February 13, 2003
Interview: Darin Barney

Dr. Darin Barney is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Ottawa and the author of Prometheus Wired: The Hope for Democracy in the Age of Network Technology, a look at some of the philosophical and political problems with the hyper-optimism surrounding digital communications technologies.

Dr. Barney recently lectured at Mount Allison as a part of the Democratic Audit series, which is coming out in book form one of these days. Of the lectures in the series that I attended, Barney was the only speaker to explicitly and rigourously question the influence of corporate interests on democratic processes (something that, one would think, would be necessarily central to any "democratic audit" taking place in the last 200 years). Specifically, Barney elaborated on the corporate stranglehold of development of communications infrastructure policy and regulation in Canada.

Dr. Barney answered my questions via email. What follows is an unedited transcript; an edited version with an extended introduction is forthcoming.

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What kinds of research projects have you been working on recently?

I am currently completing my contribution to Canada Today: A Democratic Audit, a comprehensive examination of the current state of Canadian democracy organized by the Centre For Canadian Studies at Mount Allison. My contribution is a volume that takes a critical look at the relationship between new information and communication technologies and democracy in Canada. I am also wrapping up a cycle of papers on the moral and political dimensions of network-mediated community. Once this is done, I am moving on to a very large project that will investigate the articulation of technology, education and citizenship in contemporary practice and discourse. My interest here, drawing heavily on contemporary work in the philosophy of technology and citizenship theory, is to consider whether the current restructuring of education around the imperatives of digital technology is being carried out in a manner that meets the demands of cultivating citizenship in a technological society.

In Prometheus Wired and elsewhere, you have taken various advocates of a "this changes everything" network-utopian view to task. Do you think there been any productive discussion generated by your work or other work like it?

That book was written at time when the euphoria surrounding anything digital was at its peak. It, and others like it, tried to inject a bit of rational skepticism into the discourse surrounding this technology, and I think they contributed to a climate in which social scientists began to recognize the need to test rigorously the sweeping claims being made about the Internet. I don't think many of these books have had much of an impact upon public discussion. There are exceptions - Lawrence Lessig's work comes to mind - but the influence of academic writing is typically quite minimal. The public mood is more often shifted by concrete material changes. So, for example, I think the recent (though perhaps temporary) crash of the dot economy has done more to nurture a skeptical public discourse surrounding these technologies than has any text or set of arguments.

Has the crash had a similar effect (if any) on the way technology policy is formulated?

I don't think so, at least not in substantive terms. Some of the rhetorical excesses of early "information highway" policy have been moderetd somewhat. However, as Industry Canada's recently released "Innovation Strategy" shows, the government remains firmly committed to the rapid and extensive development of technological infrstructure and its various supports, and there is little evidence to suggest that the process leading to the articulation of this strategy was significantly more democratic than its predecessors.

What, in your opinion, is the aspect of IT design and use that deserves the most attention today? Is anything in particular being ignored?

It is tempting to say, along with people like Lessig, that the crucial IT issues revolve around whether public networks are going to be technically biased in favour of proprietary or non-proprietary structures of application and use. That is to say: whether the architecture of networks is based on principles of authentication and identification, or on anonymity and self-regulation; whether code is closed-source or open-source; whether the prevailing mode of exchange is commodity purchase or peer-to-peer swapping; whether surveillance or privacy will be the core principle of network mediation. The horse is already basically out of the barn here, as the commercial and state interests who have the power to decide these issues have unambiguously signaled and, to a considerable extent, institutionalized their preference for the first terms in each of these sets of binaries. That being said, these are all very serious issues.

Still, I think it is important to think not only in terms of how we design or use these technologies, but also in terms of how social practices are designed by, and how we are, in a sense, used by, these technologies. Technological mythology leads us to believe that technologies arise, as if by magic, to address pre-existing needs and to provide solutions to pre-existing problems. In reality, technologies tend to create more needs than they address, and to manufacture the very problems they stand ready to solve. I think of cellular telephony in this regard. Was the ability to engage in phone conversation while riding the bus really a pressing social need prior to the arrival of the cellular phone, or did our perception of that as a need arise after this technology became widely available? Was the fact that everybody wasn't always accessible, everywhere, via personal communication technology a problem before the mobile phone, or did constant accessibility become an expectation in light of the domestication of mobile phones and e-mail? Theorists of technology used to call this "reverse adaptation," and it is, I think, a social dynamic that is widespread in the age of proliferating digital technology.

What are some of the implications of the proliferation of this kind of technology development?

If you are talking about the phenomenon of reverse adaptation, then I think the implications are a general disempowerment relative to the artificats around and through which we enact our lives. In this scenario, our only option is to react and respond to technological changes that are presented to us as independent of our direction. At this point, technology--customarialy conceived of as a means of liberation from the constraints of nature--becomes itself a form of constraint, a source of unfreedom. There is nothing that says it has to be this way. It's just a matter of whether institutions and practices exist that provide for reasonable popular engagement in technological decisions before, rather than after, they are made.

