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Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics

Author: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: February 2008

 REVIEW 1: Jentery Sayers

First, I would like to thank Jentery Sayers for his insightful review and the RCCS for choosing Control and Freedom as its book of the month. I have been using this site for years, and I'm honored to have a review of my book included within it. Sayers' review nicely touches on the major themes of the book:

  • Concerns over the conflation of freedom with control, which undermine the democratic potential of the Internet by rendering freedom innocuous
  • Using as an enabling violation, as an experience of vulnerability
  • The transition of public/private to open/closed
  • Paranoia induced by re-writing political problems as technological ones
  • The ways in which power/technological structures are experienced intimately as race and sexuality
  • The differences and similarities between technological and social constructs, such as control
The review also does a great job of pointing towards future lines of investigation and of situating the book in relation to other work on race, code, and cyberpunk by scholars whose work I respect greatly. Additionally, Sayers asks a crucial question: "how, exactly, [does] vulnerability differ from victimization. Or, more specifically, where does the threshold of vulnerability end and victimization begin?" In this response to Sayers' review, I will answer this question directly and link some of my newer projects to the topics he's flagged.

In terms of vulnerability, Control and Freedom interrogates the different uses of the term "control" within telecommunications engineering and everyday language in order to understand how the Internet, one of the most invasive forms of mass media produced to date, was bought and sold as empowering. Drawing from a wide variety of texts (from U.S. Court Decisions on cyberporn to webcam portals; from hardware specifications to software interfaces), it examines how interactive control technologies -- contingent and fallible automated decision-making processes -- have been re-mapped as infallible social control. Notions of the Internet as mass medium of freedom or as Big Brother personified both rely on mis-readings of Internet protocol and conflate control with freedom, politics with technology. The political significance of the Internet, I argue, does not stem from its "empowering" of couch potatoes through controllable interactivity, but rather from its involvement of users and machines in constant interchanges that compromise their agency and demand decisions from them. So: when does vulnerability end and victimization begin?

Well, to be vulnerable is to be open to wounding: etymologically, "vulnerable" stems from the Latin word vulnus (wound). Vulnerability thus seems a lot like victimization, or the potential to be victimized. Being vulnerable and being a victim, though, are not quite the same things. Historically, a victim was a living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to some deity or creature. One needs a victim in order to sustain belief in some larger power. Indeed, I would argue that we are victims online only if we hold onto the belief that we are -- or can be -- super-human, protected, and empowered users. If we don't have this conviction -- if we confront rather than gloss over the invasiveness of the Internet -- then we are better able to deal with the harassment that comes our way. Vulnerability underscores the fact that there are no guarantees -- we need to work constantly and endlessly for democracy and for civility. What I also find intriguing about vulnerability is that it can also mean the opposite: an obscure meaning of vulnerable is having the power to wound. Thus, taking vulnerability seriously also means thinking through the ways in which our actions and words are wounding, intentionally or not.

But there's more to be said about vulnerability because Sayers' excellent question gets at a difficulty I've been struggling with for years: the limitations of "openness." For many theorists, "openness" is a convenient and virtuous end point: the openness of signification, networks, and code is often posited as inherently good -- openness is something that saves us; it is something towards which we must strive. In Control and Freedom, I argue against this position by contending that Jean Luc Nancy's definition of freedom cannot adequately deal with inequality. The larger question, however, is: how do we deal with differences in power relations perpetuated by and through "open" systems? What happens when being "open" becomes an alibi for inequality and exploitation? Well, first, I believe that any discussion of openness or vulnerability needs to be as specific as possible -- to deal with the "micro-physics" of any situation. Second, "openness" (open signification, open source) should be the beginning, rather than the end, of the conversation. Open source (and free) software, for instance, signal a profound privatization: public licenses spread copyright/left everywhere, placing everything under the umbrella of copyright law. Open does not equal free, does not equal public, so we need to ask ourselves: what does openness elide? What do we even understand openness to be?

To grapple with the limitations of "open networks," I've been working on a project called "imagined networks." Revising Benedict Anderson's famous thesis that the nation is an imagined political community, Imagined Networks examines groupings that are both less and more than nations, less and more than societies to be defended. By emphasizing the imagined nature of networks, it both engages and displaces the tired cliché of our current era as dominated by political, social, and technological networks. It asks: what needs to be in place in order for us to understand ourselves and our technologies as networked -- to create a "we" and a "they" through imagined connections and disconnections? How do social and technological abstractions coincide, diverge and inform each other? How are these abstractions experienced, sensed, felt? In other words, what needs to be in place for us to imagine our networks as open and open as good?

Also in terms of re-thinking networks, I've been working on the "times" of new media, focusing on digital media as what I've called "the enduring ephemeral" and trying to grapple with "the undead of information." That is, I'm interested in how new media constantly calls for response. The most important thing is not: is the system we're responding to "open," or does our response open or close the system; but rather how do our responses constantly degenerate and regenerate? How does digital media's ephemerality endure (how do we make it endure), for this constant de/regeneration both underlies and undermines the promise of digital media as a form of memory. (I realize that this is rather elliptical, but an article on this should be out soon in Critical Inquiry).

In terms of further pursuing questions of race and code, my other book project, Programmed Visions: Software, DNA, Race (forthcoming MIT 2009), deals with these questions, although in a different manner than Control and Freedom. Programmed Visions examines the emergence of "programmability" through a comparative analysis of mid-twentieth-century conceptions of software, genetics, and race. Each of these offers a concrete model of causality and transmission that connects the visible to the invisible: interface to code; phenotype to genotype; physical features to cultural or biological facts. These concrete models of causality have mainly re-defined nature as "programmable" and thus, perhaps perversely, more malleable than culture. Programmed Visions explores the history of genetics, computing and media technologies to understand this development of ourselves, our environment and our machines as "programmable" and, in doing so, re-writes the standard narrative within the History of Science of the "program" migrating from computing into genetics. It also argues that the programmed visions that dominated the 1950s led to the frenzy of visual literacy and a decline in visual knowledge that we are experiencing today -- a frenzied dissemination/decline intimately intertwined with debates over the nature of race.

Again, I would like to thank RCCS for this wonderful opportunity to respond to Sayers' review and to frame Control and Freedom in relation to my newer projects.

Wendy Chun


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