Freedom and Justice in our Technological Predicament

This is the thesis I wrote for my Master of Arts in philosophy.
It can also be dowloaded as a PDF.


As the director of an NGO advocating for digital rights I am acutely aware of the digital trail we leave behind in our daily lives. But I too am occasionally surprised when I am confronted with concrete examples of this trail. Like when I logged into my Vodafone account (my mobile telephony provider) and—buried deep down in the privacy settings—found a selected option that said: “Ik stel mijn geanonimiseerde netwerkgegevens beschikbaar voor analyse.”1 I turned the option off and contacted Vodafone to ask them what was meant by anonymized network data analysis. They cordially hosted me at their Amsterdam offices and showed me how my movement behaviour was turned into a product by one of their joint ventures, Mezuro:

Smartphones communicate continuously with broadcasting masts in the vicinity. The billions of items of data provided by these interactions are anonymized and aggregated by the mobile network operator in its own IT environment and made available to Mezuro for processing and analysis. The result is information about mobility patterns of people, as a snapshot or trend analysis, in the form of a report or in an information system.2

TNO had certified this process and confirmed that privacy was assured: Mezuro has no access into the mobility information of individual people. From their website: “While of mobility patterns is of great social value, as far as we’re concerned it is certainly not more valuable than protecting the privacy of the individual.”3

Intuitively something about Vodafone’s behavior felt wrong to me, but I found it hard to articulate why what Vodafone was doing was problematic. This thesis is an attempt to find reasons and arguments that explain my growing sense of discomfort. It will show that Vodafone’s behavior is symptomatic for our current relationship with technology: it operates at a tremendous scale, it reuses data to turn it into new products and it feels empowered to do this without checking with their customers first.

The main research question of this thesis is how the most salient aspects of our technological predicament affect both justice as fairness and freedom as non-domination.

The research consists of three parts. In the first part I will look at the current situation to understand what is going on. By taking a closer look at the emerging logic of our digitizing society I will show how mediation, accumulation and centralization shape our technological predicament. This predicament turns out to be one where technology companies have a domineering scale, where they employ a form of data-driven appropriation and where our relationship with the technology is asymmetrical and puts us at the receiving end of arbitrary control. A set of four case studies based on Google’s products and services deepens and concretizes this understanding of our technological predicament.

In the second part of the thesis I will use the normative frameworks of John Rawls’s justice as fairness and Philip Pettit’s freedom as non-domination to problematize this technological predicament. I will show how data-driven appropriation leads to injustice through a lack of equality, the abuse of the commons, and a mistaken utilitarian ethics. And I will show how the domineering scale and our asymmetrical relationship to the technology sector leads to unfreedom through our increased vulnerability to manipulation, through our dependence on philanthropy, and through the arbitrary control that technology companies exert on us.

In the third and final part I will take a short and speculative look at what should be done to get us out of this technological predicament. Is it possible to reduce the scale at which technology operates? Can we reinvigorate the commons? And how should we build equality into our technology relationships?

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Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise

Jason Fried has writen an incredible post about the benefits and the pitfalls (mostly the latter) of group chat after ten years of experience at 37signals and Basecamp.

I think he is fundamentally right in giving ‘attention’ so much importance as a precious resource. I’ve come to realise that the ability to singletask is the one skill that most people are lacking in their working lives. It is certainly the thing that I would like to get better at.

At my place of work we have been experimenting with Mattermost over the last few weeks and are on the cusp of implementing it for the whole team. I look forward to implementing Fried’s recommendations on how to make that a success.

I believe attention is one of your most precious resources. If something else controls my attention, that something else controls what I’m capable of. I also believe your full attention is required to do great work. So when something like a pile of group chats, and the expectations that come along with them, systematically steals that resource from me, I consider it a potential enemy. “Right now” is a resource worth conserving, not wasting.

Group chatSource: Is group chat making you sweat? — Signal v. Noise — Medium

Online Educa Berlin 2008: Day 1

Norbert Bolz

Norbert Bolz

I am the Online Educa with Stoas for a commercial purpose: we have a stand with four European Moodle partners and are trying to talk to as many people as possible about Moodle

This means that I have not had the opportunity to really go to any of the sessions. I did manage to go to the keynotes of the first day though, so I would like to write down some of the things that I have noticed there.

Just like Wilfred Rubens I had really looked forward to hear Michael Wesch speak. I should have known that I would have been disappointed. This had nothing to do with Wesch, who is an insightful and entertaining speaker, but with the fact that I already know what he does. He focused on the lowest common denominator in the audience and that wasn’t me.

I guess you could say that he suffered from the exact problem that he is trying to solve in his educational practice: how do you stay significant when you stand in front of an audience in a design built for non-participation. The title of his talk “The Crisis of Significance and the Future of Education” is highly relevant. I thought it was unfortunate that he only focused on the first part of his title and did not talk about recent educational projects like his World Simulation Project.

One slight disappointment was followed by a very pleasant surprise. The Berlin based media scholar Norbert Bolz gave a slide-less talk titled “From Knowledge Management to Identity Management”. This talk was highly conceptual and sociological (if not philosophical).

He talked about five Internet related phenomena and what kind of effects these are having on society:

  • Serious play or the “paradise of work”. Bolz thinks there will be less of a difference between work and private time. Successful people will be absorbed in their work. The software tools that we buy are also toys. We should learn how to play with these tools (just like with toys) to use them effectively. Younger people are naturally the avant garde of this development.
  • Self design, also known as branding yourself. Personal brands are humans who have learned how to catch people’s attention. He described a progression from broadcasting to narrowcasting to echocasting and considers Youtube to be a prime example.
  • Identity management has to do with social wealth. He thinks we are living in the age of reputation and recommendation.
  • Attention management is about the interrelation between ignorance and trust. To know more is to also know less. All our options are disproportionate to our available time resources. Attention should be considered a naturally scarce resource. There is huge battle for this resource in trying to grab our attention.
  • Linking value is the most surplus value add in this century. This is because of the logic of networks. Bolz referred to Granovetter’s “ground breaking essay” The Strength of Weak Ties. Old social networks have strong ties, whereas the current social network have weak ties (e.g. a Facebook users with 2600 “friends”) . Networks with weak ties are more information rich while the information flow between strong ties is very small (he gave the example of how lover’s communicate).

All of these are topics which invite more exploration. I am looking forward to doing that over the next couple of weeks and will start with Granovetter’s essay.

Tomorrow is another day. I am hoping to see another keynote session and go to the Battle of the Bloggers (with Jay Cross, Wilfred Rubens and Stephen Warburton; looking forward to the strong language!).