Minding our own business

We need no special issue of Techne to tell us that digital technology comes bundled with a host of political implications. We know that we’re newly vulnerable to tracking, that Google is noting our every search; we know that hackers and spies skulk through networks; we know that access, permissions, and digital rights policy is set by administrators answerable to… well, not us.

Graham Longford’s contribution to the special issue of Techne, Pedagogies of Digital Citizenship and the Politics of Code, enumerates the ways technological citizenship (his words in italics) has devolved. Unsurprisingly, it’s the standard postlapsarian plot, the dark invasion. It’s a colonization of cyberspace by proprietary code and various legislative initiatives designed to protect it; it’s a major renegotiation of the terms and conditions of cybercitizenship as embodied in the design of the early Internet. What can redeem us and restore the early design? Pray for it: open source, with its reconfiguration of existing protocol technologies.

I was a bit surprised, though, to see rounded up among the usual compromisers of digital freedom — privacy and rights-eroding identifiers such as cookies, autofill, and DRM — a less obvious villain: customization. You’d think that self-managed customization of web services would put some power back into the hands of end-users, but Longford’s having none of it.

Why not? Here are ways, according to his essay, that the proliferation of web portals through which users gain access to information and services customized to their specific needs and interestsimpinges on the nature of on-line citizenship:

  • pseudo-personalizable tools: customization options available to users through processes that are far from neutral, such as menus that support only certain kinds of activities on the web (shopping, sports, MSM breaking news, shopping, horoscopes, weather, shopping…)
  • the promotion of passivity, since users are encouraged to assume a posture of waiting for information to be brought to them
  • the creation of a self-edited ‘Daily Me’ delivered to… electronic doorsteps; your choices wall off the infinitude that is life: web portals and customization tools enculturate [sic] users into certain kinds of habits, conduct and expectations that condition their use and experience of the web, with the potential for spillover into the off-line world.
  • and, extending the last point, the inculcation of entitlement, the co-option of the web in favor of consumer empowerment and personal fulfillment rather than as a means to negotiate difference and overcome intolerance.

Longford and his sources [1] may have a point or two here, but these “impingements” seem tallied in a pre-RSS world. We’re no longer hostage to portal menus (though a Google toolbar might seduce you into surrendering); managing your own diet of feeds seems as much of a hunt, an active gathering and tending — and perhaps even a means of self-broadcasting — as it does a process of consumption.

Moreover, inveighing against customization — and defining the web, instead, as best used to confront difference — seems largely blind to the needs of actual, day-to-day work online. Who could get anything done with someone constantly tugging at one’s sleeve, like an unmanageable child, to look at something else, look at something else? There are times to cast one’s eye broadly over the world — to tear into a good international paper, or far-flung novel, or obscure recording, or whatever. But if one is seriously tracking developments in a field, one needs to be able to track. Maybe it’s time to use another term for this process, now that XML-based technology is allowing us to more efficiently harvest information for ourselves: not “customization,” but “cultivation.”

The application of such activity to an academic library environment is far from settled, or even defined. MyLibrary, an open source package allowing library users to configure their own resource lists, is a prominent first step, and as far as I can tell, the jury is out on its effectiveness. Lehigh deems its implementation successful, while NC State has issued a rather melancholy five-years-down-the-road report on the limits of MyLibrary — students, at least undergraduates, won’t use this tool much unless it’s tied into course requirements, ie a CMS.

Perhaps the specific problem with MyLibrary is that it was developed early, in the shadow of that first wave of menu-driven, static customization. Here’s a mock-up of its newest, 3.0 interface — not a whisper of RSS, not a hint of tagging here:

Helping patrons purposely chart their way through an ever-increasing universe of digital information is exactly what libraries should be doing, and ‘cultivation’ tools are the way to do it. Since it is open source, MyLibrary may well evolve into something more feed-based, more dynamic, more immediately useful; if not, another personalization tool will step into the breach.

Treating all patrons alike, enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach to the web, may correspond to a fantasy of global equality and universal dialogue. But in fact, if we are not to be bewildered or distracted by what’s out there — if we are to really apply the tradition of academic specialization to the web — we need to put these tools to work for our individually defined pursuits.

We may deplore, along with Rousseau, the unnatural fact of individualized labor; we may even agree with Wendell Berry (“The Unsettling of America”) that “the disease of modern culture is specialization… the abdication to specialists of various competencies and responsibilities that were once personal and universal.” The web’s ever-growing reach understandably feeds universalist fantasies.

And yet if you’re going to get work done in this environment, if you’re living among practical limitations of time and attention and self-cultivation, a platonic digital citizenship seems more viable: “‘This, then,’ I said, ‘my friend, if taken in a certain sense appears to be justice, this principle of doing one’s own business.'” (Republic, 433b)

[1] Lifted from Longford’s bibliography – some critics of customization:

Luke, Robert. 2002. “Habit@online: Web Portals as Purchasing Ideology.” Topia: A Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 8: (Fall), 61-89.

Nakamura, Lisa. 2002. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge.

Patelis, Korinna. 2000. “E-Mediation by America Online.” In Preferred Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web, ed. Richard Rogers. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Editions, 49-63.

Sunstein, Cass. 2001. Republic.com. Princeton NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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