Network Architecture, Social Media, and Social Justice: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Since the election, I’ve seen a lot of writing about the ways in which social media can help explain our contemporary political divide, from the rise of fake news on Facebook to the belated ban of racists on Twitter (sorry, I don’t use the politically correct term “alt-right”, and, by the way, how ironic is it to be PC about that group, of all people) to the existence of news bubbles (as foretold by Eli Parisier). I worry, though, that too much of this conversation focuses on policy fixes, and not enough looks at the deeper issues: how these systems and networks are designed from the ground up. We seem to be talking about how to fix Facebook, but not about whether Facebook is ultimately able to be fixed.

Facebook is private property and its rules of discourse are governed by proprietary algorithms designed with revenue-maximization-not social benefit-in mind. Any social benefits-and there are many-are incidental. So even though it acts as a de facto town square, it’s really a town mall. And that makes the ground rules-and our ability to change them-different. The same is true of all other platforms, not just Facebook. What I want to explore is how particular architectures embed certain kinds of expectations about people and their needs, and the ways in which these structures facilitate certain activities and circumscribe others.  Ultimately, is there a way for us to consider society as we build out new platforms, particularly when it comes to social media, where people are both the producers of value and its consumers? Put another way, how is it possible that, after the rise of literary theory, we are not thinking more deeply about a system where private corporations control the ways in which language is produced, distributed, and consumed? Surely that is affecting its content-and its potential.

If Walter Benjamin were alive, I imagine he would talk about the ways in which the cyber flaneur is constrained. We live in intentional online communities. There is little juxtaposition or happenstance. We go online, typically, with a search in mind-and even though we use a “browser” to get there, we are motivated to get to our destination. Searching and browsing are fundamentally different. Alternatively, we are on Facebook, which is less directional. We are looking for stuff to see, but we are only doing this from known entities, not ones we happen to encounter, and this stuff to see is typically disconnected from our corporeal selves that eat, live, work, play, and travel through real spaces, through different neighborhoods whose inhabitants have different perspectives. Even our offline movements are increasingly point-to-point, designed with minimal travel times in mind, through the aid of navigation apps.

How you feel about this depends on what your goals are (and where you are in the system). The mid-20th century drive to build highways through American city centers made a certain kind of sense: it allowed for speedy transfer of surburbanites to their work in the urban core. As long as this was the goal, highways were the answer, and the governmental subsidies that embedded these policy choices made sense. But highways through cities, of course, also destroy urban neighborhoods, make mixed-use development more difficult, and create sprawl and its attendant social isolation. You can either read the Power Broker or have grown up in suburban Atlanta to understand that. So if your goal is vibrant city life, highways-and subsidies-don’t make sense. I fear that we are currently building highways and gated communities in cyberspace without thinking about their potential side effects. We are only concerned with efficiency, not sustainability.

Consider even something as simple as commenting systems and moderation. Anonymity and/or pseudonymity might encourage some kinds of discourse (whistleblowing), but it can also lead to bullying. Comment moderation can embed certain social norms (veto power, group voting) that will have impacts on the discussion taking place. Now think about much bigger impacts that come from, say, the network design and user interface of music streaming, or news aggregators. How are these networks serving long-term interests? How might seemingly innocuous one-off decisions about remuneration affect the long-term economic viability of art and journalism? Could we design a creator-focused network that would allow producers to earn more of the revenue from the audience they generate-and how could we do that (if at all) to ensure that we continue to allow for discovery of new voices? The internet was supposed to be revolutionary. Don’t we want to ask more of it than clickbait headlines and unlimited access to golden oldies on Spotify?

Beyond just the social aspect, there are very real material concerns about how architecture (and access) to other kinds of networks can affect people’s ability to earn a living. This past weekend I had a conversation with my Uber driver (one of the very few chance encounters I had-where I ordered a car but not a particular driver). I was talking to him about some of the research a colleague at the University of Denver, Nancy Leong, has done on racial bias in the peer-to-peer economy. My driver talked about the lack of control he has as a driver in terms of who he picks up. If he doesn’t pick someone up, he said, the algorithm might drop him. This is particularly troubling because his rides often take him far from where he lives, and so he might have to spend hours driving home, for free, if he doesn’t get work. The algorithm is proprietary and opaque, and he has no form of redress except to exit the market. The virtue or vice of privately-owned networks isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. I use ride-sharing services, and people make money driving for them. But this seems like an awful lot of power is being divested to and concentrated in a network governed by private interests.

There are more fundamental social issues as well. Some of the arguments in favor of virtual reality, for example, are based on the idea that VR will make empathy easier: that we can see what it is like to live as a racial or ethnic minority, that we can feel the struggle on the ground in Syria, that we can overcome our PTSD by repeated exposure and desensitization to traumatic events. But these discussions are marginal to those actually building VR and the systems that will program it. If his political participation is any indication, Palmer Luckey didn’t design his VR headset to promote greater social understanding. VR can, of course, be used to understand diversity, but it can also be used to eliminate it. I can whitewash all the people around me-or remove them entirely. I can use it to withdraw from society. It’s certainly not a given that VR’s potential as a tool to better engage with and understand others will be realized. Some of the ease with which it can be put to these uses will be determined by design decisions made today. I’m a believer in the potential VR has to make us better human beings, but if it is designed to maximize revenue from existing markets like porn and first-person shooters, these design decisions will make other adaptive uses more difficult.

