Tag Archives: social media

The Twitter Revolution Must Die

tear gas canisterHave you ever heard of the Leica Revolution? No?

That’s probably because folks who don’t know anything about “branding” insist on calling it the Mexican Revolution. An estimated two million people died in the long struggle (1910-1920) to overthrow a despotic government and bring about reform. But why shouldn’t we re-name the revolution not after a nation or its people, but after the “social media” that had such a great impact in making the struggle known all over the world: the photographic camera? Even better, let’s name the revolution not after the medium itself, but after the manufacturer of the cameras that were carried by people like Hugo Brehme to document the atrocities of war. Viva Leica, cabrones!

My sarcasm is, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to point out how absurd it is to refer to events in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution, and so on. What we call things, the names we use to identify them, has incredible symbolic power, and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands with struggles for human dignity. I agree with Jillian York when she says:

“… I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight.  But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

Granted, as Joss Hands points out, there appears to be more skepticism than support for the idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are primarily responsible for igniting the uprisings in question. But that hasn’t stopped the internet intelligentsia from engaging in lengthy arguments about the role that technology is playing in these historic developments. One camp, comprised of people like Clay Shirky, seem to make allowances for what Cory Doctorow calls the “internet’s special power to connect and liberate.” On the other side, authors like Ethan Zuckerman, Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have proposed that while digital media can play a role in organizing social movements, it cannot be counted on to build lasting alliances, or even protect net activists once authorities start using the same tools to crack down on dissent.

Both sides are, perhaps, engaging in a bit of technological determinism–one by embellishing the agency of technology, the other by diminishing it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, and philosophers of technology settled the dispute of whether technology shapes society (technological determinism) or society shapes technology (cultural materialism) a while ago: the fact is that technology and society mutually and continually determine each other.

So why does the image of a revolution enabled by social media continue to grab headlines and spark the interest of Western audiences, and what are the dangers of employing such imagery? My fear is that the hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube revolution performs two functions: first, it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts, and second, it whitewashes the role of capitalism in suppressing democracy.

To elaborate, the discourse of a social media revolution is a form of self-focused empathy in which we imagine the other (in this case, a Muslim other) to be nothing more than a projection of our own desires, a depoliticized instant in our own becoming. What a strong affirmation of ourselves it is to believe that people engaged in a desperate struggle for human dignity are using the same Web 2.0 products we are using! That we are able to form this empathy largely on the basis of consumerism demonstrates the extent to which we have bought into the notion that democracy is a by-product of media products for self-expression, and that the corporations that create such media products would never side with governments against their own people.

It is time to abandon this fantasy, and to realize that although the internet’s original architecture encouraged openness, it is becoming increasingly privatized and centralized. While it is true that an internet controlled by a handful of media conglomerates can still be used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and all over the world), we need to reconsider the role that social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter will play in these struggles.

The clearest way to understand this role is to simply look at the past and current role that corporations have played in “facilitating” democracy elsewhere. Consider the above image of the tear gas canister fired against Egyptians demanding democracy. The can is labeled Made in U.S.A.

But surely it would be a gross calumny to suggest that ICT are on the same level as tear gas, right? Well, perhaps not. Today, our exports encompass not only weapons of war and riot control used to keep in power corrupt leaders, but tools of internet surveillance like Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the Egyptian government to track down and “disappear” dissidents.

Even without citing examples of specific Web companies that have aided governments in the surveillance and persecution of their citizens (Jillian York documents some of these examples), my point is simply that the emerging market structure of the internet is threatening its potential to be used by people as a tool for democracy. The more monopolies (a market structure characterized by a single seller) control access and infrastructure, and the more monopsonies (a market structure characterized by a single buyer) control aggregation and distribution of user-generated content, the easier it is going to be for authorities to pull the plug, as just happened in Egypt.

I’m reminded of the first so-called Internet Revolution. Almost a hundred years after the original Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched an uprising in southern Mexico to try to address some of the injustices that the first revolution didn’t fix, and that remain unsolved to this day. But back in 1994, Subcomandante Marcos and the rest of the EZLN didn’t have Facebook profiles, or use Twitter to communicate or organize. Maybe their movement would have been more effective if they had. Or maybe it managed to stay alive because of the decentralized nature of the networks the EZLN and their supporters used.

My point is this: as digital networks grow and become more centralized and privatized, they increase opportunities for participation, but they also increase inequality, and make it easier for authorities to control them.

Thus, the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to continue the struggle after the network has been shut off. In fact, the struggle is going to be against those who own and control the network. If the fight can’t continue without Facebook and Twitter, then it is doomed. But I suspect the people of Iran, Tunisia and Egypt (unlike us) already know this, out of sheer necessity.

[Ulises A. Mejias is assistant professor at the State University of New York, College at Oswego. His book on digital networks and inequality is coming out in Fall 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.]

[UPDATE: This post has been linked to by Forbes.com and The Huffington Post, mentioned by Inside Higher Ed and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, reproduced in the French online magazine OWNI, the P2P Foundation wiki, and published in The Post-Standard‘s opinion section (central NY’s leading newspaper).]

Networks and the quantification of sociality

Wikipedia_mosaicWhat follows is NOT intended to be a comprehensive review of the European Computing and Philosophy (ECAP) and the New Network Theory (NNT) conferences, which took place in the Netherlands this June (for good summaries of NNT, see the Masters of Media blog or Lilly Nguyen’s post). Instead, my intention is to briefly discuss some of what I heard in the context of my own research, putting some of those arguments in conversation with my own, so to speak. I apologize in advance to all the authors I’m citing because this selective form of quoting will undoubtedly reduce and perhaps even misrepresent their original arguments. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, correct?

My remarks are organized into three major areas having to do with network metaphors, network metrics, and network critiques.

Networks: Metaphors or models?

My own presentations at the two conferences were framed in the context of the current shift from using the network as a metaphor to describe the social to using it as a model for organizing sociality (putting people into buckets called ‘nodes’). This theme of the limits of the network as metaphor was a recurring one, specially during NNT. Marianne van den Boomen (all authors are from the NNT conference, unless otherwise indicated), for instance, discussed the tensions created when we try to stretch the metaphor of virtual community (a troubled metaphor to begin with) to encompass the kind of social structures engendered by Web 2.0. According to van den Boomen, the very label “Web 2.0” suggests a metaphor that at least acknowledges the role of software in forming social structures. But the question is whether the network —or any other metaphor, for that matter— can adequately describe social realities. Part of the problem, according to her, is that new media can no longer be associated with a stable ontology. If I understood her correctly, whereas before we had ‘stable’ categories of media, new media is too vast and too amorphous, too difficult to pin down. New media is more about the processes of transmediation and transcoding than about a particular kind of tool or industry, so it is problematic to use such an polymorphous concept to metaphorically describe “stable” social and cultural structures. If anything, as Mirko Tobias Schafer (and others) suggested, the network functions more as epistemology than metaphor, blurring the distinction between information infrastructure and social relations. The network, in other words, does not describe or represent our social world, it is how we understand and construct our social realities.

Bernhard Rieder enlisted some of the tensions inherent in working with the network as metaphor or model: Should we describe its structure topologically (in terms of broad ‘areas’ and components) or through thick anthropological description, as Actor-Network Theory (ANT) would have us do? Is the network static or evolving, tangible or abstract? How are network configurations caused? Should network critique be localized, or overarching? I understood Rieder as suggesting that we approach the network as a methodology to explain the social, not as an ontology to take certain forms of sociality for granted. The network as question, not as answer, in other words.

Network metrics: Quantifying the social?

But is the methodology that the network suggests biased (dare I say, corrupted) by a form of scientism that subordinates the kinds of questions we allow ourselves to ask of the network to the kinds of answers we can, quite literally, compute? What I see in this latest ‘social turn’ of media is a propensity to let the computational functions that the code can perform define the nature of the social functions we can perform. Social is what code does. In the Web 2.0 rush to innovate, to re-invent sociality with code, there is no room for asking what aspects of sociality to formalize, and how much.

Perhaps, as Noortje Marres suggested, the problem began when ANT 1.0, which started as a way to explain technosocial systems, became a bit arrogant and re-imagined itself as ANT 2.0, capable of explaining anything and everything. Yes, as Valdis Krebs stated, the network as method allows us to map and measure what was formerly invisible, and this data may indeed tell us something new about the way we perform our sociality. But from there it is a slippery slope to thinking that sociality can be quantified and reduced to network functions.

