Tag Archives: technocracy

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.

Confinement, Education and the Control Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons photo credit: thost

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


In Defense of the Digital Divide as Paralogy (v 1.0)

by Ulises A. Mejias

Introduction: Why Won’t Lyotard Go Away?

As I have suggested before, we have not done enough in the field of Education and Technology to address Lyotard‘s concerns about the commodification of knowledge through the digital technologies we use (commodification means the transformation of things with no monetary value into things with monetary value —or commodities— through their subordination to the logic of capitalism). To put it in alarmist terms that are certain to catch your attention: If we are to take Lyotard’s analysis seriously, the gadgets and gizmos we are currently enamored with —edublogs, eduwikis, eduRSS feeds, and such— are nothing more than the tools of hegemonic capitalism.

Even if that sounds a bit harsh, the fact is that Lyotard provides a fertile framework for us to engage in an internal critique of our tools and methods. Only by engaging in such a critique can we guarantee the sustainability of our practice. To that end, Gane (2003) has done us all a big favor by summarizing the central concepts of Lyotard’s theory in his article Computerized capitalism: The media theory of Jean-François Lyotard. Gane describes the central themes in Lyotard’s critique as they relate to the new media, mainly:

that the computerization of society is accompanied by a new stage in the commodification of knowledge (The Postmodern Condition); that we are witnessing the speedup and extension of capitalist culture through the reduction of knowledge to information and information to bits (The Inhuman); and that new media technologies promote the streaming of culture (even oppositional culture) into homogeneous forms of capital that can be exchanged, received and consumed almost ahead of time (Postmodern Fables). (Gane, 2003, p.1)

In this post, I use elements from Lyotard’s theories to explore how the information and communication technologies that facilitate the social construction and aggregation of knowledge contribute to its commodification. I argue for a reframing of the concept of the digital divide as an important paralogical tool to resist this logic. This reframing is necessary because, currently, the digital divide is used in just the opposite way: to rationalize a model of progress and development where those aspects of our lives that are not technologized must become technologized, to the point where ubiquitous computing is normalized as the goal of innovation (and since technologizing and commodification are closely tied in capitalism, ubiquitous computing means ubiquitous commodification). In short, I attempt to reframe the digital divide as an instrument of resistance against the increasing commodification of knowledge, not as an ailment of the underprivileged.

What Is Paralogy?

Challenging the commodification of knowledge requires methods to un-think the logic of capitalism. One such method can perhaps be found in Lyotard’s notion of paralogy.

The etymology of this word resides in the Greek words para —beside, past, beyond— and logos in its sense as “reason.” Thus paralogy is the movement beyond or against reason. Lyotard sees reason not as a universal and immutable human faculty or principle but as a specific and variable human production; “paralogy” for him means the movement against an established way of reasoning. (Woodward, 2006)

A paralogy is a way to see things as more than commodities, to think outside the logic of capitalism. Paralogy plays an important role in challenging the role of innovation as it is traditionally understood (e.g., innovation as the creation of new things to consume and new methods for turning things into commodities). Lyotard sees innovation as “under the command of the system, or at least used by it to improve its efficiency” (1984, p. 61). Paralogy is diametrically opposed to innovation in the sense that it is a “creative and productive resistance to totalizing metanarratives” (Readings, 1991, pp. 73-74). Paralogy, according to Gane (2003),

concerns itself with everything that cannot be resolved within the (capitalist) system. In so doing, this form of resistance works by disrupting the instrumental logic of the modern order, producing, for example, the unknown out of the known, dissensus out of consensus, and with this generating a space for micro-narratives that had previously been silenced. (p.8)

But what ‘totalizing metanarratives’ supported by modern technologies (including technologies that facilitate the social construction and aggregation of knowledge) need to be resisted? Haven’t these technologies improved our lives by giving us new ways of re-assembling the social? Don’t they have the potential to engender more constructivist, active, distributed, connected or [insert your fav buzz word here] forms of learning? In short, what’s there to resist?

The Management of Social Knowledge

Lyotard’s critique of the new media is that it has established commodification and efficiency as the ultimate measures of the value of knowledge. According to Gane’s reading of Lyotard,

the emergence of new media has changed the form and status of knowledge, which is now judged less by its intrinsic value than by its performance, or rather by how economically valuable, efficient and programmable it is. Lyotard’s thesis then is that culture has been transformed by digital technology, which… follows the principle of ‘optimal performance’: ‘maximizing output (the modifications obtained) and minimizing input (the energy expended in the process)’ (Lyotard 1984: 44). (Gane, 2003, p.5)

The Knowledge Management movement, precursor and inspiration for the Social Software movement, sought to capitalize on knowledge that was held collectively by communities of practice. According to Chan & Garrick,

[t]his functional emphasis is traceable in its lineage to the popular belief, characterized by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), that tacit knowledge can be converted into explicit knowledge through IT systems. By capturing knowledge, it can be more widely replicated and shared. By inserting human agency into the equation, these authors see possibilities to sort, convert, retrieve, and share knowledge actively. Henceforth, knowledge is transformed into a more tangible commodity. (Chan & Garrick, 2003, p.1)

Is this not the underlying principle and unmentioned mission of social software: to convert tacit individual knowledge into explicit —and commodified— social knowledge? As I have pointed out before in the context of social bookmarking and tagging: “the aggregation of inherently private goods (tags and what they describe) has public value” (Mejias 2005). But what happens when the public value is ultimately controlled by private interests? As anyone reading the blogs when Yahoo! acquired Flickr or del.icio.us could see, the commodification of social knowledge has very important consequences for the interests of users vs. corporations.

