let us not be discouraged in this work by the knowledge that this task will not in our lifetime progress to fruition from the experimental period in which it is now. It is certainly worthwhile and highly meaningful to set to work in an unfinished world that will go on beyond oneself. (ibid, pp. 228-229)

The limits of e-Democracy: Between Public and Mass

The use of electronic means of communication for expressly political ends is creating a lot of buzz about eDemocracy, Emergent Democracy, eCitizenship or whatever one wants to call it. Opinions about what exactly eDemocracy will engender range from narratives about enhancing the current democratic process with new ways of engagement and participation, to a total reconceptualization of how society should govern itself. In general, most proponents of eDemocracy assume the following:

-eDemocracy will increase participation in politics and will make politics matter again.

-The power of eDemocracy will lie not in its ability to connect average people to their representatives, but in allowing average people to collaborate, organize, and help themselves.

-eDemocracy will work because we finally have access to low-cost tools to manage the volume and complexity of information that we must pay attention to in order to act as well-informed citizens.

-We are just waiting for the next eDemocracy killer app, the Napster of internet politics, to bring it all together.

Now, behind most of these assumptions is the idea that eDemocracy will revolutionize politics because it will re-empower the public. If the public consists of individuals in dialogue with each other, it stands to reason that the internet–which we are discovering is a great tool for communication–can greatly enhance the democratic process.

Unfortunately, rumors of the demise of the public are largely true. C. Wright Mills, in his book The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), analyzed how the ideal of the public–which plays a fundamental role in how U.S. democracy is portrayed–is a waning illusion. The oft-repeated story of how the public works goes something like this:

Innumerable discussion circles are knit together by mobile people who carry opinions from one to another, and struggle for the power of larger command. The public is thus organized into associations and parties, each representing a set of viewpoints, each trying to acquire a place in the Congress, where the discussion continues. Out of the little circles of people talking with one another, the larger forces of social movements and political parties develop; and the discussion of opinion is the important phase in a total act by which public affairs are conducted… The public, so conceived, is the loom of classic, eighteenth-century democracy; discussion is at once the threads and the shuttle tying the discussion circles together. It lies at the root of the conception of authority by discussion, and it is based upon the hope that truth and justice will somehow come out of society as a great apparatus of free discussion. The people are presented with problems. They discuss them. They decide on them. They formulate viewpoints. These viewpoints are organized, and they compete. One viewpoint ‘wins out.’ Then the people act out this view, or their representatives are instructed to act it out, and this they promptly do. (pp. 299-300)

It is easy to see how, for a group of people enchanted with the idea of new online spaces for discussion, this narrative fits perfectly with the project of eDemocracy. To believe that eDemocracy will be actualized by emergent, viral-spreading open access discursive communities is to uphold the illusion that we live in the best democracy in the world (and even if it isn’t the best, it’s still much better than what is out there). However, as Mills argues, there are serious fractures in this model, fractures which began to undermine the power of the public a long time ago; fractures which, almost imperceptibly, facilitated the transformation of the community of publics into a society of masses.

To be fair, the mass and the public are (as Mills argues) extreme ends of a scale. We are neither one nor the other completely. I think it is in reviewing which characteristics eDemocracy (as currently conceptualized) shares with the concepts of the public and the mass that we may begin to explore what might be useful or alienating about it. To do this, I propose examing the main characteristics of the public and the mass that Mills describes, and assessing what they have in common with the internet.

According to Mills (pp. 303-304):

(1) In a public, “virtually as many people express opinions as receive them.” In a mass, “far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media.” [At the moment, we’ve got a very vocal online minority and a majority not interested in listening. Most communication is one-to-many, and intended to reach like-minded people who can tune out what they don’t want to hear.]

(2) In a public, “communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public.” In a mass, “the communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect.” [Online communication facilitates dialogue and interactivity, but we have discovered that there is a population threshold beyond which a public of equally-weighed voices becomes a mass where a voice gets lost in the noise. The technology might scale as much as we want it, but the quality of dialogue doesn’t.]

(3) In a public, “opinion formed by such discussion [see #2] readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against–if necessary–the prevailing system of authority.” In a mass, “the realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action.” [At the moment, most action engendered online remains trapped in virtuality and does not translate into action upon the world; even when it does, decision-makers can dismiss it easily (such as anti-war protests which, although of an unprecedented magnitude thanks to the internet, were still ignored by those who represent the people).]

