Friday, March 14, 2014

The Question of Power and Technology in Online Spaces

Since the official end of Rhizo14, I've been spending much of my time grading papers and reading the precipitate from the cMOOC thunderstorm. The #rhizo14 garden is growing, meandering, carving new channels for itself—yes, mixing metaphors with wild abandon, and it is amazing to watch this happen. I live in south Florida, and in the hot afternoons, I can look westward toward the Everglades to see the huge white clouds boil up from the fecund rhizome of sawgrass, black water, and alligator to explode into the blue sky. Rhizo14 is exploding like that. What fun to watch, and even more fun to be part of.

Others see the explosion, too. Today I came across a New York Times editorial by David Brooks, The Leaderless Doctrine, which struck me as a fairly accurate description of the kind of shift that I see in cMOOCs and other online events. In his editorial, Brooks describes "a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs." Brooks references a recent PewResearchCenter study which shows that this attitude is not traditional isolationism, at least not among Millennials, who actually want the U.S. to become more integrated with the world. Rather, the Millennials have lost faith in the power of big organizations to meaningfully address the world's issues: "Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs. They have lost faith in the idea that American political and military institutions can do much to shape the world." Millennials have replaced faith in big government and big military with an "enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development." Or to promote education, I might add. Brooks then suggests that a new liberal order is emerging in the U.S. that "is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet."

It sounds like one, gigantic MOOC to me, and it changes the rules of the game. Brooks adds that for the interconnected Millennials (I would use the term rhizomatic Millennials here) "the real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the [military] tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals."

I don't think David Brooks is happy about this shift, but he is too much of a realist, I suppose, to insist that it isn't happening or that it isn't important. I think Brooks fears that this shift in how the Millennials envision and construct power will be a game changer. I hope it will be a game changer. I'm betting on it.

And this brings me to my real topic: power on the Internet, power in open and striated spaces, to use the terms of Deleuze and Guattari and Sîan Bayne (thanks to Frances Bell for this reference). The topic of power came up several times in Rhizo14, and I don't think I had a very good handle on it. I'm left wondering if there is something about online spaces that changes power: reduces it or enhances it, redistributes it. I suppose ultimately I want to know if we are ready to handle online power, if in fact there is any power to handle, and if the technology changes the mix.

In his editorial, Brooks seems to assume that power is an unavoidable element of human interactions, certainly geopolitical interactions, and I think I agree with him, mostly because I define humans as complex systems that must interact with enclosed and enclosing systems. We humans must exchange matter, energy, information, and organization with our enclosing systems (physical, social, economic, religious, governmental, etc.) just as our livers must exchange matter, energy, information, and organization within our own bodies. We don't have to exchange everything that we like to exchange, but we do have to exchange many things (air, water, bacteria, and food, come immediately to mind). I suppose we don't actually have to exchange language and culture, but if we didn't, then we would not be human in any sense applicable to my conversation here, so I'll ignore that rare case.

These exchanges involve us in power relationships, and I don't see how to avoid that. If I am to eat (exchange matter and energy with my ecosystem), then I must exert power (or my mother exerted that power on my behalf) to procure and eat food. The act of living engages me in a circular relationship within my surround: I take from it, and it takes from me. To exist at all, I need to develop and exercise the power necessary to exchange food that sustains me and to avoid food that can harm me. This is not trivial; rather, it is profound—far more significant for a happy life than anything I teach in my writing and literature classes. It is the most important learning.

So for me, all education is imbricated with power. Basically, we learn what to put in our mouths, what not to, and when, where, how, and why. It starts at birth, if not before, and it continues until we die, and it always involves learning to develop and to manage our own powers and to interact elegantly and productively with the power of others. Power, then, is relational (a concept I probably picked up from Frances Bell) even if we are thinking of our own, internal powers. It's easy to think of relations with other people and things, but we like to think of ourselves as a single entity, a unit or individual; however, to my mind, we are just one more complex system: a network of subsystems that share an arc of identity, a sense of shared experience, and tend to work together—though I think we are all aware of times when our minds/bodies seem to work against us, revealing the seams in the whole. (Damn, that's a long sentence. If I were grading this, I'd suggest a rewrite.)

Still, when we use the term power, especially in conversations about human relationships, perhaps most of us share Frances Bell's negative sense of the word. In her post Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking, Bell writes, "My first thought when I hear the word power is of an individual exerting power over another – getting them to do something or stop doing something (possibly by raising a physical or verbal fist)." But if I think of power as the ability to stop or to cause changes in my ecosystem, then power is everywhere and in every relationship, and my task is to use this power as best I can.

Of course, the devil is in the definition of as best I can. For some, that might mean pushing as many other kids out of the sandbox as possible. For others, that might mean sucking up to, or ignoring, or hugging as many kids as possible. The point is: we have an incredible range of relations with others, all of which embody some distribution of and exercise of power. This power is unavoidable. If your mate walks into the room and refuses to speak to you or look you in the eye, you better be aware that some power play is on. A hug is as much an expression of power as a hit, and they are both relational.

So if power is integral to relationships, are relationships changed by technology? I think that's the question I'm trying to address. Okay, now that I have a question, I can start writing. Tomorrow.
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