Border conditions for preserving subjectivity in the digital era
Please note: in this text I use the term “subjectivity” in the meaning of the right to be recognised as an acting subject, as opposed to beaing treated as a mere object of actions of others.
Thanks to the hospitality of this year’s Citizen Congress I had the pleasure of co-hosting (with Katarzyna Szymielewicz of Panoptykon Foundation and Jarosław Lipszyc of Modern Poland Foundation) within its framework a workshop “How to be a subject in the cyberworld”.
An broad group of practitioners, technicians, lawyers, new media experts, pedagogues and philosophers pondered for almost 3 hours how one can defend oneself from being reduced to an object, product or data point in the Net (and outside of it).
Subjectivity - whatever that is?¶
In order to get us on the right track, prof. Paweł Łuków summarized what subjectivity is. For our needs we can assume that it means recognizing that each human being is an independent actor, decision making subject, who has their own aims and wants, and acts in a particular way.
In other words we’re talking about subject-object comparison. Our history has no shortage of instances of treating subjects as objects and we can all agree that subjectivity is a value well worth defending.
Subjectivity in the digital era¶
The digital era and new means and possibilities of communicating bear with them a wealth of consequences for subjectivity. First of all, we can purposefully evade the recognition of our subjectivity, and with it the responsibility for our actions: we can consciously rescind our subjectivity.
This alone allows for unsurpassed freedom of speech. Never in history could we so easily hide and voice our opinions anonymously. Paradoxically, giving subjectivity up, hiding our identity makes it easier to express oneself fully and freely. One does not have to fear repercussions and repression for an opinion when nobody knows that they are its author.
On the other hand, this creates an air of impunity. The fine line between freedom and waywardness is being crossed – trolling and hate speach are good examples here.
Regardless, however, of our conscious decision to keep or hide our subjectivity, we might become an unwilling object of actions of other actors. Actors that might not be interested in recognizing and respecting our subjectivity. That is where dangers to privacy arise; we are being treated as data points or assets that are to be monetised.
We expect to be protected from dangers from both of these directions – that of persons exploiting impunity behind the wall of anonimity; and that of actors purposefully not respectful of our subjectivity – by public administration. Yet another paradox arises here: even though the democratic system is built upon the respect for subjectivity of each and every citizen, systemic solutions very often ignore it (for example, in the name of being more effective). In other words, attempting to defend subjectivity by public administration might create dangers of its own to it.
Mode of work¶
The workshop has been divided into four parts. In the first we tried to identify problems that have to be faced when defending subjectivity in the digital era, and threats to it; in the next free we made an attempt to find solutions to these problems in areas of: education, infrastructure and law.
Each of these parts took much longer than we had predicted. This topic is much more complicated and vast that one would expect.
Please note: the term “media” is being used here broadly and means also social networks and social media, internet forums, blogs and other methods of electronic communication.
Problems and threats¶
Problems and threats to subjectivity, which we have identified together during the workshop, are:
- dangers to privacy;
- obsoleteness of law with regard to technology (i.e. copyright law);
- lack of citizen control over communication and information channels;
- centralisation (of infrastructure, of communication, of information);
- lack of effective guarantees of basic human rights;
- information assymetry (i.e. between clients and software companies, or users and social network operators);
- lacking education and lack of competence of citizens;
- lack of understanding of new media (by citizens, policymakers, courts… – i.e. fetishization of the Internet, the “virtual reality”);
- obstacles for empathy (due to rising proxyification of communication, impossibility of sending and receiving non-verbal signals; trolling is an effect of that);
- tempo of changes effectively surpassing our ability to learn and accomodate them;
- public infrastructure shortcomings (including lack of innovation within the infrastructure);
- censorship and self-censorship (including censorship that is completely unregulated – like terms of service in privately-owned social networks);
- marketization of education and information;
- language barriers.
While this eluded us on the workshop, I believe one more problem should be also indicated here:
- bundling, which is complicating or making it outright impossible to correctly compare services (e.g. of mobile plans, Internet access, etc).
Below are solution ideas and border conditions for protecting subjectivity, divided into three areas.
Potential solutions and border conditions¶
- media education (in kindergardens, schools, for adults, for teachers);
- open educational resources (used in education and actively developed);
- open educational tools (as above);
- teaching methods, instead of tools (change of the paradigm);
- getting education programmes up to speed;
- teaching critical thinking;
- fostering the sense of self-worth;
- teaching how to control the media;
- language competence development (with regard to both mothertongue and foreign languages);
- “open source” education, abandoning the XIX-century educational model (fostering student participation in the education process, instead of current model of “student-master relationship”);
- breaking down the barriers;
- educating on law, esp. on basic human rights.
- decentralisation of infrastructure (on several levels);
- broadly-adopted open standards (including within social networks, allowing for interoperability of different providers);
- privacy by default;
- privacy by design;
- public, freely available access to broadband Internet (including public WiFi in public libraries);
- open repositories (of data, open access, resources, publicly-financed source code, etc);
- transparency of information about services;
- civil involvement in infrastructure (designing, building, upkeep – including support for hackerspaces/fablabs).
- transparent and functional public consultation system;
- evidence-based policy and thorough regulatory impact analysis;
- copyright reform;
- easy-to-understand law interpretation and commentary available (created within the legislation creation process);
- government-mandated, unequivocal, binding law interpretation;
- law and regulation system analysis and review in order to remove inconsistencies;
- laws guaranteeing network neutrality;
- guarantees against disconnection of citizens (e.g. making n-strikes laws illegal);
- right to analogue interaction with public administration;
- right to move private data (e.g. between social networks);
- right to be forgotten (removing/deleting data);
- right to use any and all services and applications as long as they are not actively harming the network.
Above problem and potential solution catalogues should not be treated as final – rather, as a start of a discussion. A discussion that is sorely needed, and of which they can be a good base for.