Tuesday, May 29

Here I go again on my own...


Let me first start by saying that I am horrible with these things. Seriously. I think I might have started this blog every summer for the last three summers. Every time I get a few posts in and then I just stop. I promise this time things will be different. I promise that this time I will be consistent. That’s because my very academic future depends on it! Let me explain…

I am unorganized. This may come as a shock to some whom for some reason think that I am on top of all my ish. I am desperately unable to remember things from one minute ago and if I don’t write it down, forgettaboutit. Even with this handicap I am required to do my thesis, and that is going to require some amount of discipline. I am hoping that this blog can be a place where I can contain and workout my thoughts and research and perhaps shed a little light on an area that concerns me greatly. Political activism.

I have met with a few professors over the last few weeks of the semester trying to gather some ideas and thoughts about my thesis. Ever since the fall I have really been interested in the political dimension of media. From blogs, to memes to viral videos it seems that the Internet is a verifiable playground of political freedom. But all these platforms are not guaranteed. Ultimately somewhere along the line you are bound by some terms of service. This is precisely what happened to Wikilinks. Their online political activism/advocacy was squeezed out not through a crushing governmental sanction, though we have seen that happen elsewhere across the globe, but rather through financial institutions like Visa and Amazon. Violate the terms of service and be expelled from the Internet,” they say, but we don’t get a say in those rules. Though the space for utopian expression may exist on technology that can connect us with viewpoints and philosophies from across the globe and through the ages, we don’t have a say in the rules that govern that space.

What worries me about this thought is that at precisely the same time people are clamoring about the “democratic liberation” provided through the Internet, we are seeing the most drastic privatization campaigns in history. The occupation of Zuccotti Park by Occupy Wall Street is a prime example of this principle. The park, originally and aptly named Liberty Plaza, was a quasi hybrid of public and private space. A public space, that was privately owned by an outside company that was “leasing” to the public. But when that public took a political turn this huge dichotomy opened up. Much like the case of Wikilinks, the public party was quashed by private rules. Rules that none of us agreed on, and that were seemingly arbitrary. This led me to ask my professor if he thought that the Internet was the new public space, to which I now think that there is no public space. That it is all facilitated through terms, and rules, and regulation (although I don’t like this word because it implies laws, through which we have control, however minimal, over) by entities that allow us no recourse in terms of their process. Though we may be customers, we are not constituents and we cant vote them out of office if they fail us.

In cases of Anonymous and Luz Sec, these groups have provided some political agency, but also face an international manhunt that has already claimed several well know hacktivists. The proposed jail sentences for these individuals are hefty. Though they were not without their malevolence, I became concerned about the ability to take direct action online, without fear of severe and lengthy punishments. What is the difference between blocking the entrance of Bank of America and a Denial of Service (DoS) attack against Bank of Americas website? Why are the punishments so disproportionate? What kind of “speech” are we willing to protect online?

Brian reminded me that there is disobedience that occurs online everyday. Perhaps I was too narrow in my original conception. He suggested that every time someone downloads a song illegally, that is a form of civil disobedience, every time someone shares a copyrighted photograph with a friend on tumblr that is a political act. I think that it might be hard for us to see it that way, because it is so pervasive, but I think that Brian is right. Information is the new currency and we are all making it non-stop. It is ridiculous to think that anyone can own it. And with the sophistication of modern computers and the ease of copying information from one place to another it is silly to think that anyone can control it.

But now I am concerned about privacy. How do I keep my own? How much is reasonable? Can expect that all of my activity online could potentially be used against me? Does this mean I can never look at porn if I want to be a politician? Companies like Facebook and Apple want us to get comfortable with the idea of sharing all of our data. Think of it as the price of admission. Even our general cultural attitude is changing towards one of ambivalence even outright indifference towards issues of privacy. There is this notion, we don’t get to make the rules, we just live by them. Last time I checked that wasn’t a democratic attitude. This laissez faire attitude towards issues, real, pressing issues, of personal privacy are coming on the heels of increased prosecution of whistle blowers, and all kinds of rhetoric about protecting corporate intellectual copyright. SOPA and Bradley Manning are perfect examples of this disconnect. For the user, his data, his passions, his entire life must be available for the picking by the same institutions that claim their data is private property and must be compensated for.

But what does that mean? Well that’s what I have to find out. Doing some more thinking about public vs private spaces. Maybe for next week I will try to come up with some examples of the barrier there. Brian suggested this book “Free Ride” by Steven Lavine, that he said he would loan to me. He called it incendiary so I am hoping that it will be right up my alley. Other than that I am going to look more into data mining practices that are legal. Brian told me that there are places where one can data mine others legally, and I think it might prove interesting to look at the extent of the law in this area.

One final word. I love, love, love comments. I love being challenged and hearing points of view that differ from my own. I certainly do not know everything, and I am sure there are those out there that have valuable insights for me or for the sake of good old fashioned discussion. So I implore you that if you come across this blog, and are engaged by any of the nuggets I am tossing out, feel free to chime in, to point me somewhere or to make me back it up and I will try to answer it in the following weeks blog! 

1 comment:

  1. By Brian I assume you mean Brian McCormick?

    The concept of public space is really troublesome: the internet is virtual space, the landscape of which is totally constructed by some sort of message - everything is deliberate. You're right in pointing out very little (if any of it) is public, it's all privately owned by some corporation or other. But in the same way, what physical locations are truly "public" spaces? The easy answer is to say that municipal or "government-owned" land is held in trust. Anarchist critiques of this should be obvious; as well as Sorkin and Davis's declaration of "the end of public space" by a socially regressive population.

    These spaces are also defined by the public that uses them: they only effect the consciousness of the immediate region, those who traffic the space. That's why mediated conceptions of the country are the commons for our national consciousness - millions marched against the war in Iraq, but poor media coverage erased it from our minds. If we frequent 5th Ave, a march like on May Day would be important to the community, but if we use that venue to address national concerns, it rings hollow. Protests in physical space are ~physical~ interruptions, which work if they interrupt people's routine. Protests in mediated space - whether it's television or the internet, interrupt regular traffic and our consumption, so even if "the road" is privately owned, it can be the necessary venue for interruption/access/discourse.

    Anyway, all of the virtual architecture on the internet serves to facilitate either some sort of forum or a platform for ideas, so it is truly a "discursive space." So if we go to the Habermasian framework of public spheres, two very important additions we need to make (in my opinion) are Nancy Fraser's "counterpublics" and Zizi Papacharisi's "private sphere."

    Sorry! Rambling. We're thinking in similar circles, so I'll be following your updates.