Less Fun Than the Usual Walk of Shame

Though to be blunt I don’t really believe either article brought anything earth-shattering to the table this week, I at least enjoyed Vaidhyanathan’s piece on “The Googlization of Us.” (Castells’ essay, somewhat oddly written and with the most head-scratching references to date, reminded me more of a tautological text better suited for one of our undergraduate courses.) Vaidhyanathan’s look at Google’s strategic deployment of default choices and the enumeration of five basic privacy interface classifications made for interesting reading, though of course I do need to take one for my team and raise issue with his casual (and in this case quite literal) defamation of reality television as demonstrating “a positive relationship between the number of cameras and observers pointed at a subject and their willingness to act strangely and relinquish all pretensions of dignity” (595). While the last decade has been kind to my fair reality television’s seemingly eternal quest to earn a seat at the table of ‘legitimate’ media scholarship, we don’t need to look any farther than the audience at Dr. Patrice Petro’s talk last Tuesday (unquestionably loaded with academic all-stars) and their titters of laughter as The Bachelor and other reality shows were name-checked during the discussion. I concede that reality television has and continues to be home to ‘ordinary’ citizens behaving extraordinarily and at times almost certainly with an eye for the camera, but its positioning as a concrete example of Vaidhyanathan’s larger point here seems to me highly unfair.

Getting more to the point of the ‘cryptopticon,’ I was reminded of a New York Times article from a year ago about Justine Sacco, a communications director who offhandedly tweeted a stupid joke about Africa and AIDS to her 170 followers and then found herself the top worldwide trend on the site (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0). The article, which I highly recommend, goes on to document other people who have becomes targets of public outrage over some controversial post, and describes in detail how they’ve lost their jobs and had their social lives destroyed. Most interesting though is the connection author Jon Ronson draws with America’s history of public shaming in the 18th and 19th centuries, writing that it thankfully fell out of favor because “well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.”

These cases interest me because I think they get to the root of what’s problematic about social media and internet privacy; while the role of institutions like Google and explicitly stated privacy policies are important, in my view the malice of the anonymous masses and their cruel manipulation of what becomes made public is far more sinister than the dispassionate commercial interests of Internet authorities. Whether or not I agree that Google has too much power, I hate the notion that information and opinions will of course be immediately attacked if made public has sadly become an unchallenged given.

dunce_cap

pictured: me after most grad seminars

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Less Fun Than the Usual Walk of Shame

In search for the real power

Silva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Us: Universal Survailance and Infrastructural Imperialism” serves as a very interesting and powerful counterpoint to Manuel Castells’s “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.” There were three very interesting points raised by Vaidhyanathan that somehow were more effective in personifying the new medium “players” than Castells’s article.

The first of these points was how Google, while guaranteeing the privacy of its users by a written privacy policy, “changes its policy often and without warning. So today’s policy – for all its strengths and weaknesses – might not be the policy tomorrow or next year” (580). Therefore, Google not only positions itself as the police over its own policies, but also carefully deprives its “costumers” of any legal power. Castells’s description of communication and information being sources of power in the “battle over the minds of people” (238) suggests Google positions itself as a powerful and flexible moderator/agent in this battle. It seems that Castells’s mass self-communication may have a new “competitor” other than the traditional political powers capable of controlling mass media, a new power that not only gives voice to marginalized “individualists,” but keeps track of these voices to be used by whoever is interested in commercialize them.

A second interesting point described by Vaidhyanathan is the amusingly depersonalized (and tragic) “Star Wars Kid,” who had to quit school after being harassed for having a personal video go viral. I take this as a true personalized example of individuals who are embedded and are major players in the rise of mass self-communication. While I like to believe that Castells’s mass self-communication offers a challenge to traditional powers by individuals who “think local, rooted in their society, and act global, confronting the power where the power holders are, in the global networks of power and in the communication sphere” (249), Vaidhyanathan at the same time focus on politically engaged individuals who may represent an infinitesimal number of the total number of players engaged in making their voices be heard online. It is incontestable that the new medium offers new ways of political mobilizations. It is also unquestionable that individuals who share many of the values broadcasted by mass media strengthened these values through mass self-communication. It is possible that the answer regarding what power benefits more from the new medium will never be known.

Finally, Vaidhyanathan speaks about users’ indifference to Google’s “Streetview omnipresence” (although he admits that individuals from rural areas present more negative views towards surveillance than individuals living in urban areas). He also presents Google’s CEO, Eric Shmidt, argument that states that “people are the same everywhere” and that this is “very disturbing” (593). While Shmidt statement may be untrue and may be made through the prism of his corporation that, after all, is one of the forces behind globalization, it may present a future trend. If that is true, social mobilizations, purported to be aided by the new medium, may not be a force against the traditional political powers, but against a world where social mobilizations themselves become part of a commercialized and global action.

In search for the real power