DIGITAL AMERICA

Author Archives: Damian

Back to Nature: The Final Experience

// Posted by Damian on 11/26/2014 (12:40 PM)

Well, believe it or not, this is it. It feels like it was just yesterday that we were on LA Live Chat talking about Digimon and Full House. Since then, we’ve had some great experiences, from the cybersecurity simulation to

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Well, believe it or not, this is it. It feels like it was just yesterday that we were on LA Live Chat talking about Digimon and Full House. Since then, we’ve had some great experiences, from the cybersecurity simulation to the digital divide experiment to the #CleanURlake movement. I remember the pressure that my group felt in putting together the second experience after Dr. Rosatelli covered the first; to have to move in a completely different direction, planning an activity without knowing exactly how it would turn out and to an extent setting the bar for groups to come was intimidating. But in actuality, there was no reason to harbor such fears, as the class grew with every experience. I had high hopes for how the experiences would turn out, when students used their creative abilities to put together a truly amazing, memorable experience that would leave a lasting message, but I could not have imagined they would be so effective a learning tool and so memorable in the long run. With such sweeping success as the backdrop, the group tasked with putting together the final project was under an enormous amount of pressure, just as my group was in putting together the first student-run experience. The only difference is that while the pressure we had felt was in setting the bar, the final experience had to manage to exceed the high level to which the bar had been raised over the past three months.
For the most part, the plan put forth for the final experience did commendably in meeting the high expectations, though it, like any other experience, did not go 100% perfectly or as intended. Nonetheless, the questions raised, as per usual, were immensely valuable and it is of the utmost importance that they be considered. In fact, this final unit as a whole pushes us to ask ourselves questions about what it means to be in the digital age, and whether the implications of that are as positive as we had always believed them to be. We began this course by experiencing the simple, transcendent joys of cyberutopianism. Now the veil is pulled back and we realize that everything is not what it seems, that these wonderful new digital technologies may not be as wonderful as we thought. But, lest I should digress, we will get to that a bit later. Before then, I want to analyze specifically this final experience and the questions raised and how it applies to the unit.
The intention of this experience was to gather students, simply enough, at the James River for a picnic; but as with every experience, there is always a catch. Luckily this time, the catch was not as stressful as—just as a hypothetical example—having to run to the law library to research digital copyright. The first half of the class involved simply sitting by the river and talking, while enjoying some delicious snacks, a pretty perfect experience on a sunny day with highs in the 70s. The catch, then, was that halfway through, our phones would be taken away, so that we could analyze how the conversation changed and discuss what that means for digital technologies and their impact on communication. It was a deceptively simple plan with very meaningful implications, but it did not completely work as planned, for several reasons.
As we were driving back to campus from the river and Emily explained the purpose of the experience and what she and her group had wanted us to take away from it, I realized that the conversation had not really changed too much—or not in a manner that could be easily and directly attributable to the presence or absence of our phones—and I began to think about the reasons why such might be the case. As I pointed out to the others, it is difficult to pull off such an experiment during the course of a class period, since the conversation we would be having would be different from any normal conversation, a form of class participation as opposed to merely a voluntary social encounter. The difference between the two must doubtless contribute to the discrepancy between expected results and the actual results. Speaking from experience, though I may from time to time pull my phone out in any normal conversation amongst friends, knowing that I was taking part in a class project shifted my attention and my focus solely to participating and being present, not distracted by my phone, which I figured would hurt my grade anyway. When the fear of a lower grade impedes the casual use of a cell phone, the results of such an experiment as laid out by the group will not be as intended.
This is not to say, however, that this experience was bad; because I was extremely impressed with the group’s ability to turn a simple picnic at the river into something much more meaningful. I am not honestly sure what more I could have thought up, and I am sure that the rest of the class would likely agree. Coming up with an experience is difficult enough in a normal classroom setting; having to do so at the river and make the setting seem logical as opposed to contrived is another challenge altogether, and I commend the group for managing to make it work as they did, even if the results, as I explained before, were not as expected, for a variety of factors including the matter of grading and class participation.
So what were the expected results? Perhaps before delving into that issue, it is important to understand the two texts underpinning these key questions about digital technologies and communication. Sherry Turkle contends in her op-ed “The Flight from Conversation” that while we may live in a “technological universe in which we are always communicating… we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection” and that we are now effectively “alone together.” She paints a disturbing picture of the twenty-first century landscape, in which friends and family members lose the ability to communicate face-to-face, eye-to-eye, in which they fall back upon the comfort of their phone to divert their attention from the uncomfortable nature of genuine conversation with another human being. As if her dystopian point of view were not terrifying enough, she writes of an encounter she witnessed between an elderly woman and a robot, and the fact that the woman was comforted by the machine. “[W]e… collectively seem to have embraced,” Turkle writes, “a new kind of delusion that accepts the simulation of compassion as sufficient unto the day.” To Turkle, such a development is an indication of the fact that humans may well have “lost confidence that we will be there for one another.” The ties that once bound humanity together in conversation now seem are now being broken by digitization.
Zeynep Tufekci disagrees. “Social-media users,” she insists, “are having more conversations with people—online and off!” In her estimation, the fears of individuals like Turkle are overblown. Digital technologies “are not displacing face-to-face socializing—on average, they are making them stronger.” For shy individuals, for instance, digitization opens new pathways to conversation that might not have been opened heretofore. Tufekci goes on to argue that minimizing the use of Facebook or Twitter might even leave a person at a “major disadvantage,” like someone who could not use the telephone in the late 20th century.
I would love to be able to stand on Tufekci’s side, as she offers such a beautifully idealistic vision of the digital age, but I cannot. I am in the Turkle camp. I recall vividly my first moments here on campus, at freshman orientation. We were grouped into orientation groups, and we would all eat meals together at the dining hall. It was an admittedly awkward experience, since I had nothing in common with most of these people. But whereas in a different decade I might have sucked it up and been forced to engage in dialogue with my peers, I took out my phone and texted. It was easier than looking up, making eye contact and small-talking my way into a conversation. And I wasn’t alone; everyone did the same. For the better part of a week, my meals consisted of getting together in a large group, sitting at a table together, and then taking out our phones and ignoring each other throughout the meal. We truly were alone together.
It is a terribly depressing viewpoint, and I am loath to consider the world so darkly, but to some extent it’s undeniable that Turkle is right. The human connections we once shared and valued in our society have been undone and superseded to a degree by connections with digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Tufekci insists when we text or use iMessage, we are talking to a real person, as opposed to a bot, and she’s right; but what is the difference? When conversing on iMessage, some of the most pivotal components of genuine communication are eschewed, from eye contact to body language. Even phone calls, which eschew those components as well, enable an understanding and exercise of meaningful tone of voice instead of the cold monotony of a text message. When someone texts you “Okay,” do you know how they’re feeling? That message can be placed in context to help understand the feelings, but the true emotional connection, communicated through tone, is gone. A person might as well be communicating with a bot at that point, and that’s the disturbing point here. Tufekci insists that for “shy” individuals, these digital technologies enable a healthy alternative to face-to-face communication, but I don’t see it that way. Text messaging is barely human communication, so should we be justifying it as an alternative to actual conversation and socialization, and—as I am wont to ask— what are the implications?
I have written rather extensive responses, and my response to this unit, and just the core questions raised by the Turkle/Tufekci debate, could be longer than all of my previous responses combined, but I think it’s wise to temper my loquaciousness and keep this at a moderate length. Nonetheless, I do want to elaborate on the wrongness of Tufekci’s assertions, from personal experience, and I want to return to some of the early ideas we discussed, specifically regarding social networking.
danah boyd in “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately” analyzes the context collapse of the Internet and the imagined audience on social networking mediums like Twitter and Facebook. Imagined audiences and “authenticity,” boyd finds, are extremely subjective notions. How can we possibly aim at our tweets and Facebook posts at every group of individuals who will read them? Though outside of the digital realm, in the confines of the physical, we are able to change the way we communicate based upon the context in which we find ourselves, the Internet leaves us with a far more trying task, of convincing a litany of diverse individuals to interpret our posts as authentic. I find almost everything about this discussion to be troubling, for reasons so wide-reaching and intimidatingly broad in scope that I will not attempt to handle each and every point.
I am a conscientious objector when it comes to social networking. I tweet for the Digital America Journal, but that’s the extent of my involvement in Twitter or Facebook. I avoid them like the plague, and though I once used Snapchat, I have also turned away from “selfies,” embarrassed that I ever indulged that side of myself. When boyd discusses the fact that we change our personalities based on those by whom we are surrounded at a certain point in time, that only serves to affirm my position that social networking is far from the positive force it is so often purported to be. There is a sort of superficiality to contemporary communication, perhaps not unlike the communication seen in previous decades and centuries, but the notion that an individual can be one person at one moment and another the next seems inherently inauthentic. In fact, considering the way humans go about communicating, and the manner in which social networking has served to bolster those practices, I would question whether authenticity is even an achievable end, or simply an artificial allusion towards which narcissistic social networkers work.
Yes, narcissism. This specific facet of my beliefs on social networking is one that has at times gotten me into some trouble with my girlfriend, but she probably won’t read this… I abstain from social networking largely because of the narcissism of it all. In her research, boyd does not ask why these Twitter users believe they deserve followers. She does not ask why these Twitter users have an imagined audience, as if they were the performers, meant to be the center of other individuals’ attention. I said in class that mediums of online social networking are inherently selfish, but I was wrong. I am not a technological determinist; I do not see the Internet as inherently democratic, and I don’t see social networking sites as inherently narcissistic. So I corrected my statement. Humans are inherently narcissistic. It’s not that our self-centered nature emerged from a vacuum, suddenly manifesting itself as an unprecedented phenomenon due to the Internet and these websites. Human narcissism has always been evident, from cave paintings to scrolls to The Catcher in the Rye, and now, to Facebook pages. I’m making quite the statement here, and it requires an extensive sociological examination that would take away from the central focus of this response, but at least that’s an idea to chew on for a bit. What matters is that regardless of the historical context in which this selfishness emerges, it has emerged, and we must ask ourselves what this means for humanity. Further, we must ask why we should indulge it with social networking accounts.
On a surface level, one could confuse Twitter or Facebook for something substantially more other-directed. For those who “lurk” on these sites, simply monitoring what is occurring in the lives of their friends and acquaintances, such actions could not be narcissistic, could they? In fact, I would contend they are. When we “lurk,” are we doing so out of a genuine care and concern for the lives of others, or are we doing so because we want something to which to aspire? Even worse, are we doing so because we want to feel better about ourselves? When we see images of students with whom we graduated high school and they are a drunken mess or have a baby, do we secretly feel better about ourselves? Does it boost our morale to see another individual brought down to earth? Is “lurking” really any better than seeking out attention with superfluous posts and extensive collections of selfies? And what about online activism? Isn’t that most certainly other-directed? Certainly, while no answer here should be construed from an amalgam of generalizations, I would like to think movements like Kony 2012 would have been more successful, rather than fizzling out in the course of a couple of months. Do social networkers have a serious commitment to the causes they follow or post about online, or is that, too, a selfish social statement?
I see social competition in everything that we do, a sort of false socialization that serves not to bring people closer, but to push them apart. From boys at the University of Richmond working out rigorously to tacit competitions to gain the most followers with beautiful Instagram images edited so meticulously as to remove any sense of authentic—there’s that word again—imperfect life and warmth. While much of this competition is unavoidable, I go out of my way to avoid those that are not, and social networking is one of them. I have no interest in competing with someone who pretends to be my friend for the purposes of proving that my Instagram pictures are the nicest, or my tweets are the wittiest, or my Facebook profile preferences are the most sophisticated. I have no interest in making posts to prove that my life is fun and that other people should be envious and want to be me. I enjoy life and I do so on my own terms, without the paranoid need to show it off to the world, and it puts me at no disadvantage contrary to Tufekci’s concerns. I occasionally hear about friends who post images on Facebook of their significant others and they share all of these special moments of their lives, and that is great, but they should have put the phone down and enjoyed a beautiful moment in life without thinking about their phones or about showing it off to anyone else. Turkle really is correct; digital technologies have pervaded our lives to an unhealthy and unfortunate extent.
That pervasion was as clearly evident in this experience as it is in real life, but that is not to say that the experience failed to raise the important questions. Obviously, it has raised those questions, and then some. Do conversations outside of the classroom change thanks to the presence of phones? Absolutely. Pregnant pauses end up being covered up by the tapping of thumbs against phone screens. Glances are diverted away from one another and towards the empty images on our iPhones, and silence overtakes the whole conversation.
And ultimately, that’s where the bigger picture comes into play, not only with regards to the negative implications of the digital age for communication, but the negative implications for everything.
What, for example, does social networking and digitization mean for the basic right to privacy? Anders Albrechtslund contends that “surveillance… is fundamentally social,” that as humans we have a natural propensity towards the surveillance of one another and the enabling of others to engage in surveillance of their own. Though I never like to assume I know better than anyone else—especially a scholar with years of research, training, and experience—I cannot agree with his assessment, which arguably misconstrues socialization, defining it erroneously in a manner that betrays a sort of misunderstanding of the term itself. The concept of socialization should be broken into two basic spheres: indeed, there is a sort of surveillance component—if we wish to call it surveillance—in which private information is willingly shared and disseminated. But Albrechtslund’s thesis falls apart there, because he stops at surveillance and ignores an equally pivotal component: privacy. Just as every individual has a right to share information about their lives in the social sphere, so too do they have a right to keep certain information hidden, and no one can argue that social networking sites are promoting such privacy rights. Reading through Twitter’s privacy policy, several points become clear. “We collect and use your information below to provide our Services and to measure and improve them over time.” In other words, Twitter takes your private information, grants access to that information to third-party enterprises and makes advertisements more personalized. Improving and measuring services sounds so much better than tracking your information to customize ads. But here’s the real kicker: The notion that Twitter and other social networks are merely selling you a product is wrong. Twitter is selling you, because you are the product. Certainly, such an invasion of privacy is not respectful to the foundations of true, positive socialization. I am sure that Albrechtslund would not endeavor to justify the surveillance of a large corporation as opposed to other individuals, but the problem with social networking is that the surveillance cannot be controlled. Your information can be accessed by anyone, from credit card information to Social Security numbers to the number of drinks you had at that party last Friday, and that neither respects privacy rights nor what it means to socialize healthily. A balance must be carefully maintained, and digital technologies are failing to do so.
And then there are the physical implications of digitization, and this is a compelling argument I had never before considered, but it is of utmost importance and must therefore enter the national—and international—dialogue. As Giles Slade argues in “Made to Break,” computers, phones, and other digital technologies constitute a contemporary form of the decades-old practice of planned obsolescence. Sure, we understand that every September, Apple is going to come out with the next iPhone, barely any different from the year prior, and millions upon millions of iPhones will be exchanged, but we don’t really know what happens next. We don’t understand that those phones are actually toxic and go somewhere—or maybe we just don’t want to. My phone, if I chose to recycle it or trade it in, would go to Ghana or Delhi or Guiyu, China, where children would burn it to extract the metals, all the while coming into contact with materials that are toxic and deadly and scar their skin. The difference between me and the rest of the population is that I will milk this phone for all it’s worth, until the iPhone 10 is released and I am carrying the equivalent of an old brick phone, and that is fine with me. Even afterwards I will not trade it in or recycle it, now that I know where it will go, but in time, this phone has to go somewhere; it cannot stay with me forever, and the fact of the matter is that the product design itself and the materials used to create it are not conducive to a healthy environment. What will decades of this abuse do to our environment, and how can we let it happen? Further, how can we ignore the bloody wars taking place in the Congo over the mineral Coltan, necessary to construct our precious devices? If we express such revulsion at the concept of blood diamonds, how can we use these blood devices, that have cost so many Africans their lives?
As a means to the end of solving the problems with smart phones, Google is working on Project Ara, to design a phone in which all the parts are interchangeable and only the pieces need to be replaced, not the phone itself. Is it a noble intention? I would assume, lest I should begin to cynically doubt their motivations, but will it work to solve any of these problems? No. Those pieces will take up less space in the dangerously makeshift landfill they will inhabit in China or India, but they will nonetheless stack up, continuing to pose a threat to the environment. They will continue to incorporate Coltan, relying on the mineral that has proven so deadly for the Congo. No problems will be solved, but the phone will look nice and sound nice enough, and money will be made.
This is really the culmination of a major shift I have experienced during the course of this class. I came in—in all honesty—considering digitization with contempt, looking down on smart phones and social networking. The idealism and the cyberutopianism of the first unit got me thinking that maybe I was wrong; maybe the Internet can be a transcendent place where individuals can come together and socialize and find greater meaning and make something amazing out of a blank canvas. It was very exciting, especially after the positive experiences in the LA Live Chat room. But unit two changed things. Suddenly, these technologies seemed to have troubling implications with regards to our privacy—that would be the first time that idea popped up, but as you know from reading this response, it would not be the last—and our security. Unit three really shifted my thinking by raising awareness of the naiveté inherent in “New Economy” ideologies and cyberlibertarianism as practiced in fiscal policy. Allowing corporations to run amok online—and offline—has had startlingly negative repercussions for this country, and it certainly has not democratized as promised. By unit four, then, I was jaded and began to turn against the Internet once again. I doubted that cyberactivism would ever accomplish any of the ends towards which it is used to work, and now, in unit five, I have come full circle.
I do not mean to make it sound as though this class affirmed my dislike of digital technologies and provided no fuller context. In fact, while I am lukewarm on any cyberutopian notions, I still do see glimpses of hope. Perhaps one of those glimpses is inherent in the fact that so many of the problems that have manifested themselves in the digital age are problems that manifested themselves in different ways in different times. When Mark Poster in Information Please speaks of materialism, he writes that “without media the activity of consumption and the figure of the consumer do not take on their current status as major aspects of social life,” but he paints a more hopeful picture for digital media. “Digital media,” he writes, “radically transform both the cultural object and the subject position of the consumer” (244). By rendering the consumer a “user,” and by enabling all users to become creators of cultural objects—through mimicry or alteration of existing objects, or even creation of their own—the Internet opens the doorway to a new form of consumerism so liberating in nature as to lend itself to something other than consumerism, a system in which consumers become creators. Copyright laws, he contends, have been put in place to defend the established consumerist norms; so is the problem really digital media, or the laws that serve to minimize the freedoms of Internet users?
The consumerist society in which we live is one that has been created by conditions that existed before digital media, and conditions that may well exist if we reach a technological point at which we transcend cyberspace. Consumerism, materialism, and planned obsolescence are not created by the Internet. Narcissism is not created by Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat. Economic inequality is not created by a digitalized economy. Abusive government oversight is not a product of the Internet. A weakening of communication skills and a lessening of true socialization is not merely created by the digital age. The Internet is not inherently democratic—or inherently ANYTHING—but it does have the potential to do good if we use it that way, and perhaps that is what I didn’t understand coming into the class; but I recognize it now. If we used the Internet correctly, if we reignited our zeal for activism, for engagement that effects a true change, as opposed to giving into slacktivism and meaningless support for subsequently short-lived movements, if we became more informed about consumerism and planned obsolescence and where our phone pieces came from and where they’re going, if we thought more consciously about the implications of our social networking, and if we fought for privacy rights, could it be a positive force?
I may be leaving the class with feelings similar to those I harbored going in, but that ignores the fuller picture. I needed to experience the full-circle shift over the course of the semester. I needed to see the bright side, the hopeful roots of our society’s techno-optimism, needed to start buying in, and then I needed to have the rug pulled out from underneath me. I needed to see the real reasons why cyberutopianism is so likely an impossible ideal. I needed to recognize more deeply why I opposed digitization in some of the forms it takes. I came in resentful of social networking, fearing the Internet, but not always understanding why. Now I leave understanding the negative implications in a political sense, an economic sense, an environmental sense, in terms of privacy rights, in terms of human rights—a term which perhaps should not even be used if you are in the Poster camp—in terms of activism. I understand on a broader scale what is wrong with digitization; but I also understand what is right. I understand why there is reason to have hope, why not everything is bleak.
As a nation and as an international community we should be engaging in a dialogue—enabled by the Internet no less—about the positives and negatives of digitization, where it will lead us if we continue on our current trajectory. But first, we have to put down our phones for a minute, return to nature, remember where it all came from, where we were before modern technological advancements. Maybe have a picnic by the river.
Sorry if the spacing is off; for some reason this won’t allow me to leave extra space between paragraphs… And for my documentation, here is my final YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLnhjpfTqsk

Categories: Assignments
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Final Project Research — Cyberutopianism and Politics

// Posted by Damian on 11/12/2014 (4:34 PM)

12/2:

I have received some really great feedback via my survey and I am ready to begin finalizing my project. I have known that I would be able to leave early, not having any final exams, so I began work… Read more

12/2:

I have received some really great feedback via my survey and I am ready to begin finalizing my project. I have known that I would be able to leave early, not having any final exams, so I began work on a rough draft for the final essay before the Thanksgiving break. At that point I had done enough research to be in a position in which I could begin laying the groundwork for a final piece. Much of the research below was done as I continued working on the piece and was tailored so as to fit the research that I needed to connect some of the puzzle pieces–metaphorically speaking. I submitted a rough draft to Dr. Rosatelli last Tuesday and she let me know that it was in good shape and that I would simply need to wait for feedback and keep updating the research. I did so, finding another counterpoint to Adrian Chen’s anti-Anonymous fervor, as well as the centrist angle from Time. I also needed updated figures for spending on the 2014 midterms, and that is reflected below. Besides that, I really wanted to wait and see what my classmates had to say about my presentation, which was largely my essay in a presentation format. Their responses were great. All five agreed that the topic was relevant to them, which was good. I needed to make sure that I expressed the fact that this matters for us, and I think it is apparent that I did. The second question is the one where obviously there is room for improvement, as 2 students felt that I only gave somewhat of a call to action. One commented that there wasn’t a clear idea of what our response should be, and the other said that he/she wasn’t sure how he/she could personally respond. I think I am understanding where these two students are coming from, and so I have a plan of action ready to fix this. I think that simply explaining that third party candidates have a better chance of winning doesn’t necessarily convince an audience that by rallying around an independent candidate and rejecting the corporatized two-party structure, we will make a difference. So I want to give a real example of a third-party candidate who had a great shot at winning and ultimately only lost because of higher-than-expected Republican turnout, and that is Greg Orman, who was such a dominant Independent candidate in Kansas that the Democratic candidate dropped out (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/the-mystery-candidate-shaking-up-kansas-politics/380856/?single_page=true). A third-party candidate, with no allegiance to either side and less financial backing than Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts nonetheless gave the incumbent a run for his money, claiming over 42% of the vote and, while still losing, proved that independent candidates will be a force to be reckoned with going forward. That’s something we have to keep in mind, and though it seems broad to simply advocate siding with third parties instead of condoning the actions of the Democrats and Republicans, I think that if we do engage to research independent candidates and if we engage actively in campaigning and getting out the word, and if those candidates can be afforded some semblance of resources, as was Orman, they’ve got a great shot. Politics takes a lot of work, and those answers aren’t always directly evident, and I think that’s a bit of a challenge in this instance, for students to understand HOW to make it work, but that would necessitate a lengthy political explanation that would probably detract from my central focus, so my hope is to provide a call-to-action to look to independent candidates while understanding that there is a real-world parallel, that this is not some over-idealistic message, and that we can elect third-party candidates if we put in the effort that Orman’s camp put in and if we can capitalize on the historically low approval ratings for the GOP and Democratic Party. I hope with a real example that becomes much clearer. But on an extra-political level, I understand that there was some confusion as to what I meant when discussing the formation of new organizations. Again, I cannot necessarily provide a handbook for how to create an activist organization, as I have never done so and am not really sure how you go about doing that, but what I can provide is an example of a real organization working today that is working against many of the evils of which I spoke, and that is the Free Press Organization. I recently found out about them while reading some random news and found the website for their “Free the Internet” movement: http://www.savetheinternet.com/sti-home … I was skeptical. This group, I thought, must be backed by some large corporations, but in fact, it refuses to take a cent from any corporations, from the government, or from political parties: https://freepress.actionkit.com/donate/single/ … I was still skeptical, so I turned to Opensecrets.org, and found that the group does a very small amount of lobbying, and looked into the two bills for which it lobbied: http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientissues.php?id=D000051085&year=2013 . One was a law that would allow TV service providers to provide a la carte programming and the other was simply a law that cemented how military spending would look for the year 2014: https://www.congress.gov/113/bills/s912/BILLS-113s912is.pdf and https://www.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/2397. I’m not really sure why it would lobby for a bill that was pretty straightforward and simply established how military spending would be allocated for the year, and I will keep my eyes open for any information indicating why, but nonetheless, both seem like harmless pieces of legislation for which to lobby, compared to something like an Internet Sales Tax law. The group’s lobbying efforts are minor, however, compared to the grassroots movement it is leading in favor of Net Neutrality, and this is where I am truly impressed by the group. It is partially cyberlibertarian in nature, but by refusing to accept corporate cash (which I would believe since its lobbying is minor due to lower fiduciary reserves, as Opensecrets’ figures reflect), it reflects the balance of which I spoke in the presentation, balancing an understanding of the importance of an egalitarian Web (i.e. Net Neutrality) with the understanding that regulation–online and offline–is always necessary and that corporations are not inherently a force for good. That is lost in translation with a group like Anonymous, which while anti-corporate is so anarchic and contradictory that any positive balance is lost and the whole ideology comes across as horribly destructive, which it largely is. Hopefully with a real example of an organization that we could stand behind, it becomes clear that Free Press is one of countless organizations out there that we could endorse as citizens. I also, however, do want to emphasize the importance of the fact that perhaps the organization that we must support does not yet exist, and that’s where the self-exploration comes in. I cannot tell you how to start a successful movement, but I can tell you we’ve been given some of the keys to it thus far, and that becoming informed truly is the first step to understanding how to move forward in such an endeavor. In such  way, I think that providing real world examples will be the most appropriate response to the concerns raised, reminding students that my suggestions are not vague, idealistic fantasies, but realistic visions, that my call to action is to become informed, to learn what the next steps are, and to realize the foundation has been set for us to take those steps. All students agreed the material was obviously important, and for that I was thankful. They also all agreed that signs of research were abundantly evident, and that was great, because I have felt I’ve done well in that regard, but I wanted to make sure. The only other concern that was raised was raised at the very end, with a suggestion to define some of the terms of which I speak/write. I am not too worried about this, because I only cut out the definitions due to time restraints, since I had planned a 15-minute presentation but had to fit it into 10. I couldn’t allow for all of the exposition that I wanted and instead had to give a bit of a broader overview. The paper, I am sure, gives a much more thorough definition to the terms, even ones that we have discussed, as I always like to write a paper under the assumption that anyone who reads it would be clueless about the topic (this is not a jab at Dr. Rosatelli so much as a simple philosophy on writing!). I am immensely thankful for the feedback and will be making the revisions mentioned above to the paper. It will be all the stronger as a result, and I am very confident and pleased with how the final project will turn out. I cannot thank my peers enough for their responses and suggestions, and if anyone has any other ideas that they would like to share, I am receptive as always and would not mind listening. I hope that what I have outlined here makes sense as a reasonable solution to the concerns raised, and I am excited to submit a final product that has undone the errors of my earlier drafts and does justice to the topic at hand.

