Questioning digital technologies is a core value of the KSC Open project. And we have much to learn.
For many years I have been asking myself—and people keep asking me—why don’t I use Twitter? Sure, like a lot of people, years ago, I signed up for Twitter (and Facebook), mostly out of curiosity about what are now ubiquitous social media platforms. I have never really used my accounts, though. One reason these digital tools have proven less enticing is that technology is now woven into my day-to-day life as a college professor. E-mail and other open-source web applications now keep me peering into the pixels of a screen for a good part of my days—reading, thinking, writing, and collaborating, with students and colleagues, near and far. This is my ready-made answer to this persistent question. The last thing I need in my life, to be honest, is more time in front of a screen.
But working on the open web puts in play more fundamental questions. How do we question digital technologies? How do I hold in mind both the promise of teaching and learning mediated by digital technologies and the critical questions we should always be asking about our digital lives?
In our Domain of Ones Own project we value digital identity, fluency, and citizenship. Each of these areas is deeply and inextricably woven into the values of public higher education as well as the ideals of democratic culture. We talk about digital identity in terms of agency—of making deliberate decisions about presence, expression, and integrating personal learning and interests. We value fluency as essentially knowing what you are doing, and then doing it well, using platforms and tools that are poetic—for they allows us to build, to make, and to construct sustainable spaces for participation in the public domain. And we imagine citizenship as participatory, whether we are engaging with others or shaping communities. Working on the open web is ethical work because questions of identity and citizenship are by definition ethical domains. There is an etiquette to freedom.
One critical approach to digital culture, then, would be to pose ethical questions. For example we might think more about the relationship between public culture and consumer culture. This close and complex relationship is difficult to think about because the putative open, public space of the internet is now largely constituted as commercial space. In fact the for-profit social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are case studies in what the twentieth-century critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer pointed out decades before we had computers networks: that public culture has become essentially consumer culture. And today the culture industry replicates itself using what tech people habitually call the “affordances” of digital technologies.
The personal learning networks and media platforms on which we are defining our identity at once constitute the promise of democratic citizenship as well as commodify our democratic impulse to participate. One question, then, might be whether there can be an ethical social network. For it is quite difficult to imagine the kind of agency we value as educators when the for-profit social networking platforms we are using define users not as customers but as products. I take this formulation from David Garcia, a computational social scientist at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, who studies privacy issues in social networks. As he explains, “the customers are advertisers that place targeted ads or third parties that buy user data.” The design and the purpose of these digital platforms define the horizon of agency and citizenship. “My empirical research suggests that the problems we have been observing with Facebook are not a bug, they are a feature.” His elaboration of this problem in an article by Lindsay McKenzie, pulls a number of ethical questions back into view:
Problems at sites like Facebook don’t stem from bad algorithms, said Garcia, as has been recently suggested in the media. “The real problem comes from the design and purpose of these sites, not the technicalities of how they process the data,” he said.
Recently Garcia has been considering how much control individuals have over their private information at sites like Facebook. His early research suggests that sharing private data “is a collective decision and not an individual one.” Even if you don’t give permission to a company to collect information about you, information about you can still be collected through your friends on social media.
There are a number of compelling reasons to use social media platforms. At least I find them compelling. These reasons include sharing experiences, sustaining relationships with friends and loved ones, building connections with other people, even shaping the contours of public life through self-expression and sharing information, or engaging others in common cause. My academic colleagues, moreover, are using these platforms in creative and interesting ways that engage students and that I admire for this reason alone.
But to build your own presence on the web using digital technologies and tools that are designed to define you as a product in the marketplace, again, raises difficult ethical questions. Using these tools in the ethical spaces of teaching and learning has consequences, too, as we are shaping the habits and behaviors of what we so charmingly call lifelong learners.” In our now daily routines of posting and sharing untold amounts of information on these platforms–whether in our roles as teachers or learners–we have at the very least made consequential ethical choices.
I’m not sure we need to trundle out Marx’s concept of the means of production, or fork in the discourse about the commodification of culture from the Frankfurt School, to make visible the cultural dynamics in play when we create and post a photograph or video to Facebook, type out or follow a hashtag on Twitter, or require a group of students to log in to a Learning Management System (LMS). However, I do believe that we need to keep in mind Antonio Gramsci’s insight that cultural hegemony works precisely when a social consensus emerges that makes a set of cultural practices appear to be natural, if not essential—to who we are, what we do, and who we might want to become.
For these reasons we need to question the digital platforms we use. We need to wrestle with the complexity and irreducible ethical questions that arise when we make personal and collective decisions about our digital lives. And we need to think as we act, whether we are signing up for a new platform, deleting an account, or considering the always already ethical choices in shaping a digital identity and practicing the delicate arts of citizenship