I have recently been thinking quite a lot about what it means to be “critical”. At a lot of the conferences I go to, the term is used a lot but somehow it remains intuitively unintelligible to me. The dictionary says that a critical person would be “inclined to judge severely and find fault” and a critical reading “characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment”. I cannot shake the impression that a lot of the debate about the political and ethical dimension of information systems is neither careful, nor exact. Especially when it comes to analyzing the deeds of big commercial actors like Google, there has been a pointed shift from complete apathy to hysteria. People like Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose talk about the “googlization of everything” I heard at the New Network Theory Conference, are, in my view, riding a wave of “critical” outrage that seemingly tries to compensate for the long years of relative silence about issues of power and control in information search, filtering, and structuration. But instead of being careful and exact – apparently the basis of both critical thought and scholarly pursuit – many of the newly appointed Emile Zolas are lumping together all sorts of different arguments in order to make their case. In Vaidhyanathan’s case for example, Google is bad because its search algorithms work too well and the book search not well enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should let the emerging giants of the Web era off the hook. I fully agree with many points Jeffrey Chester recently made in The Nation – despite the sensationalist title of that article. What I deplore is a critical reflex that is not concerned with being careful and exact. If we do not adhere, as scholars, to these basic principles, our discourse loses the basis of its justification and we are doing a disservice to both the political cause of fighting for pluralism of opinion in the information landscape and the academic cause of furthering understanding. Our “being critical” should not lead to obsession with the question of whether Google (or other companies for that matter) are “good” or “bad” but to an obsession about the more fundamental issues that link these strange systems that serve us the Web as a digestible meal to matters of political and economic domination. I’ve been reading a lot recently about how Google is invading our privacy but very little about the actual social function of privacy, seen as a historical achievement, and how the very idea could and should be translated into the information age where every action leaves a footprint of data waiting to be mined. We still seem to be in a “1984” mindset that, in my view, is thoroughly misleading when it comes to understanding the matters at hand. If we phrase the challenges posed by Google in purely moral terms we might miss the ethical dimension of the problem – ethics understood as the “art of conduct” that is.

This might sound strange, but under the digital condition the protection of privacy faces many of the same problems as the enforcement of copyright, because they both concern the problem of controlling flows of data. And whether we like it or not, both technical and legal solutions to protecting privacy might end up looking quite similar to the DRM systems we rightfully criticize. It is in that sense that the malleability of digital technology throws us back to the fundamentals of ethics: how do we want to live? What do we want our societies to look like? What makes for a good life? And how do we update the answers to those questions to our current technological and legal situation? Simply put: I would like to read more about why privacy is fundamentally important to democracy and how protection of that right could work when everything we do online is prone to be algorithmically analyzed. Chastising Google sometimes look to me like actually arguing on the same level as the company’s corporate motto: “don’t be evil” – please?

We don’t need Google to repent their sins. We need well-argumented laws that clearly define our rights to the data we produce, patch up the ways around such laws (EULAs come to mind) and think about technical means (encryption based?) that translate them onto the system level. Less morals and more ethics that is.

Post filed under critique, epistemolgy, metatechnologies.

One Comment

  1. “In Vaidhyanathan’s case for example, Google is bad because its search algorithms work too well and the book search not well enough.”

    I love it! That’s pretty much right. But, of course, incomplete. I don’t think search algorithms work too well. They are just better than what came before. If the goal is rich information easily accessible, Google has a long way to go. Its efforts to improve search skew toward customization (with all the privacy concerns attached) rather than comprehensiveness or appropriateness.

    As far as the book search, yeah. I wish it worked as well as the Web search. But it cannot. Books do not contain links.

    That said, the problem with both is the opacity of these services, one of which involves a massive donation of wealth from public institutions to a private corporation.

    But I get your larger point. And I will take it seriously. Thanks!


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