Configuring the Networked Self: Perspectives from China

To start with, I liked the book a lot. It is interesting and engaging and extremely well written. I appreciated Julie Cohen’s fearless and articulate challenges to dominant strains of legal academic liberalism more than I can express. This book will motivate a lot of scholars to think more deeply about our work, as well we should.

I also think that Julie Cohen’s recognition of the freighted disengagement of information privacy activism with information access theory, and information activism with information privacy theory, is brilliantly insightful. The freedom/control binary is something every Internet Law and Intellectual Property Law legal scholar wrestles with in some form (and arguably we are hardly alone in this, subject matter wise). We want the machinery of the law to support good things and restrict bad ones. And we are often optimistic that this can be achieved in particularized contexts if only the applicable government actors can be educated and energized. But we tend not to integrate our practical impulses with overarching theories in ways that allow us to advocate effectively for important general principles while still situating each affected person as an individual end, which is a prime directive of a capabilities focus. Julie Cohen takes us to task for this, and correctly so.

I’ll segue now into a series of “Hey, I’m an individual end too!” related observations about reasons for the lateness of my Symposium contribution. I am currently serving as a 2011-12 Fulbright Scholar at Tongji University in Shanghai, China. Though Tongji University is a top tier national research institution, my Internet access is limited, to put it lightly. It was only by waking at 2 am and logging on to my laptop within the chilly confines of my concrete box apartment for three consecutive nights that I was able to gain access to this book, by downloading it one glacially accruing chapter at a time, from here (http://www.juliecohen.com ), after the Tongji students had retired to their beds and relinquished a bit of bandwidth. Having agreed to participate in this Symposium with some enthusiasm, I had tried to get the Yale University Press to snail mail me a hard copy while I was back in the United States for a couple of weeks in late January, but to no avail. I point that out not to be snarky (well, maybe a little) but to introduce my main critique of the book, which is that you can’t easily theorize your way around or out from under the idiosyncrasies of inconsistent authoritarianism. It is impossible for even a motivated self to rationally mediate what she doesn’t understand and can’t predict, no less control.
To illustrate further by ongoing personal anecdote: Receiving a free hard copy of the book was my preferred path to situational flourishing. Receiving free books generally is one of the best perquisites of academia, and something I hope I will never again take for granted. Buying an authorized hard copy of Configuring the Networked Self here in China, if it is even possible, is likely to be an egregiously expensive proposition. An electronic copy for my Kindle would have set me back $43 plus international delivery fees. While I appreciate and benefited from Julie Cohen’s willingness to make the book available for downloads that do not require dollars, the cost of acquiring the tome from her website was actually pretty steep in terms of time, frustration and lost sleep. I am very grateful to have Internet access at all, but unlike most Chinese people I discuss the matter with, I know what I am missing, in terms of speed and performance.

My understanding is that the Internet here is intentionally slowed, to facilitate monitoring of users. I do not have any expectation of privacy here in China, either on or offline. And I am well aware of the vaunted Great Firewall of China. But I saw no indication of any effort to intentionally block or even encumber access to the online version of the book under discussion. The fact that each chapter had to be downloaded individually was a contributing impediment I cannot blame Chinese Internet for. I must also note that several of my students offered to rise at 2 am and do the downloading for me so that I “could have a good rest,” demonstrating the astounding cultural veneration of professors here. I could not have in good conscience accepted these ridiculously kind offers but the fact that they were sincerely made is also relevant to my capabilities/functioning continuum.
The capabilities approach Julie Cohen embraces requires an understanding that conversions of the exact same commodities (e.g. commoditized music, computer software, Internet access generally, and Julie Cohen’s book specifically) will lead to different levels of functioning for consumers due to variations in the characteristics of the societies in which people live. Societal structures and constraints influence choices that can move capabilities to functionings, or impede this progress.

While the book certainly acknowledges this abstractly, it doesn’t fully account for semi-networked realities such as: mine, which required me to choosing between three nights of adequate sleep, and paying more for an e-book than I did for a brand new, fairly nice bicycle, complete with basket, bell and u-lock; or that of one of my Tongji colleagues, who cannot realistically afford either a Kindle or the 300 to 400 rmb an authorized copy of the book would cost, on a salary of about 4,000 rmb per month, and who has an infant child who already makes sleep a scare commodity. Both my colleague and I are professionally flourishing in our own inimitable ways, but he has to work far harder at it than I do, and both of us currently struggle more to stay informed about our topical areas of interest than almost any American law professor reading this. Yet we are still far more informationally privileged than many people within China. I am not sure how well Configuring the Networked Self really speaks to either our situations or our situatedness. But it was still a great read.

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3 Responses

  1. Julie Cohen says:

    Ann, thanks so much for those sleepless nights. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that Rebecca MacKinnon’s wonderful Consent of the Networked can’t be had in China at all. It’s another of the books I wish had come out before I finished this one, and it directly takes on the issues you raise. “The Internet” isn’t the same everywhere, and it’s naive to think of it as inevitably democratizing. Put it on your list for when you get back, I guess.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    Hi Julie,
    A straight up Google search for Rebecca MacKinnon’s book (which I very much look forward to reading) took me right to this website: http://consentofthenetworked.com/about/
    There appears to be an accessible site where I could download a free copy, but the internet is moving so slowly I can’t immediately confirm that. When I referenced the “idiosyncrasies of inconsistent authoritarianism” I wasn’t exaggerating. If I did a search for articles about political unrest here in China I’d expect to be blocked, but as far as I can tell periodicals like the NYT are not censored in any way, and I can (and do) read about political unrest and political issues generally in China at NYT.com and even forward links to these articles to other people here in China with me. Nobody has had any problem accessing them that I know of.

    I’m learning a lot by being here. And I did enjoy reading your book very much. Best wishes!

  3. Ann Bartow says:

    FWIW here is a link I shared with my students and colleagues a few days ago, which they in turn shared more widely: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/world/asia/lei-feng-day-draws-chinese-cynicism.html?scp=1&sq=lei%20feng&st=cse
    China is a complicated place and not quite as I expected it would be, mostly for better though sometimes for worse.