In this Culture Digitally dialogue, we discuss Thomas Streeter’s book The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (New York University Press 2011), part of the “Critical Cultural Communication” series edited by Sarah Banet-Weiser and Kent A. Ono. This dialogue emerged out of an Author-meets-Critics session at the Eastern Sociological Society Meetings in Boston in March. Participating are
Tom Streeter, “Opening Salvos”
The Net Effect involves a lot of storytelling, and I state my key arguments in paragraphs, not aphorisms or pie charts. I’m someone who believes that the well-wrought word, applied with the old fashioned tactics of subtlety, irony, and insight, constitutes an essential form of inquiry into social life. That said, the stories in The Net Effect are not stories for stories’ sake. I outline a specific method, make some big causal claims, and offer large generalizations. The stories I tell offer significant cases of culture shaping both economics and technology rather than the other way around. I argue that our sense that the internet is somehow inherently democratic are to a significant degree a product of an accumulation of historical accidents. I truly believe that there’s little or nothing inherent in internet technology that makes it more democratic or anarchic than other communication technologies. I go so far as to avoid the language of affordances or potentials, which still tend to assume there’s something inside the technology itself. I try to show how what we call the internet is actually something bound up with specific pre-existing traditions, and in doing so try to make “the internet” a set of events in need of explaining, rather than something that gets used to explain other things. But then I also show that the way we have imagined or fantasized about the internet has had causal effects on its development and role in society; culture becomes the technology, in a sense. In other words, the internet is democratic, not because of the technology but because we have made it so. And that makes me more hopeful than the idea that the internet is a technological fix for democracy; if the latter were true, I’d find that very depressing.
The Net Effect was born in the late 1990s, when the tidal wave of the internet was breaking over us, and my career habit of being skeptical about claims of technological novelty was a lonely position. Making the case that the dot-com stock bubble was a bubble won you few friends back then. At the same time, I knew even then that one would not be able to discuss the past three decades of human history without discussing the impact of the internet. While there was a lot of mythology and a lot of overblown technological determinism, these ideas mattered and calling it stupid or false consciousness simply wasn’t enough. Evgeny Morozov has published a couple of books about the folly of “technological solutionism,” and he does a good job poking holes in a lot of the overblown claims and half-baked ideas floating around in association with the internet.
People refer to something called the internet without ever defining what it is they are actually talking about. That kind of demystification is useful, but I’ve always sought to go beyond pointing out the logical flaws in dominant discourses and instead get at why these patterns keep resurfacing over the decades, and how and why they matter, in spite of–or because of–their inaccuracies.
This is partly why I found it useful to focus on romantic individualism and its projection onto computer technology. Romanticism is a kind of cultural toolkit that constructs the self, not as a rational and self-interested homo economicus, but as expressive and an ongoing development. I look at the function of romanticism in specific historical contexts, and in interaction with other formations such as utilitarianism and managerialism. Romanticism is a set of cultural habits that in certain contexts has been used repeatedly to map meaning, in this case onto computer communication. My method is more Foucaultian than Hegelian, meaning that I try to show, in concrete, empirical ways how that mapping happened. I trace how romanticism from the 1960s influenced computer counterculture into Wired magazine and beyond into the open source movement. I also explore the romanticism’s role in various policymaking moments, from the internal politics of neoliberalism to the creation of openings for non-neoliberal discourses.
My hope is not that scholars will use this book to do more research on the internet, but that they will engage the book’s arguments about the relations between culture, capitalism, technology, policy and politics. I think it is high time that we abandon the lingering tendency in internet studies to assume that what’s interesting is new. In that I hope to shatter the coherence of that term internet, and instead encourage others to untangle the complex cultural components and technological pieces that comprise what we talk about when we use the term.
Laura J. Miller, “Histories of Playful Use”
One of the things I most appreciate about The Net Effect is Tom’s approach of considering how technology is influenced by culture in contrast to the usual perspective that looks at technology’s effects on social life. I get so exasperated by the typical ahistorical, acultural, breathless view of digital technologies and their impacts. Like Tom, I remain dubious of claims of technological novelty, a position which tends to lead my students, at least, to be disappointed in me. Therefore, we can really use this kind of study, which helps us understand how that very breathless perspective, as well as other sets of ideas, have influenced the development of digital technologies.
Here we get an argument about the influence of an ethic of romantic individualism on the development of the internet and other computer technologies. I am simultaneously convinced by it, and skeptical of it. On the one hand, there is lots of historical and current evidence for romanticism in the digital realm. Most recently, we can look to how Aaron Swartz has, since his death, been turned into a heroic figure, someone who appears to embody the ethos that The Net Effect describes: “romantic dreams of freedom, self-expression, and the dramatic overthrow of the powers that be” (p. 133). Without diminishing the awfulness of any young person who takes his own life, we can note the oddity of so many people rallying around the cause of liberating JSTOR files, which are not exactly the kind of property, intellectual or otherwise, that most people care about. The ethic of romantic individualism does help explain this phenomenon.
When reading The Net Effect, I was reminded of the University of California’s once-fantastic Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), Melvyl. In the 1980s and ’90s, Melvyl’s command system allowed for the most sophisticated search and display functions. But it also had a playful and rebellious dimension. To exit the system, you could type any number of synonymous commands: quit, logoff, exit, bye, farewell, etc. Foreign languages were also observed, e.g., adios, adieu. And, for those in the know, if you were unhappy with your session, the command “fuck off” was equally effective as a way to exit. I learned about this when I was in library school, where many of us loved this violation of the usual norms of propriety.
