Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 40 (2015) 589–596
©2015 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation

Guest Editorial

Digital Technologies and Social Transformations: What Role for Critical Theory?

Delia Dumitrica
Erasmus University

Sally Wyatt
Maastricht University

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Every day, the digital technologies that some of us have come to rely upon to stay in touch with friends and family, entertain ourselves, or perform our work exercise countless, oftentimes invisible, forms of control upon us. Such technologies often appear to us as not only inevitable, but intrinsically beneficial in both big and small ways. In recent years, we have heard claims of the “Maple Spring,” Twitter and Facebook revolutions; and a visiting colleague confessed, “Without my smartphone’s GPS function, I would never dare leave my hotel room.” This understanding of technology as significantly enhancing our ability to act in the world occupies, to a great extent, our social imaginary of computers, smartphones, and digital networks. Echoing the early hacking ethos (Levy, 1994), such social imaginaries paint digital technologies as democratic tools, with their potential to empower ordinary people as paramount. The feeling that all of the information in the world is at our fingertips, freely and universally available, is, as many of us know from our experiences of teaching, reproduced on a daily basis by countless undergraduates.

Constellations of technical, economic, political, organizational, and cultural factors force and seduce people into thinking about technology as an unstoppable force. As we write this guest editorial, our browser has automatically updated itself, changing the user-configured default homepage to Norton’s safe search page. We could not prevent the change, for reasons that range from lack of adequate technical knowledge, to fear of unwittingly diminishing the software’s ability to recognize and resist security breaches, to anxiety about antagonizing the ICT support staff in our institutions. “Code is law,” Lawrence Lessig (2006) once famously declared. Indeed, forms of control have become embedded within digital technologies, partly hidden from user experience, partly rendered inevitable by the increased de-skilling brought about by the user-friendly paradigm. Furthermore, the seduction of digital technologies is primarily a process of social imagination. And imagination is fed by promises made by some social actors advocating technological solutions as easy fixes to the problems of everything from bureaucracy to health care, education, and ultimately democracy. This is a kind of technological determinism, the kind which is used often by powerful actors to justify particular socio-technical choices and courses of action (Wyatt, 2008).

This special issue stemmed from our shared conviction that it is specifically this constellation of factors shaping digital technologies and their social consequences that requires scholarly attention. In addressing this relationship between technology and social transformation, our agenda has been shaped by an interest in the question of power: how can we examine this relationship in a way that helps us to address its increasingly invisible dimension, i.e., the conditions of inequality embedded within technologies and their social use?

Rooted in the Marxist tradition, critical theory appeared to us as the right toolbox for addressing power. As initially described by Max Horkheimer, critical theory focuses on the “conditions of life,” questioning its own role in the social order. Distrustful of the “rules of conduct with which society as presently constituted provides each of its members” and refusing to take for granted the “very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as these are understood in the present order” (Horkheimer, 2002, p. 207), critical theory represents an epistemological departure point for engaging with social reality in order to bring forth its underlying power dynamics. Although calls for recuperating the role of critical theory in understanding digital technologies are not new (e.g., Berry, 2014; Feenberg, 1991, 1999; Fuchs, 2009a, 2009b, 2014), this special issue seeks to move outside a Marxist understanding of power as merely (economic) domination and exploitation (see, for instance, Fuchs, 2014, pp. 13–14). In a Foucauldian vein, we understand power here as the scaffolding of social life: part and parcel of social relations, power represents the capacity to act upon and modify the actions of free subjects. Domination and oppression are of course aspects of this capacity, but power cannot be reduced to them. In modernity, Foucault (1977, 1982, 1986, 1988) suggests, these forms of power depend on becoming internalized by free subjects. Power runs through the “capillaries” of the social system—that is, through the everyday social relations and practices we engage in. It is part of the very process of turning ourselves into subjects and inserting ourselves into the social order as good (i.e., docile) citizens. Contemporary power informs and is sustained by practices of living one’s life that are top-down (i.e., developed by state institutions) and internalized by citizens (who may or may not follow them, but take these practices of good living as the “norm”). The ability of states and corporations to process so much information about people and their practices provides them with the potential for control, surveillance, and exploitation (see Jordan, 2015).

