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Thoughts on Socio-Technical Structures and Ethics

Last week, I came across an article which reported on the fact that Google regularly receives requests from the US government to remove information from the Internet and complies with their requests most of the time. In particular, they recently asked Google to remove embarrassing videos from YouTube portraying police brutality on the Occupy protesters in Oakland, California.

For a generally optimistic young media studies grad student, this news was incredibly disheartening. Actually, to a person with even a small semblance of morals, this probably should be disheartening. We have been taught to think that in our new new media world, we all have a voice and can express it through tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries, photos and videos. This report suggests that this is all just an illusion.

It also shows how closely the government and corporate media giants work together. It illustrates perfectly the trouble everyday people face when the government and those who create social reality (See Colbert on Wikiality) in today’s world are in cahoots. Though, there is danger in the serious concentration of media ownership and political power in society today, the ubiquity of cameras and new media technologies and the decentered structure of the Internet, allow us to observe these abuses of power like never before.

Events like these, where the objectives of governments and corporations clash with those of freedom seekers and libertarians, offer social analysts an interesting place to focus their observations. Because of the nature of our communication tools today, sociology, I think, becomes easier. We see social structures and individual and institutional motivations more clearly fixed in various configurations of content, people, technologies and actions.

Last Friday I attended a symposium on digital ethics and policy at Loyola University Chicago where exactly this topic was explored by a number of really innovative and insightful scholars and media practitioners. Leading the charge was opening keynote speaker, New York Times best-selling author and game designer, Jane McGonigal. In her presentation, she suggested that games should empower their players. She described her game Evoke which gave its players, who were mostly, young people in South Africa, an opportunity to make positive changes in their (mostly offline) communities as well as build a professional portfolio (resume) for themselves while they’re competing and having fun playing a game. Many of the players started businesses as a result of their involvement in the game. Her talk, along with others I heard there, restored some of my hope in the state of our socio-technical world.

Another really thought-provoking speaker, Julian Dibbell described two general socio-technical structures: one authoritarian (imagine Facebook where a designer like Mark Zuckerberg sends down software and rules of engagement to users from on high) the other federalist (the users each own their own part of the structure and make their own rules). His argument was that the concentration of power in authoritarian structures is problematic because a certain ideology and moral (or lack thereof) considerations are forced onto the users. In an egalitarian system, each user is in control of his or her own portion of the system. This is generally, a very humanist proposal. However, because many people do not have the skills, know-how and/or motivation to maintain their part of the system, in many cases this solution has pitfalls too. Dibbell’s lecture really made me think though and ultimately, it occurred to me that there might be a socio-economic lesson to take from his enthusiasm for the egalitarian, federalist approach. It seems to me that it is very useful to identify these two kinds of structures but that solutions to many complex socio-technial issues require a layering of these two approaches.

Though this is certainly a multi-faceted problem, let’s take the current jobs and economic crisis as an example. The creation of more jobs might occur if government were to help decenter certain areas of industry like energy production (solar, wind, etc.) and farming (local growers & markets). Though, it would take a strong central government to make these decisions and put these ideas into effect, it would I think make better economic and humanitarian sense. This solution is obviously a complicated and a multi-layered one. We can’t think in terms of one kind of structure being better than another. Both may be necessary to achieve the changes our society needs.

What is clear in these examples, is that the individual morals and ethics of powerful individuals are at the heart of making decisions like these. Today more than ever one’s individual ethics and morals are visible for the world to see, though they have always driven such social and institutional decisions. Perhaps, it was naïve of me to be disheartened when I learned that the government censors the Internet. Perhaps it’s even more naïve of me to have hope that those in power aim to improve lives other than their own. But in some sense I do and I hope they will- whether by force due to the ubiquitous and open nature of media today or just because it’s the right thing to do.

Billionaire Steve Jobs, an Inspiration to the Occupy Wall Street Campaign?

Note:  This is a post I originally wrote for on October 12, 2011.

A week ago we lost a leader in the field of social informatics. Though Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was not a scholar, he was keenly aware of how important people, their desires and mental frameworks were to the design of computer technologies. In the design process he consistently resisted collaborators who designed with code and machinery in mind instead of actual, human users. Like most social informaticians, he called for design principles to reflect culture and make communication, work and entertainment more efficient, intuitive and beautiful.

His passing happened at an interesting economic and cultural moment as so many people today are out of work (some might even argue that this is due to the success of technology developers like Apple and Steve Jobs) and political tensions have never been higher. A growing number of activists who lament the US government’s apathy toward wealthy corporate entities has emerged also in recent weeks. In just under four weeks, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) campaign has quickly spread all over the country and has observers around the world taking note.

In the OWS protesters’ mission statement, they say, we organize “at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.” Their efforts are to express animosity toward corporate greed and the US government’s apathy toward this greed. Furthermore, they feel the government should be more active in correcting this problem. Namely, they call for the taxing of the richest one percent of the population so that the other ninety-nine percent might face less financial uncertainty.

Protester holds a sign that reads JobsProtester’s Mourn Jobs’ Passing

It occurs to me that the passing of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the OWS campaign intersect in an interesting way. Jobs, worth about 7 billion dollars, was undoubtedly in the one percent of people the protesters are asking the government to tax. In spite of this, many groups of protesters took time away from the protests to mourn his passing. A tweet from Twitter account @OPWallStreet on the night of his death said, “Sad to announce the death of Steve Jobs.”

While some may see this as an inconsistency in the message of the OWS, perhaps noting the genealogy of certain core values of the OWS campaign will help illuminate why OWS protesters, and so many others, feel a sense of grief at Jobs’ passing. Jobs was not just an innovator of technical artifacts. In many ways he also created new ways for communication to occur, new ways for entertainment to happen, new ways to work, to travel, to fall in love, etc.

One can easily trace the ideology and socio-technical structure that the OWS relies upon to share information and establish their movement back to innovators like Steve Jobs.   First, Jobs is a product of the sixties. He was a flower child and hung out with anti-war protesters and activists while he was beginning to develop his desire to work with computers. This influence impacted the design of Apple technologies and made past and present underdogs fall in love with him. In the world of conservative tech companies, Jobs was almost always on the lunatic fringe. He fought for the things his artistic, and humanistic intuition told him were right. OWS protesters see themselves in Jobs’ shoes: They are fighting against the status quo in an effort to put the human back in the center of the system’s design.

Second, Jobs developed technologies that were networked. His masterpieces the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, etc. are windows into the social world. Social informaticians know that these technologies bear a certain internal structure which predetermines a certain kind of use, requires certain skills, etc. The structure of a computer network is at the heart of both the OWS campaign and Jobs’ most influential Apple technologies. As information is exchanged, the OWS campaign is replicated across the country. It’s copied and pasted. A new instance emerges in a new location because people have seen pictures of others, read stories, watch videos and are inspired by others through their iPhones & iPads. The OWS information structure, which is the heart of the movement, is itself an instance of the computer network Steve Jobs envisioned in the design of his most influential Apple technologies.

The protesters aim to upset the government’s apathy. They, like Jobs, suggest that the system should reflect today’s socio-technical culture and empower users by giving them more tools to make life easier and more beautiful.