Hence the emphasis in the Open Source / Open Content movement to ensure that aggregated knowledge remains in the hands and at the service of the “public” (however one wishes to define this loaded term). This subversive application of technology is possible because the affordances of technology can be exploited either in the interests of commodification or against them, as Lyotard himself recognized even before the Open Source / Open Content movement gained mainstream recognition:

…Lyotard states, in the final passage of The Postmodern Condition, that new media technologies can be more than simply tools of market capitalism, for they can be used to supply groups with the information needed to question and undermine dominant metaprescriptives (or what might be called ‘grand narratives’). The preferred choice of development, for him at least, is thus clear: ‘The line to follow for computerization to take . . . is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks’ (Lyotard 1984: 67). (Gane, 2003, p.9)

But the argument is larger than merely who owns the technology, and hence, who owns the accumulated knowledge. Open Source / Open content projects offer an alternative in terms of ownership (and that alternative is indeed important), but not in terms of what digitization does to knowledge. Even then, according to Lyotard, having free access to the technology would at least allow us to gather the information needed to ‘question and undermine dominant metaprescriptives,’ including the one that says that knowledge should be judged by how “economically valuable, efficient and programmable it is” (Gane, 2003, p.5). Are we in fact engaged in such questioning, or have we become distracted by the speed of innovation?

Innovation as an End

How is recognition achieved in the field of educational technology? While research and analysis are important, there is nothing in terms of generating ‘buzz’ like releasing the next big thing in educational technology: a new software program, a new platform, a new service, a new community or a new collection of content. In a system where attention has become a commodity, and the basis for a new economy, even code or content released under an Open paradigm needs to behave as a commodity in so far as it is forced to compete for the attention of users. Thus, the focus is not on questioning the logic of the system, but on creating more code and content. Even ‘successful’ blogging is characterized by a simple formula: s/he with the most content generated/aggregated in the less time wins. I sympathize with Suchman when she expressed

… hope for genuinely new reconfigurings of the technological, based not in inventor heroes or extraordinary new devices, but in mundane, and innovative, practices of collective sociomaterial infrastructure building. (Suchman, 2005, p. 11)

Instead of the slow and painful work of infrastructure building, we pursue innovation in the form of vertiginous technological and content development. As Lyotard said: “To go fast is to forget fast, to retain only the information that is useful afterwards, as in ‘rapid reading'” (in Gane, 2003, p.10). Suchman (2005), quoting Barry (1999), suggests that:

there might actually be an inverse relation between the speed of change, and the expansion of inventiveness – that “moving things rapidly may increase a general state of inertia; fixing things in place before alternatives have the chance of developing.” (Suchman, 2005, p. 11)

Gane, in his summarizing of Lyotard, remarks:

Technological development then speeds up life and culture, while at the same subjecting them to principles of efficiency, performance and control. The digital transformation of culture, however, also has a further consequence, namely that in our day-to-day processing of short ‘bytes’ of information we ourselves become more like machines. In other words, through our use of new media technologies, we, as humans, become increasingly ‘inhuman’. (Gane, 2003, p.12)

What does this increasing inhumanity look like, and where does it lead?

Ubiquitous Computing, Ubiquitous Commodification

As educational technologists, we are often invested in augmenting the application of technology, which we justify by calling attention to the enhanced learning opportunities engendered in the process. However noble the intentions, this does not detract from the fact that more technology means a pronouncement, not a reduction, of the symptoms that Lyotard describes. Augmenting the application of technology points, logically, to ubiquitous computing, which —we tell ourselves— is all about empowering humans and privileging knowledge by getting the machine out of the way. Galloway (2004) summarizes the ethos of the movement thus:

ubiquitous computing was meant to go beyond the machine —render it invisible— and privilege the social and material worlds. In this sense, ubiquitous computing was positioned to bring computers to ‘our world’ (domesticating them), rather than us having to adapt to the ‘computer world’ (domesticating us). (Galloway, 2004)

But this rationalization of ubiquitous computing is flawed because it equates invisibility with the absence of influence. It is precisely about ‘domesticating’ our behavior to conform to the machine’s rules. Conditioning ourselves to ignore the machines means that they disappear only from our perspective, not from the perspective of someone without the technology, and certainly not from the machine’s perspective. Their agency and their impact on our behavior does not vanish. On the contrary, it is when we reach this state of conditioned forgetfulness that the commodification of knowledge becomes absolute, and that the status of certain metanarratives becomes incontestable.

We should not seek to domesticate or naturalize technology. Instead, we should strive to retain its artificiality in our lives. This is not the same as prescribing a Neo-Luddism. I firmly believe, like Lyotard, that the flexible affordances of technology can open up ways for critique and introspection. But this can only be achieved if we avoid taking technology for granted to the point of making it invisible. The key is to reaffirm the differences between those aspects of our lives that we have (intentionally or unintentionally) opened up to technologizing and those that we have not, not with the intention of establishing a wall between them but, on the contrary, with the intention of mapping the tensions, influences, and overlaps between the two. This is where I believe the digital divide as paralogy can re-enter the picture.

Digital Divide Redux

Most of the discourse surrounding the digital divide (cf. Sassi 2005) centers on the ‘problem’ of those who have no access to technology, and what the role of those who do have access should be in addressing this problem. The digital divide has become a metanarrative in its own right, establishing that the inevitable goal is more technology, applied to more aspects of our lives, and available to more people. Only then will the playing field be leveled, and true progress will be achieved, we are told.

