From Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics”:
One way the Internet and other new media may be profoundly changing the public sphere is through the change they imply in temporality. Highly mediated and highly capitalized forms of circulation are increasingly organized as continuous (“24/7 instant access”) rather than punctual. At the time of the writing, Web discourse has very little of the citational field that would allow us to speak of it as discourse unfolding through time. Once a Web site is up, it can be hard to tell how recently it was posted or revised or how long it will continue to be posted. Most sites are not archived. For the most part, they are not centrally indexed. The reflexive appartus of Web discourse consists mostly of hypertext links and search engines, and these are not punctual. So although there are exceptions, including the migration of some print serials to electronic format and the successful use of the Web by some social movements, it remains unclear to what extent the changing technology will be assimilable to the temporal framework of public discourse. If the change of infrastructure continues at this pace, and if modes of apprehension change accordingly, the absence of punctual rhythms may make it very difficult to connect localized acts of reading to the modes of agency in the social imaginary of modernity. It may even be necessary to abandon “circulation” as an analytic category (97).
Written in 2001 Warner’s almost parenthetical comments on the Internet seem simultaneously dated and instructive. The “at the time of the writing” looms large here. Subsequent to the essay rather elaborate practices have developed for sequencing conversations and signalling temporality. Blogging itself was not yet a prominent discussion format, and the practice of displaying posts in reverse chronological order had yet to be widely adopted, which is to say nothing of the large impact of something like Facebook in displaying and ordering temporality, or the more ephemeral but none the less significant forms of asymmetrical yet more or less real time conversations that happen on microblogging platforms such as Twitter. And it is true that while search engines have gotten better there is no central index of public conversations, the roll a library once served. Indeed the architecture of the internet virtually guarantees the receding of the central index function.
Far from being assimilated into the “temporal framework of public discourse” though, I would argue that the Internet, has transformed the temporal framework of that discourse. As Warner suggests it has become very difficult to connect localized acts of reading (reading stands in for public discourse here, at least for Warner). This is not because the temporality of conversations has eroded the local, but rather because the temporality of conversations has replaced the geography of conversations, where the local ceases to be the main organizing principle of discourse. So the agency associated with the social imaginary of modernity has indeed been significantly altered, but that is because the discursive medium (the Internet) has realigned the network of possible connections. Reading (in the narrow sense) and local (in the geographic sense) are far less significant limitations on the horizon of discursive possibilities.
Earlier this year I wrote a piece on my fear that Big Data was going to change the way elections are managed. Briefly I argued that elections are going to start to use an unholy alliance of big data and behavioral targeting to socially engineer elections. True elections have in some since always been about organizing and motivating people to get to the polls, but the emerging digital landscape substantially alters the playing field, in a way that ought to make us concerned about whether or not this is healthy for a democracy. I won’t restate my whole argument here, you can read it yourself, and read what someone working in the industry had to say in response. Then you can also read Zeynep Tufekci’s piece on why we should “Beware of the Smart Campaign.”
While prior to the election there were a few articles talking about digital tools, micro-targeting and politics, post election cycle there has been a deluge of articles explaining the inner-workings of this new electoral battleground. I will have more thoughts on this later, a longer piece. But in the meantime I thought I would just give a run-down of all the pieces that have been written on this matter lately, a sort of weekend reading list on Big Data politics.
I think it is easy to argue that this is just more of the same, that we have always had this type of public manipulation in politics. But I also think this argument is wrong. It fails to recognize the degree of difference here that is producing a difference of kind, and more importantly how a refinement of behavioral targeting techniques coupled with big data is producing a world that is dangerous to democracy. Early on many argued that the digital network would enable more people to participate in a grass roots politics, but it is pretty clear now that the opposite force is just as powerful: using the digital network to engineer the public.
It’s all too easy to point out Big Bird, Binders Full of Women, and Bayonets, to talk about how the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign used Facebook or Youtube to get its message out, but to pay attention only to the level of content I think is a mistake. As McLuhan says the content is the juicy meat meant to distract the guard dog. What happened below the level of content here is the bigger story.
Pro Publica Primer. For a while Pro Publica has been following the story of Big Data and politics. Following the election they posted this article which is a good place to start on what was going on, highlighting what we know, and what we have yet to learn about how the Obama team leveraged data. The article talks about the all important “persuasion score” that the campaign used to decide who to target, and the “persuasion” phone call which is likened to a drug dose, “only effective for so long.” If you only read one piece this is the one I would pick.
Frontline: The Digital Factor in Election 2012. Produced prior to the election this Frontline video attempts to understand what types of data are out there and how campaigns are using it to target voters. Aristotle one of the companies involved in this data targeting claims to have 500 points of data on voters, and explains how they “exploit” this data. As the CEO of Aristotle says the campaigns aren’t worried about your privacy they are concerned about winning the election. This video is a good baseline for what is going on, but really it only scratches the surface about the dangers.
Obama’s Data Crunchers: This article at Time’s Swampland was one of the first I saw most election that gave an inside look at what the digital team for Obama was doing. Obviously they had access during the election, pre-wrote the article, and just held it until after the election was over. There is some interesting information here, like the analytics department was five times the size as 2008, the “chief scientist” was someone who had experience in maximizing supermarket sales, how efficiently they raised money, how they used safe states like California as test beds before rolling something out to a battleground state, and ran 66,000 simulations every night.
Behavorial Targeting Brought to You by Academics: This article at the NYTimes illustrates how a group of academics, dubbed the “dream team” helped Obama to carefully craft his message for maximum effect. The Obama team took advice from these behavioral scientists. Unfortunately the Obama team won’t release information on the details, and the academics signed a non-disclosure agreement. But the details the Times has are telling, for example how precisely to word a message in order to make a not-likely voter feel guilty and turn out to vote.
Optimizing the Message. A large part of the story here is not just that behavioral targeting or persuading voters is happening, but that the Obama campaign maximized efficiency, to get this done. In other words they relied on data to tell them how to most effectively and efficiently persuade voters and raise revenue. Mother Jones describes how the Obama campaign was able to spend less per add, and raise more per email than the Romney effort.
Romney Fail. One of the more telling stories to come out about this election cycle, was how far behind the Romney campaign was in terms of its digital strategy. Romney tried to have a real time update of people’s voting behaviors. This didn’t go so well. Tellingly it was similar to the system that the Obama team realized 4 years ago didn’t work. But the larger picture here is how the rhetoric post-election has been how envious the Republicans are of the Democrats advantage and how they will look to close the gap. For those interested in the ORCA fail you should check out the blog post at Ace of Spades HQ, which was by someone who tried to volunteer, and was the first one I saw post election. Also Ars Technica (which in general has had some of the better inside looks at tech and politics) covered the Romney fail.
The Technical Side: For those interested in the more technical side of the Obama advantage GigaOM described some of the details of the operation, but the ArsTechnica piece the best rundown of the specifics of Obama’s tech team. This article describes in detail project Narwhal and how the Obama campaign built the infrastructure from the ground up in order to maintain a dominate advantage. The article discusses everything from design philosophy to which tools they used.
The Republican Disadvantage. One of the consistent narratives post election has been disappointment within the Republican campaign about the inability to compete. Republicans are being openly envious about the Obama campaign, in many cases vowing not to get beat in 2016.
The Minds behind the Tech. Alexis Madrigal’s piece at The Atlantic profiles Harper Reed, the chief technology officer for the Obama campaign. While I am generally skeptical of any history which focuses on the contributions of one individual, (if it wasn’t Reed it would be someone else), Madrigal’s piece demonstrates something more, the way that a culture of technology influenced the Obama campaign. The argument here is one that is pretty consistent across post election coverage: Nerds are now key to winning elections.
Will the Republicans Catch Up?. As Democrats celebrate, Republicans work hard to close this gap. Nancy Scola writes a piece that should be comforting to most Democrats on how the Republicans will have a hard time countering the data advantage. I am not sure I agree, in fact nothing about the technology here is particularly aligned with party politics, if anything I would say that engineering public opinion in this matter lends itself to a right leaning ideology.
The Long History. If you are interested in the long history of this read The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg, in which he discusses how campaigns have increasingly leveraged social science techniques for competitive advantage.
The Democratic History. If you want a sense of how the Democrats and particularly Obama developed an advantage read Daniel Kreiss’s book, Taking Our Country Back, in which he traces the history of the digital campaign from Dean to Obama. In particular the book demonstrates how it was the Dean loss that lead to building infrastructure for the Obama win.
The Paul Ryan marathon story hits the trifecta of interests for me: politics, the Internet, and running. Appealing both to my academic interests and my personal obsession I have followed this story with perhaps at times too much focus, reading all the reactions, analysis, and even comment streams and discussion boards. But beyond the question of “what does it mean” that Ryan lied about (misremembered?) his marathon time is an important story about how politics changes with an Internet enabled public, and equally as important a lesson about both the potential and current limitations of this kind of Internet enabled political engagement.
In what is now a well known story, Ryan claimed in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that he had run a “two-hour fifty something marathon.” To the non-running listener it seems as if Ryan had run an impressive race, but to the knowledgeable runner, this was a rather bold claim, one that just on the surface seems questionable. In fact Ryan’s marathon time was 4:01:25, more than an hour slower than the time he claimed.
Not to get too “sports science” here, but to understand this story it’s important to contextualize the significance of a sub-three-hour marathon. The difference between a four-hour marathon and a sub-three is a Grand Canyon of athletic training. It’s the difference between somebody like Lance Armstrong (whose first marathon was a 2:59) and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (4:18). Even established athletes have trouble breaking the three-hour mark. Apolo Ohno only managed a 3:25 when he ran the New York City marathon. Most men under 40 who are in moderate shape with some sort of history of running can, with 20 weeks of training, run a four-hour marathon. But to run a sub-three requires a serious amount of training, years. Most sub-three-hour marathoners I know ran cross country in college and run 70 miles a week. A “two-hour-fifty-something” marathon would require running each mile in under 6:50 per mile, whereas a four-hour marathon only requires running each mile at 9:00 per mile. Indeed in many races a four-hour marathon for men under 40 is below the median, whereas breaking the three hour mark puts you in rarefied air. Or put another way, claiming to run a sub-three-hour marathon when your time was over four is akin to saying your were a senior partner in a law firm, when in actuality you were just a summer intern.
Now again to the non-dedicated runner this might not be totally obvious. But to established runners a claim to run a sub-three is fairly significant. And this is where the story gets interesting. On August 30th, eight days after Ryan made his claim, a user going by the name “Bill Walker” posted to the LetsRun discussion board asking about Ryan’s marathon.
To understand what happened next, it’s important to explain a bit about LetsRun. LetsRun is one of the oldest running communities on the web, dating back to 2000. The LetsRun community is primarily made of “serious runners” covering the elite side of distance running in an in-depth way that appeals to only a small segment of runners. Importantly though, in addition to the news and information about elite running, LetsRun has its “World Famous Message Boards.” These boards are your typical discussion forum. While primarily focused on running and training, they also contain threads on everything one could imagine, such as “should I break up with my girlfriend,” discussion of “the best one hit wonder,” and “what Halloween costume people are planning on wearing.” LetsRun allows anonymous posters, which certainly shapes the ethos of the community. Comments can range from the honest, to the snarky, to the downright rude and vulgar. Think of LetsRun as at times bordering on 4chan for runners (albeit a little more safe for work), a large collection of often Internet-savvy, rabid running fans. (It’s also worth mentioning that the site tends to lean right, although not always, and community members run the political spectrum. The two co-founders are decidedly conservative, and frequently express their political leanings.)
