Digitizing Truth

1979 Alma College Professor of Religion, Dr. Ron Massanari teaches class outside – from the Alma College archives.

My first year of college, I took the obligatory Introduction to Western Thought class at 8:00am Tuesdays and Thursdays. This class taught me a couple things: I hate morning classes and I don’t know much about anything. In some ways, Dr. Massanari’s class fundamentally changed the ways I think about truth and knowledge. I think he’d be happy to know that I walked away from his class questioning how we “know” things. His course encouraged my interest in language and how language constructs the way we view the world. Through him, I found Foucault.

So, when The Atlantic published Friedersdorf’s “Should Google Always Tell the Truth?” I was perplexed. The article doesn’t quite hit the mark. Friedersdorf asks, “When should it [a search engine] direct searchers as neutrally as possible to the Web pages that they’re seeking?” While this question is interesting, I don’t think it’s the most relevant. A better question might be, “How does Google determine what is neutral information?” or “Who determines what is true?”  These questions have real consequences for how we prosume information online.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, sites like Wikipedia that are collaboratively written, edited, and cross-checked still have issues with truth and neutrality. In particular, the voices of women are unrepresented on Wikipedia and other collaborative writing spaces. In other words, truth is always situated in culture. We should be concerned that search engines like Google have so much power over how we know things.

Or, as Dr. Massanari might say, “Clarify and define the basic assumptional claims of Google.”

Greetings from the Panopticon

A few days ago, the news blew up with a story about a chapter of ΣAE at the University of Oklahoma. The fraternity members were recorded singing an obviously racist song about not admitting African Americans.

What strikes me most about this story is the power of an individual with a cellphone. The individual must have been “in” with the fraternity enough to gain access and yet shared the video. Surely, the sharer knew the potential consequences of sharing such a provocative material. Was the point to showcase the racism of the members?  Shut down the chapter?

Or, do the motives really matter?

The reason the video has power is because we’ve started surveilling ourselves. The government doesn’t need to tap our phones. We hand over our privacy willingly.  For a free app or access to a music library we allow corporations access to our locations, purchasing habits, and emails.  The government doesn’t need to monitor all of us – we monitor one another.

Of course, this is not an original idea.  In the 18th century, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy PanopticonBentham developed the idea of the panopticon. The panopticon allowed a single guard to monitor all prisoners. Today, our cellphones share our data the guards. We move about our self-created cells and report our activities to the monitors.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault (1975) used the panoptic metaphor to describe the ways in which society normalizes our behavior. Be smart, but not too smart. Be pretty, but not too pretty.  Be sexual, but not too sexual.  Get married. Get a job. (I’m beginning to sound like Trainspotting.) The hegemony of the norm suppresses deviance.

A perfect example of this may be found in universities. Many of my students who were home schooled express shock at how disciplined education is in this country. Free exploration of ideas or just learning for the sake of learning are replaced by quantifiable exams and assignments. Even the technique of raising one’s hand to answer a question demonstrates the ways in which we are disciplined by the system. The guards are always watching.

For Foucault and other post-modern thinkers, this isn’t a hopeless system. Like weeds, counter culture can take root in the cracks of our self-made prisons. They exist together.

However, the closer we monitor ourselves, the easier it is to find the weeds and spray them with Roundup. Counter cultural ideas (even stupid racist ones) are stomped by the normalizing power of the interwebs.