11/30:

http://www.businessinsider.com/good-hacks-by-anonymous-2013-4?op=1 … This is a bit of a rebuke of Adrian Chen’s anti-Anonymous spin, since it was suggested I try to get some differing opinions on the matter besides just Quinn Norton’s one example. It is particularly helpful in discussing the fact that the group took down white supremacist radio host Hal Turner in 2006 (yes, I know this was discussed in the documentary, but I forgot about it until I read this article). The article also notes that Anonymous took down the Westboro Baptist Church’s website in 2011, and that is a bit of a rebuke of the notion that Anonymous has a bad record on racial and LGBTQ issues (even though, for the most part, it does). The article gives eight examples of positive efforts from Anonymous, but those two are the most important and relevant for my paper.

http://time.com/3148925/ferguson-michael-brown-anonymous/ … This article is not entirely pro-Anonymous; it is more centrist in nature, simply explaining the situation with Anonymous and its involvement in Ferguson. It is significant for several reasons… 1. It notes that the group is intervening in Ferguson to push the federal government to pass legislation that would more strictly regulate police conduct (a good thing), 2. They don’t know how many Anonymous members are in Ferguson or working on behalf of the efforts in Ferguson (not necessarily a good thing), and 3. A group member had previously misidentified the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, so how can we trust information we get from them, and how do we know they are reliable in any respect?

https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php … This is an update of the spending on the 2014 midterms, since I didn’t quite update those figures as much as I could have; this will be very helpful and provide the timeliest, most accurate statistics.

11/23:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/01/21/how-citizens-united-changed-politics-in-6-charts/ … This is an important story from the standpoint that it informs my discussion of how cyberutopian faith in a deregulation economy would influence the deregulation of corporate involvement in the political system, and how each side is now exploiting cyberutopianism and the belief in the Internet and the “New Economy” as something inherently democratic to promote further a culture of corporatism and increased donations in an era in which corporate money is becoming all the more necessary to ensuring victory in elections. That then sets the stage for my discussion of the artificial, profit-driven exploitation of cyberutopianism versus the more genuine but more troubling digital utopianism of Anonymous and the political movement in which it is a central figure.

The way my paper should turn out at the moment is an introduction describing the shift of cyberutopianism ideals from left-leaning counterculturists to the right-wing, libertarian coalition of New Communalists and the New Right, and then explaining the culture of deregulation that was created by the notion of a “New Economy” and the inherently democratizing power of the Internet, then describing Citizens United in that context and how it changed the relationship between Washington and corporate powers, and explaining what that means for cyberutopianism as a political ideal and the fact that both sides use it merely as a means to a money-central end, and then moving discussion to Anonymous as a major digital-utopian force outside of the two-party structure and the troubling implications of standing by them. Ultimately the discussion will culminate in the question of which side we choose to stand on in light of the new political order created by the cyberutopian libertarianism of the New Economy and the excessive corporatism and contradiction of democratic values inherent therein.

11/22:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYqYkdyW0t0&feature=youtu.be … I found this video in a quick Google News search for Anonymous and saw that they are declaring a cyberwar on the KKK… This is very interesting because the Nation article I cited a few days ago clearly argues that the organization is NOT the anti-racist organization it purports itself to be. This would be interesting to juxtapose with a more realistic and thorough depiction of the group’s history…

http://web.archive.org/web/20080824174022/http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/Net_users_insist_its_joke.html… This is a description of the group’s Habbo Hotel raid in 2006, in which they sent messages like “Pool’s Closed due to AIDS” while playing as black avatars and forming a swastika, something they insist was not intended to in any way be racist, even though, as the article points out, its native 4Chan is “peppered with homophobic and racist comments.” In 2008, several Anonymous group members hung a sign with the same black Habbo avatar that read “Pool Closed” as a joke intended to keep black children away from the pool, even though the group insisted the joke was in no way intended to promote bigotry, saying that the joke was merely “an Internet fad.”

http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasperhamill/2013/10/23/is-anonymous-suffering-an-identity-crisis/ … Further discussion of the multitudinous contradictions inherent in Anonymous and its “identity crisis.” It basically just bolsters most of the arguments I’ve made up to this point.

11/19:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/06/occupy-wall-street-protesters_n_999289.html … This article intrigues me from the standpoint that on a fiscal level, Occupy is taking a direct stance against both parties, insisting that both Democrats and Republicans have served to enhance corporate power. Now I am going to look for stories that relate to the concept of the “New Economy” in relation to the Democrats and Republicans and I’m looking for information that hopefully should pin down a trend of both sides actually feeding into New Economy ideals in some way, as I did to a lesser extent in previous entries.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/11/12/bad-news-for-amazon-as-boehner-kills-the-online-sales-tax/ … This is yet another interesting article from the standpoint that a bill putting in place an Internet sales tax was supported by Amazon as a means of competing against physical retailers, even though it would require Amazon products to be taxed, undoing the unfair advantage that online retailers have. It is a complicated economic reasoning, but long story short, the company knows that an Internet sales tax would hurt smaller online retailers more, giving them an advantage on the online marketplace. The article notes that most Democrats supported the Internet sales tax, which actually indicates that Democrats are not for a completely free and open Internet. In this way, I wonder if fiscally, in terms of the New Economy, our discussion of politics in the digital realm will make a bit more sense, as opposed to the ideas regarding cultural objects and the freedom thereof online. Republicans theoretically remain cyber-libertarians in terms of fiscal issues, with House Speaker John Boehner having shot down the sales tax legislation and other Republicans, like Ted Cruz (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-11-18/ted-cruz-wants-to-stop-bipartisan-internet-sales-taxation-bill.html) opposing it as well. But here’s where things get confusing, as always: Cruz insists that the legislation is a result of the lobbying of large corporations, and while it seems like a hypocritical excuse from a party with support from large corporations, it does offer a reminder that economically speaking, we have two parties that are very much taking support from corporate entities and this cyber-economics discussion isn’t even that clear-cut politically speaking. As the Bloomberg article above points out, this sales tax was also supported by Wal-Mart, and they are one of the largest lobbying organizations in the world (https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000000367)… So economically speaking, this is a very confusing political discussion. While Republicans are taking millions of dollars from corporations like Wal-Mart in their fight against the minimum wage, Democrats are taking millions from Wal-Mart in their fight for an Internet sales tax. Democrats seem to be playing hardball with corporations, but is that the full picture? Absolutely not. Each party’s platform seems to be in line with how we would assume they should vote on these key issues: Democrats support taxes online, and Republicans oppose it. The former is anti-corporation, the latter pro-. But that’s not an adequate picture, and while this reflects equally on politics outside of the digital realm, it has serious implications in the digital realm as well. And let’s move away from party leaders altogether and look at party members, because there are some interesting things to note here, as well, going back to some of my early findings on Net Neutrality, an issue with economic repercussions… http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/11/12/wonkbook-polling-shows-even-republicans-overwhelmingly-support-net-neutrality/ … According to this poll from The Washington Post, both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly oppose Net Neutrality. And if that isn’t confusing enough, let’s consider why on earth the Republican Party would remain so firmly opposed to Net Neutrality if 81% of Americans disagree. It might seem that the GOP remains dependent on contributions from cable companies, but Comcast–by a slim margin–gives more to Democratic recipients than to Republican recipients (https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/toprecips.php?id=D000000461&cycle=2014)… So whose side are they on? Well, both the easy answer and the complicated answer is the same: they’re on their own side. As the Forbes article–which is written by a conservative–explains, these corporations are simply pushing for any policies that benefit them. If a Democrat is going to support legislation that benefits their economic interests, they will reciprocate with donations and support. And that’s where the complicated nature of all this becomes abundantly clear. No longer can we simply say that one side is more pro-corporate than the other, because both are receiving millions upon millions of dollars from these entities. In many ways, the advent of the Internet and the digital sphere has merely complicated matters even more, with issues like Net Neutrality and the Internet sales tax elucidating the fact that fiscal politics in the digital age are no longer so black-and-white.

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/response/protecting-our-artists-and-entrepreneurs-innovation-economy … This is a bit of a different issue altogether, but I just found this, and I think this is one of the more interesting points to make. This is an official White House response to a petition calling for more lenient copyright laws. The White House actually responds at the above link and calls for more regulations on copyright infringement and enhanced financial penalties for those who fail to comply with the law. This is so fascinating, because it affirms President Obama, a Democratic leader, as being in line with the GOP in opposing copyright infringement and further opposing any legislation that would make copyright more lenient. Both sides–or at least the leadership thereof–support enhanced copyright legislation and oppose the more cyber-libertarian approach embodied by Lessig. Again, this gets confusing because Lessig’s Mayday PAC gave mostly to Democrats, in spite of this support for copyright. It is also confusing because, as this Newsweek article (http://www.newsweek.com/art-steal-copyright-retreat-283118) points out, many Silicon Valley companies actually support free cultural objects online since it attracts consumers to purchase digital devices. So many of the largest corporations in the world have reason to support more lenient approaches to copyright, and do support more lenient approaches, but that isn’t reflected in the actions of the Democrats or the GOP. I suppose perhaps they can rely more on the support of other corporations. But really, that’s a key point here: principle isn’t guiding cyber-politics, let alone politics itself; money is. This cannot be defined in terms of politics because of the money that is guiding the decisions of each party. Each side takes the stance it needs to to ensure the continued support of the corporations upon which it relies for donations and lobbying cash. But what does that mean for a post-political organization like Anonymous? If anything, it reflects a sort of fatigue with corporate-led politics, and subsequently can explain some of the group’s anarchic proclivities, but it leaves us with a really tough question. As voters, who do we turn to? How can we turn to Anonymous if it so fervently stands behind cyber policies so lenient as to be considered anarchic, and if so many of its members have proven to be misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc? Anonymous is one of the leading forces in the push against the government’s crony capitalism, but should we be siding with them? If we don’t, who do we side with? Both parties are making decisions based on money, especially in terms of digital issues. Neither is necessarily a defender of cyberutopianism on every issue, only the ones that can generate support and donations. Certainly no one could support that, so voters who oppose corporate influence on government are left in a position, very much reflected in cyber politics, in which we really can’t support one side or the other. Nonetheless, each side is leading us forward into a post-political age in which we see our beliefs not in a spectrum and we see conflict not taking place between two very different parties so much as we see two similar parties in a fight against cyber-libertarian groups that are so radically cyberutopian that they call for anarchy. At least that’s what I’m seeing in my findings… Alarming.

11/17:

http://www.thenation.com/article/158974/accelerated-grimace-cyber-utopianism … This is fascinating because it is an openly left-wing critique of cyber-utopianism from the viewpoint that it conflates things like “crowdsourcing” in the “New Economy” with digital sharecropping, or even digital plantations and suggests heavily that cyber-utopianism has its roots in libertarian ideologies, which it does, again making this issue even more confusing. How did cyber-utopianism begin as something advocated by libertarian conservatives like Newt Gingrich and end up wielded by Anonymous, a perhaps anarchic group that leans any which way but right? It is also interesting to note that Anonymous, while extremely averse to conservatism, in embracing anarchism, embraces a small-government (in their case, a no-government) approach to politics that is almost a form of extreme libertarianism, closer to the right wing than the left. Yet the actions they take, like protesting Arizona’s immigration legislation or fighting Ugandan homophobia, show that they are not on the right at all. It could simply boil down to the fact that Anonymous, one of the leading powerhouses in contemporary cyberutopian political thought, is an anarchic organization, or is post-political as I had first believed. I am starting to lean towards the former as opposed to the latter, which perhaps will cement my paper as an explanation of the evolution of cyberutopianism and the fact that we should be careful to buy into the ideology now that it may have anarchistic repercussions.

11/16:

http://www.thenation.com/article/190369/truth-about-anonymouss-activism?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=socialflow# … What fascinates me is the extent to which this article emphasizes the ways in which Anonymous is far from a liberal organization, even though you have people like Quinn Norton talking about the group like it is in this piece: http://newint.org/features/2012/12/01/anonymous-into-politics/ … Anonymous hacked the Ugandan government websites to protest its homophobic legislation, yet post horribly homophobic statements online… They also protested Arizona’s strict immigration laws, which could reasonably be viewed as a rather liberal move, since the legislation was from conservatives. And notably, some also insist they helped make Occupy what it was–another liberal movement. But actions taken and comments posted online show a refusal to adhere to even the liberal ideas that they sometimes defend. Yes, we must first consider the group’s horizontalism and the fact that there is no central leadership, but even so, the group almost seems to be anti-everything, except perhaps anarchy, which is a scary thing. This is where the idea of cyberutopianism comes in, as Anonymous seems to believe that with a free and open Internet, all people could coexist and perhaps we wouldn’t even need governments. Cyberutopianism as embodied by Anonymous has essentially manifested itself as something that places its trust so excessively in the Internet as to advocate perhaps for the dissolution of governments, if it is even fighting for any larger goal at all. And, ultimately, that is the question. Is Anonymous fighting for anything in the end, or is it just fighting AGAINST everything? But the group in general, so horizontalist as to offer a multitude of contradictions in its ideology, does indeed seem to be–if not anarchist–then firmly post-political, as the Nation article seems to intimate… “Coleman sees Anonymous as part of a great geek political awakening, along with Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party and Debian programmers, ‘clearly part of a wellspring of hackers and geeks who were taking political matters into their own hands and making their voices heard.’” … The common thread between them is digital utopianism, and if Anonymous represents anything about this new counterculture, this cyberutopian movement, it is the post-political nature of it all… Paragraph about Fred Turner’s argument is vital. The predominantly liberal counterculture marked a substantial change in American politics once the New Communalists put forth their vision of new societies away from the masses, in their return to nature. But as those communes collapsed, they turned to the Internet that they had begun to romanticize, and it’s easy to see that that is where Anonymous is now: they have set up camp away from the rest of society, in the confines of the Internet, hidden away in places like 4Chan, still holding that unending faith in the cyberutopian potential of the Internet, carrying on the message of Wired and other products of the New Communalists and their so-called “techno-optimism.” And this is where it gets really confusing, because they are indeed carrying on that message, which is starkly libertarian in nature. If Anonymous is anarchist, or apolitical, or even slightly left-leaning if you view it more ideally like Norton, how does that reconcile with its fundamental libertarianism? It doesn’t… Once again we come to the same sort of conclusion, that Anonymous, the 21st-century manifestation of the New Communalists and cyberutopian thought, is the embodiment of the post-political world.