I do not mean to suggest that some of the problems of our age could not be alleviated with more technology or, more accurately perhaps, with a more even distribution of the technology we already have. But here I am interested in the discourse invoked by the word ‘divide.’ As I have summarized elsewhere (Mejias, 1999), the discourse of Modernity relies on a distinction between modern societies and pre-modern societies to establish a primacy of the former over the latter, a primacy defined to a large extent in terms of technological progress that pre-modern societies must strive to achieve. Massey (1999) has argued that this dynamic enacts in space what is assumed to be a lag in time:

When we use terms such as ‘‘advanced’’, ‘‘backward’’, ‘‘developing’’, ‘‘modern’’ in reference to different regions of the planet what is happening is that spatial difference are being imagined as temporal… The implication is that places are not genuinely different; rather they are just ahead or behind in the same story: their ‘‘difference’’ consists only in their place in the historical queue. (Massey 1999, quoted in Rodgers 2004, p.14)

However, it is not simply a matter of waiting for those ‘laggards’ to catch up. As anyone who has seriously studied the development of the so-called Third World can surmise, capitalism requires the existence of lack for the many in order to generate plenty for the few. The digital divide, in other words, is there by design. May (2004), reviewing Huw’s The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World (2003), remarks:

Huws’s corrective reminds us that the ‘freedom’ of the nomad is bought at the cost of the call-centre operatives’ lack of control over their working life (always being available for us means not being available for themselves)… [R]emember that you can only detach yourself from the real because of the continuing drudgery of the cybertariat [the cyber proletariat]. (May, 2004, p. 3, my note)

To reduce very complex political and economic processes to their most simplistic form: the wealth and materials necessary to maintain the lifestyle of the ubiquitous computing nomad are abstracted from the labor of those who are —to paraphrase Freire (1970)— objects, not subjects in the system. [The image of the nomad used here implies ‘wireless’ mobility, and is not related to the Deleuzian imagery that implies the dynamism of being, which I have referred to before.]

Thus, the current discourse on ubiquitous computing operates at two levels. At the personal level, ubiquitous computing implies a decrease of the digital divide by diminishing the demarcation between the technologized and non-technologized aspects of our lives. At the social level, ubiquitous computing implies an increase of the digital divide in the form of a greater demarcation between the digital-have’s and the digital-have-not’s.

It is in this sense that I argue for the need to reclaim the digital divide as a paralogy to resist the ‘rationality’ of capitalism and ubiquitous computing: At the personal level, the digital divide can help us question the ontological assumptions we make with each new introduction of technology into our lives. At the social level, the digital divide can help us disrupt the narrative of underdeveloped digital have-not’s that need to ‘catch up.’

Bridging Divides Through Reconfigured Nearness

By this I do not mean to suggest that we embrace the paralogy of the digital divide as a way to protest the supposed separation that technology effects between us and reality. For example, I begin to suspect a move in the wrong direction when Gane writes:

The point here is not simply that machines are taking over operations that used to be performed by human minds, nor is it that information is evaluated according to instrumental principles of ‘use’. It is rather that the digitalization of data tears both cultural artefacts and sensory experience from their moorings in physical time and space. The result is what Lyotard terms a ‘hegemonic teleculture’, in which writing, the memorization or inscription of culture, and even events themselves take place at a distance. And this situation demands, in turn, that the very idea of experience in the ‘here and now’ be rethought. (Gane 2003, p.13)

Indeed it needs to be rethought, but perhaps Lyotard did not go far enough in reconceptualizing nearness when he wrote:

What does ‘here’ mean on the phone, on television, at the receiver of an electronic telescope? And the ‘now’? Does not the ‘tele’-element necessarily destroy presence, the ‘here-and-now’ of the forms and their ‘carnal’ reception? What is a place, a moment, not anchored in the immediate ‘passion’ of what happens? Is a computer in any way here and now? Can anything happen with it? Can anything happen to it?’ (Lyotard 1991, p.118; in Gane 2003, p.13)

According to Gane, Lyotard “argues that these combined processes ‘abolish local and singular experience’, hammer ‘the mind with gross stereotypes’, and leave ‘no place for reflection and education’” (Lyotard 1991, p. 64; in Gane, 2003, p.14, my emphasis). Here I must take exception with Lyotard. The splitting of reality into two —one local reality, one online— is unsustainable, as it leaves us with a ‘virtual’ reality that we have no way of transforming with the tools of our ‘real’ reality. It also ignores the multiple and complex relations between the online realm and the local (starting with the human body itself!), connections which must be critically explored in order to reaffirm technology’s potential to facilitate “reflection and education.” Not only is the computer indeed here and now, but it serves as a plane in which other here and now’s are actualized. This is the reconceptualization of nearness that we must undertake, in light of the new —and not always unproblematic— dynamics of telepresence and telepistemology. [I am attempting to do this, as well as deal with the misconception of virtuality (using the work of Deleuze and others) in upcoming work.]

Technology And Choice, And The Choice Not To Choose Technology

What will a reconceptualized theory of nearness, a theory of nearness that takes virtuality and telepresence into account, give us? For one thing, it will open up ways to use the paralogy of the digital divide in redefining our relationships with technology. We know that humans do not exclusively determine technology (social determinism), and that technology does not exclusively determine humans (technological determinism), but that both mutually determine each other. But, as Suchman (2005) argues, “mutuality does not necessarily imply symmetry… persons and artifacts do not constitute each other in the same way” (Suchman, p. 5).

The acknowledgment of this asymmetry, engendered by the paralogy of the digital divide, is important because it can help us realize the ways in which technology cannot improve us. According to Rivers (2005), technology can’t improve us not because technology is evil or biased or anything like that, but because from an ontological perspective, it is we who improve technology:

The assumption that technology is innate in humans implies that it may lead to improvements in ourselves, but this assumption is untenable. The reverse is true: it is we who help to improve technology. It would be naive to suppose that technology is capable of improving us ontologically. It cannot be used to improve and perfect our own being. (Rivers, 2005, p. 3)

Rivers means that, although Being is fluid and dynamic, ontologically Being is what it is, and cannot be improved into Being Plus, or Super-Sized Being. Technology and science can make our lives easier, or laden with commodities (usually at the cost of making someone else’s lives less easy and less filled with commodities), but they cannot really change the nature of our being.

