[iDC] How does social media educate?

Ulises arsalaan1-idc at yahoo.com
Sun Feb 11 15:13:48 EST 2007


Like the autonomists, I'm all for seeing history not just as the advance of capital, but as the advance of alternatives that, as Dyer-Witheford says in _Cyber-marx_, sees "the new forms of knowledge and communication not only as instruments of capitalist domination, but also as potential resources of anticapitalist struggle" (1999, p. 64). The key word there is 'potential.'

Your argument, if I understand correctly, is that this potential can be actualized through peer-to-peer (p2p) processes. If social media embraces authentic p2p processes, then there might be hope for it. If not, it will probably devolve into a 'faux open' corporate environment. 

[For those who may need it, here is a quick refresher of what is meant by some of  these terms, from the P2P Foundation website: "If peer to peer is the relational dynamic at play in distributed networks, and peer production the process whereby common use value is produced, then peer governance refers to the way peer production is managed."]

You also point out that peer governance is not the same as representational democracy (Robert goes as far as saying that it is not political, or if it is, politics is not its driving force), but that the two can co-exist and borrow from each other. "Peer governance, which is non-representational, does therefore not replace representative democracy..."

Here's my concern: all this would seem to suggest that representational democracy stands to gain from its association with peer governance (and for sure, representational democracy needs fixin'). You wrote: "As peer projects get bigger, they may have to adopt representational processes, while on the other side of the equation, representative processes will  adapt and/or make place for more spheres of responsible autonomy and self-governed networks, while itself also adapting multistakeholder formats that bypass pure representation." I'm afraid we might be romanticizing the peer dynamics within networks --even self-governed networks-- a bit too much here. 

If peer governance refers to the way peer production is managed, what is being *managed* as p2p networks interface with democracy? Surely, just because peer governance is not representational in the way democracy supposedly is, it does'nt mean it lacks a political character. In my own work, I have tried to articulate a 'political' critique of the network as a model for organizing social reality, specially as it concerns the mediation of the relation with our immediate environments. I won't go into a lot of detail here, but my critique concerns the 'nodocentrism' that eliminates the value of anything that is not plugged in to the network (see for instance http://ideant.typepad.com/ideant/2006/12/networked_proxi_1.html). My fear is not that peer governance will replace representational democracy (as you suggest, this is not likely to happen because we are talking about apples and oranges here), but that it will influence 'democratic' governance by introducing its own epistemological exclusivity in the form of nodocentrism. Hence my concern about the affordances of the master's tools.

Anyway, I would be interested in hearing what you or others have to say about this thesis. 



----- Original Message ----

From: Michel Bauwens <michelsub2004 at gmail.com>

To: iDC at mailman.thing.net

Sent: Friday, February 9, 2007 10:31:27 PM

Subject: Re: [iDC] How does social media educate?

Hi  Ulises,

Thanks for this very well done synthesis and your own take on it.

I would like to add two comments.

First of all, when you superpose the commodity and the gift.

In my own research, I have concluded that the dynamic of peer production of the common, is not a gift economy as understood by Mauss, but a form of non-reciprocal exchange, without direct creation of social bonds between individual persons (but it shares with the gift economy the processes of gifting and sharing). Alan Page Fiske's relational model is very useful to see the differences. 

Second, why would the commodity always trump the gift. The platform enablers are using the value created by peer producers through aggregation, but so are peer producers using them. That they have already imposed the new model of generalized gratuity is already a fundamental advance. I refer to a French book which analyses how gratuity has always coincided with important social advances. Why not keep the situation open, as both processes being important and interpenetrated, not deciding in advance that peer producers have already lost? 

At the same time, I would also challenge that we are using the master's house. I'd follow both the theory of Andrew Feenberg, and the concrete analysis of the evolution of the internet (when the wizards stay up late) to argue, that this is not the master's house, but rather the combined product of 3 forces, the state, the private sector and civil society, with the values of the latter have been a key factor, forcing an adaptation of the others. So rather, I would argue that this technology is a social compromise, containing a good dose of values which were antithetical to the corporate ethos. I'm sympathetic to the view of the Italian autonomists, that history is not just the advance of capital and the passive reaction of the people, but rather the advance/innovation of the people, and the adaptation by the powers that be (and more interesting is an integral approach, holding both as true). 


On 2/10/07, Ulises <arsalaan1-idc at yahoo.com> wrote: Reading the insightful interventions from Trebor, Michael, Ryan and danah jumped-started my brain today.

