danah boyd
The Internet: Saviour or Foe?

She has been called a rock star and an intellectual celebrity of her time. danah boyd is many things but a uniform thinker is not one of them.

As she fires out her progressive opinions at rapid speed, what becomes immediately apparent is just how immensely passionate she is about her work. Her research revolves around the world of new technologies, social media and today’s youth and how they all fit together in our society. She is also a Principal Researcher at Microsoft and founder of the Data & Society Research Institute. As we discover, she is a fervent defender of young people and admonishing of her own generation’s eagerness to place blame on them. At the end of the day, her work is very much about the notion of equality and how we can create it with these many new tools we have.
We believe danah boyd has some very important things to say, and with over 100,000 followers on Twitter, her voice is already being heard.

We interviewed Mary Aiken who is a cyberpsychologist recently. She said, “The web is the largest unregulated social experiment of our time.” Would you agree with that?

I struggle with these grandiose explanations because one of the things about the web is that it’s an ongoing process. These kind of statements assume that this is time-bounded, like these are one thing, when actually it’s a long progression of things coming together.

My favourite book is America Calling which is Claude Fischer’s accounting of the maturation of the telephone as we know it. The realisation that we used to have party lines, this used to be a very social experience. So we’re talking about a whole set of shifts in communications. I think about my grandfather. When he was visiting the United States during the war, it was the first time people had the ability to really record anything. He would record audio letters to his grandmother and send them back to London during the war. So there are these moments of progressions in which we start to see these things play out. All forms of communications are an experiment on the public, and we see it as both a blessing and curse.  There’s a long history of new ways of connecting and part of what makes it challenging is that we imagine an idealism of what it will allow us to do. We imagine all of these positive outcomes and we get frustrated and struggle with the moments that don’t play out as we hope they will. This is the battle that we’re facing right now with people using these technologies in unexpected and harmful ways.

I also think the internet perhaps was thought of as being this great normaliser and democratiser of our society, but it definitely doesn’t seem to have turned out that way.

I love Manuel Castells work on this. He highlights that whenever there’s a shift in society, power gets reconfigured, and at the same time existing power actors develop a new hold in the new system to use their power in new ways. We experience this all the time with technology. We celebrate or demonise new actors like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, these cultural figures who have built businesses and acquired a lot of money doing something that nobody could have imagined 50 years ago. And at the same time as we do that, we also see long standing powerful structures finding new ways to use these tools, whether we’re talking about nation states or traditional business players. This is where people like Murdoch come in and acquire new powers through new technologies. A good example I think about a lot is how on the one hand we have Black Lives Matter, making visible huge long standing structural inequalities and really fighting for justice, but we also have White Lives Matter, a long standing white national antisemitic group who are using the same technologies and same techniques for a different set of agendas. So how do we hold true the beauty and the hurtfulness simultaneously?

"All forms of communications are an experiment on the public."

danah boyd on the internet

You seem very voracious and energetic about your work. Is there an endgame for you in the work that you do?  

I think we as a society pay a cost for hype and fear. One of the things about newness is that it’s so quick to get us to a world of hype and fear. It allows us to move politically and socially in directions that exert power over people, and refigure structures, and magnify inequalities. I think we need to grapple with the really hard dynamics of inequalities and the structural forces that define the world in which we operate, and the opportunities we have. I grew up in world where I imagined that technology would be so freeing and then I started realising how it’s used as a tool for all sorts of political agendas. Some of those are big political agendas but many of them are little. I either get positioned as some big tech justifier who thinks all tech is awesome, or demonised as a critic, depending on where you stand. But for me it’s about holding onto the nuance of what goes on because I think it’s the only way to address the structural issues that are all around us.

One of the things you write about is big data and the prejudice around it. Do we need to think more about how data is extracted and used against us? 

Yeah obviously here is where my politics and my values come out loud and clear. I think one of the things I struggle with is how to navigate these issues and be empathetic towards politics and values that differ radically from mine. One of the things that happens when you’re building a computational system is that you could choose sides and segment population, and say – these populations like this, and these populations like that, but what does it mean if you start implementing separate but equal on scale? You have to allow for “democracy” to unfold, which basically means populism, and what does that mean in terms of fighting it out to determine which is the acceptable value? What you realise is that these technologies that were meant to give us information and designed to be simple all of a sudden have politics. Once they have politics they run into problems of governance. We can’t get governance operating in a social ecosystem. What makes us think we can get it operating in a technical ecosystem where you have to define it in such coherent ways?

So I think this happens over and over again. There’s this moment within the technical design where you really hope you can be apolitical. You really hope you can do it in a way where you won’t run into these problems.

"I grew up in world where I imagined that technology would be so freeing and then I started realising how it’s used as a tool for all sorts of political agendas."

Has the Internet lost its way?

When it comes to new technologies and the web, what don’t we know?

It’s hard for me to answer that because we don’t know so much. Our legal and social systems are set up so that we are individuals who are unique and have agency, even though we know philosophically that’s not entirely true. All of a sudden we’re encountering dynamics where our patterns look the same as other people’s patterns. The ability to predict what we might do is statistically viable even if it’s socially problematic. That’s one of the reasons I think we’re going to run quickly into this huge value system, just like we did with other moments of anxiety over religion. Any time we start talking about agency we run into anxiety around religion. It’s not surprising to me that we’re running into one right now. We like to think of ourselves as independent from one another and we’re not. We’re so not. It’s that moment of wanting to understand how we operate and our relationships to one another but then trying to figure out what we do with that information. What do we do with the fact that the majority of people don’t actually respect one another?

