Configuring the Networked Self Symposium: Reflections on the Self as Cultural Product, Never Fading Echoes and Digital Footprints

I took the opportunity of having been asked to participate in this discussion to have my students read Configuring the Networked Self.  So, recently I stood in front of my communication technology policy class, many of whom are soon to be official members of the “cultural industries,” and asked: who or what are your influences in the creative process?  The class is a mixed bag of production students (sound and video for traditional and new media), writers (mostly for TV), film students, musicians and visual artists.    One comedy writer smiled wryly up at me and said, “No one, I am entirely original.”   So, I played along.  “What do you do when you get home and are ready to relax in front of the TV?”  He could have very well told me he does some yoga and then goes to bed, which would have scuttled the lesson plan.  But, he cut me a break and said, “I watch as much of the Simpsons, Family Guy and Seinfeld as I can.”  And so together we went, my class and I, on an exercise in self-reflexivity.    It turns out that, as Julie Cohen surmises in her book, creativity begins with consumption, great amounts of it.  That many creative processes involve imitation, copying, dis-assembly accompanied by creative reconstitution, phenomenologies, life histories, accidents of space and time and all the other ways in which we, all of us, begin to make sense of life. We talk to ourselves about life in the languages we have heard, seen and felt.  And given a particular inclination and the proper tools, we talk to others about it too.  From small, incidental retellings of lives, emerges a collective, multi-modal conversation about Life.  Some (myself included) would call that culture.

Inclinations and tools, often discussed by other names, are the preoccupations of those thinking about human beings and technology.  Technology not as a separate category within society, but as a re-constitution of it, and human beings, not as simply users/makers of tools, but awash in their architectures.  My students are no exception.  Because of their particular aspirations, they are acutely aware of their need, their desire, to speak in singular or mixed forms via media, extant or in need of invention.   They hold within them the spirit of a sentence or the essence of a sound and only through its writing or recording or filming is that ephemeral form realized, their desire, if only partially, fulfilled.    They continuously are bumping into things as they play with form and medium.  They bump into discourses, they crash into history and sometimes are mired in medium.

But one does not need to be a formal student of production in mass communication to crash about in creative playgrounds.  If you’ve ever made a mix tape (yes I’m that old) for a friend, family member or a significant other, you’ve done some crashing around of your own.  You dismantled professionally made albums and reconstituted them. You’ve recorded and re-recorded, to capture with a higher fidelity your own musical narrative that retells a story, that remembers, that relives.

Importantly, our creative inclinations are not just a means through which we may configure mass culture to tell our personal story.  Creativity is a pathway to our identities. We craft identities (through practice and discourse), present those identities to the world (again through practice and discourse), and then respond and adapt.   The self, in many ways, is the foundational, creatively crafted cultural product, a mash-up made out of life worlds, personal histories, symphonies, and Michael Bay films.

Decentering creativity and repositioning it within a situated epistemology is an important contribution from Configuring the Networked Self and opens up the possibility of talking about it  (creativity) not as an ingredient for some mythical creative genius but as a universally human, everyday practice.  In the microcosm of you, me and my neighbor, Bob, and how we might creatively come together to figure out who we are, lies the key to seeing legal structures such as copyright, not only as economic policy regulating a market in the expression of ideas, but as powerful cultural policy that cross cuts from Time Warner, through my students, down to little old me, my neighbor Bob, and you, the reader.  At a very basic level, if communication is necessary to iteratively and creatively configure the self, then laws and technologies that structure means of communication/production implicate our ability to fully realize our identities.  And such laws should be assessed on those terms primarily.  Copyright law may not have started as cultural policy [a cultural history might tease that out] but has become so as it has penetrated deeper into human communication and its tools.

This perspective has some important consequences.  It may, for example, be a stepping-stone in crafting a legitimating epistemology for “creative rights.”  The free culture movement, the digital rights movement and the free software movement all seem to circle around such a discourse.  And it may also expand how access to knowledge proponents talk about the outcomes access.   Creative rights imply disassembling, copying, and reconstituting mass culture and unique phenomonologies for ourselves and others not only as a key for cultural vitality but as a key to the formulation of identity.

As an STS and communication scholar, some questions regarding technology remain ripe for exploration.  Creatively configuring identity through communication implies an audience, communities, individuals, texts to serve as sounding boards that may reinforce or reject, that may push away or welcome.  The means for reaching those communities and for having them reach back are varied.  For an American teenager that might mean joining a baseball team, taking a poetry class, playing video games with friends, hanging out at the local park, joining Facebook, or posting on YouTube or Twitter.  Often these architectures are spoken of as separate, but they are intertwined and reach a number of sometimes but not always interconnected reference groups.  They are also means of mass communication where single individuals reach their many networks and those networks reach back.  To what degree identity configured through a network (not necessarily in a network) is shaped by the various technological architectures of platforms, protocols, and affordances designed to be conduits for personal creativity remains largely black boxed.  Julie discusses transparency as a standard, but what I mean here is a transparency of impact on people and their practices.  Can we know the adjustments and anthropological balancing acts that those moving identity through an ICT network must perform in order to comply to, challenge and re-constitute architecture?

