Tag Archives: technology

Ethics of Perverse Systems

Things, of course, cannot go on as they are. The rate of environmental destruction, fossil fuel burning, reactionary politics and censure of debate is of course untenable. So is the high capitalist solution of monetizing every remaining speck in the universe, trading on its futures and leveraging the outcome to secure the fortunes of the fortunate and lock many others into destitutions. Abominable is the lack of empathy and xenophobic turn of politicians (and, I expect, in some way all sorts of people) in the faces of people desperate to escape war and imprisioned on borders instead of welcomed and settled.

And so, also, for those of us concerned with the capacity to become ourselves by expressing ourselves, the intensification of surveillance of our everyday life, which we know to change our behavior, to be less forthright with ideas, to keep our radical thoughts to ourselves lest they be too disruptive to be heard.

How then should we go on?

Some say we shouldn’t bother. The popular press cover all of the above issues in ways that often appear calculated to disempower. Facebook will feed you ads whether you subscribe to it or not. The sea level will rise whether you drink tap water or not. The rich will manipulate government whether you vote or not. Selfishiness is inevitable, social collapse perhaps as well. Some progressive thinkers embed this stance into hope for a post-apocalyptic regeneration of life, but one that is predicated on the suffering of many as the inevitable excess of consumption reaches peak cruelty (perhaps at the same time as peak oil). Some conservatives also see this as inevitable, but aim perhaps to be among the few who benefit. Populists of various political persuasions focus on the villains contained in various pieces of this puzzle. All of it suggests that we are naturally, inevitably horrible people.

Naomi Klein’s recent article in the London Review of Books (based on her Edward Said lecture) reminds us that there are other ways of thinking. She refers to the ‘seven generation’ rule that stipulates that we should think about the long term impact of any action, and leave the natural world in an improved state for those who are to come.  She resists the idea of ‘sacrifice zones’ where the land and lives of poor/black and brown people are offered up to safeguard the places that the rich inhabit. Only by not seeing these lives as truly equal – as ‘others’ who can’t really be human – is anyone able to justify this. This follows from Said’s work in defining how Orientalism, this ‘othering’ of people outside the places where power defines itself to reside, justifies treatment that dehumanizes them while also assuring the continuation of easy lives elsewhere. Klein suggests we resist sacrifice and focus on solidarity. This requires the capacity for tolerance and respect of all humans as well as others – as philosopher Achille Mbembe has also pointed out.

Perverse Systems

Klein’s article also started me thinking about one of the key questions of my book project. Is it possible to be hopeful about a technological world? Advanced technology, even of the communicational type that is my focus, is so deeply bound up with the impossible expansion of value extraction from every facet of experience, and by association with violence and exclusion. If my recent research is any indication, attempts to intensify this value extraction from the very material of ordinary life and from our own attempts to make it meaningful to connecting to each other and ourselves. My previous research has indicated that the same mad dash to extract value that angers indigenous people in Brazil, Canada and the USA whose rights to be upon and with their land are disappeared to permit more resource exploitation, mobile phone companies have essentially disappeared the right to privacy of their subscribers. In exchange for cheaper calls (and to compensate for expensive investments) location data are collected and packaged. Some companies operate subsidiaries that analyse and sell these data. Both of these activities are ruthless exploitation of realms of life that on their own have meaning and substance on far different registers than their valuation as commodities might suggest. Ethically as well as economically, these are painful, woeful, terrible responses. They create and sustain perverse systems. And these, because they are unfolding in so many places and on so many scales, it seems impossible to conceive of how to think otherwise.

Yet thinking otherwise and working otherwise is also essential, because alternatives are also unfolding in many areas and at many scales, often without much attention.

In 1998 I took a course in environmental philosophy called Environment Enquiry – taught by environmental philosopher Bob Henderson. We read Daniel Quinn’s 1991 philosophical novel Ishmael, which broadly sketches this approach by contrasting the Takers (I think you can probably work out their motivations and actions) with the Leavers, who enact ‘seven-generation’ values and who are bound into traditions and rhythms that hold them. The original text now, nearly two decades later reads problematically, with a fair nostalgia for imagined past tribalism and a dash of ‘noble savage’.  Despite the naivité, there may be some value in the broader opposition between Leavers and Takers, provided we redefine what they are to take account of what we know of the world. In my mind the Leaver category requires contribution as well as living with difference. This isn’t quite how Quinn thought about it, but it is how Said and Mbembe do. Living with difference is really hard. It starts with believing that everyone (yes *everyone*) has the same importance, but that they will enact their own importance in totally different ways.

How could we conceive technological systems built by Leavers? Neo-tribalists would probably point to the mythological ‘original internet’. Others might look to the leveraging of worldwide networked communications by small groups of people who organize to occupy and slow down extractive capitalism. Oh right, that would be Occupy. Still others might point to commons-based organization of resources including intellectual property. Oh right – distributed local communication networks.  But what about the other things I’ve added to the concept? How can technologies move away from not only embedding difference and Othering but weaponizing it? Surveillance technologies for example do an excellent job of this – collecting more personal information from poor/black and brown people and hence reinforcing difference and threat. It may be possible to think about sensing technology under radically different organizational and cultural conditions, for example, much as these other examples begin from different positions.

