“There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” – L Cohen
IT’S very illuminating to read radical critiques regarding the role of technology and digital communications in advanced industrial societies.
Personal autonomy, they argue, is being diminished by technology, whose primary purpose is to dramatically accelerate the speed, flexibility and efficiency of the information economy. They generally view this mission as sinister, exploitative and hegemonic.
Whilst we might take issue with this gloomy view of the world, the implicit framework on which their critiques are based is nevertheless revealing.
So let’s do a simple exercise to tease out a set of polarities that underlie their critiques, as these may in fact come in handy when evaluating any digital communications system, whether it’s Google, Facebook or UltraNet.
- Closed / Open
In closed systems, technologies use propriety code or provide content information exclusively to those who pay. Open systems include such things as open source code, creative commons copyright, Wikipedia, MIT Open Courseware, Kahn Academy, Open College. Of course, the issue for open systems is: who pays?
- Secret / Transparent
In a transparent system, all decisions are made publicly and all intentions revealed openly. There is also a difference between transparency and accountability. Transparency requires that decisions are made transparent right from the beginning of the decision making process, whilst accountability is a process of verifying the quality of decisions or actions after they have been taken. An example of secretive system manipulation is Google’s search ranking. On the other hand, Wikileaks is a vehicle set up in the interests of transparency.
- Eavesdrop / Confidential
Technology system such as Google and Facebook collect user data and pass this on (secretively) to other organisations. Many smart phone apps can ‘hoover’ a range of data, including in some cases, record phone calls. We are constantly under surveillance by technology systems – eg CCTV in London.
- Exclusive / Accessible
Digital technology has the possibility of allowing people with disability – eg the sight and hearing impaired – total access to digital content, but design and coding guidelines set down by W3C are not often observed.
- Centralised / Distributed
High cost, centralised systems are devised that seek ‘to do everything’. On the other hand, the Internet itself is a distributed system, and even more powerful, independent and resilient than decentralised systems.
- Narrow / Diverse
Technology systems are devised to appeal to white, affluent, mobile, English speaking users, thus excluding the vast majority of the world’s population.
- Hierarchical / Democratic
Technology systems are devised from the top down, where all aspects are contained, managed and controllable. Counterposing this are such things as user generated content (blogs, wikis), social networking, email and VoIP (eg Skype).
- Blocked / Transferable
Propriety code locks content behind impenetrable walls and vertical controls, for example, Apple’s iTunes. Transferable data and formats can be loaded into any system and cross over any platforms.
In the radical critiques, these polarities revolve around the extremes of good and bad, reflecting unwittingly, the rigidity of binary logic (on / off).
It’s far more helpful to see the polarities as contests, contradictions or fault lines where ‘cracks of light’ can emanate.
Indeed, technology has always been a contested space: between, one one side, the opportunities for social good and on the other, private commercialisation.
It’s like the proverbial public squares of old, where people gathered to chat about their work, weather and relatives. Then the operators came and set up stores and erected ads on buildings, bombarding the park inhabitants with their commercial dreams and desires.