Commentary on Mathias Klang’s seminar Disruptive Technology: Effects of Technology Regulation on Democracy

I managed to take in Mathias Klang’s seminar Disruptive Technology: Effects of Technology Regulation on Democracy over the HUMlab internet stream, in the comfort of my own home…as they say. The archived stream will be online soon so I thought I would blog here what it was that I found most interesting about Mathias’ presentation rather than recount the whole thing.

My own research seems to be following many of the same leads that were present in the seminar but I am taking the approach that what we recognise or understand as a text is changing (being “disrupted”) as an effect of technology. Mathias approaches these disruptions from the perspective of judicial law. But it is not law that is the center of focus rather Klang stated in his seminar; “Life is organized around technology”. This is a big statement and one that could be debated for a long time. My own perspective rests more with exchanges or dialogue that must have technology in context, and resist as much of the dreaded determinism as is possible in market driven economies (“Buy this it, will change your life” type scenarios). I happen to be reading Yochai Benkner’s “The Wealth of Networks” at the moment and recommend it to anyone interested in new technology, law and social change. Benkner writes that “property also constrains action. The rules of property are circumscribed and intended to illicit a particular datum – willingness and ability to pay for an exclusive control over a resource.” (Benkner 2006:24). This is the dilemma for Klang, myself and many others like us; we are stuck between the “organizing” and the “life”. The organizing is somewhat behind the life and they often move into open conflict with each other. Law is from the organizing side of the equation and it is often used to maintain equilibrium. The dialogue between the two is often patchy and at times non-existent. Control is the aim.

I was glad to see that Klang hinted at the constraints of the rules of property (or I took it as that) with the interesting idea of the “tyranny of affordances”. It was here that I stated thinking of Derrida’s Trace; the absent but suggested in langue, the shadows that gather around a term, such as the presence of “home” holding back the sorrow and negative of its absence. This is the gap that I feel law would have a hard time accommodating and perhaps explains why Klang’s thesis/seminar seems so damn interesting as it is a meeting of the unexpected with the established on a dissecting table (so to speak).

I have loved Lawrence Lessig since I first picked up one of his books. Law has never sounded as cool as when he writes about it. Architecture as a control principle is one of the best points of his intellectual store. One thing that Mathias did not talk so much about was the difference between his own focus on software architecture (a much more winnable field for the anarchists in the library) and hardware architecture. The hardware architecture, Lessig warned us, is the weak point for the commons of the digital. Whilst at the same time, following the tyranny of affordances principle, a completely managed computer would be a very one dimensional, non-innovative machine.

Then Klang came to his six stories. This is where things become interesting and really very philosophical. We could go on and on about labour and Locke and the transformation of it all. But I thought mainly about the idea of the individual and something that I spend a lot of time thinking about it digital text studies; subjectivity. Here I detect a conflict between what it was to be a person under modernist regimes of identity and what is happening today in digital spheres. I don’t think that the “regulators accepting user participation” (one of Klang’s results) is quite enough to bring about a harmonization of Life and Technology. To quote Benkner again:

“The actual practice of freedom that we see emerging from the networked environment allows people to reach across national and social boundaries, across space and political divisions. It allows people to solve problems together in new associations that are outside the boundaries of formal, legal political association.” (Benkner 2006: 19)

Who or what the user is I believe is where the problem lies. An interesting example of this in terms of identity is the construction of profiles in MySpace. The mash-up profiles pages of the devoted MySpace user is not only reliant on content from the “owner” of the page. Rather the page is intersected by content from a net of other MySpace users, other websites and media and then there is just plain fiction. An active MySpace page is constantly being updated and changed, and these can be sent out by email to the owner and the interested via RSS. Locating an individual in the web of MySpace is something like Microsoft trying to find out who hacked its PlaysForSure DRM (John Doe?).

The “freedom of speech is the freedom to insult people” may be one thing that Salman Rushdie said (and he should know) but he also said that the freedom of speech should only be extended to those who guarantee it for others. Should we allow hate speech to be freely published? This is a tricky one. The reluctance of the major political parties in the recent Swedish elections to debate with the extreme right parties and the subsequent election victories of those parties is, I believe, related to the tyranny of silence. This feeds into another term that Klang used in his seminar; the State. Like the Law, the State seems to be struggling to come to terms with much of network technology. But this is not just from the side of disruption. Technologies encouraged by the State seem to undermine its authority; Digital Rights Management (DRM) software goes over borders and imposes legal regimes upon consumers from outside their own contexts. Just in Time (JiT) manufacturing bypasses state boundaries (and therefore laws) and delivers goods to the consumer from a web of production and assembly sites from outside labour laws and wage zones established by the State.. The police raid on the Gothenburg based Pirate Bay server in June seems to have been connected to a request from John G. Malcolm (Executive Vice President of the Motion Picture Association of America and source of “File sharing funds terrorism“) in a letter to Dan Eliasson (Swedish Secretary of State) The letter communicating this can be found HERE.

This all goes towards supporting Mathias’s statement that what is positive and productive in the digital realm is much determined by the interests that lie behind it. “Malicious code” reminds me of folk devils and moral panics. Finally, I am looking for a comic to accompany me for the rest of my PhD time….Thanks Mathias and good luck on Monday.