11/12:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/10/statement-president-net-neutrality … This is very interesting from the standpoint that President Obama makes a statement that the Internet is one of the greatest gifts to our economy… That’s a very “New Economy,” cyber-libertarian stance from a Democratic President. He directly refers to the Internet as one of the most democratizing forces the world has ever known, which is fascinating because it takes the digital determinist stance of finding the Internet to be inherently democratic… Rather cyberutopian thinking.

http://www.politico.com/story/2014/11/2014-elections-mayday-pac-larry-lessig-112617.html … I first heard about this PAC from a Politico story I had to analyze for my News Media and Society class and knew this would relate. Again, we see an instance of a cyberutopian individual–cyberutopian in the thinking that if reforms are made, the Internet can be a liberating force–who is standing by mostly Democrats (and in the context of this specific election cycle, failing as a result) and putting forth a pretty anti-libertarian message of “no big money in politics.” Lessig, who we have talked about in class before, was once a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, of which Esther Dyson was a member as well… The same Esther Dyson whose “Magna Carta” was endorsed by Newt Gingrich and accepted by the GOP… So Lessig, whose conception of a free Internet has a proclivity to fall under the distinction of cyber-libertarianism, has been pushing for a fiscally anti-libertarian policy, removing big money from politics. Is there a difference between libertarianism “IRL” and online? (Sorry, I’m thinking out loud and droning, but if people like Tufecki, a cyber-libertarian, insist that digital dualism is false, then cyber-libertarianism is no different from actual libertarianism… Correct? Does this make any sense? So is Tufecki wrong? This is pretty off-topic, but it’s just so complicated and confusing.)

http://time.com/3578255/conservatives-net-neutrality-poll/ … Here’s where it gets interesting, because after all this discussion of the fact that Democrats seem to be pretty cyberutopian and support Net Neutrality and such, we find this, from Time Magazine, and this suggests that the vast majority of conservatives in this country (4 out of 5) support Net Neutrality, even though their party leaders may not. So clearly, the cyberutopian ideal of a free and open Internet is not something that is isolated to one party or another, and that’s vital to understand if I’m talking about how cyberutopianism is no longer only endorsed by one party over the other, and it stands in stark contrast to the way things once were.

An overview of the shift I’m trying to portray:

As we studied in class, the Counterculture movement in the 60s was largely fearful of computers and digital technologies, fearing specifically dehumanization. That would eventually change as a result of New Communalist efforts (namely efforts like Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog) to show a path forward in technology as a transcendent force that could bring people together and serve not to dehumanize so much as to liberate mankind under Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics. Indeed, the New Communalists, an ideologically liberal subset of individuals, were perpetuating a message of digital utopianism. As they grew older and began to inhabit the private sector, they would move to the right, under the theories of a “New Economy,” and standing behind organizations like the aforementioned Electronic Frontier Foundation in the 1990s. The “Magna Carta,”  which called for a free and open Internet that would act as a democratizing force and which represented the hopes of a laissez-faire digital economy, was in many respects the culmination of this shift, as it was endorsed by Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and became a major part of the GOP platform. The once-liberal counterculturists had become Republicans, taking their digital utopian ideas with them. The 21st century has brought with it immense change, however, as Democrats, too, are standing behind measures (like Net Neutrality) that are inherently cyber-libertarian and see an open Internet as a democratizing force, as President Obama insisted. The post-political aspect of all of this comes in when we consider the fact that for most conservatives to support Net Neutrality as well is to align themselves with people like Lawrence Lessig, who is most certainly not a proponent of laissez-faire economics. Though conservatives may not hew closely to his ideology on every last issue, Net Neutrality is only one of many issues on which it is clear that, digitally speaking, Republicans and Democrats share more in common than might normally be expected. In fact, on many of these issues, each party’s respective stance betrays a sort of contradiction with regards to the supposed core tenets of their ideologies.

Take the notion of cybersurveillance, for example. Conservative individuals on the right, like Ted Cruz, are fervently opposed to such measures. The government’s intrusion into users’ privacy is an interference in the free and open Internet that cyber-libertarian organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation seek to create. That is a cyberutopian ideal, in which a free Internet is looked to as a liberating force. But let’s consider the implications of an Internet which is not subjected to the surveillance of any force, and in which we see cases like that which is described in Amanda Hess’ “Why Women aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Twitter is an entity that is firmly opposed to cybersurveillance and fights off government attempts to access its users’ information. As a result, law enforcement is crippled in its attempts to handle death threats, rape threats, and other misogynistic comments made towards women online. This stands in stark opposition to the “tough on crime” stance that Cruz and many other Republicans take (for example, note that he is on the record as wanting heightened monitoring of sexual predators… http://www.ontheissues.org/domestic/Ted_Cruz_Crime.htm … But can that be reconciled with his cyber-libertarian opposition to government surveillance?).

The lesson here, thus far, is that the issues we have discussed in class are markedly post-political. Does this argument make sense? And is cyberutopianism necessarily a core component of that argument? Sorry I wrote so much. “Excessively verbose” seems to be my default setting.


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Cyberactivism and the #CleanURlake Protest

// Posted by Damian on 11/02/2014 (10:07 PM)

For this experience, my group, which included myself, Elizabeth, and Brendan, decided to have students organize a protest—in two senses. The first component of the activity involved the establishment of an online campaign, including a Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook

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For this experience, my group, which included myself, Elizabeth, and Brendan, decided to have students organize a protest—in two senses. The first component of the activity involved the establishment of an online campaign, including a Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook account (CleanURlake). We also tried to start some hashtags, including one named after the accounts and #URecoli. Students also utilized Yik Yak, which was appropriate considering it is an anonymous social network, and much of our decision in class revolved around the concept of anonymity and the authenticity (or lack) thereof.
After laying the online groundwork and starting to spread the word, students were left with the responsibility of leading a physical protest in front of Boatwright Library. We simply asked students to come prepared, with signs, with evidence of research and a sufficiently strong knowledge of pollution in the lake, including the perturbingly high levels of E. Coli. We also offered flyers, which included the aforementioned hashtags, so as to pique students’ interest and perhaps even get them talking online. Below is a link to a YouTube video, which includes footage of the protest, as well as a few pictures from before, during, and after the protest, just to put the experience into perspective.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtXdv73Hcmk
The approach to this experience was wholly unique in terms of the fact that it was based so strongly around the concept of horizontalism, which stands firmly opposed to hierarchical structures of any kind. In our case, it was our intention to lead this experience by not necessarily taking the lead and acting as co-participants instead. One need not look too far to realize the inspiration for such a decision: In “Inside Occupy Wall Street,” Jeff Sharlet notes that Occupy’s “resistance to organized leadership has proved enduring… The evasion of organized leadership that for many began as a tactic—leaders are targets and weak links, subject to prosecution and co-option—has now grown into a principle.” We translated the horizontal proclivities of Occupy and other movements staged in both a physical and digital realm to the confines of our own class experience, so as to measure the viability of horizontalism and to determine whether it helps or hinders a movement.
To some extent, I am unsure whether or not our experience was a completely fair representation of horizontalism in activism. My group had left the horizontal aspect up to question, hoping to surprise students with the experience. Ultimately, that was a mistake. I think we were inspired by the previous group’s emphasis on surprising the class with their experience, and we decided to go a similar route, not wanting to give much information away ahead of time. However, what we did not consider—or at least what I did not consider—was simply the fact that group three’s experience thrived with the element of surprise. When students could not come in prepared to take part in a digital divide simulation, and when they were simply thrown into writing a response to the question of whether or not digital copyrighting perpetuates inequality, they were left with a more authentic experience. When a group like Occupy, or at least the individuals who get the proverbial ball rolling, decide that they want to lead demonstrations, they do so not on a whim, but over time. They prepare, and we should have recognized the importance of fully informing students so as to enable them to prepare as they needed. I believe that we did with regards to the physical protest, but we did not with regards to the social networking component. So was horizontalism successful in our case? Well, not as much, but one has to take into consideration the context of which I have herein spoken.
I firmly believe that in movements like Occupy, fighting for purely democratic values and fighting against hierarchical structures like those evident in capitalism—specifically the so-called New Economy’s nested hierarchies—it is fundamentally logical and necessary for the movement to be based around a structure that empowers all equally. For how can you criticize any hierarchy without ensuring that you do not propagate one of your own? Nonetheless, is horizontalism practical for movements like Occupy, and does it allow a movement to expand and mature at an optimally exponential rate? I would like to think so, but I have my doubts.
A large portion of class discussion involved another activist group, Anonymous, which initially emerged from the anonymous forum site 4Chan. In 2008, it made its first “big” move and targeted the Church of Scientology in Operation Chanology. Suddenly, a movement that had started with Internet trolls who rotated between using 4Chan’s random /b/ board, planning pranks on children’s games like Habba Hotel, and executing DDoS—or Distributed Denial of Service—attacks had matured into something much more politically powerful. Amassing almost 10,000 protesters worldwide, Anonymous proved it had the clout to effect some real change. What it didn’t have—and still doesn’t—is centralized leadership. Like Occupy, Anonymous is a horizontal movement. While that may reflect well simply as an indication of authenticity, as opposed to hypocrisy, the implications for Anonymous down the line were troubling. Suddenly, the movement was split, between those members of Anonymous who wished to return to the simple delights of trolling and the so-called “moralfags” who wanted to work for a social good. For all the wonderful things Anonymous seemed to be doing in movements like Operation Titstorm, which targeted the Australian government for its censorship of the Internet, there remained a sizable contingent very much like Lulzsec, an Anonymous splinter group which looked not to engage in noble campaigns, but rather to return to trolling. The group pulled such stunts as hacking into the CBS News website and posting a false story about Tupac Shakur (who was, they assured readers, in New Zealand, very much alive) for its coverage of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, with which it agreed. Protesting the actions of a government is one thing. Attacking a news source because you don’t like that they published certain information is another, and it contradicts the notion that you believe information should be free. If information is free, it should be freely publicized by media outlets, and freely editorialized upon by the writers thereof.
The problem with Anonymous is also one of its strengths: that it remains so loyal to its horizontalist roots. When Lulzsec—which no longer exists—hacked the CBS News website, did Anonymous condemn their actions and work to ensure that such abuses of power would not occur again? There isn’t any leadership to do so. It remains contingent on individual members to make a choice, whether to use their movement for the forces of good, or to allow it to drift into the deeply troubling realm of intolerance and chaotic trolling. No leadership exists to steer it in any one direction, so the future is uncertain. Can horizontalism work? In certain cases, yes. It certainly has proved fruitful in select cases involving Anonymous. Operation Payback constitutes the group’s most successful endeavor by far, as its work with Telecomix—a coalition of Internet activists—helped to keep the Internet running in countries like Tunisia where governments had attempted to censor and block use by the populace. In many ways, in getting Middle Easterners in these countries back online, Anonymous played a central role in the overthrow of despotic regimes like that of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It did so without any central command from the top, with the help of “hacktivists” all across the globe. But can Anonymous remain a movement dedicated to the liberation of oppressed peoples, and to fighting all institutions that work in any way to oppress or to suppress information? If its various factions allow it to be split, what is its strength? Can the solidarity inherent in the demonstrations of Operation Chanology be upheld going forward? The answer is certainly unknown. The movement’s choice to remain horizontal, even as it has gained more mainstream attention and effected more sweeping change, has proven wise, for the time being. For as much harm can be done by splinter groups, much can also be done by centralized leadership, if its power is abused.
Whether or not horizontalism worked for Occupy is also a point of contention. Though it served to the movement’s benefit for some of the same reasons as it has for Anonymous, could an organized command structure have provided more guidance? With actual leadership and an official platform, critics like the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, who complained that Occupy “doesn’t really take you to a particular bumper-sticker action,” may have been silenced, or at least pushed to engage in a substantial debate on the issues, as opposed to merely denouncing the organization’s framework. The problem with Occupy is that, unlike Anonymous, the change it effected isn’t exactly abundantly clear. Is America more wary of corporations—and the immense political influence and power they wield—today than it was five years ago? Likely not. Has Congress passed sweeping reform that keeps corporate influence in check and regulates the private sector more thoroughly? Most certainly not. Has economic inequality been reduced? Again, a resounding no. Then there is the biggest question: Does anyone care? Some people do, but do the majority of Americans feel compelled to become engaged and continue Occupy’s work? Perhaps, but I don’t really see them. Anonymous is the major force right now, and its primary emphasis has not been on economic inequality and corporate influence in the United States. So was Occupy destined to fail, or did horizontalism seal its fate? I work on the argument that Occupy “failed” simply from the standpoint that the aforementioned questions above have been answered with “no”s, even if the New York Times’ Charles Blow has written that the movement ingrained the notion of excessive inequality in the minds of Americans. We cannot be so sure. Even if it was not an abject failure, can it even remotely match up to movements like the women’s suffrage movement? As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich notes, the push to grant women the right to vote was able to sustain itself over the course of many years because they won small victories time and again that gave the movement hope. What small victories has the Occupy movement won that can keep it moving forward? At the moment, Zuccotti Park is devoid of Occupiers, and the physical demonstrations seem to have all but died out. So what exactly is the next step? Is there any? I would contend there is, but it will likely require the leadership of another movement, one that, if horizontalist, must doubtless use its horizontalism to its advantage, as opposed to allowing itself to drift into the anarchic realms of a platform-less, misunderstood campaign.
All of that being said, our experience certainly provides no clearer an answer to the question of horizontalism in activism. Surely, we, like the Occupiers, failed to use it optimally, to our advantage, which led to some initial confusion and disorganization. But I look past the first 30 minutes and to the subsequent 50, and I see glimmers of hope. The physical demonstration was small, as it should have been expected to be with only 7 students in the class, but an impact was clear. I was shocked to find that most students were unaware of the E. Coli levels in the lake. As I held my sign demanding “For your students’ sake clean up the lake,” I received questions like “What’s up with the lake?” People just didn’t know, in spite of a well-done—and relatively recent—piece of reporting by the Collegian. “I knew it was gross,” another student said, “but I didn’t know about the E. Coli. That’s really scary.” It really is. And I hope that that student, if he didn’t like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter, at least went back to his room and did some research, or told a friend. I truly believe that what made our experience successful, in spite of early disorganization and the fact that we did not know how exactly to use horizontalism to our advantage, is the fact that we raised awareness of a serious issue with serious implications. Students who have fallen into the lake have subsequently become ill, but seemingly a majority of their peers were unaware of the presence of the bacteria and the dangers posed thereby. That we were able to connect with dozens of students and talk with them and open a dialogue is important. It means that any impact will be felt not simply during the experience, but after. And that is where I see more success. Students from the Collegian, hearing about our project, came out to write an article, which, once published, shot to the top of the list of most-read articles. It is precisely that sort of publicity that gets a conversation started, and that offers a reminder to those in command that students are informed and concerned and, more crucially, that they want to make a difference. I am unsure that change will be made, but I do sense that there is reason to believe we have started a conversation. On Yik Yak, our post ended up on the “hot” list, with over 40 up-votes. That becomes all the more impressive if one considers the fact that many of the “hot” list entries involve demeaning comments or jokes. We made the list by offering a positive comment and getting students thinking about a legitimate issue.
On the digital front, though, I sense that the question Robert Reich posed to Occupy is the same question we should pose to ourselves: What is the next step? Students insist that they will continue running the Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, but, in all honesty, I have my doubts. I do not see that as a failure of the experience. I see it instead, as an unusual sort of success. One of the central questions I wanted us to pose in this experience was whether or not online campaigns can last. We see countless examples in the media of campaigns like Kony 2012 that start a widespread conversation before abruptly dying out. Most likely, the online push for the Redskins name to be changed will prove to have a similar fate. Can online movements last, and if so, how? Anonymous surely provides an example of an online movement that has lasted, but it helps that its constituent members are hackers and that their daily routines often revolve around the use of computers and of the Internet. What of the movements like Occupy or CleanURlake, which are constituted not of hackers and 4Chan trolls, but of average students with average knowledge of computers whose schedules are jam-packed and who have more to worry about than a dirty lake or economic inequality? How does an online movement stay alive, winning small victories to give itself momentum, propelling itself forward whilst keeping its participants engaged and informed? Certainly, it is possible to keep an online movement alive, but we have yet to see one that lasts and makes a long-term change, or at least without corporate assistance. What perturbs me is that in searching for examples of successful online campaigns, I only find instances like that in which Google and other Silicon Valley giants teamed up to fight SOPA. Sure, millions took to Twitter and Facebook to voice their opinions, but political change only seems to be effected when corporations throw their hats in the ring. Only then, when money talks, does Washington listen. Nonetheless, I digress, and the central intention of my discussion here regards the social networking campaign our class vowed to keep running. If students fail to do so, it offers a pungent reminder that in many cases, the users of the Internet are too busy—or too disinterested—to use the freedom at their disposal to do something constructive. Students need to ask themselves why we move on so quickly, why we forget about the movements about which we once professed to care. I recognize that not every student in the class cares about the lake (though they should), and not every student will feel compelled to continuing working to have the lake cleaned. For those students who are concerned, though, we need to be asking these questions, and considering the implications.
Lasting online campaigns are rare, and that is for a reason. It is extremely difficult to perpetually keep participants in a campaign interested for months and years on end, and while I might contend that such is a problem springing not from any flaws in cyberactivism so much as from the individuals engaged therein, it is difficult to ignore the point that Reich brings up when discussing women’s suffrage. What allowed that movement to survive for years? What kept its participants engaged? Why didn’t it fizzle out after a few months like Kony 2012? The active engagement in physical protests undoubtedly plays a role. Simply liking a Facebook page or retweeting a tweet requires a few seconds of effort. Making a sign, organizing a demonstration, and working actively to engage passersby requires hours, if not days, of work. The convenience of digital technology is a double-edged sword, ultimately creating an inclination of cyberactivism to be rendered merely “slacktivism” and encouraging the sort of mass acquiescence—as individuals fall victim to the notion that change can ever be a click away—that keeps movements from enduring.
In all of this discussion, what has been thus far left out is the concept of pranking in relation to activism, as well as the Internet meme. How do these concepts fit into the lessons taken from our experience? Most certainly they are not irrelevant to the topic at hand, playing a pivotal role in cyberactivism. Christine Harold in “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism,” contends that “[p]arody derides the content of what it sees as oppressive rhetoric, but fails to attend to its patterns” (191). As a proposed solution, she looks to pranking. Unlike parody, pranks “do not oppose traditional notions of rhetoric, but they do repattern them in interesting ways… strategically augmenting and utilizing the precious resources the contemporary media ecology affords” (208). For the most part, I concur with Harold’s analysis. The Barbie Liberation Organization is more successful than something like Adbusters’ “Blackspot” sneaker campaign because instead of directly attempting to send a message, utilizing mainstream corporate techniques, the B.L.O. sends no direct message and offers only an altered version of an existing product, in effect subverting the system, using it for its own purposes, as opposed to attempting to work against it. In the digital realm, pranking is often seen in the form of Internet memes. Limor Shifman in “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker,” notes that “[s]ocial norms, perceptions, and preferences are crucial in memetic selection processes,” and indeed she is correct (366). The study of memetics is crucial to engaging in a thorough sociological examination of the users of the Internet. When Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney Alone” video is rendered something homophobic, contradicting the purposes for which it was created, that says something about the people who make those videos, watch them, and give their up-votes. What does it say that so many people responded by, in essence, cynically trolling Crocker’s video? What does it say about trolling, the Internet’s version of pranking?
Indeed, pranking can do much good, and certainly it has the potential to do more than mere parody, as Harold contends, but on the Internet, has it done that good? Show me a political meme or a meme intended to bring about some important social change, and I’ll show you five like one of President Obama with the words “Where the white women at?” below it. Sure, trolling doesn’t have to be racist, sexist, or generally prejudicial in any way. There is nothing inherent within trolling or pranking that makes it so, but nonetheless it remains a force for a great deal of very ugly, very negative things, when it could be serving as a force for so much good. And this is the point at which we begin to recognize just how ugly and negative much of trolling has become. When the perpetrators of Internet death and rape threats are dismissed as “juvenile pranksters,” as Amanda Hess notes in “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” we should pay attention. Because that wording isn’t accidental. Yes, dismissing it as pranking trivializes the issue, but this brand of trolling—this insidiously hostile, violent, misogynistic brand—is what pranking on the Internet has become for too many individuals, and that is far from what it should be. When the Biotic Baking Brigade shoved a pie in the face of Bill Gates, it was irrefutably puerile behavior, but it came with a message—albeit an indirect one. As Gates wiped pie off of his face, he was brought down to everyone else’s level. Sure, maybe some people think such a stunt is immature. Maybe others disagree with the potential message of such an action, but the point is that there was a constructive message, not merely something derisive, like threatening to brutally rape and murder a feminist. That may be an unfortunate manifestation of what pranksters on the Internet have become, but it’s not the same pranking of which Harold writes. The very act of pranking—and the foundation thereof—has been perverted.
Quinn Norton argues that “[t]rolls gonna troll,” and that we ought to ask what “[c]ivil inattention, the custom we have of ignoring people you don’t know in public space in order to give them privacy” looks like on the Internet, and I recognize the point she is making. I believe it is an important one. But is there ever an acceptable context in which we can feel free to casually throw around terms like “/b/tard Faggot?” Should we simply ignore those who choose to use such terminology and recognize that “trolls gonna troll?” I don’t think so. Because we can choose to hide those ugly elements of the Internet from ourselves, but in the end, you cannot quarantine ideas on the Web. Slowly but surely, those ideas propagate. They manifest themselves in new and surprising ways, in new and surprising locations. The trolls who call each other faggots end up making memes that circulate around the Web and influence the thought patterns of unassuming social networkers and Internet users generally, who alter or mimic those memes and disseminate potentially prejudicial ideas themselves. So maybe it seems reasonable to simply advocate that people “don’t feed the trolls,” but inaction and a refusal to combat the dangerous ideas being promoted by trolls will only serve to worsen the problem. Indeed, it has. It should not come as any surprise that the same individuals who were online referring to women as “bitches” and objectifying them in dreadful ways ended up harassing female writers, sexualizing them and fantasizing about rape. Certainly, to go from simply objectifying to threatening to rape someone is not a simple transition. You don’t objectify on Monday and make a death or rape threat on Tuesday. The problem, in my estimation, is that by choosing to look away, only considering the context collapse of the Internet as opposed to the wrongful nature of trolls’ words, we are encouraged those actions, words, and ideas. We have fed the trolls by refusing to feed them. We have afforded them an anarchic space to chaotically destroy, piece by piece, without oversight or discretion, surely enough egging one another on, encouraging each other’s sexism, encouraging each other’s racism, encouraging the very idea that a woman with whom you disagree can deserve to be raped or slaughtered. Not all pranksters are sexists or racists, nor are all trolls. Doubtless most do not threaten to rape or kill. But there is a sizable contingent prevalent within that community that does, and to dismiss it as anything other than a problem would be a grave error. Pranking is a wonderful tool to be used by concerned citizens and activists across the globe, and it should be used wisely, for the right reasons, in the appropriate ways. But an overarching problem with the Internet is becoming evident: As with Anonymous, there simply is not enough control over the troll community to ensure that the actions being taken are constructive, healthy, and for the betterment of society. Such is an important understanding that I will return to shortly. It informs my cautious stance on the unit as a whole.
Nonetheless, while I would stop short of advocating for government oversight of trolls, fearing that we would infringe upon their freedom of speech, I also agree with Norton to the extent that these issues must inevitably be handled “IRL.” A troll who perpetuates harmful ideas does not simply pull those ideas out of nowhere. Those ideas come from parents, or from students in school who heard it from their parents. Those ideas are promoted as the education fails to adequately combat prejudice. Numerous studies indicate college graduates are less prejudiced on average than high school graduates. What is the public education system doing wrong, and what are colleges doing correctly? If we can answer those questions, and if we can reform education meaningfully—as opposed to having politicians issue their hollow calls for a “dialogue”—we would see a change, and that would have positive ramifications for the Internet and for the women who are now terrorized by spiteful trolls. The true solutions to the problems with online pranking and trolling lie to a large extent in real-world solutions. Does cyberactivism have a role to play, however, and is it an effective enough force to effect such consequential change?
Before I answer that question, however, I digress once more, simply for the purposes of answering an important question that I posed to the class. Mark Poster in “Information Please” is troubled by the discourse of human rights. The “inherent problem in the term ‘human rights,” Poster writes, is “that it requires a string of supplements to account for its impossibility” (69-70). From the inception of the notion of such rights, it has been tied closely to citizenship, as was the case in the French Revolution. That definition of citizen is no longer relevant or valid. Globalization and the post-national world of the digital age have both redefined citizenship in such a way that fighting for human rights may serve not to liberate individuals, but to legitimize Western hegemony and leave countless in the same—or worse—position they are presently. As a solution, Poster proposes the concept of netizenship. He explains that the netizen is “the formative figure in a new kind of political relation, one that shares allegiance to the nation with allegiance to the Net and to the planetary political spaces it inaugurates” (78). Norton suggests a similar solution to the problems women face on the Internet, with the concept of cyborgs, a closely-related notion. So looking back and recognizing the pivotal role the netizen plays in this unit, I asked the class: Were we acting as netizens?
For me, the answer is yet to be determined. I believe that, as a class, we shared an allegiance to the nation—or, on a smaller scale, to the University of Richmond and the well-being of its students—as well as an allegiance to the Net, with our emphasis on a social networking campaign. The question largely hinges on the issue of whether or not students continue the push. Is one a true netizen if he or she engages in activism—both cyberactivism and IRL activism—and then simply stops? Netizenship is an active concept. The title “netizen” is earned by someone who engages in the community actively and often, who does more than simply just raise awareness of an issue, but takes an active role in educating and recruiting others to engage themselves as well. A netizen not only stands in front of a library with signs, but goes further, standing up and questioning those in power, expanding their efforts, pushing to win the small victories their movement must win. The netizen continues to build online movements, continually developing ways to keep participants engaged. If students continue to build this movement, I believe they can call themselves netizens. If they—as I fear will be the case—leave it at this and do nothing more with the lake, we could not accurately classify ourselves as such. That is a valuable lesson, and if students fail to actively engage going forward, I see it not as a failure of the experience so much as a success in and of itself. Netizenship is not a term to throw around as so many do. It is something that must be taken seriously, and if one wishes to act as a netizen, he or she must take the initiative in earning that title. I hope that in reflecting on the experience, students are coming to the same realization.
All of this discussion is great, but a final question remains: Does cyberactivism even work? Can it work just as well as it might for a clean lake movement as it might for something more sweeping, like ending misogyny on the Web? As always, I will not pretend to have all the answers. This issue is enormously complex, to such an extent that as I try to wrap my head around all of the most complicated questions, I have difficulty untangling the web of contradictions that any possible answer presents. Nonetheless, I will try my best to provide some semblance of a response here that gets to the heart of the issue both adequately and accurately. I believe cyberactivism can work, but I question whether some of our most noteworthy cyber movements have been pushing for the right things.
If anything was made abundantly clear in our experience, it is that cyberactivism requires a very careful balance between the physical aspect of protestation and the digital component. Simply forming Twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, and Tumblr accounts does nothing for a movement if no awareness can be raised. Surely, infrastructure is in place on the Web that enables individuals to raise awareness digitally, but such infrastructure remains inadequate. Physical protests are required to get people talking, to inform them of the problems, to get them to follow your account or like your page, or give you an up-vote on Yik Yak. Cyberactivism is nothing without a physical component as well. If such a balance is ensured, and if participants in a movement engage both in social networking campaigns as well as actual public demonstrations, cyberactivism can be something quite powerful. Anonymous’ efforts in the aforementioned Operation Payback constitute the most hopeful example, especially considering the fact that their efforts came without corporate assistance. A grassroots campaign can be led, and cyberactivism can be an effectual force, if handled correctly and used to fight for the right things. But are we fighting for what’s right?
I don’t ask this question because I see the world in a black-and-white matter. So much of the world is but a mater of interpretation. What is “right” is surely a subjective question. But I pose it because of points that Jaron Lanier makes. Lanier, who was a pioneer of virtual-reality technology and is now a research scholar at Microsoft, has turned against the Web—more specifically, against the concept of cyberutopianism and a fully democratic Web. Americans love the word “democracy,” to such an extent that we throw it around injudiciously. Do we, however, understand what it means? Sure, it sounds wonderful when Anonymous declares that information should be free, but what are the implications of free information? Lanier suggests, “once we made information free… middle-class people… were consigned to the bread lines.” I am not sure I fully agree with Lanier’s argument, in that the purported demise of the middle class has not simply emerged from a vacuum. The availability of free music did not simply render the middle class a relic of the past. Such is an oversimplification of complicated economic issues, including wealth distribution in the United States and trends over the past several decades. Lanier may be making a somewhat valid point, but he misses the mark in oversimplifying and looking past other factors in the problem of which he speaks. Where I concur almost wholeheartedly with him, however, is in his assertion that anonymity constitutes an “enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy.” I say I agree almost wholeheartedly, because I think he misses a more accurate definition of democracy. What is actually the difference between mob rule and democracy? The United States is not a democracy by its nature. It was not founded to be one. On the contrary, it was intended to be a republic. Sometimes, that seems to be forgotten, especially when democracy is a term with such positive connotations, and an easy one to throw around at that. I have never been a proponent of pure democracy in the non-digital realm, so why have I been so enticed by it online? When I ask whether cyberactivism is being used correctly, I mean to refer to this issue. When Anonymous pushes for a—in the words of Artie Vierkant—Post-Internet world, in which objects are not specifically owned by anyone and may always be in flux, are they pushing for the right thing? When Christopher Poole promotes anonymity on 4Chan as a representation of people’s most authentic selves, is he pushing for the right thing? When we push for a freer, “more democratic” Internet, are we pushing for the right thing, or are we just instilling anarchy? Online, what keeps a democratic Internet from becoming an Internet of mob rule? What exactly is the difference if no one is in control but the people themselves? What kind of Internet would we see if our cyberactivism led us to a point at which no one were in control but the people, if nations themselves were rendered a thing of the past and we were beholden only to the Internet, as some cyberutopian theorists have posited will happen? What then will we expect to see? Will it be the democracy of which we have spoken but do not understand, or will it be something else, something uglier, something more dangerous?
By no means am I fully anti-democracy, but I far prefer the notion of a republic to that of a pure democracy from the standpoint that I am unsure whether it is wise to entrust the people alone with the power to control something like the Web. I doubt that cyberactivism will ever be powerful enough to eschew government and corporate control, but nonetheless, the fact that organizations like Occupy and Anonymous—which represent arguably the foremost examples of netizenship—push for a fully democratic Internet and the minimization of government and corporate controls should lead us to ask if that is an appropriate and prudent course of action. So much of what we have discussed heretofore—government surveillance, economic inequality in the New Economy, cyberutopianism—involves the notion of a democratic Web, and I personally have often taken a stance very much in favor of democratization. In no way am I arguing that that is wrong necessarily, so much as one should consider the implications. Cyberactivism, if used to effect such potentially harmful change, may not be the positive force it could be. Cyberactivists must be cautious, realizing for example that while the NSA’s extensive surveillance of the Web is unacceptable and unconstitutional, the inability of governments to regulate the Internet leaves women at risk when they receive death threats. Pure democracy is nothing simple, and though Lanier is certainly not completely correct, he is making an important argument that cannot be neglected.
As always, the class experience raised innumerable questions, only a few of which I have been able to discuss here. I am proud of the experience; in spite of the disorganization of the opening half hour—a result of our mishandling of horizontalism and our failure to adequately inform the class of our horizontal intentions, I think the class was left with an immensely valuable lesson. I hope that they have engaged in it fully to realize the connections to the unit as a whole, and I hope, in the end, that while they may recognize the potential of cyberactivism, they also recognize the need to carefully consider that for which we use cyberactivism to advocate. Much of the class discussion heretofore has led us to this point, at which we explore cyberactivism as a potential solution to problems that may have been thus far encountered. Individuals like Lanier encourage us to ask ourselves whether falling in line behind groups like Anonymous, rather than questioning some of their motives and their philosophy, is the most prudent decision. Cyberactivism is indeed a powerful force, and it can be used for so much good. We need to be making sure, then, that we aren’t allowing it to be rendered something much more destructive.