If there is one thing that the LetsRun community hates, though, it is cheaters: Drug cheats, people who cut courses, and those who lie about their accomplishments. The LetsRun community sort of sees itself as the judge, jury and sometimes executioner of distance running. This includes policing elite runners suspected of doping and covering people who cheat at local races. Less than a month before Ryan’s brag, the New Yorker ran a piece about one serial cheater, Kip Litton, and how the LetsRun community pored over marathon records, photographs, and race reports obsessing over outing this fraud.
And this is where Ryan unwittingly created a problem for himself. Claiming to run a sub-three-hour marathon might only raise an eyebrow or two when it comes to mainstream journalists, but it certainly caught the attention of the LetsRun community, which instantly became interested in establishing what race he ran, and indeed what his time really was. The first few pages of the discussion thread “Paul Ryan’s marathon” mostly features posters expressing not-so-polite skepticism at his time, pointing out all the reasons Ryan is not to be believed. No runner who breaks three hours doesn’t know his Personal Record (PR) by heart. Seriously. Ask any of your serious running friends and they will rattle off all their PRs.
The original discussion starts at 1 p.m. on Aug. 30. By that evening, the speculation and investigation is in full gear. The discussion as a whole now encompasses 32 pages and over 600 posts, and still growing. Knowing the races, and the running world, community members start pouring over race records, trying to establish what marathon Ryan ran. Familiarity with the races allowed them to narrow down the list to a few races. When records are not available online — older race results aren’t always available — several members start emailing race directors asking for copies of older race results, while some members unearth their own personal copies of race records from when they ran the races in question. By noon the next day Runner’s World, the leading mainstream running website aimed more at the casual runner than the elite runner, runs a story and begins its own investigation. Although Runner’s World doesn’t credit LetsRun with first investigating the story, it’s pretty clear that this is what happened. There is a long history of stories first appearing on the LetsRun discussion boards only to later appear in Runner’s World. And although Runner’s World won’t mention LetsRun, later many other media outlets including the New Yorker and the Atlantic will. (Keep in mind that those at the New Yorker are familiar with the investigative capabilities of LetsRun as just earlier that month they had run the Kip Litton story.) It also appears that the New Yorker story is the one that takes it from a discussion on running websites to the mainstream media. As a small side note, when the original LetsRun discussion post was down for a short time (only available as a Google Cache), speculation among the community was that the founders (who remain one of the few voices defending Ryan) had deleted the thread. But after some protest the thread reappeared.
Now the problem for Ryan here is he made a specific claim, a sub-three-hour marathon, coupled with doubling down on that claim. LetsRun loathes fake bragging. In the original interview, Hewitt says, “holy smokes,” to which Ryan responds, “I was fast when I was younger.” The sub-three-hour marathon is an easy claim to prove or disprove — all it takes is a bit of desire to pour over records and have access to said records. LetsRun provides the desire, and the open nature of marathon records provides the access. While not universally available, the LetsRun community and other running reporters knew how to easily get these records and check Ryan’s claim. And so once the real result is found it becomes a much bigger story than just the Hewitt interview, and Ryan has to try and walk back the claim (“I misspoke.”) Lesson: Don’t cross a well established Internet community, and making a claim that is so easily fact-checked is a dangerous proposition.
Compare this with the 2004 election, when Kerry claimed to have run the Boston marathon. In an interview with ESPN Kerry said that back in 1980 he ran the Boston Marathon. When no record could be found of him registering, Kerry said that he ran as a bandit (an unregistered runner), something that occurred frequently before the marathon boom, so certainly possible, but still more than likely a lie. The LetsRun community at the time also quickly called BS but was unable to prove that Kerry lied, so the story really went nowhere outside of the conservative blogs that used it as evidence that Kerry was untrustworthy. But imagine Kerry were to make that claim of a more recent Boston Marathon. Why would that matter? Because now there are photos along the route, with cameras that capture every finisher as they cross the 26.2 mile mark. So one could imagine the LetsRun community poring over every single photo looking for evidence of Kerry, and sufficiently demonstrating that he isn’t in any of the finish line footage, and thus didn’t run. One needs two things here, both an invested community and data, in Kerry’s case there was no data. And so although the LetsRun community, and most people, believe Kerry was not telling the truth, nothing much became of it.
So contrast this with Ryan where not only does it became a significant story, covered and carried by mainstream news outlets as well as the larger Internet. Around the web people started piling on. Mocked on Twitter, Paul Ryan marathon became something of a meme (it was trending for a while). Search on Google for Paul Ryan and the third suggested auto-complete is “Paul Ryan Marathon,” right after “Paul Ryan” and “Paul Ryan speech,” not something the campaign is probably particularly happy about. Reddit users started a thread documenting the questionable fitness accomplishments of Pual Ryan.
And in true Internet fashion you can now calculate your “Paul Ryan Running Time.” Created by a PhD student at John Hopkins who is also a legitimate sub-3:00 marathoner, the site allows you to adjust your time according to Paul Ryan math and discover how close you are to setting a world record. And perhaps most damning for Ryan is the way this is leading to other attacks. Progress Now in Colorado is now questioning whether or not Ryan actually climbed 40 of the state’s peaks, and running a campaign tying that to how his politics would damage the state.
But there is also a downside to this story. As much as Democrats would like to make this an issue about Ryan’s character, ultimately we are talking about a marathon time, not policy issues. It would be nice to think that open data about political issues coupled with invested communities would yield equally robust policy fact checking, but I am not convinced that is the case. On the one hand, as has already been documented, politicians frequently lie about policies, and fact checking organizations exist to try and hold them accountable. But this yields few results, rather just more claims that “your facts aren’t my facts.” While with the marathon, it is pretty clear what time Ryan ran, policy questions contain far more data, interpretation, and contextualization (a clock time, though, is a clock time). And even in the case of the marathon, some try to dismiss this as simply a misstatement. Indeed it seems that many motivated by ideological beliefs are willing to accept that Ryan was just mistaken, not making a false boast. Ryan actually now claims that he just made up what he thought was an average time because he couldn’t remember. LetsRun isn’t buying this explanation either.
More importantly, I think if we take this as an example of how the Internet can hold politicians more accountable, and highlight when they clearly lie to the public, we also have to recognize that the Internet and open data alone are not a panacea. There are cultural issues in place. Clearly the Internet changes the field of play here. Don’t for a minute imagine that politicians haven’t for years been making similar false boasts. The Internet just records these in a way not previously available, so we become aware of them, and are able to hold politicians accountable. But to whom or to what standard we hold them accountable is really a social issue, not a technical one.
“One thing should be clear, even though we live in a world in which we share personal information more freely than in the past, we must reject the conclusion that privacy is an outmoded value. It has been at the heart of our democracy from its inception, and we need it now more than ever.” - President Obama, on Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World.
Over the last two years, public angst over the ability of companies to collect data about people and subsequently use this data to directly target consumers has certainly increased. One of the places this increased anxiety has clearly manifested itself is the discussion of “Do Not Track” legislation, a policy now backed by the Obama administration which would give consumers more control over how their data is used and force companies to be at least marginally more transparent than they are now.
At the center of this controversy is Behavioral Targeting. Think of Behavioral Targeting as the intersection between Big Data, Moneyball, Network Theory, Cognitive Psychology and Businesses. Depending on where you stand this alliance is either the Holy Grail of marketing or the ultimate in Unholy Alliances of consumer manipulation. The most disturbing mainstream article on this trend, published in the NYTimes, outlines how Target gathers data on consumers to develop a pregnancy prediction score, to know when a customer is pregnant so they can use that moment to change their buying habits. The article was sort of a wake-up call to the general public, a glimpse into how marketers are using all this data to effectively manipulate consumers and maximize profit margins. Fair enough, that’s what they do, and we can have the debate later about whether or not this type of behavioral targeting is a good idea, or to what extent we should regulate it. Instead I want to ask a more interesting, and to me more important question: what happens when you replace businesses with political actors in the above equation. That is . . .
What do you get when you cross Big Data, Moneyball, Network Theory, Cognitive Psychology and Democracy?
The answer to me is pretty clearly something not very good for the public. Indeed while I am generally fairly optimistic about the effect of the digital network on public formation, I think this is one area we need to be concerned about. It seems to be mixing this type of behavioral targeting with democracy seriously undermines the democratic process, from multiple angles.
What’s Going On Now.
It’s actually pretty difficult to know the type of big data plus behavioral targeting campaigns are engaging in. Not surprisingly campaigns want to keep this a secret, not merely for competitive advantage, but as with the Target story, revealing the degree to which we are tracked and marketed to could disturb some people, harming the cause. What we do know though is big data has become big business in politics. But a recent panel at Personal Democracy Forum gave a glimpse into what is going on. The panel was composed of one academic (Dan Kreiss) who gave a bit of historical perspective) followed by three individuals who worked for companies that market themselves as being able to help campaigns target voters thru online efforts.
-Campaign Grid, one of the presenters, said they have been able to successfully leverage cookies to match online viewing habits with voter records, with an 80% success rate. In other words for 80% of the voters they are able to identify online viewing habits. (Stop and think about that for a moment. For a bit on how this works see this article about RapLeaf.) Campaign Grid also suggested that they were working towards 100%. Imagine all the information Google and Facebook and other online trackers have on you crossed with all the public records available on you.
-Part of the idea here is to connect commercial data with voter data. Campaign Grid says that they want to crosstab voter data against 15,000 other commercial data points.
-The Catalyst Database (one of the ones used by the DNC) already matches 450 points of data on 250 million people.
-This is done by leveraging commercial data, think here all the online trackers, plus all that info generated by monitoring in store purchases, plus credit reports, and then merging this with public data, voter registration, tax databases, DMV records etc. Building a staggering amount of data both on certain population segments, but also on individuals.
-Targeted Victory has already received 2.5 million from the Romney Campaign. The name alone points to one of the problems here, the idea that the goal is victory, using Big Data to win elections not create a better public discussion. One of the presenters at PDF said, “The goal of Big Data should be about solving problems to “win elections.”
-One of the reasons that Obama won the last election was a significant advantage in both the primary and the general election in data, and effective use of that data. The 2008 elections were the first time that this type of data maximization generated from internet traffic was used. In 2008 they had 10 times as much data on any one voter as they did in 2004.
-Already in 2008 the Obama campaign was tracking data on donations, looking to understand how everything from shape, color, and message effected what types of emails led to donations. This is basically A/B testing on a sophisticated level meant to maximize campaign donations.
-Also in 2008 the Obama campaign was targeting messages based on your browsing history. If you visited websites about parenting you got an Obama ad (not necessarily on the parenting website but on other websites you visited) on education or child healthcare, whereas if you frequented environmental sites, the ads you would see would reflect Obama’s green policy. In other words when you visited CNN rather than serve you up a generic Obama ad they could tailor one directly to you based on your browsing habits at other sites. (For a primer on how this works watch this video.)
The goal of this type of massive data tracking is not to serve the electorate or democracy, but rather merely to identify the most efficient way to generate votes. In other words this is all used to persuade voters, not alter policy or engage the electorate. Don’t believe me just read their own rhetoric.
