Thursday, May 3, 2007

Shepherding the politics of pervasive computing, Part I

The idea that ubicomp would first be picked up - mobilised - by people who value security and convenience has been argued by myself and other academics for years now, although Adam Greenfield has arguably done the best job articulating this in a systematic and accessible way for non-academics. In his article Policing the Convergence of Virtual and Material Worlds, Dion Dennis further fleshes this out when he identifies, following Foucault, an "economic pastorate" or shepherding function for pervasive computing:

"These devices produce continuous technological grist for the shepherd/police. But the shepherd is no longer a deity, a titular head of a church, a teacher or a priest. In a prototypical 'post-human' moment, the shepherd-function has routinely become the task of the mobile digital machinery ... [T]he result of active and formal corporate and governmental 'securitization' initiatives often restructure (and reduce) the creativity and scope of the public commons for purposes of capital extraction and, through an ersatz moral discourse, to tie such extraction to an expansion of political and social control ... As with the criminalization of drugs a generation earlier, economically incentivized political moralists assume the role of shepherds, busily 'selling' a redefinition of the boundaries between the tolerated and intolerable."

I find that last statement to be particularly intriguing because it explicitly ties shepherding to moralising, and I have a decided interest in challenging top-down morals with bottom-up ethics or ethos. More specifically, I've become increasingly concerned with actual strategies and tactics used to promote political action in this arena.

Put otherwise, I think that the shepherding role is not just the formal domain of economic and political elites that Dennis identifies, but also the more informal domain of today's critics of pervasive computing. The pressing problem at hand, as I see it, is that we're not being any less moralising.

In my next post I'll unpack that last claim using examples from a recent presentation I gave, the different responses it inspired, and how I'd like to proceed in doing technosocial critique.

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