Categories: Assignments
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A “New Economy” in the Digital Age?

// Posted by Damian on 10/15/2014 (10:40 AM)

As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had… Read more

As we took our seats, the subjects of a mysterious and seemingly innocent experiment, those of us who had not developed this experience were blissfully oblivious as to the unexpectedly stressful and nightmarish hour that lie ahead.

The class had been split into two groups, aptly named group A and group B. Members of both groups were given a deceptively simple assignment: to write a 250-word essay about digital copyrighting, and whether or not it perpetuates inequality. As is usually the case in life, the assignment had a catch: To simulate the digital divide experienced by those in a lower socioeconomic bracket, members of group A would have to do research solely on their phones. Members of group B could only research using books and could not use any device that connected to the Internet. A library computer could only be used to type up the essay. Suddenly, being a member of group B did not seem like such a lucky deal, as I had originally thought. Even so, I still assumed that the task was doable, if challenging.

I had no idea just how tense the subsequent hour would be. We first visited with librarian Marcia Whitehead, who was enormously helpful, but unfortunately left us with the harsh reality that to access the resources we needed—without the aid of the Internet—we would have to travel to the law library. Thus began a 6-minute trek and an even longer search for the books we needed. When we finally found them (of course they were tucked away in a secluded nook), we were confronted not only with excessively technical legal texts and other sources that were not entirely applicable to our central thesis. Whereas we wanted a more accessible listing of examples of copyright infringement and its perpetuation of inequality, what we often found was a five-page legal examination of copyright, defining it and laying out consequences of infringement. Debates over the implications, socioeconomic, ethical, or otherwise, were sorely lacking, or at least in many of the texts we encountered in our necessarily brief search.

We did what we could, jotting down notes frantically, but ultimately providing weak support for our contention. We did not have any other options, though, and realizing that time was running short, we could only place the books back on the shelf in resignation, running once again back to Boatwright. We attempted to scribble the notes that would constitute our unfortunate excuse for an essay as we walked briskly back to the library. In all the confusion, we had lost Brendan, but luckily, he thought ahead and claimed a computer so that we could quickly type out our argument. Nonetheless, we did not have enough time and turned our assignment in late. I highly doubt anyone in the group felt very good about it.

Below, for my documentation (all of which is courtesy of Dr. Rosatelli, since I did not have a phone with which to take pictures or video), I have included a link to a YouTube video with a clip of Aisling, Elizabeth, and myself in the elevator of the law library, explaining the scenario in which we found ourselves embroiled at that point in time, as well as the final class discussion, in which we expressed our findings and our emotions both as experienced during and in the aftermath of the experience. I also have included below a picture of us searching frantically for a book among the shelves of the law library. I chose these mediums of documentation so as to provide a more immersive and visual representation of the difficulties experienced and the stress with which we responded as a group. For as much as I can express in words, video is an even more effective tool that will ideally enhance the reader/viewer’s understanding of the experience and the extent to which my group found ourselves in a situation with which we were considerably uncomfortable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbTkAkcjwj8

For group B, it was a horrendous experience. Insulated from the realities of the world faced by those less fortunate than us, we had taken for granted our laptops and smartphones and the instant gratification of the Internet. Deprived of those tools, however, we simply could not perform at a high enough level to keep up even with our counterparts in group A, let alone with other students fortunate enough to have complete access to Internet-connected devices.

Though it may seem simple enough to insist that ours was merely a simulation, and not necessarily an accurate depiction of the tribulations faced by high school students from lower-income households, who might not have access to a smartphone or laptop, the fact nonetheless remains that, whether or not we wish to confront the dismal reality of the experience, a considerable contingent of the high school student population relies on public libraries in such a way. As I write, countless students across the country are working frantically to research in a library, wishing they had access to their own computer and failing to find works that apply directly to a paper they are writing. Many are finding that allotted time for computer usage simply is not conducive to the writing of a thoroughly-researched, well-developed thesis. For too many high school students, our experience was not simply an exception; it was the rule.

When I was younger and my family was facing the inhospitable conditions that resulted from the so-called “Great Recession” in 2009, I found myself in the position of those students, and I encountered many of these challenges along the way, relying on public libraries but struggling to complete work in the allotted hour of computer usage. Even with this background experience, the class simulation offered a new perspective, as I was faced with a situation even worse than ones I had experienced heretofore. I am sure that almost everyone in the class was afforded a new perspective on the digital divide. The question that remains, however, is what conclusions we draw from this experience with regards not only to copyright law and the digital divide in general, but also to more overarching topics of discussion from throughout the unit.

It is fascinating—and necessary for our purposes—to juxtapose the idealistic visions of the “New Economy” with the current conditions in which many are now mired. Nicholas Negroponte, who in the mid-1980s had created the MIT Media Lab, envisioned the “New Economy” as one in which existing hierarchies were subverted and superseded by a progressive network of nodes, in effect enabling every individual therein to start anywhere and work on a more equal footing with their colleagues and those who might formerly have been labeled “superiors.”

Negroponte’s notion of a “New Economy” was far from some fringe ideal. Men like Stewart Brand, who worked alongside Negroponte at the Media Lab, shared his libertarian vision. Brand would go on to serve as a co-founder of the Global Business Network, a consulting firm that advocated the aforementioned flattening of hierarchies and would boast such impressive clients as Royal Dutch/Shell and AT&T.

In a profoundly significant way, the GBN represented the propagation of counterculturist ideas within the framework of an evolving economy looking to move into a new age. This intertwinement of counterculture and the libertarianism of Brand and Negroponte (along with that of countless others, including Kevin Kelly and Louis Rossetto, the executive editor and founder of Wired Magazine, respectively) would later reveal itself even more substantively in a manifesto entitled the “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” written by four authors, including Esther Dyson, a writer for Wired at the time. The “Magna Carta” likened Cyberspace to a new frontier, which the American populace had to be empowered to explore, to pursue “civilization’s truest, highest calling.” The manifesto not only called for, but also coincided with, the deregulation of the telecommunications industry as part of Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Indeed, in the 1990s, the counterculturist ideals of Brand and others were fused with the libertarian laissez-faire fiscal policy so essential to the Republican Party, and this fusion would be represented in Wired Magazine, one of many conduits for the dissemination of idealistic visions of the digital age and the “New Economy.”

On the surface, for those incognizant of the digital divide and conditions represented by the in-class simulation, it may seem that the “New Economy” has delivered what it promised. To look quickly at “accelerators,” like Y Combinator, which finance the start-up businesses of promising young entrepreneurs, accelerating the growth of a product or a business into a more lucrative entity, it seems that we are living in a world in which anyone can simply come up with an idea for a digital technology and subsequently earn tens of thousands of dollars, and maybe more in the long run. When venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, advocates students NOT attend college and, under his Thiel Fellowships, will pay them $100,000 in a two-year grant to launch a startup instead, it is easy to be led to believe that the economy is changing and that the hierarchies of old truly have been leveled, that the status symbol of college is no longer necessary to have a chance, and that anyone can live the “American Dream,” whatever that really is. Unfortunately, such is a woefully inadequate and incomplete picture, and it provides a largely untruthful representation of the economy in the digital age.

Truthfully speaking, the “New Economy” does not really seem to be all that new. In fact, it seems like more of the same, in deceptive new packaging. Y Combinator may be subsidizing young entrepreneur’s startups, but its intent is not to promote the growth of new businesses so much as to have its investment pay dividends when that venture is ultimately sold to a corporation. Thiel may believe that students should skip college, but that erroneously presupposes that every student is a computer prodigy. People like Thiel, an outspoken libertarian, are the same ones who led the movement towards the “New Economy,” but they are also the same ones who, when pressed to discuss the digital divide, give answers like “That’s not one I focus on as much.”

In the end, it would appear that the “New Economy” was designed not truly for the betterment of every citizen, but rather clearly for the betterment of large corporations, which have benefitted greatly and become, more so than ever before, centralized forces in the private sector, holding sizable concentrations of wealth and power. The hierarchical structure of the “old economy” has not been eradicated; nor has it been superseded by a new network of nodes, so to speak. What we have found instead is that the “New Economy” is instead a complex network of supposed nodes that is structured in such a way as to constitute a complicated system of nested hierarchies, thereby maintaining the decades-old status quo, in a different, superficially appealing form.