The kind of network logic that Giovanni Boniolo (ECAP) is in the process of formulating describes the relation between nodes in terms of logical propositions. Relations between elements in a database can be expressed through these logic statements, allowing us to map the network through logical operations. This form of network quantification is meant for application in the natural sciences, but how long before such methods become the research standards in the social sciences? Aren’t the algorithms embedded in the code of social media already the precursors of this reductive logic?

Moreover, behind the social markup schemes that Alan Liu proposed to calculate or quantify the social character of networks is the belief, shared by Warren Sack and others, that new forms of object-oriented democracies or publics are not only possible, but desirable. After all, as Noshir Contractor suggested, it’s all about relational metadata: “it’s not who you know, but what who you know knows.” Being is subordinated or reduced to informational value. What will democracies and publics look like under such models of efficiency?

Towards a critical theory of networks

According to Jeroen van den Hoven (ECAP), technology —by virtue of its affordances— presents us with a form of epistemic enslavement: deferment to the authority of the system. Epistemic enslavement in networks takes the form of what I call nodocentrism: nodes are capable of knowing only other nodes. As Wendy Chun puts it, we need to question the kind of network logic that seeks to eradicate gaps (the paranodal) at all costs. In this context, she argues that we need a critique of “openness” as an end (this is an important question: to what extent do open source, open content, p2p, etc., contribute to this ethos to “close all gaps”?). According to her, mapping a network can be enlightening, but can only happen if we surrender ourselves fully to the logic of the network. Thus, the best way to map the network might be to refuse the map altogether. Thus, it seems to me that any useful critique of networks needs to begin with an exploration of their indeterminacy: not only their borders, but the very paranodal spaces that help define them.

Perhaps a way to begin to formulate such a critique is to address how network logic is inadequate for locating suffering in social networks. This seemed to be part of Thomas Berker’s plea for a meaningful and non-trivial theory of suffering within the network. Power Laws and Long Tails might explain why there are elite nodes and less-fortunate nodes, but do they address the meaning of inequality in the network? Can they suggest a politics to correct it? Or are these concepts a new opium that allows the masses to think of themselves as a new elite, as I thought Ekaterina Taratuta (ECAP) was hinting at?

[photo: An emergent mosaic of Wikipedian activity, cc: silvertje]

Rebellion by Numbers


Apparently there was a revolution, and I almost missed it.

This is what happened: Somebody cracked and published the encryption key that unlocks HD DVDs, allowing for the copying of the discs. The code started appearing on various websites. The Motion Picture Association of America and the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator (AACS LA) began issuing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) violation notices. Some websites attempted to censor the publication of the code. There was a massive reaction from users towards this apparent act of censorship: the more the code was being “suppressed,” the more it appeared on web sites, blogs, t-shirts, songs, etc. [For a detailed account of the controversy, see the Wikipedia article.]

I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.

The first is the way in which Web 2.0 companies have had to negotiate a balance between their corporate interest and the interests of their users. As you probably know already, after its initial attempt to censor the posts containing the code (and the subsequent ‘revolt’ by users), Digg reversed its decision and said that it would rather “go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company.” As Andrew Lih writes:

This is quite unprecedented — you basically have a multi-million dollar enterprise intimidated by its mob community into taking a stance that is rather clearly against the law.

But what you have, actually, is a Web 2.0 company (reportedly worth around $200 million USD) doing a cost-benefit analysis and realizing that losing its user base would pose a higher and more immediate risk than facing the possibility of lawsuits from “a bigger company” (I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the cost-benefit analysis does not favor the users…).

The second aspect that I find fascinating about this whole thing is the way in which the dissemination of the encryption code has been constructed as a revolutionary, subversive act —as an example of what cyber revolt looks like (establishment, beware!). I was surprised to see many of the people I read online immediately jump on the bandwagon, and gleefully proclaim our revolutionary duty to publish the numbers (one actual quote: “Hahahaha! I am breaking federal law! Hahahaha!”).

Now, I’m no friend of the DMCA. Also, I believe that breaking the law can be a powerful statement if the right social cause is invoked… But a DVD encryption key? Why not refuse to pay taxes to protest the war, or something like that? Perhaps the nature of the revolt can be explained by the demographics of the “revolutionaries”: according to Businessweek, 94% of Digg’s army of free labor are male, over 50% are IT workers in their 20s and 30s, and they earn $75,000 a year or more. Ryan Shaw calls ’em as he sees ’em:

While most of the blogosphere was atwitter over the tantrums being thrown at Digg, real injustice in Los Angeles was being ignored. After watching this video [of Police oppression during the May 1st immigration reform march] I was ashamed to be part of a community (the designers and evangelists of “Web 2.0?) which sanctimoniously promotes “people power” among the spoiled and entitled while disregarding the tightening grip of authority on the poor and disenfranchised. [see his post for links to video and newspaper articles]

We keep hearing that social media tools will help to bring about social change. So are we being overly critical of the tools just because of the communities that presently wield them? This whole affair might have at its core something rather trivial (a code to hack DVDs), but can we extrapolate some of the lessons and techniques learned to a social justice context? Or as Ethan Zuckerman asks:

What would it take to harness this sort of viral spread to harness the net in spreading human rights information? Can activists learn from the story of The Number and find ways to spread information that otherwise is suppressed or ignored in mainstream media?

I wonder what activists would compromise in this transition to cyber revolt. To begin, I doubt that experienced activists believe that all it takes is for suppressed information to reach the public. Brecht suggested that “He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news.” Today, however, he who laughs has indeed heard the bad news, but from The Daily Show.

But the thing I believe anyone interested in social change should explore more carefully are the kinds of action that information can be transformed into as it is communicated. Perhaps, as Tiziana Terranova explains in Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age (2004, Pluto Press), what we call “information” already embodies a certain containment of openness:

The first condition of a successful communication becomes that of reducing all meaning to information —that is to a signal that can be successfully replicated across a varied communication milieu with minimum alterations. (Terranova, 2004, p. 16)

When activism is defined solely in terms of the exchange of information, we are reducing the options available for acting. That is how an encryption key (information in its purest form) was easily converted into a “subversive message” whose replication and dissemination was seen as a revolutionary act. As long as we’ve had media —and I’m afraid emerging “social” media don’t pose a significant alternative— we’ve seen this dynamic: the replication of information has itself come to define what it means to act, has become the source of meaning. The individual goes from being a social actor to an intersection of information flows. She possesses more information than ever before (about global warming, about genocidal poverty, about the false pretenses under which wars are started), but all she can do is replicate and pass on this information. The purer the information (09 F9 …), the more efficient the activism.

How does social media educate? – iDC wrap up

Here is my summary of this month’s discussion at the iDC forum. The archive of the discussion can be found here.


It’s time to wrap up this discussion on the question of ‘How does social media educate?’ I would like to thank everyone who contributed to it, even by lurking! As the moderator, the one responsible for reading everything and trying to engage all opinions, I am thankful because I probably benefited the most from these exchanges. At the same time, I want to apologize if I somehow failed to fulfill my duties responsibly.

Below I offer a summary of some of the main themes I took away from the discussion.

What is social about social media?

The conversation started by questioning the term ‘social media’ itself, and wondering what the word ‘social’ is supposed to be telling us if all media is, by definition, already a social construct. Perhaps the redundancy is a good reminder that the assumptions behind the word ‘social’ are precisely what we should be dissecting. As Latour says in his book Reassembling the social, those who treat the social as a black box “have simply confused what they should explain with the explanation. They begin with society or other social aggregates, whereas one should end with them” (p. 8). In other words, one should not take the word ‘social’ as something no longer in need of explanation. When looking at various instances of the application of sociable web media in education, we need to take these social aggregates as points of departure, as what needs to be explained in the first place.

The goal, then, is to trace the interactions of humans and technologies as they go about redefining the social, inventing new forms of sociality. Just as the concept of ‘virtual reality’ (with its own set of assumptions, contradictions and delusions) helped us to question what was real, ‘social media’ should help us question what is social, how the social is being put together in the world of education.

The politics of networked participation

Interpreting the meaning of new social assemblages is not a neutral exercise that can be accomplished by means of scientific inquiry exclusively. We rely on ideologies and metanarratives to explain the impact of new media on society. Throughout this discussion, there was much debate about which framework is best suited to explain new social assemblages. There was even some arguing over which assemblages (corporate, independent, etc.) are more worthy of analysis!

One side seems to espouse a Lyotard-influenced framework that sees the increasing role that digital media play in our societies as solidifying the spread of a capitalist culture that commodifies *knowledge* by transforming it into *information* that can be easily exchanged and consumed. To us, the educational applications of sociable web media should not be analyzed without considering the ethical implications of capitalism and a market economy. This is not to say that the architectures of participation that social media engenders cannot present an authentic challenge to the dynamics of the market, even right in the middle of corporate-controlled platforms. But to fail to acknowledge the context from which these technologies emerge can only result in incomplete analyses.

