Digifesto

Tag: habitus

For a more ethical Silicon Valley, we need a wiser economics of data

Kara Swisher’s NYT op-ed about the dubious ethics of Silicon Valley and Nitasha Tiku’s WIRED article reviewing books with alternative (and perhaps more cynical than otherwise stated) stories about the rise of Silicon Valley has generated discussion and buzz among the tech commentariat.

One point of debate is whether the focus should be on “ethics” or on something more substantively defined, such as human rights. Another point is whether the emphasis should be on “ethics” or on something more substantively enforced, like laws which impose penalties between 1% and 4% of profits, referring of course to the GDPR.

While I’m sympathetic to the European approach (laws enforcing human rights with real teeth), I think there is something naive about it. We have not yet seen whether it’s ever really possible to comply with the GDPR could wind up being a kind of heavy tax on Big Tech companies operating in the EU, but one that doesn’t truly wind up changing how people’s data are used. In any case, the broad principles of European privacy are based on individual human dignity, and so they do not take into account the ways that corporations are social structures, i.e. sociotechnical organizations that transcend individual people. The European regulations address the problem of individual privacy while leaving mystified the question of why the current corporate organization of the world’s personal information is what it is. This sets up the fight over ‘technology ethics’ to be a political conflict between different kinds of actors whose positions are defined as much by their social habitus as by their intellectual reasons.

My own (unpopular!) view is that the solution to our problems of technology ethics are going to have to rely on a better adapted technology economics. We often forget today that economics was originally a branch of moral philosophy. Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) before An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Since then the main purpose of economics has been to intellectually grasp the major changes to society due to production, trade, markets, and so on in order to better steer policy and business strategy towards more fruitful equilibria. The discipline has a bad reputation among many “critical” scholars due to its role in supporting neoliberal ideology and policies, but it must be noted that this ideology and policy work is not entirely cynical; it was a successful centrist hegemony for some time. Now that it is under threat, partly due to the successes of the big tech companies that benefited under its regime, it’s worth considering what new lessons we have to learn to steer the economy in an improved direction.

The difference between an economic approach to the problems of the tech economy and either an ‘ethics’ or a ‘law’ based approach is that it inherently acknowledges that there are a wide variety of strategic actors co-creating social outcomes. Individual “ethics” will not be able to settle the outcomes of the economy because the outcomes depend on collective and uncoordinated actions. A fundamentally decent person may still do harm to others due to their own bounded rationality; “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Meanwhile, regulatory law is not the same as command; it is at best a way of setting the rules of a game that will be played, faithfully or not, by many others. Putting regulations in place without a good sense of how the game will play out differently because of them is just as irresponsible as implementing a sweeping business practice without thinking through the results, if not more so because the relationship between the state and citizens is coercive, not voluntary as the relationship between businesses and customers is.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to shifting the debate about technology ethics to one about technology economics is that it requires a change in register. It drains the conversation of the pathos which is so instrumental in surfacing it as an important political topic. Sound analysis often ruins parties like this. Nevertheless, it must be done if we are to progress towards a more just solution to the crises technology gives us today.

habitus and citizenship

Just a quick thought… So in Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity, he describes the habitus of the scientist. Being a scientist demands a certain adherence to the rules of the scientific game, certain training, etc. He winds up constructing a sociological explanation for the epistemic authority of science. The rules of the game are the conditions for objectivity.

When I was working on a now defunct dissertation, I was comparing this formulation of science with a formulation of democracy and the way it depends on publics. Habermasian publics, Fraserian publics, you get the idea. Within this theory, what was once a robust theory of collective rationality as the basis for democracy has deteriorated under what might be broadly construed as “postmodern” critiques of this rationality. One could argue that pluralistic multiculturalism, not collective reason, became the primary ideology for American democracy in the past eight years.

Pretty sure this backfired with e.g. the Alt-Right.

So what now? I propose that those interested in functioning democracy reconsider the habitus of citizenship and how it can be maintained through the education system and other civic institutions. It’s a bit old-school. But if the Alt-Right wanted a reversion to historical authoritarian forms of Western governance, we may be getting there. Suppose history moves in a spiral. It might be best to try to move forward, not back.

Habitus Shadow

In Bourdieu’s sociological theory, habitus refers to the dispositions of taste and action that individuals acquired as a practical consequence of their place in society. Society provides a social field (a technical term for Bourdieu) of structured incentives and roles. Individuals adapt to roles rationally, but in doing so culturally differentiate themselves. This process is dialectical, hence neither strictly determined by the field nor by individual rational agency, but a co-creation of each. One’s posture, one’s preference for a certain kind of music, one’s disposition to engage in sports, one’s disposition to engage in intellectual debate, are all potentially elements of a habitus.

In Jungian psychoanalytic theory, the shadow is the aspect of personality that is unconscious and not integrated with the ego–what one consciously believes oneself to be. Often it is the instinctive or irrational part of one’s psychology. An undeveloped psyche is likely to see his or her own shadow aspect in others and judge them harshly for it; this is a form of psychological projection motivated by repression for the sake of maintaining the ego. Encounters with the shadow are difficult. Often they are experienced as the awareness or suspicion of some new information that threatens ones very sense of self. But these encounters are, for Jung, an essential part of individuation, as they are how the personality can develop a more complete consciousness of itself.

Perhaps you can see where this is going.

I propose a theoretical construct: habitus shadow.