(4) In a public, “authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.” A mass, on the other hand, “has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.” [At the moment, this is where the battle is being fought. The internet has allowed us to create spaces for the free discussion of ideas, and these spaces co-exist with the corporate and government sources of information from which the majority of people still receive their news. But even with the alternative news sources found on the internet, the machinery of the mass media has desensitized us to the possibilities and power of dialogue.]

So what do we do in order to ensure that eDemocracy (or whatever we end up calling the application of technology to the realm of politics) is not just merely the virtualization of politics, but a way to support meaningful political involvement? Here are some suggestions, which are open to debate:

-Recognize that participation in eDemocracy needs to go beyond online voting, polling and discussion.

-We need to be aware of which aspects of the internet are characteristic of a mass medium, and which can support the creation of a community of publics. We need to figure out how best to use both.

-We need to acknowlege that tools that allow people to organize themselves are not as important as the agendas that people are supposed to pursue once they organize themselves. We need not just programmers, designers and enterpreneurs, but citizens who are politically conscious and active.

– We need to acknowlege that getting information about the world is not as important as acting upon the world. We have to move away from the idea of defining individuals as intersections of information circuits and back to the idea of individuals as ensembles of social relations, to paraphrase Lorenzo Simpson. We have to ask ourselves honestly to what extent ‘social software’ is not in fact an oxymoron.

-We have to admit that there will be no Napster-like application that will magically fix or improve democracy. This means abondoning the worldview that technological and scientific progress can fix any problem, given enough time, and that we must therefore uncritically support and trust it.

Since the modernization of our society, the challenge has been for people to find ways of ontologically reintegrating themselves into the world (to paraphrase H.S. Bhola), and finding meaningful ways of acting upon it. Technology can play a part in this process, but first we must ensure that we can distinguish between sustainable applications of technology and those applications that merely alienate us even more from the world by creating the illusion that virtual participation in something is just as meaningful as actual involvement.

Technology and Blindness to Suffering

Surely there is no more blatant sign of dehumanization than the inability to react to suffering. And yet, underscoring technological progress throughout the ages is the drive to obliterate the experience of suffering. We want to be immune to the suffering of others, and we want to be immune to our own suffering.

Pierre Flourens, a French physician living in the times of Victor Hugo, wrote the following about the effects of anaesthetics:

“I still cannot bring myself to assent to the use of chloroform in general surgical practice. As you may know, I have devoted extensive study to this drug and as a result of animal experiments have been one of the first to describe its specific characteristics. My scruples are based on the simple fact that operations under chloroform, and probably also under the other known forms of narcosis, amount to a deception. The agents act only on certain motor and coordination centers and on the residual capacity of the nerve substance. Under the influence of chloroform it loses a significant part of its ability to record traces of impressions but not the capacity for feeling as such. On the contrary, my observations indicate that in conjunction with a general paralysis of innervation, pain is felt still more keenly than in the normal state. The deception of the public results from the inability of the patient to remember the events once the operation is completed. If we told our patients the truth, it is likely that none of them would opt for the drug, whereas now, as a result of our silence, they generally insist on its use.”

The above was quoted by Horkheimer and Adorno in their classic Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 2002). In the context of the mindset that the Enlightenment made possible, they liken our willingness to “tune out” during painful operations to our need to “tune out” during the infliction of pain and destruction upon others and nature:

“[O]ur attitude toward human beings, and toward all creatures, is no different to that toward ourselves after a successful operation: blindness to torment. For cognition, the space separating us from others would mean the same thing as the time between us and the suffering in our own past: an insurmountable barrier… [T]he perennial dominion over nature, medical and nonmedical technology, derives its strength from such blindness; it would be made possible only by oblivion. Loss of memory as the transcendental condition of science.”(pp. 190-191)

Langdon Winner referred to this same phenomenon as technology giving us a license to forget. (Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, MIT Press, 1977). Is this forgetting too high a price to pay? Owning up to the suffering created by our actions and lifestyles is a responsibility that we will abdicate only at the cost of our own humanity. For, as history shows, dissassociating seemingly moral ends from the immoral means employed to achieve those ends has only brought more horrific technologies of destruction, applied by our “leaders” with more and more impunity, and with increasing consent from numb, apathetic masses.