When it comes to digital technologies and social transformations, an expanded understanding of power can only enhance social research. What forces push us to conceive of digital technologies as markers of progress and, thus, of their use as markers of good citizenship? Whose agendas are ultimately advanced through the increased integration of digital technologies in all aspects of our everyday life, and which social actors emerge as the legitimate decision-makers in this context? How are we as users internalizing social imaginaries of the empowering role of digital technologies into our subject positions and daily actions?

This special issue brings together contributions that can help us to address these questions and to conceptualize further those theoretical positions that allow us to bring to light the intricacies of power relations and their often contradictory consequences. As already mentioned, digital technologies bring both improvement and limitations to our lives, yet it is important to be able to acknowledge and retain this improvement without failing to question not only the form of these limitations but, most importantly, the social arrangements that they reproduce. It is also important to remember that no single academic discipline has a monopoly on either methods or theory when it comes to conceptualizing contemporary socio-technical arrangements. Critical theory has affected most of the academy. Of course, communication, cultural, and media studies inform the contributions that follow, but there is also significant input from geography, urban studies, and political economy. We are also very pleased that contributions from scholars based in Canadian universities are supplemented by those from scholars based elsewhere in the world, including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In the original call for papers, we invited contributions that reflected on the role of power, in all its aspects, in understanding digital technologies and social transformations. We explicitly welcomed a diverse approach to critical theory, including the traditional Marxist framework developed by the Frankfurt School, as well as subsequent revisions stemming from post-structuralism, postmodernism, feminism, queer theory, post-colonialism, and indigenous epistemologies. We were also particularly interested in approaches that draw upon Canadian traditions, such as those inspired by the work of, among others, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Vincent Mosco, and Dallas Smythe.

Authors were invited to submit papers exploring the problematic sketched above with reference to diverse themes and cases, including but not limited to studies of the following:

A single journal issue cannot cover all possible objects of analysis or all theoretical approaches, but the rich collection of articles gathered here provides critical insight into a range of contemporary cultural practices that are, in and of themselves, very interesting. These include big data, a public art installation, smart electricity meters, and uses of social media by indigenous peoples. The articles also draw upon and contribute to the development of critical theory in multiple ways. They engage with the theoretical proposals of the Frankfurt School, Foucauldian theories of governmentality, new forms of capitalist exploitation of labour, and the ways in which technologies both constrain and empower individuals and collectivities.

The special issue opens with an ambitious theoretical project synthesizing the Frankfurt School’s critique of the culture industries with the Foucauldian discussion of the production of the subject through neoliberal governmentality. Maxime Ouellet, Marc Ménard, Maude Bonenfant, and André Mondoux use this theoretical frame to explore a currently fashionable topic, namely “big data.” Whereas the culture industry was seen by Adorno and Horkheimer as producing a collective consciousness within which instrumental reason becomes taken for granted as an objective, rational, and universal form of thinking, the use of big data by both states and corporations makes instrumental thinking the foundation of both the management of the population and the management of the self. The authors propose that big data can be read as a form of social- and self-government. Yet big data is rhetorically constructed as merely an archive of the myriad actions performed by individual subjects. As such, the data collected and quantified appear as democratic and objective, as they allegedly mirror the dynamics of the civic body. Furthermore, on an individual level, this collection of data presents itself as an opportunity for individual reflexivity and, as such, as a technology of the self (Foucault, 1988). Ouellet and his co-authors suggest that this is, in fact, the ideological mechanism through which instrumental thinking becomes reimagined as the very means of individual agency. As the authors argue, the subject becomes reduced to her metadata: the human being counts only in terms of the numerical and quantifiable traces she leaves behind. As we are prompted to understand ourselves through the paradigm of quantification, we are also enrolled within a socio-economic system that rests upon the quantification of value (i.e., the instrumental reasoning at the heart of the capitalist market exchange system).

