On Doing Words With Things: Citizens, Claims and Digital Acts

By Evelyn Ruppert

In this special series for The Sociological Review website, innovative sociologists reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline today. In the third essay, Evelyn Ruppert, Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths College, considers the questions which the internet poses for political subjectivity and the challenge this raises for Digital Sociology.

Who is the political subject of the Internet? When so much of social life is being conducted through the Internet this question calls for analyses of how power relations are ever more entwined with digital life. If digital sociology is to avoid becoming a narrow specialism concerned with questions of technique, method and the dissemination of research, then attending to fundamental sociological questions such as power relations and political subjectivity are critical.

There are of course many studies of how the Internet is remaking sociality, social networks, identities, subjectivities, or human-technology interactions. In various ways they attend to how the Internet is altering relations not only between people but also between people and vast arrangements of sociotechnical conventions that have become part of everyday language, such as tweeting, messaging, friending, emailing, blogging, sharing, and so on. What are the consequences of these conventions for political life and how power is exercised? Two responses to this question proved problematic over the last twenty years: those that celebrate the libertarian and those that lament the obedientqualities of acting through the Internet.

In the early 1990s during the advent of what was then also referred to as cyberspace, the Internet was conceived of as an independent space where ‘digital citizens’ were inventing new ways of conducting themselves politically and that this marked the birth of a new political subjectivity. Jon Katz, for example, thought that although digital citizens were libertarian, they were neither alienated nor isolated but instead constituted a political movement with a common cause mobilized by values of sharing, prosperity, exchange, knowledge, and openness. In another well known declaration written by the cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Parry Barlow imagined a new world that everyone could enter without distinction. Addressed against governments, the declaration states that ‘your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here’. Early and notable books that contributed to such euphoria such as Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screenand Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital were by and large celebrations of the digital lives of sovereign subjects doing things through the Internet.

Such optimism has not been borne out by much of our subsequent experience of acting through the Internet. Now, instead of euphoric declarations we are inundated with determinist analyses that imagine people who act through the Internet as passive subjects. Notably, Sherry Turkle has stepped backfrom celebrating to conclude that the Internet is isolating people from more meaningful and ‘real’ face-to-face human interactions such that ‘digitally native’ people—especially young people—are now ‘alone together.’ Numerous other popular critiques such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Evgeny Morozov’s Net Delusion also critique digital lives.

Yet others have argued against these assessments, especially claims that technologies are rewiring subjects’ brains or those that sound a moral panic about teens’ obsessive engagement with devices. The problem is that popular critics have become too concerned about the Internet creating obedient subjects to power rather than understanding that it is also creating submissive subjects of power who are potentially and demonstrably capable of subversion. I believe that addressing the question I posed at the beginning requires revisiting the question of the (political) subject.

By reading Michel Foucault, Etienne Balibar conceived of the citizen as not merely a subject to power or subject of power but as embodying both. Balibar argued that being a subject to power involves domination by and obedience to a sovereign whereas being a subject of power involves being an agent of power even if this requires participating in one’s own submission. However, it is this participation that opens up the possibility of subversion and this is what distinguishes the citizen from the subject: she is a composite subject of obedience, submission, and subversion where all three are always-present dynamic potentialities.

Such a conception moves us away from how we are being ‘liberated’ or ‘controlled’ to the complexities of ‘acting’ through the Internet where much of what makes it up is seemingly beyond the knowledge and consent of citizen subjects. To be sure, one cannot act in isolation but only in relation to the mediations, regulations and monitoring of the platforms, devices, and algorithms or more generally the conventions that format, organize and order what we do, how we relate, act, interact, and transact through the Internet. But it is here between and among these distributed relations that we can identify a space of possibility—a cyberspace perhaps—that is being brought into being by the acts of myriad subjects.

This opens up an understanding of subjectivation against that of interpellation, which assumes that subjects are always and already formed and inhabited by external forces. Like other social spaces that sociologists study, cyberspace is not designed and arranged and then experienced by passive subjects. Like the physical spaces of cities that geographers have long studied, it is a space that is bought into being by citizen subjects who act in ways that submit to but also at the same time go beyond and transgress the conventions of the Internet. In doing so they are not simply obedient and submissive but also subversive and participate in the making of and rights claims to cyberspace through their digital acts.

Words are of course one way that citizen subjects make claims to rights such as speech, access, and privacy. As Austin famously argued, language is a means of social action: people do things with words. But they also make claims through their deeds, by doing words with the things that make up the Internet. From downloading, uploading, forwarding, and blocking to encrypting and cloaking their actions, digital citizens make claims to rights such as to access, share or make private what they do through the Internet. While much attention is reserved for whistleblowers and hactivists as the vanguards of Internet rights, there are many more anonymous political subjects of the Internet who are not only making rights claims by saying things but also by doing things through the Internet.

This affords an opportunity to understand how the everyday social life of communicating, interacting and networking are part of struggles and contestations over the emergence of a new political subjectivity. So when we study conventions such as microblogging we can ask: how do such platforms both configure everyday social actions and at the same time create possibilities for digital citizens to act? What are the possibilities of thinking, speaking, and acting differently, of challenging and resignifying conventions of the Internet and thereby enacting digital rights through what we do and not only say?

Attending to these and other fundamental sociological questions is one way that digital sociology can be distinctive and critical in the face of computational social science approaches. Theoretically informed sociological analyses of digital life can challenge the often implicit assumptions of those approaches which reinscribe divisions between humans and technologies, online and offline lives, agency and structure, and freedom and control. While these may be old dichotomies for some, they continue to have force and need to be challenged.

Evelyn Ruppert is Professor and Director of Research in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Evelyn is a Data Sociologist with interests in the sociology of governance specifically in relation to how different kinds of data are constituted and mobilised to enact and manage populations. She has undertaken research on how different socio-technical methods and forms of data (censuses, administrative databases, surveys, transactions) organise and make possible particular ways of constituting and governing populations and how digital devices and data are reassembling social science methods. She is currently PI of an ERC funded Consolidator Grant project, Peopling Europe: How data make a people (ARITHMUS; 2014-19) and a recently completed ESRC funded project, Socialising Big Data (2013-14). She is Founding and Editor-in-chief of a SAGE open access journal,Big Data & Society. Her book, Being Digital Citizens (with Engin Isin) was published in April 2015.

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