Binge Watching Is Changing Us: Recognizing the Power of Imagination

It may not be one of the great novels of all time, but one of my favorite reading experiences was Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Genre wise, it is a historical-fiction whodunit set in a medieval monastery.  The story and action are great (which the film version attests to), but it also has an intellectual depth that only a professional semiotician like Eco could bring to the table.  As the novel unfolds, Eco probes the deeply symbolic side of our lives, exploring how the categories we think with structure our actions and passions. (Think of the short ancient language and culture sections in Snow Crash, but this time marinating the whole thing, not just peppering here and there.)

Monastery Davidovica

Monastery Davidovica (© Vhorvat)

For Eco, the swirling liturgical and religious imaginations of monks in medieval Europe shaped—for good or for ill—the way that monks understood the world.  Indeed, that imagination, populated by angels, devils, and biblical figures, is almost a character of its own

Looking back, I probably liked The Name of the Rose so much because I read it as I travelled in Europe for the first time. I picked up the novel as I waited for a train in London at the start of a long solo trek to Florence.  I had spent months poking around churches, castles, and museums in England during classes, so my head was full of the images Eco drew upon.  I was in the perfect place—both literally and figuratively—to enjoy the work.


Back to School, with Metaethics Courtesy of Luciano Floridi

So, things have been very quiet around here at Rewiring Virtue for the last 6 weeks.  As it turns out, last year I was on sabbatical to focus on my writing. That gave me lots of time to write articles and such, but also blog.  Six weeks ago, I headed back to the classroom.  You can see what a dent it put into my writing.  Quite a gap.

Now that we are at midterms, it’s time I got back at it. And, like any good teacher, I’ll distract you by giving you an assignment.  Luciano Floridi has written a great, nuanced, and complex moral analysis  (via Michael Geist) of the recently failed Anti-Counterfieting Trade Act (ACTA-pretty much an US/EU version of the failed SOPA/PIPA legislation here in the states).  Floridi is a philosopher and longtime technology ethicists.  He is also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Chair in Information and Computer Ethics at the University of Hertfordshire.  He has been doing thoughtful work for a long time, and is one of the leaders in the field.  The essay, entitled “ACTA – The Ethical Analysis of a Failure, and Its Lessons,” is worth reading (if a bit complex).

Floridi is a philosopher, so a good part of his job is making distinctions.  In this realm, there are a couple of really valuable things that he does in this paper.


ACTA, RIAA and Doctorow on “The Internet’s Original Sin”: Discourse Matters

A confluence of stories over the past few days has me thinking about the commerce, politics, and ethics of our current digital landscape. More specifically, why we spend so much time arguing about music piracy and ignoring other pressing concerns like privacy and digital divide issues. I think it has a lot to do with modes of moral discourse.

1) So, I’m gearing up to teach my “Technology Ethics” course again this fall. I haven’t taught it in a few years, so I am spending a lot of time updating case studies for the class. Tech changes fast, so cases become irrelevant pretty quickly.

One case, though, has stayed relevant since I started teaching courses on tech ethics ten years ago: music piracy. By 2002, Napster had already come and gone (at least legally speaking), and there was a general sense that something immoral—even if legal—had happened: culture had lost to commerce. So, while legally resolved, the question of music piracy did not die. Yesterday, Cory Doctorow wrote a really evocative piece at Locus Online about why it won’t die. He astutely describes music’s multi-level integration in human life, and in doing so, shows why it won’t go away anytime soon. As he puts it “Music exists in a sweet spot between commerce and culture, individual and collective effort, identity and industry, and digital and analog – it is the perfect art-form to create an infinite Internet controversy.” (The only thing I’d add to his great descriptive work would be the pervasiveness of music in religious ritual.)

2) Yesterday, the European Parliament rejected the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) by a vote of 478 to 39. ACTA, proposed in 2007 by the US and Japan, was aimed at coming to international agreement about how to reduce copyright infringement and counterfeiting. For years, it was negotiated in secret and was able to gain quite a bit of momentum within closed circles. But as the details were leaked over the last year, popular, hacker, political, and scholarly opposition mounted. Like the ill-fated SOPA/PIPA legislation in the US, while it had provisions that might actually reduce criminal activity, it also included provisions that would criminalize many common activities and fair uses. Opponents were—both within Parliaments and the public sphere—successfully made the case that the legislation did not fit the social and legal realities. (A lot of those links are to ArsTechnica. As far as I know, they were the only tech news source paying attention to ACTA in 2007.)

