We Are All Digital Immigrants

Does technological progress change the human condition? Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci took the time to speak with Martin Eiermann about the rise of Al Jazeera, accelerating change and the conventions of online interaction.

The European: A lot has been said and written about social media and the Arab Spring. What we can say conclusively is that a lot has happened in real world politics, and a lot has happened online as well. But instead of asking ‘did one cause the other’, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how they relate.
Tufekci: The question about causality is not very fruitful when framed as an either/or. First, “online” is part of the real world. What the online does is reconfigure and augment the “offline” to open up new spaces and to allow new forms of connectivity, coordination and collaboration. Second, revolutions are always multi-causal. Did the printing press cause the French revolution? That’s not a meaningful question because the history of the printing press is indeed inextricably connected with the history of the French revolution; but obviously that was not the only dynamic. Similarly, you cannot tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about the role of the internet-– not just in 2011, but in the past ten years. But you also cannot tell this story without talking about the dedication and the strategic savvy of the activists in the region, the courage and the sacrifice of the protestors who took to the streets in the millions, the increasing pressures from failing economies, religious divisions and motivations, the labor movement, the growing disgust with corruption and cronyism, the lack of opportunities for the youth… In any non-trivial event, causality is networked; multiple dynamics act on each other in a complicated manner. So it was with the Arab uprisings of 2011, and, yes, the spread of the Internet is one of these key dynamics.

The European: What are the inextricable linkages between politics and technology that we’ve seen exposed in Tunisia or Egypt?
Tufekci: Autocratic regimes don’t stay in power for decades by governing randomly; rather, they do so by following a tried-and-tested playbook of strategic censorship, isolation and repression of dissent. And control over information flows and the public sphere is a key element of this model of autocratic regime. Regimes in the Middle East actively sought to prevent and control the spread of information because they understood that keeping sparks of dissent from lighting prairie fires of uprisings was crucial. Dissidents were punished disproportionately – long prison sentence for the smallest offenses, torture — not just because the security forces happened to be composed of sadists, but because of the same problem: to prevent cascades of dissent from taking off. The Internet has opened up the public sphere; it has allowed citizens to express their views and coordinate with each other. Does that always lead to revolution? No, you need the dissent to be there on the ground. But it does mean that such that regimes cannot continue to govern as before. They are forced to play a new game.

The European: From a Western perspective, it is tempting to say that the Arab Spring began with a big bang on January 25. You’ve already mentioned the ten-year timeframe. What is the long history of social media and revolution in the Middle East?
Tufekci: On January 26th, 2011, the Egyptian uprising needed the internet less than on January 24th,2011 – there was already an uprising, one that had been in the making for at least a decade. This long story involved a changing media ecology: The rise of Al Jazeera, the rapid spread of cell phones with video capabilities, and the rise of social media and other tools which alter the infrastructure of connectivity. When I talk to politicized Arab youth, they often say that when the internet got introduced in their region, their first thoughts were about politics. They did not think first about downloading music; rather, they realized the power of a new political space. Unlike most of us, they lived in severely censored societies and could not freely express their views. State television blabbed on about same old leader who’d been in power for decades, about meaningless elections, about nothing. People did not talk politics to each other openly because they were rightfully scared—there just weren’t somewhat free “spaces” of politics in the public sphere. And then the Internet came along. Suddenly you could begin to see them hanging out online, talking politics. Al Jazeera came along and opened up space for a kind of discourse that had just never been seen in the Arab world. You could have listened to BBC in Arabic previously, but there was never that kind of homegrown critical coverage. The other big change along with the Internet and Al Jazeera was when the cell phone camera appeared on the scene. Everyone could document events! Activist bloggers took these photos and videos of events that were not talked about otherwise and published them. It is hard to imagine how big of a red line was crossed: Bloggers published videos of corruption, of electoral fraud, of torture – a lot of torturers actually taped their action because the sense of impunity was so prevalent. With the internet, things stopped disappearing in the pit of censorship. At some point, even Egyptian state television had to address topics like police brutality or sexual harassment because the whole country was talking about it—because of bloggers.

The European: One of the questions that comes out of that observation is whether the internet is a politicizing force, or an enabling force: Does it make more people political, or does it make people more political?
Tufekci: They feed each other. When you have more political people, they talk more about politics, which might compel more people to become politically active. If people are quite happy with their regime, or if there is a lot of polarization and ethnic division, the result may be increased polarization rather than a revolutionary cascade. There’s no magic wand to revolution or democracy. So my assertion is not that the internet leads to more democracy but that it leads to more participation. What more participation leads to depends on the context, country and many other factors.

