In earlier modernity the infrastructure of communication required to meet the needs of an expanding economy and society remained closely linked to (indeed co-terminous with) the spaces that were governable by nation-states (see eg Anderson 1990; Beniger 1987, Starr 2004), and, to a large extent also, compatible with the normative principles on which democratic nation-states were based. Globalized connection in late modernity generated economic and other processes that challenged the boundaries of nation-state governance, but without thereby generating forms of infrastructure and power relations that were, from the start, incompatible with the freedoms on which modern democratic governance had been founded. But what if the era of late late modernity - characterized by the embedding of internet access, and internet-based connectivity, into actions at all levels of complexity and on all scales across the world - disrupts this precarious balance? What if massively increased ‘connection’ and ‘connectivity’ (prima facie an enhancement of quality of life and a contribution towards fulfilling specific needs of economy and society) has a price, and that price is the undermining of freedom, a value regarded as generally essential to the fulfilment of human life?
It is not unusual for major new technological developments to excite contradictory discourses. But today’s contradiction goes deeper than the level of discourse. The situation emerging across many domains of contemporary life on which this project seeks to gain an overview is as follows:
freedom and autonomy are arguably values so fundamental to any satisfactory human life that they are close to basic needs
the practical precondition (or ‘price’) of connection is an infrastructure of connectability (an architecture of continuous openness to surveillance) that is directly incompatible with freedom.
The internet’s apparent ends and actual means are therefore in direct conflict, generating for contemporary cultures and societies a major conflict over value. New cultures of connectivity only intensify the problem while obscuring the underlying contradiction.
This contradiction cannot be wished away; rather it must be imagined beyond through the construction of new social imaginaries, or of counter-worlds in which this painful contradiction is better identified and unpacked so that pathways towards its possible resolutions can be uncovered.
1. a review of academic and corporate literature on and around the growth in processes of continuous surveillance and the supposed benefits of the specific mechanisms which rely on continuous online surveillance, with specific reference to discourses on
a) the ‘Quantified Self’ movement
b) the general marketing of self-monitoring software,
c) specific discourses of ‘self-care’ in the health and self-help sectors.
2. a review of the extent to which, in relation to the above areas and more generally , the possible contradiction between the general ‘liberty’ of connectivity and the undermining of liberty through surveillance is being identified, debated, and questioned in public debate
3. a review of the available philosophical resources for thinking about the problems to which continuous surveillance for apparent economic and other benefit gives rise
4. from this research will be produced materials that will feed into journal articles, and Prof Couldry’s contribution to a proposed new book jointly authored with Dr Ulises Mejias of SUNY Oswego on related topics.
Principal Investigator: Professor Nick Couldry, LSE
Research assistant: Jun Yu, LSE.
in collaboration with University of Chicago and University of Bochum, as leaders of the enhancing Life programme.
University of Chicago/ the John Templeton Foundation’s Enhancing Life programme.