Melvyl still exists, but it now looks much the same as any other menu-driven OPAC. The old Melvyl was dismantled by the assumption that even an educated public was uninterested in and incapable of learning slightly complex skills when interacting with computers, and instead preferred “user-friendliness.” That speaks to a side of the story of the internet’s development that is not really covered in The Net Effect. Tom emphasizes the pull of exploration and fun that computer engineers and early adopters experienced, which led to embracing applications such as Mosaic. These kinds of processes were not just about opening up possibilities–they were also about shutting possibilities down by elevating fun over functionality. I remember in the 1990s how much I loved Gopher and was not especially impressed by Mosaic. I realize that I was probably not typical in this regard, but my point is that I wonder if The Net Effect exaggerates the pervasiveness of the cultural tropes connected to romanticism. Might the fun side of the internet have sometimes been experienced to some as irritating? Was a desire for efficient functionality simply an artifact of tired bureaucrats or neoliberal champions, as The Net Effect implies? I suspect that other cultural traditions have played a major part in shaping digital technologies as well.
This question of the strength of romantic individualism may relate to a firmer distinction that ought to be made between the design and use of digital technologies. The Net Effect helps us understand how computer scientists responded to certain cultural tropes, but we should ask whether users responded in the same way. I recognize that this isn’t an altogether fair criticism of the book, as Tom’s purpose was to examine the impact of culture on technological development, and therefore, it makes sense to focus on the people who were actually involved in the development process. It can still be instructive to consider at least the early adopters. The Net Effect mentions that these included the people who had to type the bosses’ letters, as well as professionals who did their own typing. For those, as well as other workers, computer use was mandated. Whether we are talking about the 1990s or today, computers are as much if not more a requirement of the job than an outlet for creativity. Similarly, the internet’s much-heralded benefit of easy communication can be a burden — how many of us dread opening our overloaded inboxes now — as can be the requirement to create one or more selves for social media in addition to the self who has to operate in various physical domains of everyday life. What do we know of those people, especially early adopters, who did not experience the Internet as an avenue of self-discovery? Are their experiences more hidden because the cultural tropes to describe their experiences are not as strong? Or could it be that we don’t know much about them because in the early years, they did not have the kind of outlets provided by cheerleaders of new technology like Wired?
Certainly, romantic individualism has been a powerful force in American culture more generally, and The Net Effect helps us understand that impact in a more nuanced way than my remarks may suggest. The Net Effect highlights the important sociological question of whether cultural ideas actually need to resonate with people’s experiences for those ideas to persist. Especially when considering the book’s discussion of neoliberalism, I am inclined to answer both yes and no. I was actually not convinced by Tom’s argument that neoliberal ideas and rhetoric were important for shaping perceptions of computing. Initially, most users got internet access as a freebie, either through work, school, or the public library. Even when commercial Internet Service Providers started to take off in the 1980s, a lot of users could avoid subscription fees at home by dialing in to employment or educational hosts. This experience, along with a broader political discourse, encouraged a conception of the internet as a public good, not a private commodity. Americans certainly became more willing to pay for internet access over time, especially when broadband took off in the 2000s. But despite an ever-larger chunk of the household budget going towards communication, the discourse of the internet as public right remains.
The Net Effect pushes us to contemplate not just technological paths taken, abandoned, and ignored, but also the fate of cultural paths.
Gina Neff, “A Method Primer”
Bruno Latour famously appealed to scholars to investigate the “socio-technical assemblages” that comprise our contemporary technologies. He is also famously vague about how to do that, and that’s precisely what Tom Streeter teaches us in The Net Effect.
The Net Effect covers a broad span of the things, procedures, ideas and cultures that make up what we call “the internet”–microcomputing, technical standards development, and open software, yes. But also ideologies, cultural beliefs, and historical antecedents. As a result, the history of things plays second fiddle here relative to the history of ideas. This is too bad, because that’s really where Streeter shines and adds a refreshing new lens on our ability to think through communication media.
The Net Effect is reminiscent other great social histories of communication media such as Claude Fischer’s America Calling and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Streeter’s history is just as impressive in its cultural scope as these two, but surpasses them in his reach for a much bigger and unbounded object, “the internet.”
The Net Effect is almost – I stress almost—too broad in scope, and at several points as a reader I wanted more from the book on all of these topics. The ambition of this book is both its key strength along with one of its few shortcomings. There are the roots of three different histories in this book, and I can only hope that Tom will decide to take those up for his next projects to produce a three volume set on the histories of the internet.
The strength of this broad scope of The Net Effect is that it allows Tom to draw connections across the “assemblage” of what we call internet. It reminds me of the project that Thomas Hughes, the comparative historian of technology, sets out for himself in Human-Built World: that technology development in the US and German traditions can be understood as culturally rooted in relationship to our competing desires to control our world and to let God make the plans. Like that book, this one is as ambitious in its scope and impressive in its ability to build a rich cultural history that links ideas, literature, and discourse. Streeter’s focus is on the role in computing of the romantic individual, “a self that is understood as the source of a dynamic, inner experience that calls on us to live creatively beyond the bounds of predicable rationality.”
I was left wondering how Streeter makes sense of the particularly American cultural imprint on the internet when the contemporary practices are global. From China to Facebook, we have multiple practices that now comprise this thing we call the internet. I was left wondering what how expansive and elastic Streeter’s historical explanations can be for contemporary experiences.
Streeter carefully traces what he calls “thrilling ideas,” and herein may be his single biggest contribution. I would like to propose that The Net Effect is enormously useful as a methodological guide for doing cultural, sociologically informed work on technology and ideas. Theoretically, we have long known that ideas and ideologies of technology shaped by communities, culture, and institutions and social structure. The Net Effect is instructive in how to do this by tackling the “microstructural problem of the interplay of idea and institutions by looking at connections on three levels: shared felt experiences association with technologies; cultural traditions that people draw on to make sense of those experiences; and articulations between those linked traditions and experiences with political ideas, particularly political ideas that shape policymaking around internet structure.” In this, Streeter creates a textured look at the connection between objects and institutions, and anyone wanting to reproduce this method would be well served to look at how he lays out the rise of personal computing.
