Technologies of Freedom

As I discussed earlier, democracy is an essentially contested concept. Like art, religion, science, and social justice, talk about democracy “inevitably involve[s] endless disputes about [the concept’s] proper uses on the part of their users.” For the internet, talk about democracy has often taken on a revolutionary zeal, and even today, technologies are judged by those emancipatory visions formed at the early stages of internet technology.

From its earliest precursors, the internet has had its evangelists. And Silicon Valley offered a unique crucible. Deliberate and unintentional interactions among military researchers, academics, and corporate scientists helped to form the technical features of the medium. Meanwhile the region was the center of the countercultural movement in the 1960s, the failings of which helped to undergird a new rhetoric of technological salvation. Prime among those ideals was a profound faith in the technology’s emancipatory potential to boost democratic participation, trigger a renaissance of moribund communities, and strengthen associational life.

Internet pioneer Howard Rheingold once observed that “the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, serious ecologists and the space-station crowd, immortalists, Biospherians, environmentalists, [and] social activists” populated the community from the beginning. From these diverse groups came the hacker ethics, an impulse that “expresses itself via a constellation of minor acts of insurrection, often undertaken by individuals, creatively disguised to deprive authorities of the opportunity to retaliate.” The emancipatory politics of the hacker ethos is based on two elements. On one hand, it seeks to lift the “shackles of the past,” and on the other, it wants to overcome the repression and domination of powerful individuals and groups, thereby creating a legitimate base of power. Both of these pillars are rooted in the principle of autonomy. As sociologist Anthony Giddens notes, “Emancipation means that collective life is organized in such a way that the individual is capable – in some sense or another – of free and independent action in the environments of her social life.”

The melding of these influences can be best seen in the now notorious words penned by former Grateful Dead lyricist and founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Perry Barlow. In the “Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace,” he states emphatically, “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

Another good example of this emancipatory bent comes from Free Press, a media reform organization. In arguing the importance of internet policy, the organization once noted, “Over the past 100 years, whenever a ‘disruptive technology’ — such as radio or television broadcasting — sparked democratic participation in media, dominant forces reacted by creating rules to lock it down, stifle public participation and re-assert their authority.” Though just a sentence in length, the reader is encouraged to recall numerous stories to fill in the gaps and make this statement meaningful. At one level, it taps into the historical struggle between democracy and dominance, especially as it relates to broadcast technologies. Radio was once seen as a “new miracle,” while television was understood to be the “great radiance in the sky.” Both of these media were expected to catalyze political engagement and enrich American democracy, and yet failed to do so. And in another regard, that sentence from Free Press also entices us to imagine a technological utopia.

In a twist on this theme, tech commentator Evgeny Morozov admonished tech critics because they lacked a strong emancipatory political vision. Without it, he claims, there are really just two options for tech critics, “they can either stick with the empirical project of documenting various sides of American decay (e.g., revealing the power of telecom lobbyists or the data addiction of the NSA) or they can show how the rosy rhetoric of Silicon Valley does not match up with reality (thus continuing to debunk the New Economy bubble).” Indeed, there is truth to this. Pierre Lévy, Jurgen Habermas, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Sherry Turkle have each articulated a version of that emancipated world.

As I have explained elsewhere, the dream of an internet based emancipatory politics fails because it looks for a grand restart, missing the hard work being done in communities everyday. It is a vision that is blind to community leaders laboring for the betterment of their neighbors by setting up a simple Facebook page, to citizens that engage in daily acts of political expression online, and to lawyers with an ethical sense, working on thankless cases in obscure districts that they learned about via news sites or submission forms on their own websites.

Still, there is something more fundamental at play. In describing the cycle of optimism and pessimism over new technologies, Adam Thierer hints at the tension,

A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

Thierer forcefully argues for a sensible middle ground position, which he dubs “pragmatic optimism.” And Thierer is right to be optimistic about the possibilities of new technologies. Nevertheless, internet based technologies are still judged by those emancipatory visions formed at the early stages of technology. This is because the debate over the emancipatory nature of the internet reflects a more a fundamental dissatisfaction with the established order, as I explained in my lead essay. As Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn noted, “Even if we believe that the concept of a digital revolution is empty rhetoric, we still must explain why a revolution, even a virtual one, has such appeal.”

There is another route to understanding these changes, and it is through the capabilities approach.

The Capabilities Approach

The capabilities approach is an evaluative framework that finds its beginnings in work from Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It is used in a wide range of fields to evaluate various aspects of individual wellbeing, and it can also be a tool to design and evaluate policies. According to this approach, “the ends of well-being, justice and development should be conceptualized in terms of people’s capabilities to function.” In other words, a capabilities approach focuses attention on the opportunities an individual can undertake, or their capability to act.

Sen dubs the total constellation of actions as they are performed functionings, which would include working, resting, being literate, being healthy, being part of a community, being respected, and so on. Here is the rub. There is a distinction between achieved functionings and capabilities. While capabilities include every possible opportunity, actual achievements are only a subset of this broader group, and they are contingent on the choices an individual makes.

As Ingrid Robeyns explained it,

What is ultimately important is that people have the freedoms or valuable opportunities (capabilities) to lead the kind of lives they want to lead, to do what they want to do and be the person they want to be. Once they effectively have these substantive opportunities, they can choose those options that they value most. For example, every person should have the opportunity to be part of a community and to practice a religion; but if someone prefers to be a hermit or an atheist, they should also have this option.

This approach is useful for the current discussion because it highlights two separate domains of inquiry. In one kind of conversation, we can explore the opportunities afforded by internet based technologies. John Samples does exactly this in his response essay: “Not since the invention of the printing press have we seen such a radical expansion of the individual’s capacity for self-fulfillment through self-expression.” The internet has radically altered the opportunities to act in concert with others; it has lowered the threshold to communication. At the same time, it highlights another domain of inquiry, the realized actions of individuals or functionings.

Intellectually, I owe a considerable debt to Paul Crider, who has done yeoman’s work on this topic. The bulk of his writing on this subject can be found in a series starting here, where makes clear the strain that exists between functionings and capabilities:

Functionings are not required in the capabilities approach in most cases. So voting, or being able to participate in the decision-making processes of a community, is a capability, but the actual functioning of this capability is not required: anarchists, the Amish, neoreactionaries, and other skeptics of democracy are free to refrain.

As I noted in the initial essay, most “people go online and engage in the pointless babble that is so often derided.” To be clear, I don’t think it is pointless since these gestures are simply an example of what linguists call phatic communication. To restate it within this discussion of capabilities, what is achieved with internet technologies is far less civically minded than scholars and writers suggest. The functionings of online life aren’t rooted in political action, but in videos and pictures of family, pets, and the sweet banality of daily life. The freedom of political action online is an important part of digital life, but it shouldn’t be the only standard by which we judge these technologies.

Let’s return once more to Jack Balkin’s democratic culture:

A democratic culture is democratic in the sense that everyone – not just political, economic, or cultural elites – has a fair chance to participate in the production of culture, and in the development of the ideas and meanings that constitute them and the communities and subcommunities to which they belong. People have a say in the development of these ideas and meanings because they are able to participate in their creation, growth, and spread.

Using the capabilities approach, we needn’t appeal to the authority of democracy to say that individuals should have a say in the development of culture. That can be done just as easily by marking it as a capability. But if we agree to this as an end goal, other issues arise. For one, what means will ensure that people have a fair chance to participate in the production of culture? Is the market sufficient?

In short, what the capabilities approach offers isn’t a series of answers, but a more formalized series of questions. It also drives us to disentangle the goods and services, which are merely means, from capabilities and functionings, which are ends in themselves. Fake news helps to tease out these connections. Surely we can all agree that individuals have a broader set of opportunities to become informed about their preferred political candidate. Said another way, the capabilities have expanded. Yet, what is achieved, the functionings, could be quite different than what people hope would be the case.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • We expect that voters should be well-informed, and to that end the press is essential. Yet reconciling democracy and expertise is no easy task, and examples of the press behaving badly seem all too common, particularly in the form of fake news. Yet Rinehart argues that concern over fake news may be overblown, and he suggests that our democracy’s real problems lie elsewhere.

Response Essays

  • John Samples draws on Thomas Emerson’s Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment to argue that social media is doing a reasonably good job at satisfying four widely shared values. He argues that it is doing particularly well in contrast to the television monoculture that preceded it.

  • Mike Godwin argues that social media is still in its infancy, and it is much premature to declare it “broken.” He adds that non-political expressions of sociability should not be dismissed as valueless; they have great value both in themselves and as part of the process by which a republic is formed and perpetuated.

  • Kate Klonick argues that social media has empowered individuals to create a democratic culture that is much larger and more powerful than just what they do at the polls. Social media allows grassroots activism to work in new and important ways that don’t always aim at changing the way people vote, but that do change society all the same.