3) July 1 marked the possible start date for the new “Copyright Alert System” here in the United States. The CAI is a system of copyright oversight and education being implemented by internet service providers. It was developed as a part of the 2011 “Memorandum of Understanding” agreement between content creator organizations like the RIAA and MPAA and major IPS like Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and Cablevision. This was a “voluntary agreement” by the participating bodies, but its presence shunted broader existing movements to offer legislation requiring law enforcement and ISPs to police copyright oversight. The July 1 date follows a previous implementation delay, and may not hold.

The most controversial part of the program requires ISPs to track suspicious peer-to-peer filesharing by their users. When suspected infringement has occurred, users will be notified, and if repeated, may be barred from internet connection. Many refer to this as “six strikes, you’re out” policy. The program’s oversight organization, The Center for Copyright Information, emphasizes the role of ISPs in raising awareness of copyright law, referring to it with the “big brother” sounding phrase “progressive educational system”. They have an advisory board that has some influential “internet civil liberties” folks, although the board may have little actual power. Despite the educational angle, their still remains a punitive edge to the whole system. (It reminds me a lot of the Hollywood’s “voluntary” adoption of the “Hayes Code” of self-censorship to avoid state-by-state legislation.)

So how does this all fit together? From the ashes of the Napster lawsuit rose a free culture movement that has worked to influence internet policy and social mores in the direction of pulling back on copyright protection in the name of spreading creativity and culture. The aforementioned Corey Doctorow is one of the movement’s most articulate proponents. Over the last few months, we’ve seen some high profile wins for the “free culture” movement, most notably the SOPA/PIPA defeat here in the US and the ACTA defeat in Europe.

Yet, despite these wins, the issue of copyright enforcement is not going away. While this version of ACTA is finished, many believe it is not last we’ll hear on the subject. The same goes for SOPA. If the Copyright Alert System is any indication, the arena for copyright enforcement will be the private sector, not legislation. Free culture on the net is great, but if you can’t get an internet connection, what good will it do you? The RIAA and MPAA lost the ACTA/SOPA/PIPA battles, but they may have won the war. (Anti-trust concerns notwithstanding.)

The key in this victory seems to me to be about moral discourse. In 1988, James Gustafson published a great little book entitled Varieties of Moral Discourse. (Out of print, but reprinted in the book Seeking Understanding.) Originally delivered as a series of talks, Gustafson suggests that sometimes we talk past one another, and sometimes our moral argumentation fails to achieve its goals, because we are speaking in different ways. Some people engage in prophetic discourse that is aimed at pointing out evils and rallying people to confront them in society. Others engage in narrative discourse that tells stories in order to reveal values and inspire commitment. Both of these seek to move people to action. But there is also the ever important policy discourse, which focuses on finding actual solutions to problems in real political and social situations. Finally, there is the important ethical discourse, which is technical analysis of the conceptual backing of moral claims done in order to clarify positions and unveil inconsistencies and implications.

Of course, people shift between these different types of discourse. We may tell stories sometimes, consider policy options at other times, and rage against the machine at others. Gustafson’s categories can help us think more deeply about who we are and how we relate to the world.

More importantly, the categories of moral discourse are particularly useful, I think, to help us see the contours of public debate and social change. So often, it seems that we are speaking past each other. Our discourse on music piracy is a great example. Some people tell the stories of the RIAA lawsuits as a way to show the injustice of a system that would impose more than a million dollars in damages against a single mother who shared less than 30 songs. Others—like Doctorow and Ari Emmanuel—issue prophetic diatribes against a system that they see as alternately destroying culture for all in the name of the greed of a few or destroying the American intellectual property industry. Still others try to work out policies that will ensure the continued functioning of society, yet don’t presume that any solution will live up to everyone’s expectations.

