Felix Stalder on Mon, 10 Sep 2007 16:38:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Our New Public Life: Free Cooperation, Biased Infrastructures and Authoritarian States

[This is a talk I gave a few days ago at Ars Electronica's "Goodbye
Privacy" symposium, curated by Ina Zwerger and Armin Medosch.]

Our New Public Life: Free Cooperation, Biased Infrastructures and
Authoritarian States

In her statement, symposium curator Ina Zwerger writes that she
doesn't take part in email lists, does not run a blog, and publishes
no personal information on-line because she values her privacy highly.
Yet, even a cursory search brings up a pretty good record of what she
has been doing over the last decade, from dropping out of university
to representing public broadcasting at official functions. We find
her home address with a picture of the building, her mobile phone
number, and all the rest we are no longer surprised find. And this
information is available in about two minutes of searching, using just
a single tool to which anyone in the world has access. Of course, this
is just the tip of the iceberg. Her banks has collected vast amounts
of information, likewise her cell phone provider and her ISP. All of
which is potentially accessible by others as well.

This is the situation for someone who actively values her privacy,
without devoting her life to preserving it. The amount of personal
data on anyone who living in the advanced pockets of the globalized
word -- data available to anyone who either searches for it with or
has access to the right slices of the communication infrastructure
-- has never been greater than today. And if trends of the last 50
years are any indication, the sheer volume of personal data is only
going to grow. During the 1990s, a lot of energy has been devoted to
"safeguarding privacy in the digital age". Increasingly, the consense
among activists and scholars is that these efforts have failed. As a
consequence traditional notion of privacy, so central to the entire
concept of the citizen in liberal political theory, as it was outlined
by Beate Rössler, has become void.

Underneath this historical trajectory beyond privacy lie two
developments that are intimately related, but are usually treated
separately. One is the fact that our daily lifes are being deeply
embeeded in digital communication. Ever more traces of our daily
actions are gathering in the data-bases of the infrastructure
providers. Emails logs, credit cards statments, frequent flyer lists,
online shopping receipts, cell phone records, and so on. Form this,
the data body is assembled, sometimes following, sometimes precedding
our physical bodies. We heard about this a lot yesterday.

The other development that is that more and more people are speaking  
as individuals in public. Not too long ago, not only did few people   
speak in public, but most who did so spoke as functionaries,          
advancing institutional opinions, impersonal knowledge, or corporate  
endeavors. They rarely spoke as themselves, this was reserved for     
"off the record" conversations. Now, the notion of "off the record"   
is close to meaningless. As many have found out with embarrassment,   
you cannot send an email "off the record." It's always just a supoena 

More to the point. Not only have we personal blogs, discussion        
boards, digital social networks, and so on. Additionally, areas       
where communication used be be relatively impersonal â?? science,     
journalism and others â?? are becoming more personalized. Until a     
few years ago, many newspapers published articles without a byline.   
Not any more. Journalist are personalities now, and anyone can be     
a journalist. Increasingly, the peer-review process is becoming       
transparent, and we can observe how people go about making their      
speech intersubjective. This is happening in the hard sciences, not   
just in Wikipedia. In the process, entire new domains of speech are   
now regarded as public. Another example: One of the reasons why       
programmers like to write open source software is because it makes    
their personal contributions visible to others and therefore helps    
to establish their own individual reputation, independent of their    
employer, if they have one.                                           

If we want to understand the new landscape beyond privacy, we have
to bring together these two developments, relate the fact most of
our actions are leaving traces that are collected and processed,
to the fact that more and and more of our actions are becoming
more personalized and publicized at the same time. This has deep
consequences both on an individual and a societal level. Let me start
with the first one.

On the level of the individual, the boom of web2.0, to use a          
shorthand for personal public speech, extends a generally increasing  
individualization of society. Processes of 'self-development' have    
become central to contemporary societies. Over the last 50 years,     
the task of identity-building has shifted away from relatively        
stable, hierarchical institutions -- family, workplace, church --     
to the individual and his or her self-chosen context. In the 1960s,   
freedom-oriented social movements challenged a heavily bureaucratized 
society, rejecting its model of the 'organization man' and his 'one   
dimensional' personality. Almost 40 years later, this development     
has reached mainstream and hardend into what cultural critic Marion   
von Osten calls the "creative imperative": the systemic demand on     
individuals to be creative and expressive. Through a combination      
of pull- and push-processes, large segments of the population have    
acquired substantial cultural capital, developed a heightened desire  
and need to be unique. They â?? or should I say: we ? â?? are finding 
themselves within vastly expanded fields for self-expression and have 
embarked on a search for recognition and reputation.                  