The European: How particular are these observations to the Middle East? Clearly, the internet is not bound by regional borders, but my hunch is that its consequences might play out very differently in different contexts.
Tufekci: While the public sphere is relatively diverse in the US or in Europe, it is not wide open to all groups and that is changing. In the past, the threshold for organizing outside the system of electoral politics was much higher: the rise of the Green Party in Germany, for example, is a story that was not easily replicable. As we speak, we see Newt Gingrich propelled back into the race for the presidency in the United States through grassroots enthusiasm among the Republicans. I believe such enthusiasm is sustained partly by the ability of regular people to find one another and draw strength from that — that others who think like them exist and are vocal. The Republican establishment is scared of a Gingrich nomination but their base keeps pushing from below. Old gatekeepers still exist, and still wield enormous power, but they find themselves pushed by other players.

The European: Are those just novel players, or are they a new form of gatekeepers? When I look at big bloggers or platforms like MoveOn, it’s hard to see them as anything but bottlenecks for the spread of information.
Tufekci: There are some new gatekeepers and new forms of power. Increasingly, such power can in the form of algorithms rather than organizations – Twitter’s tending topics or Google search are examples of a way in which an algorithm can focus attention. Curator-journalists like Andy Carvin are emergent gatekeepers as well. But that does not mean that old gatekeepers are becoming irrelevant. Broadcast news in the US is declining, but compared to all the other ways of reaching people, TV is still very important. The evening news is still the 800-pound gorilla: Instead of reaching 50 million people, you might reach 20 million. But that is still a huge number.

The European: Do we tend to confuse openness and access to information with power?
Tufekci: Politics is still about getting attention, and any online movement needs to navigate through the existing bottlenecks. But it used to be that you had to be very rich or important to get through. Now you can organize for attention. I don’t think that is good or bad by itself – sometimes I’m scared: The US-based anti-vaccination campaign is not just irrational, it is dangerous. It endangers the health and well-being of children. And I don’t think it could sustain itself so powerfully if the adherents couldn’t find one another through social media. The old gatekeepers would likely have filtered it out. So, it’s a different world. Is it better or worse? I say, yes. It is better and it is worse.

The European: So here’s a caveat: When the public sphere opens up, you cannot control what ideas are nudged forward. And we’re willing to say a lot of things over the internet that we would not say in person to someone.
Tufekci: We feel most powerful when we know that others hold similar opinions – and we can now know that because you can it on the Internet. The Arab Spring worked similarly: When hundreds of thousands of people clicked on the “Like” button for the “We are all Khaled Saed” page in Egypt, or “accepted the invitation” to attend the demonstrations on January 25, 2011, it makes it more likely that something will really happen. It becomes a self-fulfilling spiral of preference assertion, a cascade of action. You see other people, and you feel powerful. Social science calls this overcoming of “pluralistic ignorance”: “Hidden preferences” — preferences that people hold privately but believe are in a minority because others who also hold them also hide them – are revealed to be widespread. That empowerment is true across the political spectrum and across causes — and across time as well. The “Economist” recently published a great article on the use of viral media during the era of Luther’s reformation. It is my assertion that social media predates digital media. The internet happens to be a medium that is particularly participatory. That’s a stroke of luck: the people who designed it never imagined it as a global network, so they designed an open system for people who knew and trusted each other.

The European: It’s easy to see our own time as marked by sweeping change. But people also raised those concerns against the introduction of the telegraph, or lamented the decline of silent movies.
Tufekci: Yes, everyone thinks that their times are amazing, and that children are more horrible than their parents’ generation. We pine for an idealized image of a past which probably never existed as it does in our imagination. But it is hard to deny that the pace of change has increased. Things are not just faster, they are also accelerating faster. We had the rise of the internet, than we had a cell phone revolution, then social media platforms…. Remember that Youtube was only introduced in 2006! My generation are digital immigrants — we were born before the advent of the Web. But that is also true for future generations: By the time they will have grown up, their kids’ technology will have become very different. Chair of Turkish Informatics Foundation Faruk Eczacibasi recently said that “everyone will always be immigrants” and I believe this is true. The change is so fast that by the time one becomes comfortable in one set of rules, they shift. That is very disorienting.

The European: Do you think it is a problem that we might always be illiterate in relation to the most advanced technology?
Tufekci: By the time we get a grasp of new technology, it has already passed through our fingers. I sometimes get confused by new technologies and platforms — and I am a former programmer and spend my working days thinking about this stuff. So what happens with people for whom this is not a priority in life? When you then consider that technology is not just a minor determinant of how our lives are lived, this becomes incredibly consequential. We like to be able to predict what might happen to us in the future – but right now, it is very hard to predict anything. And the consequences are not limited to the internet and questions like future of our socializing or politics. They also include the drive towards automation. Voice recognition and natural language processing is coming our ways in leaps and bounds. Last bastions of uniquely human skills are being conquered. What, then, will be the economic role of people? This is not a minor question.

