Short Summary and Some Questions

Orin Kerr’s comment on Deven’s post asked for a short summary. Here’s a one-paragraph abstract to get you started. The book is available at my website in a Creative Commons version, so if the abstract looks interesting you may want to skim the first chapter to get a better sense of the argument and the structure of the book.

The abstract:

Configuring the Networked Self explores the relationships between copyright, creativity, and culture, between surveillance, privacy, and subjectivity, and between network architecture and social ordering, and through those explorations develops a unified framework for conceptualizing the social and cultural effects of legal and technical regimes that govern information access and use. The book asks the sorts of questions with which law traditionally has concerned itself (what regime of information rights is just, and why), but it emphasizes a set of considerations that legal thinking about those issues has tended to marginalize. It argues that legal scholarship on the networked information society has gone astray by positing simplistic models of individual behavior derived from the commitments of liberal theory, rather than from reality. A wise regime of information law and policy should focus, instead, on the ordinary rhythms and routines of everyday practice. In particular, it should pay special attention to the connections between everyday practice and play and to the ways in which culture and subjectivity emerge from the interactions between the ordinary and the unexpected. Finally, the book identifies a set of reform principles for information law and policy that moves beyond “access to knowledge” to include two additional principles. A just regime of information law and policy should guarantee an adequate level of operational transparency about the ways that networked information processes and devices mediate access to information and services. In addition it should promote regulatory and technical architectures that are characterized by semantic discontinuity, in order to create and preserve spaces within which the play of everyday practice can move.

The questions:

1) Do folks find the theoretical framework (mediated perception + everyday practice + play) useful? Useful to an extent but needing more … what?

2) Ditto for the reform principles (A2K + operational transparency + semantic discontinuity). I’m particularly interested in reactions to the last one, which likely heads in a counterintuitive direction as far as technologists are concerned. At some point it struck me that part of the point of the book was to call out and name that attribute of the old analog world, to force a conversation about whether and how much we ought to prize it.

Thanks to all for your willingness to participate!

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10 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks, Julie! And congrats on the book.

  2. Hector Postigo says:

    I found the concept of play incredibly compelling. Play is a funny (and fun) thing, a careful balancing act between rules and their absence. So I thought that its theoretical deployment in framing policy was daring. I wondered how that might play out (had to do that) in practice both as a matter of policy and as a matter of architecture. Play happens both in the least likely places and in those that have been designed to accommodate it. In the cardboard boxes that are converted into forts and secret hideouts even as the holiday toys are quickly forgotten AND in jungle gyms specifically built for the purpose. I found the concept had rhetorical force and started looking around the web for examples. I asked my students to help me out. I found some interesting examples of users making do, of creative people appropriating technologies. The best one came from one of my sound production students. A Nintendo Gameboy used as an instrument for a genre of club music (

    Some of what people do in play is a product of “making do,” of squeaking out space in between the structures of rules and affordances, of using the negative spaces in between rules to run wild with unintended uses and appropriations. It’s difficult to disagree with a suggestion that says, “let’s open up more spaces for play,” but I wonder to what degree the constraints that generate the nooks and crannies in between rules and structures are as important as planned spaces. And how policies that have the best intentions might impact them.

    The concept of semantic discontinuity was also compelling. It’s almost as if you were arguing for an acceptable level of built in chaos, enough noise to allow for some things in the network to remain indeterminate, essentially unknowable. I think this might be the most difficult of elements to achieve. If anything, the discursive logic of networks is to know. There is a strong rhetorical current that shapes our collective imaginary of ICT networks as housing within them ALL the necessary data. The discourse of “connecting the dots” of the “right algorithm” of “mapping” suggests that we view the vast and growing collection of human output in databases, search algorithms, folksonomies, sourced crowds, etc. as containing all the solutions, waiting patiently for their particular problems, rightly posed. Complex systems are chaotic, and it’s hubris to think that we can ever have one that could be completely ordered. So I see how semantic discontinuity is a reality even as businesses and governments try to make it go away. I wonder then where might we want to see discontinuity shine, in what corners of the network might we nurture it, what tools might be used and who might be the best person (hacker, user, government, etc.) to design them?

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks very much for the summary and for making your book available online. From what I can understand so far, e.g., bringing in the capabilities approach, it sounds very sympathetic. But I confess that the cultural studies vocabulary puzzles the heck out of me. (I am old enough not only to have made mix-tapes but also for 1978 to have been the most recent year when I could understand most of the articles in an issue of Critical Inquiry.) From where I am situated, I am unable to form even a first-order, operational (OK, that one I think I get) notion of what “semantic discontinuity” means, for example.

