Our Digital Persons: Blogs and Google

This weeks readings were Anna Notaro’s “The Lo(n)g Revolution: the Blogosphere as an alternative Public Sphere?” and Cory Doctorow’s Google fiction “Scroogled.”

In “The Lo(n)g Revolution: the Blogosphere as an alternative Public Sphere?” Anna Notaro suggests during this period of never-ending technological advances and the expansiveness of Internet, that we are entering a time where the blogosphere is not just an alternative but, instead, is the new public sphere. Notaro reminds us, however, that we are often clouded by a naïve excitement in the hope that the internet will be an ideal agent for social change and “true” democracy, but we must wait to see if it will live up to its potential.

So how do blogs play a key role in this idea of public discourse, professionalism, and political communication?

In “The Long Revolution”, Raymond Williams explains that new social cultures exist at the intersection of the democratic revolution, the industrial revolution, and the cultural revolution. For Williams, these obvious examples of change prove the benefit in fighting for a “human order.” In other words, we must not take our current situations for granted but rather, must act on our convictions.

Similarly, Habermas introduces the idea of the “public sphere” and its influence on ideas in  “Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere.” He argues that “the greatest contribution to the development of the public sphere was the emergence of its institutional base, the organizational structures that allowed these ‘webs of social development’ to exist. It links the growth of an urban culture, as the new arena of public life, to a new infrastructure for social communication.”

At the base of the public sphere are the webs of social development where we can exchange information and opinions. With the invention of the Internet, blogs, and chat rooms, the public sphere has become accessible to all people. The difference, according to Notaro, is that the Internet has introduced many publics so people have the ability to choose their communities, their peers, and their public.

However, with this new individual power that the Web provides, we must question to role of traditional democracy in relation to our new media environments. Many scholars claim that the blogosphere and the net promote “democratic progress,” and citizens can interact with each other as equals. Habermas cites this as an ideal society or, agora, where “the discussion among citizens issues were made topical and took shape.”

Benjamin Barber further explores the relationship between mediated communication and the democratic system. He presents three potential scenarios: The Pangloss scenario where technology merely caters to a corporate agenda, the Pandora scenario in which the government uses new technology for power and repression, and the ideal Jeffersonian scenario where governments and citizens adjust technology to promote participation and democracy.

Notaro uses Rebecca Blood’s history of blogs to highlight the core of her discussion. Blood explains that blogs evolved from forums where people commented on particular subjects or scholarly articles into “personal diaries” where anyone can express his or her feelings and opinions to the Internet public. Blogs have created a public sphere that transforms the consumers of information into the creators of information.

One problem with these Web bases public spheres is, rather than exposing ourselves to new ideas, we simply “tailor our electronic environment to hear our own views reinforced over and over again. Blogs could thus become some sort of ‘echo chambers’ where people end up listening only to their own opinions.

Notaro goes on to discuss the political implications of the blogosphere. She introduces the Hansard Society, “an independent non-partisan organization working to promote effective parliamentary democracy” that set out to study  “how democratic institutions can adapt to the information age.” Their report was released in July 2004 and some of the key findings were:

  • Blogging has the potential to significantly impact on political engagement and political processes as they provide an opportunity for alternative informal voices to enter into the political debate without a great deal of cost or effort.
  • Blogging breaks down the barriers between public and privates spaces and allows elected representatives to put across their individuality and personality.
  • The availability of low-cost, low maintenance authoring software means blogs are far easier to construct and update than conventional websites.
  • The most appealing blogs are those which provide genuine debate between bloggers and visitors to the blog. Blogs that do not offer this facility give visitors little reason to return.
  • At the moment, political blogging is still regarded as the pursuit of internet connoisseurs rather than ordinary members of the public. While our jury found blogs easy to navigate, they found the tone of content unappealing.
  • Blogging has the potential to be of enormous benefit to MPs and other elected representatives who use it as a listening post rather than another tool to broadcast their ideas, achievements or party dogma

Looking at these results, Notaro concludes that because the blogosphere removes the barriers between private and public spaces, it acts as a “vehicle for self-presentation. [B]logs diminish people’s need to be spoken for by others.” In theory, this increased accessibility paves the way for a more democratic society in which the citizens take a significant and active role.”

In that same vein, in an essay that appeared in Wired, Jon Katz notes:

  • Where freedom is rarely mentioned in mainstream media anymore, it is ferociously defended – and exercised daily – on the Net.
  • Where our existing information systems seek to choke the flow of information through taboos, costs, and restrictions, the new digital world celebrates the right of the individual to speak and be heard – one of the cornerstone ideas behind American media and democracy.
  • Where our existing political institutions are viewed as remote and unresponsive, this online culture offers the means for individuals to have a genuine say in the decisions that affect their lives.
  • Where conventional politics is suffused with ideology, the digital world is obsessed with facts.
  • Where our current political system is irrational, awash in hypocritical god-and-values talk, the Digital Nation points the way toward a more rational, less dogmatic approach to politics.
  • The world’s information is being liberated, and so, as a consequence, are we.