I don’t think this is just a technical problem. It’s too important to leave to the people building the systems. I also know that there are a number of smart people already working on it. I saw a proposal for Facebook that would take an inventory of each user and say “David, you know a lot of X group (racial, geographical, political), but you don’t know many folks from (Arkansas, Southern Baptism, atheists, Central Asians).  Here are some suggestions for new friends.”  Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility has a book, Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution, that I have ordered; it’s based on the classic book by Christopher Alexander (et al), A Pattern Language, which was concerned with built spaces. These are good starts, but they are late ones. Designing is easier than remodeling. Setting social expectations is easier than resetting them. We need to engage with these concerns as things are being rolled out, not just after they have gained traction.

There are those I’ve spoken with who say that you can’t engineer people, that the market rules, that you have to give people what they want or they will go elsewhere. But I don’t know that I agree. Lines in a parking lot surely constrain my freedom to park wherever I want. If I don’t, I face social sanctions. But I don’t feel less free in a parking lot. These social norms promote both fairness and efficiency, even though they might be somewhat paternalistic.

In the end, I don’t have a lot of answers, just questions. But I do think there’s no such thing as neutral choices, only choices that, at best, ignore the values that are promoted or inhibited by them. I believe that technical design decisions have impacts on the world, and, as such, that they should be thrown open to folks from all walks of life (and all other disciplines, particularly the humanities). I would welcome your thoughts about this subject, and I am particularly interested to learn about those who have surely already written about this subject (or analogous subjects) so that I can educate myself.

Author: W. David Ball

W. David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.

4 thoughts on “Network Architecture, Social Media, and Social Justice: Some Preliminary Thoughts”

  1. A lot here. I have thought about how to do this in the real world, in terms of my background in education, in which SES segregation is such a huge barrier to student success. And this is a direct result of people wanting to live in nice neighborhoods: often specifically so that their kids can attend school with other kids who are well taken care of and face less barriers in their home lives. But also simply to enjoy the aesthetics of an expensive neighborhood. Societal capital is thus segregated, compounded, withheld, exploited by the elites. The drawbridge is pulled up.

    Blunt social engineering can try to break this down: mandate low-income housing. But can that really work? I would like to see forced socio-economic integration of public schools. Tax-credits could be extended to upper income families who live in poor areas. I know this sounds like promotion of gentrification. But if it is weighted to demographics the incentive would disappear before gentrification occurs. Just an idea.

    But do we need to live together to have class and cultural consciousness? Obviously, it helps. Cosmopolitanism clearly forces people to embrace multiculturalism. Yet you can live in a ritzy neighborhood and favor the flat tax or favor a 95% marginal rate. Larger political movements and ideologies aren't necessarily determined by location.

    So I wonder too, then, how much so they will be by virtual-location. I actually see far more online from people with different cultural mores and values than I do in real life, even though my work literally takes me into the homes of a broad cross-section of society. Online people express things they wouldn't say in polite company. Maybe part of the problem is the humanizing filter, of looking into real eyes.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, and my apologies for the belated reply. In retrospect, not such a great idea to post this before the busiest travel day of the year!

      I completely agree with your last point-I think (de)humanization explains a lot of the degradation of discourse. It's always been possible, but this is one of the things that technology has made much easier. The irony is, of course, that it cuts both ways. You can dehumanize if that's what you want to do, but it also allows you to learn more from another's perspective if that's what you want to do. You can get the direct thoughts of another via blog in ways you couldn't dream of before. And you're also right that these interactions are also easier, in many ways, than those in the physical world because our lack of attention to sound urban planning (at least in the United States) has resulted in suburban, spread-out, semi-intentional communities.

      Anyway, lots to chew on here. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

  2. You don't need government to have lines in a parking lot (unless the government owns the parking lot). All you need is to respect property rights. The parking lot owner will implement efficient and fair rules or else people will not park there.

    1. Hi aajax-

      I didn't say you needed government to have lines in a parking lot. I said that there are base rules that anyone can set up in any kind of environment that make things better, even though they cut into the libertarian fantasy that rules are largely unnecessary. I also think the all or nothing, enter or exit analysis ("he will do this or people will not park there") is insanely inefficient for land use. I, for one, would rather get the first parking lot right than have another in close proximity (because, you realize, that parking lots have to be near the places people want to enter, and thus aren't fungible without limit).

      the point remains that a bit of social engineering-how about waiting in lines, if you prefer that analogy, rather than bum rushing-leads to better outcomes, though they might not be on people's radar from the beginning.

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