The European: If it is psychologically important for us to have a sense of continuity and security, where is that rooted today?
Tufekci: I get irritated when someone says that people are so different compared to the past. People look at teenagers as if they were alien creatures and exclaim: “We would have never done that!” I wonder if everyone forgot their own adolescence. Evolution works on a long timescale, and humans have remained more or less the same. Look at the complaints Plato had about writing: He argued that writing separated the word from the person and thus hollowed out meaning. That’s fairly similar to the argument people now make about socializing online! Many things have remained very stable in terms of our human traits: we want to socialize with others, we fall in love, we want to compare favorably to our peers, we do stupid things. However, the part that scares me is that we are drifting into consequences, and I don’t think that we should be drifting like this. Algorithms have an immense power today, yet we treat them as black boxes. Technology is very malleable, we can think about it, discuss it, redesign it. Very little of that is being done. Instead of discussing how the new generation is somehow so unlike any previous generation — they are not — we should be discussing how our technology is impacting our society and what to do about it.

The European: Do we have the right conceptual toolkit to have these discussions?
Tufekci: I was frustrated by the shallowness of debates about social media and the Arab Spring. The questions were not well-formed; we remained stuck with the question “Did the internet cause X or Y?” There was a wave of writings “debunking” the non-existing notion that the Arab Spring was somehow single-handedly caused by the Internet. Often, the author would set up a false dichotomy and say “It wasn’t Facebook, it was the people” as if those were somehow polar, mutually-exclusive opposites. It was depressing. It shows that we really don’t know how to talk about how technology plays a role in such situations. We have lost a lot of agency to technology by treating it as a black box, and now we are trying to reclaim it rhetorically. But that is just a cheap trick. The way to regain agency is not to declare by fiat that technology is unimportant — it is surely not — but rather to try understand in-depth the question we are discussing and to argue about it well, both conceptually and empirically. I think we need new literacies; people need to learn some basic things about the internet: What is TCP/IP? How does Google rank search results? Programmers understand that stuff – but then it must be combined with an understanding of people and societies as well.

The European: A classical liberal arts approach to the digital age? I worry that many people are interested in the consumption of content, rather than in the production and reflection on knowledge.
Tufekci: Even the most participatory revolutions in human history — like the Iranian revolution in 1979 — involved ten percent of the population, at most. What worries me more is that even among the people who are involved and are making decisions, the lack of technosocial literacy is sometimes astounding. There are many smart people who think and write about these topics but they tend not to be the ones who dominate the conversation. The shallowness of some of the discussions is frightening because the outcomes are so consequential. That is true in relation to technological questions, but also in relation to social questions. I am tired of arguing with tech people who, for example, say, “If you don’t like Facebook/Twitter/Google/Ebay/Amazon/XXX, don’t use it.” This flies in the face of “human beings 101”: There are social norms and norms have power; these platforms are important for social interaction and increasingly represent norms; these are our new civic, social and political commons, et cetera. These people understand technology, but they don’t seem to understand people too well. And then I talk to people from social science and humanities backgrounds. While they have deep understanding of society and history, the current uses of technology seems alien to many of them. The intersection between those two groups is too thinly populated. We need more; we need more depth, more sophistication, more understanding of people, society and technology. This is a transition period; we are building the architecture of future. We can do better; we must do better.

The European: I recently talked to WIRED’s Kevin Kelly, who told me the following: “The net gain [of technological change] will slightly outweigh the negative aspects. That is all we need: A slightly greater range of choices and opportunities every year equals progress.” Is he right?
Tufekci: There are problems with that line thinking, comparing good and bad. These consequences cannot be easily measured. How do you rank them? I am not sure how to compare gains and losses in a numerical, quantitative sense. Good and bad can happen at the same time, but often they don’t happen to the same people. Technology has been very empowering for me, but I am part of the technological elite in some sense. If you are a programmer whose voice recognition system has made call centers obsolete, you probably have it pretty good. If you worked at a call center, you probably are not as happy. Who outweighs? For me, a more fruitful way to look at technological change is not to talk about if it is good or bad, but rather to try to understand this spectacular change and, more importantly, to shape it according to humane values rather than drifting into consequences. That goes right back to Marx’s famous “11th thesis on Feuerbach": “Philosophers have thus far interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.” I want to understand how technology interacts with society better not just because it is intellectually exciting, but also because I hope that understanding can support the power to shape. If we have universal voice recognition and natural language processing, how can we restructure our economy to give jobs to the former call center employees? That is where you get into deep philosophical questions: What is the value of a human? What is the value of work? Is there something intrinsically valuable to our labor that makes it worth protecting? What are basic human rights? Those are the questions that motivate me to think about technology — questions about the human condition. When we start to think about them, we can go back and consider the challenges that technology forces us to answer. All of this is not a spectator sport: We designed technology, so we can also alter the design.

The article was updated to reflect the following correction: The quote “Everyone will always be immigrants” was properly attributed to Faruk Eczacibasi.

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