Learning 2.0 – Opportunities and challenges

Depending on how it is applied, social media can be a site for a liberatory or an oppressive education. As educators and learners, we need to be aware of our own practices, simultaneously teaching and learning ‘with’ and ‘against’ social media. Simply embracing new technologies or taking for granted the pedagogical assumptions behind the new ‘Youniversity’ is not enough. The fact is that we live in a world where education is not a ‘good’ distributed equitably or always for the benefit of the learner, and some applications of social media will continue this trend. Increasingly, the ‘public’ education system is being used to separate the unproductive members of society (the ones that need to be ‘managed’ by the growing private incarceration business) from the productive ones (the ones who demonstrate compliance and aptitude for jobs in the service industry). The kinds of social media applications the latter are more likely to see will probably be in alignment with the needs of 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.” (Deleuze (1995), Negotiations, 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. Social media can be used to ensure that education for the constant student becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which –more importantly– can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ life of the individual.

Daily Kos: They Hate us for Our Freedom (the Assessment Movement in Higher Ed)

Social media literacy

For a long time, educational technologists have put their faith in technology as a way to change education, and even the world. Access to the technology is seen as the magical solution that will end disparity:

Web 2.0 can benefit the world’s poor – SciDev.Net

Unfortunately, for the reasons discussed above and during this whole month, access is not enough, and narratives of bridging the ‘digital divide’ do not help us better understand how digital technologies such as sociable web media contribute to the commodification of education.

The work of a new generation of educators and learners shows us that social media can be used to promote positive change in the world. This work demonstrates that the issue is not universal access, but rather the strategies through which those who benefit from access to social media are able to transform those benefits into benefits for the greater society, extending the value of social media beyond the privileged minorities that have access to it.

And so I end by recapitulating some of the skills I mentioned earlier in the discussion that I think we need to develop as part of a critical literacy of social media:

  • The ability to articulate the difference between open (FLOSS) and proprietary social media platforms (including how to tell when the former mutates into the latter, and what to do about it).
  • The ability to determine when it’s appropriate to use open (FLOSS) or proprietary social media platforms to promote social change with maximum effect.
  • The ability to understand the social agency of code of a particular technology, i.e., how the program promotes, constricts or redefines social functions through its affordances.
  • The ability to identify the benefits of contributing to a social media environment that operates as a gift economy versus a market economy (including the ability to identify social media environments that operate as both simultaneously).
  • The ability to articulate in personal terms how networked participation is changing the relationship with one’s local environment, and be able to calculate tradeoffs and assume responsibility for one’s choices.

I hope you can help us continue to refine these, within or outside of the iDC forum.


The tyranny of nodes: Towards a critique of social network theories

NetworksNetworks have become a powerful metaphor to explain the social realities of our times. Everywhere we look there are attempts to explain all kinds of social formations in terms of networks: citizen networks, corporate networks, gamer networks, terrorist networks, learning networks… and so on. Information and communication technologies—in particular the internet—and the structures they enable have greatly influenced how we imagine the social. It’s similar to what happened in cognitive science when the computer was taken as the favored metaphor for explaining how the brain works, except that now we are attempting to explain how the social works.

But is there something anti-social about imagining and organizing our social realities in terms of networks?

Most critiques of the rise of the network as a model for organizing social realities focus on what it has replaced: tightly-woven, location-specific communities (a community itself can be defined as a particular kind of network, but for the moment let’s stick to these conventional terms). Wellman (2002) traces how social formations have developed from densely-knit traditional communities to sparsely-knit but still location-specific “Glocalized” networks (think cities connected to other cities), to networks unbound to any specific physical space, or what he calls Networked Individualism, where “people remain connected, but as individuals rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household.” (p. 5)

Thus, an important characteristic of Networked Individualism is the overcoming of physical space. Today’s networks connect individuals regardless of the distance between them. This has led various authors to announce—some with glee and some with regret —the Death of Distance. But more than its elimination, Networked Individualism promotes the reconfiguration of distance: it is not only our relatonship to the far that is changed, but also our relationship to the near. Of course, early on critics sensed a threat to the near in this reconfiguration, and saw in Networked Individualism the destruction of communal location-specific forms of sociality (i.e., the irrelevancy of the near). However, this has not proven to be necessarily the case, as Network Individualism can play a part in (re)connecting people to the local. The network then also becomes a model for “reapproaching nearness” (Mejias, 2005), with the added benefit that nearness now encompasses new forms of global awareness.

But this is where it starts to get tricky. Reapproaching the local thorough the network is not simply a case of arriving right back where we started after a process of dislocation and re-location. It’s not simply reaching our nose through the back of our head. The near that the network delivers is a slightly different near, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

It’s true that our relation to the near has always been regulated by some thing or other. Mediation between the individual and the world is not an invention of the network. But the point is to try to understand how the network mediates our understanding of the world, and how the network’s particular kind of mediation competes or participates with other forms of sociality.

My thesis is that the network undermines productive forms of sociality by over-privileging the node. It might be difficult to see this because nodes are not anti-social (they thrive by forming links to other nodes), nor are they anti-local (they link to nodes in their immediate surrounding just as easily as they link to other nodes). But what I am trying to say is that to the extent that the network is composed of nodes and connections between nodes, it discriminates against the space between the nodes, it turns this space into a black box, a blind spot. In other words, networks promote nodocentrism. In this reconfiguration of distance, new ‘nears’ become available, but the ‘far’ becomes the space between nodes. To ignore this dark matter is to ignore the very stuff on which the network is suspended, much like the fish ignoring the water around it.

How is internodal space collapsed? If roads and highways connect any two nodes, they also allow for the commuter to quickly bypass the space between the nodes. Those locations may be nodes in other networks, but from the perspective of the two nodes being connected, they do not matter. Of course, for networks unbound by physicality, the nature of what is black boxed is different. Wellman (2002) writes:

The Internet both provides a ramp onto the global information highway and strengthens local links within neighborhoods and households. For all its global access, the Internet reinforces stay-at-homes. Glocalization occurs, both because the Internet makes it easy to contact many neighbors, and because fixed, wired Internet connections tether users to home and office desks. (p. 4)

The point here is not so much that the Internet forces people to stay at home, and that it black boxes one’s surroundings. After all, the promise of pervasive computing and ‘the internet of things’ (incorporating objects outside the network into it) is that nodes becomes physically unbound, mobile, “ubiquitous.” The point is that instead of stay-at-home, the Internet reinforces stay-in-network. One can have all the interlinking of nodes one wants both at a local and global level, but one must remain in the network; one must adopt the network’s ontology of what constitutes a node, how links between nodes are to be established, and how to collapse the space between nodes (and I’m not even going to go, for a change, into issues of who controls and regulates the network). The network is an epistemology, a way of interpreting the world, a model for organizing reality.

We are told not to fuss about the space between nodes, because everything is a potential node and can be added to the network. Actor-network theory tells us to ‘follow the actors’ to uncover what kind of links they form with other nodes, thus giving us the framework to consider everything a node. But a network is the opposite of continuous space, so no matter how many nodes we add there will always be, necessarily, space between nodes. Without that space, there would simply be no network.

So what are the consequences of interpreting the social as a network? According to Vandenberghe (2002), scientific explanations of social realities as networks flatten the richness of symbolism and replace it with causality, reducing interaction to economic exchange governed purely by interest. In other words, social network theories fail to account for the ontological differences between humans and non humans, explaining human agency in dehumanized terms:

Being-in-the-world among humans and non humans is systematically displaced by a formal, atomistic, intellectualistic and pseudo-economic analysis of the vulgar interests of humans who link up with other humans and non humans, translating their interests in a reciprocal exploitation of each other’s activity for the satisfaction of the personal interests of each of the parties involved. Humans are thus no longer seen as co-operative ants, but as egoistic ‘r.a.t.s’ – i.e. as rational action theorists who behave like ‘centres of calculation’, strategically associating and dissociating humans and non humans alike, pursuing their own political ends by economic means. Conclusion: when science enters in action, meaningful action disappears and all we are left with is a pasteurized and desymbolized world of strategically acting dehumanized humans, or humants. (p. 55, my emphasis)

Not only are such explanations bound to yield limited understandings of the world, but when actualized as models for organizing the social, they institutionalize an individualistic form of interest as the only viable motive for cooperation. It might not seem like networked individualism is anti-social at first, because networks thrive on forming social links. But in the long term, the effect of reducing the social to transactions of capital (even if it is non-monetary ‘social’ capital) is detrimental, since it subordinates the social to the rules of exchange. At that point, as Vandenberghe argues, “the economy is no longer embedded in the society… society is embedded in the economy” (p. 58).

