Category: Configuring the Networked Self Symposium


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?


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!


Why Now? Or One Way to Understand the Importance of Configuring the Networked Self

Julie Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self is different and signals that the next era of tech policy is upon us. The explosion of books about the Internet tracks the explosion of, well, the Internet. Could there be a bubble here too? Are most books simply restating and rehashing arguments from years ago? Probably. Cohen’s book, however, points the way to the next questions about not just the Internet, but how we structure the next twenty to forty years of society. She asks that we look at the state of not just networked technology, but the economy, law, and society that has emerged, how we justify it, and what it should look like going forward. Recent work by Barton Beebe, Maggie Chon, Brett Frischmann, Frank Pasquale, Daniel Solove, and Madhavi Sunder, makes me confident that the new era is here and work in it is growing. Rather than staying with the silos of the past fifteen years, this new inquiry looks to how the system works and probes whether society is reaping the benefits at large. Works like Code, The Future of the Internet, and The Wealth of Networks make important contributions to understanding and justifying certain visions of the Internet/Tech society. I believe, however, that the moment for those explorations is waning. Of course the debates regarding IP protection, open Internet, etc. will continue and there are important near-term battles there. The most pressing area for scholarship and society at large is what comes next?

Talk of innovation and what that means is rather staid and redundant. Leave X the way it is or all will cease. No. Stop X or a once shining industry will die (and you won’t get the things you thought you loved). Back and forth the players go. A closer look shows that they are fighting about their piece of the rapid growth pie. No one seems to look at exactly what innovation is at stake (is it breakthrough or tinkering and applying with a major one?), where capital is heading (is it rushing after the heady returns of early stage industries or fueling production and strong, reasonable rates of return), and how the innovation spreads wealth across society (are the benefits starting to reshape so many industries that a second wave of returns and improvements revitalizes older industries such that the middle class grows?). No one, except, Carlotta Perez and her contemporaries. They investigate the Schumpeter model but go further. Perez makes the strong case that after a technology reaches a peak, there is a crash (or two), and then the real action begins. Society must look to regulation and other mechanisms so that the true golden age arrives, one where the tech wealth spreads and production capital is the order of the day. Note that while that happens the next big tech breakthrough is likely lurking in a lab somewhere and waiting to pop out and shift the world once more.

Cohen’s book comes at the peak of the tech revolution roughly started in 1971 with the birth of the microprocessor, and is a vital resource for the turning point at which we are. I suggest that Cohen and the new wave of tech scholars looking to Sen and Nussbaum for a capabilities approach to tech policy and/or questioning a purely market-based analysis of the issues, may be understood as demanding that we get our house in order. When Cohen calls out that privacy and copyright suffer from similar conceptual problems and argues for a new way to see how individuals’ capabilities can be enhanced, she offers a claim about how to turn the tech revolution from benefiting a small, centralized few to improving the lot of the many. Perez admits that each tech cycle has somewhat specific logics and solutions. Cohen’s situated user, her critique of the specific financial system and call for sustainable development, and acknowledgment of the messy nature of culture track Perez’s insights. In each previous revolution, the turning point arrived and society constructed the way forward that accounted for the specifics of the technology as a broad matter for individuals, addressed failures in capital and labor markets, and was subject to certain cultural and political realities of the time. Configuring the Networked Self is a serious volley against remaining stuck in the recent past. In it, Cohen demands that we look to hard questions and honest insights about the system at large. She is not complacent about the future either. Instead, she makes a case for how we can and should proceed. Like all good scholarship, the book offers ideas to be tested and new questions to pursue. So read the book and let’s get to work.

These are my views. Not Google’s. In other words, attribution to my employer is foolish.


Configuring the Networked Self Symposium: Welcome

This week, Concurring Opinions is hosting an exciting array of thinkers to discuss Julie Cohen’s important new book Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press 2012).  Cohen’s work on copyright, privacy, and cyber law has been extraordinarily influential, shaping and challenging how we think about creativity, surveillance, and freedoms essential to flourish in a networked age.  (Here is a video of Cohen talking about the book at Harvard’s Berkman Center).  We are thrilled to have Professor Cohen aboard, and thank our participants for joining the discussion. Read More


Announcing the Date: Configuring the Networked Self Online Symposium

During the week of March 5, we’re going to hold an online symposium on Julie Cohen’s important and engrossing book Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press).  As Rebecca Tushnet noted at a celebration of Julie’s book held at Georgetown Law School (see here for her post on the event), Cohen “challenges us to imagine better: understand culture’s power and make policies that both acknowledge and attempt to work with that power.”  Some of what appealed to Dan Solove is the book’s exploration of privacy and creativity together, with all of their nuances. As Dan explained, “copyright and privacy both concern control over information; tension because scholars who argue for limits on copyright are often arguing for more protection for privacy—less control/more control over information.  Is there a coherent way to argue for less copyright/more privacy?  Cohen’s work establishes the normative foundations for that.”  One of my favorite contributions is the book’s illumination of networked architecture’s impact on human flourishing and her development of the Capabilities Approach to address pressing challenges to the practice of everyday life.

Concurring Opinions is thrilled to welcome an all-star group of scholars to lead the discussion, including the author Julie Cohen:

Anita L. Allen

Ann Bartow

Kristin Eschenfelder

Edward Felten

Ian Kerr

Jaron Lanier

Paul Ohm

Hector Postigo

Ted Striphas

Valerie Steeves

Michael Zimmer

In the meanwhile, get your copy of the book and mark your calendars!