But if we improve technology, and not the other way around, how do we realize technology’s potential for reflection and education? Not through technology itself, but through the choices we make about the use of technology in our lives, choices that can become clearer if we keep the paralogy of the digital divide in mind. Rivers explains how, on the positive side, technology shapes the world by offering us more possibilities to act upon it, while on the negative side, technology often presents us with the illusion that the only way to change the world is by choosing technology:

Technology influences the manner by which we express ourselves in the world, and it does this by creating possibilities. These possibilities exist in a relationship to technology which makes them possible; that is, technology gives rise to possibilities that did not exist before. Yet these possibilities have a direct bearing on how we act. The world is continually shaped by technology because it is one of the several conditions that allow us to choose. But technology also gives the false impression that it is the only possibility, especially the only solution to problems, which either ignores or distorts the diversity of options. Although technology increases some possibilities, its success suppresses others; that is, increased technology reduces alternative possibilities. (Rivers, 2005, p. 9)

In other words, more technology (à la ubiquitous computing) reduces alternative choices. The digital divide as paralogy increases our awareness of the diversity of options, in the sense that it introduces the possibility not to use technology in some aspects of our lives, or to choose to use it purposefully by thinking about how the technologized parts of our lives should relate to the non-technologized parts. As Suchman argues, citing Barad (1998), it is in establishing these boundaries that we create meaning and assume accountability:

As Barad points out, boundaries are necessary for the creation of meaning… Because the cuts implied in boundary making are always agentially positioned rather than naturally occurring, and because boundaries have real consequences, “accountability is mandatory” (187)… As Barad puts it: We are responsible for the world in which we live not because it is an arbitrary construction of our choosing, but because it is sedimented out of particular practices that we have a role in shaping (1998: 102). (Suchman, 2005, p.10-11)

The Digital Divide, Technology, and Openness To Being

Establishing the digital divide in our lives is not about drawing a clean boundary that delineates mutually exclusive realms of action (the digital and the non-digital). On the contrary, the digital divide is a fuzzy, permeable, ever-shifting boundary that calls attention to the fact that we are constantly negotiating how meaning is created across these two realms. Thus, drawing the digital divide at a personal and inter-personal level implies making a series of conscious decisions about the extent to which, for example: our participation in online communities is balanced with our participation in onsite communities; the knowledge gained online is applied onsite, or vice-versa; social agency is delegated to code in order to create new social formations; etc.

To Gochenour (2006), for instance, it no longer makes sense to talk about online communities versus onsite communities. Instead, he talks about distributed communities that encompass both online and onsite elements. These distributed communities are assemblages of digital and non-digital actors where the boundaries of the digital divide are constantly having to be redefined, and this is in itself a form of reflection and action, a praxis:

In the realm of distributed communities, we engage in daily acts of bringing forth new worlds with others, we recognize others as human subjects with whom we wish to co-exist, and who have equal rights to realizing their individual becoming… We do this not in an immaterial realm devoid of relation to the real [‘cyberspace’, or ‘virtual reality’], but in a concrete world of community, where the linguistic worlds that we bring forth with others have the potential to bloom into worlds of action. (Gochenour, 2006, p.16, my note)

Or as Rodgers (2004) puts it:

There is no such place as ‘cyberspace’. Rather, there a millions of on- and offline spaces, frequently intersecting and each having an impact on both the user and non-user in how space is constructed and how it evolves. (Rodgers, 2004, p. 15-16)

To become aware of the intersections we have come to occupy, and to become involved in critically asking how our choices about technology have given shape to those particular intersections, is to use the digital divide as a paralogy, and to create opportunities for authentic reflection and education.

However, the increasing presence of technology in the world, its move towards ubiquitousness, can make it more difficult to engage in this critical exercise. Technology is an expression of our openness to being (Rivers 2005), our freedom to choose even against freedom. Because technology simply mirrors and amplifies the context and conditions that have given it shape, it can result in less freedom, not more. Thus, in order to change technology we need first to change ourselves: “If we change present conditions and the demands they make upon us, then we can change technology (Rivers, 2005, p. 3-4).” This process is, however, sometimes made more difficult by technology. To quote Rivers again: “although technology increases some possibilities, its success suppresses others” (Rivers, 2005, p. 9).

For a long time, educational technologists have put their faith in technology as a way to change education, and even the world. But meaningful change cannot come from the technology as long as the technology contributes to the commodification of knowledge. Thus, if we hope to change technology we must change “the present conditions and the demands they make upon us” (Rivers, ibid) first. This might not require something as dramatic as a revolution or the overthrow of capitalism, but a ‘simple’ reaffirmation of the digital divide: a critical awareness of what aspects of our lives have been commodified by technology, which ones we want to reclaim, and the tension which results from this division. Recognizing this divide is key to challenging the logic of ubiquitous commodification.


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Telepistemology, Combat Robots, and Human Pacman

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

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

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

Telepistemology: Knowing at a Distance

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

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

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

Killing at a Distance

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

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

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

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

War Games & Disobedience Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movable Distance: Technology, Nearness and Farness

Introduction: Detours on the road to abolishing distance

“The frank abolition of all distances brings no nearness… Everything gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness.”