The tyranny imposed by social network theories is that a node acknowledges only other nodes, and can relate to those nodes only in terms of commodified exchange. If something is not a node, it cannot be engaged in exchange, and therefore it has no value. Nodes take for granted the internodal space that supports the network (and it is often a question of literally “supporting” the network through the labor and decisions that happen in those dark internodal spaces). ‘So what?’ some might ask. Surely, we cannot pay attention to everything, and as a result we have developed self-interested strategies (predating networks) for making some things more relevant than others. My point is that although self-interest might be a functional principle to organize networks, even at a local level, it might not be sustainable as the basis for a social ethics, which requires a degree of selfless engagement. If we are going to go with the network metaphor, we need a praxis and an ethics, for engaging with the world beyond our interests, which means accounting for the space between nodes, becoming invested in the non-nodal.


Mejias, U. 2005, Re-approaching nearness: Online communication and its place in praxis. First Monday, vol. 10, no. 3. Retrieved April 28, 2005 from http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_3/mejias/index.html

Vandenberghe, F. (2002). Reconstructing Humants: A Humanist Critique of Actant- Network Theory. Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 19(5/6): 51–67. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE.

Wellman, B. (2002). Little boxes, glocalization, and networked individualism. In M. Tanabe, P. van den Besselaar & T. Ishida (Eds.), Digital cities II: Computational and sociological approaches (pp. 10-25). Berlin: Springer. Accessed on October 3, 2006 from http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/littleboxes/littlebox.PDF
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Spectacular Feast: Social Media and Ultimate Consumerism

Cannibal_gummiesI was reading Anti-Oedipus, minding my own business, when I came across this marvelous anthropological observation describing what the chief of a tribe does with surplus food:

“The chief converts this perishable wealth into imperishable prestige through the medium of spectacular feasting. The ultimate consumers are in this way the original producers.” (Leach, 1966, p. 89; quoted in Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 150, my emphasis)

The quote struck me because of the degree to which it can serve to describe the current relationship between social media as a means of production and what we produce with it. In essence, this single quote has given me a nearly-perfect metaphor to articulate what I have been struggling to say since I suggested that production is the new consumption: Hi-tech capitalism (aka, the chief) transforms (commodifies) perishable wealth (social capital) into imperishable goods (money and market prestige) in a spectacular feast in which we (the original producers of the wealth) become its ultimate consumers. And consider the appropriateness of the word ultimate here, signifying both the end of the process —when something that was outside of the market is finally put in the market— as well as the most consummate form of consumerism —paying for things we ourselves produce, and that need not be commodified in the first place… Ultimate consumerism. Since Marx, we have understood that the ‘beauty’ of capitalism is that those whose labor is alienated end up financing capital’s ventures as well: I work at a car factory so I can buy a car. Social media, then, is merely the latest course in this never-ending spectacular feast in which, as Doc Searles pointed out: “the demand side supplies itself.” And who are we technophiliacs to resist the spectacle?

Suddenly, the actions of the brave new cultural producer/consumer appear a bit less daring and revolutionary: reducing difference to a set of pre-defined variables that are data-mined for similarities thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialProfiling Inc. (that “trojan horse of internet censorship“), remixing and distributing media (text, audio, video, multi) thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialPublishing Inc., classifying and distributing the products (packaging them for consumption, essentially) thanks to the ‘free’ services of SocialTagging Inc. —all the while believing we are operating outside of capital. Ha!

At whose service is this new literacy? To what purpose is this democracy oriented? What mass have we supposedly left behind?

By this time, you should rightly have lots of objections to my argument, most likely including the words open, commons, or collective somewhere in them. After all, aren’t you reading this blog for “free”? Haven’t I made this post available so that you can quote, reproduce, re-mix or appropriate it “outside” of the realm of profit (or as “outside” as you can get in our context, anyway)? Aren’t I speaking out of both corners of my mouth, then? The answer is: Yes. Now that I have defined the problem, I shall allow myself to go back and discuss certain exceptions. I will continue to handle these exceptions carefully, though, because most of what is out there claiming to be an exception is really not, and because this discourse of ultimate consumerism is still too new. Above all, we must continue to resist uncritical social media-philia, resist the spectacle of the cannibalistic feeding frenzy that is ultimate consumerism.

Actually, I’m less interested right now in identifying specific exceptions than in identifying where the possibilities for exceptions lie. My claim is that they are to be found less in open source, open content, open learning, or open anything, and more in the openness of social reality itself:

…history is a dynamic and open social reality, in a state of functional disequilibrium, or an oscillating equilibrium, unstable and always compensated, comprising not only institutionalized conflicts but conflicts that generate changes, revolts, ruptures, and scissions… (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, pp.150-151)

And it is precisely because these ruptures exist that exceptions are also part of the rule, that anarchy is allowed at the fringes of order. Every crisis is an opportunity, but every opportunity is a crisis. In fact, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, capitalism depends completely and absolutely on waging war with itself, on testing and pushing its own limits. It is the opportunities that social media affords for moving beyond its own limits that must be seized. If new technologies provide capitalism with new opportunities for control and discipline, and for new opportunities for commodifing the social (that which need not be commodified), they also invite insurrection, as Dyer-Witheford (1999) argues:

It is in cyberspace that capital is now attempting to acquiree the comprehensive command, control, and communications capacity that will finally allow it to, as Marx put it, “along with labour. . . also appropriate its network of social relations.” And yet at the same time it is also in this virtual realm that some of the most remarkable experiments in communicational counterpower are being conducted. (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 122)

But are we simply being ‘allowed’ some controlled revolution? How real are the possibilities for change?

If machinery is a “weapon” then it can, as Cleaver says, be stolen or captured, “used against us or by us.” Or—to use Panzieri’s perhaps richer and less instrumental metaphor —if capital “interweaves” technology and power, then this weaving can be undone, and the threads used to make a different pattern.

This need not imply a crude “use and abuse” concept of technology of the sort neo-Luddites have rightly criticized. We can accept that machines are stamped with social purposes without accepting the idea that all of them are so deeply implanted with the dominative logic of capital as to be rejected…

This is not to say that technologies are neutral, but rather that they are often constituted by contending pressures that implant in them contradictory potentialities: which of these are realized is something that will be determined only in further struggle and conflict. (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, pp. 71-72)

So why, then, haven’t we moved beyond capitalism? Is capitalism really the best social machine, to use a Deleuzian-Guattarian term? Has there not been enough struggle and conflict? I’m not sure those questions can be answered. But one thing is certain: mere technological innovation (of the “new technology X will completely revolutionize Y” kind) will not bring down the machine, but help feed it:

The social machine’s limit is not attrition, but rather its misfirings; it can operate only by fits and starts, by grinding and breaking down, in spasms of minor explosions. The dysfunctions are an essential element of its very ability to function, which is not the least important aspect of the system of cruelty. The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxiety they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way. (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p. 151)

In other words, we will not bring the machine down by rage alone, by the contradictions this rage might engender. Maybe we should start by recognizing, like the Borg, that we are already part of the machine, participants in the spectacular cannibalistic feast it has placed before us. Only then can we begin to desire alternatives, and draw plans for different “machines of struggle”:

Deleuze and Guattari speak of revolutionary organization as the creation of “machines of struggle.” This has to be understood carefully. For Deleuze and Guattari, any assemblage of desire —at a subjective or social level— is a “machine.” The term is aimed to break with humanist concepts of natural identities, to emphasize (as Haraway does with her concept of “cyborgs”) the constructed, produced, and collectively fabricated nature of psyche and society. Thus when they speak of radical political organization as the creation of nomadic “war machines,” while they certainly do not preclude armed struggle, the phrase has a far wider dimension. They are thinking in terms of aggressive, mobile, decentered organizations, capable of being built or dismantled as needed, that can harry and erode the structures of established order—”state machines.” (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p. 182)

Doesn’t the conflict between “mobile, decentered” machines and “state” machines sound familiar? I can only hope that we are capable of assembling machines of struggle different from those of terrorism and state repression. Or will we be too distracted by the spectacle of cannibalism, of ultimate consumerism? We are, after all, a culture that fetishizes new technology, and the self-indulgent satisfaction it momentarily affords while it pushes the limits of the system.

Offline References:

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1983). Anti-oedipus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. (1999). Cyber-marx: Cycles and circuits of struggle in high-technology capitalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Leach, E. R. (1966). Rethinking anthropology. London: University of London Athlone Press.

