Big data is all the buzz in business and government. The assumption is that meta-data — data about who communicates with whom, when, where, in which sequences and networks — can generate ever more comprehensive and granular accounts of everyday life and social practices across global space and in real time. For business, the bit trails that we all leave behind become ways of predicting where — to which goods and services — those trails will take us in the future. For government, those same trails bear witness to what friends as well as enemies already did, or may do in the future, as indicated by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of National Security Agency activities.
The various legal, ethical, and political concerns about the protection of the individual’s privacy from spam and surveillance are evident. However, the emerging digital infrastructure raises a more general and fundamental issue about the rights of citizens in their roles as communicators in the contemporary media environment.
Data are increasingly abundant and cheap. From the printed press to the age of broadcasting, it took quite a bit of effort to study who engaged in which kinds of communications — what people read and watched. With digital and mobile media, the senders and receivers of information are identified in and of their uses of a preconfigured platform. In the words of John Durham Peters’ wonderful history of the idea of communication, we used to be Speaking into the air. Now, we communicate into the system.
Systems, of course, do not necessarily work against the interests of individual citizens or civil society as such; one need not rage against all machines. But the relevant political response depends on how new technological potentials to communicate are shaped socially and embedded institutionally.
The point is that whenever we communicate, whether online or face-to-face, we engage in two rather different kinds of activities. We communicate: we send and receive concrete messages. We also meta-communicate, as anthropologist Gregory Bateson termed it: we take care that our communication as such — the exchange of messages — is actually working by explaining words, keeping eye contact, etc. In a similar vein, sociologist Erving Goffman noted that, in addition to giving information to others, we constantly give off information through our facial expression, clothing, general demeanor, etc. Face-to-face, all this meta-communication disappears literally into the air. Online, it is recorded in and of the operation of the system, all the way from basic IP addresses to the likes and tags we add to social network sites and blogs.
If the classic struggles for free speech (which, importantly, are still ongoing around the world) have had to do with the right to communicate, the right to meta-communicate remains underdefined and little debated, let alone codified, in the digital media environment. The key issue is how interactions are stored and recycled, specifically who can access communications — their own and that of others — at a later point in time. Communication is an inherently interactive and iterative business; we cannot stop talking to each other. Communication is also an essential social resource; it is a means of production far beyond advertising and marketing. Notwithstanding standard terms of service, which leave the records of meta-communication in the hands of service providers, it is important to initiate a more principled discussion of communication as a social resource, and of communication rights, in the digital media environment.
Such a discussion is fundamental because communication is the stuff that social relations and identities are made of. We are who we communicate with, and who we have communicated with in the past. The more this trajectory is documented, and the more it is repurposed across time and space — by users themselves, their “friends,” and by third parties, invited and uninvited — the more communication becomes an existential as well as political issue. Questions of who we are, who others think we are, and who we think others are, all depend on communicative practices, many of which unfold below the radar, some of which are increasingly captured in digital communication systems. Like knowledge, communication is a form of power.
The centrality of communication is not a contingent historical feature of the current information or network society. Communication is constitutive of society, beyond the traditional duality of agency and structure. Human agency is informed and oriented by communication; social structure conditions and is conditioned by communication. As summarized by students of Gregory Bateson — Paul Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin, and Don D. Jackson — humans “cannot not communicate.” And — one might add — humans cannot not meta-communicate: We constantly give off information face-to-face. In the digital infrastructure, we necessarily leave ourselves behind as bit trails.
New social conditions challenge societies and cultures to reinterpret and reaffirm fundamental rights. The principle of habeas corpus dates from the English Magna Carta of 1215, and is integral to modern jurisprudence around the world. It was designed to guard against the unlawful imprisonment of individuals through the possibility of appeal. Courts were required to ascertain the whereabouts of a prisoner — his/her corporeal existence. A principle of habeas signum would reemphasize the existence of individuals as signs, as information, and the rights of oneself and, subject to regulation, others to access and use such information. Neither habeas corpus nor habeas signum are absolute principles out of time; societies only reserve certain rights for individuals to have, hold, and use their bodies and their information. But, compared with the classic freedoms of expression, information exchange, assembly, and political organization, digital media have presented a new agenda for research and public debate on the right to communicate in the twenty-first century.
Who do you think I am? Who do you think you are?
This article draws on a publication in First Monday.