It seems to me, though, that given the legal and bureaucratic context in contemporary America, it is likely that those who know how to craft policy discourse and deploy it within the power structure end up shaping law more successfully than the prophets. That’s because society runs on policy. Policies are the software for the hardware of a culture. They govern how things are processed through the various structures and industries. No matter how right they are, the prophets will remain marginal unless they know how to talk to policy makers in ways that easily translate to policies that can be accepted by governing bodies. That means incremental change—the bane of the prophet’s existence!

Case in point: the Copyright Alert System. Protesters were vociferous enough with their prophetic discourse to make the ACTA, SOPA, and PIPA policy proposals look untenable. Some people cited problems with specifics of the legislation, but it seems to me (at least with SOPA and PIPA) that the biggest problems were political: policy makers saw their continued ability to effect policy endangered—a.k.a. they might lose an election—if they voted for the laws. But when political calculation is out of the picture, policy gets made. Such was the case when the content industry, the ISPs, and the FBI got together and brokered the “Memorandum of Understanding.”

When the SOPA legislation went down, various other proposals were offered in its place, mostly by those in the tech industry. The problem such efforts is often twofold: their authors either have no place in legal or governmental policy-making bodies or they are written in a style that is prophetic, and so not operationalizable in a contested policy space. No matter how right it the free culture perspective is, it will be a long time before the US government or big business adopts a “free culture” perspective. That discourse is so foreign to them that I don’t think they even really hear it.

So, the question becomes: what can proponents of free culture do to move society in the direction of a free culture through articulating policies that would be easy to implement by governments and industry, and thus have a real possibility of being adopted? And even more important, how can free culture advocates become a part of the policy making machine?

Tip of the hat to Dr. Nadia Delicata, whose talk on Theology and rhetoric at a recent conference has me thinking about discourse and policy making.

On Seeing Honestly

But Google Glass is disruptive and antisocial.

Really? Hold on, let me take this call. OK, one second, just gotta finish sending this text. Now, what were you saying? Oh, right, it’s antisocial. These glasses disrupt the tender interpersonal dynamics we’ve built up over millennia of human cultural evolution. We are all such interested, attentive people, and Google Glass would never fit in with—and perhaps even threatens—our delicate social fabric.

OK, whatever you’ve got to tell yourself to sleep better.

Absolutely love Farhad Manjoo’s piece at Pando Daily (Don’t laugh at Google Glass: They’re Goofy, but They Will Save Us From Ourselves) on the pro-social aspects of mobile tech practices and Google Glass. Ok, maybe “pro-social” is going too far. Perhaps “less antisocial” is a better characterization of what he says. Anyway…what I appreciate is Manjoo’s honesty about how antisocial our tech habits often are. While our intentions are often good, the acts in themselves frequently impede the good that we intend or introduce bad consequences that we had not intended or even envisioned. Such honesty is rare in the tech journalism world.

I’m all for tech, but we need to be honest about what our real actions actually do rather than imagined consequences of the actions we think we are engaged in. Otherwise, we end up justifying as good those things that we simply prefer.

Status Update—Spending Time Face to Face

Getting back to writing after a bit of travels, I report today from the beautiful campus of Santa Clara University in the silicon valley. I’m here attending a small conference/meeting on Theology and Communications: In Dialogue being held by the Pontifical Council on Social Communication, in conjunction with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. It has been a collegial and thought provoking meeting, with lots of talks and conversation.


The New ‘Digital Divide’? Wasting Time With Technology

For nearly twenty years, people have been worried about the digital divide: the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. Because of the key roles that tech plays in our lives, especially in the economic realm, it has the potential to create even deeper rifts in our society. Most of the time, discussion of the issue deals with how to get tech into the hands of socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, the connection between tech and success turns out to be complex. For instance, back in 2010, Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd published a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Scaling the Digital Divide.” The study dug deeper into the numbers on academic lives of students, tracing the connection between success, failure, and computers in the home. They detail lots of trends, but one thing they clearly showed was that access to computers and broadband does not correlate directly with improved acheivement. Indeed, later introduction of computers into households without effective parental monitoring of child behavior can be harmful. One thing they noted—late adopters, “Students who gain access to a home computer between 5th and 8th grade tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math test scores.”


%d bloggers like this: