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Book Review – Networked

August 8, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

With Networked: The New Social Operating SystemLee Rainie and Barry Wellman offer a very readable introduction to networks and their social consequences. This is a book that aims to reach a larger audience beyond academic walls. So, even though it extensively relies on research (quite a lot from Pew, unsurprisingly), it is not a tedious read at all as the data alternate with narratives and stories that facilitate comprehension. At the same time, the book is not full of jargon. It also seems that this book aims to convey the message that the sky is not falling because we are spending more time on Facebook and other social networking platforms. No, we have not stop interacting face-to-face with each other (or should I write f2f, as the cool kids do). No, we are not bowling alone. No, we are turning into sociopathic recluse.

What the book explores is all the different ways in which social networking (and related technologies) have woven their way into our lives and reorganized and re-shaped some aspect of them, but not in the socially-disintegrating ways that the usual prophets of doom have been warning us against. As a result, the book conveys a relatively optimistic perspective on networks without being totally on the cyber-utopian side. There is not much in the book about the “dark side” of networks. That is Evgeny Morozov‘s turf. I actually think both books should be read in parallel: where Rainie and Wellman are more micro and optimistic, Morozov is more macro and critical. In all, there is not much in the book that will surprise those of us who read regularly on networks (or are already familiar with Wellman’s work) but we are not really the target audience. This is a book that is perfectly readable for undergraduate students and the general public and I think it is a nice piece of public sociology that demonstrates what sociology can do and tell on current topics. At the same time, it is rigorously researched (tons of end notes and sources), which is important because one of the points that Rainie and Wellman make is that a great deal of the doomsday scenarios on social networking are based on not much in terms of data. Very often, it is just columnists fears.

As much as the book does not rely on academic and technical jargon, it does revolve around a few concepts: networked individualism, the triple revolution, the social operating system. So, the book is

“the story of the new social operating system we call “networked individualism” in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. We also use the phrase because it underlines the fact that societies— like computer systems— have networked structures that provide opportunities and constraints, rules and procedures. The phrase echoes the reality of today’s technology: Most people play and work using computers and mobile devices that run on operating systems. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is personal— the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer; multiuser— people are interacting with numerous diverse others; multitasking— people are doing several things; and multithreaded— they are doing them more or less simultaneously.” (Loc 341)

[All emphases mine. I read this in kindle edition and all the endnotes were turned into notes at the end of each chapter, which messed up the page numbers and therefore, kindle only identifies locations.]

So, the general shift is this:

“In generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks— in rural areas or urban villages— where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been powerfully advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones.

(…)

Our research supports the notion that small, densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups. The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people develop new strategies and skills for handling problems.

(…)

A major difference between the past and now is that the social ties people enjoy today are more abundant and more easily nourished by contact through new technologies. We will show throughout this book how the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies— what scholars call “ICTs”— actually aid community.” (Loc 401)

But the central concept, the one concept to unite them all is that of the Triple Revolution (social networking, Internet, mobile technologies):

“First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities— and stresses— for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. It has afforded more diversity in relationships and social worlds— as well as bridges to reach these worlds and maneuverability to move among them. At the same, it has introduced the stress of not having a single home base and of reconciling the conflicting demands of multiple social worlds.

Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. It has also allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters and created new methods for social networking. This has changed the point of contact from the household (and work group) to the individual. Each person also creates her own internet experiences, tailored to her needs.

Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go. In return, ICTs are always accessible. There is the possibility of a continuous presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network. People’s physical separation by time and space are less important.

Together, these three revolutions have made possible the new social operating system we call “networked individualism.” The hallmark of networked individualism is that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members. For example, household members now act at times more like individuals in networks and less like members of a family. Their homes are no longer their castles but bases for networking with the outside world, with each family member keeping a separate personal computer, address book, calendar, and mobile phone.

Yet people are not rugged individualists— even when they think they are. Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates. This means that networked individuals can have a variety of social ties to count on, but are less likely to have one sure-fire “home” community. Looser and more diverse social networks require more choreography and exertion to manage. Often, individuals rely on many specialized relationships to meet their needs.” (Loc. 460)

This is the central thesis of the book and all the subsequent chapters explore the consequences of the Triple Revolution in our social institutions, intimate lives, and interactions. In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Individuals are less members of fixed and (more or less) rigid groups and more likely to belong to a variety of loosely connected networks that are always in flux. What social networking technologies have added to the mix is an incredibly greater capacity to actually network beyond borders and geographical distances which is why social networking does not generate isolation. The different nodes in these networks are both relationships and resources that can be activated for a variety of purposes. And as we already know, there is strength in weak ties. At the same time, networks do not kill strong ties. If anything, they may intensify them since we can be in contact more extensively and intensively.

We also know that social networks involve participation. To be on Facebook or Twitter involves some degree of putting “stuff” out there, be it pictures, videos, blog posts, or just status updates. These social networking platforms turned a lot of us into content creators and sharers. In addition, the number and types of devices through which we can do all these things have expanded as well. All this can generate a sense of empowerment not just because we can become content creators but also because we get to define our identities across networks as we participate in different communities (virtual or not). Throughout institutions, networks have changed hierarchies and the ways in which individuals interact. Interestingly, common boundaries (between home and work, public and private, for instance) have become a lot blurrier.

The book also has some development on the history of the Triple Revolution, tracing its origins and trends that are social and technological. This also means that the story being told is that of Western (and mainly American) trends. After all, all the goods and capacities open by social networking are available to only those who can afford them and who live in societies that are rich enough to provide the infrastructure necessary for ICTs. The digital divide is a bit too underplayed in this book for my taste. But that second chapter is a really great primer on networks that stands on its own and where the main concepts of network analysis are clearly explained. At the same time, if the Internet did not invent networking, it certainly contributed massively to its expansion. The book also contains a quick history of the Internet in combination with the impact of the spreading of personal computers as well as the different subcultures that emerged along with the Internet (techno-elites, hackers, virtual communautarians and participators). The final layer of the Triple Revolution is mobility. Portable computers (ultrabooks), tablets and smartphones, along with reliable wifi everywhere ensure that we are continuously and reliable connected, which means that we have to devise strategies to manage the volume and types of social interactions and these technologies give us the tools to do just that but this changes the ways we do a lot of things:

“Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times— or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks— and private wristwatches— regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs— not their clocks.

To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.” (Loc. 2662)

In a way, one could argue that location is making a comeback as we more or less automatically update our locations at all times on social networking platforms. Technologies and platforms then give more flexibility in our opportunities for interaction and how we present ourselves in these interactions (Goffman would have a field day with this stuff), something that Rainie and Wellman call connected presence (interaction through technology without physical presence), absent presence (the annoying habit of checking one’s email / texts / Facebook timeline / Twitter feed while interacting with someone f2f), or present absence (incorporation of absent people to f2f interactions through technology). So, we are more or less always on at multiple levels but there is a bit of cultural lag as we try to figure out the proper norms to navigate these interactions. Is it rude to check your email while in f2f interaction with someone (a BIG one for teachers!)? How long and loud are you expected to gab on your cell phone in a public space? Etc. We are still working those out. And a lot of us as guided by a new anxiety: FOMO (fear of missing out). How many ultra-important tweets have I missed while writing up this blog post? Answer: none, I have my iPad on with a Twitter client open. I am typing this in Chrome with tabs open in Facebook, Google Reader, and others.

Having those basics in place, then, the book follows with a series of chapters on the ways the Triple Revolution has worked its way (as cause and effect) into our relationships and social institutions (such as family and work). That is where the main message of “the sky is not falling” comes through loud and clear. The authors also address why the digital dualism persists. Digital dualism refers to the preeminence of f2f interaction as “real” interaction and virtual ones as a defective, debased form of sociability because it does not involve all the bodily stuff that enrich interaction and all the other layers of subtle interactive clues that give rich texture to encounters. Digital dualism assumes the absence of all these dimensions of interaction and therefore declares it a poor substitute. The underlying assumption here is that individuals interact with different people f2f and online, which is simply not the case. It also ignores the fact that there are various ways of enriching virtual interactions (smileys come to mind) and that individuals integrate them in their communication toolkit and use them depending on the context of the interaction. But all of this does not lead to isolation but to what the authors call flexible autonomy:

“The personalized and mobile connectivity enhanced by the Triple Revolution and the weakening of group boundaries have helped relationships move from place-to-place networks to individualized person-to-person networks. Most have private internet connections and personal mobile phones, and their own cars. Lower numbers of children mean parents need to spend less time at home raising them. There are fewer children to keep parents housebound. The loosening of religious, occupational, and ethnic boundaries also encourages interpersonal free agentry.

Rather than ties between households or work groups, people connect as individuals to other individuals, in person-to-person networks. They maneuver through multiple sets of ties that shift in importance and contact by the day. Each person engages in multiple roles at home, with friends and relatives, and at work or school. Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other. These loose linkages do not imply a complete untethering of social relations: There are only a few isolates “bowling alone.” Most people are connecting in shifting networks rather than in solidary groups. Such networks provide diversity, choice, and maneuverability at the probable cost of overall cohesion and long-term trust.

While place-to-place networks show how community has transcended local boundaries, person-to-person networks show how community has transcended group boundaries. It is the individual— and not the household, kinship group, or work group— that is the primary unit of connectivity. The shift puts people at the center of personal networks that can supply them with support, sociability, information, and a sense of belonging. People connect in person and via ICTs. Their networking activities shift as their needs shift. While network members relate to each other as persons, they often emphasize certain roles. They are bosses to their employees, husbands to their wives, friends to their friends, and so on— with somewhat different norms for each network.

Networked individualism means that people’s involvement in multiple networks often limits their involvement in and commitment to any one network. It is not as if they are going to the village square every day to see the same crowd. Because people can maneuver among milieus, their multiple involvements decrease the control that each milieu has over their behavior. Yet limited involvements work both ways. If a person is only partially involved in a milieu, then the participants in that milieu often are not as committed to maintaining that person’s well-being.” (Loc. 3234)

The idea of the networked self then, I think, is very close to Beck and Bauman’s notion of individualization that the condition of liquid modernity and risk society and flexible autonomy also refers back to the idea of the self as aself-constructed project where individuals have to assemble their own capital (including social) and resources in the absence of the institutional and structural support (i.e. generalized precarization). Individualization is a concept much less benign than flexible autonomy but the authors are not naive:

“Living in person-to-person networks has profound implications both for individuals and for the social milieus and overall societies that they are in. Networked individualism downloads the responsibility— and the burden— of maintaining personal networks on the individual. Networked individuals often have time binds, since they are constantly negotiating plans with disconnected sets of individuals within their expanding network. Active networking is more important than going along with the group. Acquiring resources depends substantially on personal skill, individual motivation, and maintaining the right connections.” (Loc 3257)

So, it is up to the networked individual to manage her networks and social capital. But these changes have also affected families (in addition to the changes brought about by changes in gender roles, the economy, etc.). The family itself now has porous boundaries and can be considered a network in itself. Family scholars will not be surprised by any of this. ICTs have accompanied and amplified these structural changes more than they have caused them but they are now thoroughly embedded in family dynamics both in terms of bonding and bridging links, within the family and outside of it. Here again, the sky is not falling and texting is not destroying families.

“Networked families have adapted to the Triple Revolution. They use ICTs to bridge barriers of time and space, weakening the boundaries between public and private life spaces. The mounting and interrelated changes in the composition of households— such as the life-cycle complexities of marriage and divorce and decisions to have children— mean that today’s households are varied, complex, and evolving. Networked families use ICTs to mediate these complexities and adapt ICTs to their varied needs.

(…)

Not only have families changed in size and composition, they have also changed in their lifestyles. ICTs have become thoroughly embedded in families’ everyday lives, helping them stay connected and in motion. The internet and mobile phones connect family members as they move around, help them find each other, and bring them together for joint work and play. The result is that ICTs— often in conjunction with personal automobiles— have paradoxically provided household members with the ability to go their separate ways while at the same time keeping them more connected. Families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” (Loc 4461)

Similar changes have affected the organization of work and there has been a lot of ink spent already on the networked organization in the context of economic globalization, so, no need to belabor that point. But on a more micro level, we have seen the emergence of the networked worker, taken out of the office or the cubicle in a less hierarchical organization, capable to work everywhere at any time thanks to ICTs and for whom boundaries between home and work, between private and public time are blurry. 

And then there are the ways in which ICTs and social networking technologies revolutionize the way media and news content is produced and consumed:

“In the print-dominant era of news, news stories could have a handful of elements: headlines, narrative texts, photos, graphics, sidebar stories, and “pull quotes” that featured people cited in the article. In the digital age, the number of features of a news story could rise to over fifty items as websites could contain links to other stories and primary resources, spaces for readers to add their own comments, tags and pictures, links to archives of stories and timelines, full transcripts of interviews, audio material, video clips, background material from the reporter about the process of gathering the story, photo albums, details about the reporter such as a biography and an archive of her previous work. In other words, web treatment of news provides fuller context than print media because of the associations that can be built into a story such as links to background material, other stories, archives of past coverage, as well as newsmakers and organizations mentioned. Among other things, the digital, linked format invites browsing and “horizontal” reading through links, rather than linear “vertical” reading.

This display of digital material also invites challenge, amplification, and adjustment by users of the news site. Networked individuals can now respond to stories more easily and in more ways than they ever could in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers. With commenting features embedded within news stories, readers can immediately post their thoughts and opinions— not only for the editorial team to see but also for anyone else who happens to be reading that same article. With links to the writers’ email addresses or Twitter accounts, readers can communicate directly with journalists and may sometimes receive a response with greater speed than they would have in the days when readers would mail in their comments and await their publication— if they even made it to publication. Online follow-up chat sessions also give readers the opportunity to discuss matters directly with the journalists in real time.

(…)

Compared to the print environment, then, data in the digital environment are denser, broader, and deeper. The digitalization of news thus offers the potential for richer coverage and therefore deeper understanding. Moreover, decisions about the structure and hierarchy of content found online, on how to allocate attention, and on how to respond are now likely to rest in the hands of both the traditional editorial professionals and ordinary networked individuals. ” (Loc 6034)

This is an experience familiar to anyone who consumes their news online not through media outlets per se but through Newsreaders, Twitter and other filtering and curating technologies. Talking back to “experts” is also a new experience. To experience the news outside of traditional media is also new. One only has to think of the Arab Spring and similar social movements to realize that networking also creates news, as much as media organizations.

The authors also touch upon a topic that is important: that of surveillance. Even though that topic is not really developed, they do bring in a couple of additional concepts: where surveillance usually refers to governments and corporations monitoring what we do, produce and consume, co-veillance refers to mutual surveillance and monitoring of behavior online. We google people. We check out their Facebook profiles, etc. And there is sousveillance, that is, the riff-raff watching the elites, politicians and organization and reporting to online communities (often for the purpose of public shaming). But all this overall means we have all learned to live without much privacy and we need to factor that in to what we do online.

The book then ends with a set of recommendations on how to thrive in the networked context that is more and more shaping our lives, such as “segment your identity”, “learn to function in different contexts” or “be aware of invisible audiences”… maybe I should give that (fairly extensive) list to my students. But the authors also argue that in order to thrive and succeed, individuals need (and sometimes already have) new forms of literacy:

  • Graphic literacy
  • Navigation literacy
  • Context and connections literacy
  • Focus literacy
  • Multitasking literacy
  • Skepticism literacy
  • Ethical literacy
  • Networking literacy

Because the Triple Revolution is not quite over and the trends noted throughout the book are still unfolding. Legislations are still being drafted and avidly debated, especially things having to do with Net Neutrality and privacy. Informal norms of online etiquette are far from settled (especially, I might add, in the context of online rabid misogyny).

Again, as I mentioned above, this is a relatively optimistic book so there is limited critical examination of the dark side of all these things. This is something that will frustrate readers as the idea of networked individualism seems to erase issues of class, race and gender (among others) that are not addressed in the book. So, this is not by any means a complete examination of networking but it is a solid and engaging starting point.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Globalization, Identity, Labor, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Privacy, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Change, Social Institutions, Social Interaction, Social Research, Socialization, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Technology | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Twitter Traffic and Students Social Movement in Quebec

July 6, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Via Fabien Deglise – where else? – on Twitter, in French (bien sur), this visualization from Radio Canada (click on the image for a larger view):

On the left are the hashtags and names / users that generated the most traffic through Twitter. The red spikes at the bottom reflect the volume correlated with specific events in meatware (demonstrations). Every dot is a tweet and the clusters reflect common themes and topics such as “statements from political parties”, “positive comments on the demonstrations” (you can figure them out even if you don’t read French). The whole thing must be read from left to right, that is, as things unfolded chronologically.

The whole thing creates a mapping and networking of the social movement and its relations to physical events as well as other factors happening outside of the web (speeches, statements). No digital dualism here. There are strong correlations between what happens on the streets and in physical reality and on the web.

Posted in Networks, Social Movements, Technology | No Comments »

The Fancy Concept Du Jour – Cascading Network Activation

July 5, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

Thank Manuel Castells for that one (adapted from Entman, 2004:10):

So what does this mean, exactly? This diagram was used to illustrate the way influence is exercised in society, what Castells calls a hierarchy of influence because not all players have the same ability to set the agenda, prime the public, frame issues and index them. Actually, these four processes (agenda-setting, priming, framing, and indexing) are the main mechanisms through which influence is exercised.

In the diagram, Castells was using the example of the shaping of opinion in the running up to the war in Iraq where the public opinion was fed a daily dose of untruths cascading downwards from the administration. Many people continue to this day to believe some of these lies even though they have been since thoroughly debunked. The full arrows mark the cascading hierarchy, with the administration setting the agenda. Other elites (such as other foreign governments or the UN and other such international fora) contribute to priming the agenda (something also done by the media). Priming refers to the process of creating determined associations in people’s minds between element of the agenda the administration wants to push and certain benchmarks or standards through which events or actions by leaders will be evaluated. Like priming a pump, the public has to be primed to think in certain ways about certain issues. Associated with this is the more familiar process of framing, that is, of selecting and highlighting elements of events, connecting them into a coherent narrative that supports the set agenda.  And finally, the process of indexing that is, how actors in the media rank the importance of issues based on governments statements.

The dotted arrows mark the potential for resistance against this hierarchy of influence. For instance, the public can resist the framing done by the media by either selecting other media (such as watching the BBC or Al-Jazeera in English coverage of specific events like the assassination of Osama bin Laden or the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya) or “talk back” to the media through social networking platforms such as Twitter. Other elites can also resist the agenda-setting of the administration (as a few governments did before Operation Iraqi Freedom… remember the Freedom Fries).

Nevertheless, as Castells argues, frame dominance (usually by whichever entity is at the top of the cascade) is the norm and frame parity (the successful challenge of a dominant frame by less powerful groups) is the exception.

As Castells puts it:

“Activation at each level of the cascade depends on how much information is communicated in a particular set of framings. What passes from one level to another is based on selective understanding. Motivations play a key role in effectiveness of framing at each level of the cascade. Participants in the process of communication are cognitive misers who will select information on the basis of the habits. (…) Elites select the frames that advance their political careers. Media professionals select the news that can be most appealing to audiences without risking retaliation from powerful players. People tend to avoid emotional dissonance, thus they look for media that support their views. For instance, when people try to escape the cascading process in one media system because of their disagreement with the frames, they search for online news from foreign sources. (…) The global network of news media offers the public an alternative when framing in one particular media context fails to win acceptance or subdue resistance. Indeed, media framing is not an irresistible determination of people’s perceptions and behavior.” (Communication Power, 164 – 5)

Posted in Media, Networks, Power | No Comments »

Loïc Wacquant Gets It Wrong on Digital Dualism

June 4, 2012 by and tagged , ,

It is disappointing to find someone of the caliber of Loïc Wacquant getting so sloppy and lazily going with the common trope that social media platforms are debased forms of communication and interaction in the June 2012 issue of Philosophie Magazine (thanks to my Twitter colleague Enklask for a copy of the interview). The interview is in French, so, I’ll give a rough translation as it is very brief and revolves around three questions. My comments will be in blue:

1. In what ways is the short format detrimental to thought, comprehension, and argumentation?

Wacquant argues that the short format is an invitation to intellectual laziness as it promotes soundbites with no depth and whose content is simplistic and superficial. To communicate in 140 characters about everything and anything, all the time, as is now fashionable, is not the same as articulating one’s thought. To tweet is to wrap oneself into an immediate present, without reflexion, perspective or nuance, and without ever examining the complexity of an object.

Ok, frankly, this sounds a lot like your elderly next door neighbor telling kids to get off his lawn and this falls into the familiar trope of creating hierarchies of thought and interaction according to standards that are never disclosed and examined themselves (which, in the case of a Bourdieusian scholar, is quite ironic). These hierarchies, of course, privilege, and declare true and authentic, privileged modes of communication (acquired through the proper habitus and the proper education) based on dominant cultural capital.

To assume and use such hierarchies is an act of power in claiming one’s practice as the one deep, true, and authentic form of communication and interaction and thought and to dismiss others as superficial, unsophisticated, simplistic and whichever other expressions of social contempt are relevant in the context.

I am quite sure that we could easily find examples, years back, of people deploring the superficial nature of telephonic communication over the written letter and its depth and perspective, as opposed to the immediacy of the phone conversation. So now, Twitter is the new culprit, the new superficial communication mode that debases and damages true communication and interaction. This goes along with the now-common trope of treating virtual communication through a variety of platforms as debased version of the one true and authentic form of interaction: the face-to-face encounter.

This hierarchization completely fails to examine different media in themselves. Who decided Twitter should be about in-depth  philosophical examination? Why should it be? One thing that does get done on Twitter is to exchange links to a variety of other materials that do get in-depth and that might go unnoticed by a lot of people if short links did not circulate on social media platforms (like this interview, which I would not have heard of if it weren’t for Twitter… this blog post will be posted on Twitter as well, therefore giving this topic a second layer of circulation and potential discussion and maybe more). 

These social media platforms are quite diverse (blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Posterous, aggregators such as Reddit, etc.) and are used differently by a variety of users for their own purposes. One does not need to be a full-fledged cyber-utopian to recognize the multiplicity of uses for all these media.

2. Why is it that thinking requires space and time for its full deployment?

Thinking is not an individual, instantaneous and solitary, activity. It is collective. As Gaston Bachelard argues in The Formation of The Scientific Mind, thinking is the product of a community of minds in communication with each other. It is the product of a “cogitamus” (“we think”) that needs space to expand and time to mature.

Thinking then deepens by piercing the crust of appearances and questioning the doxic reasoning. Or to break with common sense specific to a specific scholastic universe (philosophical, sociological, theological, or literary, etc.) requires tenacity and effort. Wittgenstein noted in Remarques mélées that with thought, “there is a time to plow and a time to reap”. Both activities require time.

I hope I am not the only one to see a glaring irony here because I think that is one thing that tools like Twitter (and yes, it’s a tool, it does not produce content, it spreads it throughout networks) do well is to connect individual and create communities of minds organized in flexible and informal networks (rather than rigid scholastic and academic communities bound by strict rules of tenure and “publish and perish” in specific closed publications, with blind and anonymous reviews that may very well stifle rather than promote communities of minds).

More than that, social media platforms have a very low price of entry so participation is not drastically confined to academic elites. I would tend to think it’s a good thing. I am not sure how many members of the academic elite fully engage with Twitter (Saskia Sassen is intermittently on). In my limited knowledge, I can only name Barry Wellman (which is not a big surprise considering his field of expertise). Maybe there are others. But the point is academia, as a community of scholars, has a strict hierarchy (and it is in display in all its aristocratic glory at every major academic conference) that might get shaken up by social networking. And maybe that is part of where the issue is: the leveling effect of social networking platform where one’s academic titles might not receive the respect and deference holders might think they are entitled to. Hence, the trashing of the medium as superficial, simplistic, etc.

This argument have been thrown at Twitter and blogs by journalists for years. That was a weak argument then, and it is still weak now.  Nathan Jurgenson has called this argument digital dualism: the claimed (but never examined) superiority of jounalism / academic discourse / (name your preferred mode of communication, especially if it is f2f, long form, etc.) over electronic forms of communication. 

3. Is the dominance of the short format inevitable? Are we leaving the era of the grand systems, in philosophy, in sociology, and the corresponding monumental work that accompanied it?

When did the tweet proclaiming this so-called “dominance” as ephemeral as it is fictive appear? In the long term, the short format fills the empty spaces of the day and the interstices of intellectual communication. It is a means of entertainment, not thought. Who remembers a tweet three hours after it’s been sent? What is left of a chat the day after its posting? What is the worth of all the editorials of the 10 currently most fashionable philosophers compared the 800 pages of Bourdieu’s lectures at the College de France, which are the products of a multiform thinking on symbolic power over the past thirty years. The more “philosophical tweeting” spreads, the more necessary great works are as antidote to against fleeting illusions of the “thought-a-minute”.

Ok, nice example of a category mistake or comparing apples to oranges. Twitter does not produce content, it spreads it, as I mentioned above. I would argue that the rise of the network society has not abolished the need and relevance of major works, as the work of Castells and many, many others continues to show. It takes serious blinders to ignore all the work done in that field. 

The thing is it is not an either/or dualism. We need the great works of academics, produced the old-fashioned academic way, and we need to flexibility, speed and platform diversity of social networking tools to spread that work as far and wide as we can. I think academic who maintain a blase attitude towards them are fighting a losing and needless battle. What are the chances of anybody reading Bourdieu’s 800 pages of lecture beyond a small population of academic? There has to be a better way to diffuse Bourdieu’s work, no? Or are we to sneer at whoever has not read the whole body of work? And by the way, someone using Pierre Bourdieu’s handle on Twitter is doing the work of aggregating resources in all sorts of formats, creating an invaluable collection.

And no one gives fashionable media figures and pseudo-intellectuals a harder time than the Twitter crowd, thereby challenging the dominant doxa. Frankly, what Wacquant spews out in this interview is the most tired clichés about social media platforms, commonly spread in the mainstream media, by elite media figures (remember that piece on how Facebook makes us lonely in the Atlantic?). Wacquant is not challenging some dominant media form here, he is defending the status quo and the dominant doxa.

Disappointing.

Posted in Media, Networks, Technology | 2 Comments »

And Thank FSM for That…

May 14, 2012 by and tagged , , ,

From Manuel Castells’s Communication Power, discussing the regulatory framework of the digital communication system:

“The impromptu evolution of Internet regulation and management parallels the serendipitous maturation of the Internet as the communication commons of the network society (Abbate, 1999; Castells, 2001; Movius, forthcoming). When first deployed in 1969, ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet, was an experimental computer networking program originated in DARPA, the US Defense Department research agency, and largely run by the scientists and engineers who created it. In 1970, the Defense Department offered to transfer its operation and property ATT. After weighing the possibility for a few weeks, ATT did not see any commercial interest in ARPANET, and declined the offer (Abbate, 1999). Thanks to this monumental shortsightedness of ATT’s part, and to the inability of Microsoft to understand the significance of the Internet, the world became what it is today. So much for technological determinism.” (103)

As Todd Krohn would say, LOL. Also, thank FSM (or whichever imaginary friend one may believe in) for corporate incompetence.

Now, just for fun, imagine, if you will, an Internet completely designed and controlled by AT&T. Now, go have nightmares. You’re welcome.

Posted in Corporatism, Networks, Public Policy, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Darkmarket

April 14, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

The darker side of the global economy is Misha Glenny‘s domain of predilection (see his previous book, McMafia on that). In Darkmarket, Cyberthieves, Cybercops, and You, he tackles the hacking world through an investigation into several Internet forums dedicated by carders for carders (carders are these people who steal your credit card numbers and PINs and use them to make money, a thriving business in the global economic / easy credit age).

While McMafia was about old-fashioned organized criminal networks as they adapted to the borderless, global environment created by the end of communism and the triumph of neoliberalism, Darkmarket is about the new breed of organized criminality, using the tools of 21st century technology.

The structure of the book is roughly similar to that of McMafia. Glenny follows a bunch of individuals, which gives us an insider look at their criminal world. The positive side of this is that it creates a fascinating narrative. The downside is that, at some point, it gets harder to see the forest from the multiplicity of trees. It is hard to get a grip of the larger context, extent of the problem and other objective, macro data on this (if they exist). So, in Darkmarket, we follow the rise and fall of the major carder forums (Carder Planet, Shadowcrew, Carder Market and Darkmarket) as well as that of their major players (minus one, still at large at the end of the book). So, anyhoo, here is what I could tease out on the macro side.

Among the individuals we follow throughout the book are also the cops who try to stop carders around the world, from the US, all over Europe and in Turkey. It is half-amusing, half-depressing to find the old-fashioned bureaucratic patterns being reproduced in law enforcement (with the US Secret Services conducting its own carding-busting operation without telling the FBI, doing the same, of course, and both agencies competing for resources and who will catch carders first).

Hacking as crime poses specific problems for law enforcement:

“We now find ourselves in a situation where this minuscule elite (call them geeks, technos, hackers, coders, securocrats, or what you will) has a profound understanding of a technology that every day directs our lives more intensively and extensively, while most of the rest of us understand absolutely zip about it.” (Loc. 81)

As the book shows, law enforcement agencies are still playing catch-up with technology and knowledge and hackers are always ahead of the game.

And then, of course, the global nature of Internet criminality:

“Most importantly, it is much much harder to identify when people are up to no good on the Web. Laws governing the Internet vary greatly from country to country. This matters because in general a criminal act over the Web will be perpetrated from an IP (Internet Protocol) address in one country against an individual or corporation in a second country, before being realised (or cashed out) in a third. A police officer in Colombia, for example, may be able to identify that the IP address coordinating an assault on a Colombian bank emanates from Kazakhstan. But then he discovers that this is not considered a crime in Kazakhstan, and so his opposite number in the Kazakh capital will have no reason to investigate the crime.” (Loc. 107)

And all this takes place in the context of the ever-expanding surveillance society where both governments and corporations compete over who is going to grab most of our information for their own purposes. Take encryption, for instance:

“The political implications of digital encryption are so immense that the government of the United States started to classify encryption software in the 1990s as ‘munitions’, while in Russia should the police or KGB ever find a single encrypted file on your computer, you could be liable for several years in jail, even if the document only contains your weekly shopping list. As governments and corporations amass ever more personal information about their citizens or clients, encryption is one of the few defences left to individuals to secure their privacy. It is also an invaluable instrument for those involved in criminal activity on the Web.” (Loc. 153)

Pursuing cybercriminality is a tricky game. One can always try to infiltrate forums where carders meet and exchange tricks of the trade and do business with each other. Figuring out with whom one is interacting is incredibly difficult as hackers and carders are justifiably paranoid to an extreme degree. From Glenny’s writing, one would thing that all these guys (and they are all guys) are all 15 year olds that never left high school. Forums are ridden with cliques, ingroup / outgroup conflicts where accusation of being from law enforcement are thrown around, individuals get taken down and thrown out of the forums on the basis of rumors started by business rivals. Trust is the main currency and it is hard to come buy, so, these forums are strictly monitored by administrators (criminals themselves) who manage the whole environment very closely.

And, of course, fighting cybercriminality means having to deal with the banks who issue thee credit cards:

“The attitude of most banks to cybercrime is ambiguous. While writing this book, a gentleman from my bank, NatWest, called me and asked if I had made any recent purchase at a jewellers in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Furthermore, he enquired whether I had spent 4,000 francs settling a bill with Swiss Telecom. I said that I had not. I was then told that my NatWest Visa card had been compromised, that I would need a new one, but that I could be safe in the knowledge that NatWest had cancelled the £3,000 for which the card had been fraudulently used. Like everyone else who goes through that experience, I was hugely relieved when the bank gently reassured me that I was not liable.

But who is actually paying for that? The bank? No, they are insured against such losses. The insurance company? No, because they set the premiums at a level that ensures they don’t lose out. So maybe it is the bank after all, given that they’re paying the premiums? Yes. But they recoup the money by levelling extra charges on all consumers. Essentially, bank fraud is paid for by all bank customers.

This is something that banks understandably do not wish to have widely advertised. Similarly, they do not like the public to learn how often their systems have been compromised by cyber criminals. Journalists find it impossible to get any information out of banks about the cyber attacks that rain down on them daily. That is understandable. What is less excusable is their frequent reluctance to work with police, in case the information be revealed in open court. By refusing to admit that their customers are victims of cybercrime, for fear of losing an edge against their competitors, banks are indirectly assisting the work of criminals.

(…)

Banks like to keep the extent of fraud quiet partly for competitive reasons and partly because they do not want their customers to demand a return to the old ways. Electronic banking saves them huge sums of money because the customer is carrying out tasks that were once the preserve of branches and their staff. If we were all to refuse to manage our finances via the Internet, banks would be compelled to reinvent the extensive network of branches through which they used to serve us. That would cost an awful lot of money and, as we now know, the banks have spent everything they have, along with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ cash, underwriting egregious speculative ventures and their obscenely inflated bonus payments.” (Loc. 581 – 600)

And in the Age of Plastic, there are billions of cards around, and huge sums of money available for the criminal creative class and a lot of members of carder forums are from former communist countries where they are more or less left alone by law enforcement as long as they don’t mess with Russia.

So Carder Planet was the first of its kind and it lasted four years but it eventually fell, and in its place emerged a whole bunch of new forums dedicated to the same activities with a global reach:

“Websites modelled on CarderPlanet sprang up everywhere: theftservices.com, darknet.com, thegrifters.net and scandinaviancarding.com. There were many more, including one bound by the delightful acronym parodying American academic communities, IAACA (International Association for the Advancement of Criminal Activity).

But none succeeded like Shadowcrew during its two years of existence. And RedBrigade was one of the many carders on Shadowcrew who hit the jackpot. Law enforcement was just beginning to become aware of the extent of the business. Banks were effectively clueless, ordinary folk oblivious.

Hackers were streets ahead, and Mammon ruled everywhere – the hedge-fund managers, the oligarchs, the oil sheikhs, the Latin American mobile-phone moguls, the newly empowered black economic elite in South Africa, the old white economic elite in South Africa, Chinese manufacturers of global knick-knacks, techno gurus from Bangalore to Silicon Valley.

Hundreds of carders made vast fortunes during Shadowcrew, many of them sufficiently naive to piss it all away on the trappings of arriviste wealth. In those days there were no checks on your computer’s IP address when you made purchases over the Web. There was no Address Verification System on the credit card: you could ship goods anywhere in the world (except Russia and other former Soviet countries), regardless of where the card was issued, and nobody would cross-check it at any stage.

This novel crime took root well beyond its Ukrainian- and Russian-language nursery. It began to globalise spontaneously. RedBrigade recalled how established Asian criminals would now communicate with college kids from Massachusetts who were talking to East Europeans, whose computers overflowed with credit-card ‘dumps’. Behind some of the nicknames on Shadowcrew were criminal agglomerates like All Seeing Phantom, revered among his peers.” (Loc. 1466)

It is amazing that anyone can make any sense of this, let alone infiltrate it and identify the main participants and administrators in these operations.

But carding is only one form of Internet threat. Glenny identifies three:

  1. cybercrime: including carding, the theft and cloning of credit-card data for financial gain;
  2. cyber industrial espionage;
  3. cyberwarfare: the design and manufacture of both defensive and offensive cyber weapons.

And to that last, government have responded with a militarization of cyberspace:

“Computing networks had become so critical a part, both of the Defense Department’s infrastructure and of its offensive and defensive operational capability, that Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, made the momentous decision to create a new military domain – cyberspace. This fifth military domain – a sibling to land, sea, air and space – is the first-ever man-made sphere of military operations, and the rules surrounding combat in it are almost entirely opaque. Along with the domain, the Pentagon has set up USCYBERCOMMAND to monitor hostile activity in cyberspace and, if necessary, plan to deploy offensive weapons like Stuxnet. For the moment, the US is the acknowledged leader in the cyber offensive capability.” (Loc. 2774)

One can only imagine the level of surveillance and violation of any kind of legality happening.

The presence of Turkey as a hub for cybercriminality itself is an interesting example of global development:

“After the millennium Turkey had become an increasingly attractive venue for hackers, crackers and cyber criminals. In the late 1990s much cyber criminal activity had clustered in certain regions of the so-called BRIC countries. An economist from Goldman Sachs had conferred this acronym on Brazil, Russia, India and China as the leading countries of the emerging markets, the second tier of global power after the G8 (though, politically, Russia straddles the two).

The BRICs shared important social and economic characteristics. Their economies were moving and opening after several decades of stagnation. They had large populations whose combined efforts registered huge growth rates, while a resurgence in exuberant and sometimes aggressive nationalism accompanied the transition to the status of dynamic global actor. Their education systems offered excellent basic skills. But, combined with extreme inequalities of wealth, this spawned a new class of young men, poor and unemployed, but – in contrast to earlier generations – with great material aspirations as they absorbed the consumer messages that are an intrinsic part of globalisation. To meet these aspirations, a minority started beavering away in Internet cafés, safe from detection by law enforcement or indeed anyone else, where they found myriad online opportunities to educate themselves in the art of hacking.

Turkey qualified as an honorary BRIC, with an economy that, when compared to Russia’s, for example, looked much more dynamic. The country’s population, at around eighty million, and its growth rates were increasing even faster than those of the acknowledged BRICs. Everyone recognised its strategic importance, nestling against the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea while bordering Bulgaria, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia: there is barely a neighbour that hasn’t experienced a major upheaval or war in the past two decades. The unpredictable has been ever present in Turkish politics but, as the millennium turned, Turkey’s burgeoning economic power and sophistication emphasised its pivotal role in several vital geo-strategic regions – the Middle East, Central Asia, the Black Sea and the Balkans.” (Loc. 2949)

Turkey is where the heart of Darkmarket was and the whole unravelling of the organization makes for a great read, involving kidnapping, beatings, double agents, women, just like any good thriller and the new character of the virtual criminal. But even though traditional criminal organizations tend to look at hackers as amateurs and second class citizens of the underworld, Darkmarket showed that such a conception was no longer sustainable. DM was a complex organization with different circles and divisions of labor:

  • The first were the administrators, moderators and others holding senior ‘bureaucratic’ positions on the site. These tended to be men with advanced hacking skills and certainly fluent computer skills who were not really making money (except for the big honcho).
  • The second circle mostly comprised skilful experienced criminals who worked largely on their own.
  • The third circle was home to highly professional criminals who were virtually invisible – unknown except by myth and reputation to the police and their fellow carders. Those were the ones making the real money.

But the whole operation was so mysterious, even DM has been shut down, no one knows for sure whether all the main actors have been identified and arrested, whether the site has been reconstituted further underground. There is absolutely no certainty in that domain.

So, mix all that with individual cases of hackers and you have a pretty compelling read, divided in 40 really short chapters. That was all well and good until we get to the little steaming pile that Glenny drops towards the end of the book. Throughout the book, you can tell that Glenny has a certain admiration for the hackers he writes about. He finds them intelligent and resourceful. So, his big idea is that throwing them in prison is a waste because they are so smart and they could be used for some other purpose and they are such nice guys after all. The real BS comes when Glenny invokes some evo psych garbage on the male brain versus female brain to explain why hackers are almost exclusively men.

There is no doubt that this is a macho / manly / dudely universe, but it is not because women don’t have the brain for it. It is more because of this:

“By now, it should surprise no one to hear that software development is a bit of a boys’ club. We’ve all read editorials bemoaning the lack of women in tech.

The easy explanation is that programming appeals more to a male mind-set. But while it’s easy, it’s also cheap. Things aren’t nearly so simple.

(…)

Some say the problem is our education system. Schools and colleges should be doing more to encourage girls and young women to explore computing. Right now that’s not happening. Overall enrollment in university computer science programs is up 10 percent from last year, but enrollment among women is down.

Others say companies should provide the encouragement. Some companies already are; Etsy, for example, is offering $50,000 in grants to send women to its Hacker School training program in New York City this summer.

That’s admirable, but it falls short of addressing the real problem, which is that software development isn’t just failing to attract women. It’s actively pushing them away. Worse, they’re not the only ones.

(…)

There are women who have a genuine passion for programming to rival any man. But even if they manage to get hired over their male counterparts, they often find themselves in hostile, male-dominated work environments.

“As the woman, I’ve been the only person in the group asked to put together a potluck,” writes Katie Cunningham, a Python developer at Cox Media Group. “I’ve been the only one asked to take notes in a meeting, even if I’m the one who’s presenting. I once had a boss who wanted to turn me into a personal assistant so badly, it ended up in a meeting with HR.”

Just as harmful, she says, were the casual jokes and comments from her male coworkers. If she didn’t shrug them off with a smile, she was told she had a bad attitude. Cunningham says the subtle sexism she encountered as a programmer was so discouraging that she once considered leaving the field for good. “I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out,” she writes.

These problems certainly aren’t limited to programming. Women in all sorts of fields face similar discrimination. But the software development field’s hostility toward women may be symptomatic of a broader malady.”

And there is tons of research on the subject. And those of us old enough to have been around the Internet for a while remember the Kathy Sierra fiasco. There is no need to invoke some mysterious element of the male brain that make them better at coding and hacking. It is good old fashioned mysogyny. That nonsense was a bad way to end an otherwise interesting book.

Posted in Book Reviews, Global Governance, Globalization, Networks, Organized Crime, Technology | No Comments »

The Long Version

April 10, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , ,

That is the rule of the game: when you get interviewed by the media, what you say / write always get reduced to a couple of points and that is very frustrating. Us academics don’t do short soundbites. So, I was interviewed for a piece in major newspaper on the subject of teens asking celebrities to be their prom dates. Here is the longer version of my contribution on the interaction of social networking platforms and celebrity culture.

1. Social networking platforms have a leveling effect and tend to make hierarchies disappear. So, whether on Twitter or Facebook, people talk back to public figures, be they politicians, public officials, journalists or celebrities. And by talk back, I mean challenge their expertise or status. No one can throw their weight around and hide behind a status to be exempt from such challenges. Twitter users enjoy arguing and discussing, so, there is no point in using one’s status as a joker card.

2. Social networking platforms also amplify what sociologist Mark Granovetter (back in the 80s) has called “the strength of weak ties”: the idea that weak ties (loose and intermittent connections) can have stronger benefits for individuals in terms of building social capital (your network of connections which you can activate at any time for a variety of purposes, such as finding a job or finding a prom date) than strong ties (deep, continuous connections, such as those you have with you parents, close relatives, etc.). So, smart users of social networking platforms do not just use them to reinforce already existing strong ties (such as befriending your siblings and already-existing friends on Facebook) but to develop broad and wide weak ties.

3. As such, social networking platforms reduce the “6 degrees of separation” story (I think it is actually between 3 and 4 degrees now); we can get connected to a lot of people, including celebrities in just one click of a “follow” (on Twitter) or “like” (on Facebook) button. So, no more playing the Kevin Bacon game, just tweet the guy or “like” him on Facebook.

4. All this also takes place in the larger context of the celebrity culture. However, the celebrity culture was always shaped by institutions and organizations that regulated relationships between celebrities and their fans. In the older studio era, Hollywood stars’ interactions with their fans were structured by groups and organizations that maintained a certain distance between the two.  Before the age of global media, if you wanted to get in touch with a celebrity, you have to write to a studio office or their agent. Your letter would land in a PO Box and an administrative assistant would send you back a signed photo or something like that. Even things like the Hollywood Canteen were carefully crafted and part of the whole “we’re in this together” that marked the WWII era celebrity culture. There was always a buffer between celebrities and fans so that celebrities were portrayed as both unattainable (the glamorous photo shoots) and “just like us” (movie stars cooking at home, just like “normal” Americans). This changed with the end of the studio era and the rise of the paparazzi-fed media.

5. The buffer has now pretty much disappeared. Put all those things together with a preexisting media culture (maintained through ‘traditional’ media such as magazine, TV channels such as TMZ or E!) and it is not surprising to see members of the general public taking the quick step of asking straight out a celebrity for a prom date. It is so quick and easy. Now, once a celebrity has a verified Twitter account, users know it is HIM or HER and they are only one link away from that celebrity. Add to that my #1 above leveling effect and they feel completely entitled to just ask (on Twitter, users are continuously asking celebrities for retweets and #FF for their causes or opinions, etc.)

6. One final thing: just asking a celebrity for a prom date is also part of the idea users share a lot (across social networking platforms), and there is also an expectations that celebrities should share more of themselves as well, on a personal level (not the carefully crafted photo shoots for magazines) but they do retain their status as celebrity. To have a verified account on Twitter is a sure sign that someone is somebody.

Again, the network society (an expression coined by sociologist Manuel Castells back in 1996 when he published a book by the same title) makes social capital and network connections a highly valued currency (something that scifi writer Cory Doctorow captured very well in his novel Down and Out in The Magic Kingdom) and so, even if the celebrity turns down the prom date request, the status of the person who asked is enhanced because the celebrity will have to also connect with the user, if only to say no. To receive retweets or mentions from celebrities on Twitter is a status marker. After all, if it is easier for users to talk back to celebrities and public figures, it is also easier for celebrities and public figures to talk back as well (as some have learned rather unfortunately… see: Anthony Weiner).

Posted in Culture, Media, Networks, Social Capital, Social Interaction, Sociology, Technology | No Comments »

Book Review – Communication Power – 1

April 7, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Since Manuel Castells is my sociologist of the semester, it is only fair that I devote some blogging space to his latest opus magnum (does he ever write any other kind?), Communication Power. Reviewing this book is probably going to take more than one post as Castells’s writing is so dense, it is hard to summarize and unpack in just a few words. Castells, of course, is the Max Weber of our times and is the one who most thoroughly studies the network society, and started doing so before it was cool.

So, I will dedicate the first few posts to the conceptual background of Castells’s theory of power in the network society. These concepts are the tools needed to follow along and truly get the depth of Castells’s thinking.

The central question of the book?

“Why, how, and by whom power relationships are constructed and exercised through the management of communication processes, and how these power relationships can be altered by social actors aiming for social change by influencing the public mind.” (3)

For Castells, the capacity to shape minds is the most fundamental form of power as it allows for the stabilization of domination, something that pure coercion cannot accomplish. Consent works better than using fear and makes it easier to actually exercise institutional power. And if, as Erik Olin Wright tells us, human behavior is mostly driven by norms, then, the more institutionalized these norms are, the more they will be embedded in our thinking and applied in everyday life as what comes naturally rather than compliance to power. It is in this sense that control of communication processes is a fundamental mechanism of power.

So, what is power:

“Power is the most fundamental process in society, since society is defined around values and institutions, and what is valued and institutionalized is defined by power relationships.

Power is the relational capacity that enables a social actor to influence  asymmetrically the decisions of other social actor(s) in ways that favor the empowerment of the actor’s will, interests and values. Power is exercised by means of coercion (or the possibility of it) and/or by the construction of meaning on the basis of the discourses through which social actors guide their action. Power relationships are framed by domination, which is the power that is embedded in the institutions of society.” (10)

I have emphasized the key concepts here. Social actor refers to not just individuals but also groups, organizations and institutions as well as any other kind of collective actors, including networks. Relational capacity, obviously, reflects that power is a relationship, not an attribute. There is no power outside of relationships between actors, some empowered and other subjected to power. And, in a very foucauldian way, Castells emphasizes right off the bat that power always involve resistance that can alter power relationships if it becomes strong enough to surpass compliance. If the powerful lose power, then, there is also institutional transformation, that is, structural change triggered by relational change.

For Castells, the imposition of power through sheer coercion is relationally non-social:

“If a power relationship can only be enacted by relying on structural domination backed by violence, those in power, in order to maintain their domination, must destroy the relational capacity of the resisting actor(s), thus canceling the relationship itself. (…) Sheer imposition of by force is not a social relationship because it leads to the obliteration of the dominated social actor, so that the relationship disappears with the extinction of one of its terms. It is, however, social action with social meaning because the use of force constitutes an intimidating influence  over the surviving subjects under similar domination, helping to reassert power relationships vis-à-vis these subjects.” (11)

Hence, the Capitol constantly reminding all 12 Districts of what happened to District 13 in the Hunger Games.

But for Castells, coercion is only one mechanism in a multilayered conception of power. And the more human minds can be shaped on behalf of specific interests and values, the less coercion and violence will be needed.  The construction of meaning to shape minds and to have these meanings embedded in institutions is important as they produce legitimation (see: Habermas) and legitimation is key to stabilize power relations, especially under the aegis of the state.

If there is no such construction of meaning, then, the state’s intervention in the public sphere will be exposed as an exercise in the defense of specific interests and naked power, triggering a legitimation crisis (does this sound familiar?). That is, the state will be seen as an instrument of domination rather than an institution of representation. There is no legitimation without consent based on shared meaning. This is why, under conditions of legitimation crisis, the state (or adjunct organizations) quickly relies on coercive mechanisms (macing, kettling, etc. all reflect this).

So, what are exactly the different layers of power?

“Violence, the threat to resort to it, disciplinary discourses, the threat to enact discipline, the institutionalization of power relationships as reproducible domination, and the legitimation process by which values and rules are accepted by the subjects of reference, are all interacting elements in the process of producing and reproducing power relationships in social practices in organizational forms.” (13)

And so, societies are not nice Parsonian communities sharing values and norms and interests, in a very Gemeinschaft / mechanical solidarity way. Social structures are, as Castells puts it, crystallized power relationships reflecting the state of never-ending conflict between opposing social actors and whose capacity to institutionalize their values and interests prevailed. And these social structures are themselves the products of processes of structuration that are multilayered and multiscalar (global, regional, national, local… that was a mouthful).

