Sunday, December 16, 2012

Denying Soft Control

Talking about soft control is fun because it's such a unique concept that, nevertheless, feels intuitively right; and there are, sadly, so few of those that when one comes around it is difficult to not seize upon it. It just makes sense that those who develop our tools, create our structures, decide what is and is not allowed on computers and the Internet (where more and more of us increasingly spend more and more of our time) alter our behavior in real, discernible ways; and yet, they are so invisible to us. When one learns how to use a new operating system or a new piece of software, when one starts thinking in terms of “Likes” and “retweets”, that changes one's behavior patterns, but rarely if ever does anyone sit down and think, “Man, using Facebook has really changed by behavior; thanks/screw you, Mark Zuckerberg”.

(At this point it is worth noting that some people do buck this sort of controlling behavior, by refusing to sign up for Facebook or canceling their accounts after the fact; needless to say, however, those that opt out of using Facebook after having already created an account are few and far between.)

Terranova's own look at this phenomenon is pretty interesting, however, from the way that soft control has permeated the real world – or perhaps more accurately, the way that our own understanding of soft control as a phenomenon has let us recognize it when it exists in the real world – in the layout of offices to encourage “interactivity, lack of hierarchy, modularity” (119). This is of course silly, because hierarchy does still exist in these corporations and no one would claim otherwise; except that by enforcing these themes in the everyday, could these themes ever be truly called “silly”? If they changed the way that workers did their work, could they ever be called irrelevant?

When someone claims that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” (120) they are using clever technological wordplay to describe a “behavior” of the Internet; but even this is a euphemism. The truth of the matter is that the construction of peer-to-peer networks and open-source software (such as the program this post is being composed on currently, LibreOffice) were not intrinsic parts of the Internet or computer culture, but created by individuals with the ability to do so. The value of these constructs, for good or ill, is not at question here; but the way they are presented is. The Internet is not, after all, a “techno-utopian” culture; but the Internet does not have a “centralized government”, either. It is what it is because of the efforts of a few with the knowledge and willpower to make it such, and the shape it has taken is due to their own personal desires and goals for the project: it is not a lifelike organism that has evolved independently, but something that could be radically changed with a view shifts in ideology from those that support it.

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