(Heidegger, 1971, pp. 165, 166)

Heidegger’s remark seems to call attention to the fact that technology’s much celebrated victory over distance fails to deliver everything it promised. While technology might be able to facilitate our drawing near to things once considered far, much more than technology is required to bridge the existential gap between the knower and the known. Distancelessness, in other words, is not the same as nearness. Hours of watching television or surfing the internet might increase our knowledge about the object of our attention, but might not necessarily result in a feeling of being closer to it. In fact, the whole experience might result in an increased feeling of alienation from the object and from the ‘real’ world, as we consciously or subconsciously realize that our efforts have failed to produce meaningful nearness. And yet, contrary to Heidegger’s assertion, some kind of crossing of distances must bring nearness, if the words ‘far’ and ‘near’ are to have any meaning at all! Is it that the distances that technology helps us traverse are of little consequence in existential terms, or that we have not yet fully understood what it is that technology brings near or pushes far, and how this shapes our relationship with the world? This essay constitutes an attempt to shed some light on the issue of how technology is changing our ideas about distance. My argument rests on the proposition that we need to start thinking of distance in more sophisticated ways than the traditional temporal/spatial approach, and that we also need to realize that some kinds of distances, paradoxically, are necessary in the production of nearness.

* * *
The goal of technology has always been, I think, to bring things nearer—even if it means settling for a reproduction of the object we want to get close to, instead of the original. Walter Benjamin observed that in our times “the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction” (1998, p. 223). Benjamin, as well as other theorists of technology such as Jacques Ellul (cf. Wilson, 2000, p. 68), have suggested that mass destruction is the ultimate goal of this endeavor. In other words, we want technology to bring things closer to us in order to destroy them. A look at hi-tech warfare methods-satellite recognizance, guided missiles, etc.-would seem to acknowledge the brutality of this observation. However, I believe that our desire to get closer to things by way of technology is motivated in equal measure by the opposite need. It is communication, not merely destruction, that propels technological innovation (although indeed I have commented elsewhere about the parallels between mass communication and mass destruction, cf. Mejias 2004a). We hunger for communication, for meaningful connections with other human beings, for learning from their difference more about ourselves. In that sense, the abolishing of distance by means of technological mediation has had not just anti-social but pro-social goals as well.  But how do we define the distance that separates us from others, the distance that must be bridged for communication to happen?

Before modern communication technologies, this distance was defined basically in Euclidean terms, since the opportunities for communicating with others were completely determined by temporal/spatial distance. As Borgmann (2000) suggests:

In a premodern setting, what is present in space and time has prominence since a resort to elsewhere and elsewhen is slow or laborious. To the prominence of presence corresponds a focal area of nearness that is centered on my body. Within the circle of proximity, things and persons present themselves in their own right and are known directly, by acquaintance rather than description. Objects that are remote in time and space, however, I know indirectly, by having information about them… In this way a substantive metric of nearness and farness underlies or is inscribed on the formal metric of Euclidean space… The substance of farness lies in the reference of signs to things and persons that are concealed by distance in space and remoteness in time. (p. 95-96)

It is not my intention to provide here a detailed analysis of everything that happened in the move from such a setting to our current times. Suffice it to say, again in the words of Borgmann, that “Information technology in particular does not so much bring near what is far as it cancels the metric of time and space” (2000, p. 98). The so-called ‘death of distance’ means that suddenly the remoteness of objects is no impediment to accessing them in some mediated way. But this new ordering of distance affects not only what is far, but also what is near. In contrast with the premodern setting, where communication with the near was convenient and communication with the far was difficult, modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) make it largely irrelevant whether we are communicating with someone down the hall or halfway across the planet, and whether we are doing so synchronously or asynchronously in one case or the other.

But while the metric of space and time may have become somewhat redundant, I wouldn’t go as far as proclaiming its annihilation. Not only does it continue to play an important part in our experience of the world, but more to the point of my argument, its rules continue to largely influence how we associate value judgments with distance. For instance, many critiques of modern technology hinge on the argument that an increase in mediation automatically results in a lamentable decrease in the quality of communication; in other words, the more mediation that is required in the act of communication, the worse the interaction is deemed to be. This kind of judgment carries with it, implicitly, a bias towards face-to-face communication as the prime model for communication. Consequently, these critiques tend to approach the question from the perspective of what we lose in mediated communication compared to face-to-face communication, not of what we gain that face-to-face communication is unable to provide. In other words, an IM chat with someone hundreds of miles away is critiqued from the perspective of how much richer that conversation would be face-to-face, not from the perspective of how impossible that conversation would be without IM. More nuanced critiques might concede that the benefits of an IM conversation in circumstances where face-to-face communication is an impossibility outweigh the detriments. But these same critiques would still condemn an IM conversation carried on with someone in the next cubicle, in light of the possibility of having that same conversation face-to-face (I myself have presented such arguments on occasion). Are there really no circumstances under which we could argue that having an IM chat with someone in the next cubicle is preferable to having a face-to-face conversation? It is as if the discussion of the affordances (what the technology makes possible, and what it makes impossible) of any technology that mediates communication must begin from the position that any deviation from face-to-face communication already entails a loss. The propensity to see things this way is, as I will explore more fully below, a remnant from the days when indeed communication with the far implied an increase in mediation, and this increase in mediation resulted in a decrease in the quality of communication. Today, this bias against mediation serves as a way to express the anxiety we feel as we find the Euclidean logic behind our traditional understanding of distance undermined by ICTs.

However, my project is not simply to recommend that we learn to accept the annihilation of the metric of time and space and move on with our lives. Distancelessness, as Heidegger suggests, is not the same as nearness. The concept of distance continues to be useful, I think, as a way to measure the existential nearness between us and what we seek to know. When seen as a moment, not as a permanent state, distance can help us to take stock of our position in relation to where we want to be. This fits nicely with my interest in normative theorizings of technology, in arguments for the use of technology to increase our understanding of the world, ontologically reintegrating ourselves into it, to use an image by H.S. Bhola (1992) that I am fond of paraphrasing. In order to do this, I am proposing that apart from temporal/spatial distance, we need to consider epistemological distance and ontological distance.

The tyranny of temporal/spatial nearness

Before I get into the details of what I mean by epistemological and ontological distance, I would like to delve deeper into the question of how, despite the redundancy of the metric of time and space brought about by ICTs, certain manifestations of temporal/spatial distance continue to influence how we think about nearness in an online setting. I call this the temporal/spatial bias.

