Configuring the Networked Self: Architecture and the Structural Conditions of Human Flourishing

In this post, I’m going to focus on the purchase that Cohen’s conception of the structural conditions of human flourishing beyond privacy and copyright.  One of the book’s many contributions is how it illuminates the profound way that networked architectures can shape our self-development, relationships, and culture.  Networked systems—governmental, private, and often combination of the two—provide, and deny, important opportunities.  Configuring the Networked Self helps us appreciate that networked architectures are arbiters of access:  to creative works, personal information, jobs, and an array of services.  They know who we are and what we do.  The comprehensiveness of dataveillance can be breathtaking and its control over our lives potentially complete.  Systems sort, categorize, and make determinations for us and about us.  Technical protocols determine the paths we get to take, the information that we see, and those we are denied.  As Cohen’s book underscores, they “mediate our perceptions of the possible” and we often “take the world they present to us as given.”

These systems surround, and are wrapped around, us, shaping who we are and what we become.  Search engines highlight information and advertising deemed relevant to our interests and bury others far down in search pages.  Social media entities let us share some videos and pictures but flag others for removal.  Automated systems count and miscount votes; they determine the amount of public benefits owed some individuals and terminate others’ Medicaid and food stamps.  State-run fusion centers, staffed with federal and private sector partners, classify individuals as potential “threats” and flag insurance fraudsters.  Although these systems shape practices of everyday life, users often can’t appreciate the extent to which our access to important opportunities has been granted or denied.  As Cohen’s book rightfully notes, there’s a significant imbalance of information.  These systems are black boxes to users, but they ensure that users are open books to the entities running them.  Because people have no way to figure out what companies know about them, they can’t mobilize to protest it.  They have no means to find out about the inner working of governmental systems, which are usually exempt from open sunshine requests as trade secrets or national security efforts.  Yet the more that these systems are the backdrop of our daily interactions, the more we accept them.  They have become the new normal.

As Ted Striphas noted in his post, the stories we tell ourselves can help us appreciate the relationships among law, culture, technology, and markets.  So I would like to add a few stories that can help us work through the implications of Cohen’s conceptual apparatus.  I’ll give one about tailored advertising and news, one about law enforcement, and one about public benefits.

Advertising and marketing companies help news sites identify visitors worth cultivating by mining information about their income, jobs, web activities, and demographic information.  A data-mining program categorizes one site visitor named Peter as “upwardly mobile, suburbanite interested in luxury items.”  Because Peter is classified in this way, he is offered discounts on entertainment systems.  The news that Peter sees on the site’s front page is also tailored for him.  Based on what Peter’s browsing habits, stories he’s shared online, and his classification, the site’s front page prominently features stories about healthy living and emerging technologies.  By contrast, the data mining program categorizes Olivia is as a “Debt Ridden, Out of Luck, city dweller”—in marketing terms, she falls in the “waste” category.  She gets tailored ads and news.  When Olivia goes to the news site, she sees ads for predatory lenders, fast food, and phony trade schools.  The news that she sees includes stories on vocational schools and military recruitment. (I’ve drawn this example from guest blogger Joseph Turow’s terrific The Daily You).

Let’s shift to fusion centers.  In 2005, the Maryland state police conducted surveillance of local chapters of Greenpeace and anti-war groups.  The police working with state fusion center classified 53 activists as “terrorists,” including two Catholic nuns and a Democratic candidate for local office.  The fusion center shared those erroneous classifications in the Information Sharing Environment, making their way to federal DEA and NSA databases.  The activists found out about their designation as terrorists after they complained to Maryland ACLU that strangers had been coming to their meetings who they believed were law enforcement.  The chapter fought a long battle to get open government requests answered.  Typically, people like those 53 people would have no idea that they were classified in that way—being classified as a terrorist can raise a whole host of problems, including the ability to get a job, to travel across borders, and fly on airplane.

Now to benefits systems.  Colorado’s public benefits system known as CBMS oversees the distribution of Medicaid, food stamps, and other public benefits.  From 2004 to 2007, programmers working for a private contractor embedded 900 incorrect rules into the system.  As a result, CBMS rendered hundreds of thousands of erroneous benefits and eligibility decisions.  It terminated Medicaid of patients with breast cancer based on income limits unauthorized by law.  It denied food stamps to individuals with prior drug convictions in violation of Colorado law.  It required eligibility workers to ask applicants if they were “beggars” though neither federal nor state law required an answer to such a question.  Things have not drastically improved since then despite public uproar and lawsuit over the matter.  In 2010, a nine year old died after pharmacy denied her asthma medication—CBMS had wrongfully terminated her Medicaid due to a system glitch.