Ultimately, the Internet allows people to do things they couldn’t do before from allowing them to experiment with their sexual identities without being humiliated, allow researchers the ability to get the newest data in hours, give people the opportunity to express themselves without having their views filtered through journalists, and push agendas they see important. This brings to mind Clay Shirky’s points on collective action. The blogosphere gives collective action a home.

In some of her closing words, Notaro says, these days, we lead two lives: “On one side we exist as individuals, made up of flesh and bones, on the other we are ‘digital persons’, whose lives enfold on the Net.” This idea of ‘digital people’ speaks to Cory Doctorow’s fiction story “Scroogled.”

Doctorow’s story addresses the threat of loss of privacy on the Web–an all too real topic in today’s society.  Doctorow illuminates the severity of this threat by telling the story of a former Google employees US customs experience. In the story, Google plays an instrumental role in Immigration security as, “we are now Googled at the border.” By using Google ads, the government determines whether or not a person going through customs might be a threat to national security.

“Every time you visited a page with Google ads on it, or used Google maps or Google mail–even if you sent mail to a Gmail account–the company diligently collected your info. Recently, the site’s search-optimization software had begun using the data to tailor Web searches to individual users. It proved to be a revolutionary tool for advertisers. An authoritarian government would have other purposes in mind.”

We spend so much time online that Google probably knows us better than our best friend. The main character, Greg, thought to himself what he put into that search bar “was likely more revealing than what he told his shrink.” Many of us Google things and participate in searches under the assumption that we are doing it in the privacy of our own homes, but each click is tracked and clicks add up and can reveal a lot about you. More and more, we are becoming ‘digital persons’ and each digital person has a file. Greg hadn’t quite realized how much of him had migrated onto the Web and worked its way into Google’s server farms. They had his entire online identity.

This story brings to mind many questions about power, access, and privacy. Is it ethical for Google to be handing over our personal information to benefit advertisers? Is it ethical for Google to give our information to governments in the interest of national security? What kind of access do Google employees have to our information since Maya (Greg’s Google friend) said she would look at users profiles?

There is a quote towards the end of the story that may seem a little exaggeratory to some:

“My parents left east Germany in 65′. The used to tell me about the Stasi. The secret police would put everything about you in your file, if you told an unpatriotc joke, whatever. Whether they meant it or not, what Google has created is no different.”

Does Google know too much? What can we do about it? Do we care enough to do anything about it?

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2 responses to “Our Digital Persons: Blogs and Google

  1. When I first read Scroogled, some strange 1984, Big Brother vision popped into my head. I think the scenarios in this fictional story is some sort of random profiling gone wrong. Random in that the searches that you make and the ads that they lead to can be totally taken out of context. Even the spam that one can potentially receive, where one has no control over, can be incriminating. Scroogle is definitely Benjamin Barber’s Pandora scenario where the “government utilize[s] new technologies for the purposes of control and repression.” I think that if another extreme event occurs in the U.S., this sort of system might actually implemented. I mean, even now, the policies for communication has been more strictly enforced and tracked, like with the Patriot Act. It is scary to think that all the digital trails that we are leaving behind now, like on Facebook or personal blogs, in the name of self-expression and fun, can potentially endanger us in the future.

  2. Google Opt Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy By Moving To Remote Village
    Could it be our own fault for not masking our static IP? Maybe we are asking to get “Scroogled”? As Cory Doctorow’s despotic depiction of Google illustrates . Would most people choose to live in Google’s Opt out Village, or would they rather be walking Analytic? I am obviously an walking Analytic, yet I am also aware of the fact that Google (and other companies) are collecting my personal data through the web. As such, I am very discrete about my web crawling. I often use what may be considered as unethical methods to avoid identification. On the other hand, I don’t care if Google knows or not. I am not willingly ignorant to the fact that my information is logged and used to reference me, but I believe that comparing Google’s database on me in the same regards of the SS is ridiculous. After all, our own government has illegally collected information on us for years, and the closest thing we have to Gestapo is a watered down DHS. Furthermore, I don’t think that Google’s catalog of search indexes will ever be intuitive enough to accurately depict an individuals “life”. But then, are we at a loss in that case, or do we stand to gain from it?
    Could it be our own fault for not masking our static IP? Maybe we are asking to get “Scroogled”? As Cory Doctorow’s despotic depiction of Google illustrates . Would most people choose to live in Google’s Opt out Village, or would they rather be walking Analytics? In regards to last week’s assignment, I am obviously an walking Analytic, yet I am also aware of the fact that Google (and other companies) are collecting my personal data through the web. As such, I am very discrete about my web crawling. I often use what may be considered as unethical methods to avoid identification. On the other hand, I don’t care if Google knows or not. I am not willingly ignorant to the fact that my information is logged and used to reference me, but I believe that comparing Google’s database on me in the same regards of the SS is ridiculous. After all, our own government has illegally collected information on us for years, and the closest thing we have to Gestapo is a watered down DHS. Furthermore, I don’t think that Google’s catalog of search indexes will ever be intuitive enough to accurately depict an individuals “life”. But then, are we at a loss in that case, or do we stand to gain from it?

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