Mary L. Gray, “The “male sort of loneliness” of the internet”
Streeter’s The Net Effect explores and historicizes some of the pleasures we associate with making rather than consuming the Internet. I couldn’t help but think about the social meaning and value of NextDrop, a service in India that notifies customers—predominantly women—that water will soon flow to the local public well. Without NextDrop, sisters, daughters, mothers, and wives must wait around, wondering when (or if) potable water, pumped once an average of every 2-8 days, will head to their neighborhood anytime soon. Like so many dot.com (or dot.org) startups launched under the flag of social entrepreneurship, NextDrop takes up the absence or shortcomings of public investment in basic infrastructure. And, as many such social media enterprises do, it extracts value through intimate exchanges (voicemails and text messages) with others. What is made and consumed in that moment? Residents don’t get better water quality or improved flow. Women receive the comfort and relief of reliable information—information most men and women in the Global North receive the moment they turn on their water faucets. While the idea of romantic individualism seems far removed from the slums of Bangalore, the experiences of women using NextDrop encapsulates the tensions between self and capital that Streeter lays out.
Streeter references “a male sort of loneliness,” quoting engineer and Wired writer Ellen Ullman, to unpack how certain expressions of selfhood and individualism adhere to computing. He argues that it is important to attend to the constructions of masculinity that make their way into universalizing tones of a romantic individual struggling–or communing–with the machine. While I agree that this masculinity (or masculinities) and its relationship to technological innovations discussed in The Net Effect need to be considered as part of complex dynamics rather than particular categories of people in the fixed sense, I can’t help but want to attend to how constitutive, integral, and indivisible masculinity is at every turn in this story. I wonder if the idea of romantic individualism gets organized by gendered/racialized/embodied notions of the self from the get-go so that it becomes impossible to think about a service like NextDrop without thinking about gendered division of labor and who hacks what in places like Bangalore.
The Net Effect looks beyond notions of utilitarianism on the one hand and technologies of self-expression on the other. These tenets work themselves into not only our understanding of technologies, particularly the personal computer, but the implicit mandates that fuel what’s funded and built next, and the passion that permeates these projects. But parts of The Net Effect seem to suggest or shore up a certain division between Marxist social critique and what some might call identity politics here. How do we decide when libertarian ideologies touted by cyber-pundit Esther Dyson matter more than the social fact that these ideologies are communicated by a woman? How do we decide when a social media service, like NextDrop, consuming and consumed by women, is or is not a story about gender vs. technological innovation? Could gender ever be disentangled from the stories we tell without losing a sense of the Net Effect?
Tom Streeter, “Responses”
Thanks to Professors Miller, Neff, and Gray for their kind and immensely intelligent comments. I am especially grateful that they highlight aspects of The Net Effect that I’m not sure are evident to potential readers: Laura Miller notes that the book does not just poke holes in net hyperbole in the manner of Evgeny Morozov, but offers an explanation of its character, persistence, and political valences; Gina Neff, that the book has a specific method for uncovering and analyzing the relations between culture, technology, and society; and Mary Gray, that it addresses the complexities of pleasure in technology. And they each, in the kindest way, point to gaps, to stories the book leaves untold: the book after all is almost entirely about white educated American men, and its critical stance would necessarily point to people and life worlds beyond those narrow and privileged confines (which all three in their own work do address in fascinating ways). So I accept those important criticisms, encourage readers to approach the book with those untold stories in mind, and plan in future research to explore a few of those out-of-the-spotlight folks whose lives and labors have made possible the relatively privileged worlds I look at in the book.
More specifically, Laura Miller points to all those who experience computing technology as drudgery, that majority upon which float the minority who experience it as a thrill, and worries if I am exaggerating the extent of both romanticism and the neoliberalism I argue was at times its fellow-traveler. Methodologically, the way I deal with those questions in the book is to judge discourses not by their pervasiveness but by their effectiveness: romanticism matters to the extent that it was a necessary if not sufficient condition of real world decision making (e.g., the dot-com bubble), not by the extent to which it is shared, an extent which I make clear in the book is not universal, even among the computer literate. And I do suggest that it did play a role in social struggles, not in terms of a grand dichotomy between oppressors and oppressed but in a more fine grained dynamics of particular places in white collar hierarchies (hence the discussions of the hearts and minds of “cubicle dwellers”). Those who turned to a romantic self-understanding of computing were often drawn to it in part because of a sense of the lack of authority or respect received from the more utilitarian or managerial discourses favored by their bosses. Similarly, Laura is absolutely right that people’s experience of computing was often not congruent with markets and private property; one of the ways that experience was articulated was in the non-neoliberal open source movement I elaborate in the book. In particular moments romanticism could become articulated with neoliberalism – just as at other moments it could become articulated with non-neoliberal discourses like the open source movement. (One leg of neoliberalism is the assertion that private property is necessary to innovation and production; writ large, open source may have no necessary political commitments, but nonetheless kicks that leg out from under the neoliberal policy edifice.)
All that said, “romanticism” is one of those rich, everyday words that both invites associations while risking blurriness; that may be part of what Laura may be worried about. I could have instead used, say, Colin Campbell’s phrase “modern autonomous imaginative hedonism” to force the reader to do the work of grasping my argument in more precise terms – but then, I’m afraid it would be a much less accessible book. (Campbell himself used “romanticism” in his book’s title, while exhaustively breaking it down into parts in the text.) Laura has inspired me to think about a follow-up essay on specifying romanticism in contemporary culture that would more fully address the concerns she raises.
Gina Neff gently points to the very American context of this book, which ignores the global character of the internet. Point taken. Compelling cultural analysis requires some immersion and is thus difficult to do well across cultural boundaries; the bits of thick description in the book are tied to my own personal experiences, as is the whole analysis to some extent. But I do hope that I and perhaps others will be able to take up Gina’s question in further work. For example, the hagiographic treatment of Steve Jobs after his death, which fits cleanly into the analysis of The Net Effect, was taken up by young people in China, though not in Korea or Japan. That deserves a closer look.
More broadly, Gina notes how, in this rather average-length book, I try to tackle that big “and unbounded object, ‘the internet.’” She is absolutely right that there is something sprawling about what I try to encompass, and she is right to put quotes on “the internet”: after all these years, it is finally starting to dawn on us that we more often than not leave the term undefined even as we build our careers on it. My reason for making that sprawl a central object of the book is that one will not be able to explain the political, economic, or cultural history of the last thirty years without reference to “the internet,” even if what we imagine to be technological questions turn out not to be. So yes, the “internet” in the book’s subtitle is more a word – a rich, powerful, historically significant word – than a technology.