The old division of labor in the field of culture where a few
highly, individualized cultural producers worked for a relatively
undifferentiated mass of consumers, is being complemented by a new
culture of prosumerism, for the want of a better term, created by
people who are users and producers at the same time. The DJ selecting
and mixing records in a live setting, not the writer struggling
alone with the empty page, is the contemporary cultural archetype.
Though, perhaps this cliché is already tired and being supplanted by
the image of the blogger offering a personal take, in real time, on
whatever slice of the world appears relevant to him or her. Web 2.0
offer ways to (re)establish their own link to the world, however they
see it, be it comings and goings of their cat, Scandinavian 'necro
metal', or anti-globalization.

Personal public speech transforms people who used to be spectators    
into participants. Sometimes, the difference between these roles      
is so small that it might feel insignificant, but sometimes the       
consequences of this shift are enormous, bringing down governments or 
embarrassing corporations.                                            

The more spectacular cases show clearly what I would argue is the
case everywhere. Building links to the world is not a passive act of
observing, but an active intervention into the world, not the least by
validating some aspects of the world as important, that is, worthy of
attention, while letting others fall out of sight. Yet, at the same
time, it is also validating the person through his or her ability to
establish those links, as the one capable of establishing meaning
of some kind in a sea of noise. Since this is done mainly through
self-directed volunteer efforts (even if some make money) the meaning
established is, first and foremost, a personal one. Thus, it's a
process of co-creation of an individual identity and a world at large.

It seems plausible that this is contributing to a type of
(self)experience very different from model still dominant, where the
world inside of us, our self, is far removed from the world outside of
us. The Cartesian a prori "cogito ergo sumâ??, according to which the
only thing we can ultimately be certain of is our individual thinking,
is less convincing a starting point than it used to be. Rather, we
are entering a world of 'networked individualism' where individual
self-identity â?? both in terms of the image one has of oneself as
well as in terms of the image others have of one â?? can no longer
be separated from one's position within a relational network. This
is a subtle, but very fundamental shift. The notion of 'networked
individualism' already indicates that individualization does not mean
atomization or some other dystopic notion of people being isolated
behind their computer screens. Rather it points towards forms of
identity situated between the fully autonomous individual, rooted in
his or her privacy, and the faceless member of a collective, whose
personality is subsumed under the identity of the group. Yet, if
idendividual identity is primarily understood, and experienced, as
relational, then concepts like privacy, which is anti-relational to
its core, are becoming more and more alien.

We can see some of this new balance between individuality and
sociality in an emerging, distinct pattern of online collaboration.
People seem to act neither as egoistic individuals, maximizing
their own resources nor as selfless contributors to a collective
effort. Rather there is something in between, something new, that
we might characterize as "weak cooperationâ??. Usually, cooperation
entails people first specifying a common goal and then working
towards achieving it. Specifying the common goal is often a very
difficult process, requiring considerable negotiations between all
involved parties before the actual work can even begin. Unless some
shortcuts are introduced, be it through the market or hierarchical
decision making, these processes do not scale very well. Yet,
today, we have sometimes very large groups working together quite
productively, though we might not share their sense of what it means
to be productive.

The reason for this seems to be that here cooperation emerges after   
the fact. not as something planned beforehand. Since much of this     
is self-directed volunteer work, it means people do it, first and     
foremost, for themselves. People publish their own works, drawing on  
works of others. Once these are published, and visible to others,     
there is a chance, just a chance, to detect others whose own works    
or thoughts complement one's own ideas in a meaningful way. Thus      
cooperation can begin on a low-key, ad-hoc level. Wikipedia is a good 
example here. The vast majority of contributors are only concerned    
with a very small number of articles. They may write once something   
on a topic they care about. In the process, some of them recognize    
that others care about the same, and they might interact with them    
on the basis of their shared, mutually-proven interest, whatever it   
is. Such cooperation requires minimal coordination and no planning or 
prior agreements.                                                     

This is not community, if that concept is to have any meaning.        
Rather, this is weak cooperation, based on weak social ties. From     
that, some very few people might get interested in the project as a   
whole, and they start working less on their own article, but more     
on the administration of the system. In the process, they show to     
other administrators that they are committed, and based on that, they 
might become members of the core them, where weak cooperation slowly  
gives way to more conventional strong, that is planned, cooperation.  
Thus, weak and strong cooperation complement each other, but the key  
is that one does not need to become a member and identify with the    
project as a whole in order to begin to participate.                  

By exposing oneself, by showing what one cares about, in one's own
time and without payment, users offer themselves as trustworthy for
collaboration. Not all of them are interested in that, and the degree
of collaboration varies vastly depending on the field of activity.
In political blogs, collaboration, that is information sharing and
interlinking, is very high. Yet, even in relatively individualistic
platforms, such as the photo-sharing site Flickr, about 1 in 5 people
joins some groups of shared interest, that is, uses some collaborative
features offered by the site.

