Saturday, November 14, 2009

Is Facebook our fate?

One of the pleasures of being at a small college is getting to know colleagues in many different fields. Sometimes you're even tapped to participate in their projects. One of my colleagues is a specialist on new media, especially social media, and he asked me to moderate one of the panels of a big conference he put together on digital labor. The conference seeks to understand the significance of the fact that hundreds of millions people continuously make the totality of their life energy available to a handful of businesses and explores alternatives and forms of resistance to this state of affairs. Our lives have been changed more profoundly than we may realize by new media, especially the interactive Web 2.0; the personal lives of many people are unthinkable without Facebook, blogs (!), and the like. What makes all this possible, does it make it possible for everyone, and what costs - social and personal - does it exact? Should we fight this system?

Moderating requires no particular knowledge of what's discussed, but it puts you close to the action. So yesterday I shared the dais with three scholars - one from media studies, one from sociology, one from a law school - discussing issues of justice and ethics in new media and beyond.

The first speaker argued that every network creates externalities, and so the sociality of the wired world necessarily builds on oppression beyond that world. (Did you know that an avatar on Second Life has a carbon footprint greater than that of the average Brazilian?) We need to develop "paranodal" resistance, outside the "nodes" of dominant networks! The second - he teaches a lot at business schools, so sees things somewhat differently from the first speaker - argued that social networking has so changed the practice of business that a new ethical culture is emerging, a culture which values not labor-time but the quality of human relations: a return to Aristotle! The last speaker likened the role of "middlemen" like Google, eBay and Facebook to other entities which make a profit in presenting what seems an objective alternative to the market: The virtuous Google beat out other search engines by offering truly "organic" links; The virtuous eBay set up a fair reputation system; etc. Yet the mechanisms by which users' contributions are brought together in rankings and ratings remains hidden, and these middlemen can favor some users over others, or even exclude some from participation altogether. On an analogy with health insurance, he recommended a Medicare for all model for access to online, and complete transparency in their practices.

Three very different presentations, on three very different registers! It made for a lively discussion, though a somewhat unfocused one. The us-vs.-them pathos of the first and third papers found more resonance in the audience than the insider optimism of the second. But the most interesting part of the discussion (for me at least) had to do with whether there are alternative to using big services like Facebook. The conference organizer was in the room and said he thought it was necessary to be part of Facebook in order to establish a career. A woman in the audience, thinking he was happy with this state of affairs, insisted "You always have a choice! There's always a choice!"

What if he's right? What if participation in social networks is increasingly like access to electricity or potable water - a necessity? The third speaker's argument for making these public goods seems pretty compelling. The second speaker's hope that this new form of engagement with others will change - is indeed already changing - society for the better even makes this seem a happy turn of fate. But the first speaker's worries linger. Aristotle's ethical gentlemen were able to pursue truth, justice and friendship together because the rest of Athens was busy taking care of them.

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