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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Praxis & Online Politics

Danah Boyd’s 2009 article “The Not So Hidden Politics of Online-Class” analyzes the new divisions that are plaguing the cyber public sphere(s). While great leaps have been made to increase online participation among the disenfranchised groups, this view has lent itself to many who are of the opinion that the problem simply ends there. Boyd writes, “There's a terrible tendency in this country, and especially among politically minded folks, to interpret an advancement as a solution” (Boyd). Her article goes on to stress the fact that while the materials and tools are available for cross-cultural interactions and a flourishing of diverse discourses people simply have not used them in such an ideal fashion. Rather, the stark reality of the situation is that online networks are just as, if not more, insular and interest oriented as the traditional networks that preceded the age of the Internet.

In some ways, Boyd argues, the Internet has even exacerbated certain hierarchies or divisions between groups along multiple axes from class and race to gender and sexual identity. “Social stratification is pervasive in American society (and around the globe). Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible.” Some of her argument seems directed at people who confuse the relationship between social change and technological change. Rather than espousing a Messianic vision of technological determinism, Boyd sees culture as the driving force behind changes online. While certain forms of oppression have been eroded by the possibilities opened up by the Internet, one should not confuse the direction of causality. Or moreover one ought not conflate correlation with causation. The Internet as a means of production merely represents an aspect of a larger trend that’s persisted since the 1970’s. Power no longer operates in a traditional top down approach. Rather it exists diffusely and on multiple levels. Each aspect of the social is aimed at producing certain forms of subjectivity that are more amenable to reproducing society at large. Power can no longer be located solely within the theoretical narrative of the nation-state, gender, or capital. Instead, each of these forces must cooperate with one another and act within networks.

While many theorists have analyzed this aspect of our contemporary condition of late capitalism, I’m thinking here of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, especially Commonwealth. I think it’s interesting to read Boyd’s article in relation to this work, because while I admire Boyd’s interest in ensuring that we do not lose focus of the material reality that the Internet is built upon and protects, I think one should also keep in mind the types of new possibilities the Internet is opening up. For example if one were to contend, as I do, that the regime of private property is ultimately the first form of alienation and the largest proximal determining factor than the challenge the Internet wages on traditional modes of thinking could be more powerful than originally imagined. Commonwealth is an attempt to reassert the role the commons play in the modern imaginary and material reality. While it’s easy to see the commons as increasingly sparse and limited as a result of the series of enclosures conducted by modern Capital, it’s also hard to ignore the ways in which they incessantly sprout up. Hardt and Negri write in the Preface, “Innovation in Internet technologies, for example, depends directly on access to common code and information resources as well as the ability to connect and interact with others in unrestricted networks. And more generally, all forms of production in decentralized networks, whether or not computer technologies are involved, demand freedom and access to the common” (x). I think that in certain respects this is true or can be. While social networking sites are still highly stratified according to the typical racial or class based creeds, I think that the Internet networks dedicated to knowledge production or creation are typically more of meritocracies. Often people can conceal their identity and the people on the other end of the computer screen do not care. I think this is especially true for people who are collaborating across seas.

 Boyd’s problem seems to be that Social Networking sites do not facilitate enough conversation beyond pre-established ties. But for the cases where people are collaborating for productive activities it seems that these barriers pose less of a problem. Boyd however warns against the lull of complacency she sees setting in, “While we've made tremendous strides in certain battles, the war is not over. The worst thing we can do is to walk away and congratulate ourselves for all of the good things that have happened. Such attitudes create new breeding grounds for increased stratification” (Boyd).

While I agree perhaps the question is that society was not yet ready for the Internet’s potential. Perhaps a realignment of freedom and necessity would elucidate the situation. One cannot simply will into motion an entire new set of rhythms for society to move within. Only once the material aspects of production themselves are altered will people be able to realize their capacity for engagement with the collectivity in a different light. Yet on the other hand, it seems equally true that the process of consciousness-raising cannot occur through outmoded forms of communication. In a mutually transformative relationship I think that the ways the Internet blends consumption with production, communication with practical activity, the physical with the virtual evinces one that a dogmatism of any strain will fail to undue the current blockages of thought. The problems of today will never be fixed in a Cinderella approach to critical theory or activism, but rather only by employing the full force of our productive potentials and acting across multiple registers.

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