If self-identity and the experience of the world is one of pragmatic
fluidity, then it seems save to assume that on a societal level,
one of the effects is also the fragmentation the public sphere into
sub-spheres. These are becoming increasingly differentiated by
internal culture and set of rules, pragmatically assembled by the
people who make up these publics as the go along. Since people are
inhabiting more than one of these sub spheres at the same time, and
are moving between them, this does not mean the breakdown of social
communication, but it nevertheless adds to the crisis of those
institutions that require a traditional public sphere to function.
Compared with the immediacy and authenticity these new forms of
cooperation seem to offer, partly because these limited, focused
associations do not need to make difficult compromises, the discourse
of the public sphere, particularly around politics, seems increasingly
artificial and insincere. Not the least because politicians need
to make difficult compromises to gain majorities and offer overall
solutions that cannot accommodate the high degree of singularity of
the "mix-and-matchâ?? lifes people are living. Politics, and the
public sphere around it, appears as the domain of cynics.

Yet, it would be entirely wrong to see this as a triumph of free      
cooperation and a withering of power of the state and of powerful     
institutions. On the contrary. The very same infrastructure that      
supports this hopeful transformation of individual identity and the   
new, voluntary modes of cooperation, also creates new means through   
which power is being exercised. We can observe this on two levels.    

The providers of this infrastructure are compiling information about
users on a scale and level of detail unimaginable only a few years
ago. With that data, they are creating new meta knowledge not just
about individual users, but about entire groups of users, which allows
them to know about connections of which individual users are not even
aware of. This enables them to engage in profile-based predictions of
future user behavior. There are benign and positive aspects of this.
We all know amazon recommendation system, where we are presented with
books that we are assumed to like, based on the profiles of others
like us.

Yet, it's easy to extend the logic of such recommendation systems
into what sociologist David Lyon calls "social sorting". That is, the
fitting of people's lifes into preselected trajectories that maximize
the benefits of those who provide the infrastructure. In effect, one's
future becomes a self-fulling prophecy, created by the providers of
essential services without knowledge of or consent by the individuals
affected. This without any accountability to individuals or even
democratic oversight. This is strictly business, even if it does
complement classic state surveillance. We will hear much more about
this later on from David directly, so I will leave it with this.

The second level on which the free sharing of information and the
new modes of cooperation contributes to hardening of social power
is perhaps less obvious. The institutions of government are classic
bureaucracies, hierarchical and based on representation. They are
very good at dealing with other institutions built the same way.
Yet, they have profound difficulties dealing with networks built
on loose cooperation. These networks are powerful, the can process
very significant amounts of information and effectively create
transparency of complex government processes. Let me give you an
example. Bilaterals.org bills itself as "a collective effort to share
information and stimulate cooperation against bilateral trade and
investment agreements that are opening countries to the deepest forms
of penetration by transnational corporations". Through collecting,
aggregating and publishing critical information in real time, they
challenge the state in an arena â?? international treaty making â??
that is has never been challenged before. But, the network that
runs this site is neither clearly identified, because it's partly
built on open, weak cooperation, nor does it represent anyone. This
is organization not built around representation, but around weakly
coordinated action. And there are thousands upon thousands of them.

Form the point of view of the state, it is challenged by an
organization it cannot talk to, because it is geared towards talking
to representatives, not individuals.

One of the ways which the state reacts to this challenge that it      
cannot deal with for structural reasons is to try to withhold         
information. This is done across the board, by expanding the scope of 
the executive, while restricting the means of oversight. This is most 
clearly the case in the US, where we have a government built around   
the notion and practice of "executive privilege" but also the case in 

>From the governments point of view, loose cooperation built on
action rather representation, looks, in its most challenging form,
just like terrorism against which it must provide security by, well,
expanding the means of the executive. But because the boundaries
of the networks are difficult to determine, and the patterns of
communication of terrorists are like any other network of cooperation,
society as a whole comes under suspicion. Every cell phone is a
potential terrorists device.

As an effect core elements of the state, centering around the security
services, are becoming, at the same time, more secretive yet more
omnipresent, further eroding privacy and other distinctions central
to a liberal democracy, such as the one between military and police.
These pictures of the entirely legal protest camps during this years
G8 Summit in Germany were taken by a Tornado military fight jet,
flying at less than 200 altitude.

The social landscape in a world where notion is ill-fitting is
characterized both by a flowering of free cooperation, where
individuals experience their own identity intimately related to
others with whom they create the networks through which they built
their connective world. This is a functioning anarchy, understood as
voluntary cooperation built on mutual trust. Though, it's a burgeois
anarchy, one which exists within the domininant system, rather than
as a revolutionary alternative to it. This development takes place
through an infrastructure whose very design aggregate power in the
hands of those who control the foundation of this new landscape: means
of communication. And, this takes place within the framework of the
state rebuilding its legitimacy around an authoritarian core promising
security against the vagueries of free cooperation.

Whether or not this makes the glass half full or half empty is a
meaningless question, we are currently pouring into it as water is
leaking out.

The key question when we try to think about a world withput privacy is
how we can promote free cooperation, which involves a high degree of
visibility and identifiability of individuals, while limiting social
sorting and preventing the state to rebuild itself around a deeply
authoritarian core. If we manage that, I believe we can really say:
goodbye privacy.

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------------- out now:
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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