It’s Only Going to Get Worse
In some respects you could argue, although I think this would be wrong, that these efforts are just an expansion of previous direct mail voting efforts. Its important to understand two things, first that this is already a type of voter targeting beyond anything we have seen before, while arguably similar to prior efforts the scope and scale of what is being engaged in here is much larger. And two, perhaps more importantly is the realization that these voter tracking, identification and targeting, is only going to get more sophisticated, more complicated, and more powerful. In the same sense that Target profiling families to find pregnant mothers is an astronomical leap over the Mad Men days of creating a company message, this type of voter targeting is way beyond the types of campaigning we have seen in prior political campaigns.
One only has to look at the Obama campaigns strategy shift over the last four years to see how this has changed, just in that short time. In 2008 the Obama campaign used myBarackObama as the the center piece of voter organization. Now we could argue the degree to which this is true, but this platform was largely seen as a horizontal structure, connecting like minded voters, at times targeting them with data, but also limited in the type of targeting that it could do. But the Obama campaign made a significant choice to actually use Facebook this election cycle, promoting connecting with voters this way, rather than thru an independent source. Why? The answer lies in this page. (Taken from an article Micah Sifry wrote on this subject.)
This is the page you see when you sign up for the Barack Obama app on Facebook. Why would the campaign choose to leverage another platform, rather than use their own? Because Facebook allows them to harvest a whole range of data points that otherwise the campaign might not have access to. By connecting to the campaign thru Facebook you are giving them access to a bunch of data they wouldn’t otherwise normally have, of at least would have to go to great pains to get. I am not going to go into the details here, you should just read about it here. But as a way of summarizing the way Facebook is able to engineer decisions thru changing its platform, recently Facebook was able to increase Organ Donor registration by a factor of 23 . . 23! That kind of power is worth a great deal of money to the campaigns.
I’m not going to stage the long form of the argument here, but really what a chunk of these data scientists are trying to do is figure out a way to understand aggregate human behavior with an eye towards changing it, programming it if you will. Big Data is useful, but it can also be dangerous. Again just think carefully about the Target article and how they are looking to subtly manipulate and produce customer responses below the threshold of conscious decision making. In short as the Technology Review article summarizes, the goal is to make social science an engineering discipline. And you don’t have to believe this is 100% possible to start to get worried about this.
Why this Should Concern You
A good deal of work has already been done highlighting some of the issues here. I encourage you to read the work of Dan Kreiss (Kreiss was on the PDF panel) and Phillip Howard on this subject (here, here, & here). As Howard and Kreiss point out there are four reasons you should be concerned about this:
1. Potential for Data Breach. These types of databases would store a tremendous amount of data, and currently the market in this data is a fairly unregulated free for all. Commercial database breaches have become somewhat commonplace, but the types of data these companies are storing and selling to campaigns contains more data, and more sensitive data. If we believe that freedom of assembly is fundamental to a democracy (read the 1st Amendment) we should also be concerned about creating an atmosphere where an individuals political and commercial associations are stored together, creating a sense that individuals are always having their political activity monitored. The extent to which this type of business is unregulated, is as Kreiss and Howard point out, disturbing to say the least. This type of data might be the most lax unregulated collection available. (For an interesting film on this question of data collection see Erasing David, although it doesn’t mention the issue of political data collection.)
2. Economic Asymmetry. Already political campaigns are expensive endeavors. This type of data analysis is not cheap and if this becomes standard fair, the price of campaigning will increase, with data mining favoring the wealthier campaigns.
3. Voter Disengagement. There is data to suggest that targeted campaigning hurts the general electorate by appealing to likely voters, rather than addressing the public as a whole, or targeting select influential groups. Think here of how voters in some states feel disenfranchised by the electoral college system (my vote in Texas doesn’t really count), where being in a “swing state” means voters are exposed to a much higher degree of political messaging. This type of campaigning would be that on steroids.
4. Democratic Debate. One of the goals here is to narrowcast, target voters based on individual interests, rather than engage in a larger public debate to build consensus and conversation, in effect this works against the very public sphere ideal democracy rests upon. (To me this is the largest one, more on this in a minute.)
The fact that companies trying to maximize “data profiles” to sell products are often the same ones trying to sell us politicians should be troubling. Its one thing to be comfortable with the idea that companies track online behavior to effectively market to customers, its an entirely other to think about political organizations using cookies to track behavior and than use that data to “sell” ideas to the public.
Why This Should Scare the Crap out of You
While I think Howard’s and Kreiss’s work is a good place to start, it doesn’t even really scratch the surface of how bad this can (and I fear likely will) get without legislative influence to prevent it. The really dangerous piece of this is number four above, the degree to which this is likely to undermine public discussion about issues, replacing issue discussion with micro-targeted voter manipulation. Now I can already imagine some readers thinking manipulation here is to strong a word, overstating the case, but I don’t think it is, if anything it perhaps understates what the evolution of this could be.
The idea of a representative democracy is that individuals, informed by public discourse, make rational decisions about which candidates they would choose to have represent them, thus electing a set of representatives that reflect the collective interests of the public. But voter targeting and tracking itself isn’t about producing public discourse, engaging voters, or explaining policy positions, rather it is about socially engineering individuals to maximize the vote. In short the idea behind voter targeting is maximizing voter gain for a specific candidate, not maximizing discussion about a candidate or an upcoming election. Indeed discussion is precisely the opposite of what is being aimed at. Philosophically this type of voter “engagement” works by fragmenting the public not building a conversation. Instead of policy positions or statements, data collection becomes the new commodity for generating votes. On a minor level this can involve targeted pitching (selling different agendas to different interests groups) or another level, ignoring “content” all together aiming for other means to persuade manipulate voters. And there is no real way to opt out of this either.
Not buying into this as a problem, let me sketch a few scenarios, now at all far removed from what can be done, or might already being used.
-Manipulate presentation not message. Already the Obama campaign indicated that in the previous election cycle they did A/B testing on presentations of emails to maximize donor response. Even changing the color to see what is most effective. Candidates could easily track your favorite color and send you a piece of mail, or customize the online ads to increase click thru rate. Forget microtargetting messaging, they could microtarget “style” to make sure voters build a positive impression of the candidate. And don’t tell me this type of stuff doesn’t matter, that voters will chose to ignore presentation and instead vote on issues. We know from data that people are easily swayed by presentation, this stuff matters. And campaigns are already spending resources on it.
-Merge Credit Report with voter record. Already your credit score is used to determine a range of factors about you (higher credit score = better insurance rates). Credit scores also probably correlates to a range of factors politicians would be interested in, especially campaign donations. Or they can corelate donation requests with spending habits, knowing when to ask particular individuals in a way that will yield the greatest possible donation, figuring out when you have extra money to spend and sending the ask then.
-Health Care. Lets imagine that they can scrape Facebook, your search history, etc. to determine that you, a family member, or friend are terminally ill. Let’s even say they can figure out with a high degree of likely hood the particular illness. Now said politician or interest group can mail you/or serve you up an add that reflects how their candidate/interest group would better serve the terminally ill patient. Too creepy if you get a direct solicitation—data would allow the campaign to imbed the information in a range of other “points” so it seems natural that you got it. (As was done in the Target case where customers were too creeped out by getting pregnancy coupon booklets, so Target created booklets that “appeared” neutral but were really aimed at expecting families.)
-MicroTargetting Message. What is to prevent a candidate or campaign from sending one message to one group of voters, and the opposite message to another. Maybe sending conflicting messages might be risky, but tailoring language is probably effective. In the same way that evangelicals were targeted by using heavily coded language in political speeches that passed as “natural” to other voters, campaigns could tailor language to individual voters for maximum gain. In one sense this already happens, coal messages in West Virginia, immigration ones in Texas, but the degree here could be much sharper. Imagine a candidate using subtly racist language to label Obama a terrorist or Muslim to audiences already predisposed to that message without having to nationally distribute that message. The ability to create a “target customized pitch,” which fractures discourse rather than produces it, seems counter productive to public conversation.
-MicroTarget voters on non voting issues. If you sign up for the Obama app on Facebook the Obama campaign then has access to a shit load (that’s a technical term) of data about you and your friends. Imagine sending customized emails on people’s birthdays, anniversary’s to ask for donations etc.
-Friend Targeting. One of the ways this type of data would be efficiently used is figuring out which node in the network (i.e. which friend) is most influential in determining how people vote. So rather than target you individually, campaigns could target your friends to get you to switch your vote.
-Manipulating people below the level of perception. This is where it gets really scary, where campaigns could start treating the voting populace as something to be engineered not persuaded. Given the large amounts of data Facebook and trackers have on people it is already possible to determine, perhaps not yet with a high degree of accuracy, an individuals mental state based on their online activity, i.e.. is the person happy, sad, depressed. Now imagine crossing this with political messaging. What if you know that a depressed voter is easy to convince, or worse that a depressed voter is easily convinced not to vote for the opposition?
I think we all like to pretend that voters are rational, that when someone goes into the voting both and pulls the lever that they rationally control and make that decision, but I think we also pretty much know at this point that people aren’t rational and that the same way that Nike can convince you that their product is hip, or that Apple products are shiny, or that McDonald’s is the place you want to eat, politicians and political interests groups work to persuade voters on an irrational level. True this has always been going on, the issue though is that the tools for this type of voter manipulation have now drastically increased. Big data social scientists are rapidly moving to making social science an engineering discipline, to treat human subjects as a group of actors to be engineered. And before you quickly dismiss this premiss realize that companies already spend billions on exactly this principle, engineering the public. What happens when politics becomes a matter of engineering? We are moving there, and what is worse we are moving there with little or no regulation, with little or no discussion about the costs of this kind of shift. I am not saying that engaging the public through social media is bad, or even that campaigns should not be using data analysis. But what I am saying is that we don’t want an unregulated industry in this, and that absent regulation things are getting worse not better, making now the time to have a serious conversation about this, and demand transparency in how exactly these campaigns store and use data about us.
“I am sitting here, six in the morning, I am staring at two people bascially naked in the shower together with 30 people watching and its like uh okay, but that’s the future.”-Josh Harris, We Live in Public
Perhaps the most haunting film I have watched on publicity and the digital network is Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public. On the surface the documentary is about the Josh Harris and his various internet ventures. But on a more significant level the film raises questions about what it means to “live” once that living is done almost exclusively in public. The movie covers several of Harris’s projects including “Quiet: We Live in Public” a bunker hotel in NYC where one hundred people agreed to have every aspect of their lives exposed to every other member of the community. Everything that happened was filmed, 24-7, and broadcast to the TVs around the hotel. Participants were filmed, eating, sleeping, showering, and having sex, nothing in the bunker was private (think of it as reality TV on steroids). For me the most disturbing scene comes at the end of the “experiment,” just before the cops break up the hotel. What exactly happens is a bit unclear, but a woman is taking shower as the community watches, when a men walks in and forces her to have sex with him. The level of violence isn’t entirely transparent in the film, but it is pretty clear that what is happening is not okay. But what is perhaps most disturbing though is that the onlookers, the rest of the “public” do nothing, take this incident as just the usual fair.