Corporations and other powerful parties in the “new” economic order are not simply gaining power, but they are often manipulating the means of wealth attribution in a way that makes economic opportunity—supposedly a cornerstone of libertarian values—less accessible than ever before. A prime example is the high-frequency trading that has come to dominate the stock exchange, not only domestically, but also internationally. In essence, trading firms like Tradeworx utilize machinery that operates using autonomous algorithms that, via transmissions communicated through globe-spanning networks of fiber-optic cable, execute trades faster than humans can intervene. One of the fundamental consequences of HFT for the “average citizen,” not privy to the luxuries afforded a Wall Street trader or oligarch, is that the stock prices published on websites like Yahoo Finance are obsolete by the time potential buyers view them. Stock prices are fluctuating constantly throughout the course of the day, as algorithms perpetually buy and sell stocks to make minuscule gains that, multiplied by millions of trades, add up to substantial dividends. In all of this, David Golumbia is correct in his assertion that the majority of individuals are excluded from participating meaningfully. Such is far from the supposedly democratizing impact that was supposed to be effected by computerization and the rise of the Internet. Indeed, the Internet has equally empowered all citizens, but it serves especially to keep those at the top at the top, as evidenced in the stock exchange and the dizzying rapidity with which trades are being executed, precluding more consequential involvement from a more socioeconomically diverse array of citizens.

The structure of this class and the sequence with which we have discussed different topics is intriguing and appropriate, as I have come to recognize over time that the digital utopianism that at first seems so appealing becomes less and less so over time. Whereas in an earlier unit, especially after the first experience in the LA Live Chatroom, it was easy to stand behind the idealistic vision of a democratic Internet and all of the possibilities presented thereby, the realities with which we are confronted in the units on cybersecurity and the digital economy serve as a reminder that, to a large extent, digital utopianism—and the idealism that has come to so strongly characterize it—is fundamentally flawed and looks only at a portion of the picture. Technological determinism, the notion that technology is inherently democratic, is enticing, but ultimately wrong. Saskia Sassen’s thesis is ultimately a more accurate depiction of technology, as she insists that nothing about the Internet is inherently democratic. Indeed, she is correct. Mark Poster is partially correct when he writes in “Information Please” that the Internet may bring about the “overturning of certain systems of social control,” but it does not have to (193). It can be used, most simplistically, for good or for evil (though such a simplistic, monochromatic dichotomy eschews the convoluted nature of reality).

How, then, can the Internet be rendered a democratizing agent, if at the present time it is far from such a force? The answer is, as always, more complicated and requires more extensive elaboration than I can herein provide, but one such solution is presented in the current debate over copyright, which served as one of the principal foci of the class simulation.

Copyright law, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 more specifically, is most commonly construed by the government and media companies as a defense of the rights of a creator of a work, be it literary, artistic, or otherwise. These authors and artists, we have been told, have a right to recognition and compensation when their work is borrowed by another. As a matter of principle, such seems to be a reasonable argument. What is left out of the equation, however, is the complex web of interests surrounding copyright law. Who really profits?

“RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” does an excellent job of depicting with discomfiting accuracy the state of copyright in this country, and who the real winners and losers are. Anyone who believes that copyright laws are designed to benefit only the creators of a work should consider the fact made clear in the documentary that over 90% of media companies are owned by larger corporations like Disney, NewsCorp, GE, Viacom, and TimeWarner. These are powerful entities that constitute equally powerful lobbies in this country. They have tremendous influence in politics, and they have continued to push for more stringent copyright legislation. Some of the most recent alterations to the law include the provision that corporations can retain a copyright for 95 years after the life of an author. This number, it should be pointed out, will only be increased over time, yet another representation of the ways in which the “New Economy” and the digital age have failed to democratize, instead merely consolidating power in the hands of multinational corporations.

Indeed, answering the question posed during the simulation, digital copyright does perpetuate inequality. On a basic level, I will speak simplistically and give a personal example. If I need to analyze a movie for class, but do not personally own it, I have to go to the library to find it. Without free public availability online (assuming—unrealistically and only for the sake of argument—complete compliance with the law and the extinction of illegal downloading sites), I could not access the movie without paying. If I were a student who could not afford to pay the fee for an online rental, I would find myself reliant upon a likely insufficient online synopsis, and would not be adequately prepared to analyze the film for class, be it in an essay or on a test. Every other student who could afford to rent would be given the upper hand. Again, it is a simplistic example, but it nonetheless serves as a necessary reminder that digital copyright can feasibly serve to perpetuate inequality. On a more complex level, however, who is to say that Girl Talk, the musician who serves as the focal point of “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto,” does not have a right to make mash-ups of classic songs, creatively rendering old art something decidedly new and different and innovative? For a mash-up artist aspiring to move up, to become a star, how does digital copyright do anything but bar them from reaching the heights of other musicians? Is it fair that the law can prevent Girl Talk from doing what he does best to rise up the socioeconomic ladder? To answer such a question requires that we consider, as Poster does in “Information Please,” the relationship between cultural objects existing in the physical realm and those existing in cyberspace.

Poster sees a fundamental flaw in the notion that illegally downloading a music file is equivalent to stealing a CD from a store, writing, “When the CD is taken from the store, the store no longer has it; when the file is downloaded, the person sharing the file still has it” (189). I do not profess to have all the answers with regards to the complex nature of the intangible cultural objects of the digital space, but Poster’s argument seems to incorrectly define theft—or at least he does so in a manner that contradicts my subjective understanding of the term— though of course that definition may be altered by the differing nature of intangible digital objects. Illegal downloading of music may simply entail copying, but it presupposes that theft occurs without a loss of profit for one party involved. In other words, the means by which the music is “stolen” may be different, but the end result is not, so it may theoretically still constitute theft. A stolen CD is problematic because it deprives the store owner of a profit that could have been made off of the product. Though online only a copy is made, someone is still deprived of profit. My intention is not to insist that we grieve the loss of profit for multibillion dollar corporations that probably are not hurt terribly when a 12-year-old girl illegally downloads a $7.99 album, but it is to suggest that the increasingly complex nature of intangible cultural objects must push us to consider definitions of concepts as seemingly simple as “theft” if we are to come to a greater understanding with regards to proper action to be taken on copyright. I am certainly not in the business of defending abusive copyright legislation so much as calling for a more fervent debate over the relation between the physical and non-physical realms we currently occupy.

So digital copyright is perpetuating inequality, along with high-frequency trading, and corporations in the “New Economy” have served to make themselves more central figures in the private sector than ever before. Working against the democratizing potential of the Internet, wealthy tycoons exclude the less powerful from engaging meaningfully in the economy, monopolizing power and minimizing opportunity along the way. The picture thus far has frankly been incredibly depressing; but to paint such a picture without examining the rays of light that we now see would be a gross oversimplification.

It is exceedingly appropriate that the class experience asked us to consider digital copyright in relation to inequality. The issue is so crucial in this discussion, in fact, that the solution thereto provides one of many such solutions to broader inequality that has resulted from the implementation of “New Economy” policies which have too often effected a change diametrically opposed to that which was promised.

Poster makes clear in his examination of copyright that to find solutions to the problems we currently face, “[w]e must invent an entirely new copyright law that rewards cultural creation but also fosters new forms of use or consumption and does not inhibit the development of new forms of digital cultural exchange that explore the new fluidity of texts, images, and sounds” (209). Though seemingly overwhelming a solution at first, “RiP!: A Remix Manifesto” introduces us to a man who provides one very simple but very effective step towards a broader, more democratic solution to problems we face and inequality which must be rooted out: Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a professor at Harvard Law School and an anti-copyright activist who travels the world speaking out against copyright legislation.

In 2001, Lessig founded Creative Commons, a non-profit group that offers free licenses which can be used by creators of a work to signify that, instead of “all rights reserved,” it is only “some rights reserved,” and that certain rights have been waived so that others may borrow more freely. It seems to be an incredibly simple concept, but in actuality it is incredibly powerful. If Creative Commons licenses were more greatly expanded so as to ensure freer dissemination of cultural objects online, providing a wider range of access to those objects, that alone would serve as a step towards eliminating the inequality with which the current economic order is plagued. It would at least begin to establish a foundation for a more democratic Internet in which access to cultural objects is made more equal and opportunity, in turn, is expanded.

I am not under the illusion that Creative Commons can single-handedly solve the problems that we face with regards to corporate influence over the digital world and the economy thereof. I do recognize, however, the democratizing potential inherent in Lessig’s organization. His example should serve as inspiration to us all, a helpful reminder that we are more than capable of organizing within the framework of the Internet. We—the heretofore repressed masses—can provide the push for democratization, and in so doing, subvert the autocratic rule of authoritarian governments and monolithic corporations. The Internet may not be inherently democratic, but if used to work towards the proper ends, we, as agents of change, can make it so.

For as much of the complexity of the issue I may understand, I will openly admit as per usual that I am not omniscient with regards to solutions to these complicated issues. I do recognize, however, that change can be effected. Millions took to Twitter and Facebook to protest the Stop Online Privacy Act, another piece of copyright legislation, and the bill has yet to become law. It is doubtful at this point in time that it ever will. Of course civic engagement can have an impact on policy decisions in this country. Unfortunately, we must also consider that large corporations like Google also opposed SOPA, and that their influence must be felt in stopping the law as well. Nonetheless, social media and the Internet, if used for the right reasons, can bring about change if we choose to step up and act, as was the case, for example, in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. We know what the problems are, and we see glimmers of hope in new solutions, like Creative Commons, but no change will come if no action is taken first, so it is contingent on the American citizenry to become engaged and to use the Internet as a means of democratic protestation and organization.

As I said before, the organization of this class is both intriguing and appropriate. We see now that if change is to be brought about, it will require organization with the aid of the tools we are afforded within the digital landscape. To render the Internet a more democratizing force, we must make it such, and use it to work towards a democratic end. Though we may not now understand how to do so, or the precedent which exists for digital movements, the next unit should provide ample framework for the implementation of such a movement. We now move forward, beginning to explore civic engagement in the digital age, looking to subversive movements like Occupy and Anonymous and the impact created thereby.

Group “Business” clearly did an excellent job of raising the questions that needed to be raised, and though more exist than can be answered, it is my hope that I have at least skimmed the surface thoroughly enough to highlight, as always, a path forward, and one, I now realize, that likely lies in the next unit. What a pivotal one it shall be.


Categories: Assignments
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Cyber-Freedom and the “Post-Postcolonial Age”

// Posted by Damian on 09/21/2014 (8:49 PM)

As one of the members of group “Top Secret,” I found myself saddled with the difficult task of creating a cumulative “experience” from what was essentially a blank canvas. I speak for the other members of my group when… Read more

As one of the members of group “Top Secret,” I found myself saddled with the difficult task of creating a cumulative “experience” from what was essentially a blank canvas. I speak for the other members of my group when I say that we started without a clue as to what we wanted to do or where we wanted to take the idea we would ultimately develop.

After much deliberation and some fortuitous inspiration, we decided on a three-section structure for an activity built around role-play. Our experience would begin with a debate between students (and Dr. Rosatelli), each of whom would choose a role to play at random, from Edward Snowden and Wikileaks to the NSA and Hong Kong. The second section would entail a simulation of events which have already occurred heretofore, but rather than simply having students memorize events, we wanted them to step inside the shoes of that person whom they were impersonating. This would allow them to expound with detailed reasoning to accurately represent the ideologies, convictions, and interests of their selected person, organization, or country. We planned for the final section to be a forward-leaning path into the hypothetical whose myriad possibilities, however, unlikely, would create a fascinating set of considerations.

These three stages of the experience would allow students to think critically about the complex challenges facing the global community as we attempt to straddle the line between cyber-freedom and cybersecurity, which constituted the initial question on which the debate was focused.

The link below will take you to a YouTube video I made for the project. It is a simple visual representation of my recording of the debate. I chose to document in this way not only to be more creative, but also because it was cleverly appropriate considering the topic at hand. I did not inform anyone that I would be recording (nor did Nicola), and no one noticed. Perhaps the message is that we are exponentially more susceptible to surveillance than we would like to believe, or perhaps it is just that I was trying too hard to come up with something that reflected the unit. Nonetheless, as I went back and listened to the audio and analyzed the debate, it informed much of what I wanted to discuss, so it is the portion I chose to provide along with my written response.

Throughout much of the eleven minutes during which the class debated, the NSA/US Federal Government served to a large extent as a metaphorical punching bag for everyone else. They were the easy target, and for good reason. Justifying the actions of a government whose surreptitious methods for “ensuring national security” violate the terms of its own citizens’ constitutional liberties is a difficult task. However, one would be wise to consider those entities choosing to lambaste the United States and the many contradictions embodied thereby.

Hong Kong (which was represented by yours truly) criticized the NSA for its overreach and abusive surveillance, both in the debate and in actuality. Doing so, however, is absurdly, falsely sanctimonious, as the Hong Kong government in 2006 passed a sweeping surveillance program remarkably similar in nature to the PATRIOT Act. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has called the United States’ surveillance  policies “utter hypocrisy.” While accurate in his assessment, Putin is being utterly hypocritical, as Russia has engaged in the same actions and surveillance as the NSA and Hong Kong, regardless of his hollow denials.

Adding yet another layer of complexity to the debate is the fact that governments are not alone. Silicon Valley, which was also represented in the debate, partakes in surveillance of its own. Google and other companies, for instance, may have been mandated to hand over user information to the Federal Government under the PRISM Program, but they have for years collected that information for their own corporate use, which raises more than a few ethical questions in and of itself.

