Digital use, rights, governance, and power

Ioanna Noula and Jonny Shipp – University of Leeds – Digital governance and our common digital future: a “digital sustainability” agenda

The extensive use and deployment of AI in all aspects of everyday life has established the seamlessness of online and offline life. The digital ecosystem has become integral to and constitutive of human environments and now vital for humans as informational organisms (“inforgs”) (Floridi, 1999) . The culturally disruptive character of ICTs as an industrial revolution and a revolution for human self-understanding has heralded new civilisational dilemmas (Floridi, 2014) . These stem primarily from the speedy development of AI and the unpredictability of its effects which appear to be threatening the uniqueness of humans as autonomous beings. The external environment of human civilisation is nowadays as much digital and virtual as it is physical and natural.

In this context, reasserting the uniqueness of human life and safeguarding the achievements of human civilisation depends on the way digital environments will be re-organised and the way priorities for digital governance will be established. This presentation will focus on the significance of digital governance for sustainable digital living and the welfare of human societies. Drawing on the outcome of multistakeholder seminars on digital life and the expert arguments put forward, in this presentation we will discuss the crucial role of a better understanding of the technical, management and governance processes that shape the digital ecosystem. Transparency reporting, it is argued, can help shape healthier digital environments that operate in the interests of the public and the common good. Our presentation is framed by the concept of sustainability as proposed in the Brundtland Commission’s report (“[h]umanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) and, thus, we argue that if unchecked, the new human challenges that arise from digitalisation could undermine the potential benefits for future generations.

Thorsten Bronholt – University of the West of Scotland – Governed by algorithms: Theories of digitised power to shape subjects and societies

When social media sites such as Facebook are viewed as virtual polities (MacKinnon, 2012), the codes that form the options, set the limitations, and steer the experience of the user, can be viewed as laws (Lessig, 2006). It follows that the company managers who define these user policies and their parameters can be viewed as ‘governments’ – sovereigns of the aforementioned polities. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear just how much the precepts and codes – what I term ‘cyber policies’ – of these virtual polities spill over and affect the offline political and social world. This has fuelled criticism of some practices and their effects, not to mention increased political, public, and academic awareness, which in turn has led to various public and policy responses by especially Facebook. In my current research I investigate these cyber policies to unearth the governmentality (Foucault, 1984, p. 338) of said virtual polities.

Power, and the concept of the state are essentially contested concepts (Gallie, 1955; Anderson, 2006; Lukes, 2005, p. 30); the nation state in particular (Willoughby, 1896, p. 8ff.). In this paper, I will first outline some of the most commonly used conceptions of state and power. I will then apply them to the digital realm, and explore which conceptions support an analysis of digital power to shape individuals and societies. I will argue that a Foucauldian notion of power is well suited for understanding the complex power relations implicit in the automated governance of digitised subjects. Finally, I will propose a framework for a Foucauldian analysis of the power exercised by digital entities such as Facebook.

Rebekah Larsen  – University of Cambridge – Networked discussions about the network: Public(s) discussions around the right to be forgotten

One of the most pervasive paradigms today in the social sciences, when it comes to conceptualizing the social, is that of the network. The Internet, the brain, the ‘ego-centric’ friend group…everything is seen via networks. This paradigm, as with any has certain politics. For example, the discourse around networks is often one that smacks of neoliberal techno-utopianism: networks are democratizing; networks can collapse space and time to allow us more connection (free flows); networks are inherently ‘social’, both structured and structuring; ‘networking’ is requisite for that next grant or job, etc. Though there has been an uptick in critical sociological work that disrupts such discourse, there is still an urgent need for empirical research into the plural realities of a networked society—particularly from those viewpoints that are historically and structurally underrepresented.

In this paper I will pull from my current PhD research to empirically ground an exploration of representation centered on that Network of Networks: the Internet. More specifically, I will focus on the ‘right to be forgotten’ (RTBF), a controversial data protection concept that was codified in Europe in 2014. Discussion around the RTBF concerns notions of personhood and personal data, the public/private divide in a ‘networked society’, the responsibilities of various institutions when it comes to data privacy…all mixed in with human rights discourse and geopolitics. It is a topic ripe for exploring which voices are visible—who is represented in this debate—given the many interested parties. Using mixed methods (interviews, text analysis, and hyperlink network analysis), I examine in particular the impacts of gender and region on conceptualizing, framing and visibility in the RTBF discussion between 2014 and 2016. I also focus on the concept of visibility (e.g., network centrality) as a key aspect of representation and participation in the networked society.

Sue Beckingham – Sheffield Hallam University – From Lurkers to Extroverts: A spectrum of approaches and social practices within social networking spaces

In the context of higher education educators and researchers, social media has provided many with a conduit to disseminate both practice and research; a place for informal and formal learning; and a forum to develop rich networks with whom dialogue and debate can take place. The affordances of social media allow for active and passive use enabling both content contributors and content consumers. However not all users are vocal and those silently participating have been disparagingly referred to as lurkers (Nonnecke and Preece 1999) and the unengaged as laggards (Rogers 1995). Whilst there is some consensus that this terminology is neither helpful nor endearing, it continues to be used by many (Honeychurch et al .,2018). This research seeks to identify the spectrum of online engagement and social practice to gain a better understanding of what value these different approaches bring to individuals along with the potential impact on personal motivation, confidence and future interaction. It is hoped this study will provide a broader definition of legitimate participation within social media spaces and a useful typology of social media users within higher education.