About ten pages into the introduction of Jeff Jarvis’s new book Public Parts I started wondering if he had seen TImoner’s film. By the time I had reached the third chapter I thought if I were to teach this book Timoner’s film would make the perfect counterpoint. At that point I couldn’t resist scanning ahead in the book to see if Jarvis was aware of We Live in Public. I was, I must admit, rather surprised to find that the film was included in the book (157). Reading Jarvis’s account of We Live in Public I began to think we had perhaps not even watched the same film. What I took to be a rather serious investigation into the concerns of living in public Jarvis takes as testimony to how far one can be public, adopting an entirely uncritical stance. And this is the problem with Jarvis’s book, although the introduction claims that the book will be an investigation into the value and importance of being “public.” What Jarvis actually delivers is less a nuanced understanding of the important debate between the ideas of publicness and privateness, and more a full throated defense of “being public.” As a result Jarvis either reads past examples (like We Live in Public) that would complicate his defense, ignores the nuance and complexity in the issues, or poorly represents the positions of the critics with which he engages. This is all really unfortunate, as there are things Jarvis and I agree on: that the internet enables sharing in a new way, that this sharing can have significant benefit. More important though than any intellectual agreement or disagreement I might have with Jarvis is the importance of this debate. I think that the issue of “Public and Private” is one of the most important discussions we ought to be having about the digital network. So, in one sense I am glad that we are starting to have this discussion, but in another I think Jarvis’s book is so poorly argued that it turns out to be a rather dangerous contribution to this debate and a poor place from which to begin.
Jarvis in Brief
Before I attempt to explain all of my concerns/problems with this book, I want to start by laying out Jarvis’s argument. The base of his argument is rather straightforward. Jarvis argues that being public has a great deal of value, and that any discussion of media and culture needs to recognize the centrality of this value to our culture. According to Jarvis recent debates about the internet have too heavily focused on privacy, and that we are currently running the risk of over valuing privacy, and thus running the risk of losing the value of publicness. There is a danger that we will become, “too obsessed with privacy,” and “lose the opportunities to make connections in this age of links” (5). Early on Jarvis recognizes that privacy and publicity are actually values for which we must “seek a balance,” but clearly Jarvis believes that we are over reacting to privacy, and need to learn to embrace are new publicness. Privacy advocates pose a greater threat to our future than publicness advocates. At one point Jarvis even quotes Philip Kaplan one of the founders of Blippy (a company that lets you share your credit card purchases) as saying, “[Privacy] is one of those things that is completely manufactured” (156). Although he is quoting another here, Jarvis clearly agrees: We are over-reacting to privacy concerns, this is an “engineered” frenzy.
In this regard Jarvis tells a history, a brief one, of how technological transformations have historically produced discussions about values and culture. The history presented here should feel like a familiar one to those who are familiar with the history of technology, or any of the recent discussions about the transformative roll of the net. New technological epochs arrive disturbing cultural assumptions and values, resulting in a need to realign culture: “Then technologies come along and ruin our dear, old assumptions and order” (10). Straight forward enough. Indeed as Jarvis presents this there is a long history of new technologies producing cultural angst, doom and gloom scenarios. In this case, Jarvis focuses on how technological transformation has a history of upsetting privacy values: “Again and again in history, technology has caused change and that change has sparked worries that privacy is being threatened” (9).
So, Jarvis contends that one way we need to understand the current technological transformation is in terms of publicness, “publicness is at the heart of a reordering of society and the economy that I believe will prove to be as profound as the one brought on by Johanees Gutenberg and his press” (9). Rather than worrying about preserving privacy, we should turn the argument around and worry about how to maximize publicness, over focusing on privacy means missing the advantages conferred by publicness, and as Jarvis argues these advantages are legion.
In this regard Jarvis says that when you pull back and take the long view of privacy you learn two things. First that privacy is culturally relative. In different cultures individuals chose to keep different parts of their lives private. In Germany people hang out naked in spas, but don’t like Google street view. In Norway and Finland citizens publicly list taxes and income, whereas in Switzerland and the US we (mostly) keep this information private. Second is that privacy as a value is historically relative. It is here that Jarvis shares some amusing stories of what has occurred in other moments of technological transformation, pointing out how people were concerned about the “Kodakers” violating privacy by taking too many photographs (63). Things at other moments that people would have kept private, we now share without any concern. And perhaps more importantly, and more problematically, Jarvis claims that privacy as a cultural value is a rather modern invention. The main idea here is that privacy really isn’t a value until the turn of the last century, or if it was a value, in past moments it was a negative value, “privacy was not an enviable state,” and “privacy was not assumed to be a good” (70). The idea behind both of these claims is to suggest that we need to keep privacy in perspective, not overvalue it, at the expense of harming the other value of publicness.
For Jarvis there are three levels on which we should value publicness: individual, corporations, government. That is that the individual, corporations, and governments could all be improved by being more public. And accordingly throughout the book Jarvis gives examples about how all three are improved by being more public. From Jarvis’s own personal stories about sharing his bout with Prostate Cancer, to businesses that have crowdsourced development, to governments who open up data to allow citizens to self organize, he piles on the examples of how being public can improve our lives. And since the internet allows us to be more public, we ought to leverage this.
The meat of the argument though is contained in Chps 2-5, where Jarvis wrestles with defining and explaining privacy and publicness. Most of the above is discussed in these chapters, the value of publicness (Chapter 2), the historical invention of the public and the private (Chapter 3), media history (Chapter 4), and defining privacy (Chapter 5).
But for understanding what Jarvis outlines here the fifth chapter is perhaps the most important, where he defines what he means by the terms public and private. The chapter starts by cataloging a range of privacy definitions, demonstrating how each fails to adequately cover our concerns, or how privacy concerns are often related to other issues (theft). At the end of this section Jarvis concludes (and it is worth quoting at length here):
“Do you feel any closer to definition of privacy? I don’t. I see a confused web of worries, changing norms, varying cultural mores, complicated relationships, conflicting motives, vague feelings of danger with sporadic specific evidence of harm, and unclear laws and regulations made all the more complex by context.” (101)
Rhetorically this is a deft move, privacy is too hard to concretely define, we often define it out of fear, and ineffectively so. As a result Jarvis argues privacy is not a value to be defined, but rather an ethic to be practiced. His conclusion: “Privacy is an ethic governing the choices made by the recipient of someone else’s information. Publicness is an ethic governing the choices made by the creator of one’s own information. Or put more simply: Privacy is ethic of knowing. Publicness is an ethic of sharing” (110). What Jarvis is doing here is realigning the debate to the axis of sharing and knowing, sharing is good and valuable, and privacy is not a matter of not disclosing information about yourself, but rather a matter of an ethic of how to treat information that others give you. In the end what he is suggesting is that privacy is about not using others data in nefarious ways, and publicness is about sharing all possible information about yourself. “If you have information that could in any way be valuable to other you must ask yourself: Why not share it?” (112). Got that? Privacy isn’t about you and your rights as an individual but rather about respecting others information when you have access to it, and publicness is about the value of sharing. Although at different times Jarvis strays from these definitions, this is the core of his argument.
In brief: Concerns about privacy are overstated. If we look at the matter historically and culturally we learn that privacy is a relative value whose worth is often overstated. The internet is a giant sharing machine enabling us to be more public. Sharing is good. Being public is good. We should make sure the public aspects of the internet aren’t harmed in our quest for privacy.
Or at least that’s what Jarvis wants his book to argue . . .
Public ≠ Sharing ≠ Openess ≠ Transparency ≠ Public Sphere ≠ The Public
Perhaps the first thing that one notices in reading public parts is that while Jarvis will say that he is seeking a balance between publicness and privacy, and he recognizes that privacy is important, he clearly sees publicness as the privileged term. While being public is directly responsible for human civilization and progress, “our publicness and our connections bring progress,” (69) the advantages of privacy are less easily defined. Indeed one might read the entirety of Jarvis’s book and wonder why one would be private all, given the advantages he assigns to publicness and the serious dearth of value assigned to the private. But this indeed is Jarvis’s aim, to show that privacy is an over rated value, while demonstrating that publicness is underrated.
Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of having this debate is not only the slippery definition of the concept of privacy, but the myriad ways the word public is used throughout the book all with different resonances and applications. And while Jarvis is quick to limit the definition of privacy he is equally quick to expand the definition of public. Although he defines public as sharing, he often uses other terms as synonyms for being public. So while being public is a matter of sharing, at other moments he argues that being transparent is being public, being open is public, that being in the public is public, and that the public sphere is public. It is true that these words are certainly related, but there is a need to not only be precise about which term we are talking about, but to also treat them separately. The public is not public, is not being public, is not publics, is not sharing, is not openess, is not transparency and is not the public sphere. Sure these terms inform each other, and often share a familial relation but treating them as conterminous, as Jarvis often does is seriously problematic.
To see why this is lets break down some aspects of this book:
1. Net Neutrality. In the closing sections of the book, Jarvis argues that we need to preserve the open net, coming out strongly in favor of net neutrality. I am not at all sure what this has to do with being public, unless you are willing to substitute the word open for public. Don’t get me wrong, this is an issue which Jarvis and I clearly would agree (at least on the level of policy), I think net neutrality is one of the most important issues when it comes to preserving the digital network. But, I would argue this is just as much a matter of privacy as it is publicness. Individuals have the right to access web pages and not have their traffic monitored by ISPs (one aspect of net neutrality), I don’t want ISPs intervening in individual consumption on the net, whether they are throttling bandwidth, or directing traffic. Individuals ought to be able to control their net access, and do so with a sense that browsing history will not be monitored or compromised by ISPs. Sure we could phrase this as a debate about keeping the net open, but that is open as in open for all to access and broadcast equally, not open as in public. And I certainly would support government intervention here as a way to protect the net and people’s privacy.
2. Throughout the book Jarvis works hard to equate publicness with sharing. Most blatantly he claims that publicness is an ethic of sharing. But this is not the way we tend to use the term. There is a strong overlap at times, but the words are by no means coterminous. Consider how we often share things with certain individuals but expect them to nevertheless remain private. Indeed the law recognizes these cases, protecting this type of sharing from public disclosure. Information one shares with a doctor is required by law to be kept private. The court cannot force individuals to disclose things revealed by a spouse in private, although sharing took place, it was not a public sharing. In fact sharing something with another in private, that is non-public sharing, is a crucial aspect of building relationships.
3. Why is this book for sale? I ask this rhetorically but also with a purpose. By placing the content of this book under copyright Jarvis has essentially made the book “private” property. Rather than “sharing” the book with the widest possible audience he chose to make it public only to those who purchase it. He could have easily posted this book to his own website and allowed anyone to download it free of charge, making it an open book available to anyone in the public. Indeed if Jarvis believes that public is the way to go and that we should have an ethic of sharing knowledge in order to foster the public good, not making the book public is an ethical failure (by his own standards). The book as Jarvis readily recognizes was in part the product of conversations he had on his blog with others (although he argues he would do it more for the next book). The book is a result of a public process. If this is the case what gives Jarvis the ethical right to then make the product private and sell it on the market. The answer is simple? Because he wants to. Jarvis recognizes this is a “sin” (181) that Simon & Schuster paid him to write the book, and that he garnered sufficient advantage from leveraging the private here. Or slightly later Jarvis confesses that he writes books as a means to “build public reputation, which lead to other business” (181). In short Jarvis argues that one should be public when it leads to individual gain, private when it leads to individual gain. Clearly not the ethic of share, be open, be public all the time.