I do accept her implication that artifacts still matter, however, and her invitation to follow some of the threads started in the book. So there are two directions to go in further work: first, there is much historical explanation (and deconstruction) left to be done of how all that energy around the term “internet” congealed, and second, there are numerous rich cultural/political/technological studies to be done of specific artifacts in everyday life, which I touch upon in the book but deserve fuller elaboration.
Mary Gray’s comments raise one of the most difficult questions for me about the book, the question of gender. The obvious and persistent masculinist associations with computer technologies cry out both to be superseded – there’s a feeling that we just need to finally get beyond it, and whenever I talk to female undergraduates about it I start by saying that computing is a great career for them – but nonetheless it kind of haunts cultural approaches to technologies in a way that is difficult to handle. Yes, romanticism as I define it – roughly Emersonian – is associated with masculinist tropes and ideologies. Whenever self-expression and exploration are defined purely in terms of breaking free, of going off heroically on one’s own, then there’s probably something important being obscured, and as often as not, it is work done by women.
Mary references the point in the introduction where I mention the influence Esther Dyson, who as a libertarian would argue that her identity as a woman is irrelevant to her actions and role. On the one hand, Dyson’s gesture of transcending the body is a central one to the libertarian culture of the internet; Dyson had no small role in articulating that gesture with politics. On the other, there’s a false abstraction in that gesture; there’s no abstract individual apart from our historical bodies, one’s gender does matter, and that false abstraction has a lot to do with what’s wrong politically about how people make sense of the internet. Tagging that individualism as Ullman’s “male sort of loneliness”, as I briefly do, helps situate the discourse, at least metaphorically. But in the end, I think I have to accept Mary’s suggestion that there’s something unfinished if not woefully lacking in this part of the analysis. Perhaps there’s an essay to be written about Esther Dyson’s body, about the way her status as a woman figures in her political presence against her wishes. I think such an essay would be very difficult to write well.
-Contributed by Gina Neff, University of Washington Department of Communication; Mary Gray, Microsoft Research New England / Associate Professor of Communication and Culture with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University; and Thomas Streeter, University of Vermont Department of Sociology-
The Q & A below was listed today on the MIT Press Blog. I’ve cross-posted it below for our readers.
Q: What sparked your interest in the “digital rights movement,” and how did you come up with that name to describe the movement?
It began in 1999. At that time Napster had just been released and made me think that while there were too many instances of copyright violation it was possible that Napster represented the architecture of a differently imagined web. I started to realize that something had categorically shifted in the way we understood copyright. More specifically I thought that whatever we thought copyright was, was under a type of existential crisis. Despite the fact that copyright was crafted in the United States as part of the intellectual property clause in the Constitution, research into its historical groundings in the British statute of Anne made me realize that it was a deeply technological law. That the statute of Anne was essentially a legal framework to give the sovereign control over printing technology, so that sovereign permission to produce content also regulated what exactly was said. In the United States and other countries, in tandem with the rise of capitalism and the global marketplace for inventions and ideas, intellectual property regulation and copyright specifically became a way of incentivizing creation while at the same time protecting and controlling markets in a goods that were inexhaustible: the expression of an idea, or the expression of beauty in the form of literature or music. The historical reality that western copyright had at some level started as a means of controlling technology so that a sovereign could control expression and that it then had been turned into a means of controlling markets and that it was dependent on technology made me, as a science and technology studies scholar, really interested.
In science and technology studies a long-standing theoretical and empirical position is the technological systems don’t simply serve as tools or means to ends, but are themselves instantiations of a way of life or a worldview. As I started researching ways in which people were trying to circumvent copyright through technological means, I came across Larry Lessig’s book Code, a lucidly written book to be sure but Lessig was doing the same work that STS scholars like Langdon Winner, Lewis Mumford, Jaque Ellul, Andrew Feenberg, etc. had done for decades. The research and historical work this group and others rooted in the philosophy of technology had done pointed out how technological systems have the capacity to regulate not only legally but culturally. Because technology is ultimately an instantiation of a cultural form there is no effective separation between technology and society. We always hear media outlets ask how this or that new technology might be impacting society. That’s a good question but maybe a better question is how is a particular technology a representation of a particular view within a society that is composed of a universe of worldviews. By asking that question we might come to understand that power, democracy, legitimacy of authority, etc. lie not only in political philosophy or in social process but also in the artifacts produced through social processes and meaning making endeavors; the machinations of cultural practice.
I don’t want to take anything away from the originality of Lessig’s application of determinism and social construction to technology and law. If anything it felt like STS scholars should have been doing this explicitly not just implicitly long ago. STS scholars were not the only ones thinking along these lines. Marshall McLuhan was doing “the medium is the message” thing a long time ago and Michel Foucault was thinking about structures of power in philosophy, history and cultural studies. Right around the same time that Napster was beginning to run into legal trouble, the EFF and other organizations that had been for some time worrying over how consumer rights would be impacted by the emergence of information communication technologies were coordinating not only to defend user practices and expectations but to articulate an alternative worldview. When Apple opened the iTunes Music Store in response to the clear demand for digital music delivered via the web and tied that system of business to digital rights management (DRM), the activity of hackers and organizations to counteract the structuring power of the DMCA and the technologies it protected started to look to me, someone versed in social movement theory, as a social movement itself. I thought it would be nice to call this emerging movement by the same acronyms held by the technologies that embodied stringent formulations of copyright, limited fair use and first sale (copy and access protection technologies): Digital Right Management. This was particularly appropriate because the hacks that came out of the digital rights movement embodied entirely different understandings of those rights and consumer privileges. Seldom does someone get to write about a moment of social contention while it’s happening and that has qualities never empirically studied before. I’m not alone in thinking this way, Jennifer Earl who recently published an excellent book from MIT Press applying STS principles to social movement theory and social movement organizational use of digital media also was taking note. So I became interested because while not, demographically speaking, a digital native I was engaged in thinking about the technology and practices that were being made illegal by the DMCA but that maybe should have been given a little more consideration during the policy making processes.
