information politics

A motel somewhere outside St. Louis, Missouri. I stayed there back in 2007 during a road trip. Those were some of the best internets I ever had.

Today I want to offer a quick provocation that might make for interesting conversations (read: arguments) with family and friends this holiday season. Statistically speaking, you are probably on the road right now. Maybe you are just sitting down at your favorite reststop Sbarro (The Official Food of You Don’t Have Another Choice™) and, after checking in on Foursquare, you start reading some of your favorite blogs (that’s us). Then, maybe its your nosey uncle, or your 10-year-old sister, or your husband leans over and tells you to, “get off the Interent and interact with the real world.” Its a slightly rude thing to say, but you put your phone down and engage with those in bodily co-presence. What is it about the Internet that invites strong criticism from such a wide range of people?  It is often said that 1) the Internet encourages anti-social behavior; 2) that it makes us lazy and contributes to increasing waistlines and decreasing attention spans and; 3) our increasing reliance on Internet services means we are widening the “Digital Divide” and cutting out the poor, the elderly, and the differently abled. Statements like these are too numerous to cite with links. Its the kind of socia commentary and pop psychology that has graced the pages of most news magazines. Could we take these arguments and apply them to other large sociotechnical systems? Since we all have transportation on our minds, let’s levy these criticisms against the highway and see where it takes us: more...

Julian Assange, the notorious founder and director of WikiLeaks, is many things to many people: hero, terrorist, figurehead, megalomaniac. What is it about Assange that makes him both so resonant and so divisive in our culture? What, exactly, does Assange stand for? In this post, I explore two possible frameworks for understanding Assange and, more broadly, the WikiLeaks agenda. These frameworks are: cyber-libertarianism and cyber-anarchism.

First, of course, we have to define these two terms. Cyber-libertarianism is a well-established political ideology that has its roots equally in the Internet’s early hacker culture and in American libertarianism. From hacker culture, it inherited a general antagonism to any form of regulation, censorship, or other barrier that might stand in the way of “free” (i.e., unhindered) access of the World Wide Web. From American libertarianism it inherited a general belief that voluntary associations are more effective in promoting freedom than government (the US Libertarian Party‘s motto is “maximum freedom, minimum government”). American libertarianism is distinct from other incarnations of libertarianism in that tends to celebrate the market and private business over co-opts or other modes of collective organization. In this sense, American libertarianism is deeply pro-capitalist. Thus, when we hear the slogan “information wants to be” that is widely associated with cyber-libertarianism, we should not read it as meaning  gratis (i.e., zero price); rather, we should read it as meaning libre (without obstacles or restrictions). This is important because the latter interpretation is compatible with free market economics, unlike the former.

Cyber-anarchism is a far less widely used term. In practice, commentators often fail to distinguish between cyber-anarchism and cyber-libertarianism. However, there are subtle distinctions between the two. Anarchism aims at the abolition of hierarchy. Like libertarians, anarchists have a strong skepticism of government, particularly government’s exclusive claim to use force against other actors. Yet, while libertarians tend to focus on the market as a mechanism for rewarding individual achievement, anarchists tend to see it as means for perpetuating inequality. Thus, cyber-anarchists tend to be as much against private consolidation of Internet infrastructure as they are against government interference. While cyber-libertarians have, historically, viewed the Internet as an unregulated space where good ideas and the most clever entrepreneurs are free to rise to the top, cyber-anarchists see the Internet as a means of working around and, ultimately, tearing down old hierarchies. Thus, what differentiates cyber-anarchist from cyber-libertarians, then, is that cyber-libertarians embrace fluid, meritocratic hierarchies (which are believed to be best served by markets), while anarchists are distrustful of all hierarchies. This would explain while libertarians tend to organize into conventional political parties, while the notion of an anarchist party seems almost oxymoronic. Another way to understand this difference is in how each group defines freedom: Freedom for libertarians is freedom to individually prosper, while freedom for anarchists is freedom from systemic inequalities. more...

Information Politics in the Age of Digital Media

Discussant: Deen Freelon, American University

  • “Internet Infrastructure: ‘Access’ Rhetoric, Neoliberalism, and Informational Politics” (Dan Greene, University of Maryland-College Park)
  • “Academic Marginalization in the Age of Social Media” (PJ Rey, University of Maryland-College Park)
  • “Social Media and Revolutionary Movements: Toward Research and Activist Agendas” (Mina Semeni, Randy Lynn, and Jason Smith, George Mason University)

This panel explores some of the opportunities for theoretical development and synthesis emerging at the intersection of public sociology and digital media. True to the conference’s remit, each focuses on a distinct form of publicity of interest to publics outside the academy. Dan Greene questions the prevailing neoliberal rhetoric of access to information technologies, arguing that it facilitates the concentration of power and prevent us from connecting related struggles for individual and collective emancipation. As a corrective, he proposes a frame he calls “informational politics” that overcomes this conceptual weakness by explicitly recognizing the links between digital media and the social contexts within which they are used. PJ Rey invites us to reconsider the roles of newer forms of scholarly communication such as blogs and tweets in evaluations of academic productivity. Journals and conference proceedings, which still enjoy preeminence among tenure criteria in most fields, are far too slow, costly, and obscure to effectively relay the fruits of public sociology to non-academic publics. Finally, Mina Semeni, Randy Lynn, and Jason Smith are interested in how activists use social media in contexts of social protest and revolution. In an attempt to move beyond totalizing and causal theories of the Internet and politics, they propose two mechanisms through which social media might abet protest: by increasing social capital and by strengthening existing institutions. more...