Creative Commons photo credit: Mister Wind-Up Bird

Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere

PolicemassCan social media increase and improve civic participation? If so, in what ways? There’s a lot being said and written about the subject these days, but it is difficult to get a clear overview of the opinions. I attempt here to collect viewpoints both for and against the premise that social media is creating a better public sphere, and analyze them in the context of what constitutes a public and its antithesis, a mass. In presenting what are sometimes extreme positions within this debate (too idealistic v. too critical), my hope is to begin to understand the reality that lies in the middle, and come closer to understanding social media’s potential (and limitations) as a tool to bring about social change.

At a general level, we could say that on one side of the debate are those who believe that social media can increase civic participation and shift the balance of power away from the institutions that currently stand in the way of change. On the other side are those who warn that social media can only offer a reduced form of participation, that it diminishes the value of individual contributions, and that it leaves social systems more prone to manipulation by lowering their intelligence to the minimum common denominator (i.e., stupidity or mediocrity).

Thus, the debate can be framed in terms of whether social media can engender democratic publics that embody an intelligence and capacity for action greater than the sum of its members, or whether it will merely continue to support the production of anti-democratic masses of disenfranchised and alienated consumers. Of course, social media is a big label encompassing many different technologies, and even the same technologies can be applied differently in various contexts. But while features and applications might differ, the people contributing to this debate are obviously focused on the aggregated impact that social media is having on our societies rather than on specific examples of applications.

The effects of social media are probably most visible in emerging forms of public discourse and collaboration. Given that our notions of democracy are closely tied to the ability to voice one’s opinion and to the ability to organize collective action, this is not surprising. The more opportunities for discussion and collaboration (such as those allegedly generated by blogs and wikis), the healthier the public sphere and the healthier the democracy, goes the argument.

In his book The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) C. Wright Mills summarized, with a touch of dry humor, this model of democratic “authority by 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)

Idealists believe that social media improves the processes described above by giving us more efficient tools for discussion and for ‘acting out’ what comes out of these discussions. But the problem is that, in practice, democracy does not unfold so neatly. Mills argued that an unequal distribution of power and knowledge allows a small elite to impose its viewpoint on the population (through the media, for instance) while convincing them that it is the people’s will that the elite is carrying out on its behalf. Authentic democracies require an informed public to operate. Conversely, oligarchies require the consensual passivity and ignorance of a mass. But what role exactly do publics and masses play in each situation?

Below, I extract from Mills’ argument three features of a democratic public sphere and present his analysis of how a public reflects those characteristics, while a mass doesn’t. I then summarize some arguments from the social media debate which suggest how social media realizes, or fails to realize, that particular feature of a public sphere. I would like to point out that although there are many people contributing to this debate, I am only citing some of the authors I am most familiar with.


1) Balance between the ability to produce and consume ideas

In a public, according to Mills, “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” (Mills, 1956, pp. 303-304; my emphasis).

Advocates of social media argue that it represents an opportunity to reverse a process of massification and returns people to the status of a public. This is because social media, they argue, allows individuals to become producers, not mere consumers, thus making it possible for as many people to express as to receive opinions. This position is captured in Jay Rosen’s manifesto The People Formerly Known as The Audience. According to Rosen, users of social media are saying to the old media: “You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.” I also have suggested that the alternative models of participation, collaboration and ownership that social media makes possible can have a significant social transformative power. If you change the ways of producing and consuming culture, you change society.

Alternatively, critics of social media are not convinced that it fundamentally changes the balance between production and consumption. As I have argued (yes, I tend to argue both sides!), when looking beyond exceptional examples, the new forms of production that social media affords amount to nothing more than new forms of consumerism for the majority of users. Production is the new consumption. Indeed, social media generates more opportunities for people to express themselves. But the majority of people remain equally susceptible to impressions from the mass media because they fail to evolve into anything more than an “abstract collection of individuals,” as Mills puts it (this recent Pew study seems to support the claim that most bloggers, for example, prefer to talk about themselves and avoid political topics). In other words, giving means of expression to each individual in a mass is not enough to transform the mass into a community of publics . The other features of a democratic public sphere will further clarify why this is the case.

2) Affordable and effective means of producing ideas

In a public, Mills argues, “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” (Mills, 1956, pp. 303-304; my emphasis).

Again, supporters of social media claim that we are entering an age when it is indeed possible for individuals to respond to any public opinion. The cost of becoming part of the networked public sphere has become negligible, and new models of participation are being developed and tested. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, recently launched an initiative that seeks to redefine the political process: “If broadcast media brought us broadcast politics, then participatory media will bring us participatory politics. One hallmark of the blog and wiki world is that we do not wait for permission before making things happen. If something needs to be done, we do it.” While not everyone will use this opportunity to become a full-fledged activist, Ross Mayfield argues that social media can provide different levels of participation to accommodate even the most apathetic: “few of us have time or interest in politics, but there is a way for us all to have civic engagement within our means. That way is though social software.” He goes on to describe how social software is changing the public sphere:

The cost for personal publishing has fallen to zero. Its common for citizens to express a facet of their identity online. The cost for group forming has fallen to zero. Networked appeal has proven itself as a fundraising mechanism. A broad conversational network and common sense repository supports collective sense making. Today social software has gained use broad enough to support civic engagement.

While individual opinions can be dismissed, argue enthusiasts, social media represents a more effective public sphere because it aggregates the voices of thousands and is able to respond to issues immediately (the ‘collective common sense’ Ross is talking about). Using James Surowiecki’s thesis about the ‘wisdom of crowds,’ advocates propose that social media engenders an intelligence of its own, an intelligence aggregated from individual contributions but greater than the sum of them, and which allows for a more effective process of generating and selecting the best ideas and responses.

Immediate and low-cost response? Yes. Effective? Not so much, say the critics of social media. In an article that has generated a fair amount of debate, Jaron Lanier warned of the danger of endowing social media with a more effective intelligence than our own: “The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.” In a follow-up interview, Lanier elaborated:

“Let me be specific: I don’t like people pretending something better than themselves exists in the computer. This is a great danger… You get a bunch of people together on a project, and they quickly become anonymous. They contribute to some sort of computer-mediated phenomenon, and treat the results as an oracle.”

Supporters of social media have contested Lanier’s claims that it undermines individual contributions and suggested that it is effective precisely because of them. Wales, for example, says that “authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.” Clay Shirky adds that “individual motivations in Wikipedia are not only alive and well, it would collapse without them.”

It is because we believe (rightly or wrongly) that social media aggregates the best of individual contributions that we trust the results. But what is at stake here is precisely the way the computational processes of social media get to define what constitutes sociality. Trebor Scholz, for example, describes how individual contributions are not simply channeled by social media, but fundamentally transformed in the process (in this case, he is talking about social bookmarking):

Individual goals of participants are not always shared by the “group,” which gives the del.icio.us project a decisively non-collaborative character. What does collaboration mean? Collaboration is generally a risky, intensive form of working together with a common goal. The gain or loss is shared among all. Cooperation, on the other hand, is a less intensive form of working together in which participants account for gain or loss individually. Contributors have individual goals.

According to these definitions, while social media users may cooperate, they might not necessarily be collaborating. Could this be enough to distinguish a public from a mass? I had made a related argument previously (again, talking about social bookmarking): “tags have to make sense first and foremost to the individual who assigns and uses them. And yet, the whole point of distributed classification systems (DCSs) such as del.icio.us and flickr is that the aggregation of inherently private goods (tags and what they describe) has public value…” However, if the code aggregates contributions by disaggregating goals (individualizing motives), what exactly is the public value of social media?

In other words, we should ask whether in processing individual contributions, social media’s code engenders affordances more along the lines of a public or a mass. The answer to that question is directly related to Mills’ last feature of a democratic public sphere.

3) Ideas are translated into action

According to Mills, in a public, “opinion formed by such discussion 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” (Mills, 1956, pp. 303-304; my emphasis).

This is where the virtual rubber must meet the actual road, so to speak. Advocates of social media believe in its power to unleash new forms of action extending beyond the boundaries of cyberspace into the ‘real’ world. The Open Planning Project’s (or TOPP) mission statement, for instance, states that:

Instead of harassing our overworked public officials, TOPP believes in building tools that will ultimately aid them directly, increasing efficiency in true democratic decision making through projects that streamline citizen involvement and enable the accessibility and effective use of public information… TOPP wants to bring people out of the virtual and in to the real, where the network can have a huge effect, by motivating for change in a community, and bringing people together for action instead of just talking.

