An Esoteric Reading of LM Sacasas

After reading LM Sacasas’ recent piece on moral communities, I couldn’t help but wonder if the piece was written in the esoteric mode.

Let me explain by some meandering.

Now, I am surely going to butcher his argument, so take a read of it yourself, but there is a bit of an interesting call and response structure to the piece. He begins with commentary on “frequent deployment of the rhetorical we,” in discussions over the morality of technology. Then, channeling Langdon Winner, he notes approvingly that “What matters here is that this lovely ‘we’ suggests the presence of a moral community that may not, in fact, exist at all, at least not in any coherent, self-conscious form.”

He is right, the use of the rhetorical we helps to construct a community, which he thens deploys later in the piece. To see this in action,

…The idea that technical forms are merely neutral has proven hard to shake. For a very long time, it has been a cornerstone principle of our thinking about technology and society. Or, more to the point, we have taken it for granted and have consequently done very little thinking about technology with regards to society.

I’ll note in passing that the liberal democratic structures of modern political culture and the development of technology are deeply intertwined, and they have both depended upon the presumption of their ostensible neutrality. I tempted to think that our present crisis is a function of a growing realization that neither our political structures nor our technologies are, in fact, merely neutral instruments.

Before becoming a policy analyst, I went to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago and studied communication, which at the time was transitioning away from the influence of former dean Stanley Fish and becoming a new media study program. The staff was and still is excellent, but at the time it was deeply heterodox, including both old school rhetoricians and literary scholars as well as communication historians, and communication sociologists.

All of this background is to say that Sacasas’ charge that “we have taken it for granted and have consequently done very little thinking about technology with regards to society,” depends a lot on the kind of community you call your own and how you understand community.

My former community, communication scholars, has a long history of exploring these questions. Indeed, one of my favorite classes was an introductory survey course on democracy and technology. But Sacasas all too well knows that community. I don’t think he was intending to suggest those kind of counterpublics when suggesting community. As he notes, “There is no moral community or public space in which technological issues are topics for deliberation, debate, and shared action.” Here, he means moral community as it comes to us from Durkheim. Just as a reminder, moral community in this tradition generally references “those beings that you need to think ‘but is this right’ before you do something that could affect them.” In other words, questions over the morality of technology are not attended by the kinds of questions that constitute a moral community. I want to come back to this point later.

Where does this leave us? He further explains,

We are, at present, stuck in an unhelpful tendency to imagine that our only options with regard to how we govern technology are, on the one hand, individual choices and, on the other, regulation by the state. What’s worse, we’ve also tended to oppose these to one another. But this way of conceptualizing our situation is both a symptom of the deepest consequences of modern technology and part of the reason why it is so difficult to make any progress.

Technology operates at different scales and effective mechanisms of governance need to correspond to the challenges that arise at each scale. Mechanism of governance that makes sense at one end of the spectrum will be ineffective at the other end and vice versa.

Our problem is basically this: technologies that operate at the macro-level cannot be effectively governed by micro-level mechanisms, which basically amount to individual choices. At the macro-level, however, governance is limited by the degree to which we can arrive at public consensus, and the available tools of governance at the macro-level cannot address all of the ways technologies impact individuals. What is required is a cocktail of strategies that address the consequences of technology as they manifest themselves across the spectrum of scale.

In other words, Sacasas sets up a governance gap problem. There are micro-level solutions and macro-level solutions, but nothing in the middle that might emanate from a moral community. But, again, the fundamental criticism of this entire argument hinges on accepting the rhetorical we and the notion of a community. Or, to say it another way, a community must first be constructed for a governance gap to exist. If we don’t agree to the rhetorical construction of community, if there is no we, then there is no gap to fill. This is no small feat. Even Durkheim’s original understanding of moral community was a subjective understanding of the ethics of an imagined community.

But even separate from the construction problem, it is not clear to me that there isn’t already “a cocktail of strategies that address the consequences of technology as they manifest themselves across the spectrum of scale.” For example, Facebook changed its policy on breastfeeding photos after a group of mothers organized and pushed the #FreeTheNipple campaign. I cannot help but wonder if that is the kind of community driven strategy that Sacasas would want to promote.

That notoriously nebulous concept of civil society is worth invoking here. Organizations like EFF and EPIC and FreePress sue platforms and local governments, and help enact change. And what about all of the reports from journalists in the last decade? They have impacted both Facebook and Google, forcing them to change. Same with Apple and AT&T and Verizon. All of this is to say, I’m not exactly convinced this vision of the world is the appropriate yardstick of critique.

First published Feb 26, 2019