To what degree do footprints left on the network (images, posts, “likes,” links, etc.) capture a self long lost or intentionally forgotten and so remain a configuring force on an individual and his or her community is not known.  People forget and memory is often a pliable substrate, but networks and databases have lingering impressions and subjectivities.  Network and database owners are often loath to let go of data or worse forget they are still in possession of it.  An identity configured through a digital communication network is subject to forces not present elsewhere. Commodification of social processes within web platforms like Facebook or YouTube compels the owners of technological architectures to fix them in place, to repackage and mine them for bits that might inform targeted advertising or behavior prediction.  A self, configured through a network, is potentially confronted with echoes that never fade and, as much as copyright might be considered cultural policy, so too can privacy policy.  In many ways, the creativity of every day life that renders individuals is captured in ICT networks where the product is you (or me).

Along with calls for a change in epistemologies or different regulatory mandates that allow for expanded protected spaces for creativity and identity, I wonder if it is possible to imagine a set of elegant hacks (both social and technological) that create systems based on alternative epistemologies.  I’ve always thought creative commons (CC) was such a system.  Critiques not withstanding, CC is a neat bit of ju-jitsu where the logic of private ordering and market organization are placed on the foundations of open source/free software ideologies.  Under that frame, technological systems traditionally spoken of as “hacks” or “circumventions” are remapped and consistent with the underlying “contract” between creator and user and even the meaning of those terms shifts and is ultimately blurred.   I think an analog in privacy still remains to be imagined.  Perhaps a user initiated remapping of privacy enhancing technologies onto existing platforms like Facebook or the like?  Or a form of activism that disrupts network owners’ hold on data when they capture and know (or think they know) identity on their platforms; a “semantic discontinuity,” to use a concept from the book, initiated and imposed by users.  We cannot ignore the role that technologies, that hacks and circumventions, for example, have had on the discourse of creativity and digital networks. In many ways they are the material architecture of that discourse.   Much of what has realized and influenced the theoretical thinking on user-centered views of culture and its production came hand-in-hand with hacks that established architectures that made the theory a narrative rooted in practice.   Can we imagine the same for privacy?

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4 Responses

  1. Ted Striphas says:

    It’s quiet around here, Hector, and it doesn’t deserve to be, so I thought I’d kick off the conversation on your excellent post. I hope you don’t mind.

    You raise a very interesting — and, indeed, vexing — issue here: how do you do for privacy online what CC has done for copyright? What’s interesting to me is the nature of the fix you’re proposing. It’s not strictly legal, nor is it strictly technological. It’s both.

    What this signals is how, increasingly, people “working in twilight zone of law, culture, and technology,” as I put it in my post, need to vigilant in both recognizing and responding to the complexity of the current conjuncture. Legal fixes alone aren’t enough; nor are technical fixes; nor are fixes that only target markets; nor, for that matter, is play. To create enduring change — change that sticks, as it were — we need to think about forms of intervention that operate across all manner of these domains, but also, then, in ways that respect the specificity of these domains. In essence, what I’m talking about is a coordinated strategy for managing privacy online.

    Implicit in your post, then, is an intense call to interdisciplinarity — a kind of interdisciplinarity I see in Cohen’s book, but less so, unfortunately, in the conversations occurring in this symposium. (We’ll see how the rest of the week goes.) It’s an issue I pointed to in the appeal to Maslow I made in my post: people have a tendency to see solutions to problems in the terms their tools dictate to them. I’ll have to admit that cultural studies has been no exception to this criticism, although it’s also precisely why I do the type of work that I do.

    Anyway, thank you for the big picture perspective, Hector. You’ve given me a lot to think about. How DO you forget in an information age?

  2. Julie Cohen says:

    Hector, sorry for the delay. I’ve been puzzling over the problem of user hacks for privacy for some time, and so far all I’ve come up with is that it is really hard. The CC strategy of inserting a property regime with flipped defaults, a solution proposed by some in the legal/policy world around 10 or so years ago, doesn’t seem likely to work well, since users are contract takers in so many contexts. I agree with Ted that successful interventions will need to operate across multiple domains.

    I wonder whether one way to pry open this problem might be to scrutinize the supposed rationality of systems like klout and interrogate the benefits they are supposed to generate/enable.

    I wonder whether another way might be to take the destruction of information much more seriously. But this returns me to the seeming impossibility of the durable privacy hack: user hacks directed toward information destruction run the risk of serious legal liability and even criminal conviction.

  3. Hector Postigo says:

    Finally back from my travels. Sorry it took me a bit to get back to the discussion.