Trebor considers the ethics of participation in social media by focusing on the revenue sharing practices of some Web  2.0 companies. According to him, the framework of capitalism makes it difficult for networked participation to amount to an authentic challenge to the status quo. Michael, on the other hand, suggests that this challenge is possible if we focus on the ethics of the choice between participation in authentically open peer-to-peer networks versus participation in market-driven, corporate-sponsored 'faux open' networks. 

I know I run the risk of misinterpreting their positions by reducing them to such an extent, but in any event, the exchange reminded me of a recent piece by Jonathan Lethem in Harper's:

The Ecstasy of Influence 


It's about the dynamics of plagiarism or 'quotation' in the construction of art. After reading Trebor and Michael, I realized that social media objects (say a YouTube video or a  del.icio.us tag), like works of art, exist simultaneously in two economies: a market economy and a gift economy.

According to Lethem, "The cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, whereas the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection." Like works of art, social media objects establish both kinds of connections simultaneously (I think this is what danah is also hinting at, in her lady-like way ;-)  when she talks about the need for new 'social scripts' to deal with the tensions in these new social architectures). A social media object is at once a gift from which peers in a network can derive value, pleasure, etc., and a commodity from which companies can derive revenue. 

This tension is inherent in social media, and we gain little by looking at social media exclusively from the perspective of a gift or a commodity. However, most of us do live in advanced capitalist societies, so it is not surprising that when push comes to shove, the commodity will trump the gift. MySpace will end up in the hands of Murdoch; YouTube and  del.icio.us in the hands of Yahoo! Sure, authentic alternatives can emerge, but most of them tend to be co-opted sooner or later, and those that don't still have to operate within a capitalist framework. 

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that what allows the commodity to trump the gift is a built-in affordance in social media. This was succinctly and hilariously summed up in a recent Colbert Report segment about the practice of corporations such as Microsoft taking advantage of the 'openness' of open content initiatives such as Wikipedia to create favorable buzz about their products. Colbert says: "Open source software is like free trade, and the invisible hand of the market has the mouse now!" 


(Microsoft was paying Wikipedia contributors to portray Vista in a good light). Ironically, the cards are stacked so that 'openness' can be best exploited by the 'free' market. At least for the moment. 

Lee Bollinger put it in more academic (but less funny) terms than Colbert. In a recent conference about media reform, he was talking about the barrier to public discourse that new media such as YouTube represent for those without broadband: "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." 

http://media.www.columbiaspectator.com/media/storage/paper865/news/2007/02/09/News/Cronkite.Lauds.New.Crop.Of.Journalists-2709584.shtml> >

So Web 2.0 is a platform that supposedly guarantees all these wonderful opportunities for participation and change, but we can only apply it if we buy into a whole set of assumptions about who should have access to it, how profit should be derived from its use, how it should be distributed, etc. It is a gift and a commodity. As Trebor points out: "Corporate platforms for socializing are of course also spaces where activism and much interesting artistic practice are situated today." But given the propensity for the commodity to trump the gift, he concludes: "We should just give up looking to the web for autonomous spaces, perhaps. The best you can get today is hybrid capitalism." The emergence of social movements that offer 'radical' alternatives while perpetuating the status quo isn't anything new, as Ryan points out in his analysis of the politics of waste. 

So should we give up and let the market leads us where it may? Not at all! And this is where I want to go back to issue of education. I believe it's possible to formulate a 'literacy' of networked participation. People need to develop the critical skills necessary to differentiate between open and proprietary platforms, and be aware of the repercussions of what happens when the former mutates into the latter. 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. People need to be able to determine when it's appropriate to use corporate platforms to disseminate a message, and how to maximize its effect. People need to question how networked participation is changing the relationship with their immediate surroundings, delivering a 'hyperlocal' version of their environment where things that are not nodes in the network are simply invisible. And so on. 

Can education help people recognize the advantages of contributing to an alternative gift economy instead of buying into the limited/short-term openness of corporate Web 2.0? Sure it can! Can the educational applications of social media contribute to this revolution? Of course! But let's maintain a healthy skepticism about the limits of the technology and the scale of the change. Radical educators (think Freire) have had success in the past, but always at a small scale. I think the greatest disservice we can do to our cause is to fantasize that social media will explode the scale this time. The problem with using the master's tools to bring down the master's house is that the house they erect in its place will probably look a lot like the old one. That's something Freire had to realize before he could formulate an alternative pedagogy of the oppressed. 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? 


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