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Technology as philosophy

We are currently in a process of translating (and renegotiating) principles democracy, individualism, identity, authority, liberty, equality, and power for a digital world. Most disconcerting is the lack of big thinkers – where is the digital realm’s Cleisthenes, Locke, or Voltaire? – on this front. Corporations (largely copyright holders) risk overwriting established law of individual privacy with three-strikes approaches to combating file sharing or copyright violations.

In this renegotiation of basic rights and democracy, technology has become philosophy. Twitter served as an outlet for Iranian elections protesters. In response, Twitter has been hacked by the Iranian Cyber Army. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic in stating that the ideals that in the past were the source of physical conflict between nations are now being fought in software and legislation. But too few people are aware of what is at stake.


  1. dave cormier wrote:

    Digital world eh? Among the other dangers I see implicit in this kind of language is the implicit idea that the digital (the number or digit… clearer in french where it’s called ‘numerique’) is something that can be true or false. One might find it difficult to believe possible, but i think the binary nature of our feelings about technology impact our ability to see the layers of meaning implicit in these conflicts.

    Is it particularly important in the cyber army/iranian protestor issue that the world be ‘digital’ or is it more important that it is ‘connected’. I wonder if the tendency to see the technology as philosophy is just a habit to those of us who’ve been working in the technical fields for a long time… much like the debate i’ve been having with @fncll regarding “blogging” being a genre.

    Is it possible that this kind of talk ‘digital world’ and ‘genre of blogging’ is just a lazy shorthand? I think i understand what you mean by it, but is it possible that those looking to the first wavers for guidance will not see the subtlety and assume that there is something inherent in ‘the digital’ that, as they can’t apprehend it, exists beyond their understanding?

    If we want people to see what’s at stake, I think those words you used at the start of your post hold true, regardless of whether you feel the need for translation or not. Freedom is something people can care about ‘digital freedom’ sounds like some factional battleground that digitheads are fighting over.

    The important issue in the iranian example is freedom. Freedom of expression, the ability to trust the state in a democracy… etc… Just like the pamphlet has a huge effect on the ability to spread (and diversify) opinion in the era of the printing press, digital technologies have done the same in our era.

    but those words… freedom, liberty, authority… have they changed? do they need to be translated?

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Dave – yes, I believe there is something unique about the digital realm. It is another space. It is different from the physical. It permits us to do different things.

    I use the term “digital world” quite intentionally. And yes, freedom/liberty means different things in this space than it does in the physical world. An ISP can block my access to content…or at least slow it down. I may not even be aware of it at times (particularly if it’s a bandwidth reduction). A software service can track each click, each resource I can consider. My actions are externalized and rendered “analyzable”.

    Consider a library experience. I can go into a library and spend hours reading books or exploring magazines. When I leave, most people will not know which books I skimmed, which articles I read. And they certainly won’t be able to use it in the future to create a profile of my interests. What makes freedom and democracy different in a digital world is that different points of analysis are made possible…which results in different power relationships. Which in turn challenges existing notions of equity, freedom, indiviualism. So, to answer your question, yes, these terms of freedom/liberty/authority need translation into digital environments. People are able to do things to my ideas, my voice, my expression that they cannot do in the physical world.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Chris Lott wrote:

    I don’t see the implication that the digital is “true or false” that you refer to.

    I also wonder if you aren’t speaking from the future, a time after this turbulent transition, when it will probably make more sense, imo, to try to boil off all the “digital” references, when the activities and events whose existence depends on that the online/digital/virtual component will be so commonplace and mundane that there will be no difference between digital/virtual/online X and X– because right now, in the world *I* live in, there is most often a significant and important group of characteristics and implications that differ.

    Blogging as a genre isn’t a lazy shorthand, it’s a recognition that the technological basis that informs the production and dissemination are IMPORTANT. It involves a different type of technology than the pencil… it isn’t sufficient to equate the two with ideas about “penciling” — “printing” might be a bit more useful of an equivalence, but printing press analogies are also inadequate. So which is the “lazy” approach?

