[-empyre-] social media and scholarship

Murat Nemet-Nejat muratnn at gmail.com
Fri Dec 12 15:59:17 EST 2014

David, along with John Cayley's, yours is the most ludic analysis of social
media, and its selling itself, I have heard. Thank you.

On Thu, Dec 11, 2014 at 3:19 PM, David Golumbia <dgolumbia at gmail.com> wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> 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
> happened*--the 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)
> https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/12/cyberlibertarians-digital-deletion-of-the-left/
> "Cyberlibertarianism: The Extremist Foundations of ‘Digital Freedom” (2013)
> http://www.uncomputing.org/?p=276
> 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
> experiences.
> “They Called It the ‘Twitter Revolution'” (2010)
> http://www.uncomputing.org/?p=1124
> "Revolutions and the Politics of Networks" (2009)
> http://www.uncomputing.org/?p=37
> David
> --
> David Golumbia
> dgolumbia at gmail.com
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
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