The Dark Side of the Digital World

The digital world poses a threat if we are not careful to question its power to monopolize and determine, commodify, and commercialize so many aspects of our lives.

Off The Network Book Cover

“Off the Network” critiques how the Internet, social media, and the digital network change users’ understanding of the world.

Cover Courtesy University of Minnesota Press

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Off the Network (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) is a fresh and authoritative examination of how the hidden logic of the Internet, social media, and the digital network is changing users’ understanding of the world—and why that should worry us. Ulises Ali Mejias also suggests how we might begin to rethink the logic of the network and question its ascendancy. This excerpt is from the introduction.  

Networks matter because they are the underlying structure of our lives. And without understanding their logic we cannot change their programmes to harness their flexibility to our hopes, instead of relentlessly adapting ourselves to the instructions received from their unseen codes. Networks are the Matrix.
- Manuel Castells, “Why Networks Matter”

On May 31, 2010, an estimated thirty-three thousand people committed suicide in a collective wave of global proportions. In the opinion of the media, however, the aggregated death of those thousands was essentially insignificant. Thankfully, no blood was spilled that day, since the act of annihilation in question involved permanently deleting one’s Facebook account in what came to be known as Quit Facebook Day—an expression of rage over the company’s privacy policies for some, and of disillusionment with virtual life for others. In the words of an early advocate, “The movement could reach epidemic levels if more users kill off their electronic selves rather than submit to corporate control over their friendships. Facebook, and the other corporate lackeys, will then learn that they can’t exploit our social relationships for profit. From viral growth will come a viral death as more people demand that Facebook dies so our friendships may thrive.”

Availing themselves of how--to advice from the movement’s main website, as well as tools like the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, people removed themselves from the popular social networking site because they agreed with the general sentiment that “Facebook doesn’t respect you, your personal data, or the future of the web.”

While thirty-three thousand is a trivial portion of what was then a five hundred million membership base, Quit Facebook Day was deemed a success even as it failed. The mass exodus that was hoped for did not materialize, but at least the movement generated a public relations disturbance that led Facebook to reconsider its policies or at least to try to do a better job of explaining them. Thus the events surrounding Quit Facebook Day shed some light on today’s frequently tense relation between the rights of the user and the interests of the corporations that operate digital social networks.

Quit Facebook Day, as an expression of the desire to kill one’s networked self, illustrates the need for a language to talk about these tensions, to talk about the darker aspects of the relationship between platforms and individuals. It is obvious that digital information and communication technologies, such as Facebook, act as templates for organizing sociality, for building social networks. They arrange individuals into social structures, actively shaping how they interact with the world. But during the process of assembling a community, not every type of participant or every kind of participation is supported by the technology. While some things can be assimilated or rendered in terms that can be understood by the network, others cannot. As participation in social and civic life becomes increasingly mediated by digital networks, we are confronted by a series of disquieting questions: What does the digital network include in the process of forming an assemblage and, more important, what does it leave out? How does the network’s logic of exclusion shape the way we look at the world? At what point does the exclusion carried out by the digital network make it necessary to question its logic and even dismantle it, and to what end exactly? These are the questions this book seeks to address.

A network, defined minimally, is a system of linked elements or nodes. While a network can be used to describe and study natural as well as social phenomena (everything from cells to transnational corporations), what is relevant here is the use of networks to describe—and give shape to—social systems linked by digital technologies. For our present purposes, then, any and all kinds of electronic technosocial systems will simply be referred to as “the digital network.” We can broadly define a digital network as a composite of human and technological actors (the nodes) linked together by social and physical ties (the links) that allow for the transfer of information among some or all of these actors. While the Internet is the most notorious example of a digital network—and the main focus of attention in this book—digital networks can encompass other technologies not based on the Internet, technologies such as mobile phones, radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices, and so on. To make this analysis as broadly applicable as possible, however, the collective label of “digital network” will be used to encompass both the Internet and other assemblages constituted by various digital information and communication technologies.