So,

“Power is not located in one particular social sphere or institution, but it is distributed throughout the entire realm of human action. Yet, there are concentrated expressions of power relationships in certain social forms that condition and frame the practice of power in society at large by enforcing domination. Power is relational, domination is institutional.” (15)

Power through multilayered and multiscalar structuration processes has a lot to do with globalization, which has not eradicated the nation-state but changed its nature (“the post-national constellation” as David Held – pre-disgrace – coined it) as part of global assemblages (Saskia Sassen). In that sense, Castells thinks that Michael Mann’s definition of societies as “constituted of multiple, overlapping and interacting sociospatial networks of power” still holds true. In the global age, the state is just one node of overlapping networks (military, political or institutional).

Next up, networks and the network society.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Global Civil Society, Global Governance, Globalization, Networks, Power, Social Change, Social Exclusion, Social Institutions, Social Theory, Sociology, Technology | No Comments »

Protecting Social Privilege = Not Wanting to Share Toys

April 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , ,

By now, you have all probably been exposed to the Hunger Games racist fiasco (neatly collected and curated here). The story goes something like this: once upon a time, a lot of young people (mostly white) read a trilogy and much enjoyed it. Unsurprisingly, the books were put into film production. When the initial casting was disclosed… Horror and Abomination… some parts had been given to *gasp* BLACK actors. One was obvious (Rue was described as dark-skinned in the book) but the main other (Cinna, not really described in the book) was shocking.

After all, no racial description means white, by default, right? Especially since Cinna is a good guy. Read the Tumblr entries and note how that is the issue. In our cultural and symbolic universe, white = goodness, purity, innocence, and black = darkness and other ominous qualities. By the time the first movie was released, the white young people were appalled that someone had taken their book and changed that one, all of a sudden, central characteristic… without asking them.

This goes back to a point I have made several times: the cultural schemes that guide and shape our experience and perception of others, cultural products and experiences are discreetly racist. The non-white casting just acted as a trigger for the racist background knowledge (in Alfred Schutz’s sense) and pushed that aspect to the forefront.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

And speaking of that, yesterday, came the earth-shattering news that Instagram had released an app for Android. Oh dear. The cool kids who have been using it through their Apple products were not pleased and they all unleashed their distress on Twitter:

See also here.

All of a sudden, someone had brought the out-group people to play with the in-group people, and that wasn’t cool at all. They were going to ruin the fun for everybody (from the in-group, that is. The out-group is made of nobodies).

Here is the lesson: when a group enjoys a certain privilege, whether in terms of race, economic or social status, part of the privilege is having, or having access to, something that others don’t have. In typical in-group logic, the “something” in question becomes “ours”, part of who we are, of what we experience and enjoy together, and this enjoyment is based on exclusion. The exclusion makes “us” feel special and deserving (even though the “something” is unearned).

Once a system opens up and the dreaded “others” (racial minorities, lower classes or *egad* Android users – who can also be totally snotty, I should add) have access to “our” special “something”. It feels like “we” are being dispossessed of what is rightfully “ours” even though “we” are the deserving ones and “they” are not. This reaction towards Instagram for Androids is very reminiscent of the resentment towards affirmative action: the resentment is based on the – thoroughly false – idea that whites got in college through exclusively their own merits while blacks had to be pushed there by the government. More than that, for every black making it to college, it is automatically assumed that a more qualified white got excluded.

Now, apps are not educational public policy but the logic of privilege still applies as well as that of ingroup v. out-group dynamics.

That being said, this made me laugh out loud (or LOL as the cool kids say):

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go download Instagram for Android, just because I know it will piss “them” off.

Posted in Culture, Media, Networks, Racism, Social Exclusion, Social Privilege, Technology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere

March 3, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

[This review is the opening salvo of a blog-to-blog dialogue on the subject of current anti-systemic social movements between this humble blog and the Mighty Corrente building. Corrente has been following the Occupy movement pretty closely, so I expect Lambert will have plenty to say on the subject over there. I also highly recommend David S. Meyer’s blog, Politics Outdoors, a solid blog on the sociology of politics and social movements.]

In case  you haven’t noticed, things have indeed been kicking off everywhere in the past year, between the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the British riots and the Occupy movement, to name only some of the most visible social movement of the past year. So, of course, this makes Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions highly relevant. Mason claims that the book is journalism, not social science, but he certainly makes use of sociologists of social movements throughout the book. The book itself is an easy and quick read in which chapters alternate between reporting from the ground and analysis from a variety of places where things have indeed been kicking off. So, as much as he might reject the designation, I would consider the book to stand solidly in the sociology of social movements. My only reservation is with the cyber-utopian stance that he adopts towards these movements. I am more of a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But again, the book is quite an interesting read and well-worth anyone’s time. Indeed, it is hard to put down. I read it over one weekend.

So, why is it kicking off everywhere? The story starts in Egypt, where, surprise, surprise, some degree of neoliberal policy was involved in heightening the discontent already present there, after decades of corrupt authoritarianism and cronyism:

“For sixty years, the zabbaleen had run Cairo’s trash collection system. They picked up the waste door to door, fed their pigs with the rotting organic matter and recycled the rest for cash, trading with a traditional caste of middlemen. But in 2003, as part of a privatization programme overseen by Mubarak’s son Gamal, three sanitation companies—two Spanish and one Italian—were brought in to ‘modernize’ the city’s waste collection. These outside firms were given cleaning contracts valued at US$50 million a year. Instead of door-to-door collection, they placed big plastic bins on street corners. Instead of recycling 80 per cent of solid waste—as the zabbaleen had managed to do—their contracts required that only 20 per cent be recycled, with the rest tipped into landfill. The transformation of Cairo’s refuse system was to be crowned by the eviction of the zabbaleen, whose slum was adjacent to a new residential property development planned by friends of Gamal Mubarak.

(…)

But the new system wasn’t working. Cairo’s residents refused to use the bins; in fact, many of the high-grade plastic containers were stolen and, with poetic justice, ended up being shredded and recycled by the zabbaleen. People began to dump their rubbish onto the streets or into the disused and abandoned buildings that scar Cairo’s streetscape. So, the new system needed an extra push. When the global swine flu epidemic broke, in 2009, the Mubaraks spotted an opportunity. The Egyptian parliament, circumventing its own health ministry and in defiance of UN advice, ordered all the zabbaleen’s pigs to be slaughtered. There had been no recorded transmission of swine flu from pigs to humans.

(…)

Across Egypt, an estimated 300,000 swine belonging to zabbaleen households were slaughtered; the government paid between $15 and $50 per pig in compensation, compared to the $80 to $300 they’d been selling for on the market. Soon, two things happened. With no pigs to eat the rotting food, the zabbaleen stopped collecting it, leaving it to pile up on the streets. Then malnutrition appeared among their children. For, says Guindi, though the multinational companies were getting $10 a tonne for waste, and the middlemen $2 out of that, the zabbaleen received nothing from the contract—only what they could make from the sale of recycled waste, and their pigs. Now something else happened, equally novel: the zabbaleen rioted. They hurled rocks, bottles and manure (there was plenty of that to hand) at the pig-slaughtering teams. In response, Mubarak deployed riot squads into the slums—followed, as always, by Central Security and its torturers.” (Loc. 170 – 90)

This, of course, is very reminiscent of what happened in Bolivia when the water got privatized under the aegis of the World Bank: service deteriorated, people got poorer (albeit for somewhat different reasons), livelihood got threatened, people took to the streets, governments react with violence. The Bolivia example is not mentioned in the book but here is a quick reminder:

And part 2:

It seems pretty obvious that the same causes lead to the same effects: see – austerity all over Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, especially). But Mubarak had been in synch with the rest of global elites who meets every year in Davos. Actually, most dictators who have been removed from power in the Arab Spring were good friends of Western power. Which is partly why Western media and political classes did not see it coming and were slow to react (I remember the initial reaction of the Sarkozy administration, via the Defense Minister, offering Tunisia’s Ben Ali riot control assistance in the early days of the uprising only to backtrack later in shame and embarrassment). Why?

According to Mason, two reasons explain this blind spot: (1) a stereotypical concept of the Arab world that would make Edward Said turn in his grave (passive but violent, squeezed between terrorism and religious fundamentalism), and (2) when was the last time the mainstream media had a solid discussion of class? For as long as I lived in the US, any suggestion that gross and growing inequalities were going to be a problem at some point was shot down as “class warfare” (as if there had not been a class war since the Reagan era, one that, as Warren Buffett has told us, his class has won already). More broadly, this failure is the inability to conceptualize a systemic failure of capitalism (so, analysis of the crisis was reduced to accusations launched against the lower classes – but not class warfare! – and minorities). The events of the past year, for Mason, reveal the utter failure of capitalist realism but also of the mainstream left.

“If the rule of men like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad had been seen as somehow separate from the rule of free-market capitalism, maybe political science would not have become trapped in the same fatalism as economics. But support for these pro-Western dictators—or more especially for their sons—had always been sold on the basis that they were ‘liberalizers’: freeing up their home market for corporate penetration and, one day soon, reforming their constitutions. This was the theme of the famous essay by Anthony Giddens, which declared Gaddafi to be a follower of the Third Way and Libya on the road to becoming ‘the Norway of North Africa’.” (Loc 557)

Mason also identifies three major precursors to last year’s social movements: (1) the Greek student riots of 2008 after a police shooting and (2) the Israeli invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, December 2009) and (3) Iran, of course, where Twitter got its political street creds. In terms of social movements, all three were defeat for the weaker parties but they created a context where populations got galvanized by the capacity of such weaker parties to defy oppressive regimes. These precursors put together the components of the future social movements: secularized, educated youth facing massive precarization, repressed workers’ movements, the urban poor and social networking technologies. These four elements would coalesce more fully a bit later in many more countries. For all these categories of people, the promises of capitalism were not fulfilled, they actually turned out to be lies. From the other side of the table, after decades of outright repression or propagation of an individualistic ideology through the media, leaders probably thought there would be no resistance even in the event of a collapse.

Finally, for Mason, the last reason why no one saw this coming is that all these movements are really something different:

“First, probably, it’s because there is no ideology driving this movement and no coherent vision of an alternative society. Second, the potential for damage arising from violence is larger than before: the demos, when they get violent, immediately expose the participants to getting jailed for serious offences, so they will go a long way to avoid getting angry. Third, and most important, it seems to me that this generation knows more than their predecessors about power. They have read (or read a Wikipedia summary of) political thinkers like Foucault, Deleuze, Dworkin. They realize, in a way previous generations of radicals did not, that emotion-fuelled action, loyalty, mesmeric oratory and hierarchy all come at an overhead cost.” (Loc. 791)

This, of course, takes place in a larger context of crisis of legitimacy, intensified by the economic crisis because the close ties between political and corporate power have been brutally exposed in its full disconnect from the rest of the population. And when the youth in London rioted, the lack of comprehension was extreme (I wrote quite a bit about that):

“All across the developed world, the generation that leaves university in the 2010s will have to work longer because the guarantee of a comfortable income in retirement can no longer be met, either by private investment or the welfare state. Their disposable income will fall, because the financialization of public services demands a clutch of new debt repayments that eat into salaries: student loan repayments will be higher, private health insurance costs will rise, pension top-up payments will be demanded. They will face higher interest rates on home loans for decades, due to the financial crash. They will be burdened with the social costs of looking after the ageing baby boomers, plus the economic costs of energy depletion and climate change.

(…)

For the older generation it’s easy to misunderstand the word ‘student’ or ‘graduate’: to my contemporaries, at college in the 1980s, it meant somebody engaged in a liberal, academic education, often with hours of free time to dream, protest, play in a rock band or do research. Today’s undergraduates have been tested every month of their lives, from kindergarten to high school. They are the measured inputs and outputs of a commercialized global higher education market worth $1.2 trillion a year—excluding the USA. Their free time is minimal: precarious part-time jobs are essential to their existence, so that they are a key part of the modern workforce. Plus they have become a vital asset for the financial system. In 2006, Citigroup alone made $220 million clear profit from its student loan book.” (Loc. 1141 – 6)

And individualization ultimately proved it had failed as well as any form of domination will generate resistance, as Richard Sennett (cited a lot by Mason… which is good) noted:

“The sociologist Richard Sennett describes how, starting in high-tech industries, a particular type of employee has become valued by corporations: ‘Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions … a self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability [rather than actual skill], willing to abandon past experience.’3 For employers, Sennett writes, the ideal product of school and university is a person with weak institutional loyalty, low levels of informal trust and high levels of anxiety about their own competence, leading to a constant willingness to reinvent themselves in a changing labour market. To survive in this world of zero loyalty, people need high self-reliance, which comes with a considerable sense of individual entitlement and little aptitude for permanent bonding. Flexibility being more important than knowledge, they are valued for the ability to discard acquired skills and learn new ones.