Not only are critics skeptical of social media’s ability to ignite action in the ‘real’ world at a large scale but some, like Nicholas Carr, argue that new social media initiatives will end up merely replicating the same forms of authority and governance that are currently the source of the problem. This is because it is we who shape social media by encoding our forms of sociality into it, not the other way around. Thus, according to him, social media experiments are bound to result in un-innovative forms of social action. Citing an interview with some of its most active members, Carr quips that Wikipedia has “become more interesting as an experiment in emergent bureaucracy than in emergent content.” He illustrates by pointing out that “the rules governing the deletion of an entry now take up ’37 pages plus 20 subcategories.’ For anyone who still thinks of Wikipedia as a decentralized populist collective, the interview will be particularly enlightening.”

The nature of the role that the individual plays in social media is what limits its potential to transform society, according to the critics. Previously, the concern was that social spaces like the blogosphere reinforced people’s narrow group identities. For instance, Trebor Scholz (borrowing the concept of plural monocultures from Amartya Sen) wrote:

The Internet becomes a fabulous host for this type of multiculturalism. Often, no two opinions have to confront each other. In their own inner chamber people can forget about racial, ethnic or economical differences and just talk about the very narrow interest set that connects them.

Now, asserts the critical camp, social media takes the next step by altogether removing any trace of the individual’s identity in the name of a higher collective intelligence. Social media is built on individual contributions, yes, but the code must remove any present biases before aggregating them into a meaningful data set. Otherwise, the output would be too noisy. Social media’s collective intelligence, its perceived ‘wisdom of crowds,’ is directly related to the degree that its code can accomplish this cleansing of personal opinion.

While valorizing this new form of computationally-derived intelligence might not necessarily lead to a devaluation of individual intelligence (as Lanier, Carr, et. al would seem to suggest), it’s true that it might lead to a scenario where individuals must compromise their individuality in order to get through the filters of social media.

For example, Howard Rheingold, in his reaction to Jimmy Wales’ new project, wrote that

One important contribution to political discourse that we could all adopt from Wikipedia is the “neutral point of view” process: Because anyone who disagrees with you can change your wiki entry with the click of a mouse, it is necessary to clearly articulate the different points of view on a subject — and to state them well enough that someone who disagrees with your own point of view won’t be motivated to edit your statement.

In other words: express your point of view in such a way that your opponent won’t find anything to fault in it. If before communication was defined as the sharing of meaning, now social media provides a space where meaning can be assembled without being shared, and provides the mechanisms to enforce this kind of neutrality [for a response from Rheingold, see the comments at the end, as well as this post]. The problem is that meaning then becomes atomistic, a reflection of what the code has aggregated from detached individuals, not what has emerged through debate and cooperation. Paradoxically, social media provides less incentive for people to be social.

If the end goal is a neutral point of view, the danger lies not in erasing the individual’s contributions, but in inadequately supporting the mechanisms that allow individuals to share meaning. Nicholas Carr’s ‘law of the wiki‘ —which asserts that the more people involved, the lower the quality of the wiki— seeks to name this phenomenon: unlimited aggregation does not result in order, but in randomness. Wikipedia contributors themselves recognize that good articles are the result of small communities of experts working without interference from the larger public.

What can we conclude from the various perspectives I’ve summarized above?

Advocates of social media will point out that while there are applications such as wikis and social bookmarking that embody this ‘unlimited aggregation’ approach, the ecology of social media is balanced by the presence of other applications such as blogs and social networking where individuality and cooperation are alive and well. They might be right to an extent. By using a mix of social media, communities can benefit both from the wisdom of crowds and the wisdom of individuals.

Social media —which makes visible the connections between the online and the onsite— is helping us understand that reality doesn’t just serve as a metaphor for computer-facilitated interaction; rather, it is its very medium. For the most part, critics are no longer using the ‘virtuality’ of the networked public sphere as an excuse to declare it unreal or less than real. Actions still speak louder than words, regardless of whether the words originate online or onsite. The question we are now interested in is whether these new forms of action can emerge even against the prevailing systems of authority, or whether they are still organized and controlled within the framework of the dominant sphere of debate. Will the old concepts of public and mass be enough to capture the possibilities?

Offline Reference

Mills, C. W. (1956). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flickr Photo Credit

beaunose, licensed under Creative Commons.

Technology Without Ends: A Critique of Technocracy as a Threat to Being

“…we are potentially most ignorant of the impact of technology at the very time when we are most assured that we understand it.”

T.J. Rivers (1993, p. 20)

Although a lot is said about the endless possibilities and futures that technology can place at our feet, and the innovative opportunities for “identity production” that it affords the networked self, I sometimes get the feeling that technology can in fact guarantee only one possible outcome: uniformity (i.e. more of the same, as in standardized futures and homogenous identities at the service of a single driving force). How dare I say this, when we live in a period of endless innovation and relentless progress? Well, in part precisely because of the endless and relentless nature of change. Yes, it is more than obvious that the world is changing as a result of our use of technology. But is this the kind of change that signifies new horizons for humanity, or merely a continuation of changes that, since the Industrial Revolution, are predictable and (more forebodingly) unstoppable? In other words, is “Human 2.0” really a testament to the greatness of the spirit, or simply a collection of useless features that not only fail to improve on the original, but in fact bar the doors to any kind of evolution that deviates from a particular path?

Such are the concerns that, although framed differently, also seem to preoccupy Theodore John Rivers in his book Contra Technologiam (1993, University of America Press). [I had not encountered any reference to Rivers in my previous readings on technology and philosophy. Serendipitously, I stumbled upon an article by him in the journal Technology in Society, which led me to his out-of-print book.] Rivers gives us what I think is one of the most concise and thought-provoking philosophical critiques of technology for our times, devoid of the sensationalism and jargon that characterize more popular offerings of the same genre.

Specifically, Rivers attacks our liberal rationalization of technology, our defense of technology by choosing to focus on the positive even when it is outweighed by the negative, so that the good is used not to provide a counter balance to the bad, but to deny the existence of the bad altogether (which is necessary because a genuine assessment would lead us to the realization that to truly consider the bad in technology would render it unsustainable). It is this critique of liberalism that will make it a difficult read for most folks. The book is not constructed as a traditional scholarly work, replete with references and research data to support the arguments. If anything, it is more of a polemic, a philosophical paralogy for a society obsessed with technology; and it is because of this and its rhetorical power that I appreciate it (which does not mean I agree completely with it). In Rivers we find no superficial neo-Luddism, but an insightful analysis of how technology limits our choices even while proclaiming to expand them. In the context of our current narratives about how technology can redefine social structures and enhance our ways of knowing, I think these are critiques that need to be taken seriously. Rivers forces us to confront the Faustian bargain we have made with technology and ask: Are we in fact not accelerating our de-humanization while believing we are struggling for our freedom?

Technology as a threat to being

Rivers starts by establishing that technology exists because we “invariably see the world in need of alteration” (1993, p. 1). Our needs and desires dictate that we act upon the world in order to transform it, and for that we need technology. We should not conclude, however, that technology is ‘natural’ to our being (the very essence of technology implies artificiality, after all). Rivers makes an important distinction between the ontological status of our openness to being, and the non-ontological status of technology. According to him, our being is open in the sense that it is flexible and dynamic. In other words, the self is continuously undergoing change. These changes generate different demands from the world, which we seek to satisfy through the application of technology. Thus, technology “is a situation conditioned by our being” (1993, p. 9) as a result of encountering the world, but it is not a natural part of our being (which is what Heidegger would try to argue, I think). Rivers’ premise is that technology can in fact threaten whatever is natural about being:

Although openness to being allows technology to come into the world, this truth does not also mean that being is aided by technology because technology inherently is an artificiality. What is natural to us is openness to being, definable by ontological freedom, which in itself cannot account for its own naturalness. The more there is technology in the world, the more this naturalness is challenged. (2005, p. 16)

Not only is being not aided by technology, but technology has a way of subverting being by demanding that our attention and efforts be placed at its service. This is because technology is concerned with action, with doing, and nothing else. “Technology inhibits deep thinking because it is concerned primarily with activity, not contemplation. Because thinking is fundamental to self-awareness, technology is an obstacle to self-identity. It is a threat to internality” (2005, p. 23).

Whereas in pre-modernity actions were viewed as emanating from being, nowadays being is seen as emanating from action. I do, therefore I am. Technology exists only as long as we are engaged in doing things with it, and is unconcerned with what kind of being results from the doing. As Rivers puts it: “[t]he relationship has been reversed: that is, technology is no longer an aid in the perfection of being, but rather being is now an aid to the perfection of technology (1993, p. 10).”

