We Have Never Been Social

Primary Source: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, June 10, 2019

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Bryan Alexander on his Future Trends Forum. We were primarily focused on Generous Thinking, but by way of having me introduce myself, Bryan asked what I’m working on this year. I mentioned that I’m in the early research phases of what might turn out to be a new project — which is to say, I have a pretty inchoate idea and I’m doing a lot of reading this summer trying to figure out whether there’s a there there. Late in our conversation, however, the discussion turned back to that project idea, and given that I’ve now shared it on video (soon to be available on YouTube), I thought it might behoove me to commit a bit of that idea here.1

The project has as its working title We Have Never Been Social: Rethinking the Internet. It revisits the history of the Internet’s development and, in particular, the rise of the social media structures that have come to dominate so much of our experience of networked communication, arguing that a significant part of what has led us to the mess we find ourselves in today — with corporate entities tracking our every move while ignoring (or abetting) the growth of violent radical movements just under the surface, undermining not just how we interact with one another in casual ways but the very organization of our formal, public, political lives — is a desperately flawed model of sociality, one that is in fact not just un-social but anti-social. These structures allow us to talk to one another and to form connections with those who share our interests and concerns, for sure, but they are predicated on a hyperindividualism that is not just contrary to but actually corrosive of the kinds of deliberation necessary to a productive public life. (You might begin to see some of the ways in which this project grows out of ideas I developed in the course of Generous Thinking; the Internet, like the university as it exists today, is not conducive to generosity, and imagining how a more generous Internet might be developed requires thinking through its present and potential structures of reward and relation.)

I imagine that the first part of this project will focus on how it got to be this way, what got missed or ignored in some of the early warnings about what was happening online and how those warnings were swamped by the hype depicting the Internet as a space of radical democratization. But then I want to turn my attention to where we might go, whether there are possibilities for building an Internet that would be more genuinely social. Some argue that a more decentralized web — a web in which we manage the platforms through which we interact with others, or what Wired recently referred to as the soothing promise of the artisanal Internet — would allow us to control the ways that our data is used, as well as to control the terms of our engagements with the broader network. There is no small irony in the suggestion that what has been termed the IndieWeb could actually turn out to promote a deeper sociality, of course, and the vision of a distributed, self-hosted, self-controlled Internet would be a real challenge to achieve. But as I see it, the desire to pull our efforts at creative production and connection out of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and, commit to more distributed platforms like Mastodon or return to blogging and its micro-blogging relatives focus not on the goal, but instead on a means to an end. Because the problem is not that our platforms haven’t been sufficiently individualized; despite — or more truthfully because of — being under ravenous corporate control, they cater to our worst individualist instincts. Contravening that force is going to require something more than personal control, promoting something other than atomization.

That is to say: if the problem has not been the centralized, corporatized control of the individual voice, the individual’s data, but rather a deeper failure of sociality that precedes that control, then merely reclaiming ownership of our voices and our data isn’t enough. If the goal is creating more authentic, more productive forms of online sociality, we need to rethink our platforms, the ways they function, and our relationships to them from the ground up. It’s not just a matter of functionality, or privacy controls, or even of business models. It’s a matter of governance.

So this is where some older paths-not-taken, such as Ted Nelson’s original many-to-many, multidirectional model for hypertext, and some more recent potential paths, such as Herbert van de Sompel’s decentralized, distributed vision for scholarly communication, might come in. But this is also where I want to turn my attention to the arguments I raised in my plenary talk at the Spring 2019 CNI meeting about the relationship between sustainability and solidarity. Because this, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, “is not a problem for technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics” (Lower Ed 182).

That’s where I am in the project: re-reading a lot of early writers on the rise of the Internet and social media, including the techno-utopians, those who got dismissed as Luddites, and the wealth of critical thinkers that fall somewhere in-between. And I’m reading a lot of recent work that looks at the mess we’re in and how it got to be this way. And I’m reading some key texts in social theory that will help me envision potential paths forward. But what else? What are the crucial texts and ideas I should be engaging with? Where are the new movements in rethinking the Internet that I shouldn’t miss?

 

  1. I will admit to being pretty nervous about this, not least because I’ve been wrong before. After I finished The Anxiety of Obsolescence I was quite sure that my next book was going to focus on representations of the writing machine, but one article into that project I was pretty much done. So I was well into Generous Thinkingbefore I went public with the plan here. But I’m taking my own advice and blogging this idea earlier than I might be wholly comfortable with, not least because y’all might have ideas that can help me push the thing forward.

 

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Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University. Prior to assuming this role in 2017, she served as Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association, where she was Managing Editor of PMLA and other MLA publications. During that time, she also held appointments as Visiting Research Professor of English at NYU and Visiting Professor of Media at Coventry University. Before joining the MLA staff in 2011, she was Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, where she had been a member of the faculty since 1998.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick

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