I want to identify and celebrate these examples of working differently, but I have also critiqued some of them in my work. I hope I haven’t overplayed the critique – since the purpose of it was in many cases to identify how difficult it is to move progressive projects away from the knowledge and exchange cultures of currently dominant work. This cuts across many parts of the tech sphere. Personal privacy, for example. This is taking, and holding apart something of value, rather than sharing and creating relationships through the exchange. This reciprocity and openness, this fluidity, is one of the most frustrating things about abandoning the notion of the individual liberal subject. Equally, the perspective of individual responsibility that underpins many projects for contribution of data or expertise as the foundations for citizenship underplay how complex our sense of responsibility may be when it is always tempered with coercion.

Living another way

In much critical theory of technology I read a profound worry about technology itself. Ursula Franklin argues that technologies are real worlds composed of practices that we undertake all the time, and that they can through the way they are built, imagined and administered, dismiss entire ways of knowing and being. My work focuses on these practices, but never quite gets away from the worry, as I never manage to square the circle of how or whether technologies could be otherwise. But I know that there are ways of organizing beyond hierarchy, and ways of living beyond value extraction. I am certain that these have communicational elements attached to them as well and that some of these depend on the construction of technological systems.  If this is an act of faith, I will claim it – and try as hard as I can to contribute to making it so.





Rights, communication and the refugee crisis (or, how the real world made my research project better)

I have started working on a book, and this week I feel guilty about writing it. The book is about the ways that technologies, citizenship and urban life produce one another. I start in the 1990s, in the conceptual space of rights definition and rights claims, including the claims related to communication rights as well as renewed claims for “rights to the city”. In this time, we talked about remaking the city, perhaps virtually, but also about fighting for its public space. This paradigm is fading, though, and in the next part of the book I write about how data and citizenship combine, how large-scale data collection and analysis shapes the ways that people feel that they can and do act, and how activists and advocates try to resist the dominant ways that data is collected and used. Certain kinds of surveillance dynamics are created by this collection and use, but there are also potential ways to resist this (albeit by demanding more individual responsibility) Looking forward, I also analyse how sensing technologies that collect intimate data intensify the ways that these experiences of surveillance and individualization occur, perhaps making us into “very predictable people” as one journalist has suggested. Sensor citizenships are all about risk: predicting it, gathering data to better describe it, reducing it. It’s chilling to consider how normalized and constrained the everyday life of the otherwise free and privileged might become – but also perhaps inspiring to consider the positive ways that embedded sensing technologies might be able to be used – to facilitate collaboration, or spur citizen science.

So while I am writing this careful, rather restrained analysis of citizenship and communication, the Western world is exploding with a crisis of citizenship. Thousands of people are fleeing war and danger and the European state machinery is singularly failing to accommodate them, to the extent that preventable deaths have captured public imagination. And my tiny proscribed musings on the ways that communication and data technologies create different citizenship seem feeble in the face of this overwhelming pain and complexity.

But the events I’m following have given me a bit of a chance to think through some of the ideas I am working on. I have been asked why I’m interested in cities, technology and citizenship, and my answer is that state conceptions of citizenship are under strain, and in cities people simply arrive and have to negotiate their belonging. In the refugee crisis, many of the actions of European states show the fractures in the rights-based state level model of citizenship – including the inadequacy of the Dublin III regulation for refugee registration as well as the hesitation of some states, like the UK, to accept more refugees.

Equally, the situation also shows the ways that networked citizenship can operate, by capturing and shifting the political mood and discourse – talking about people and experiences rather than “swarms of migrants”. This has surely been helped along by the swift, meme and hashtag-driven discussion on social media, and amplified by the mass media (I wrote about how this happens in advocacy movements here). I’m moved by the efforts of people I know who are working hard to get communications access to people stranded at the train station in Budapest.

Less encouragingly, the refugee crisis also demonstrates the fraying of the rights paradigm. Refugees have rights to asylum but states do not wish to grant them. So people move. They create new situations by their presence, by their refusal to be moved. This is a riskier tactic than claiming rights. It is a worrying trend. It also intersects with the kind of individualization that is tied to data production. I have just noticed that one of the key concerns of EU governments is the collection of more data about refugees, with the purpose of tracking them more specifically as they move. This sounds of course like a good idea, but it depends on a strong and trusted power to oversee the collection and tracking. As strong right-wing (even fascist) governments rise to power or exert more influence across Europe, we must ask whether this trust is well placed.

Finally, the refugee crisis has had me thinking a lot about my hope for the book: that I might be able to bring back into the high-tech discussions of future technology some essential human qualities that are often poorly considered or “designed out”. Qualities like empathy. Care. Husbandry and maintenance of the environments around us. These are qualities that I believe to be essential to cultivate, not only in our societies (where they always have been) but also in the technological systems that support the functioning of societies. In this late summer of crisis and pain, empathy is what motivates thousands to call for refugee acceptance or to donate materials and time. It is what we seek to generate when we communicate stories about people fleeing. It is of course what makes us human.

In my small work I hope to demonstrate that this greatest of all human qualities need not be laid aside, not in our institutions nor in our technology systems. After donating to help refugees and praying for all of the desperate people, it’s the least I can do.