Q: Throughout the book, you make reference to the fact the digital rights movement is part of a growing cultural awareness. In what ways is this a cultural movement?
I think recognizing that the digital rights movement is really a name for a much wider movement and therefore much wider cultural awareness goes back to STS yet again. The reason this is the case is that significant changes in the nature of the technology for consuming copyrighted content both expanded and constricted the menu of possibilities available to users over legally owned content. What I mean by that is that given the emergence of ICTs, digital media and computers as ubiquitous means for consuming the products of the culture industries it follows that the functions those technologies afford can then be applied to the content passing through them. Copying, pasting, editing, distributing, etc. all became categorically easier. In many ways these affordances invited what Henry Jenkins has called participatory culture. While he studied it in fan fiction it came to have a much more wider acceptance among those adopting digital technologies as their primary means for consuming culture industry products. It felt odd to download a song from iTunes legally and then not be a able to make as many copies of it as you needed given the fact that the technologies that delivered the content had that as a central functional characteristic. If we know one thing it’s that the creative urge is fueled by consumption: musicians listen to a lot of music, writers read a lot, movie directors watch a lot of film. Not only is creativity fostered by consumption of the full panoply of cultural goods but it is also fueled by imitation, play and experimentation. Digital technologies afford this. It’s a cultural movement because those consumers that came to adopt digital media already had expectations about functionality. It didn’t take users, especially the young, too long to see that the web, digital content, and personal computers afforded new possibilities for consumption. Those affordances materialized in an avenue for creativity and the role of users was not only to consume but maybe to contribute to the vast discourse that was cultural production. By way of example, think of making a film mashup. It may have been technologically cumbersome in the days of the VCR, but in the days of personal computers shipped with entry-level video editing software, consumers might end up asking themselves why they couldn’t make a mashup from their legally owned DVDs. Or why they couldn’t use music that they had legally purchased on iTunes, excerpting some parts of a song and using it as a soundtrack for the mashup. We have a host of laws that regulate the means and practice of culture industry consumption (public performance rights, transmission regulation, the DMCA, etc.) and those laws make a lot of what was made possible by technology illegal. If you get a crop of consumers who are not only consumers anymore but also possible producers who come to see some agency in cultural production, you’re going to get a certain number of people who resist the law and its technological enforcement by deploying their own technology to go hand-in-hand with their protest, legal battles, and lobbying. As the movement grew it became an international network of organizations, individuals, hackers, and technologies all in action to achieve a certain social change. Increased consumer rights over using the products of the cultural industries as building blocks for their digital literacies.
Q: How have arguments over free speech and fair use entered the conversation on digital copyright?
One thing that I’ve enjoyed considering is the symbiosis between fair use and free speech. If consumers are to be more than consumers and be individuals who possess a digital literacy then they better have more or less unfettered access to media content they legally purchased. What I mean by digital literacy here is the ability to speak polyvalently by cobbling together a host of media formats. So to me the idea of digital literacy is actually the idea of digital speech. Do people have the freedom to cobble together content from a DVD, content from iTunes, content from TV, so they can make a statement about something political? All you have to do is look at YouTube and you realize that people have been doing that now for some time in the context of a business model, YouTube is owned by Google, but it’s still an expression of digital literacy and digital speech. Something not possible had fair use remained constrained by the DMCA. Luckily we got hacks that cracked iTunes DRM years ago or hacks that cracked the content scrambling system on DVDs, capture cards to digitize TV content, and other technologies that allow users to experiment and speak in a number of formats. If these practices, which are increasingly common, can avoid copyright violation “takedown notices,” they become quite empowering to the people that engage in them.This is a moment where copyright, in its most stringent application, runs aground of free speech. This is an argument that actually has not yet been effectively fleshed out in courts. In cases important to the digital rights movement it was fleshed out as, for example, both sides of the debate had to revisit the idea that code is speech, specially when that code is needed to learn something about encryption, for example.
Q: In what ways does the digital rights movement remain a struggle concerning how to grapple with the unrestricted access individuals have to large amounts of information on the Internet?
I’ve had the good fortune of speaking to a lot of people about this recently as I try to explain what the real folly of copyright stringently applied to digital content is. Ultimately it’s about old media fears over piracy. Those fears create a blind spot to business potential. Some might disagree but I would argue that large amounts of information on the internet, specifically products of the cultural industries, give consumers a pallet from which to draw, reconfigure and redistribute their own cultural products. If old media welcomed this process then you would have platforms that could distribute the gains of UGC production and consumption among the platform owners, the copyright owners, and the users. YouTube does this in some regard with user-generated content. The movement continues to struggle with enduring, legally grounded practices that continue to fence in elements of UGC that some copyright owners might consider infringing. It’s not necessarily that information wants to be free though, but rather that it wants to be used and then shared. You think of all that information and content flowing through digital technologies and ICTs like water in a river, all you need really is a mill somewhere to extract the value of its kinetic energy. If you look at it that way, the movement isn’t really a struggle about making things free but rather about letting many have access to that river and contribute a little themselves even as they draw water from it.
Q: Has the proliferation of social media changed or intensified these debates in any way?
-Contributed by Hector Postigo, Temple Dept. of Department of Media Studies & Production-
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We are still in the immediate wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, but it is already clear that the investigation into these attacks is taking a very different shape than the investigation into the 9/11 attacks. One of the big reasons, naturally, is the explosion of smartphone use in recent years, providing a wealth of user-captured photo and video for investigators to pore over.
Two days later, the FBI and Boston police do not seem to have many solid leads. We are only just now learning of some basic details about the explosive device that was used at the finish line – a pressure cooker-type bomb which is, apparently, a very common improvised explosive used around the world – and the container it might have been transported in – a black nylon bag or backpack. Investigators are urging the public to submit any and all information they may have from the marathon, leading to already a few terabytes of visual data that the FBI will begin to process.