    Yes, it is a call for interdisciplinarity and more. I think this will address Julie’s response too. So a bit of history first so you can see where I’m coming from. You see I was a grad student in STS at RPI where Langdon Winner has been teaching for over 3 decades. You can imagine that he was a strong influence. I spent a lot of time thinking about his central arguments regarding the politics of technology, specifically was the soft determinism in his concepts something that we needed to return to? At that time many of us grad students in STS were dealing with what we thought was a sort of discursive saturation in the “social constructionist” perspective on technology. That we’d run aground on theory and the way forward was to take a long hard look at how technology actually does structure some very social things. We weren’t envisioning a hard determinism, but something more akin to iterative processes where technological structure “hardens” over time. It wasn’t quite SCOT either since we were acutely aware of the critiques against it. Julie, I think gets to the process of “hardening” in her book. But we went somewhat further. Some of us thought that it’s not enough to think through processes but we must design them (and technologies) too. So it was a bit of soft determinism with an interventionist/action oriented research agenda we concocted. In Whale and the Reactor there is a chapter on the discourse of risk-benefit analysis when considering technological implementation. Activists are cautioned to not engage in that discourse because it’s a “stacked deck,” meaning that it’s rationale does not included the types of values and epistemologies that those opposing nuclear power or industrial pollution can use to ground their arguments. I think Julie’s point against liberal economic/legal philosophy is grounded in this type of sentiment. My take is that it it’s important but it’s time to go further. That it’s not enough to argue for epistemological shifts (which, if the disciplinary discourses Ted points out are any indication, might be the actual impossibility) but time we started taking counter architectures seriously as a research goal. The interdisciplinarity I imagine is a research program where legal scholars, media theorists, designers and programmers come together to discover, imagine and implement. Transgressive design is part of that and liability certainly a concern. But I have to ask: What would music use and consumption be today without the .mp3 format and Napster circa 1999? Would video UGC be what is today without YouTube per-blanket licensing? What would our current discussions about user participation/creativity/situate users be like without DeCSS, iTunes hacks, jailbreaks, wiki, wikileaks and other technologies/practices, not designed by governments or corporations (in fact made illegal by them)? We are uniquely positioned as new media scholars (law, STS, communication, design) to make our theories a material reality. My question is what’s taking us so long?

    Lastly I would generally disagree with the statement that “users are contract takers.“ I would reframe and say they are contract ignorers. They click through EULAs and TOSs as fast as humanly possible. Now some might say that’s pretty much the same as agreeing since they are “clicking through.” An ethnographer might say something else, however. If we are to believe in the situated user then we have to ask when does the contract becomes real for the user? Not when they are clicking through but rather when they bump into it later on, during consumption/production. When they realize some personal data no longer belongs to them, when they see that their expected uses are no longer available, when copy/paste is disabled, etc. The questions we should ask are not how come the user didn’t read the contract carefully or how should it be better presented but rather how are architectures of participation occluding the contract, not through some technological slight of hand but through their epistemological grounding…through what they communicate, writ large, about participation? I mentioned CC and the like in my post because it shows that legal scholars were able to look through architecture to find the essence of the legal rationale and convert it. The fact that we haven’t been able to do the same doesn’t mean it’s impossible just really hard, as Julie says. I think technological counter-architectures are a possible way to open up discourse…to put into practice what the will have to be reverse engineered into policy. Maybe I’m a determinist?

  4. Julie Cohen says:

    In the context of copyright the term “contract ignorers” is right on target. In the privacy context, which involves large amounts personal information mandatorily furnished to various types of service providers (not just online merchants but also banks, health care providers and others, and also social networks), you can ignore the contract all you want but doing so won’t restore control over the information. So I think “contract takers” is a fair characterization with respect to personal information. The privacy context also differs from the copyright context in that it involves proprietary algorithms of various kinds (search, sorting) that are used to perform various operations on the information, and by extension on the people to whom the information pertains. The question then becomes what sort of hack would reach that far. Jonathan Zittrain has an old article on “Trusted Privication” in which he envisioned a DRM-type solution for personal information, which I suppose is one possibility, though I’m reasonably confident in the ability of Big Data to perform the DeCSS-equivalent hack right back.

    On the topic of risk-benefit analysis and whether it’s a stacked deck, I didn’t mean to suggest that the deck is inevitably stacked. I do think that aspects of contemporary risk-management practice are stacked in favor of the more-is-better view and produce architectures and practices that reflect the hardening you describe. (Side note: Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society is a really interesting read on these issues.) What would a counter-architecture for risk management look like? Counter-architectures can be thought of (maybe?) as existence proofs that demonstrate not only the possibility of disrupting existing orthodoxies but also (and more importantly) of disrupting them in a sustainable way. How does one demonstrate the possibility of disrupting existing risk-management practice sustainably?