Anthony Levenda, Dillon Mahmoudi, and Gerald Sussman shift the discussion of digital transformations to the invisible, technologically enabled forms of surveillance that further the extraction of value from users’ daily practices and its transformation into capital by economic actors. The authors use the case of BC Hydro to analyze the integration of “smart meters” capable of relaying information about their users to electricity companies. Their theoretical scaffolding brings together three different conversations sharing an interest in the question of power: Feenberg’s argument that technology is value-laden, Marxist-inspired discussions of the free labour provided by Internet (and particularly social media) users, and Foucault’s sketch of neoliberal governmentality. By collecting detailed data about consumer practices, energy companies are able to monitor usage patterns and eventually tie them to differential pricing systems. Given that energy markets are tightly regulated, the use of “smart grids” that appear to capture objectively the minutiae of demand in real time may provide energy providers with the opportunity to advocate for the removal of state intervention. On the other hand, however, the authors argue that prices that are tailored to household consumption patterns will instill the “market logic and imperatives, a rational calculus for imagined self-government akin to making business decisions” into everyday life. In a Foucauldian vein, the individual user becomes responsible for self-disciplining her consumption practices and is pushed, once again, toward occupying the subject position of the “rational economic actor.” The user remains oblivious to how her own behaviour with a product that she had already paid for (energy consumption) becomes scrutinized and analyzed to extract more value from the user for the benefit of the energy company.

Bringing an urban geographical perspective, Luis Alvarez León articulates the usefulness of variegation as a theoretical lens for approaching digital economies. The model of variegated capitalism proposes that capitalism should not be conceptualized as a universal and homogenous system, but rather as different and localized arrangements shaped by different cultural and institutional practices. The digital economy, Alvarez-Leon contends, needs to be understood as an intertwining of technological and legal regimes that are, themselves, shaped by these pre-existing, locale-specific capitalist arrangements. This results in a digital economy that takes “different forms that are at once place and scale sensitive.” The theoretical sensitivity opened up by the notion of variegated capitalism translates into an attention to the local norms and contexts shaping the development of the Internet and of the digital economy; this is a much-needed challenge to the still prevailing technological determinism that posits the digital economy as the universal promise of a “better” economy.

Léonie Marin turns to the notion of resistance as a form of political engagement in her analysis of the use of online spaces by the Kanaks in New Caledonia. By crafting their own cultural spaces within existing social networking platforms, the Kanaks are producing their own public self-representations. Resisting not only former colonial structures, but also a top-down imposed process of cultural/national homogenization, the Kanaks use social media to voice their concerns. Importantly, this process does not necessarily result in an agenda that is collectively agreed upon; rather, the mere act of voicing their individual perspectives as Kanaks gives the group visibility. Yet such forms of political engagement remain limited in their political consequences. Marin seems rather skeptical whether such online actions can, on their own, produce meaningful collective change for the Kanaks. Instead she suggests that, to some extent, these actions further individualize processes that may not easily coalesce into collective action. Such online spaces may not be able to hold top-down forms of state power accountable, or affect their decision-making power, for that matter. Yet they do allow for the expression of identity projects that differ from those professed by official nationalisms, and, in so doing, they necessarily challenge official discourses and structures.

Claude Fortin and Kate Hennessy examine how the general public appropriated Mégaphone, an interactive art installation located in downtown Montréal. The installation followed the Maple Spring in 2012, when many thousands of young people took to the streets. Against that background of political awakening and protest, the installation was designed as a digitally augmented agora, with many input and output devices to reflect the moods of individual speakers and the crowd. Rather than focusing on the plans and intentions of the designers, the urban authorities, and other powerful actors, Fortin and Hennessy observed how the general public appropriated this technological artifact and the public space in which it was deployed. They draw upon the framework provided by Mosco’s political economy of communication to examine how several different groups coalesced around the issue of police misconduct and brutality. They illustrate how these groups creatively made use of Mégaphone in conjunction with online media to self-report, self-represent, and self-publish alternative and oppositional views around incidents of police abuse of power. In doing so, the authors explore how, taken together, Mosco’s concepts of structuration, spatialization, and commodification offer critical perspectives on interactive urban technologies. Fortin and Hennessy argue that cultural appropriation can be understood as an oppositional process that has the potential to reverse the commodification of both art and public space.