(…)

However, Sennett observes, such workers also need ‘a thick network of social contacts’: their ideal habitat is the global city, at whose bars, coffee shops, Apple stores, dance clubs and speed-dating events they can meet lots of equally rootless people..” (Loc 1157 – 66)

And these conditions of resistance were:

  • the global city as major site for social unrest (paging Saskia Sassen) – this is where networks are and where gross inequalities coexist along with the three components of these new social movements (slum dwellers, precarized educated youths and the working class);
  • the “graduate with no future” as Mason calls hir, is by definition is global denizen (students have participated in these movements practically everywhere); one of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of a global culture based on disillusionment that is easy to spread all over Twitter;
  • and there are more college students than ever before. Quantity does matter.

The urban poor and the working class have been important components of these movements but it is students who have kicked them off. Add to this the power and networks and communication technology and all the ingredients are there. Mason is a big believer of the network effect (what gets created as additional product of people’s interaction). So, Twitter, pay-as-you-go access, photo / video-sharing services and blogging were essential tools of social movements. As a result, journalists were also engulfed in the crisis of legitimacy as their status carried limited weight on Twitter (much to the dismay of some media celebrities). Again, Mason is much more cyber-utopian as I am.

Mason then goes on at length on the economic crisis itself. There is not much that has not been already written about this, so, I won’t belabor this. One thing I had not read before is the assertion that the Federal Reserve precipitated the Arab Spring with QEII, which led to the rise in commodity prices, which led pushing a lot of people in the global South into deeper poverty.

Another interesting analytical point that Mason makes is to postulate that the correct historical precedent for these current social movements is the European Revolutions of 1848 (especially what led to the French Second Republic):

“On 22 February 1848 the ‘men in smocks’—the Parisian workers— overthrew the monarchy and forced the middle class to declare a republic. It was a shock because, like Saif Gaddafi and Gamal Mubarak long afterwards, King Louis-Philippe had counted himself something of a democrat. In 1848 a wave of revolutions swept Europe: by March, Austria, Hungary, Poland and many states of the future Germany were facing insurrections, often led by students and the radicalized middle class, with the small, mainly craft-based, working class in support. Elsewhere —as in Jordan and Morocco in 2011—riots and demonstrations forced beleaguered monarchs into constitutional reform. Within months, however, class conflict tore the revolutionary alliance apart. In Paris, the newly elected assembly was dominated not by the radicals who’d made the revolution, but by social conservatives. They hired a general to crack down on unrest; that June, he crushed the working class in four days of intense barricade fighting.

(…)

But by 1851 the revolutionary wave in Europe was over, its leaders exiled or dead. A military coup ended the French revolution, the president rebranding himself as Emperor Napoleon III. The Prussian army crushed the German states that had voted for radical democracy. Austria defeated the Hungarian uprising, put down its own and enlisted Napoleon III to suppress the republic that had sprung up in Rome. In each case, the survivors observed a similar pattern of events. Once the workers began to fight for social justice, the businessmen and radical journalists who had led the fight for democracy turned against them, rebuilding the old, dictatorial forms of repression to put them down.

(…)

Eighteen forty-eight, then, forms the last complete example of a year when it all kicked off. As with 2011, it was preceded by an economic crisis. As today, there was a level of contagion inexplicable to governments. But in hindsight, it was actually a wave of revolution and reaction, followed pretty swiftly by a wave of war. Even if today’s situation defies parallel, the events of 1848 provide the most extensive case study on which to base our expectations of the present revolts.

(…)

The demographics of 2011 resemble those of 1848 more than any other event. There is an expanded layer of ‘graduates with no future’, a working class weakened by the collapse of the organizations and lifestyle that blossomed in the Fordist era, and a large mass of slum-dwelling urban poor. As today, 1848 was preceded by a communications revolution: the telegraph, the railway and the steam boat formed part of an emerging transport and communications network clustered around the cities that became centres of the social revolution. As today, 1848 was preceded by the rapid formation of networks—in this case, clubs and secret societies. The students, worker-intellectuals and radical lawyers who led them were indeed part of an international network of activists. As today, 1848 was a revolution in social life as well as politics.” (Loc 2992 – 3038)

That is not very encouraging because these movements ended badly. And indeed, Mason anticipates some possible negative outcomes (such as the military / religious alliance and crackdown in Egypt):

  • There will be a time where the middle class will break the class alliance with the working class and turn against it (as indeed happened in 1848) and the social and economic justice agenda will tone down basic labor demands;
  • The rise of ‘strongmen’ from within revolutionary ranks, comparable to rise of the organized criminal networks after 1989;
  • War or authoritarian backlash.

On top of this, Mason sees the culture war in the US and Israel as additionally worrisome.

And then, where is the left?… *sounds of crickets chirping*

So, where does that leave us?

“Everything depends on the outcome of the economic crisis. Before 2008, globalization ‘delivered’ in a rough-and-ready way to the poor of the developing world. It dragged one billion people out of rural poverty and into urban slums, and created an extra 1.5 billion waged workers. It provided access to life-changing technology. And it offset the decline in prosperity and status for the manual workers of the rich world with unlimited access to credit. At the same time it made the rich of every country richer, and inequality greater—even in the developing world, where real incomes rose.

(…)

What becomes of the present wave of revolts—political, social, intellectual and moral—now depends completely on what the global economy delivers. If it is nothing but heartache and penury, we are in the middle of a perfect storm.” (Loc. 3353 – 68)

As I stated earlier, if you can stomach the sometimes hyperbolic cyber-utopianism, I highly recommend the book… also, it shows sociologists are the most relevant social scientists to read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Globalization, Ideologies, Media, Networks, Precarization, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Movements, Technology | 4 Comments »

Book Review – Les Rémunerations Obscènes

January 3, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Philippe Steiner‘s Les Rémunerations Obscènes is a pamphlet more than a book per se. With a 134 pages of text, it a short and clear read on the topic of the stratospheric compensations received by corporate CEOs and their lack of justification. However, the book is not just a rant against these compensations packages. Steiner systematically debunks one by one, armed with both economic and organizational sociology and some solid references to research, all the justifications commonly employed to rationalize the levels of CEO compensation.

The book is also shock full of data detailing the various levels of compensations, their evolution and trajectories, alongside some more well-known data on the increase of inequalities and wage stagnation for the rest of the population. The icing on the cake comes from some morceaux choisis from CEOs themselves, in their own words, explaining why they should be paid such obscene compensations. Finally, the book ends with a few suggestions as to what should be done.

The sociologists will also find in the book some constant references to classical (Weber, Durkheim) and more contemporary sociologists as Steiner goes through some SHiP (Structure / History / Power) demonstration to explain how we got to these levels of compensation, why the upward trend has been so steep and continues to this day irrespective of objective factors such as performance. Steiner has done his homework and the bibliographical references are quite extensive for such a short book.

Using Weber, Steiner argues that the obscene levels of compensation have nothing to do with capitalism, which is supposed to temper the irrational passion for profit-seeking through a variety of mechanisms. The unleashing of greed is not part of such mechanisms. The corporate übermenschen (as Steiner calls them, “surhommes”) have managed to disconnect themselves from social ties that would link them to social norms and a general sense of the way the mere mortals live. The strong ties to the political world also increase the amount control that these men (yes, men) exercise over their own enrichment. And has been recently exposed, it is Goldman Sachs world. The rest of us just live in it.

The strongest parts of the book are those where Steiner explains the organizational processes at work in determining CEO compensations, especially the work of compensation committees. These committees may be composed of other CEOs, and they may use information provided by consulting firms specialized in constructing remuneration packages. This is where social capital and social networks analysis is central. These compensation committees look like a game of revolving door and mutual back-scratching disguised under rationalizations such as preventing CEOs from leaving the country if they do not get a globally-competitive level of compensation, the ability to attract the best and brightest. In reality, this looks more like CEOs looking at each other’s compensation and saying “I want at least what they have!” The processes are those of a very close and tight-knit in-group.

What of the argument that compensations packages are often tied to performance (in terms of stock value) and therefore, there is a level of accountability? Steiner reviews the research and shows that that is simply not the case. First of all, there are all the anecdotes of golden parachutes. Second of all, compensations never decrease based on bad performance. They might not increase but that is it. Steiner shows that salaries and bonuses rise in ways unconnected to stock prices and values.

So, are CEOs so rare and so incredibly talented that their compensation levels have exploded? Steiner invokes his Micromégas regime of competition, with reference to Voltaire: minuscule differences between individuals translate into massive differences in compensation between CEOs and the rest. At the same time, CEO contribution to the value of firms is minimal. At the same time, throughout organizations and recruiting firms, there is the belief in extreme individual agency, that is, the belief that whatever firm results are fully attributable to CEO decisions. This belief is taken as religious dogma (except, of course, when the company collapse and all of a sudden, someone like Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling argues that he didn’t know anything that was going on in the firm). If “I” did all this, then, “I” deserve to appropriate such a high share of profits, not the hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of people who have contributed to innovation, productivity, etc. And this appropriation has to be at a level comparable to that of other CEOs, worldwide.

On the other side of things, firms that design compensation packages tend to think that (1) they will not be able to attract the “right” candidates if compensation packages are not tempting enough, and (2) that a company would symbolically debase itself if it did not come up with a phenomenal compensation package (one that is more impressive than that of comparable firms). This triggers compensation inflation as chain reaction.  Companies offer enormous compensation packages as status signals that reflect on them.

Steiner also analyzes the current indignation regarding executive compensation using Durkheim’s concept of moral economy, that is, the social evaluation of the functions and compensation. The level of contestation has to do with the legitimation crisis that has been intensified by the economic crisis, itself revealing the disconnect between compensation levels and the collapse of their justifications. Of course, politicians have grabbed the theme of a moralization of executive compensation, but the tangled web of political/corporate connections guarantees that said moralization will not go beyond rhetoric.

Invoking The Spirit Level, Steiner ends by noting that obscene compensation is a social pollution, contributing to rising inequalities and their deleterious effects. The book is a bit short on solution (fiscal policy), which is a shame but changing the structural nature of obscene compensation probably would take a whole book in itself.

In light of the current crisis and the imposition of “sacrifices” on populations across the Western world, this topic is highly relevant. In the context of the upcoming French presidential election, and as the main candidates start to unveil their platforms, this book comes out at the right time and should be mandatory reading to said candidates.

Posted in Book Reviews, Collective Behavior, Corporatism, Economic Sociology, Ideologies, Networks, Organizational Sociology, Public Policy, Social Capital, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Privilege, Social Stratification, Sociology | No Comments »

Book Review – Games of Empire

December 10, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter‘s Games of Empire – Global Capitalism and Video Games is a very interesting and well-written book that uses the conceptual apparatus laid out by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (with a touch of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in for good measure) in Empire and Multitude and apply them to the social world of video games as they are embedded in the global capitalist system. The book might be a bit advanced for an undergraduate audience with constant references to more abstract theories but is ultimately fascinating in relating the ins-and-outs of the videogame industry and culture to the workings of the world system.

The main argument of the book is this:

“The “militainment” of America’s Army and the “ludocapitalism” of Second Life display the interaction of virtual games and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market (Burston 2003; Dibbell 2006). Consider that the virtualities of Second Life feed back into the actualities of capital via the medium of the Linden dollar, and that the virtualities of America’s Army cycle into the actualities of combat via the Web link to the U.S. Army home page. Add, moreover, that the two games are connected: the high energy consumption and consumer goods of Second Life are what America’s Army recruits soldiers to fight and die for.  The two games reassert, rehearse, and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen: Second Life recapitulates patterns of online shopping, social networking, and digital labor crucial to global capitalism; America’s Army is but one among an arsenal of simulators that the militarized states of capital – preeminently the United States – depend on to protect their power and use to promote, prepare, and preemptively practice deadly operations in computerized battlespaces (Blackmore 2005). Yet the examples of digital dissent in Second Life and America’s Army show that not all gamers accept the dominion of what James Der Derian (2001) terms “MIME-NET” – the military-industrial-media-entertainment network. Minor gestures that they are, these protests nevertheless suggest a route from game virtualities to another sort of actualities, that of the myriad activisms of twenty-first-century radicals seeking to construct an alternative to Empire.