    Most of the technology under discussion hasn’t been subsumed and it hasn’t had time to warp and integrate with the non- and less-technological activities it impinges upon. Pretending that there are no differences and acting as if those future days are already here, it seems to me at least, is to actually take the easier, less productive, and ultimately dangerous-but-not-dangerous-in-a-good-way out.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink
  4. dave cormier wrote:

    I think my analogy still holds though. Those ideas… freedom liberty etc… in western philosophy hearken back to a pre-writing era. A printed pamphlet does a great deal more for tracking purposes than a speech given at the acropolis. A speech can still be remembered, your digital tracks can be covered, and you can trace any pamphlet printed back to the printer it was printed on (at least in the 17th century you could). These are all media… that effect how freedom can manifest itself, and changes the battleground… but changes the meaning? That’s a claim that I don’t see supported by what you’ve said here.

    And, by the way, lots of people have gotten into serious hot water because of things they’ve taken out of the library. What your talking about online is an INCREASE in the ability to track, not a new thing all together. Where we used to spend more time hiding books and keeping them from people… now we’ll spend more time watching what they did with them. Same same… just different. “subversive books” have been put on surveillance, there have been many books in history the possession of which could mean imprisonment or worse.

    Yes. Computers offer different affordances for the crushing of freedom… but is the freedom that’s being crushed really different?

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  5. dave cormier wrote:

    @chris lott
    true/false – My experience with people’s perception of things digital is that they tend to oversimplify their approach to their use… they tend to treat things that happen on a computer in the same way that they treat a toaster.

    How do i make toast? I put the toast in, i try not to burn my fingers taking them out, I keep that stupid butter knife out of there… and if I’m conscientious, I clean out the crumbs.

    How do write a blog post? I go to a blogging website. I login. I write in a title, I write in some stuff about my toaster. I include some tags, and if i’m conscientious, i make sure i have a spam blocker.

    The rule of the digit… it’s rulership that is… is to suggest clear decisions. Binary decisions. The philosophical concepts that we are talking about here don’t do well when they are set up as binaries…

    You’re quite correct that the printing press analogy was no better in the laziness category… but i wasn’t trying to juxtapose my awesomeness against the badness of others. You have noted that i use the term ‘blogging’ all the time. I’m wondering IF it is a shortform that tends to confuse debate rather than help it. but still lazy on my part.

    Yes. i come from the future. No Sarah Palin will not win in 2012.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Alan Levine wrote:

    Wow, I can make toast on this thing? Is that what the slot on the side of my laptop is for?

    (only reaching cause I can barely keep up with the Big Deep Thinkers).

    I am interested in the things we tend to make binary yes/no that to me always seem more gradient-like, be it open/closed, digital/not digital or LMS good/evil, and, um… I am out of my list. I do peek ahead to a time when things are not strictly labeled as “digital” as it just becomes something we do.

    Sorry, have to go, my toast is done!

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  7. Twitter is just a website. And we know nothing about the “attack” – it could have been some silly punk-assed kids pulling a stunt. Or, it could have been Iranian retaliation for, what, people turning their avatars green? Yeah. That makes sense. Nobody’s liberty was attacked. A website went dark for a couple of hours. The world kept going. Maybe it needs to go down more often, so we can all realize that websites aren’t the same thing as real people.

    Likely, the only people that really noticed were affluent north americans, trying to check in for the epinephine high of new updates. That’s a first world problem, and not anything even close to being on par with liberty and freedom. Nobody’s liberty was attacked. A website went dark. That is all.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  8. Raj Boora wrote:

    Conflict is indeed moving into the cyber realm, this was really evident when Estonia was attacked ( D’Arcy’s got a point on Twitter, a “public” site going down that has no direct relationship to the regular operations of a populace isn’t really an attack on liberty – or is it?.

    The US, and likely many other States are mobilizing defenses ( and offenses to watch over critical systems like power, banking and official communications. But those systems, while they fit in the traditional classifications systems for “high value targets” ignore the fact that the “unofficial/pro-am/amateur” communications are becoming an increasingly important part of our local, national and international discourse, occurring through multiple channels. Those channels are, for the most part powered by private ISPs, which as you have mentioned can be influenced by State and financial considerations.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  9. It is/was an inconvenience. Nothing more. Communication continued just fine, through other venues.

    While Twitter was redirected to some unknown hacker’s website, Rogers (my cell phone carrier) was also experiencing severe network outages across Western Canada. Communication was difficult through any internet channels. But nobody’s liberty was trampled. Life went on. We need to keep some perspective. Sure, it’s annoying when we can’t post what we had for lunch without waiting for a few seconds, but it’s not a big deal. It’s not like the anonymous possible-Iranians erected some form of firewall blocking all access to the internet, jammed cell phones, brought down electrical grids, and sprayed biological agents into transportation systems.

