Skip to content

Why Now? Or One Way to Understand the Importance of Configuring the Networked Self

Julie Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self is different and signals that the next era of tech policy is upon us. The explosion of books about the Internet tracks the explosion of, well, the Internet. Could there be a bubble here too? Are most books simply restating and rehashing arguments from years ago? Probably. Cohen’s book, however, points the way to the next questions about not just the Internet, but how we structure the next twenty to forty years of society. She asks that we look at the state of not just networked technology, but the economy, law, and society that has emerged, how we justify it, and what it should look like going forward. Recent work by Barton Beebe, Maggie Chon, Brett Frischmann, Frank Pasquale, Daniel Solove, and Madhavi Sunder, makes me confident that the new era is here and work in it is growing. Rather than staying with the silos of the past fifteen years, this new inquiry looks to how the system works and probes whether society is reaping the benefits at large. Works like Code, The Future of the Internet, and The Wealth of Networks make important contributions to understanding and justifying certain visions of the Internet/Tech society. I believe, however, that the moment for those explorations is waning. Of course the debates regarding IP protection, open Internet, etc. will continue and there are important near-term battles there. The most pressing area for scholarship and society at large is what comes next?

Talk of innovation and what that means is rather staid and redundant. Leave X the way it is or all will cease. No. Stop X or a once shining industry will die (and you won’t get the things you thought you loved). Back and forth the players go. A closer look shows that they are fighting about their piece of the rapid growth pie. No one seems to look at exactly what innovation is at stake (is it breakthrough or tinkering and applying with a major one?), where capital is heading (is it rushing after the heady returns of early stage industries or fueling production and strong, reasonable rates of return), and how the innovation spreads wealth across society (are the benefits starting to reshape so many industries that a second wave of returns and improvements revitalizes older industries such that the middle class grows?). No one, except, Carlotta Perez and her contemporaries. They investigate the Schumpeter model but go further. Perez makes the strong case that after a technology reaches a peak, there is a crash (or two), and then the real action begins. Society must look to regulation and other mechanisms so that the true golden age arrives, one where the tech wealth spreads and production capital is the order of the day. Note that while that happens the next big tech breakthrough is likely lurking in a lab somewhere and waiting to pop out and shift the world once more.

Cohen’s book comes at the peak of the tech revolution roughly started in 1971 with the birth of the microprocessor, and is a vital resource for the turning point at which we are. I suggest that Cohen and the new wave of tech scholars looking to Sen and Nussbaum for a capabilities approach to tech policy and/or questioning a purely market-based analysis of the issues, may be understood as demanding that we get our house in order. When Cohen calls out that privacy and copyright suffer from similar conceptual problems and argues for a new way to see how individuals’ capabilities can be enhanced, she offers a claim about how to turn the tech revolution from benefiting a small, centralized few to improving the lot of the many. Perez admits that each tech cycle has somewhat specific logics and solutions. Cohen’s situated user, her critique of the specific financial system and call for sustainable development, and acknowledgment of the messy nature of culture track Perez’s insights. In each previous revolution, the turning point arrived and society constructed the way forward that accounted for the specifics of the technology as a broad matter for individuals, addressed failures in capital and labor markets, and was subject to certain cultural and political realities of the time. Configuring the Networked Self is a serious volley against remaining stuck in the recent past. In it, Cohen demands that we look to hard questions and honest insights about the system at large. She is not complacent about the future either. Instead, she makes a case for how we can and should proceed. Like all good scholarship, the book offers ideas to be tested and new questions to pursue. So read the book and let’s get to work.

These are my views. Not Google’s. In other words, attribution to my employer is foolish.

cross-posted from Concurring Opinions