Candis Callison and Alfred Hermida empirically investigate the Twitter activity associated with the Idle No More movement in Canada. They question whether online discussion spaces provide openings for the unsettling of the existing hierarchies of actors able to influence public opinion. While it is clear that citizens can become engaged in the debate of public matters through Twitter, the question of how to interpret this engagement and its effects remains open for further theoretical conceptualization and empirical work. Callison and Hermida’s findings suggest that the Idle No More Twitter conversation was dominated by both elite actors (i.e., journalists and media institutions, political elites, and celebrities from the entertainment industry) and regular citizens or unaffiliated activists. Perhaps surprisingly given the focus of this movement, fewer indigenous voices appeared to be influential on Twitter. The few influential indigenous voices present included celebrities as well as alternative and marginal voices. This draws attention to online social alliances and the role that power, understood here as primarily cultural capital, plays in the creation and reproduction of these alliances. But how can these observations be interpreted? Are these observations evidence of the unsettling of traditional hierarchies, enabled by the opportunity to become engaged in the public debates and to become influential? Or are these dynamics in fact part and parcel of the continuous transformation of elites, with digital technologies merely another social space where such transformations take place?

The special issue concludes with two shorter commentaries. Graham Murdock and Lee McGuigan make a plea for a return to a more Marxist interpretation of digital economies. Turning around McLuhan´s famous formulation, they propose that the medium is now the marketplace. Rather than concentrating on the “newness” discourses surrounding contemporary forms of social and economic intercourse animated by digital media, the authors argue that more attention needs to be paid to the ways digital consumption is intensifying the progressive integration of marketing, marketplaces, and forms of payment. This integration was central to the generation of surplus value as the modern consumer system emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it remains so today.

Éric George and Oumar Kane conclude this special issue by reminding researchers to consider the materiality of digital technologies. They propose that critical political economy models (such as those presented in the work of Vincent Mosco) focus on the macro dynamics of power expressed through ownership structures and policy initiatives, whereas sociological and cultural studies approaches to new media examine micro forms of resistance to capitalist exchanges through the creative re-appropriation of technology by users. Their commentary calls for moving beyond the false dichotomy of digital technologies as mechanisms of either control or emancipation. In empirical research, this would require approaching digital technologies in terms of their position within the capitalist economic cycle, their appropriation by users, and the materiality of technology.

Before closing, we would like to provide some of the background to this special issue. It grew out of our involvement on the program committee of the World Social Science Forum, held in Montréal in October 2013, on the theme of “Social Transformations and the Digital Age” (ISSC, 2013). We were intrigued to see that many participants did pick up on questions of power, control, and the design of digital technologies. We felt that perhaps the time was right to bring together a collection of articles addressing digital technologies from a critical theory perspective broadly defined. Given the location of the conference, our personal and professional relationships to Canada (both editors have studied and worked in Canadian higher education), and the very important contributions of Canadian scholars to critical perspectives on information and communication, we were keen to pursue this project in a Canadian context. We are very grateful to Michael Dorland, editor, and Sherry Wasilow, associate editor of the Canadian Journal of Communication, for their support in preparing this special issue. The call for papers was distributed at and immediately after the World Social Science Forum. We were overwhelmed with the 88 abstracts received, though this response confirmed our view that the time was right to do this. We are grateful to everyone who took part in the process, especially the many reviewers who provided generous and detailed comments on the papers that were submitted, but who must remain anonymous.


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