The temporal/spatial bias is just what its name suggests: a set of assumptions (based on our experience of time and space) that influences how we construct meaning about nearness and farness. I am interested in how these assumptions inform value judgments about online technologies. My observation is that, despite the supposed annihilation of the time and space metric in online communication, temporal/spatial distance continues to be used instinctively as a benchmark when describing distances in the online world. This is particularly the case in normative assessments of online experiences, when we are trying to argue that the distance that mediation introduces between the knower and the known is detrimental. As I illustrated above, some arguments propose that any kind of face-to-face communication is better than any kind of online communication because it is immediate and synchronous. The implication, based on traditional temporal/spatial assumptions, is that farness translates into an increase in mediation (the farther the object, the more mediation is required), which in turn results in more impurities introduced into the process. In other words, the use of any instrument to mediate communication is seen as a lesser form of perception than what can be experienced directly by the body, because in some way or another this mediation constitutes a decrease in the quality or amount of data that could be gained through one’s senses.

I am not arguing that the outcome of replacing direct interaction with mediated interaction is something that should not be analyzed and, when appropriate, critiqued. I wish instead to point out how the idea of temporal/spatial farness is used to critique the quality of mediated experiences even when those experiences represent the only opportunity for interaction, or when the knowledge that can be derived from those experiences is something that could not be acquired through any other means.

I would like to use two simple metaphors to make the point that direct experience is not always better than mediated experience. First, consider the use of a mirror to look at the reflection of our face. Obviously, the use of this instrument constitutes a form of mediation, since given our anatomies it is impossible to focus our eyesight on our own face. Without the mirror’s mediation we would have no first-hand knowledge of our own countenance. While it is true that not all knowledge about ourselves comes from our reflected image, the specific knowledge of how we look to others can only be gained through representation. Second, consider the act of star gazing. Not only is the knowledge derived from celestial observation greatly delayed temporally (to the extent that some of the stars we look upon may not even exist anymore), but the spatial distance reduces information emanating from gigantic suns to tiny points of light. And yet, this limited, mediated information has proved incredibly useful for various purposes including navigation, calendar calculation, scientific and religious construction of theories about the nature of the universe, etc.

In presenting these two simplistic examples, I wish to point out that mediated perception, while different from unmediated perception, can provide kinds of knowledge not available through the latter. This lesson can be transposed to our analysis of online experiences. While we need to be mindful of the advantages of face-to-face communication, we also need to acknowledge the kind of insights (about ourselves, about our world) that can be gained through online experiences that cannot be gained through unmediated perception. Categorical denunciations of virtuality only serve to reify the idea of cyberspace as an alternate, autonomous reality, not as a new part of reality that must be integrated and balanced with the other parts. As Wilson argues, the function of our most important technologies is not (or at least should not be) “to replace the natural world, but to display it” (p. 2000, p. 69). Likewise, the function of communication technologies is not to replace the richness that temporal/spatial nearness affords, but to facilitate communication that temporal/spatial distance would make impossible. The fact that this implies a degradation in temporal/spatial nearness is countered by the fact that this kind of communication provides new knowledge and new dimensions of being; in other words, new opportunities for nearness of a different sort.

Epistemological distance

What am I trying to imply by saying that things can be epistemologically near or far? This conceptualization of distance has to do with the degree to which I can justify my knowledge of something based on my current assumptions. One thing is epistemologically nearer than another when my knowledge of the former is relatively more justified (to me, at least) than my knowledge of the latter.

The interesting thing is that the temporal/spatial bias would suggest that things are epistemologically near when they are near in terms of the space and time metric, when in fact (because of the ‘annihilation’ of this metric) this is no longer necessarily the case. To understand how this works, let’s consider the variables of synchronicity and mediation when looked at from the perspective of epistemological distance.

Synchronicity refers to the timeliness of experience; it describes whether experience is immediate or delayed. Because of the temporal/spatial bias, the common belief is that synchronous experiences translate into epistemological nearness (in other words, knowledge about something that is immediate is assumed to be more justified); consequently, asynchronous experiences translate into epistemological farness (that is,  knowledge about something that is delayed is assumed to be less justified). However, because of the abolishment of temporal/spatial distance, what is temporally/spatially near is not necessarily what is epistemologically near; something can be asynchronous or delayed and be epistemologically near (e.g., knowledge gained through an email exchange with someone, whether down the hall or hundreds of miles away, whose ideas are epistemologically congruent with mine), while something can be synchronous or immediate and be epistemologically far (e.g., knowledge gained through a face-to-face conversation with someone whose ideas are epistemologically incongruent with mine). So epistemological distance is a function not of things being synchronous or asynchronous, as the temporal/spatial bias would suggest, but of an altogether different measure: how justified is my knowledge about something.

The same kind of argument can be made about mediation, which I am using here to mean the degree to which an original object is technologically represented, or mediated, in order to be engaged remotely. In other words, mediation describes whether an experience is concrete or represented (actual or virtual, in the common parlance). Because of the temporal/spatial bias, the common belief is that unmediated experiences translate into epistemological nearness (in other words, knowledge about something that is concrete is assumed to be more justified); on the other hand, mediated experiences translate into epistemological farness (that is, knowledge about something that is represented is assumed to be less justified). But again, because of the ‘abolishment’ of temporal/spatial distance, what is temporally/spatially near is not necessarily what is epistemologically near. Something can be mediated or represented and be epistemologically near (e.g., the email exchange in the example above), while something can be unmediated or concrete and be epistemologically far (e.g., the face-to-face conversation in the example above). Again, nearness in this case is a function of how justified I feel my knowledge of something is, not how far or near in temporal/spatial terms it is from me.