These examples make clear the wisdom in Cohen’s development of Sen and Nussbaum’s Capabilities Approach to understand what’s troubling about these systems.  Configuring the Networked Self draws our attention to the “structural attributes of the networked environment”–the design and inter-operability of these systems–and its impact on our capability for “material agency directed not (only) toward innovation, but also and more fundamentally toward advancing the cultural and moral interests of situated subjects.”  The book demands that we appreciate the capability to engage in play as not mere frivolity but rather as crucial to the “play of everyday practice that generates creative progress” by situated users who “appropriate, imitate, and rework the artifacts encountered within cultural landscapes.”  Indeed.  Recall the stories above.  Surveillance systems impair the play of everyday practice for the political activists, whose material agency will surely be impaired once they figure out what’s going on.  That is true for users like Peter and Olivia who see very different advertising and news.  Their agency to develop their cultural and moral interests have been powerfully shaped by advertising data mining, though they likely don’t know and can’t find out.

Does the book’s structural account for human flourishing overemphasize creativity when more pressing capabilities should be at the foreground?  Or does it give us a richer understanding of how networked architectures can interfere with basic capabilities like life, bodily integrity, and bodily integrity that are perhaps more Sen than Nussbaum.  Black box systems have led to death and hunger, as we see with the failings of public benefits systems.  These material deprivations are essential to take care of before we can even think about protecting the play of everyday life.  In our society, this is often people of color and women.  Fusion centers can interfere with people’s employment opportunities, and may disproportionately impact people who already face subordination due to their skin color, religion, and or other subordinated group status.  And, with targeted advertising and tailored news, people who are classified as “waste”—that is, the poor—will be duped into impoverishing themselves even more.  Creativity and the play of every day life are crucial, but seem of a second order to bodily integrity, non-humiliation, and ability to work.

In moving this project forward—that is, Cohen’s conception of the structural foundations for human flourishing—I wonder if the next steps involve sorting out the different ways that systems can impact human flourishing.  In that way, her framework can continue to build on and rework Nussbaum’s ten central capabilities by recognizing the different ways that systems implicate core freedoms.  We could draw out the distinctions, which may overlap, by asking if the systems impact users in the following ways: (1) material deprivation—by that, I’m thinking of systems like CBMS and fusion centers whose information processing and sharing resulted in lost lives, nutrition, and jobs; (2) impact on social conditions of self-respect—those that stigmatize in some way, and we see that in CBMS, fusion centers, and categorization of users as news site did; (3) exposure—being watched and its implications on imagination, practical reason—that’s something Cohen has demonstrated quite powerfully; (4) alteration of imaginative space—that’s directly implicated by news site configuration of content, as Cohen underscores; and (6) objectification—that is, treating someone as an object to be used rather than an end in themselves.

There are no doubt many ways to tease out different traits, and these are just some possibilities.  But what it does is help us operationalize Cohen’s conceptual apparatus and balance competing interests in human capabilities with others such as trade secrets and national security.  It may be that systems that impact material deprivation, conditions of self-respect, and objectification deserve the highest degree of scrutiny, transparency, and limits.  Perhaps systems that only impact objectification and alternation of imaginative space deserve transparency, or qualified transparency as my co-blogger Frank Pasquale argues.  These distinctions can help us take her framework and put it into practice.

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4 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Apropos of “Indeed”: I know that “play” is among the Nussbaum-Sen capabilities, but could you please explain its relevance to your examples? (BTW I still can’t figure out the grammar of “play of everyday practice that generates creative progress,” despite Julie’s valliant efforts at clarification…)

    Also, how do you propose to make the distinctions in your last paragraph? (Sentences 3 and 4.) And then how do you propose that judges and legislators get a handle on what impacts, say, “alternation of imaginative space” or “objectification” and what doesn’t?

  2. Hi, A.J. So the play that Julie tackles relates to self-development through human interaction and interaction with knowledge, which is not just intellectual and artistic, though it is, but can be frivolous too, and whether the network so permits or facilitates it. She’s thinking about how we create culture through interactions with people, text, artifacts, and with how serendipity plays a role. Peter and Olivia lose some of that serendipity when data mining networks design their experience–there is far less chance with unexpected texts when they see news tailored to them, for instance. Read the book–it is thought provoking.

  3. Frank says:

    AJ, one example is here:

    As Julie Cohen argues, “Within a given network of social and cultural relations, an important . . . determinant of creative ferment is the play, or freedom of movement, that the network affords.”

    I mention how “copyright trolls” may erode that kind of play in these examples:

    Of course, the answer may be to go in a Jaron Lanierian direction here and make micropayments and attribution much easier by keeping “one copy” (of the Terry Fisher route I mention in my Boston Review piece on SOPA). But that also raises some privacy concerns that Cohen addresses in her book.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks to you both for providing concrete examples. I downloaded the book on the first day of this forum, but as I’ve suggested in earlier comments, the terminology is a bit too viscous for me to swim in, unless perhaps if I were to make it my sole object of study for the next week or two, which unfortunately I cannot afford to do, and might not have the diligence to do in any event. Actually, Julie’s older (ca. 2007) formulation quoted by Frank @#3 and also in his “Sample trolls” piece is much easier to understand than any of the allusions to play in Chapter 1 of the finished book.