4. Or, let’s take Jarvis’s central example. His private-public parts. Jarvis recounts his decision to be very public with information about his prostate cancer. He uses this as the ultimate example of something people are inclined to keep private (personal medical information about their very private parts) that he chose to make public and how the resulting public conversation yielded social good. Discussing his treatment, wearing diapers, his use of Viagra and Cialis, along with a penis pump, lead others to disclose, building a community of individuals who could support each other and share experiences. Jarvis shares several people who email him thanking him for being public, and recounts how his publicness led to an appearance on the Howard Stern show, further yielding revenue for prostate cancer research. But that’s not the whole story. In his account he admits that he wasn’t fully public about what happened. “When I received my cancer diagnosis, my reflex was to go to the blog and talk about it. I had to wait. Our son was away that summer, and I certainly didn’t want him to learn about my cancer in a tweet. Once he returned, I told him and and our daughter, Julia, and the rest of our family. And then I blogged” (35). Again in other words what Jarvis is saying is that he carefully controls and balances the public and private deciding when to be public (when it serves his own interest) and when to be private (when it serves his own interests). But in the world he describes we would lose control of this balance. Indeed he notes how he himself almost lost control of this balance when a friend noticed his delicious bookmarks before he had gone public. Imagine a world where individuals would lose this control. Any purchase you make in a store is made public (Blippy). After a cancer diagnosis you purchase a book about recovery on Amazon and everyone knows what you have purchased? Or because others might benefit from sharing your medical data as soon as a diagnosis occurs it is posted to a public health site? Clearly this is not the future Jarvis wants, but it is the one the book seems to be arguing for, share everything. Or at least share everything that might help others. And if this is the case I somewhat rhetorically ask why did Jarvis not post videos of his sex “struggles” after prostate cancer. Telling us that he was taking Cialis or using a Penis Pump is one thing, wouldn’t the community be helped more by having the full disclosure? Again, the point is that Jarvis controls what data is public and what is private. He shares more than most and gains advantage from this (reputation, financial status, etc.). But for all his claims that we should be public, he is not public or rather only public when he wants to be.
The issue isn’t about publicness or sharing or transparency or any of those things, the issue is about controlling one’s own information.
It’s About Control
So this brings us to the central issue/problem with Jarvis’s book. For whatever reason he doesn’t seem to recognize that this is about power and control. The axis of public/private or even the more mundane one he often champions of sharing/not-sharing isn’t the issue, the issue is the degree to which individuals do or do not have the ability to determine this themselves.
As I mentioned in the summary of this book, one of the central claims is that we are being overly concerned about privacy, running the risk of ruining the value of publicness with all of our concern. I am not sure what history or critics Jarvis is analyzing, but it strikes me as a patently absurd claim to suggest that we are becoming more private. I think by nearly every measure imaginable we are now more public than ever. (Indeed at other points Jarvis agrees, arguing that the internet makes us more public than ever.) The internet, as a giant data sharing engine certainly renders more information than ever public. Jarvis seems to be arguing that the internet increases the volume on sharing, but rather than be happy with setting the dial at 8 or 9 we should crank it all the way to 11.
The army of privacy advocates screaming that we should be scared about our over-sharing are really more of a strawman argument, or at least an argument that is about 5 years old. True at the inception of social networks I read a great many articles expressing angst about “kids these days oversharing” posting too much of their lives on Facebook. But we are sort of past that point now, instead much of the discussion is about how to insure that people maintain control of privacy and publicity.
The largest mistake in this respect in the book is the way that Jarvis treats people, corporations, and governments as equal players here. Corporations would be better off he argues if they were more public (kept fewer secrets) and governments likewise would be better off is they were more public (kept fewer secrets). Ostensibly the reason for this is that if corporations are more public they garner benefit (increased profits) and more importantly here, transfer power to individuals. That is if corporations were required to be more public they would be held more accountable to the public (individual citizens). The same argument holds true for government. By being public governments can become more efficient (perform services better) and more importantly here be held more accountable to the public (individual citizens). Now lets try and apply that reasoning to individuals, by being more public individuals can gain more advantage (why Jarvis is public with his life) and more importantly be held more accountable to governments and corporations? That’s an odd formulation, but that’s partly what Jarvis is arguing for. If individuals are more public more power is than transferred to the government or to the corporations. And make no mistake about it, power is often what is at stake here. Jarvis never recognizes the asymmetry in place here.
If you doubt me on this consider all the myriad ways governments are infringing on individuals privacy (forcing them to be public) all of which seem to be absent from Jarvis’s book. Governments representing a wide range of political models, not just ones labeled despotic, are using technology in general, and the internet specifically to monitor and surveil their respective populaces. Should the government be allowed to monitor internet traffic? Should internet services be required to supply the government with user data without a subpoena? Should the government be able to use GPS or cell phone data to track a suspect 24-7? Should corporations be forced to give governments back door access to encrypted files? All of these are serious questions, questions about balancing the public with the private and matters of power. The simple answer to these questions is make everything public, there is much benefit to be had, and only those who have things to hide would need to be concerned. (“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it” (127)). This seems to be the answer that Jarvis supports. We have built an internet of Ubiquitous Surveillance, this troubles me, but doesn’t seem to bother Jarvis.
Or one last example here and then we can turn to the corporations. Last month a police officer at California State University wrote a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education arguing that universities should data mine/monitor all traffic on their networks in order to surveil students and have the power to intervene in case one of them is mentally troubled. For so many reasons this is a remarkably bad idea. But Jarvis would argue not only that there is benefit to be had from doing this monitoring, but more troubling that students should just offer this data up, agree to be public, for in the first case they have nothing to hide, and in the second the police only have public interest at heart and the community could benefit from this monitoring.
And then consider the corporations here. Increasingly corporations are attempting to harvest data from users, both with and without their consent. Jarvis adopts one of two approaches to this question, either don’t worry be happy users are likely to benefit from this scenario, or corporations have a right to use individuals data. Again lets take a look at two of Jarvis’s examples.
The first example Jarvis leverages to convince the user that he is correct in this regard is Google Street View. He questions why is it that Germany restricts what Google can do with street view, really poking fun at the Germans who seem to be so focused on privacy that they don’t want their houses on the internet, yet go to the spas naked. Jarvis says that any law restricting Google from using photos publicly taken from the street could interfere with other uses of data. For example by what means would you restrict Google from taking a picture and posting it to street view but not also restrict any individual from taking a picture on a public street and posting it on the web? A couple of things are particularly telling about this example. First that Jarvis sees the interest of a corporation designed for profit as the same of an individual. Clearly we can and probably ought to, distinguish between privileges and rights we grant to companies and those we grant to individuals. Indeed often the tension is located precisely here, not between public and private, but whether or not individuals have the right to not have corporations decide for them whether or not the information is public or private (the issue is control not public or private). Or imagine Google has a car with infrared cameras and other imaging devices that would drive down the street and not only take pictures of your house from the street, but take pictures of inside your house from the street. If you think I am being ridiculous, I point you to the ways that police are already doing this. And couldn’t Google argue that there is public value here? (Measuring population density? Which houses are using the most electricity?) Sure this is a limit scenario, but it is a scenario we ought to consider and make decisions about, not just default to saying, “no worries. Being public is good.”
Or in one of Jarvis’s later examples he argues that companies have a right to track users on websites. His reasoning is that without tracking they cannot serve up ads, thus killing their revenue stream (not tracking is equivalent to stealing?). According to Jarvis you can no sooner order up a newspaper with all the ads removed than you should be able to access webpages without being tracked. Notice what a bizarre equivalence this is. (There are problems with how Do Not Track is being implemented, but Jarvis is arguing beyond this, that corporations have a right to track people.) This is a bad analogy. Rather the correct one is imagine if every time you wanted to walk into a store, read a newspaper, access a piece of literature you had to submit a 50 page questionnaire detailing demographic information about you, all past services you used, products you bought, and things you have read. I think clearly we would say the companies are asking too much, tipping the balance in their favor. No one is talking about eliminating ads from the internet, what people are talking about (an important conversation) is the degree to which we ought to let corporations track users, and what they can do with this data once they have it. We might decide that a certain amount of tracking is acceptable but that certain levels are too much (try ordering a pizza in a world in which everything is public). This is to say nothing of the issue of corporate responsiblity to protect data and not reveal it, or the degree to which we can trust them to protect data once they have it, and whether or not they should be held responsible for privacy breeches. Setting the balance to all public, with occasional exceptions for private (the Jarvis model) seems to me the irresponsible, less nuanced approach.
To be sure I am raising some fairly nefarious examples here, but contrary to Jarvis’s claim that there is “no point in dwelling on dark potentialities” (91), it is only by dwelling on both the dark and light potentialities that we can correctly address these concerns, ignoring the “dark” side here is liable to lead us to a future where individuals have decreasing control of their own lives. It is irresponsible to only highlight the utopic vision.
Technology isn’t Good or Bad . . .
Throughout the book Jarvis is found of saying that Technology is not good or bad it’s neutral. Or in other terms technology is a tool which we can use for good or ill, and it is how we use it that counts. (“It is also true that the tools are neutral-they can be used by bad actors as well as good (209).”) It is odd then that consistently Jarvis assigns the bad consequences to the social space, but the positive consequences to technology. Technology lets us share = good. But the consequences of sharing (persecution for beliefs or sexual orientation for example) are societies’ fault.
The problem is that Jarvis either doesn’t know the philosophy of technology, or chooses to just ignore it. While it is true that at moments of technological change we often see declination narratives (“The internet is evil because it allows us all to share to much. We are all going to hell in a hand basket now that we are sharing so much.”) we are equally as likely to see utopic narratives as well. (“Now that we can share so much, we can all share and learn to get along, be better humans, resolve our differences and do away with social strife. A claim Jarvis seems to be making about the net, but that was also made of the telegraph. See the Victorian Internet Chapter 6.)
The real lesson is that technology isn’t good or bad, but it isn’t neutral either. That is, that while a given technology will not necessarily produce positive or negative changes in a society, once that technology enters said society it will be transformed. Technology is not merely a tool but fundamentally alters how we structure our social space and even understand what it means to be human.
It is too bad that Jarvis is not a better reader, or at least not a more genuine reader, as the sources from which he so often quotes contain precisely this message.
Take for example the Warren and Brandies legal article. Jarvis uses this article to show that privacy wasn’t even a right that was legally recognized until the early 1900s, “there had been no established legal right to privacy” (65) (somehow, the fact that there was not also a legal right to publicness at the time doesn’t matter for Jarvis). Near the turn of the century there was an increasing concern about how technology was altering individuals lives (some of this was about photographs but the context is much larger, even though Jarvis would have you believe it is all about Kodakers). The history that Jarvis tells is that Warren and Brandeis responding to people’s concerns write this essay suggesting courts ought to recognize a right to privacy. Oddly Jarvis wants to assign this essay to personal motives on the part of Warren and Brandeis (press coverage of a daughter’s wedding?), saying that, “it’s not known precisely what raised Warren and Brandeis’ hackles” (65). This is an entirely disingenuous reading of Warren and Brandeis, as if it is some outlier essay that has to be explained by a personal vendetta against the media.