But the 4chan community, which is not always known to be pro-social or classy, has organized an investigation of its own. Together, the 4chan members are combing through the images that have made their way onto social networking sites, annotating images with possible clues, mostly noting people wearing large black backpacks. It is a self-organized game of “Where’s Waldo?” and it shows that you can never underestimate the power of Linus’ Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”
By charging citizens with the task of finding and submitting all visual evidence from the marathon scene, investigators have effectively launched a crowdsourcing venture. Specifically, this kind of crowdsourcing falls into the “knowledge discovery and management” (KDM) type of crowdsourcing that I outline in my book.
Meanwhile, the 4chan community appears to have organized their own crowdsourcing venture on a “4chan Think Tank,” poring over the tons of visual clues available online and noting suspicious people and objects in photos. But this type of crowdsourcing is the “distributed human intelligence tasking” (DHIT) approach, a different kind of crowdsourcing process. Both the KDM and DHIT crowdsourcing types are suited for solving information management problems, while two other crowdsourcing types – the broadcast search approach and the peer-vetted creative production approach – are suited for solving ideation problems.
Here’s a modest proposal: stitch these two crowdsourcing processes together. As Spencer Ackerman noted in Wired yesterday, “the data used in the investigation will be crowdsourced. The investigation will not be.” But why not? Why can’t we blend the two processes – KDM by soliciting images from the public combined with a DHIT process of analyzing them? Ackerman notes that this could quickly turn into a witch hunt, with vigilantes jumping to conclusions based on loose leads turned up in the image annotation. He’s possibly right. But I think there is a way to avoid this, and that way involves investigators proactively taking charge of the kind of process 4chan is taking on themselves.
I am no security expert, nor do I have a deep knowledge of detective work, but as an outsider watching this unfold, I would propose that organizations like the FBI build dark site crowdsourcing platforms for crisis events, ready to spring into action as soon as attacks happen. This site would be a place to upload images, videos, and tips, which, perhaps with some moderation, would be posted publicly on the site. Volunteers would also have the opportunity to comb through the images and videos, tagging them with clues and notes, all of which would be viewable by investigators in real time.
It is a perfect crowdsourcing situation, following the best practices of what makes crowdsourcing work. You have a clearly defined problem (find out who may have placed the bombs). You have a clear way for the crowd to provide solutions (tag images and videos looking for large backpacks and people snapping photos on the ground that might clearly capture the faces of people carrying those backpacks). You have a highly motivated crowd (basically, the whole world wants to help) that has the expertise to do the job (anyone who can see can play a classic image-hunt game).
But what about the vigilante/witch hunt problem? Well, if an organization like the FBI was taking charge of the platform, it could partner with media to caution the public against using possible leads on the crowdsourcing site to act out in vigilante justice. It is no guarantee that people would not act out in this way, but, I would argue, it is better to have some leads, quickly question these leads (get to the people of interest before the crowd does), and caution the public from reacting than it is to have a complete absence of leads and have people’s ignorance and fear take over and start treating, say, all dark-skinned Arabic-speaking people as suspects or circulating other conspiracy theories and misinformation. We don’t need a post-9/11 xenophobic, racist reaction, and that is what will fill the void if a series of leads don’t come forward, I’m afraid.
So why not? Why could we not have a flexible platform ready to spring into action, tapping into a public that is eager to help in some way? The government should look to the power of online communities like 4chan and consider ways to press them into service in times of terror. There are some obvious concerns here about a surveillance state, privacy, and other issues, but, really, these things are already happening, and if we’re going to be on camera all the time, let’s at least use it for good.
-Contributed by Daren Brabham, School of Journalism & Mass Communication and Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill-
A few weeks ago, Tim Jordan shared the opening chapter of his new book, Internet, Society, and Culture: Communicative Practices before and after the Internet, published by Bloomsbury. (You can still read it here.) The comments that followed raised some interesting observations, both about it and inspired by it, so we’re re-posting those comments here as a mini-dilaogue about Tim’s ideas.
I’m thrilled by this glimpse of Tim Jordan’s new book, thanks for sharing it. Here’s what I like most about it so far. In order to get a sophisticated handle on how the internet may be changing communication and culture, Tim turns his attention to, literally, the mundane mechanics of communication practices. This means not just the practices of communicating, but the mechanics that have to be in place for those practices to occur and be taken as reliable — seemingly simple things like trusting that you know who is talking to you, which turns out to be not so simple at all.
In pre-Internet contexts, Tim argues, the traditional way we handled this kind of certainty was to attach the communication to the body. Simple when communication is face-to-face, this is a substantially harder task, and at the same time a more vital one, when communication is conducted “at-a-distance.” So we use substitutes — the handwritten signature, the timbre of the voice on the telephone, the seal pressed into wax — so we can continue to lean on the body, or its proxy, to trust communication. But on the internet, even these body-identity associations fail us. Not that these embodied signals aren’t available, they’re in fact nearly everywhere, but even the basic markers of identity themselves (email address, signature, IP address) themslves must be constructed and validated. This strikes me as a really compelling left turn for the question of how the internet changes communication, which so often focuses on who speaks, what is said, and with what effect. By looking at the mundane dynamics of what we might call “communicative assurance,” we may notice a very different kind of change afoot.
There’s another little detail, that Tim makes such a little deal about, perhaps he wasn’t even cognizant of it, but I think is fascinating. To justify looking so closely at these mechanics of communication, Tim starts by noting that, while we often understand internet communication with the help of metaphors (hacking as burglary, online protest as civil disobedience) we find that this semantic shorthand almost inevitably fail us. His point is that, if these metaphors so regularly fail us, it must mean that something is different, something ill-fitted by conventional understanding. But what I find interesting, and he notes it in passing but makes very little of it, is that both of his examples here are about illicit communication. Not surprising, coming from the author of the book Hacking. But I wonder what it might accomplish, to approach an analysis of communicative practices by starting with only illicit ones. (Not that he continues to do this: the case studies are of letter-based correspondences in the early nineteenth century and immersive social gaming today. But perhaps he will continue to have an eye for the illicit?) What might a deliberate and thorough-going focus on the illict push him to see? Certainly, illicit communicative activities are even more fraught when it comes to questions of ascertaining who is speaking and forging trust around those practices. or maybe illicit communication like hacking and online protest refuse those questions, simply have no use for them. Maybe looking atillicit communciation could offer a broader lesson for everday communication, in which we still experience glimmers of that same wariness about who and why, even though on the surface we can take a decent chance to someone is who they claim to be.