Indeed, the role of Silicon Valley (and “big business” in general) in this age of global cybersurveillance is an increasingly precarious one. These corporations have a substantial financial stake in the debate and should logically support further cybersecurity as a means of protecting their information from being stolen. In other words, the less information mined from JPMorgan by Russian hackers, in other words, the better. Despite all this, the government’s increased surveillance under the aforementioned PRISM Program leaves consumers questioning the integrity of institutions like Yahoo, which are left with little choice but to fall in line or face daily fines amounting to $250,000. Yahoo may have wanted to protect the information of its users but the NSA has forced its hand. In many cases the resultant scrutiny engenders a consumer backlash, even though the company’s intentions may not be quite so nefarious as they appear.

So where do corporations stand? Do they go along with the government’s regulations for the sake of ensuring greater online security at the risk of alienating clients, or do they refuse, leaving themselves more susceptible to hackers and perhaps left to face the legal and economic ramifications of such a rebellious decision?

In all of this discussion, the United States becomes—justifiably—an easy target. Nevertheless, the Federal Government is in the very same convoluted quagmire as all the other parties mentioned to this point. To expect the NSA to simply cease with its surveillance operations would be incredibly naïve and realistically impossible—or at least not without compromising the safety of American citizens. The true efficacy of operations occurring in clandestine locations like the NSA’s new center in Bluffdale, Utah is in question, and the necessity of the surveillance of American citizens is also in question, but the import of our response to the hacking of other countries is not.

Whether we like it or not (and I stand in the “not” category), moves taken by the United States in response to September 11th have precipitated the proliferation of such strategies on a global level. Ultimately, these measures have led us to a point from which there seems currently no return. The NSA does not have to create malware like Stuxnet to sabotage Iranian nuclear reactors; nor does it need to wiretap German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but practically speaking, it has a job to do with regards to the handling of foreign hacking which may feasibly threaten to compromise stability, be it with regards to our economic well-being or otherwise. In other words, perhaps most simply put, the NSA’s job should be to take a defensive (rather than offensive) approach. No one, in or out of the United States, should be the target of digital espionage. Further, the espionage of any other nation should be efficiently deterred by a National Security Administration more cognizant of citizens’ privacy rights.

Clearly, the debate in which our class engaged served effectively as a microcosm of the more expansive and confusing debate taking place internationally, and it raised many of the important questions thereof. It also pointed towards crucial answers. Dr. Rosatelli, standing in for Wikileaks, accused the United States and the “West” of attempting to “[maintain] colonial power and control,” begging the question: Is the central premise of her assertion—stated on behalf of Julian Assange’s organization—fundamentally accurate, and if so, what are its implications?

Barney Warf in “Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of Wikileaks,” sees the digital realm (and more specifically, cyberactivism therein) as an instrument to “foster alternative geographic imaginaries in which identity is defined relationally through feelings of mutual responsibility rather than simple proximity” (702). Warf’s intimation suggests that the digital age has brought with it the potential to break down the barriers of statehood, in a sense, ensuring a loyalty to fellow man as opposed to country.

The late Mark Poster in Information Please takes this concept further. “The assemblage of networked digital information and humans,” Poster writes, “may serve as a base for developing auspicious, decentralized, multicultural global networks” (48). This, Poster argues, is the “post-postcolonial world,” into which we are being led by the globalizing potential of ever-expanding digital technologies and the myriad capabilities of the Internet to enable international networking and subsequent dissemination of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale.

If the assertion of Wikileaks is correct, that “Western” governments like that of the United States are attempting with their extensive digital surveillance programs to maintain colonial power, is it because of a fear of the Internet’s capabilities to globalize in a way that leads us into the post-postcolonial world? Are these governments working to keep the barriers of statehood standing? Such would indeed seem to be the case, for if the government can effectively control the actions of its citizenry online—an increasingly trying task—it will most certainly take increasingly efficient technology and increasingly intrusive strategies. In effect, Wikileaks seems to be correct. Bureaucracies around the world, recognizing the democratizing potential of the cyber realm, have attempted—perhaps in vain—to maintain some vestiges of control.

During the course of our debate, it became abundantly clear why so many Americans feel powerless in this global discourse. When such powerful entities as billion-dollar corporations and the NSA are attempting to take actions which promote their interests and perhaps even their control of cyberspace, how can a mere citizen make a difference? Google may spend inordinate amounts of money to influence decisions made by the government, but the so-called “average citizen” cannot afford to do so. The NSA is working to build quantum computers that break encryption keys, and the “average citizen” cannot do anything to stop that. Even by exercising voting privileges, our impact on the government has in years prior proven to be substantially less than ideal. Voting for a Republican in 2000 and 2004 led to the Bush Administration’s enhanced surveillance techniques. Voting for a Democrat in 2008 and 2012 led to the Obama Administration’s even further enhanced surveillance techniques.

To have any hope for the future with regards to the Internet, and reclaiming not only privacy rights but, more centrally,  a more globalized and democratic autonomy, one must, to some extent, ascribe to the idealistic notions that pervaded the philosophies of earlier thinkers like Norbert Wiener and still pervade the thoughts of men like Stewart Brand, the late Poster, and even Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Digital utopianism as a general concept remains a central force in this geopolitical struggle, in the hope that the multitudinous capabilities presented by the digital age may be harnessed so as to tear down the walls of traditional bureaucracies as seen heretofore, effecting a change so revolutionary that it irrevocably alters the very definition of culture.

To have such a hope, that globalization may be made a reality thanks to the democratic nature of a free and open Internet, is to have faith that such a momentous change could be produced without causing irreparable damage or instability to the international community. It is safe to assume that for those who are accustomed to the prescripts of a postmodern world, such a shift in direction may not be welcomed with open arms. Even speaking from personal opinion, while I oppose the actions taken by the NSA, I do not wish for a future in which humankind is wholly democratized by the digital realm, as I am fearful of the anarchic volatility of a true democracy. On the contrary, my hope is simply for the NSA—and more broadly for the Federal Government—to minimize its intrusive and unconstitutional surveillance before we find ourselves heading down that proverbial “slippery slope.” The question is, can the United States government and those of other countries around the world minimize their operations, however, without opening the door to the post-postcolonial age of which Poster writes?

My intention was not to write so extensively, but I hope that what has been made most abundantly clear is the extent to which our deceptively simple in-class debate has raised countless questions about cyber-freedom going forward and the future not only of the Internet, but of our very existence and our perceptions of culture. In all of this discussion, I see very little hope to produce change with votes, but recognize the potential of the Internet if the notions of men like Assange, Snowden, Poster, and Brand prove to be more practical and less naïve than they may now seem to be.

Lamentably, I have no clear answer with regards to actions that can be taken by citizens to make a difference, and though it may seem thoroughly inadequate to suggest placing faith in the capacity of the Internet to effect the change we wish to see, perhaps the most practical way forward lies in the seemingly naïve idealism of digital utopianism. Such, however, cannot be a fully viable option until the bureaucratic regulations by which cyberspace is burdened are lessened and users across the globe are empowered to network and exchange cultural objects on a completely free and open Internet. If citizens are to push for any change, it should be in the form of comprehensive cyber-freedom. If they are to organize, it should be with the tools presented by the Internet. In effect, a practical path forward is presented to those concerned citizens who choose to act. Such citizens must be mindful of the ideals upon which the actions of so-called “traitors” like Snowden are based, and though leading such a movement—or even partaking in one—may seem a cumbersome effort, it does not take much to sow the seeds of that movement. It can begin with something as simple as, for instance, an in-class debate.

In effect, group “Top Secret” has done what it can to plant the seeds of a movement, as others around the world have in varying ways. Now, it is contingent upon those involved to make a choice: whether or not to take a stand and to organize in the borderless dimensions of cyberspace. With everything from privacy rights to the very fundaments of democracy itself at stake, inaction would be nothing short of a mistake.

Documentation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyABIqrN9DM


Categories: Uncategorized

Digital Utopianism and the Chat Room

// Posted by Damian on 09/07/2014 (9:33 PM)

When Dr. Rosatelli initially informed us that our first class “experience” would take place in a recreated 1990s chat room, I had almost no clue what that entailed, never having spent any time in a chat room up to that

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When Dr. Rosatelli initially informed us that our first class “experience” would take place in a recreated 1990s chat room, I had almost no clue what that entailed, never having spent any time in a chat room up to that point. Nonetheless, I expected something dreadfully disappointing in its obsolescence.
The Internet has changed immeasurably in the past couple of decades, to such an extent that members of my generation may not even understand what a chat room is, what it looks like, or how it works, or at least in an earlier configuration. For the most part, I did not. Spoiled by the instant gratification of  iMessage, I was perhaps dismayed in understanding that this experience would require us to subject ourselves—perish the thought—to an hour on a program right out of the 90s. I can barely look at the gray Windows 2000 taskbar without feeling the need to immerse myself in the sleek modernity of Apple OS X Mavericks, let alone actually spending an hour on a website right out of the Clinton era. Revisitation of the past can be inherently uncomfortable, for reasons beyond my comprehension, and seeing the pixelated welcome screen on LA Live Chat, I felt the sort of hesitant unease with which I am all too familiar.
Yet, what I discovered in my time on the website was not a growing discomfort or a need to return to the technological progress with which our lives are saturated, but rather a greater appreciation for the chat room, in all its admittedly archaic simplicity, and for the grander notions that it represented for programmers and digital architects of the time.
There is an undeniable naiveté to the notions put forth by thinkers like Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller, whose conceptions of “cybernetics” and related notions would give rise to digital utopianism, first in the form of a New-Communalist return to the land, and ultimately in the form of the earliest online social networks in an ambiguous, transcendent place called “cyberspace.” Regardless of the seemingly logical nature of Gregory Bateson’s philosophy, which denied the idea of “transcendence” (first as LSD and later as a new digital landscape) and viewed the world as a purely physical place in which change was to be made here and now, the wonders of lalivechat.com are perhaps inexpressible in words. Especially placing yourself in the footsteps of an individual living in the 1980s, without any prior exposure to the early internet and the possibilities posed thereby, it is impossible to deny the wonders, and indeed the transcendence, that was offered by a program like the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or by 1990s chat rooms.
The concept was simple enough: To chat an hour away with members of my class, but to do so anonymously. Theoretically speaking, the experience could have been a rather cold and distant one, to be in a mysterious domain out of a different decade, speaking with people we do not, with certainty, know. The actual experience, however, reflected something much different, something decidedly personal in nature.
My first impressions were not the most positive, especially upon realizing that, unlike contemporary instant messenger services, the chat room had to be reloaded if I wanted to read the most recent comments. How unthinkably inconvenient. But in all seriousness, once that minor annoyance subsided, and the class discussion of our 90s childhood commenced, I felt remarkably empowered and closer to my classmates than I had up to that point.
I felt empowered because of anonymity, or at least the illusion thereof, as I later learned that one could see each user’s email address by scrolling over their username. I am thankful, however, that I had not made this discovery during the course of the chat, as I found it so freeing to speak openly with my classmates. As an individual using the WELL for the first time in the 1980s, unaccustomed to digital technologies, I can barely imagine the amazement one might have felt. The WELL—and soon enough, the young Internet and chat rooms like lalivechat.com—was something unfathomed by a majority of the population, something that could not have been expected by most, because it could not be easily defined. It was not a physical realm beyond the expanse of a monitor and perhaps a keyboard and mouse. Yet to be thrown into this new world, this so-called cyberspace, and to find oneself interacting with other anonymous strangers who might have been thousands of miles away, discussing everything from consequential political decisions to trivial mundanities, must have been one of the most indescribable sensations. It was as if the world were given a new dimension, and users of the WELL were plunged right into it.
Of course, the WELL predated LA Live Chat, but that sort of transcendent socialization, sharing a previously undiscovered world with previously undiscovered friends, even shone through for me as I typed to my classmates about everything from Furbies to “Full House,” and I sense that, immersed in the 1990s and sharing an evening of nostalgia, we all felt the same pangs of wistfulness, a bittersweet longing for a past we cannot reclaim. For all the obsolescence of a 90s chat room, far less advanced than our own modern means of communication, I longed for the days when Britney Spears was still a relevant young star and before “Seinfeld” ended its run and became a syndicated relic of a not-too-distant past. Even with its inconveniently obligatory reloading, something about lalivechat.com just made sense.
I once found a cheesy quote in a fortune cookie that read something like this: “The Golden Age never was the present one.” Cornball though it may be, it stuck with me, and my thoughts kept returning to it as I chatted with my classmates. I found the Golden Age in a chat room, and I knew I was not alone. The sort of closeness such an experience fosters is beyond words, something I had cynically doubted, but something I could not help but recognize as the evening came to a close and I typed, with complete sincerity, that I wanted to come back. That was the truth. I would gladly return to LA Live Chat to engage in conversation with fellow users near and far, but the 90s are gone, and the chat room has faded from popularity. Once my class left, the room was, as it likely will remain for some time, empty, and there is something truly sad about that.
In spite of the melancholy that results from such an understanding, I emerged from the experience nonetheless with hope, only being able to deny the supposed logic behind Gregory Bateson’s cynical rejection of “transcendence.” I have felt that transcendence, and though the dismal realities of the real world may prevent the Internet from achieving the ends towards which Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller hoped to work, if we would reach back into the annals of digital history, to a different time, we could find that idealistic hope that they recognized so many years ago.
Chat rooms may be on their way out, and the 90s may be gone, but wallowing in rueful pity accomplishes nothing. The world has moved on, to iMessage and to Facebook and to Twitter, and though the transcendence we once understood may now be muted by the depth of our knowledge of the Internet and the gradual lessening of its mysterious aura, we still carry with us the same utopian hope, that perhaps, in a world without chat rooms, we may not reclaim a long-gone past, but rather a vision once held by members of that past. Digital utopianism lives on, or at least the dream thereof, as mankind is more empowered than ever before to make the Golden Age the present one.

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