While not unproblematic, the conceptual grouping of all digital networks into a discussion of the network is, I believe, timely and necessary. Modern contributions to social theory, science and technology studies, and even critical theory have shown us that networks are plural, fluid, and overlapping; we do not belong to a single network, but to a variety of them, and our participation in them is variegated and complex. To propose a critique of the digital network might seem, therefore, to reify, essentialize, and reduce the object being questioned. But as I will be arguing throughout this book, it has become necessary to isolate the network as a single epistemic form in order to launch a comprehensive critique of it. We have indeed gained a lot by looking at the world as a plurality of networks. But we are starting to lose something in terms of identifying common characteristics and, more important, common forms of violence found across all forms of networked participation. The essentialism behind discussing the network, therefore, is a strategy meant to clarify the relationship between capitalism and the architecture of digital networks across a variety of instances; to facilitate, in short, a structural critique or unmapping of the network.

Why talk about unmapping the digital network in the first place? The very project that the title of this book suggests seems unnecessarily antagonistic at a time when it is almost universally accepted that digital networks—everything from cell phones to social networking sites—are bringing humanity closer. At least this would appear to be the case if we go merely by adoption rates. More than a quarter of the world’s 6.7 billion people are already using the Internet. With only a few exceptions, Internet penetration has surpassed 50 percent of the population in most of the thirty countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And while developing nations obviously continue to face a digital divide (e.g., there are 246 million Internet users in North America, while only 137 million in Latin America), they are by no means unconnected: according to a UN report, there are 4.1 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, which means more than half of the planet’s population now owns a cell phone; in Africa alone, 90 percent of all telephone services are now provided by mobile phones. In the face of all this connectivity, any talk about undoing digital networks—however theoretical it might be—seems to suggest a halt to this march of progress.

Furthermore, critiquing the digital network would seem like critiquing the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the corporations that brought us the information revolution. If anything, the media seems to be telling us that this should be a time to celebrate and emulate the success of these digital captains of industry: Google, incorporated in 1998, now has a market value of $200 billion; Facebook, launched in 2004, now has the biggest social networking service, with more than a billion users, growing by 5 percent a month. There are social media pioneers like Twitter and Tumblr that have redefined the way we communicate, hardware companies like Apple and Cisco that have redesigned the devices needed to access the network, and even “old guard” telecom companies like Comcast and Time Warner that make it possible for us to connect to the wired world. These companies are economic forces, industry innovators, and, some would say, cultural icons. Our lifestyles (and in many cases, our livelihoods) depend on them. Yes, increased competition in the marketplace and stronger consumer advocacy would be welcome, but there is no denying that the information revolution these companies have facilitated is changing the world.

To find supporting evidence for this sentiment, one need do nothing more than to take a quick look at recent titles in the computer and Internet culture section of any bookstore (which would probably be done online, anyway). The volumes suggest that, among other things, digital networks are revolutionizing the way commerce, domestic and foreign politics, socioeconomic development, and education work. In the midst of this wave of improvement, with networks seemingly making possible practical solutions to many of the major problems that we face, is it not irresponsible to question their power? Yet in this book I attempt to do just that, find the motivations and conditions under which it becomes not only desirable but also necessary to disidentify from the digital network. But why?

Jacques Ellul proposed that whereas “primitive man” was socially determined by taboos, rites, and rules, the technological phenomenon represents the most dangerous form of determinism in the modern age. Our tools shape our ways of acting, knowing, and being in the world, but some of their influence can unfold without our consent or even awareness, and this determinism is particularly dangerous. Thus to Ellul technology occupies today the place rites and rules did before modernity, both because they direct our actions and because they frequently go unquestioned. Without even realizing it, we become slaves not so much to the technology, but to the assumptions about what they are for, what they do for us, and so on. The goal of this book, therefore, is to attempt to specify the kind of threat that the determinism of the digital network poses.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital Age by Ulises Ali Mejias and published by University of Minnesota Press, 2013.