Against the liberal narratives that endow technology with the power to help us re-define or re-discover the self, Rivers argues that technology in fact obstructs and distorts the most fundamental human enterprise: Know Thyself.

One assumption made of technology is that it allows us to think about ourselves, presumably because it gives us more leisure time for reflection; but it does not. Technology fails because we become dominated by its very presence, by its devices and techniques, by the complexities of its rationality and the convolutions of its methodology. Technology cannot help but drive a wedge between us and self-awareness, between us and that relational phenomenon which is grounded in inwardness, that is, in the awareness of the individual of himself [sic], of a kind of self-directedness, a reflection of the self to the self. Until we make a conscious effort to remove ourselves from technology’s driving forces, it will continue to reduce our prospects of liberation. (1993, p. 110)

Technology and (a)morality

Rivers is not the first one to point out the fissure that modernity introduces between the use of technology as a means towards a specific end, and the use of technology as pure means, as action without a particular end (Simpson, 1995, comes to mind as a recent author who explored the dichotomy between praxis and techne). And the preoccupation with how this shift has affected our system of values has been an old concern with philosophers of technology. But what Rivers does particularly well is to look beyond the veil of liberal discourse and expose in no tentative terms the deficiencies of a morality based on a technology without ends, a technology whose only goal is to preserve itself:

… technology, which is never satisfied with its present state of being and continually on the way to its replacement, becomes a perfectionist’s fantasy. It is so consumed by its own means that ends have become anathema to it, and thus the meaning and even the possibility of its ends are lost to itself… the absence of ends is a cause of much devastation, both to nature and to man [sic, and sic for everytime the masculine is used exclusively]. (1993, p. 7)

We are presently, according to Rivers, unconcerned with the consequences of the application of technology. All that we care about is that it works. We celebrate new technologies for their affordances, because they let us do, and we dive right into the doing without paying much attention to the absence of ends. In fact, rather than a moral system, technocracy can be best described as a system of amorality:

…[technology] has been transformed into a way of life. It must not be considered merely in its effect as a morality; whereas morality is always projected toward some end, the end of technology is forever more technique, that is, unending increase in its impact as a means, and ever-continuing augmentation of its influence in the world. (p. 12)

In what follows, I will summarize Rivers’ attack on liberal discourses of technology. I will quote from his work extensively in an effort to retain as much of his voice as possible. While I tend to agree with most of his analysis, I will identify at the end some of the reservations I have about his argument, and in doing so try to suggest some way out.

Technology does not engender freedom, but curtails it

Technology’s raison d’etre assumes that if we can do something, we ought to do it… It is for this reason that technology limits human choices–for if we are powerless to resist technology’s latent power, we can hardly call ourselves free. (p. 30)

Change that is contingent on a limited set of possibilities cannot really be said to be the expression of freedom. In River’s words: “The choices that technology offers are all within the system. Any increase in technology makes the system more, not less, restrictive (p. 62).” This is because “[a]lthough in theory alterable, in practice technology is rigid because its flexibility is manifested only within the perimeters of its rationality, because it is evident only within the boundaries of its methodology (p. 55).” So if technology limits our freedom by making it irresistible to do what it affords, then more technology offers only more opportunities to act against our freedom, even while seemingly promoting it:

[Technology] creates the impression that it liberates us, that it enables us to accomplish more with its aid than without it. But this is a delusion because although technology enhances possibilities on the one hand, it limits them on the other. (p. 20)

It is not simply that for every door that it opens technology closes others, but that technology, not us, determines the path to the doors to be opened. Rivers is unapologetically a technological determinist (under the grip of technology’s logic, he would say there is little society can do to determine how technology develops —although there is the illusion that we are in control). Our surrender to technology is, in his view, a dangerous compromise: we may stand to gain a few things, but in return we put in jeopardy the authenticity of our being. “Technology gives us the feeling that we no longer have to be authentic in order to act authentically (p. 105).” In other words, as long as technology can help us ‘fake’ authentic being through action, it makes our surrender to it seem OK.

Technology does not engender democracy, but mass mediocrity

Rivers points out that population growth is “both a result of technological progress and a cause of it” (p. 67). New technologies make it possible to sustain more human lives, which in turn requires more technology, thereby securing its perpetuation. “The more there is technology, the more there are people” (ibid); not just any kind of people, but people who “contribute little out of the ordinary” (ibid). Technology requires not individuals capable of asserting their freedom, but compliant, ordinary, mediocre masses. Rivers sees the computer as the ultimate exponent of a technology for these masses:

The computer is the universal machine of an egalitarian and civilized world, and it permits anyone to use it. It is the great equalizer, requiring neither unique talents, nor special skills, nor moral preference, nor acute wisdom. It is devised for anyone and everyone. It is the machine par excellence for the masses. (p. 18) [We should keep in mind that he is talking about using a computer, not more specialized tasks like designing software for it, which not everyone can do.]


In Rivers’ mind, the kind of collectivism that technology facilitates does not lead to democracy, but to the stamping out of anything exceptional, to the erasure of the individual by the mass (a similar argument warning against Web 2.0’s uncritical preference for the collective has been made recently by Jaron Lanier. I have some reservations about framing the issue without accounting for the intersections between the individual and the collective, but I will address those elsewhere). While Rivers’ views of what constitutes exceptional individualism are a bit Eurocentric, his point is that “[t]he implementation of technology is the manner by which individuals are mechanized into masses” (p. 61). Looking at the phenomenon of mass education, it would be hard to disagree. Because individuals who achieve higher levels of development are threats to the status quo, technology is about lowering everyone to the lowest common denominator, the mass.

Mechanization is the very organization of technology, so that as the whole world becomes increasingly similar, we have a greater tendency to become trite, banal and commonplace in everything that we do. (p. 20)

Technology does not foster community, it destroys it

Masses are not sites of rich social interaction. If anything, it is the norm to feel totally alone in a mass. While technology advertises new means to ‘reach out and touch someone’ that supposedly make distance meaningless and the world smaller, according to Rivers technology “removes the tangibility between men” (p. 58). He asserts: “Ironically, the sure numbers of the masses are not the only thing that is onerous to an age dominated by technology, for there is also the very inability of the world to bring the individuals in the mass together” (ibid). Technology inserts itself even in our most intimate interactions, becoming our intermediary and deepening our dependence on it. No form of communication is outside its scope. “We are more at a loss in a technological age than in former ages because we have rendered ourselves helpless without it” (p. 120).

Furthermore, access to technology does not guarantee equality, and does not promote tolerance according to Rivers:

[A technological age] leads to fission, not fusion. Its subjects are incapable of attaining homogeneity. It makes everyone ethnically and racially conscious, that is, technology makes us more aware of ourselves: it enhances a greater awareness of not only who one is but also who one is not. Although racism should never become respectable, it is a direct result of life in a technological age. In fact, there is an appreciable difference between racism in the past, which was based on ignorance, and today’s racism, which is based on confrontation, upon a kind of face-to-face conflict. (p. 51)

Elias (1998; see this) had already remarked on how technology’s propensity to shrink the world can result in conflict. But while he held out hope for an eventual “organized unification of humankind,” Rivers is more skeptical:

…a politically democratic multi-ethnic and multi-racial pluralistic civilization is not a victory for mankind, but a permanent obstacle to greatness because a social egalitarianism in which all people intermingle produces a monolithic culture, a massive and uniform obstacle to man’s betterment. This common civilization, this democratization, is most representative of technology in the West and a cause of its sterility.

Rivers’ critique may sound aggressively insular and prejudiced to our liberal-trained ears, but what he critiques is not diversity but precisely the lack of it, the construction of a monolithic culture in which all difference is subsumed under the logic of technology (which is, as I see it, the foundation of technocracy).

Technology prevents critical thinking and political action

The recent trend to simply number new movements sequentially (e.g. Web 2.0, Life 2.0, Learning 2.0, etc.), following software naming patterns, is probably an indication that innovation has become incredibly constrained and predictable. “No irony is meant by saying that a technological age fosters change so long as things remain the same (p. 46).”