When an individual, situated within a social field, develops a habitus, they may do so with an incomplete consciousness of the reasons for their preferences and dispositions for action. An ego, a conscious rationalization, will develop; it will be reinforced by others who share its habitus. The dispositions of a habitus will include the collectively constructed ego of its members, which is itself a psychological disposition.

We would then expect that a habitus has a characteristic shadow: truths about the sociological conditions of a habitus which are not part of the conscious self-indentity or ego of that habitus.

This is another way to talk about what I have discussed elsewhere as an ideological immune reaction. If an idea or understanding is so challenging or destructive to the ego of a habitus that it calls into question the rationality of it’s very existence, then the role will be able to maintain itself only through a kind of repression/projection/exclusion. Alternatively, if the habitus can assimilate its shadow, one could see that as a form of social self-transcendence or progress.

The Facebook ethics problem is a political problem

So much has been said about the Facebook emotion contagion experiment. Perhaps everything has been said.

The problem with everything having been said is that by an large people’s ethical stances seem predetermined by their habitus.

By which I mean: most people don’t really care. People who care about what happens on the Internet care about it in whatever way is determined by their professional orientation on that matter. Obviously, some groups of people benefit from there being fewer socially imposed ethical restrictions on data scientific practice, either in an industrial or academic context. Others benefit from imposing those ethical restrictions, or cultivating public outrage on the matter.

If this is an ethical issue, what system of ethics are we prepared to use to evaluate it?

You could make an argument from, say, a utilitarian perspective, or a deontological perspective, or even a virtue ethics standpoint. Those are classic moves.

But nobody will listen to what a professionalized academic ethicist will say on the matter. If there’s anybody who does rigorous work on this, it’s probably somebody like Luciano Floridi. His work is great, in my opinion. But I haven’t found any other academics who work in, say, policy that embrace his thinking. I’d love to be proven wrong.

But since Floridi does serious work on information ethics, that’s mainly an inconvenience to pundits. Instead we get heat, not light.

If this process resolves into anything like policy change–either governmental or internally at Facebook–it will because of a process of agonistic politics. “Agonistic” here means fraught with conflicted interests. It may be redundant to modify ‘politics’ with ‘agonistic’ but it makes the point that the moves being made are strategic actions, aimed at gain for ones person or group, more than they are communicative ones, aimed at consensus.

Because e.g. Facebook keeps public discussion fragmented through its EdgeRank algorithm, which even in its well-documented public version is full of apparent political consequences and flaws, there is no way for conversation within the Facebook platform to result in consensus. It is not, as has been observed by others, a public. In a trivial sense, it’s not a public because the data isn’t public. The data is (sort of) private. That’s not a bad thing. It just means that Facebook shouldn’t be where you go to develop a political consensus that could legitimize power.

Twitter is a little better for this, because it’s actually public. Facebook has zero reason to care about the public consensus of people on Twitter though, because those people won’t organize a consumer boycott of Facebook, because they can only reach people that use Twitter.

Facebook is a great–perhaps the greatest–example of what Habermas calls the steering media. “Steering,” because it’s how powerful entities steer public opinion. For Habermas, the steering media control language and therefore culture. When ‘mass’ media control language, citizens no longer use language to form collective will.

For individualized ‘social’ media that is arranged into filter bubbles through relevance algorithms, language is similarly controlled. But rather than having just a single commanding voice, you have the opportunity for every voice to be expressed at once. Through homophily effects in network formation, what you’d expect to see are very intense clusters of extreme cultures that see themselves as ‘normal’ and don’t interact outside of their bubble.

The irony is that the critical left, who should be making these sorts of observations, is itself a bubble within this system of bubbles. Since critical leftism is enacted in commercialized social media which evolves around it, it becomes recuperated in the Situationist sense. Critical outrage is tapped for advertising revenue, which spurs more critical outrage.

The dependence of contemporary criticality on commercial social media for its own diffusion means that, ironically, none of them are able to just quit Facebook like everyone else who has figured out how much Facebook sucks.

It’s not a secret that decentralized communication systems are the solution to this sort of thing. Stanford’s Liberation Tech group captures this ideology rather well. There’s a lot of good work on censorship-resistant systems, distributed messaging systems, etc. For people who are citizens in the free world, many of these alternative communication platforms where we are spared from algorithmic control are very old. Some people still use IRC for chat. I’m a huge fan of mailing lists, myself. Email is the original on-line social media, and ones inbox is ones domain. Everyone who is posting their stuff to Facebook could be posting to a WordPress blog. WordPress, by the way, has a lovely user interface these days and keeps adding “social” features like “liking” and “following”. This goes largely unnoticed, which is too bad, because Automattic, the company the runs WordPress, is really not evil at all.

So there are plenty of solutions to Facebook being bad for manipulative and bad for democracy. Those solutions involve getting people off of Facebook and onto alternative platforms. That’s what a consumer boycott is. That’s how you get companies to stop doing bad stuff, if you don’t have regulatory power.

Obviously the real problem is that we don’t have a less politically problematic technology that does everything we want Facebook to do only not the bad stuff. There are a lot of unsolved technical accomplishments to getting that to work.

I think a really cool project that everybody who cares about this should be working on is designing and executing on building that alternative to Facebook. That’s a huge project. But just think about how great it would be if we could figure out how to fund, design, build, and market that. These are the big questions for political praxis in the 21st century.