Thanks Tim, for sharing this with us. I actually had the pleasure of reading it a little earlier and offering a blurb for it, and so I feel compelled to share one of my main reactions to this text — also the main reason why I find this text so meaningful.
I am really drawn to the premise Tim establishes for the studies: The idea that pre-internet communicative practices possessed an identity stamp connected to the body, whereas post-internet communicative practices carry an identity stamp rooted in styles of interaction. This begs the question: does presentation of the self then become inherently more stylized and performative, as physical identity markers become more elusive?
Yes and no. Physical identity markers become more elusive and as a result people “rely on styles of interaction to stabilise identities and effect communication.” But the meaning of physicality itself is reimagined and redefined, as these practices become habitual. And so, while there are obvious differences between identity markers employed in the letter writing practices of Australia early colonizers and the contemporary performative practices of gamers colonizing virtual spaces, there are also important similarities in how people play with matter to tell stories about their own physicality. What limits the interaction, thus, is not necessarily the technology itself, but the metaphors we employ to understand how to use it.
Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your new project, Tim. I appreciated the way that this opening chapter outlined the challenges that accompany larger-scoped research questions and carefully laid out your plans for managing them.
One of the themes that really stood out in my reading is the notion of legitimacy. It’s an especially generative idea for your project because it takes on somewhat different, yet complementary meanings throughout the literatures of communication and cultural studies. In theories of deliberation and democracy, legitimacy refers to the recognition that the outcomes of a particular communicative situation are just. While in other contexts, legitimacy means something closer to to what sysadmins call “authentication” –passwords, SSH keys, and other credentials that affirm a particular identity.
This chapter left me wondering about how these various meanings of legitimacy might refer to some common underlying concept. “Recognition” came to mind in terms of recognizing the sender of a message, recognizing the idioms in use, or recognizing the authority of an institution. It’s a short hop from here to Kelly A. Gates’ book “Our Biometric Future” which takes up facial recognition technology as its central object (–an interesting parallel read, perhaps?) In the preliminary discussion of letter-writing, we are reminded of wax seals and signatures, material traces of a physical act that refer to a particular body situated somewhere else on the globe. Do the present-day biometric systems in Gates’ book represent a return or persistence of the body as the ultimate legitimizing technology? Can we imagine shipping bits of hair or nail clippings along with packages to be read by DNA scanners on the receiving end? (Recall the film Gattaca or the cyberpunk trope of holding a stolen eyeball up to a retina scanner to open a locked door…)
Such instrumental uses of the body for assessing legitimacy invite a second train of thought (leading away, admittedly, from Tim’s central research questions.) Is it important to separate mediated communication between individual humans from messages sent between institutions or non-humans? The senders of robocalls, spam emails, stock tickers, system errors, and automated traffic tickets cannot be legitimized with physiological signals. Tim points out an intriguing shift from meta-data outside of a messages (such as a wax stamp) to an authentication grounded in shared semiotics–slang, emoticons, jokes, and other lexographic habits. When we, collectively, began to engage in “internet-dependent” communication, perhaps we were drawing on a repertoire of legitimization techniques developed while interacting with non-humans through other media? Maybe the lingering threat/promise of biometric authentication is driven less by a fear of mistaking one human for another, than by a fear of mistaking bots for humans?
Thanks again, Tim. Somehow your intriguing historical perspective propelled me sidelong into science fiction. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book!
Thanks very much for the responses, it’s always a bit of a wonder having a book launched and not really knowing who reads it (or whether it’s read). It’s particularly good to know (and nerve-wracking) that colleagues whose work I use and like are reading it. A few responses.
Physicality and the body is something that came up a lot and took me a while to think through. Later in the book I try to work through the different physicalities that are used in different forms of communication. Pre-internet is dependant on types of the physical that last and remain stable, internet-dependant on far more liquid and repetitive; it was striking to compare the way letters from nearly 200 years ago when I had them in my hands felt alive and with entirely unique formations of individual letters inscribed with ink and steel nib, whereas in my chat.logs from gaming the individual letters were inscribed exactly the same and carried none of the liveliness of people I knew (in contrast to the liveliness of letters from people I never knew). The wood and sail of the ships that carried letters versus the electricity and cables of the internet.
Even in pre-internet the body and the physical I found were formed within the communicative practice. If we think of a phone call we stabilise it through the timbre and intonation of the voice rather than a sense of the ‘whole’ body, similarly letters re-present a body through handwriting style signature and so on. Internet-dependant as Zizi points out embed the body within the kinds of performances that authors or ‘senders’ must be able to repeat so that their style can be recognised and their communications accepted. It’s not that bodies disappear but that they have different parts to play in each type of communication. This left me with a couple of open questions. One is, as pre-internet practices increasingly inter-mingle with internet-dependant—voice comms being normal now in online gaming, video conference much easier, etc.–what will happen to the division I’ve drawn out? And, what do we mean by the physical these days? All the work of Karen Barad and others I looked abut but it leaves questions I’ve been pursuing.
The issue of authentication is important, though I don’t know the Gates book (nice pointer, I’ll have to have a look!) though I reflect on encryption late in the work. I did get to a point where I suddenly thought ‘Hang on! Encryption removes the problem of loss of identity markers in online communication’. But when you look into it encryption suffers from the same problem. How do you know a key is someone’s key? If we look back to Pretty Good Privacy’s ‘web of trust’ it involves final authentication by moving off the internet and back to face-to-face grounding of communication in the body. Once you have one person who you can authenticate through their body you can then connect that to styles of communication to authenticate others. I’m not sure if others remember that period when people used to go to conferences with floppy disks and would swap their keys, thereby kickstarting authentication for online life through the body.
