An important test of the deliberative legitimacy of a political process … is the degree to which groups may not only gain a hearing for their opinions about issues and proposals already under consideration but are able to initiate discussion of problems and proposals.
We can draw a distinction here between Big Data—the stuff of numbers that thrives on correlations—and Big Narrative—a story-driven, anthropological approach that seeks to explain why things are the way they are. Big Data is cheap where Big Narrative is expensive. Big Data is clean where Big Narrative is messy. Big Data is actionable where Big Narrative is paralyzing.
The promise of Big Data is that it allows us to avoid the pitfalls of Big Narrative. But this is also its greatest cost. With an extremely emotional issue such as terrorism, it’s easy to believe that Big Data can do wonders. But once we move to more pedestrian issues, it becomes obvious that the supertool it’s made out to be is a rather feeble instrument that tackles problems quite unimaginatively and unambitiously. Worse, it prevents us from having many important public debates.
As Band-Aids go, Big Data is excellent. But Band-Aids are useless when the patient needs surgery. In that case, trying to use a Band-Aid may result in amputation. This, at least, is the hunch I drew from Big Data.
In this light, the selfie isn’t about empowerment. But it also isn’t not about empowerment. Empowerment, or lack thereof, is not part of the picture. Neither is narcissism, as either a personal or a cultural moral failure. And the selfie isn’t about the male gaze. The selfie, in the end is about the gendered labour of young girls under capitalism. Do we honestly think that by ceasing to take and post selfies, the bodies of young women would cease to be spectacles? Teenage girls are Young-Girls, are spectacles, are narcissists, are consumers because those are the very criterion which must be met to be a young woman and also a part of society. That their bodies are commodities enters them into economies of attention, and that is where the disgust with selfies comes from. In an economy of attention, it is a disaster for men that girls take up physical space and document it, and that this documentation takes up page hits and retweets that could go to ‘more important’ things. And so the Young-Girl must be punished, with a disgust reserved for the purely trivial. To paraphrase that beloved of Young-Girl films, Ever After — itself paraphrasing Thomas More’s Utopia — what are we to make of the selfie but that we first create teenage girls and then punish them?
- Sarah Gram, “The Young-Girl and the Selfie”
Tim Wu on my book:
Too much assault and battery creates a more serious problem: wrongful appropriation, as Morozov tends to borrow heavily, without attribution, from those he attacks. His critique of Google and other firms engaged in “algorithmic gatekeeping”is basically taken from Lessig’s first book, “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” in which Lessig argued that technology is necessarily ideological and that choices embodied in code, unlike law, are dangerously insulated from political debate. Morozov presents these ideas as his own and, instead of crediting Lessig, bludgeons him repeatedly. Similarly, Morozov warns readers of the dangers of excessively perfect technologies as if Jonathan Zittrain hadn’t been saying the same thing for the past 10 years. His failure to credit his targets gives the misimpression that Morozov figured it all out himself and that everyone else is an idiot.
What my book actually says:
Alas, Internet-centrism prevents us from grasping many of these issues as clearly as we must. To their credit, Larry Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain have written extensively about digital preemption (and Lessig even touched on the future of civil disobedience). However, both of them, enthralled with the epochalist proclamations of Internet-centrism, seem to operate under the false assumption that digital preemption is mostly a new phenomenon that owes its existence to “the Internet,” e-books, and MP3 files. Code is law—but so are turnstiles. Lessig does note that buildings and architecture can and do regulate, but he makes little effort to explain whether the possible shift to code-based regulation is the product of unique contemporary circumstances or merely the continuation of various long-term trends in criminological thinking.
As Daniel Rosenthal notes in discussing the work of both Lessig and Zittrain, “Academics have sometimes portrayed digital preemption as an unfamiliar and novel prospect… In truth, digital preemption is less of a revolution than an extension of existing regulatory techniques.” In Zittrain’s case, his fascination with “the Internet” and its values of “openness” and “generativity,” as well as his belief that “the Internet” has important lessons to teach us, generates the kind of totalizing discourse that refuses to see that some attempts to work in the technological register might indeed be legitimate and do not necessarily lead to moral depravity.
One of the theoretical frames that I use in my dissertations is path dependency. Specifically, I consider whether early decisions with regards to Internet standards (small, early, decisions) actually lead to systems that are challenging to significantly change after systems relying on those protocols are widely adopted (i.e. big, late, decisions aren’t that influential). Once systems enjoy a network effect and see high levels of sunk capital, do they tend to be maintained even if something new comes along that is theoretically ‘superior’?
