The Question Concerning Social Technology

I am an evangelist of social media and an active participant: on Linked In (business), MySpace (music) and Facebook (increasingly my online identity), I blog on several sites and I am a daily user of Twitter. I also make my living speaking to companies about the value and operating principles of these more open, participatory technologies.

I have read the proponents that abound (Why I Love Twitter, Groundswell, Here Comes Everybody etc.) and found much to agree with. I have read the detractors (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” …, Facebook Addiction is Real etc.…) and found little to agree with.

So over the course of the next few days I will post a series of questions on the value and function of social media (a.k.a. social technologies). I will not be arguing that social technologies are a bane or should be stopped. I don’t believe the former is true and I believe the latter is impossible… I will not be arguing against technology. Rather, I will raise questions about the potential abuse of social technologies and the steps we might take to remedy them. The more discussion this prompts within the Radar community the better. I will also be leading a webcast on May 27 at 10AM Pacific to discuss these topics in detail.

This is the first of these posts:

The Evangelist Fallacy, Social Media and The New Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment swept through Europe in the eighteenth century, upending the notion of a divine right (religious and monarchic) to rule over the population. Its tenets centered upon the idea that humans were capable of reason and could seek governance that accorded individuals liberty and some semblance of equality. Western society still embraces principles and speaks the language of “freedom,” “democracy,” and civil rights born during The Enlightenment.

There is another side of the historical record. While the public dialogue of The Enlightenment was centered on freedom, equality and human progress, institutions of the age were rapidly developing sophisticated means of control over individual movement and action; from highly structured factory work and military regimentation (the true birthplace of modern management theory), to isolating deviant segments of society (the birth of prisons, debtor’s prisons and asylums) and an emphasis on police surveillance and the “dossier” to track behavior. In fact many of the same political and social theorists of Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Bentham etc.) were the architects of detailed studies on how to subject individuals to institutional control. These tactical manuevers were often cloaked in the more lofty rhetoric of The Englightement.

This is not an isolated reading of history. Knowledge is almost always being produced in service of power – not as a liberating force from it and there is always a gap between what a society proclaims about it’s goals and aims – and the functional outcomes of its institutional policies and procedures (the “War on Drugs” being a quintessential modern example).

The idea of social technologies as a liberating force echoes the Enlightenment language and, just as with the original, there are good reasons to view this discourse with some skepticism. This knowledge about the value and meaning of social technologies comes from industry champions (Cisco’s Human Network), industry analysts and corporate consultants. This discourse is good for business – I know because I speak regularly on the topic in boardrooms and at conferences. Proponents have a personal stake in seeing the positive side of the equation (and there is a positive side) and encourage participation as a means of personal empowerment (“the customer is now in charge” “the end of command and control hierarchy” etc.).

Social media is cloaked in this language of liberation while the corporate sponsors (Facebook, Google et al ) are progressing towards ever more refined and effective means of manipulating individual behavior (behavioral targeting of ads, recommendation systems, reputation management systems etc.). As with the enlightenment the tactics of control are shielded by a rhetoric of emancipation. Let’s not forget that the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.

How do these corporations intend to use these vast records of our behavior? The next post, Captivity of the Commons will explore the risks associated with personal data being collected at the behest of corporations whose main motivation is not in service of “customer empowerment” but on the traditional goals of manipulating behavior to grow their share of wallet.

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