Authority and authorship in a post-Google world

In a previous post I wrote on the difficult ways to establish trust and intimacy in the digital age. In pushing this idea out a bit laterally I have begun to ponder more about the ways that authority and authorship dictate our digital lives.

Think about trust: Google and other technology companies are in the business of making trust. They are “trust making” companies. Authority and authorship are baked into their business model. Don’t be evil is another way of saying trust us. You are viewing the physical representation of this ideology right on their search results page. The blue links are just colorized trust icons. Each link leads to a source that has authorship embedded into its very existence. Do we fail to recognize how humans are behind these texts? Sure, algorithms whip up something great and serve it on a facile platter for easy consumption, but a human being is tied to each and every bit and byte. To ignore that or to claim that the Internet is somehow neutral or neutered is naive. Their authority, and the authorship guiding each and every move on the internet, is precisely the source, fuel and engine of their power.

Corporations are commodifying trust, and this is not new – every brand is a logo-fied version of a monetized public good. Might as well take a branding iron to the forests, since that’s basically what every paper company has done. This signifies a new owner/author of the public domain. They stamp, brand and own what is effectively no one’s and everyone’s. They restrict and legitimize space and time. They create patents, aka the system of ‘search and destroy’ that targets anyone who trespasses on their sacred domain. Commodities are signifiers of a largely unnamed world, and yet those in control want to make the world into another material object. And as ‘consumers’, we have willingly bought into this myth, since we too, want a piece of the author pie. It’s ours to share, have and hold. A beautiful marriage of consumerism and empowerment.

Commodification, authority and authorship are one side of the coin; democracy is the other. We continue to view the world in this binary frame where everything post 21st century is ours/theirs, and yet the public space is still no one’s. How can we live in this mediated space where the two are incompatible? This myth will only continue to be perpetuated unless we have a larger discussion on what it truly means to be a democratic society. I’m hopeful that there are others out there who feel the same.

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Finding intimacy in a vast online world

In the “third space” that encompasses the online world, how can we create intimacy? The third space is by nature neither completely private nor public: we blog, chat, tweet, email and post in private –  one person, a screen and a keyboard make for a pretty private act –  but these are public spaces mostly controlled by corporations (excepting Wikipedia, etc). Many tend to trust the third space as private when it involves so-called “intimate” conversations like email, chat or instant messages, and we (willingly or not) trust these corporations with a lot of what we would call private content, which is in fact not really “ours”. It’s a gray area that confuses lawmakers and laypersons all the time.

Trust and intimacy in their truest forms are remixed in the third, online space. They are not canon or pure here. Trust, especially, is murkier in the age of the internet. “Trust in corporations”?  Google Buzz and Instagram’s TOS blunder are good examples of corporate myopia in understanding end-user needs. “Trust in individuals”?  Manti Teo’s “Catfish” saga and the story of a Syrian feminist blogger who turned out to be a white American male both showcase how little it takes for us to be duped into accepting someone’s online identity as authentic. The difference in the online space is that trust issues accelerate and tailspin at a much higher velocity than in purely private or public spheres of the offline world.

That isn’t to say trust issues happen less in real life – phenomena like Ponzi schemes or human trafficking inflict a lot of pain on large groups of people – but the online world allows for trust to be boiled down to facilitate interactions and transactions. I don’t have to be logged into Facebook to view a post, and I can send an email from many different accounts using separate identities. We don’t have an upfront identification factor or “trust” verification center since that goes against many founding principles of the internet – it values democratic, organic, iterative networks and free speech. Perhaps the notion of trust comes out of the social contract ideal – we give a little of our selves up for the ability to have a free online space. But that also seems a bit Western-centric, given that the themes of democracy are so interwoven into the internet’s genetic makeup. Does that mean trust is a purely Western value?

Finding intimacy in the online world is a challenge because of the inherent trust issues we face. Every day as netizens we put our trust into the corporations and organizations that power, control and enable our internet connections, websites and messages to function smoothly and correctly. Networks themselves are man-made, yet it seems we internalize them as “natural” – as the sun rises and sets, our browsers open and close – and our trust levels are so high that we cannot expect anything less. (A great satire on this phenomenon is this Louis CK standup video.) Why do we take so much for granted? What does that say about “digital natives”, parents who create Twitter handles for their infants, and the millions of banner clicks on ads that read “You’ve won a prize! Click here to claim your winnings”?

Digital literacy and media awareness are only part of the solution to the issues of trust, accountability and intimacy we face every day as netizens.