I mention this background in path dependency because a lot of the really interesting work in this field was written well before Lessig’s and Zittrain’s popular books (yes: there’s still excellent stuff being written today, but core literature predates Lessig or Zittrain). There’s also a extensive literature in public policy, with one of the more popular works being Tools of Government (1983). Hood, in Tools, that outlines how detectors and effectors work for institutions. Hood’s work, in part, attends to how built infrastructure is used to facilitate governance; by transforming the world itself into a regulatory field (e.g. turnstiles, bridges and roads that possess particular driving characteristics, and so forth) the world becomes embedded with an aesthetic of regulation. This aesthetic can significantly ‘nudge’ the actions we choose to take. This thematic of ‘regulation by architecture’ is core to Lessig’s and Zittrain’s arguments, though there are no references to the ‘core books or sources’ that really launched some of this work in the academy.
This said, while there are predecessors that Lessig and Zittrain probably ought to have spent more time writing about, such complaints are true of practically any book or work that is designed to be read by the public and policy makers and academics. The real ‘magic’ of Zittrain and Lessig (and Morozov!) is that their works speak to a wide audience: their books are not, i would argue, written just for academics. As a result some of the nuance or specificity you’d expect in a $150 book that’s purchased by the other 10 specialists in your field is missing. And that’s ok.
Morozov’s key complaint, as I understand it, is that really important problems arise from how these authors’ books are perceived as what they are not. In other words, many people will not understand that many of the more populist books on ‘the Internet’ are being written by people with specific political intentions, who want their books to affect very particular public policy issues and that, as a consequence, these books and other writings have to be read as political works instead of ’dispassionate academic works’.* Their writings act as a kind of trojan horse through which particular ways of thinking of the world become ‘naturalized’, and the authors are ‘first’ to write on topics largely because of their skill in writing about the present while avoiding elongated literature reviews on the past.
I can appreciate Morozov’s concerns around language framing issues, and around the (sometimes) sloppy thinking of these authors. And I can appreciate Morozov’s critics who see him as being blunt and often similarly failing to ‘show all of his work’. For the public, however, I hope that they don’t necessarily see the very public conflicts between Morozov and his colleagues as necessarily an academic dispute in public so much as an unmasking and contestation of divergent political conceptions of the Internet and of literature more generally.
* I write this on the basis of having attended conferences with American legal scholars working in this area. Papers and reports are often written with specific members of federal sub-committees, Congressional and Senate assistants, or federal/state justices in mind. In effect, these authors are writing for people in power to change specific laws and policies. As such you should always hunt for what is ‘really going on’ when reading most popular American legal scholarship.
Chatterjee has a good, quick, article on the significance of ‘big data.’. Note experts warning that, as a result of massive data aggregation, almost all individuals will have secret or sensitive information about themselves stored, traded, or used in the course of companies’ daily activities. This information isn’t necessarily about anything illegal, but legality is not the sole benchmark for whether humans want others to know things about them: embarrassing, shameful, or similar information that may not break the law could be financially, personally, or emotionally damaging should it be provided to third-parties.
Also, take note of Ohm’s warning that we should slow down and think about what is happening with regard to massive data aggregation and mining; we shouldn’t just commit ourselves to pushing the ‘privacy envelope.’ Headlong rushes and acceptance of novel technical structures that invisibly affect billions, with little clear accountability for corporate data mining practices, is a recipe for constructing futural harms.
I run into some version of this essay by some moneybags twig-bishop about once a year, and it bugs me every time.
Here’s the thing. Wealth is not a number of dollars. It is not a…
This is a terrific critique of the NYT piece. Highly recommended.
The totalizers would happily follow Johnson in seeking answers to questions such as “So what does the Internet want?”—as if the Internet were a living thing with its own agenda and its own rights. Cue a recent Al Jazeera column: “The internet is not territory to be conquered, but life to be preserved and allowed to evolve freely. … From understanding the internet as a life form that is in part human, it follows that the internet itself has rights.”13 That is the kind of crazy talk to be avoided. The particularizers would not invoke “the Internet” to embark on a quixotic attempt to re-make democratic politics; but the totalizers, in their quasi-religious belief, would do so gladly.
A good account of the Internet would never need to mention that dreadful word at all. This stringent requirement might uproot most of our Internet thinkers from the plateau of banal and erroneous generalizations where they have resided for the last two decades; after all, it is the very notion of “the Internet” that has allowed them to stay there for so long. Now that Internet-centrism is not just a style of thought but also an excuse for a naïve and damaging political ideology, the costs of letting its corrosive influence go unnoticed have become too high.