To Rivers, it follows that a process of surrendering difference to the logic of technology would result in anything but the loss of critical thinking: “Certainly the last thing that would result from mechanization is the development of a critical, acute and refined discrimination (p. 20).” While technology has increased the amount of measurements we can derive from reality, and given us new ways of absorbing that information, Rivers does not equate that with an increase in self-knowledge per se. If anything, the fragmentization of knowledge prevents us from seeing the big picture:

Because the rapid and seemingly endless proliferation of information has led to the fragmentation of learning, more and more areas of information have resulted in a greater ignorance of all of reality. Although we know more today than we did yesterday, we also know these things from a more limited point of view, as from the perspective of a microscope… (p. 94)

In opposition to techno-liberal discourse, Rivers argues that an increase of specialized knowledge does not signify a transition to a better future when all of that information will suddenly mean something, but is an indication of immobility and impermanence (information without end, and therefore, without meaning):

Indeed, a technological age is not in the least transitory even though it strives to be both current and fashionable. It is an age that produces nothing lasting, marked by ideas which have no chance of introducing truly meaningful changes into the world. (1993, p. 23)

This inability to introduce ‘truly meaningful change into the world’ is perhaps technology’s most dehumanizing effect. We live in an age, according to Rivers, when political action is increasingly seen as unnecessary. Not only does technological doing occupy our minds and distract us from the need to act politically, but in its perverse logic technology represents itself as a tool for political action. Hence, we have started to see the act of doing with technology as satisfactorily political (the premise behind e-democracy). Technologized politics becomes endless means without substantive political ends. This undermines any challenge to the status quo by free-thinking individuals:

Nor is it surprising that there is so little real political struggle in an age that surrenders itself overwhelmingly to technology because politics on the grand scale, when individuals organize and oppose the established order, are rendered meaningless, since technology proposes to do everything for us. Above all, it becomes the spearhead of the democratization of the world; that is technology becomes the agent of the world’s mediocrity. (p. 70)

In this context, even direct challenges to the system become perfectly circumscribed by technology’s logic. “In our present condition, deliberate acts of defiance and their concomitant confrontation rarely happen, except if they conform to technology’s manner of doing things, that is, if they adhere to technology’s methodology or conform to its democratization” (p. 120). Web sit-ins, e-mail petitions, online voting, echo blog journalism, and open source disaster recovery are a few examples of the new form of activism that has replaced meaningful action while presenting the illusion of progress. “[T]echnology promotes the illusion that it is able to respond to changing situations, that it is able to take emergency measures in an endangered world, but in fact, technology is slow to act and slow to remedy problems, and slower still to remedy problems directly caused by it” (p. 55).

Conclusions: Philosophy before programming

To put it simply, we have forgotten how to say no. Because technology is compulsive, we feel driven to do whatever [it makes] possible. (p. 30)

River’s critique is useful only if we acknowledge that he is not talking about technology per se in some reifying manner, but about how we use technology in a particular way. That is, his critique is not of technology but of technocracy (a social system dominated by technology and where everything must give way to the advancement of technology, c.f. Postman 1992). It is technocracy that brings about the kind of homogenization and mediocrity that Rivers describes by subsuming all human agency under its needs. It is technocracy that needs to be challenged in all fronts because its impact is truly global: it knows no ideological or geographical boundaries (democracies, oligarchies and theocracies can be equally technocratic).

It is important to make this distinction between critiquing technology and critiquing technocracy because otherwise technological determinism (i.e., the idea that technology shapes us, not the other way around) becomes too much of a metanarrative, an immutable given. In order to critique technology, Rivers gives technological determinism too much credence, setting it up as a process that applies to all technologies at all times across all situations. This approach gives us the possibility of rejecting technology wholesale on moral grounds, but reduces our agency and limits our opportunities to act, and in the end this paralysis allows technology to take over. Yes, technology robs us of critical agency, but it does not eliminate the possibility that, once aware of this process, we can re-assert our will over technology. So while determinism allows for the opportunity to discursively oppose technocracy, it prevents a more active engagement that can actually contest or rival it (this insight was inspired by a recent post by Tim, who cites Badiou’s remark that “anti-capitalists are not simply opponents of capitalism, but more importantly rivals“). In short, to rival technocracy we might very well have to use technology, something which Rivers’ version of technological determinism would leave us little moral grounds to do. The master’s tools in the hands of a freed slave are no longer the master’s tools (if the latter is acting as a subject, not an object, of history —to paraphrase Freire).

While Rivers’ analysis accurately describes the ways in which we surrender our agency to technology, some of his solutions appear simplistic because a deterministic approach leaves little room for nuanced analysis. Given that a world without the technologies we already have is impossible, Rivers suggests that we should pick and choose from these technologies according to the values they espouse: “We must not look at technology’s values, but through them, questioning every aspect of their manifestation. If they promote well-being, we should keep them. If they do not, we should discard them” (1993, p. 120). But this ignores the complex entanglement of technologies in our world. Almost always, to choose a technology that promotes well-being we must make use of other technologies that do not, oftentimes even without our awareness. This is what makes Actor-Network Theory, with its tracing of complex associations between human and technological actors, such a valuable but difficult exercise.

More practical than the ‘keep the right technologies’ argument is Rivers’ call for a paralogical space to think outside technology (a notion I have been exploring lately in my attempts to re-conceptualize the digital divide). I think Rivers and I agree on the need to secure a (psychological, if not physical) space to take a break from the impulse to act with technology and experience being without it:

It is only when at rest that we have the optimum opportunity to think. In fact, what mobility demonstrates is that an age always in motion makes little substantive progress. Despite high speed travel, we are an age going nowhere fast. (p. 46)

Ubiquitous computing, in other words, is the worst idea in the world. Reclaiming a space without technology does not mean rejecting technology, but exercising the only chance we have to estimate its true meaning and potential. Those outside the grip of technology are best qualified to discern its effects. We must strive not for universal access to technology, but for universal freedom from the all-pervasive influence of technology. The latter jihad is more difficult than the former. But it is also more important because it seeks to foster what technology, by its nature, ends up blocking: a deeper understanding of ourselves. In Rivers’ words:

Because many of our actions can be unconscious, it is imperative that the world in all its diverse forms, including technology, be filtered out by us when we need to understand ourselves. Not that we should say no to the world (how could we do otherwise?), but that we should say no to an automatic, unthinking response to technology’s eternal presence in the world. Otherwise, we may never allow ourselves the opportunity to do so because we will never be alone with ourselves. Since technology is possessed of systems and rationalities already devised and set in place, which in turn are augmented by instantaneous gratifications and self-deceptions, we are at a great risk. But technology posits a threat in other ways because it gives us a course of evasion. It gives us an excuse when we wish to live inauthentically. (p. 108)

Nonetheless, technology is our creation, and although it acquires agency of its own we gain little by demonizing it. Technology should be viewed for what it is: and expression of our openness to being that reflects our historical and cultural conditions:

… the essence of technology is linked with ontological freedom, which means that what we build and create is the result of what we choose. How we choose and act is defined within specific historical and cultural situations that vary over time and place. Technology reflects and augments these situations. If we change present conditions and the demands they make upon us, then we can change technology. (Rivers, 2005, p. 3-4)

The way to proceed, then, is to discontinue the search for technologies that will supposedly liberate us (a search which technology conducts on its own behalf, with us merely as its enablers). Instead, we should begin in earnest the search for ourselves. We should become philosophers before programmers (or even users). We need to take stock of where we have surrendered our agency to technology, and figure out how to transform unconscious surrender into intentional delegation. We need to give technology an end; or to put it differently: we need to counter technology’s bias for means-without-end with our own formulation of ends, ends which are beyond the scope of technology but which may benefit from the application of technology when it’s approached as a delegation, not a surrender. This is very much a task that reflects the ongoing process of becoming, the openness of being, and as such it is always an unfinished exercise. To paraphrase Rivers (who is channeling philosophers across time): one is not what one is, but is what one is not yet (Rivers 1993, p. 106).

Offline References:

Elias, N., Goudsblom, J., & Mennell, S. (1998). The Norbert Elias reader: A biographical selection. Oxford, UK; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology (1st ed.). New York: Knopf.

Rivers, T. J. (1993). Contra technologiam: The crisis of value in a technological age. Lanham [Md.]: University Press of America.

Rivers, T. J. (2005). An introduction to the metaphysics of technology. Technology in Society, 27, 551–574.

Simpson, L. C. (1995). Technology, time, and the conversations of modernity. New York: Routledge.

Flickr photo credits (all pictures released under a Creative Commons license):




“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 http://dogma.free.fr/txt/AF_democratic-rationalization.htm

Flickr Photo Credit:
Kim Pierro


The Blog as Dissertation Literature Review?

(See Updates at the end of the post. See also this subsequent post)


Can a certain type of academic blogging be a more adequate form of literature review than the traditional chapter in a dissertation? In this post, I employ the rubric proposed by Boote & Beile (2005) to determine whether blogging can be considered a form of literature review. I also make some suggestions for how blogging may be incorporated formally into the research and writing activities of some doctoral students, although it certainly might not be useful to others. I am not suggesting that this single post is my literature review; I am merely providing a map that outlines how my blogging during the past years constitutes a form of ongoing literature review.

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