You recently argued that Canada's long tradition of public consultation and participation in regulation of new communications technologies had been left behind in favour of corporate interests. If another set of interests had had more access to internet policy, how might the Canadian parts of the internet work differently?

I am not sure that a more inclusive and participatory policy process would have resulted in an internet that "works differently". On the other hand, I think it is certain that if the policy and regulatory processes surrounding the configuration of Canada's "information highway" had been more democratic, the priorities that emerged from theses processes might have been a bit different than those that currently dominate this field. Despite rhetorical concessions to issues of access and Canadian culture, it is pretty clear that policy regarding the Internet and related technologies has been primarily responsive to the private interests of the most powerful actors in the Canadian economy. Internet policy has been, first and foremost, industrial policy and, in the contemporary climate, that means that it has been driven by the demands of investment and commerce, privatization, technological innovation, profitability, and the liberation of markets from public regulation. History suggests that these are not the priorities that would have emerged from a more inclusive democratic policy process.

What are the alternative other priorities, and how might the use of the internet or distribution of access have been different if the process had been more democratic?

Priorities that differ from the overwhelming emphasis placed on the commercial exploitation of the potential of these technologies in official policy discourse. Priorities that enforce public service obligations upon the private interests who stand to profit most from the elaboration of digital infrastructure. Priorities which reflect a conception of public life as something more than just a market for the exchange of good and services. Priorities which place the interests of the commons ahead of commodification. Priorities which establish the responsibility of the powerful to minimize the negative impact of technolgical change upon those who are less powerful. Priorities which orient technological change to the generalized distribution of enhanced leisure rather than to generalized insecurity and anxiety.

You have said that a complex definition of access is needed when talking about the "digital divide"; what are the different kinds of access you're referring to?

In its crudest articulation, access has been conceived of in terms of simple access to an Internet connection at home. More recently - in move that complements the interests of powerful computer, telecommunications and entertainment firms very well, and that lends a democratic veneer to their self-interest in proliferating technology -- this definition has been expanded to include specifically broadband access. Quite quickly, progressive voices declared that this model of access was inadequate, and that access to technology was insufficient so long as people lacked the skills and resources to make something of that access.

This is compelling as far as it goes, but I don't think it goes far enough. I think the issue is whether people experience access to this technology as empowering or disempowering, as contributing to their autonomy or diminishing it. Even after we all have a broadband connection and we are all internet and computer literate, the real digital divide will remain: the divide between those for whom digital technology serves as an instrument of power (probably a small minority), and those for whom it serves as an instrument of powerlessness (probably a majority). Contemporary technological discourse traps us with the assumption that access, or even access with skill, necessarily constitutes empowerment and liberation. I think this is a dubious proposition given the history of modern technological systems, almost all of which have served to reinforce, rather than to democratize, existing distributions of political and economic power. Still, our public culture confirms this equation, and so we will continue to press for equal access to technology when what democracy really requires is equal access to political and economic power. Equal access to a technology of disempowerment, or a technology configured to disempower, can undermine democracy instead of contributing to it.

So the solution to the digital divide ends up being old-fashioned income redistribution or other forms of equalization? Or do curbing support for new technologies and making technology more empowering have a role?

That's the funny thing about the way in which radical neo-liberalism, the retraction of the welfare state, and the rise of these technologies are articulated -- it can make you nostalgic for the good old days of 'old-fashioned income redistribution,' and heavily-regulated telecommunications monopolies, and a well-funded state broadcaster, and university librairies where the public didn't need a userid and password to access the catalogue, and robust trade unions, and the forty-hour work week, etc. Of course, nostalgia is untenable as a foundation for a progressive politics. Actually, lately I have been thinking about how nostalgia is the technologization of memory, but that's another story altogher...

Prometheus Wired mostly focuses on the political and economic aspects of the internet that actually serve to undermine democracy--which its more enthusiastic advocates ignore. Under what conditions might we imagine the internet as a tool for democracy, and do you think such conditions are achievable?

I think democracy has a few basic conditions: a situation in which effective political power is actually distributed equally, as opposed to being conjoined to material wealth; a relatively equal distribution of the material resources that make citizenship possible for individuals, as opposed to gross material or economic inequalities; a well-developed culture of citizenship, as opposed to a culture of privatism; and a politicized public sphere, as opposed to a public sphere surrendered to commerce and consumption. Under these conditions, a technology like the internet could make a positive contribution to democratic communication. Absent these conditions--and I think Canadian society comes up short on each of these measures--the mainstream deployment of a technology like the internet is unlikely to make a dramatic contribution to substantive democratization. This is not to say that the medium cannot be used effectively by various actors struggling for democratic change - the Internet can be, and has been, used by many progressive activists to press their cases for democratic change. But we have to keep in mind that these are subversive uses of the medium. What allows us to identify them as subversive is the difference between them and the other-than-democratic mainstream elaborations that are more characteristic of this technology. Still, the conditions I set out above are certainly achievable, but not without a struggle - a struggle in which internet technology might serve the status quo as, or perhaps even more, effectively than it will serve the widespread adoption of a democratic alternative.