Our hypothesis, then, is that video games are a paradigmatic media of Empire – planetary, militarized hypercapitalism – and of some of the forces presently challenging it.” (xiv – xv)

This connection is pretty obvious to make, after all, virtual games, along with the computer and the Internet, were products of military research. And more than just universes where otakus spend their lonely lives, virtual environments have gone legit by being used in the corporate world as training and surveillance tools.

Of course, Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter go over Hardt and Negri’s conceptual apparatus and provide some clear definitions and examinations, especially Empire (the planetary regime of economic, military and technological power with no outside) whose global governance is multilayered, involving global institutions, nation-states and various agencies. The counterreaction to the power of Empire is Multitude, which covers all the forms of activism that, also in a multilayered and decentralized fashion, challenge the logic and processes of Empire. This is TINA (there is no alternative) versus AWIP (another world is possible).

A major process of empire is its capacity to extract energy from its subjects: as workers, as consumers, as soldiers, and as gamers, through immaterial labor, that is, the labor that involves use of information and communication and produces the affective component of commodities. Immaterial labor reveals the centrality of marketing, advertising and media in creating new products and managing workplaces that produce them.

Why virtual games?

“Virtual games are exemplary media of Empire. They crystallize in a paradigmatic way its constitution and its conflicts. Just as the eighteenth century novel was a textual apparatus generating bourgeois personality required by mercantile colonialism (but also capable of criticizing it), and just as twentieth-century cinema and television were integral to industrial consumerism (yet screened some of its darkest depictions), so virtual games are media constitutive of twenty-first century global hypercapitalism and, perhaps, also lines of exodus from it.” (xxix)

The first part of the book is a pretty extensive history of video games and the rise of the corporate giants that currently dominate the market (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo). In that section, the authors deal with the issue of gender in video games. Two main developments are central to this: (1) with the massive entry of women in the workforce and the relative absence of equalization of domestic work by men (the whole Second Shift thing), the deficit in care work has been compensated through technology (including game consoles that are perfect for latchkey kids). (2) As deindustrialization pushed men away from manufacturing into the computer and information technology sectors, it left women stuck in the service sector that involved most of the emotional work. These service jobs pay less, are more physically demanding and are less prestigious. Even when women got into the ICT sector, it was in different, less “fun”, functions than men and the gendered division of labor persisted.

And despite technology, the second shift was still there, leaving women with less leisure time than men, and therefore less time to invest in video games that involve long hours of practice and involvement in building characters, accumulating goodies and reaching level after level. In other words, male privilege may have been challenged in a lot of spheres of social life but video games created a domain of “remasculinization” where the in-game experience is thoroughly based on the tropes and cultural scripts of hegemonic masculinity where sexism is rampant. As a result, there are fewer women gamers, a fact then used to claim that women are “naturally” less into gaming, a convenient justification that avoids looking into the structural dynamics of gaming. Actually, when given the opportunity and not drowned in sexist and misogynistic abuse, a lot of women love to game.

How does that fit with Empire?

“The world market is a dynamo at drawing people into the circuit of production and consumption, but it neglects, to a catastrophic degree, social and ecological reproduction – care for households, community, and environment. The ongoing sexism of virtual play mirrors this imbalance. Reproductive work, material and immaterial, has historically been performed overwhelmingly by women, and this, even after successive waves of feminism, still largely continues to be the case. The virtual play industry addresses itself to an ideal male subject, a ‘digital boy’ (Burrill 2008, 15) who can spend hours at game play and game production, and positions women, of not now as completely invisible other, still as a subsidiary participant, a ‘second sex’, making the dinner, sustaining relationships, and gaming occasionally, ‘casually’. It is precisely this non-universality, this prioritization of consumption and production over social and ecological reproduction, that males virtual play so symptomatic of Empire.” (23)

What is especially introduced by virtual play is the concept of playbor (play as labor as a form of immaterial labor). Players are free laborers, toiling for fun and for a price but they offer their free labor. Playbor has four aspects;

  • microdevelopment ( a lot of games are created by small teams in someone’s garage, being micro-developed until a select few get bought by giant corporations while millions of others just crash and burn)
  • modding (modifications and improvements on already commercialized and released games by altering the codes)
  • MMOs (massive multiplayer online games where the players are running massive experiments in community- and team-building for free)
  • machinima (players creating cinema from games)

Playbor is the version 2.0 of the hacker culture based on autoproduction, networked cooperation and self-organization. All four modalities of playbor are free labor provided by the players to the companies commercializing the games. Playbor is now also a tool used in corporate training and the knowledge economy in general.

Similarly, the virtual game industry is paradigmatic of cognitive capitalism:

“Cognitive capitalism is the situation where workers’ minds become the ‘machine’ of production, generating profit for owners who have purchased, with a wage, its thinking power.

(…)

To speak of cognitive capitalism is specifically to suggest the recent rise to prominence of a set of industries for whom the mobilization, extraction, and commodification of advanced forms of collective  knowledge are foundational: the computer hardware and software industries; the biotechnology, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors; the financial analysis sector, marketing, and data mining; and an array of media and entertainment enterprises, including video games. All these industries, in turn, presuppose a socially ‘diffuse intellectuality’, generated by an increasingly vast educational apparatus. (Vercellone 2007b).” (37-8)

Cognitive capital has specific characteristics:

  • production of software to record, manipulate, manage, simulate and stimulate cognitive activity;
  • intellectual property rights, patents, trademarks, and copyrights become the main mode of revenues in an increasingly rent economy, or turning living knowledge into dead knowledge (studied unoriginality)
  • globalization: sectors of cognitive capital aim for the global market in both production and consumption;
  • dependence on the cognitariat: a workforce with intellectual, technological and affective skills that needs to be organized, disciplined, and ultimately exploited (through three devices: creativity, cooperation and cool)
  • cognitive capital is also the terrain where owners and workers conflict.

In that respect, the whole chapter dedicated to EA is highly enlightening.

Another aspect of Empire is the use of social machines:

“A social machine is a functionally connected assemblage of human subjects and technical machines, people and tools.” (70)

In the case of virtual games, the assemblage goes as follows:

  • technical machine: the console (replaced by the human body with Wii and then Kinect)
  • corporate machine: the EULA, patents and copyrights attached to any device, the flows of capital, labor and technology
  • time machine: the profitable using up of software and other virtual commodities that have a limited life (consoles are sold at a loss, all the money is in the software that have a planned obsolescence)
  • machinic subjects: the mobilization of hard core gamers (mostly in the trope of  the hypermasculine “man of action”)
  • transgressive war machines of hacking and piracy
  • machine wars between the three corporate giant of the gaming world
  • global biopolitical machine of Empire:

“The Xbox, the PS3, and even the charming Wii are machines of Empire; their technological assemblages of circuitry and cell processors build the corporate territories of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, which in turn are components in the worldwide capitalist machine.

(…)

Consoles are intimate machines, seamlessly inserted into our domestic or personal space or even carried close to our skin, responsive to our skills and prowess, becoming, with the Wii, remote body extensions.” (93)

Hence is extended a society of control or surveillance society, with our consent and enjoyment.

Having laid out the structural context of gaming in the first part of the book, the authors move on, in the second part, to the actual games that banalize the idea of permanent war by socializing boys early on through war play. This is especially crucial in the aftermath of the War on Terror, which officialized a state of permanent conflict everywhere against elusive, never quite clearly defined enemies. For Hardt and Negri, after all, war is not for conflict resolution between countries but for control and order in the global system.

In this context, war is

  1. interminable and therefore becomes a general phenomenon and a permanent mode of social relations
  2. lacking boundaries as ‘security’ becomes the rationale for incursions everywhere and anywhere and where the boundaries between domestic and international become blurry
  3. legitimizing a permanent state of exception, which requires the suspension of rights
  4. the new normal

Virtual games provide an important agent of socialization to all of this. War becomes part of the culture of everyday life and joins, again, the video game culture and the military apparatus and the overlaps are rather obvious. For instance, developments in military thinking involve Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), a scenario that is often played out in different games (such as the Full Spectrum series) and in real life (in the cities of Iraq, for instance or the US cities by a more and more militarized police).

Banalization of war not only habituates and socializes the population to permanent war, but it also maintains its will to fight. Through the exercise of virtual violence, the games train, discipline and disinhibit deadly aggression against enemies, or at least, socialize people to indifference to torture, mass killing of these “others”. The mass media play their part in that process as well.

And then, there was World of Warcraft as illustration of biopower. The makers of the game try to control the game “from above” and in most aspects of the game while the gamers organize themselves “from below”. Running an MMO requires tight governance in the face of constant violations, hacking and modding with specific sanctions and surveillance mechanisms while being careful to not kill the fun out of the game through too much control and sanctions. And this gets trickier as the gaming population increases with a gaming boom in Asia, especially China.

In WoW, Gold is what matters and gold farming is booming but gold farmers are reviled and stigmatized by other players as fake players. At the same time, one forgets that gold farmers are also real-life super-exploited workers by corporations that supply a demand, mostly from wealthier players. This is a rather perfect illustration of the relationship workers / consumers of core countries have to workers from the periphery and semi-periphery.

This phenomenon (along with the exploitation of peripheral workers to work up the levels – power leveling – by western players) was nicely illustrated in Cory Doctorow’s novel, For The Win.

“Here the intersection of Blizzard’s [the company that produces WoW] digital biopower with the material biopower of Chinese capitalism snaps into sharp focus. Wgen Blizzard polices the digital realm of Azeroth (a kingdom created from the commercial enclosure of cyberspace) for virtual gold farmers, the offenders it seeks are likely to be actual peasant farmers who have left or been thrown off their fields by Chinese capitalism’s enclosures, abandoning an impoverished and ecologically devastated countryside for its cyber-connected cities. Some have probably been displaced by megaprojects such as the Three Gorges Dam, supplying insatiable demand for electrical power, primarily for industry, but also for Internet servers, in China’s eastern’s coastal cities.” (145)

And corporations do not like gold farming because it impedes on the free labor provided by paying players. And so, the super-exploited players bear the brunt of exploitation AND discipline so that playbor can prevail and continue to provide massive quantities of free labor. As a result, the production relations of the real world are reproduced in virtual world as well in hyper-subsumption (the gradual full colonizing of every sphere of life by capitalist social relations).

If there is one thing that is clear, whether with the success of Slumdog Millionaire or the current occupation movement, it is that the city (especially the global city) is a key site of Empire, and Grand Theft Auto is a perfect illustration of the centrality of the urban environment. The global cities are where we can see the full spectrum of global stratification and the consolidation of global hierarchies, where massive wealth but also surveillance and repression take place. GTA is a perfect representation of the neoliberal urbanism:

“GTA’s constitution of a metropolitan entirely enveloped by, and subsumed within, crime also performs a normalization of corporate criminality. Its game world asserts that crime is the way the universe is – the way money changes hands, business is done, society organized; it is the nature of reality. Why be outraged when the financial rulers of the world disregard the pettiness of the law, since all of this just reveals their superior grasp of the rules of the game? The omnipresence of crime in Liberty City is thus one more cultural contribution to the generalized indifference that greets the news of corporate crimes in Empire,  an indifference whose rational kernel is perhaps, as David Harvey observes, the popular assumption that criminal behavior is hardly ‘easily distinguishable from the normal practices of influence-peddling and making money in the marketplace.’ (2007, 166)” (178)

And if GTA presents a world that is thoroughly corrupt, it does not offer any alternative than to be really good at the rotten game. There is no way out of Empire. GTA may be satirical but it also normalizes the state of affair as “that’s just the way it is”.

But for the authors, there are alternatives to the games of Empire, the games of Multitude, which are the subject of the final part of the book. Multitude is the counterreaction to Empire, all the forms of resistance and activism to the logics of Empire. Multitude manifests itself in different ways:

  • through new subjectivities, new forms of producing, cooperating and communicating on a global scale and mobilizing skills to subvert Empire – subjective capacity
  • through new social movements opposing global capital – social movements
  • through the development and protection of alternatives such as open source, indymedia and other forms of freeing information from global capital – political project

The key is to have all three coalesce.