I wanted to move onto another very important aspect of your work which is youth. You seem such a fierce defender of youth and how kids are positioned. Why is that?

I think we project all of our societal anxieties onto youth, and at the same time we mould them with all of those social factors. I find that adults as a whole basically blame them and control them in this obsessive way of trying to deal with the things that we’ve failed to deal with as adults. The more we do this the more that we create the next generation of problematic cycles, and if we want to break out of these cycles we need to step back and actually work to empower youth, not just control them. We need to recognise that they are making do with the environment that they have been given by us. One example is all the work on bullying. We flip out, as though meanness and cruelty is a youth specific thing, and we don’t account for our own actions. We expect them to solve the things that we’re incapable of solving. Not only do I think that’s unfair, I think that’s dangerous. For me it’s one of the places where we clearly need to break the cycle, and we’re so far from doing that.

Do you think that technology has played a large role in destabilising youth in this day and age? Because they’re forced to live by strict codes.

Ironically I feel like we did that long before there was technology. If you look back, we started really constraining their mobility before we saw the rise of the internet. That’s one of the reasons why I see the internet as the relief valve for youth rather than the creator of it. We want to blame technology, just as we wanted to blame gangs in the 70s, but we need to look inward and ask, what are we actually doing?

We spoke to Douglas Rushkoff, another key thinker in this area, and he left us with the sentiment that he’s been left heartbroken having originally thought that this tech explosion would have bring the fruits and spoils of open collaboration. Do you share that opinion?

When I started doing this kind of work many of my peers, including Doug but also Sherry Turkle and others, they were so emotionally wedded to this technology and thought it would bring us together in a way that nothing in the past ever has. They’ve all been crushed by their optimism. A lot of what I’ve been trying to do is balance between the stuff that really sucks and the other parts of it. I totally empathise with where they’re coming from, but I can also recognise the things that are a lot more positive. In some ways I didn’t have the same level of free-fall because I wasn’t so wedded to it and that has a lot to do with where I grew up and what I saw around me. All of this makes sense to me. I spend a lot of time looking at white supremacy content right now, but it’s not surprising to me.

"I think we project all of our societal anxieties onto youth, and at the same time we mould them with all of those social factors."

danah boyd on the youth of today

Why are you looking at that?

Because I’m seeing a form of media manipulation that you always see with the rise of any new form of technology. Every new technology brings a new form of propaganda and if we don’t start accounting for it then we allow it to spin out of control like we did in the 30s. I live in the US and I’m watching it affect our election cycle, but I’m also trying to understand where folks are coming from. White supremacy doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of anxiety and fear. It comes out of an environment of inequality and out of a feeling of powerlessness. It comes out of a whole set of media narratives and then it’s amplified. For a lot of people who encounter it for the first time they’re absolutely horrified by it and can’t imagine that it ever happened before. But, I hate to break it to you, white supremacy has been at the center of the United States for pretty much its entire history.

You mentioned the presidential election cycle. Technology seems to have played a really divisive role in this one.

I think about those moments where we’re all agreed that we won’t go down rabbit holes. A good example in an American context is the whole set of jokes about Thanksgiving dinner and having to deal with the crazy uncle and the conversations that are effectively prevented, and then after the Thanksgiving dinner when you’re like, “oh thank god. I can’t believe we survived that.” The internet makes the Thanksgiving dinner perpetual. The real question is, when you start to see values that are against yours how do you combat them?

                     A Dove initiative called #speakbeautiful which danah boyd took part in.

I know this is a difficult question to answer but what does technology do next? How will we use it? And how will it change us over the next few years?

It has to be contextualised inside the question of, what are the broader societal shifts? I will say that this is where I’m a lot darker these days. We are not in a position where we know how to govern ourselves well. We are seeing a collapsing of functioning governing systems in Europe and the US. We are seeing global migration due to climate change that is bringing a set of really complicated political dynamics. We are seeing World War 2 logics of power, that basically become cold war logics of power disintegrate with good reason, because we dealt with this form of neo-colonialism that was not working. And we’re seeing the problems that we’ve created around the world. I blame my country in playing a large role in this, and it’s coming home to roost in really significant ways. What all of that means is that we’re putting technologies into the hands of people and imagining that it will allow them to connect. But they can only connect in a positive way if they feel a sense of powerfulness, if they feel they can do something with that connection and information that will make a real difference in their lives. One of the big questions we all need to ask ourselves is, are we willing to actually enable a democratic society? Or are we going to keep maintaining one of massive inequality under the justifications of democracy?

My biggest fearful outcome is that we will use technology to automate and magnify inequality. That’s the thing I am most worried about because there are so many powerful interests who, individual and corporate, really want to use it to create distance as opposed to bring people together. That’s where a lot of my peers are in for another shock because most of us also imagined a world in which technology was separate from broader geopolitics. The reality is that technology is now a part of every sector and every political agenda. It’s not just about who has a media presence, it’s about who can manipulate it, who can use it for their own political ends.

Feature photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens is out now

Ever since I was a teenager I’ve turned to Ani’s music and lyrics to center myself and find my fighting voice. I’ve put her lyrics into code comments and used them as inspiration in talks. I created a fan website in 1995 and continue to relish her voice. “Taken out of context / I must seem so strange.”



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