Meanland—Locked-in People: what kinds of people do digital technologies produce?

This post was originally published on the Meanland blog, on September 25 2012

The nice thing about our official Meanland theme in 2012—’publishing in an age of change’— is how elastic it is; specific enough to be stimulating, broad enough to take us anywhere. When I was first invited to participate in the Meanland project, I knew that I wanted to use it as a platform from which to pontificate wildly and abstractly on the philosophical implications of the digital age. In my first post I had a go at thinking through some ideas of how digital publishing could change society. And now, here in my second, I want to have a look at how digital publishing could change people.

The impetus, again, is my knee-jerk aversion to those contemporary thinkers who like to make backward-looking pronouncements on the effects digital technologies might have on our culture, or personal relationships. Previously it was Jonathan Franzen, and his assertion that digital publishing heralds an age of ‘radical contingency’. Similar opinions are sometimes expressed as a straightforward rejection of the benefits or opportunities of digital communication. This attitude seems especially popular among writers. Aaron Sorkin, for one. Don DeLillo seems to be another. Asked why he doesn’t use email, DeLillo says ‘I think email encourages communication that wouldn’t otherwise take place. It may require a response that I may not be willing to execute.’ I tend to perceive this kind of opinion as the domain of complacent rich old white men.

But there’s often a kernel of truth in what they say. I’ve recently been reading You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, and I think he is particularly successful at articulating it. Lanier is a computer scientist and a kind of digital pioneer—he is known for developing virtual reality technology, and has recently been a kind of in-house scholar at Microsoft. You Are Not a Gadget is his manifesto against the ‘digital Maoism’ of the web 2.0 age, in which the collective is prized over the individual, and our open-source attitude to information and creativity disenfranchises the middle-class.

The most useful concept Lanier presents in the early part of the book is that of ‘lock-in’, describing the moment where existing structures, regardless of their utility, become too entrenched to practically be changed. The term is used in reference to software development—when new software is designed to operate in conjunction with some original program, the original can almost never be altered—but is obviously applicable to just about any aspect of our world.

Lanier charges us with being aware that many ubiquitous and perhaps undesirable aspects of digital culture are in imminent danger of getting locked-in. We have to remember that things were not always the way they are. As he says, ‘the design of the web as it appears today was not inevitable. In the early 1990s, there were perhaps dozens of credible efforts to come up with a design for presenting networked digital information in a way that would attract more popular use.’

(BTW, the what-if stories lying behind many taken-for-granted aspects of our culture is one of my new pet interests, so I’m going to take this opportunity to link ya’ll to one of my favorite articles on this subject: Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker on the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous discovery’. Scientific inventions, the internet included, are rarely singular acts of genius, more often they are simply ‘in the air’, and the process by which one version of some scientific invention or discovery (Thomas Edison’s telephone vs Elisha Gray’s, say) is usually grounded in contingencies.)

Anyway, Lanier tells us that it’s worth ‘trying to notice when philosophies are congealing into locked-in software’, that ‘small changes in the details of a digital design can have profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it’. It is the role of technology everywhere to give humans certain affordances for possibilities, but the number and kind of possibilities that arise from our technology is by no means predictable, and the predominance of some form of technology is not always due to its superiority—more often, as Lanier puts it, it is the product of ‘what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance.’

So, what affordances do web 2.0 technologies allow for? Or, to rephrase the question, what kinds of people do digital technologies produce? Lanier argues that web 2.0 demands that people ‘define themselves downward’—substituting the authority of the masses (the social networked, the crowd-sourced, the popular) for the wisdom and authority of the individual.

It’s commonly understood now that many of our most powerful digital tools (like Google), and most popular digital publishing platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) rely on their data-mining prowess for their revenue. They are the middle-men between us (the product) and advertisers (the client). For all the holiday snapshots, and pithy 140 character expressions of personality, we are not individuals to these companies; we exist only to be identified and tracked as one out of billions of other potential consumers. A 2010 New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg suggested that he hopes to expand Facebook’s use of its users personal details. He sees Facebook as ‘a layer underneath almost every electronic device’, extending its tendrils into our phones, and our televisions, and becoming, in short, the platform beneath the majority of our technical culture—our every step online would become a moment of self-publishing, exposing ourselves for the consumption of advertisers.

Louis Althusser, in his seminal essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, tried to be explicit about the ways in which a society’s institutions—the church, the schools, the police—’interpellate’ the subjects of that society as particular kinds of people. Lanier expresses his concerns about digital culture in a similar framework, except now it is not only state, or corporate, but ‘Ideological Digital Apparatuses’ that must be our object of scrutiny.

It seems to me that Lanier’s approach is a highly productive one to take when hypothesising on the digital age. The message is simple: the tools available to us from digital technologies, especially the tools that afford us the opportunity to ‘publish’ ourselves—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.—may offer us exciting and stimulating opportunities for communication, but they also change us as people. It is our own responsibility to pay attention to what these tools do to us, how they express our individuality, how they value or devalue our work. This, I think, is one way to make sense of DeLillo’s remarks that email encourages ‘a response that I may not be willing to execute.’ The immediacy of email, in DeLillo’s view, interpellates him as an individual marked by ‘availability’; accessible and responsive to contact. Web 2.0 open culture may necessitate open people, which is not always to our benefit.

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