Social media philosophy blog
Sunday October 22nd 2017

New page with suggested reading

Today we have published  a new page with suggested reading about social media and the internet. The list is divided in Social media : a turn for the better and Social media: a turn for the worse. Please feel free to comment and recommend  your personal favorites.

As minds go by

“The author is dead”, argued French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. As with many philosophical and sociological ideas, this one makes more sense with the coming of cyberspace. Derrida argued that each text was dependent on other texts, in turn building on earlier writings and so on. As a consequence, the seemingly original ideas of the individual author could always be deconstructed into a number of distinct influences. Today, we find that this is the basic rational for the Creative Commons, signalling why intellectual property rights becomes such a difficult legal instrument. An extension of this argument is that thinking is not only a property of a mind. Thinking always includes ideas taken from other people.

Poor Jacques Derrida struggled to visualise how ideas actually built on earlier ideas through a strategy of writing books with several voices. He would have loved the hyperlinks of the World Wide Web! As humans continue to explore the possibilities of the digital text, we become increasingly aware of the restrictions of information on paper. It is dangerously strict and lacking in dynamic features. We also become aware of the power of the printer: mass production. The gatekeeping functions connected to mass production and distribution, allowing only elite professionals access, were so important when information on paper was the only game in town. That’s gone. Connected to this dated structure is the emphasis of authorship. It used to be so important to us who was creating what. Whose genius, credibility, perspective, money or experience was in play in that work of art, scientific article or commercial promotion. The idea of a collective piece of art has been so abhorrent to us that we have chosen to view motion pictures as the distinct intellectual output from one person, the director.

How can we understand a well polished Wikipedia article? After thousands of edits, authorship has been obliterated. It is in the truest sense of the word, a collective document, the kind of “we-think” that was impossible on paper. Seemingly, such a carefully well crafted piece is an abomination in the eyes of science. On the face of it, the Wikipedia article bows down to the authority and methodology of research. References are vital and scientific articles are the premier sources. Furthermore, the art of collective writing is well-established in the research community. But beyond that, there is a challenge. The research article follows the conventions of paper. It is fixated strictly both in form and time. Wikipedia articles are always drafts in progress. That was not a possibility when we only had information on paper and the trusty old publishing press. As Wikipedia, contrary to the scientific article, utilises the benefits of digital information, it seizes the upper hand in this quite important area. This is not trivial, since time is on Wikipedia’s side. The scientific article is doomed to become dated, eventually growing old and wittering away. Contrary to this, the Wikipedia article is like a fairytale elf, eternally fresh and updated. The Wikipedia article is the collective mind, aggregating from all these peculiar fixed publications. In the process, authorship is gently stripped of power.

Collective authorship is fresh and exciting. It will help us develop as a species since the expression of knowledge becomes more a matter of meeting and working with different minds. While the practice of research typically is bound by the paradigms of the individual disciplines, Wikipedia negotiations toward a neutral point of view allows scholarly minded people to argue across traditional boundaries. Furthermore, as thinking always builds on other people’s thinking, there is much to be won by actually writing texts on digital arenas where many minds meet. Thinking outside your head can then lead to better results than thinking inside. Still, the authors are not really dead. Some of them have turned to the collective. But most of them, they are only startled by the turn of events. They are bound to catch on. And grow.

As time goes by

It is probably not possible to find two analysis of the digital challenges of today so different than the books “Total Recall” (by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, 2009) and “Delete: the virtue of forgetting in the digital age” (by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, 2009). The book “Total Recall” supplies us with an utopian vision of the world where we never forget anything. Building on the already cyborg like existence of Internet pioneer Gordon Bell we are introduced to a hands on renegotiation of what it means to be human. Everything and anything is recorded into the electronic memory of the individual with easy access to all the experiences ever made. In this way, we can process everything we ever said to any acquaintance. We can produce statistics on when we have been sad or in love. For heavens sake, we can produce graphs on the development and intensity of all our intimate relationships.

For my own part, I am sadly reminded by the analysis by Theodore Roszak (“Where the wasteland ends”, 1973) where human kind is seen to be increasingly disgusted with her own physical body, privileging the artificial over nature.

“So it becomes our desperate project to program this slag heap of data points into the computers. The machines will know it all! The idea that culture is an adventure of the human spirit, to be carried on in a Fellowship for the good of our souls, vanishes from sight. “Thinking Machines” (or at least “memory tapes”) which merely counterfeit the formal surface of a real idea (but never feel its depth or rich ambiguity, never sense its personal resonance) become the electric stitchery of a cultural crazyquilt. And the Thinking Machines, of course, will be owned, programmed, and employed by the technocracy. They will not be our servants” (page 158).

Mayer-Schönberger has found little need to envision the future in order to sketch an image of a nightmarish society where humans become trapped by technology systems that disallow forgetting. We used to have a society where remembering was a problem. But now, gigabytes are cheap. “The truth is that the economics of storage have made forgetting brutally expensive” (page 68). As information is slippery, personal information is easily copied to a great number of places. At the same time, information is now searched and retrieved on a number of different levels, often allowing crawling beyond the meta-data. As the electronic memory is allowed to become an extension of the human memory, something important happens. The human memory is a fundamental part of our humanity. Forgetting is not only human, it is part of our remembering. We view the world through our filters and we cast away information in order to find an identity and a way of understanding the world. Digital technologies will not, even if we are cyborgs, register a number of the most important contexts of the moments of our lives.

As Mayer-Schönberger points out, much of our communication is poorly suited as a message to the future about the present. They are simply messages about the present, saying, “this is where I am and what I do”.

Can we be allowed to live like that?

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