According to the logic I just described, knowledge of things in cyberspace might be more justified (to me) than knowledge of things in my own neighborhood. This is not unproblematic. I have warned previously (Mejias, 2004b) of what can happen when what is spatially near becomes irrelevant in comparison to what is, thanks to technology, spatially far but epistemologically near. The argument just presented is not so much a refutation of this as it is an attempt to further explore the dynamic. As Dreyfus (2000) has argued, epistemology (the Cartesian flavor, at least) can be limiting if it positions the subject as detached from the world, the internal mind as separate from the external body and world, the knower as the skeptical, independent entity that must question the reality of the known. In such a scenario, it doesn’t really matter whether epistemological distance is related at all to temporal/spatial distance, and the knower might not care that he or she is embedded in a social world more immediate than the online world; since such view argues that the knower is separate from the world no matter what, things can be spatially near or far without serious consequences to their epistemological availability. Hence the critique of Cartesian epistemology as a way of knowing: “Taking the skeptic seriously and attempting to prove that there is an external world presupposes a separation of the mind from the world of things and other people that defies a phenomenological description of how human beings make sense of everyday things and of themselves” (Dreyfus, 2000, p. 53). Thus, given the need for something to link temporal/spatial and epistemological distance to a more normative notion of nearness (a notion of nearness that specifies how the individual should relate to the world), I turn to a discussion of ontological distance.

Ontological distance

What am I trying to imply by saying that things can be ontologically near or far? While epistemological distance has to do with degrees of knowledge justification, ontological distance has to do with degrees of agency: the ability of subjects to act upon things, to bring things existentially nearer by making them part of their sphere of action. One thing is ontologically nearer than another when I am more capable of interacting with the former than with the latter.

Again, the temporal/spatial bias suggests that things are ontologically near when they are near in terms of time and space, but upon closer examination we can see that this might not be necessarily the case.  We can look at the variables of synchronicity and mediation again and derive similar observations to those we derived for epistemological distance: Whereas the temporal/spatial bias leads us to assume that synchronous and unmediated objects are ontologically nearer, the diminishing primacy of time and space brought about by ICTs confirms that asynchronous and mediated objects can be ontologically near as well. In other words, it is possible for the subject to have a higher degree of agency in relation to something that is remote or mediated as opposed to something that is immediate and unmediated. For instance, my actions can have weightier significance and meaning in an online asynchronous forum than in a face-to-face forum in my neighborhood.

Ontological distance involves an assessment of temporal/spatial distance and epistemological distance. Ontological distance combines our perception of where objects are in time and space with our knowledge about those objects in an effort to figure out what they mean to us, what types of actions are possible. Ontological distance helps us acknowledge that Object X, at a particular temporal/spatial and epistemological position, has a particular meaning, and that certain actions are or are not possible based on that meaning. This search for the relationship between meaning and action, as Dourish (2001) explains, has been the project of phenomenology:

What the phenomenologists have explored is the relationship between embodied action and meaning. For them, the source of meaning (and meaningfulness) is not a collection of abstract, idealized entities; instead, it is to be found in the world in which we act, and which acts upon us. The world is already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions. It is only through those actions, and the possibility for actions that the world affords us, that we can come to find the world, in both its physical and social manifestations, meaningful. (p. 116)

Ontological distance tracks our uncovering of meaning in the world, and indicates the degree to which this world is available to us for action. A change in ontological distance signifies a change in this availability, and thus a change in meaning: Things that are ontologically far from us are experienced abstractly, offering us little opportunity for involvement; conversely, things that are ontologically near are experienced as part of our sphere of action-things that we can change and that can change us. In this light, Bhola’s (1992) call for the ontological reintegration of the individual to the world can be interpreted as the abolishment of ontological distance by re-inscribing the individual into the world as a full agent, or to paraphrase Freire (1972), by transforming the individual into a subject-not an object-of history. The important point to make here is that while things might be epistemologically nearer than ever (due to the availability of information), and while temporal/spatial distance does not matter as much, they are also more ontologically distanced than ever, in the sense that we are not always fully empowered to act upon them.

This lack of ontological nearness is a phenomenon that I do not intend to address right now. Suffice it to say that it involves power dynamics that include the use of technology (mainly, mass communication technologies) for the specific purpose of creating ontological alienation within oppressed classes. At the same time, however, technology also offers new affordances or possibilities that can bring ontological nearness. For example, technologically facilitated shifts in temporal/spatial distance can, as I have discussed, provide better perspectives or vantage points from which to learn about the world and learn about ourselves-perspectives that would be impossible to acquire without technological mediation. Likewise, shifts in epistemological distance can allow us to reassess the assumptions that justify our knowledge, creating opportunities for critical thinking and the questioning of things as we have assumed them to be. These shifts, if properly channeled, can result in an ontological re-approach or re-integration to the world.


Most critiques against technology’s objectification of the individual and the world revolve around the assumption that we should strive towards temporal/spatial nearness. As I have tried to show in this paper, this bias no longer yields a meaningful model for understanding a world in which ICTs play a major role. Thus, a re-evaluation of what nearness means to us is in order. My argument is that we should strive towards ontological nearness, and take advantage of the unfolding affordances created by ICTs to manipulate temporal/spatial distance and epistemological distance to attain this goal, even if this manipulation entails an increase, not a decrease, in those types of distances.

My point, then, is that nearness can be engendered by distance; or to articulate it in a less paradoxical way: cultivating certain kinds of farness at certain times can eventually lead to more meaningful forms of nearness. As I have argued, distances do not necessarily diminish meaning when they produce information that would otherwise not be available to us, or when they represent steps on the road to increased understanding. Thus, the goal of a pedagogy of nearness (a pedagogy which I plan to define and develop more fully in a later project) is to use temporal/spatial farness to reveal new information, and epistemological farness to challenge our assumptions and justifications. Both distancings can be important tools in the process of figuring out what is our current ontological position vis-à-vis the world, and whether this position is satisfactory to us.

