Social Technologies in an age of amoral corporations

Knowledge is almost always being produced in service of power – not as a liberating force from it and there is always a gap between what a society proclaims about it’s goals and aims – and the functional outcomes of its institutional policies and procedures.

Article: The Question Concerning Social Technology. By Joshua-Michéle Ross. O’Reilly Radar.

Very interesting 3 part meditation on the dangers of social technology, by an active participant in social media, with also many great comments on each article by thoughtful readers.

Some excerpts from Joshua-Michéle Ross:

From Part 1:

“Over the course of the next few days I will post a series of questions on the value and function of social media (a.k.a. social technologies). I will not be arguing that social technologies are a bane or should be stopped. I don’t believe the former is true and I believe the latter is impossible… I will not be arguing against technology. Rather, I will raise questions about the potential abuse of social technologies and the steps we might take to remedy them.”

The historical record shows the danger of one-sided emancipatory rhetoric, as we can see in the example of the European Enlightenment:

“The Age of Enlightenment swept through Europe in the eighteenth century, upending the notion of a divine right (religious and monarchic) to rule over the population. Its tenets centered upon the idea that humans were capable of reason and could seek governance that accorded individuals liberty and some semblance of equality. Western society still embraces principles and speaks the language of “freedom,” “democracy,” and civil rights born during The Enlightenment.

There is another side of the historical record. While the public dialogue of The Enlightenment was centered on freedom, equality and human progress, institutions of the age were rapidly developing sophisticated means of control over individual movement and action; from highly structured factory work and military regimentation (the true birthplace of modern management theory), to isolating deviant segments of society (the birth of prisons, debtor’s prisons and asylums) and an emphasis on police surveillance and the “dossier” to track behavior. In fact many of the same political and social theorists of Enlightenment ( Montesquieu, Bentham etc.) were the architects of detailed studies on how to subject individuals to institutional control. These tactical manuevers were often cloaked in the more lofty rhetoric of The Englightement.”

This is so because:

” Knowledge is almost always being produced in service of power – not as a liberating force from it and there is always a gap between what a society proclaims about it’s goals and aims – and the functional outcomes of its institutional policies and procedures.”

Part 2:

“Social media is cloaked in this language of liberation while the corporate sponsors (Facebook, Google et al ) are progressing towards ever more refined and effective means of manipulating individual behavior (behavioral targeting of ads, recommendation systems, reputation management systems etc.). As with the enlightenment the tactics of control are shielded by a rhetoric of emancipation. Let’s not forget that the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.
How do these corporations intend to use these vast records of our behavior? The next post, Captivity of the Commons will explore the risks associated with personal data being collected at the behest of corporations whose main motivation is not in service of “customer empowerment” but on the traditional goals of manipulating behavior to grow their share of wallet.”

See for part 2:

“When we deliver our personal information over to corporations we are giving this data over to an institution that is amoral. Companies are not yet structured to deliver moral or ethical results – they are encouraged to grow and deliver “shareholder value” (read money) which is a numb and narrow measure of value.

Do I want my data to be managed by an amoral institution?

To be clear – I want the convenience and miracles that modern technology brings. I love the Internet and I am willing to give over lots of data in the trade. But I want two fundamental protections:

First, change the corporation. The structure of the corporation continues to be driven by 20th century hard goals of efficiency and scale – not by more complex measures of environmental sustainability, value creation and the commonweal. These are simply not adequately factored into any structural, organizational, incentive or taxation systems of business today. Profit and profit motive are fine – but hiding social and environmental costs is no longer acceptable. I want to deal with institutions capable of morality.

This is no small task – but if we can build the Internet….

Second. We need a right to privacy that matches the 21st century reality. As a friend of mine likes to say, “privacy is now a responsibility – not a right.” While it is pithy (and perhaps true), the reason we grant rights – and laws to enforce those rights in society is the simple fact that people do not generally have the wherewithal to protect themselves from large, institutional interests. In the same way that regulatory structures are needed to keep a financial system in balance (alas even the Ayn Rand acolyte Greenspan finally agrees with this truism), we need new rights and regulations governing the use of our personal data – and simple sets of controls over who has access to it.

The true work of the 21st century lies not in refining our technology – this we will achieve without any political will. The work lies in re-imagining our institutions.”

Part 3 introduces the theme of the Digital Panopticon:

French philosopher Michel Foucault dedicated a whole section of his book Discipline and Punish to the significance of the Panopticon. His take was essentially this: The same mechanism at work in the Panopticon – making subjects totally visible to authority – leads to those subjects internalizing the norms of power. In Foucault’s words “…the major effect of the Panopticon; to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary” In short, under the possibility of total surveillance the inmate becomes self regulating.

The social technologies we see in use today are fundamentally panoptical – the architecture of participation is inherently an architecture of surveillance.
In the age of social networks we find ourselves coming under a vast grid of surveillance – of permanent visibility. The routine self-reporting of what we are doing, reading, thinking via status updates makes our every action and location visible to the crowd. This visibility has a normative effect on behavior (in other words we conform our behavior and/or our speech about that behavior when we know we are being observed).

In many cases we are opting into automated reporting structures (Google Lattitude, Loopt etc.) that detail our location at any given point in time. We are doing this in exchange for small conveniences (finding local sushi more quickly, gaining “ambient intimacy”) without ever considering the bargain that we are striking. In short, we are creating the ultimate Panopticon – with our data centrally housed in the cloud (see previous post on the Captivity of the Commons) – our every movement, and up-to-the-minute status is a matter of public record. In the same way that networked communications move us from a one to many broadcast model to a many to many – so we are seeing the move to a many-to-many surveillance model. A global community of voyeurs ceaselessly confessing to “What are you doing? (Twitter) or “What’s on your mind? (Facebook)”

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