In the case of video games, resistance from the multitude takes a variety of forms all subsumed under the concept of countergaming:

  • Counterplay: acts of contestation within the established games of Empire and their ideologies
  • Dissonant development: emergence of critical content in a few mainstream games, dissident infiltration
  • Tactical games: dissemination of radical social critique through game designed by activists
  • Polity simulators: serious educational and training projects
  • Self-organized worlds: independent production of game content in MMOs
  • Software commons: challenges on the whole intellectual property rights regime

This follows rather closely the logic of “another world is possible” made famous by the World Social Forum. And all six paths are part of repertoires of contention within the game world. And all of them may contribute potential paths to exodus from Empire. The authors present a whole variety of examples of the ways this can be accomplished. After all, Empire is a contested terrain and multiple forms of resistance are always at work in the minutiae of social life as well as the major social institutions.

It is a very dense book but a very important one to understand the logic of Empire, as a good introduction to the work of Hardt and Negri, as well as new social movements.

Highly recommended.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corporatism, Culture, Globalization, Ideologies, Mass Violence, Media, Militarism, Neo-Colonialism, Networks, Precarization, Racism, Sexism, Social Inequalities, Social Movements, Social Privilege, Social Theory, Surveillance Society, Technology | 2 Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – Going Global on Twitter

November 26, 2011 by and tagged , ,

So, here is a map of my Twitter followers… can y’all say “global”?

Obviously, I need to work on my Siberian following.

In chart form:

Levity aside, I should note that if one is interested in global events and perspectives, Twitter is the best social networking platform for that.

Posted in Media, Networks, Technology | No Comments »

The Internet Superhighway to Serfdom

November 2, 2011 by and tagged , ,

As I have argued before, web 2.0 technologies have extended the reach and depth of the surveillance society, as public-private partnership. In that sense, I’m a cyber-crank of the Morozov kind. But my analysis of this is only confirmed by what transpires in the a variety of source.

First, someone actually used the term feudalism, which kinda gave me the idea for the title, even though I have wanted to use it for a while as a way of thumbing my nose at the libertarian crowd.

Anyhoo:

“To use Google+ and Facebook, people yoke themselves to the providers by handing over their data in exchange for use of the services. It’s like a feudal system: the social-networking companies are sustained by the data flooding into them, and gain in power from the exchange. People upload their photos, their messages and other data from their personal life, but the service providers control how that information is presented to the world.

“The users contribute their own content to you for free. You sell it back to them with banner ads put on there. And on top of that, you spy on them to gather profiling data,” says Michiel de Jong, of the Unhosted project to decentralise user data.

Compare this with feudal lords in the Middle Ages — ‘the castles’ — who took in taxes in the form of wheat, cattle and other resources, consumed them and then demanded more. The castles held all the political power and could talk to other castles, while the peasants who lived on their land had little influence, even though the resources they produced kept the castles going.

The online form of feudalism is more insidious. With Google and Facebook, the resources these castles take in — images and search terms, for example — are not used up, as they were in the original system. Instead, the data is analysed again and again, and the castle grows in power with each bite of information.

(…)

What makes this modern feudalism powerful is that the key parties are keeping their methods of control from the users.”

That is for the private side of things. On the public side, Morozov’s fears seem to come true as government get savvier as using web 2.0 technologies for their own purposes (and that is not exactly good for democracy, transparency and dissent).

Case in point, Top Secret America:

Part 1:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 2:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 3:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Part 4:

Watch Top Secret America on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Welcome to the Panopticon 2.0 (I have wanted to use that one for a long time as well but it does fit).

And where public and private meet, expect massive and militarized expansion of surveillance mechanisms, applied to the civil society, all in the name of security:

“Even most members of Congress are unaware of the extent to which both the military and intelligence community have come to depend on private contractors to provide the software and ingenuity necessary for both conventional and information warfare in the 21st century. In 2005, experts estimated that 30% of the US intelligence budget was being outsourced, and this intelligence contracting industry has grown markedly since.

On the surface, this practice makes sense; the modern military tends not to attract sufficient technical talent for its needs, and in a few notable cases, the once-legendary hackers who run crucial firms have felony convictions that would prevent them from doing equivalent work from inside the state. Meanwhile, competition for projects promotes the incubation of new and more powerful capabilities from within the industry, and the bidding system ensures that the US gets the best of these for the least money – at least, in theory.

But as evidenced by the drone virus affair and other, more serious incidents, the overall contracting process is deeply flawed. The “free market” competition for contracts that would otherwise bring gains is corrupted by the industry’s thorough overlap with its state customers. Former Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff joined the board of directors of contractor BAE Systems ahead of that firm being awarded a $270m contract last week, followed by another US Army contract for $67m; before bringing on the well-connected ex-secretary, the firm was becoming notorious for losing such crucial business.

A glance at the boards and executive listings of similar firms, replete with former military officers and government officials, reveals the revolving door that connects potential clients with a state customer for which money is no object, such money being taxed from an electorate too distracted by other offenses to notice.

(…)

This familiar tendency on the part of the US government to spend money it doesn’t have on things it doesn’t get is now directed at developing procedures it shouldn’t use. The intelligence contracting industry, which includes firms that provide security applications to the entire US government and military, has been encouraged lately to direct more of its collective time and capabilities to the task of monitoring, misinforming and sometimes outright attacking American citizens and others abroad – and benefit from the protection of the state and the incompetence of the media in order to make such attacks with impunity.

The Team Themis affair, which united three such firms to go after journalists, activists and WikiLeaks was revealed by Anonymous earlier this year thanks to the seizure of 70,000 emails from coordinating firm HBGary Federal. The little-known and sinister persona management capability – a state-sponsored “sockpuppet” propaganda program – has been found in widespread development; the National Security Agency-linked Endgame Systems has been revealed to offer comprehensive offensive cyber capabilities, with targets in place, to customers other than the US government; a few months ago, I released a report on a worrying surveillance apparatus known as Romas/COIN.

The shift from infrastructure defense to surveillance and offensive capability comes in the wake of the Chinese-orchestrated Aurora attacks against US state and corporate targets – an operation that continues to reveal itself as even more damaging than initially thought as additional targets admit theft of crucial data. The problem with the changing priorities of the US’s cyber-contractor complex are two-fold: by neglecting government systems’ vulnerabilities – and the drone virus provides a perfect instance – the state loses face with adversaries, real or potential, who respect only force; and by treating its own citizenry as the leading threat to its security, it loses the loyalty of those who respect truth and the rule of law.”

The legitimation crisis is a topic I have discussed here repeatedly but it is an important feature of the post-2008 political arena and of what I have come to call the new sociopathy. Combine that to the very real militarization of law enforcement on the ground and you have the ingredients for major social disturbance in reaction to the loss of authority (in the Weberian sense of legitimate power) of the state, see as the coercive arm of corporate entities and a wealthier oligarchy.

And our fear of cybercrime, cyberterrorism or privacy-shattering hackers should not make us forget this:

“In a luxury Washington, DC, hotel last month, governments from around the world gathered to discuss surveillance technology they would rather you did not know about. The annual Intelligence Support Systems (ISS) World Americas conference is a mecca for representatives from intelligence agencies and law enforcement. But to the media or members of the public, it is strictly off limits.

Gone are the days when mere telephone wiretaps satisfied authorities’ intelligence needs. Behind the cloak of secrecy at the ISS World conference, tips are shared about the latest advanced “lawful interception” methods used to spy on citizens – computer hacking, covert bugging and GPS tracking. Smartphones, email, instant message services and free chat services such as Skype have revolutionised communication. This has been matched by the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.

Among the pioneers is Hampshire-based Gamma International, a core ISS World sponsor. In April, Gamma made headlines when Egyptian activists raided state security offices in Cairo and found documents revealing Gamma had in 2010 offered Hosni Mubarak’s regime spy technology named FinFisher. The “IT intrusion” solutions offered by Gamma would have enabled authorities to infect targeted computers with a spyware virus so they could covertly monitor Skype conversations and other communications.

The use of such methods is more commonly associated with criminal hacking groups, who have used spyware and trojan viruses to infect computers and steal bank details or passwords. But as the internet has grown, intelligence agencies and law enforcement have adopted similar techniques.

(…)

Another company that annually attends ISS World is Italian surveillance developer Hacking Team. A small, 35-employee software house based in Milan, Hacking Team’s technology – which costs more than £500,000 for a “medium-sized installation” – gives authorities the ability to break into computers or smartphones, allowing targeted systems to be remotely controlled. It can secretly enable the microphone on a targeted computer and even take clandestine snapshots using its webcam, sending the pictures and audio along with any other information – such as emails, passwords and documents – back to the authorities for inspection. The smartphone version of the software has the ability to track a person’s movements via GPS as well as perform a function described as “remote audio spy”, effectively turning the phone into a bug without its user’s knowledge. The venture capital-backed company boasts that its technology can be used “country-wide” to monitor more than 100,000 targets simultaneously, and cannot be detected by anti-virus software.

(…)

Concerns remain, however, that despite export control regulations, western companies have been supplying high-tech surveillance software to countries where there is little or no legislation governing its use. In 2009, for instance, it was reported that American developer SS8 had allegedly supplied the United Arab Emirates with smartphone spyware, after about 100,000 users were sent a bogus software update by telecommunications company Etisalat. The technology, if left undetected, would have enabled authorities to bypass BlackBerry email encryption by mining communications from devices before they were sent.

Computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum is well aware what it is like to be a target of covert surveillance. He is a core member of the Tor Project, which develops free internet anonymising software used by activists and government dissidents across the Middle East and north Africa to evade government monitoring. A former spokesman for WikiLeaks, Appelbaum has had his own personal emails scrutinised by the US government as part of an ongoing grand jury investigation into the whistleblower organisation. On 13 October he was in attendance at ISS World where he was planning to give a presentation about Tor – only to be ejected after one of the surveillance companies complained about his presence.

(…)

Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want.

“The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,” he said. “Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?”

Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? “That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”"

That’s nice.

Although this does not need to be so complicated since our phone companies and ISPs are more than willing to provide our data to a variety of agencies. But in this mix of Panopticon and capillary surveillance, it is the global civil society that is the biggest loser.

So, it is logical that some of the resistance to this come from the civil society as well:

“Computer networks proved their organizing power during the recent uprisings in the Middle East, in which Facebook pages amplified street protests that toppled dictators. But those same networks showed their weaknesses as well, such as when the Egyptian government walled off most of its citizens from the Internet in an attempt to silence protesters.

That has led scholars and activists increasingly to consider the Internet’s wiring as a disputed political frontier.

For example, one weekend each month, a small group of computer programmers gathers at a residence here to build a homemade Internet—named Project Byzantium—that could go online if parts of the current global Internet becomes blocked by a repressive government.

(…)

He is not the only one with such apprehensions. Next month The­Doctor will join hundreds of like-minded high-tech activists and entrepreneurs in New York at an unusual conference called the Contact Summit. One of the participants is Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School who has built an encryption device and worries about a recent attempt by Wisconsin politicians to search a professor’s e-mail. The summit’s goal is not just to talk about the projects, but also to connect with potential financial backers, recruit programmers, and brainstorm approaches to building parallel Internets and social networks.

The meeting is a sign of the growing momentum of what is called the “free-network movement,” whose leaders are pushing to rewire online networks to make it harder for a government or corporation to exert what some worry is undue control or surveillance. Another key concern is that the Internet has not lived up to its social potential to connect people, and instead has become overrun by marketing and promotion efforts by large corporations.”

And we are back full circle as the activists want to create a bazaar 2.0 to fight the new feudalism:

“One organizer of the Contact Summit, Douglas Rushkoff, compares the disruptive power of the Internet to the impact of bazaars in the Middle Ages.

In his latest book, Program or Be Programmed (OR Books), he argues that the earliest bazaars helped transform feudal society by allowing vigorous information sharing—a low-tech peer-to-peer network. “Everyone was speaking with everybody else, and about all sorts of things and ideas,” he writes. “All this information exchange allowed people to improve on themselves and their situations,” allowing craftsmen to form guilds and share techniques. “As the former peasants rose to become a middle class of merchants and crafts­people, they were no longer dependent on feudal lords for food and protection.”

The Internet has created a bazaar 2.0, says Mr. Rushkoff, accelerating information exchange and giving people the power to organize in new ways.”

As some famous sociologist would say, we have never been modern.

Posted in Networks, Surveillance Society, Technology | 1 Comment »

If You’ve Been Bitching About The New Facebook…

September 23, 2011 by and tagged ,

Check this out:

And remember that, when you post photos on Facebook, they belong to them in perpetuity to use as they wish even after you delete your account.

Posted in Corporatism, Networks | No Comments »

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