[iDC] old social architectures

tobias c. van Veen tobias at techno.ca
Sat Feb 10 09:46:54 EST 2007

greetings// -- from another context -- an essay,

Danah Boyd finished her post by writing,

> So i guess what i'm saying is that i'm all down for education but
> what are we educating towards?  Old architectures and old social
> norms or collectively building a new set of social norms that takes
> into consideration new architectures?  For the most part, we seem to
> be doing the former and it's not working out so well.

How are we caught up in the logic of this former? Bollinger's work seems to
demonstrate some of these tensions between the "old" social and whatever
"new" emergent social. Yet things are not so easy -- as Trebor writes, " How
can students navigate the seas of the sociable web in an ethically sound
way?" And what of the adults that do the unethical things on the web --
surely there is education -- critical questioning -- for them too? The
question is, then, if the "new social" is social at all -- or, in other
words, if it is a kind of social that is "ethical."

Again I feel there is a divide between offline and online when speaking of
both the social and of ethics: the offline concept does not simply carry
across into the online domain -- though "we" and the language and most
significantly the law continue to act in such fashion. A good example is
piracy. Whereas respect for private property is something of a norm offline,
we are all well aware of the extent of online piracy of "property." People
don't feel that it is "unethical" to share privatized property online.  This
blatant disregard for the "proper" far exceeds the "home taping is killing
the music industry" hype of the '80s. If concepts such as the proper are
getting out of bent online, then certainly are the concepts of the social
and thus what is ethical. To address Bollinger then:

> In a recent conference about media reform, he [Bollinger] was talking about
> the barrier to public discourse that new media such as YouTube represent for
> those without broadband:

To cut to the chase: at its extreme this kind of argument (which is a
discourse, not about personal claims) assumes that a) public discourse
exists in YouTube and b) perhaps even solely in such digital online forums
and c) that the problem is merely access. As Trebor pointed out, the
"digital divide" is a complex variform with mobile technologies and cannot
be reduced to merely "access to one website on the Web" as essential
component of public discourse!

To which it seems important to only begin backing up and pestering: at which
point did not having certain technologies mean not having public discourse?
But more seriously we can ask: *is* the "public" only expressed through
online, digital telecommunications in the 21C? Has the offline become
secondary (and to whom)? What assumptions of "public," then, are we bringing
to this online realm?

I feel there are a whole series of questions here: from this kind of
assumption, such as Bollinger's, it is important to ask from where "public
discourse" arrives. I get the feeling that there is there a sense of public
discourse (a general concept) which is trying to be translated into the
telecommunications sphere, and this translation can be writ as "social
media." If so, what are we inheriting from this concept and where are we
inheriting it from? What are its roots and histories?

It's worthwhile rereading Bollinger in this light:

> "We are certainly left with a fundamental problem: commitment to robust, open,
> and free speech, but with an overlay of economic effects which create
> disparities of access and therefore not a full rich marketplace of ideas."

Underline that last bit: "full rich marketplace of ideas." For Bollinger, it
is not a library or agora but a marketplace. The marketplace is a
fascinating term in "liberal" discourse as it is both concrete and abstract.
The market is, or was, a real place on the street, and it is this
romanticism it invokes. Yet its reality today is abstract: corporate global
control patterns on the edge of ecological chaos. Nor is the model here
drawn from the online realm: the chatroom or p2p network, for example. It is
drawn from the old social architecture.

Just a thought, then, on where this kind of thinking came from and from to
where it leads: toward the assumption that those without access to the Net
are somehow lacking in public discourse and that to solve the problem is to
give them access. 

(Yes, I would agree, that this is preferable -- for example teaching Linux
and computer assembly in the Brasilian favellas, as the Salvador members of
the Upgrade network do -- http://www.midiatatica.org/upgrade/ -- but there
is another issue at stake here: the framework in which access becomes not
the means but the ends themselves; and even insofar as it is the means, it
already excludes the multiplicity of the social.)

On the contrary it could be argued that there is no public here, that such
technological access perpetuates antisocial behaviour or nonsocial tedium --
in this space, this list of digital letters distributed, or MySpace, or
blogs, or chatrooms, or P2P this-or-that -- and no discourse, and none
possible, in this kind of technosphere.

This might appear extreme, but we must ask if granting access is not also
giving away the tools of indoctrination if there isn't something more than
mere access -- and this is why we all probably persist in this engagement
with "education." 

To educate in "social media" might be to pry it open as a negative concept
that only names the gap between the heritage of liberal humanist ideas about
the public, discourse, free speech, etc. that dominate "the West" and the
resistance -- the blackhole or statemate -- it faces online.

Thus a pedagogy which then persists from the old social architectures comes
along to saying:

> People need to be able to articulate the benefits of contributing to a gift
> economy, and develop the technological skills to be able to do so.

I see two questions here that follow from the above.

a) A gift has no benefits: this is the point -- that there is no exchange.
You don't get anything back in the potluck. What one gets is the
perpetuation of the potluck. In this sense, there is a *kind* of economy --
that perpetuates giving (and yes, receiving, but to give in expectation of
receiving will implode the "economy"). So we know then that there can be no
pure gift, that it always involves exchange (for those interested, Derrida's
readings of Mauss are invigorating here), but that "economy" might be given
a more nuanced reading: not as expectation of benefits but of perpetuation
of giving. 

b) In this kind of pedadogy, "technological skills" are needed to
participate in the gift economy. The gift is now a privileged item of
technology which requires skills -- which says a lot about the status of the
gift in the 21C, that it is no longer a gift, no longer capable of being
given, say, from the heart, but a "technology" which requires "skills" in
order to "contribute" so as to reap the "benefits." What is the gift then
once the skills are developed -- ? Entry into the New Public Discourse, or
"social media" of what might be termed the virtual class.

But for a public discourse to open its promise it must be open to -- and the
mention of Freire is worthy -- the oppressed. And specifically, the public
discourses already at work in the oppressed and the possibility that the
oppressed will reject entirely this technosphere with its new "public
discourse" that calls for the "education" of the oppressed in order to
foster "participation."

Thus from such an alternative perspective, it is not a case of
differentiating between open and proprietary platforms -- it might be of
thieving both. On "our" parts, the "skilled technoclasses," it becomes a
case of realizing that the discourse which proclaims certain technological
spaces as spaces of public discourse requiring all manners of skills and
education in order to participate in its gift benefits also (and perhaps
intractably) speaks the language of entry, control, barrier, passport,
border; skills, economy, benefits. The old social architectures.

So to return to Freire,

> If Freire was alive today, what do you think he'd say of the educational
> affordances of MySpace? Would he be posting video manifestos on YouTube? Or
> would he be arguing that the digital divide is nothing more than a
> reincarnation of the White Man's Burden?

Freire is alive today : in Iraq, Iran, Palestine... and she blogs in Arabic;
or in the favellas, and they pirate this or that, including electricity and
hardware; Freire is everywhere -- but do *we* have the skills to
participate? To read what Freire is writing today?



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