[-empyre-] social media and scholarship

David Golumbia dgolumbia at gmail.com
Fri Dec 12 07:19:07 EST 2014

Tim kindly asked me yesterday to reflect briefly on my own scholarship and
the question of the relationship of social media and politics.

I'm deliberately not engaging with the recent discussion on the list,
although I've tried without success to dig into the discussion of ISIS Tim
mentioned in last month's list.

My interest, from the beginning, has been on the rhetoric that fuels this
form of inquiry, and the political effects of that rhetoric. The ideas that
"the internet" writ large, or "social media" writ somewhat smaller, is
fueling or provoking political change; that that political change is
"welcome" in some global sense; that "if you want to liberate a government,
give them Facebook"--the odd and inexact phrasing of that sentence itself
being worth reflection, as is the fact that it was uttered by a former
Google executive who now is part of a Google "social change" venture
capital subsidiary.

All of this rhetoric, multiplied thousands of times in the mass and social
media (a distinction I wouldn't want to grant, but let's leave it for now),
provides a hard sell for a single proposition: give people more computing
power, and welcome political change will result.

Not only is that proposition based on, as I mentioned before, extremely
contentious and implicit definitions of "welcome" and "political," but it
is probably false. not only is it probably false: there is good evidence to
believe the opposite is true. This is the buried message behind the Snowden
revelations, which I believe are wildly misinterpreted by Snowden himself,
by encryption advocates, by the Left, and many others: the point is not
that NSA is misusing networked computer power. The point is that that power
itself is unwelcome and destructive. Networking and computerization the
world was recognized long before our time as a way to create a
fully-monitored, fully-surveilled, fully-controlled society. Now we find
people not only dismissing the claim out of hand, and misinterpreting the
claim as one about "bad actors" rather than inherent features of the system
itself, but actually advocating its direct converse: that computerization
equates with political liberation. As Daniel Trottier suggests in his great
recent book *Social Media as Surveillance*, you can't disentangle these two
functions: they are the same thing, viewed through different frames.

The fact that we have moved from a kind of clear-sighted intellectual
formation in the 1950s and 1960s and even 1970s that mass computerization
would clearly lead to politically destructive outcomes, to a world in which
even making those suggestions is dismissed out of hand by "activists" whose
understanding of politics proceeds almost entirely from the computer
itself, should make anyone with a long view very concerned.

Further, the world that encryption advocates appear to want--in which all
communication has been made entirely opaque to governments--is just as
disastrous. This is one interesting place to focus in Snowden's speeches
and those of his advocates, because they continually wave their hands about
completely proper law enforcement--claiming it is possible and that it is
"FUD" to claim otherwise, while at the same time claiming that their
systems somehow block all IMPROPER law enforcement, while having no
"backdoors" or other mechanisms to distinguish the two. It is logically and
factually nonsensical. One need not dig long on the Tor website to see its
fans actually crowing about the fact that corporate CEOs use Tor, while at
the same time belittling anyone who suggests that this would somehow make
prosecution of corporate malfeasance more difficult.

So, back to my general comment about scholarship and advertising. The first
glimmers we heard of "Facebook revolutions" and "Twitter revolutions" came
from Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky, both highly-paid corporate consultants
who by dint of the generosity of the university system also have faculty
appointments. Neither of them is a scholar in the usual sense: they do not
have advanced degrees and do not submit their work for peer review.

When they celebrate "Facebook revolutions" *when no revolution has
starkest case being the original one, Iran, nobody calls them to account.
People all over the academy take them seriously, despite the nonseriousness
of their claims.

In my own university, without getting too personal, there are several
classes and programs devoted to teaching "about" social media and its
"usefulness for good." in those classes they read Shirky, and Jarvis, and
others like them, while exclusively admiring the "power" of social media to
effect "change." Because they focus exclusively on change they like, they
end up celebrating the power of the media to effect change, while rarely if
ever reflecting on the fact that that power can be and is being used for
changes they do not like at all.

Regardless, such discussions are ruled out in the classroom. Shirky and
Jarvis are read as if of a word delivered from on high; when students
occasionally find their way into my classroom, the thing I hear most
frequently, even from graduate students, is an astonished: "we did not know
this material could be criticized! We did not know there might be anything
inaccurate about it. We did not know you could think about both the good
and bad power and good and bad effects of these technologies." While I'm
pleased to have opened a few eyes, I am more shocked (except that I'm not
shocked) that hundreds of students who do not take my classes go on
studying this way as if it has something to do with critical thinking or
with scholarship. But since some of the faculty who teach these classes
have direct relationships with companies like Apple and Google, in some
cases actual marketing relationships, I can rest assured that actual
critique will be treated with disdain.

I have touched on these matters in my book *The Cultural Logic of
Computation* (Harvard, 2009), which is generally about the grounds for
believing that computation as a cultural force has long lined up with
rightist politics, and continues to do so to this day, and in particular on
how hardcore believers in the transcendent value of computation* tout court*
typically (though of course not always) deploy that belief in the service
of rightist politics, especially at an institutional level.

In my current work on cyberlibertarianism, I take a slightly wider purview,
showing how the conviction that widespread computerization leads to
enhanced freedom, especially when framed as somehow politically "neutral"
or welcome to political actors across the spectrum, and how the rhetoric of
"internet freedom" entails an identification with power that too frequently
ends up serving, rather than contesting, the most concentrated forms of
power (which is why Google, for example, is among the most ardent advocates
of "internet freedom" as a political movement). Among the ironies I focus
on here is the selling of internet technology as "democratizing," when in
most cases, those most devoted to this view argue, often vehemently,
against democratic political formations and democratic government.

"Cyberlibertarians' Digital Deletion of the Left" (2013)

"Cyberlibertarianism: The Extremist Foundations of ‘Digital Freedom” (2013)

Finally, here are a couple of pieces that talk more directly about the
rhetoric of "twitter revolutions" and "facebook revolutions," on the work
of "scholars" who promote these notions, and the blithe lack of interest in
the actual world and actual politics on which such claims typically rest.
Needless to say, these claims have not grown much quieter in the ensuing
years, though as in GamerGate and other right-wing denialist rhetorical
practices, the claim that "nobody ever says that" has been advanced with
significant fervor, no matter how obviously it flies in the face of our

“They Called It the ‘Twitter Revolution'” (2010)

"Revolutions and the Politics of Networks" (2009)


David Golumbia
dgolumbia at gmail.com
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