I am a big fan Alex Howard, but this kind of headline really irks me: “Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?” As the article goes on to say, “The short answer is that these technologies can be both.” I am sorry but that is both the short answer and the long answer.
Let’s be a little more intelligent about this discussion. The first paragraph colors the entire argument. It makes it seem as though one or the other must be true. I have only recently begun to understand this personally, but recently I decided I don’t like the word or.
The or implies that there needs to be a dichotomy. The or implies that there are two potentials and only two potentials. The or forces us to categorize. Or implies formal rules of rationality that we so blindly follow. Before Aristotle codified logic and rationality, there was an ongoing debate in Greek philosophy about these exact issues. Could an object possess both essences? Could something be both itself and not itself? I am not completely convinced that we have solved this issue, but this is a discussion for another time.
Regardless, we continually use the dreaded or in order to make it seem as though there is a tension when there isn’t. You have to be one or another. You have to be a or not a. Or is a way to categorize, create opposites, and eventually give a quality to an item. But more to the matter, the or implies that you can have only one or the other. The or means that you are either a country of freedom or oppression. America, as we known from the numerous provisions in the PATRIOT ACT, has a little bit of both.
Then, of course, we are faced with the problem of the technology itself. Technology is not value laden. The Internet cannot be oppressive or free by itself, it has to be deployed, it has to be socially active. To make a value judgment, you first need to do something, but technology does not do anything. The Internet does not have agency. Consider game theory and hypothetical situations. We use these tools to philosophically investigate a concept. We work backwards from an act or a hypothetical act to test and explore ethics. Without the act, we have no ethical consideration. Similarly, to talk about the value of the Internet without considering the things that go on in that space is incoherent. The Internet opens a space for new actions to occur, just like the newspaper did. These new acts can be judged ethically and morally, but not the Internet itself. As the saying goes, the Internet is not positive or negative, but nor is it neutral.
We need to be consistent about defining the technology apart from the acts which are created by it. It is a catchall, that is sure, but it obfuscates the discussion.