    A third party website was unavailable. For less time that it was commonly down not long ago, through sheer scaling difficulties.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  10. gsiemens wrote:

    @Chris – “I also wonder if you aren’t speaking from the future, a time after this turbulent transition, when it will probably make more sense, imo, to try to boil off all the “digital” references, when the activities and events whose existence depends on that the online/digital/virtual component will be so commonplace and mundane that there will be no difference between digital/virtual/online X and X– because right now, in the world *I* live in, there is most often a significant and important group of characteristics and implications that differ.”

    Good point…I know Dave has a post-digital mindset. For me, however, the digital is still quite prominent. I’m not comfortable with reducing everything down to an all encompassing view of freedom that holds new unique attributes in either digital of physical realm.

    By way of Dave’s burning off unique aspects of digital – i.e. when he collapses digital/physical “freedom” into one entity, I could just as soon say that air travel, car travel, or space travel are really just transportation. And, by Dave’s logic, I’d be right. But, each type of transportation permits different experiences…and different opportunities for the participant. To use transportation at such a high level renders specific discussions of it useless…

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  11. gsiemens wrote:

    @Dave “Yes. Computers offer different affordances for the crushing of freedom… but is the freedom that’s being crushed really different?”

    At the level of abstraction you are pursuing here, I’m not sure there is a difference (re: my comment to Chris on transportation). You’re raising freedom to a level that exceeds even the physical instantiation of it. In that sense, I guess you are right, freedom is the same base entity across all instantiations – physical, digital, post-digital or whatever. But this is an interesting stance for you to make, Dave. You sound like you’re appealing to an objective view of freedom. How shall I reconcile that with our previous discussions. I think you may be a closet objective knowledgist :)

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  12. gsiemens wrote:

    @Alan – I agree with gradients of open/closed and such. I don’t think I presented a binary distinction between democracy/not-democracy in my post. I was arguing that attention be directed to how freedom is being renegotiated in the digital world.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  13. gsiemens wrote:

    @D’Arcy – Twitter might not have been the best example. But Blackboard would work. Or any LMS. Or Microsoft. Or now Google. Or Rogers. Or three-strikes laws. Or concerns around MySQL & Oracle. Designers/developers build in freedom/control and most of us simply deal with the consequences. In spite of running through open source meadows holding hands and frolicking amongst the morning dew, what’s defined as freedom is different online than physical.

    But, I’m curious of your views to the main point of my post: freedom/liberty/equity/individual autonomy are being renegotiated/translated to the online environment and most people are a) not aware, b) don’t care.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  14. dave cormier wrote:

    @gsiemens not objective across all circumstances george. My point is that, for the one freedom fighter in iran, the freedom they are fighting for does not somehow morph when they use twitter. Real people. And, to them, real freedom. It is all too easy to think that the thing we care about is the pivot point… there are pivot points to the meaning of freedom etc… I’m just thinking that it might not be the one you think it is… not that there aren’t any.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  15. gsiemens wrote:

    @Dave – I’m not quite following your argument. My point was not about twitter or iranian freedom fighters. My point is (was) that we are forced to translate/renegotiate what freedom and identity mean in a digital world. As such, it’s not how a person uses twitter that defines freedom. It’s twitter itself (and facebook, blogs, lms, wordpress, etc.) that (re)defines freedom. Not the application of the tool, but what the tool itself enables or affords…i.e. the ideology embedded in the tool.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  16. dave cormier wrote:

    Sorry. clarity has not been my strong suit today. My point is that, to the iranians, freedom and identity are not happening ‘in a digital world’ they are happening in the world, one facet of which happens to be digital.

    Friday, December 18, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  17. @george – I agree that most people are unaware or simply don’t know (or realize) the implications of online stuff on privacy/autonomy etc… Not sure how to get around that. People don’t seem to listen to the warnings, because the concepts are abstract.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  18. Vinod Varma wrote:

    I am neither an expert nor a student of sociology. But I believe what is happening on web 2.0 has a lot to do with sociology and many related subjects. I am quite impressed with this discussion

    Rules of the real world are formed over centuries from experience and thoughts of visionaries and thought leaders from the past. It is time for norms of real world to be adapted to suit virtual world. Having said that, we need to admit that it comes with unique challenges.

    Norms of society are evolved over centuries based on local culture and values, forming a foundation like tectonic plates. As virtual world is set to integrate heterogeneous social groups across the globe, it holds potential for significant friction along underlying fault lines.

    Saturday, December 19, 2009 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

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