One of the biases I hope my argument can begin to dispel is that a simple, linear progression towards nearness in all of the three distances discussed is the desired goal. The process of understanding and acting upon the world requires moves that are multifaceted and complex, moves that simultaneously require nearness in one type of distance and farness in another. Sometimes a distancing in one axis is required before nearness in another can be achieved, which in turn causes a shift in another axis, and so on. For example, a temporal/spatial distancing from my surroundings can lead me to an epistemological re-assessment of them, which can lead to new ontological approaches to those same surroundings.

What role can technology play in this process? To begin with, we need to abandon previous biases and acknowledge that not all the farness that technology introduces is damaging, as not all the nearness that it engenders is (from an ontological perspective) as helpful as we would like to believe. Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that technology’s power in allowing us to manipulate distances should be placed in the service of a larger goal. This goal requires that we remain conscious of technology’s possibilities as well as its limitations in facilitating ontological nearness. This kind of view of technology (which is itself part of an ontological reintegration to a world in which ICTs are increasingly part of our lives) is what constitutes the difference between “using the real world as a metaphor for interaction and using it as a medium for interaction” (Dourish, 2001, p. 101). In other words, we should not seek to design a virtual world where technology affords a virtual ontological nearness, but we should seek to design technologies that afford ontological nearness to the actual world, even if that nearness is incomplete and must be supplemented by non-technological means.


Benjamin, W. (1988). Illuminations. (H. Arendt, ed.), New York: Schocken Books

Bhola, H. S. (1992). Literacy, knowledge, power, and development: Multiple
. Springfield, VA: DYNEDRS.

Borgmann, A. (2000). Information, nearness, and farness. In K. Goldberg, (Ed.) The robot in the garden: telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of the Internet. (pp. 90-107). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

Dourish, Paul. Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001.

Dreyfus, H. (2000). Telepistemology: Descartes’ last stand. In K. Goldberg (Ed.), The robot in the garden: telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of the Internet.  (pp. 48-63). Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder

Heidegger, Martin; translations and introduction by Albert Hofstadter. Poetry, language, thought. 1st Perennial Classics ed. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.

Mejias, U. (2004a). Weapons of mass communication. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://ideant.typepad.com/ideant/2004/05/weapons_of_mass.html

Mejias, U. (2004b). Re-approaching nearness: Online communication and its place in praxis. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://ideant.typepad.com/ideant/files/mejias_nearness.pdf

Wilson, C. (2000). Vicariousness and authenticity. In K. Goldberg, (Ed.) The robot in the garden: telerobotics and telepistemology in the age of the Internet. (pp. 64-89). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.

Weapons of Mass Communication

Is the potential of communication technologies diametrically opposed to that of warfare technologies? If communication is the sharing of meaning, and shared meaning brings about understanding and empathy, then more communication should mean less war, right?

In an ideal world, perhaps. But in my more cynic moments, I cannot but see a parallel between the way our technologies for war and for communication have developed. In essence, both sets of modern technologies seek to replace direct engagement with engagement from a safe distance.

Tolstoy, in his essay What is religion, of what does its essence consist?, wrote:

The main reason for the terrible cruelty between men today, apart from the absence of religion, is still the refined complexity of life which shields people from the consequences of their actions. However cruel Attila, Genghis Khan and their followers may have been, the act of killing people personally, face to face, must have been unpleasant to them… Nowadays we kill people through such a complex process of communication, and the consequences of our cruelty are so carefully removed and concealed from us, that there is no restraint on the bestiality of the action. The cruelty of some people towards others will continue to increase until it has reached unprecedented dimensions (Tolstoy, A confession and other religious writtings, Penguin 1987, p100).

The reference to the “absence of religion” right at the beginning might be enough for folks in the atheist/agnostic camp to dismiss the rest of the argument. But although Tolstoy actually presents one of the most rational (and subversive) defenses of religion in our times (which I hope to address here at some other point; or better yet, go read his Confession), let’s leave the religious aspect of the comment aside for the moment, and focus on the politics.

For starters, I see some connections to Horkheimer and Adorno’s comments regarding technology and its “blindness to suffering:” we want to be immune from pain–especially the pain of combat–but that doesn’t mean some people want to be rid of war! Because war is in fact necessary to maintain the standards of living of these people, the history of war technologies has been marked by the development of more devastating weaponry which can be deployed with the least inconvenience on our part. Sure, Genghis Khan is quaint, but Depleted Uranium, now that’s progress!

But it is Tolstoy’s remark about killing people through “a complex process of communication” that I find the most interesting. Communication nowadays is indeed complex. One of my critiques of modern communication technologies is that they put more and more layers of mediation between the knower and the known. Soon, we are no longer talking to someone, but about someone. This process allows us to receive and process more information from more varied sources than ever before, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into better communication, the kind that results in more understanding and empathy.

Modern communication technologies allow us to engage the Other from a safe distance, within the security of our own environment, and without the dangers (and commitments) of real contact. We can thus consume and kill what is authentic about the Other through complex processes of communication. In that sense, killing people through communication technologies might not be as violent or sudden as killing people through war technologies, but the question we have to ask is whether these are not two sides of one single coin.

The above arguments can be more easily applied to mass communication technologies. It is too early to tell whether new online communication technologies will have similar effects. Each generation of technologies brings unforeseen forms of appropriation and application. While many of the new communication technologies are emerging out of the same paradigm that is producing new war technologies, the former are easier to re-invent, adapt or appropriate than the latter. That gives me some hope.

Norbert Elias: Technology and Momentary Lapses Into Barbarism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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