What Warren and Brandeis actually argue in that essay is a idea that Jarvis should probably consider. Warren and Brandeis are not arguing that technological transformation has yielded a threat to privacy and that we must respond by passing new laws (that’s the secondary concern of the piece). Rather what Warren and Brandeis argue is that technological transformation has yielded a new question of what it means to be public and private. That is technological transformation should force us to rethink, consider a new, answer lingering questions about privacy. What technology does is change the definition of what it means to be public and private. What Brandeis and Warren argue is that the founding fathers understood the importance of being private, that being private was an essential part of the “right to live.” So the constitution protects a range of legal rights that preserve this “right to life.” Given the technology of the late 1700s the framers protected people against certain kinds of invasions into their persona, for example unlawful search and seizure. Warren and Brandeis were concerned that technologies now enabled privacy to be breached in new ways. Technological transition requires the court to “define anew the exact nature and extent” of the protection the government provides to the rights of the citizens. Their central point is that technological transitions require a rethinking of legal values and frameworks, rendering past ones useless. Technological changes produce changes in what it means to be public and private and thus requires legal intervention.
To see how this is the case we only have to turn to another one of the sources Jarvis seems to very selectively read, danah boyd. Jarvis raises boyd’s research to point out that teenagers do preserve privacy online and value it (it is difficult to tell if Jarvis thinks this is good or bad or just is). But boyd’s research isn’t just about how teenagers maintain privacy online, but more importantly how socialization is fundamentally different now that we have online social spaces. Having socialization be informed by these online spaces Facebook and Myspace means that there are, according to boyd, four aspects of socialization that make it different from prior moments in history: persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences. Indeed boyd’s very point is that now that socialization is in part augmented by these digital devices we need to rethink what it means to be public and private, from both a social standpoint and a legal one. The idea isn’t to throw your hands in the air and say “concerns about privacy are over-rated, we have always had those kinds of fears, lets just all be public and get over it.”
In some sense it is probably not fair to hold Jarvis to the standard of you should read ‘x’ philosopher or critic on the history of technology. He is not an academic who studies such things, he is an academic whose focus is journalism, not the long complex debate about the intersection of technology and its effects on society. But in the same respect I don’t think it is setting the bar to high to ask him to accurately portray the work he is dealing with. (His reading of Habermas is phenomenally bad, he actually portrays him as arguing the exact opposite of his position, and misses several of the main points. Since this has become a much talked about point maybe I’ll address it later, but snark aside Morozov’s critique here is pretty much accurate.)
But if I could prescribe one critic for Jarvis it would be Walter Benjamin. I won’t attempt to recount all of Benjamin’s work here, or even try and sum up the entire essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Rather I will try and point out one major thesis that pretty much unwinds all of Jarvis’s book.
Written at the moment where the photograph is becoming popular, Benjamin addresses the question of whether or not the photograph is art. But rather than argue whether or not the photograph is art, he makes the rather deft move of realizing that this is a bad question. Instead of asking is the photograph art, Benjamin realizes the better question is to ask, “what does the existence of the photograph do to our concept of art.” In other words when new technology comes about we need to ask larger questions, not is this or that art, is it good to be public or private, but rather what does the internet do to the very concept of publicness and privateness.
Back to Watching Naked People in the Shower
“At first everyone will like it, but then there will be a fundamental change in the human condition.” -Josh Harris
And so back to where I started with Josh Harris. I could probably write several articles on how poorly Jarvis reads his sources and the degree to which he abuses and misrepresents those he quotes, but I am sure Jarvis would respond with the excuse that he is not an expert on these scholars and he is still working thru them. Fair enough. But although he says he has watched We Live in Public, I can’t help but wonder if we have seen the same movie. For Jarvis the movie serves as an example of taking being public to the extreme, mostly with benefit, and more importantly as a glimpse into the future. The section closes with a quote from Harris: “The audience are going to demand self-surveillance,” to which Jarvis adds, “It has already begun” (160). Jarvis is so unreflective and nonchalant about this observance that it is hard to know whether he realizes the full impact of this conclusion.
Harris’s point, and one the movie makes over and over again, even explicitly in the form of a narrative voice over at the end of the film, is that an increase in the scale and pace of our sharing will fundamentally alter what it means to have relationships, to be social, to be human. (Harris is at least as much a prophet of publicness as is Zuckerberg even if Jarvis doesn’t want to listen to his warnings.) Publicity will certainly have its advantages (people will order pizzas to have delivered to your house, the public can help you find your keys when they are missing–both events happen in We Live in Public), but it will have rather serious effects as well, primarily on individuals ability to build relationships.
There are two particularly telling moments in this regard, one in each of the two “experiments” Josh runs. In ”Quiet: We Live In Public,” one of the participants observes that it is mentally draining to live in “Quiet” because of the lack of privacy. It is difficult to get to “know” anyone because you know everyone. The participant rather astutely observes that intimacy is a matter of revealing to people secrets which others do not know. In other words one of the ways we express trust, build intimacy is share with others our private lives, but if we have no private lives building that intimacy becomes all but impossible.
But Jarvis knows this, even if he is not willing to say it in the pages of the book. He cops to this. He will consistently note that while he is public the one thing he does is shield his family from the publicity he chooses to accept for himself. Why? If he really believes being public aides society why not open his private life to more public scrutiny, there is clearly information there that could in some way be valuable to others (112). The answer is not simply that he is respecting the privacy of his family (why respect privacy if publicity is the value? why let his family succumb to the engineered overhyped message of being private?), rather Jarvis knows that to keep that relationship healthy it requires a certain amount of privacy, not things that are not shared, but rather things that are only shared between a small select subset of people (family). Quiet “developed into a perhaps predictable bacchanal of discord and decadence” (116) not because of the people Josh picked, or the rules he set (these certainly might have helped but the lesson is only that these sped up the process) but rather because of the “heat of the spotlight” a spotlight which Jarvis suggests that we now all uncritically and unreflectively bring on ourselves.
The other particularly telling, and difficult to watch moment, in the film comes during Harris’s second experiment, called just “We Live in Public.” He and his girlfriend Tanya have a fight, part of which involves violence on his part, ultimately leading to a break up. But that particular scene is just part of a larger problem in their lives, as Tanya observes in the film (and Jarvis mentions in the book), that the two were unable to have constructive conversations with each other. When they had a disagreement each would retreat to the net to rally supporters, get feedback from the crowd, in other words fight in public. The result is that each became more interested in winning an argument than resolving a conflict, not a productive situation in which to find oneself. Indeed, it is pretty easy to find examples of what Tanya and Josh experienced now in our daily lives. Individuals now frequently fight and break up with each other “in public” on Facebook, spurring vicious arguments, which quickly degrade due to the contributions of the crowd. One thing the speed of the internet is good at providing for is the dividing up of teams. I am on this persons side. Team #kanya. Team #Taylor. Indeed Jarvis himself is now a victim of this dynamic as he and Morozov have a very public argument about the merits of this book, that really isn’t at this point at all about the content of the book but rather about scoring snark points. While I doubt that Morozov and Jarvis would ultimately agree, I think it is pretty clear that the publicness of the controversy has increased the vitriol. For Jarvis and Morozov this is probably not a concern as I don’t see them trying to build an intimate relationship anytime soon, but when this dynamic starts to inform all of our social relationships the consequences are fairly significant.
And this is where I will turn to one last critic that Jarvis enlists in his book, but whom he seems to totally miss the point of (sorry I couldn’t resist and this one is important). Throughout the book he frequently cites Daniel Solove who is easily one of the most important critical voices on the question of privacy. Solove’s writing is rich, diverse, and nuanced in its consideration of the question of privacy. And this is what makes Jarvis’s use of Solove so abysmal. Let’s just take one point. Jarvis quotes Solove as saying “Privacy seems to encompass everything, and therefore it appears to be nothing in itself” (93). So Jarvis is leveraging the Solove quote here to back up his point that privacy is a slippery, almost impossible to define value, that is overrated. But let’s look at the Solove quote in full context. It is true that in Understanding Privacy Solove critiques “many existing theories of privacy” (8), arguing against the “abstract incarnations” which are “not nuanced enough to capture the problems involved” (8). But, he is in no way arguing that privacy is “protean” or undefinable, rather he is responding to critics like Judith Jarvis Thomson who say that “nobody seems to have a clear idea what it is.” (7) Indeed the very point of Understanding Privacy is to build a clear and precise definition of privacy and express why it ought to be valued. It is almost as if Jarvis stopped reading on page 8. I won’t try to summarize all of Solove’s argument here (maybe at a later time), but what he argues, borrowing from Wittgenstein, is that privacy is best understood as a family of concerns, best “conceptualized from the bottom up rather than the top down” (9).
But even if Jarvis had missed all of this argument maybe we could give him a pass, he says the Dewey arguments (from which Solove draws) are not really his concern, and maybe he is not a Wittgenstein scholar. Still the larger error comes when he either intentionally reads past or fails to recognize Solove’s central point:
Privacy is a public good.
This is in one sentence Solove’s central argument. Somehow Jarvis misses this. Solove is arguing that contrary to the idea that privacy is an individual good that must be balanced against the social good, privacy and publicness are both public goods that must be balanced against each other. To strip a society of privacy, whether thru legislation and government surveillance, corporate data mining and surveillance, or engineered individual choice is to significantly alter that society. And in Solove’s terms, and I would agree, alter for the worse. Privacy is a necessary part of social living. We all act differently in private then we do in public, and maintaining that difference is crucial to developing productive citizens. A public world with an always on panopticon carries serious social consequences.
So here’s the deal.
Jarvis writes this book because he believes that publicness is threatened and we must learn to appreciate it, or lose its advantages. But this is a spurious claim at best. We are (and I think this is beyond arguing) more public than we have ever been. We are not faced with a scenario whereby we are going to slide into a world where people are completely private, or the law steps in to outlaw being public, or corporations prevent us from being public. What is happening though is a technological change which is calling into question the lines upon which we draw privacy and publicness. And the real issue is making sure that we have serious thoughtful conversations about what this new balance is going to be. The real threat here is that we lose control over our ability to decide what should be public and what should be private. Corporations and governments are increasingly making decisions sans individual input about what is public, determining for us where the line about publicness and privateness should be drawn. This is a question that is fundamentally about power and control and Jarvis just wants to give up on it, “lets just all become public.”
And this is why I think this book is dangerous. It’s clear to me that this book is written to affect policy and convince people that change is coming, we should just get on the bus or be run over. But that is not at all the case, technology is not a run away bus (as if we are stuck in the movie Speed) that we either chose to board or get run over by. And Jarvis is certainly making the rounds, promoting this book, suggesting this idea. “Don’t worry. Be happy. All this publicness is actually a good thing. Let’s all just be public and the world will be a better place.”
We are not becoming less public, or losing control over our ability to be public, that’s a ridiculous argument. What is happening though is that we are losing control over our ability to decide what we want to be public, and what we want to be private, losing control over this to corporations and governments who are making this decision for us. This is a bus we don’t have to get on, a bus we don’t have to be resolved to ride on or get run over by. We can choose to intervene and figure out legal, social, and technical solutions to make sure we maintain a balance, but more importantly give individuals the ability to find a balance in the digital media ecology.
Prior to the MENA uprisings, Clay Shirky wrote an article published in Foreign Affairs titled “The Political Power of Social Media.” This piece although significantly shorter than either of his two books Here Comes Everybody or Cognitive Surplus, explains Shirky’s thinking on the role of social media in relation to democracy, and/or the possibility of people powered revolutions which leverage this technology for change. Unlike Here Comes Everybody in this article Shirky strikes a more cautious tone, while arguing that social media technologies are transformative and ultimately a net gain for those seeking social change, there is a recognition that digital media can also be used for ill, and might pose its own set of problems as a means to restructure power.
