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Today seems like a good day to talk about political participation and how it can affect actual change.

Habermas’ public sphere has long been the model of ideal democracy, and the benchmark against which researchers evaluate past and current political participation. The public sphere refers to a space of open debate, through which all members of the community can express their opinions and access the opinions of others. It is in such a space that reasoned political discourse develops, and an informed citizenry prepares to enact their civic rights and duties (i.e., voting, petitioning, protesting, etc.). A successful public sphere relies upon a diversity of voices through which citizens not only express themselves, but also expose themselves to the full range of thought.

Internet researchers have long occupied themselves trying to understand how new technologies affect political processes. One key question is how the shift from broadcast media to peer-based media bring society closer to, or farther from, a public sphere. Increasing the diversity of voices indicates a closer approximation, while narrowing the range of voices indicates democratic demise. more...

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Photo Credit: Bill Dickinson

Science, to borrow a phrase from Steven Shapin, is a social process that is “produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.” This simple fact is difficult to remember in the face of intricate computer generated images and declarative statements in credible publications. Science may produce some of the most accurate and useful descriptions of the world but that does not make it an unmediated window onto reality.

Facebook’s latest published study, claiming that personal choice is more to blame for filter bubbles than their own algorithm, is a stark reminder that science is a deeply human enterprise. Not only does the study contain significant methodological problems, its conclusions run counter to their actual findings. Criticisms of the study and media accounts of the study have already been expertly executed by Zeynep Tufecki, Nathan Jurgenson, and Christian Sandvig and I won’t repeat them. Instead I’d like to do a quick review of what the social sciences know about the practice of science, how the institutions of science behave, and how they both intersect with social power, class, race, and gender. After reviewing the literature we might also be able to ask how the study of science could have improved Facebook’s research. more...

Last week, Nathan Jurgenson linked to an interview with Noam Chomsky, where Chomsky argued that social media is superficial:

Jeff Jetton: Do you think people are becoming more comfortable communicating through a device rather than face to face or verbally?

Noam Chomsky: My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.

Jeff Jetton: What do you think are the implication for human behavior?

Noam Chomsky: It think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent. One other effect is there’s much less reading. I can see it even with my students, but also with my children and grandchildren, they just don’t read much.

Jeff Jetton: Because there’re so many distractions, or…?

Noam Chomsky: Well you know it’s tempting…there’s a kind of stimulus hunger that’s cultivated by the rapidity and the graphic character and, for the boys at least, the violence, of this imaginary universe they’re involved in. Video games for example. I have a daughter who lives near here. She comes over Sunday evening often for dinner. She brings her son, a high school student. And of course he hasn’t done any homework all weekend, naturally, so he has to do all his homework Sunday night. What he calls doing homework is going into the living room while we’re eating, sitting with his computer and with his headphones blaring something, talking to about ten friends on whatever you do it on on your computer, and occasionally doing some homework.

Jeff Jetton: How do you know what he’s doing?

Noam Chomsky: I watch him.

Jurgenson offered an epistemological critique of Chomsky, arguing that Chomsky’s dismissal of social media as superficial fits a long-standing pattern of affluent white academics maintaining their privileged position in society by rejecting media that is accessible to non-experts.  Jurgenson pointedly asks “who benefits when what you call “normal” human relationships get to be considered more “deep” and meaningful?”  Chomsky is seemingly ignorant to the use of Twitter and other networks in shaping the Arab Spring and the #Occupy movement; or the fact that young people are voraciously sharing and consuming important news stories through these same networks; or that Blacks and Hispanics were early adopters of smartphones; or that gay men have been pioneers in geo-locative communication. In many cases, historically-disadvantaged groups have used social media technology to find opportunities previously foreclosed to them.  For these folks, social media is hardly trivial. more...