    If it’s hoped for this book to contribute to creating an *actual* just regime of information law and policy, rather than simply scholarship about what such a regime might look like, then I suspect there are lots of folks you’d like to persuade who’ve never even read any issue of Crit Inq. Might you be so kind as to provide a gloss of the bold terms above and a few other similar locutions (e.g., “emerging subjectivity”) used in your summary, or else direct the reader to a suitably concise reference? And in the expression, “create and preserve spaces within which the play of everyday practice can move,” are you referring to play as an attribute of the whole of everyday practice, or simply as one component of everyday practice? Thanks.

    • Julie Cohen says:

      You’re welcome. Dealing with vocabulary issues was a major challenge, particularly since most legal scholars who work in this area are (happily) in the “never having read any issue of Crit. Inq.” category. I want to urge, though, that legal readers ought to resist what some might see as the obvious and easy conclusion — “cultural studies is jargon-filled and complicated and is therefore not useful” (not that you are drawing that conclusion, btw, but you gave me an entry for a point I wanted to make this week). It’s not that lawyer-speak is jargon-free, but rather that lawyers’ own jargon (which is laden with the baggage of liberal theory) is invisible to them (us). I’ve come to think that changing the language we use to talk about these issues is an important priority. In the end, though, I decided I couldn’t travel the entire distance from original literatures to a more accessible policy-speak in the space of a single project. So, for now:

      “situated” is simply where one is, in culture and in place/space. Each networked self is situated somewhere, and each is situated somewhat differently.

      “emerging subjectivity” is simply what one is; the self isn’t a fixed point around which technology/society changes, but rather is always in motion, changing as a result of encounters with surrounding culture

      “play” has two aspects: deliberate/intentional play and what I call play-of-circumstances, or serendipity (i.e., what happens when the surrounding culture throws unpredictable stuff one’s way). The play of everyday practice is connected to play in both senses. Hadn’t really thought about whether it’s an attribute of the whole or a component of the larger whole. Certainly some aspects of everyday practice aren’t especially playful but the potential for play is always there, so my initial reaction is to go with attribute of the larger whole.

      “operational transparency” = transparency about how the network operates (okay, recursive, but you said you got that one)

      “semantic discontinuity” represents my effort to name an elusive and valuable quality of human society that I think is now at risk of being lost or changed beyond recognition. It’s my own terminology and the thing that I struggled with the most … and the thing I most wish others would pick up, play with, flesh out, and improve upon. Here’s what I said about it:
      In Chapter 1: “an interstitial complexity that prevents the imposition of a highly articulated grid of rationality on human behavior”
      In Chapter 9: “Semantic discontinuity is the opposite of seamlessness: it is a function of interstitial complexity within the institutional and technical frameworks that define information rights and obligations and establish protocols for information collection, storage, processing, and exchange. Interstitial complexity permeates the fabric of our everyday, analog existence, where it typically goes unappreciated. Its function, however, is a vital one. It creates space for the semantic indeterminacy that is a vital and indispensable enabler of the play of everyday practice.”

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Julie, your definitions are helpful: I suspect a lot of readers have A.J.’s reaction but weren’t comfortable saying so. (I admit I googled “semantic discontinuity” to try to understand what it meant, and I noticed that many of the references were from you or discussions of your book.)

  5. Julie Cohen says:

    How very fortunate then that A.J. asked. Do you have enough to jump into the discussion now?

  6. Orin Kerr says:

    I’ll try to jump in when I have a chance — although having just skimmed a chapter, I may way until I’ve read a bit more. (I saw you have a chapter on the CFAA, which is great.) I’m looking forward to the rest of the contributions.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for your gracious response. And I’m comfortable about expressing my discomfort; where I come from, it’s called kvetching.

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    BTW, by “semantic discontinuity” do you mean the disconnect in meaning that occurs when people use the same words very differently, and also when they employ totally different perspectives and priorities for thinking about the same subject? Such as when say, engineers talks about a subject and when lawyers talk about the same subject?

    I choose that example because you mention “institutional and technical frameworks,” but I’m not sure why a discontinuity in that case would be so valuable that we should regret losing it. From your notes of urgency and saudade it seems as if you’re talking more about a more general cultural richness that comes from different individuals, and members of different groups, and even the same individual wearing different hats, having different interpretations and categories. Is that what you mean?

  9. Julie Cohen says:

    Ok, so I had to google saudade before I could answer this. Always good to learn something new!

    Yes, I mean the latter. Not just different people using perspectives, but, e.g., any given individual’s being ability to exist within different informational frameworks.