Shirky’s claim is still that digital technologies fundamentally alter a society which uses them, a claim I agree with (indeed I agree with Deen Freelon’s grouping and characterization of positions). Social media allow people to synchronize beliefs and coordinate actions in a way and on a scale not previously possible. What interests me about this article though is not necessarily its central claim that social media pose a unique set of problems for abusive hierarchical power structures, and that increasingly it will be harder to both censor these technologies in an effort to resist change and participate in the global economy, but rather a question that arises out of this proposition. As part of its coverage of the MENA uprisings, the Wall Street Journal conducted a short conversation with Shirky asking him to elaborate on this article and his thinking about the ongoing revolutions. This interview is particularly informative because the interviewer, Alan Murray, is skeptical of Shirky’s claims and presses him on a few central propositions and ideas.
The most interesting moment though comes at 14 minutes and 30 seconds into the video and lasts for about six minutes. At this point Murray accepts that social media can empower revolutions and instead shifts his questioning to whether or not social media can produce stability. That is, while social media might be good at yielding uprisings, is it good at producing a stable democratic power structure? At the first take, Shirky sidesteps the question responding that the real question is whether of not democracies are stable, but eventually they get back to this point. So, if we accept that social media (even if just for the sake of argument) empowers revolutionary or resistance movements, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they enable the installation of stable power structures. It could be the case that a social movement which empowered by the use of social media actually hinders the formation of stable power structures. It isn’t really a matter of does democracy produce stability, rather a question of whether or not social media enables the construction of a democracy, or slightly different even if revolutions which utilize social media perhaps yield a different form of governance and power distribution. It is entirely possible that one could get an unstable democracy.
In the Egyptian case this is often framed around the terms of the Muslim Brotherhood. While it is clear that the protests were not led by the brotherhood there is a significant concern that the Egypt revolution would yield a power vacuum allowing another autocratic regime to take power. While these technologies might be very effective at altering power dynamics or accelerating social unrest, long lasting social stability is by no means a given. One can see how this fear is warranted when we look at the characterization of the Egypt revolution as leaderless, or people led. As Shirky points out during the early days of the Egyptian revolution ElBaredi returns to Egypt and tries unsuccessfully to instill himself as the leader of the movement. This is not to suggest that there were not leaders of the revolution (this is a debate that I think will need more analysis) but rather there were not leaders in place as we typically recognize them. This became even more clear when the regime wanted to try and negotiate with the protestors-there was no leader with whom to negotiate.
This is also one of the central concerns surrounding the debate about the timing of the elections. Many Egyptians feared that a quick election would favor The Muslim Brotherhood or civic institutions which already possessed at least a small amount of organization and ability to mobilize, while harming the more fractioned less developed groups. Without established political parties it is perhaps difficult to have a democracy operate as we currently understand it.
Indeed this was a question that came up during the Theorizing the Web panel I was on last April. Both Henry Farell and Marc Lynch mentioned something about this concern, the lack of preexisting political or civic groups which could help to shape the public sphere/discussion in a way that it is important for a functioning democracy and election. I opined at the time that while some groups (like the Muslim Brotherhood) might have wanted a short term horizon for the election, believing it favored them, and others might have wanted a longer horizon in order to organize, that there might have been another response from the loosely organized groups (the ones that relied on social media) and that would be to push for an even shorter term election, where the ability to organize on Facebook and via other social media might serve as a serious advantage. (I’m not sure this is at all the case, but I definitely think it is worth considering.)
While generally I am a cautious optimist when it comes to the question of does social media enable people to resist and coordinate against oppressive regimes (more on the side of Shirky on this, less on the side of Morozov), I am far more skeptical on the question of whether or not social media powered revolutions yield stability. They might be really good in the short term, but the attributes which make social media powerful in the short term, might also be a hindrance in the long term, not so good at long lasting stability.
One way to frame this problem is to think of it in terms of counter-power versus anti-power (not my frame I have borrowed this from several authors I have been reading lately). Counter-power is a way of resisting and overcoming a current power structure by opposing it with another sort of power. These power relations might be symmetrical or asymmetrical but what is at stake in this type of conflict is replacing one power structure with another. I think in the majority of revolutionary conflicts we can see this type of resistance, where another group, not the one currently holding power attempts to replace or unseat the current one. This type of power alignment doesn’t even necessarily constitute itself through violent resistance, one can thing of the Democrats versus Republicans, legal battles, or revolutionary conflicts. The notion of anti-power though is slightly different, where the effort is to resist the current power structure not through some sort of affirmative replacement, destroy this with that, replace this with that, but rather an effort to just undo the current system. Anti-power is a little easier to build a coalition around, the framing issue is resistance to the current structure as opposed to counter power whereby a group not only shares the idea that the current power ought to be replaced but a shared agenda of what ought to replace it.
As Joss Hands points out in @ is for Activism the oft cited example of the “People Power Protest II” in the Philippines, the one coordinated and fostered by text message, was actually an example of counter power as it was supported by, enabled by, and encouraged by anti-Estrada members of government. In this case the movement had a clear organizational structure, not only to remove Estrada but to replace him with Arroyo. (I realize the history and story here is more complicated, but I am more interested in the framing that Hands provides.) The point here is that one power structure was replaced by another which had a clear sense of how to fill the power vacuum.
In the case of Egypt the movement seems to me more constituted by anti-power, get rid of the current regime, and less around any other institution replacing the existing one. In other words there was no part of the movement ready to take power once Mubarak was ousted. In the late stages of the protest this struck me as one of the issues, no one person or group or even diverse group of people had the ability to negotiate with the government. The protestors were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear. Now this kind of frame for thinking about protests is not particular to social media, indeed you could have counter power or anti power via a range of media. But I do think that the speed and organizational structure of social media probably lends itself to being easily used as a force for anti-power, an easy way to organize a massive “no,” but deciding on the next step might be the more tricky part. And again I think this next part, what power comes next, isn’t a unique problem to this media landscape, but I do think it is worth considering the possibility that while social media might be particularly useful for organizing and coordinating people to resist power, acting as a destabilizing force, the very factors that make it so useful in this regard might make it less useful, indeed counter productive to (or at least it might require conscious reworking/re-engineering, for example how to resist the accelerating forces which are good for resistance but an anathema to slow deliberative democracy) democratic organization.
Clearly there are a lot of forces in play now in Egypt, and reducing the current power vacuum and political power struggle to an effect of social media would be ridiculous. But, I do think it is worth considering the ways in which an anti-power resistance movement struggles to reconstitute itself as power. And in the case of Egypt I think we are seeing how this plays out. At the Theorizing the Web panel Mark Lynch made the counter point to this, suggesting that because the younger generation had practice in organizing and utilizing social media tools that in the long term it might actually lead to greater participation and a healthier public sphere. That the young individuals who compromised a significant piece of the revolutionary anti-power might in the first election prove less than organized, without a leader, in the second election cycle they would clearly use the tools, techniques, civic institutions and political awareness to shape that election.
The answers to these questions will only come after the power struggles have played out, and what is happening in Egypt is different from Tunisia. From listening to protestors and the citizens of Egypt there is evidence to suggest that the people are moving away from anti-power and towards forming a stable government, resisting attempts of other autocrats to consolidate power, maintaining the strong political engagement of Tahrir Square.
I do however think it is important to separate these two parts of the question, social media as power resisting platform and social media as power consolidating platform. My suspicion is that social media itself is heterogenous to the way that governments and bureaucratic institutions organize power, thus making it difficult for social media enabled revolutions to fill a power vacuum that they are so good at creating.
This past April I was fortunate enough to attend the Theorizing the Web Conference at the University of Maryland (as a side note easily one of the better conferences I have ever attended). Following lunch, George Ritzer gave one of the keynote addresses in which he argued that sociology, specifically sociology research which focuses on the internet, could benefit from relying more on, or incorporating more, postmodern theory in its respective analysis. (In the “Title your talk with your thesis” vein his address was called “Why The Web Needs Post-Modern Theory.”) It is difficult for me to comment on the merits of this talk with respect to sociology, not being as familiar with the discipline as I am that of literary studies, however I will say that I find his central thesis, if not the individual claims, persuasive (or perhaps more accurately, I agreed with Ritzer before his talk and was further persuaded after his talk). Theory, and particularly post-modern theory has a lot to offer our understanding of the web. (Which is not to suggest that those operating out of a post-modern theory background have the only or even primary approach, just a useful one. Indeed, I think disciplines such as legal studies, media history, network analysis, etc. all play important roles.)
What interests me about Ritzer’s talk though was the theorist who was held up as the privileged example, the theorist whose work he argues might be most useful for understanding the internet: Baudrillard. This is not an entirely unusual claim, even if not often framed in this matter. That is, that when engaging in understanding the net we ought to think about theorists who have spent time theorizing the virtual, understanding the virtual, talking about simulations etc. To paint very broad brush strokes here, which are not entirely true, but I think are mostly correct, and illustrative of the trajectory of thinking about the web, theorizing about the web has often happened along the lines of theorizing about the virtual. And so while Baudrillard might not play a central role in the way that many critics have approached the web, certainly the “virtual” or a certain thinking about simulations and the virtual which is loosely influenced by the works of those like Baudrillard has informed our approach.
This is not to discount Ritzer’s thesis, again I am not familiar with sociology or the degree to which American sociology has embraced or rejected theory, certainly if one wants to think about the web as a virtual space of simulations and virtual worlds, then Baudrillard is a good place to start. And, a more nuanced engagement with his work would probably yield some fruitful insights. The problem is that I think this is already a wrong way to frame the analysis of the web. That is, while theory might be useful for illuminating the complex set of influences the existence of the digital network yields Baudrillard is the wrong place to look, even if the recent history of web theory would seem to point to the primacy of his work.
As a way of looking at this problem consider Bolter and Grusin’s canonical text Remediation. Originally published in 2000, it is characteristic of much of the early thinking about the public internet and the related digital technologies. Two technologies, one fictional and one real, serve as the primary examples which drive the argument. Fictionally, Bolter and Grusin frame their case by using the 1996 film Strange Days and the SQUID technology. In the film humans are able to wear a skull cap, and jack into another narrative world, experiencing another narrative as if it were real, the ultimate virtual reality experience. Indeed virtual reality, the real technology, serves as the other important example throughout the book, the “ultimate” artistic experience which is both immersive and interactive.
I don’t mean here to practice some sort of reductivism, reducing this book to these two examples, or to argue against Bolter and Grusin. Indeed this text is one of the ones I am most likely to teach in my “Theory of Digital Media” classes, as I find the dual logics of immediacy and hypermediacy particularly useful as a frame for thinking about the aesthetic logic and discourse informing digital media. Rather I want to suggest that this texts focus on the virtual is representative of a certain line of thinking in digital media or theorizing the web that, until recently has been particularly dominating. And in this respect Ritzer’s comments seem helpful: If we are going to theorize about these virtual technologies, we ought to try and leverage theorists of the virtual. The problem though is that these technologies are anything but virtual.
The virtual angle though, again to paint broad brush strokes which are only mostly true, seems to me to have informed both the early imaginations of the widely used public internet (film and fiction) and the early discourse about its cultural effects (both within the academy and the more public discourse). Consider the internet narratives of the 90s and early 2000s. Films like Strange Days were not an aberration, indeed Strange Days was more an early harbinger of a range of films that addressed the idea of what would happen as we all start to lead virtual lives via avatars, jacked into the the net. The Matrix probably serves as the most ubiquitous example here, reflecting a sense that the virtual worlds will be so intense, reducing physical bodies to a mere battery, while simultaneously representing a sense of unease about this type of future.
One can notice the same pattern in the almost fetishistic obsession that academics had about Second Life. It seemed that every conference I went to after its launch in 2003 contained numerous panels discussing the importance of virtual worlds, from creative, critical, and pedagogical standpoints. And this focus on virtual worlds extended past the academy. Numerous academic institutions as well as corporate ones purchased space in Second Life, believing virtual worlds to be the future and preparing to stake their claim there. Indeed, popular discourse and media coverage focused on Second Life as the digital future, the virtual future we were all about to live in. One could say that the early internet of Neuromancer had been replaced by Snow Crash, rich 3D worlds inhabited by avatars represented our future. The key piece of this vision though is the sense that online lives will be different from real ones, the virtual being the key component.
That is not, however, the internet we ended up with. Second Life is clearly past its prime, most of the virtual stores opened there long since abandoned, and now when I attend conferences I hear only the occasional paper about it. Some might disagree, and maybe there will be a revival, but in my estimation Second Life is dead, has been for some time. While marginal interest may remain, it clearly is no longer the focus of our digital futures.
What we have instead is Minority Report. Tellingly this is also the conclusion Grusin reaches in his newest book Premediation, in which he argues that while Strange Days was the ur film of the late 90s, the film which turned out to be more descriptive of our digital future was Minority Report. For the most part Grusin leverages the film to suggest that it is important because of the figure of the pre-cogs, the ability to predict, control, and prepare for the future (hence the title of the book pre-mediation. But I want to extend this even further, pointing out how the vision that the film offers us, seems to be pretty close to the one we ended up with.
One could point out how many of the technologies present in the film come pretty close to ones that we now have, everything from self driving cars (admittedly a popular sci-fi vision), to robot drones, and billboards which customize themselves based on the viewer. Even the idea of the pre-crime unit seems more and more plausible each day. It isn’t however the fact that the film got these individual instances of future technology more or less correct, but rather that the film portrayed no vision of an online versus offline self. Rather than imagine networked technology as a separate space, in Minority Report it is portrayed as something pervasive and all encompassing.
This it seems to me is one of the principle points to understand about the digital network. The digital network isn’t a separate realm. It isn’t that we are leading virtual and real lives. Rather the digital network is pervasive in the real world, has substantially altered the way that the real world is structured. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the net to treat the space as virtual, it is very real and very present. I think this is a point that some critics (again both in popular accounts and more academic ones) frequently miss—for example when parents ask how can teenagers socialize virtually online via Facebook. Faceboook isn’t a virtual socialization it is part of (a significant part of) socialization in general. The online isn’t a separate self, it isn’t even an extension of the self, it is part of the self.
And so here is the problem, while many people spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the internet envisioning virtual worlds and virtual selves, we missed thinking about the internet that developed, one of ubiquitous computing, mobile computing, personalization, prediction, and persistent surveillance. To be sure there were many books written during the late 90s early 2000s, during both the growth of “cyberspace” and the rise of Web 2.0, which chose to focus not on our virtual futures, but a future of ubiquitous computing networks. But, these narratives and critiques were far less prominent and usually didn’t constitute the focus on analysis. Perhaps one of the more interesting exceptions to this would be the work of Howard Rheingold who in 1992 wrote a book about Virtual Reality, but by 2001, in Smart Mobs had already made the shift to focusing on ubiquitous computational technologies, pointing to them as the key to understanding the contemporary shift. In each case Rheingold seems to be at least 5 years ahead of the critical curve.
The central tenant I want to push here is the idea that the first step to theorizing about the web is to recognize that the web is not a separate realm, not an online space which needs theorizing, but rather a significant part of our current cultural landscape. There is no online versus offline and continuing to think of it as such hinders our ability to ask the important questions. I think that this was a problem (self included) in the way the internet was theorized during the late 90s early 2000s. By treating these two spaces as separate (cyberspace vs. meatspace) we ended up focusing on the wrong things and a host of critical concerns ended up being pushed to the margins. Everyone was busy talking about Second Life and The Matrix, but what we built was more like Minority Report.
Which brings me back to Ritzer. At the end of his talk I said something to the effect of you make a strong case for theorizing the web, but you seem to be theorizing a web that doesn’t exist, that is you are talking about the web of Second Life when what we got is Minority Report. (Zeynep starts this critique at 35:00 minutes in, and my question comes right after that.) I think this was probably the wrong way to ask the question, or a poor phrasing, for it counted on Ritzer being familiar with both Second LIfe (which he seemed to be) and Minority Report (which based on his answer he didn’t really recall). I should have probably explained my thinking a bit better, how I got to the question rather than just asking about my conclusion. Which is to say, that I think we do need to theorize about the web much more than we do (although the first move I might want to make would be to claim that there is no web, or at least not singular web of which we could speak, but I’ll save that for another post), but when doing this theory I think it is important to get beyond thinking about the possibilities and limits of the “virtual” or “cyberspace.” In short don’t think about Second LIfe think about Minority Report.
This Tuesday on the UT-Dallas campus I will be part of a panel discussion on the Middle East and North Africa. This is being put together by the Political Science folks, as such it is not really focused on the role of social media. In fact the other speakers are more focused on the history, the political ramifications for the region and the difficulties and issues associated with transitioning to a democracy. So, this isn’t really a panel about the role of social media in these uprising, although that is what I am going to talk about. Info below:
Forum on the Middle East and Africa
Apr 5th, Conference Center, 2-3:30pm.
Kacem Ayachi, 2009 Political Science Ph.D. Graduate A new era of mass politics in the Middle East
David Parry, Assistant Professor, Emerging Media and Communications The role of social media in the protests and the lessons that can be learned
Robert Lowry, Professor, Political Science Large-scale institutional change and conditions for stable democracies
After the presenters each make brief comments, the floor will be open for questions from the audience.
This morning, prepping for my graduate class, I was reminded of this quote by Mark Poster:
“[T]he internet is more like a social space than a thing; its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers. The effect of Germany upon the people within it is to make them Germans (at least for the most part); the effect of hammers is not to make people hammers . . . but to force metal spikes into wood. As long as we understand the internet as a hammer we will fail to discern the way it is like Germany.” -Mark Poster, “CyberDemocracy,” 1995
On January 21, 2010 Hilary Rodham Clinton gave what was then promoted as an important speech on promoting internet freedom. In this first set of “Remarks on Internet Freedom” Clinton used the backdrop of the Newseum to suggest that important ways in which the Newseum served as an important reminder of our first amendment freedoms, the internet will serve as the future ground for promoting free speech and by extension the promotion of democracy. Clinton’s second speech, nearly a year later, this time much more subdued both in venue and tone, marked a noticeable shift in state department rhetoric about the internet’s role in the promoting of democracy.
It seems to me that the speech in 2010 was organized around the tension between using the internet to promote freedom, the internet as the samizdat of our day, and the dangers that the internet posses to cyber security (how to maximize the first, while recognizing the threats of the second). Indeed the remarks on one level were structured around the idea that on the one hand the internet is a wonderful tool for promoting freedom of expression which if let lose upon the despotic regimes will yield democratic change, and the threat that these new technologies create in terms of dangers from hackers, threats to business, piracy, etc. Most of the speech though, was focused on promoting the notion that the Internet if used correctly is a great (primary) tool of 21st Century Statecraft.
Flash forward to yesterday’s speech and the rhetoric has shifted, now the organizing logic is around two examples: Egypt/Tunisia and Wikileaks. The question has congealed around these two case studies, how to enable the internet as a tool for promoting democracy in foreign countries, while ensuring that is doesn’t threaten US national interests. While their is still a recognition that the internet can be used for good or ill, the examples of good and ill have become far more focused. Indeed in the most recent speech protecting the internet as a space of commerce is almost entirely absent. Commerce only gets a mention in so much as it relates to the dictator’s dilemma, the idea that these new technologies are necessary for economic advancement (thus countries must accept them) but also usher in the means for removal of any authoritarian regime. In short the question Clinton poses is how can the internet not be a threat to US sovereignty while simultaneously be used as a tool to undermine despotic regimes (the sovereignty of other countries). This is an impossible position to try and uphold, the contradiction is readily apparent (but, for what it is worth, Clinton’s more recent speech marks a far better understanding of this contradiction and the role that the internet plays).
I think the first thing that is worth noting is that the cyber-utopic rhetoric has been vastly scaled back. Gone is the sense that one gets from the first speech that the internet is a force, a primary cause of social change. Indeed at several points Clinton remarked that we should recognize that “the internet did not do any of those things; people did. . . . Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future.” While in her first remarks one got the sense that internet freedom was becoming the battleground for 21st Century statecraft, in this second speech it is clear the focus is on a much more complicated picture of which the internet is merely one part. Free speech is a necessary but not sufficient cause for change, and the internet is just one factor in free speech, not the only one (even if it is a really, really, really, large one). And in the closing section of the speech Clinton recognizes that circumvention is not the only solution, and that solutions are likely to be multiple and not singular (read Haytack).
There is considerably more focus in the second speech on the way that the internet can be used for ill not by nefarious economic actors (pirates, hackers, identity thefts, the examples from the first speech) but rather by political actors (The Revolutionary Guard using the internet to arrest members of the Green Movement).
But what is striking about the speech is that its not organized around this tension, that the internet can be used by despotic regimes and those seeking social justice, but rather that her remarks then turn to the question of how to use the network to simultaneously foster liberty and security. That is her remarks aren’t about how to threaten the security of foreign dictators by enabling the liberty of citizens around the world, but rather about how to promote liberty around the world, while simultaneously protecting our security.
This I would like to suggest is an untenable position.
To be sure Clinton tries to separate out cases, and weave a path that argues our security can be protected while we foster the liberty of others, but ultimately the example she uses proves the impossibility of such a path. On the one hand citizens need access to information and the ability to freely exchange ideas with each other in order to form a civil society but on the other governments need the ability to decide what should be made private and public.
Nowhere is this tension more clear than through the case of Twitter. So, while Clinton is praising Twitter as a tool for spreading free speech and enabling conversation, the US government is simulatenously engaged in a court battle against Twitter to gain information about its users as part of its pursuit of Wikileaks. While Clinton argues that Wikileaks exposed US activists to greater risk (I actually haven’t seen evidence that this is true), human rights activists could also point out that Wikileaks exposed the way that governments and corporations undermined human rights. One could insist that the problem is theft and display of private information, but it is theft and display of private information that the US wants to foster, just theft and display of despotic regimes private information. If Wikileaks was only “stealing and displaying” info from governments that the US felt were anti-democratic I doubt it would serve as one of the organizing examples.
But Clinton gets this (or at least her speech writers do) when she says that the internet isn’t the real issue here, values are, that we need to decide what values will govern and determine this public space (lets leave aside the rather large issue that the internet really isn’t public space at all but rather a corporately controlled space). The problem here is nothing about the internet guarantees that US values will come to be the ones that determine the principles of its governance (sure there are historical reasons like influence over ICANN that mean the US has a greater say, but this influence is neither determinate nor guaranteed).
And here is where we get the most important line in the speech: “In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.” The subtext: nothing about the future of the internet guarantees US sovereignty or exceptionalism, because those 5 billion, they aren’t US citizens. And, let’s just add that it isn’t at all clear that those 5 billion people are going to be able to agree on what those “values” are.