Authority and legitimacy is something that kept coming up for me as an issue in communication: how do we know who sent this communication? How does the sender know it will reach who they intend it for? Where do we start reading and stop? Etc. This led me back to communication as the all the cultures and rituals (following Carey) that make transmission of messages possible. The forms of authority then shift between different types, particularly around the different role of the body.
As Tarleton picked up, my examples of illicit communication are drawn from my earlier research. This book was for me a return to trying to think about the nature of changes the internet may or may not have brought that was the first enthusiasm for many of us in the 1990s when the internet became a subject of cultural studies and sociological analysis, whereas those examples from the illicit were taking off from work since then. I hope this starting point is balanced out in this book by the ‘normal’ communication that forms the case studies, given that normal internet-dependant communication includes trolls, kobolds, elves (all too often) and places like Midgard and Albion. The interesting idea would be to pick the ideas I’ve put here in relation to these legitimate forms and apply them more specifically to illicit. I think a research direction toward Anonymous might just be opening up
-Contributed by Culture Digitally, With the generous support from the National Science Foundation-
Ask an anthropologist a question and they’ll tell you a story. In this case, you didn’t ask, but I’m going to tell. During the fall of 2012, I was perusing my Facebook feed before bedtime, imagining myself to be reconnecting with old friends and keeping up with their lives through their links, posts and various photos. I was ruminating on the continually tweaked feed algorithms that always seemed to send friends into the foreground and others out of view. One old friend in particular and his regular kid photos were strangely absent, so I flicked open the side panel of Facebook’s iOS client and began searching for his name. Nothing turned up in the auto-complete, which was strange… At which point I realized quickly meant that I had been un-friended. Indeed an actual search yielded his profile, which offered me the friendly blue-button “Add Friend.” At which point I pondered, “I thought we were.”
Here was a guy who I shouldn’t have been friends with. He was a football player and I was a geek. I played video games and took Computer Science classes (and Women’s Studies classes). He was a Physics Major and jock. But, we lived next door to one another and after a particularly extensive round of playing Quake on my PowerBook 3400 I had stepped into the hallway of my dorm to be greeted with the sound of retching next door. I dropped in and asked, “hows it going?” (Incidentally, probably one of my de facto ethnographic questions.) We ended up chatting for a few hours (it was his roomate, not him having difficulty) until the worst seemed over and I eventually retired to my room.
A few years later, he was still a football player, but also a Mathematics and Computer Science Major, similar to myself. We worked together on a project team during our senior-level software engineering course. We cajoled one another through a particularly horrific experience with a probability course. We even managed to get snowed into a computer lab while crunching at the end of our senior project. Once we graduated, like most college kids, everyone went their separate ways. A decade later (or more, now that I think about it) when I received a friend request from him on Facebook, I was happy to accept and seemingly catch up.
A different story: I started playing with Facebook’s Developer APIs a couple of years ago, teaching them as part of summer courses at the University of Georgia in the New Media Institute. An early prototype was a Facebook “App” that displayed a leader-board of users who had authorized the app according to those with the most friends. In other words, it would show a top ten list of those with the most friends of the users who had authorized the app. It was a sample bit of code for students, but also a moment to get them to reflect on how many “friends” on Facebook they had and what that meant.
After my un-friending experience I returned to the Facebook social graph. I built a prototype app that would, when you visited the app, let you know who your new friends and un-friends were since your last visit. Relatively easy. I suspect that is what some of the available systems do right now. Some even do it for Twitter.
But, I was reluctant to do anything with the app (in particular release it). It seemed too much like “friend” surveillance, and we have more than enough of that already without each and every person on Facebook self-surveilling one another. There was also the issue of resources. If I did something like this well, I knew it would get use. Did I really want to offer tribute to the god of Amazon Web Services (AWS) just to allow people to know when they’d been un-friended? [Because scale is a very real issue here.]
When I queried the Facebook Oracle on the idea, even my network of friends were interested/apprehensive/dubious/worried. But why did I care? I was interested because I had been moved by my own un-friending. I never followed up on it. I never talked about it until nearly two months later with my partner and nearly eight months later on Facebook. But even now, it gives me great pause when thinking about social-media, technology and the ethnographic perspective.
Thus, I now wonder, what would a meaningful (or even playful) experience of un-friending be? How might it serve to convince people to think about their friends on Facebook or the nature of friendship in general? How might it explore surveillance and algorithmic culture? How might it be done ethnographically?
The Point, Really
The point, really, is that as someone interested in and capable of building these things, I often wonder if I should. There will be innumerable IRB issues associated with the building of such a thing if I wish to make research use of it. There are numerous ethical issues involved with its design and a hundred technical issues. Should I do it? What would it be? What is the potential for good and for harm?
Thus, this is partially a query to the Culture Digitally community. I can imagine numerous ways to take “Un-Friend Stories,” which is my unofficial name for the project. Initially I imagined that the “penance” that one must pay for surveilling their new and un-friends would be an occasional request for a story. It could be ignored. All stories would be curated (by evil old me). People would likely suppress the feed posts it would offer, but I’d be able to sleep at night.
Now, however, I don’t think that’s enough. Maybe I present the user with a variety of voices in their current network, presented graphically as will-o’-the-wisps perhaps, and it’s up to the user to explore why a voice is or isn’t present. Maybe, just maybe one of those voices is gone for good, but it’s up to the user to reflect on that absence.
My experience forced me to think about my friends and Facebook’s algorithmic presentation of (and, yes, I know I can pick between top and newest posts) information to me. I had to take a journey and think about friendship.
If I can do that for others, is it still good? Or is it still just another brick in the surveillance wall?
-Contributed by Casey O'Donnell, Michigan State University Department of Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media-← Older posts | Newer posts →