NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – Yale Law School describes its Information Society Project (ISP) as “a community of interdisciplinary scholars who explore issues at the intersection of law, technology, and society.” Since its founding in 1997 by legal scholar and former U.S. District court clerk, Jack M. Balkin, ISP alumni have gone on to “become legal practitioners, activists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers”, focusing on issues of civil liberties, gender equality and other familiar themes surrounding technological inclusion.
Google and IBM, together with the Rockefeller Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute, have all sponsored the academic organization’s events and workshops through the years, which number over a hundred annually. In addition, ISP also houses multiple separate initiatives “with complementary educational and advocacy aims” including the Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic, a pro-bono law student organization, which focuses on the areas of government accountability, constitutional access, national security, open data, and newsgathering rights.
Among its most notable faculty Fellows have been influential scholars like Yochai Benkler, whose seminal work The Wealth of Networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom proposed many of the ‘social innovations’ associated with the digital commons, introducing the concept of Networked Information Economy (NIE) or peer-based “non-market” social relations, which he distinguishes from what he calls the centralized “Industrial information economy” comprised of radio, television, and newspapers.
Further along in the book, Benkler explores information as goods and decentralized economic models, popularizing the notion of “networked-individuals”, who would “govern their own interactions and microcommunity roles in both real and virtual space”. Published in 2006, The Wealth of Networks was hailed by the founder of the Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, as “the most important and powerful book written in the fields that matter most to me in the last ten years”.
A former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Benkler began his academic career in NYU, followed by Harvard, and eventually landing at Yale as a law professor. Described as a “stone-throwing radical”, Benkler spoke at the Center for American Progress (CAP) – the public policy think tank founded by John Podesta –, on the occasion of his book’s release, where he put forth the idea of “human creativity, experience and knowledge” as “non-fungible” components of the burgeoning data economy.
After setting the stage by explaining the differences between the “Industrial information economy” and the new Internet-based communications systems, Benkler addressed what he believes to be the basic paradigm shift:
“So here we are, these two basic inputs: the physical capital and the human creativity, the two core inputs widely distributed in the population… So what is the economic structure or the response to social production? First, we get commons-based production becoming much more important. That is to say, production without exclusion either from inputs or from outputs, which can be individual or collective, commercial or non-commercial.”
– Yochai Benkler
Benkler’s abstractions boil down to the economic consequences of having a massive trove of user-generated data (email, file sharing, blogs, etc.) force fed into the economy via the Internet and the inapplicability of traditional forms of control, such as intellectual property rights, on these inputs. Rather than trying to maintain market share by constraining ownership of the data, Benkler proposes a separation of the “physical layer”, i.e. the ICT infrastructure, from “social production”, which can include everything from an animated GIF to an open source software program.
The problem, as Benkler stated back then, was that “society, markets, technology are pushing one way, [while] legislation, courts, administration pushing the other way.” The solution was to foster the “value of non proprietary techniques” in the face “of incumbents who are pushing back and forth in order to get the strongest possible constraints on distributed innovation”.
According to Benkler, the emergence of “social sharing and exchange […] as a major modality of economic production” increases individual agency and, thus, requires a recalibration of governments’ approach to legislation surrounding information technology. But, just how much “individual agency” is actually served by the ability to freely share a thought, a poem or a picture online was not measured to any meaningful degree, neither its economic benefit for the individuals themselves.
When Benkler gave this short lecture in 2006, the iPhone did not yet exist, Twitter was still two months away from launching, and Facebook was still trying to convince people it wasn’t just MySpace 2.0. Perhaps only YouTube, started the year before by a group of PayPal employees, could be considered a game-changer in this regard, serious buffering delays notwithstanding. Nevertheless, the narrative of individual agency forms the basis for Benkler’s grandiose arguments about promoting “freedom and democracy” – shared by Yale’s ISP –, through these new economic modalities and “social innovations”, which ultimately converge in what we call social impact markets.
General Brand Spy Store
One of the examples Benkler provided for social innovations in his speech at the Center for American Progress was a project carried out at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, in 2002, where a “Wikipedia-like” project sought to crowdsource information to create free high school science and math textbooks. This relatively primitive edtech initiativeknown as the South African project Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) was organized by Silicon Valley non-profit, Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), which is dedicated to researching and developing “open and distributed knowledge sharing tools” leveraging “cutting edge contributions to the field of education with an interdisciplinary team of social scientists”.
FHSST itself was a case study in a larger “multi-stakeholder research endeavor” by ISKME, and centered on the implications of Open Education Resource (OER) tools and dynamics, in an effort to define standards for “peer-produced open educational content”. Six other pilot research programs were carried out simultaneously in Uganda, two cities in India, Boston, and at Stanford University in California.
Nearly a decade after the OER experiment, the government of South Africa launched Operation Phakisa, a multi-sector national development plan, that includes Operation Phakisa Education (OPE) for the transformation of basic education based on the 2004 White Paper on e-Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning through Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
OPE has come under intense criticism from Michael Kwet Ph.D., a visiting Fellow at the Yale Information Society Project, who received his doctorate in sociology from Rhodes University in South Africa. In addition to hosting the Tech Empire podcast (broadcast from Yale University), Kwet is a contributor to Pierre Omidyar’s The Intercept, and has been published in the New York Times, Vice News, Al Jazeera, Wired, and many other press media outlets, where his clear anti-Big Tech positions are made evident.
Kwet’s objections to the OPE, specifically, center around issues like privacy and the role of private enterprise in the education space. Availing himself of personal contacts within South African academic circles, he was able to access details of the otherwise secret plan to “turn the basic education sector into a data-driven system that will transform teaching, learning, and management”.
In a 2020 paper, Kwet examines the data-driven approach to education by profiling both the company the government of South Africa contracted with to provide EdTech services, and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s (MSDF) Data Driven Districts (DDD) Dashboard, which is used as an administration tool for the schools.
Citing numerous historical instances of how surveillance by private companies like IBM, and American intelligence services was used to aid the repressive apartheid government of South Africa, Kwet makes a strong case against the implementation of OPE, due to its vulnerability to what he himself describes as the aim of “the United States and its allies […] to bring nearly all electronic communications under its vast global surveillance net”.
Using terms like “tech colonialism”, Kwet appeals to those attuned to the abuses of capitalism and the political grievances of nations like South Africa and others in the Global South, which have been historically subjected to the economic subjugation from the West. However, Kwet’s solutions betray his own captivity within the ideological framework that perpetuates this very system of domination. As an alternative to Microsoft, Google and all the other Big Tech enterprises vying for a piece of the South African e-school pie, Kwet offers “technologies that respect user and community freedom”.
Remaining squarely in the political realm, he holds up an encrypted communications system developed by South African rebels during Operation Vula in their fight against the apartheid government in the 1980s as an example for resistance against the encroachment of private, Western corporations into their education system. Claiming that “encryption played a pivotal role in the late ANC struggle against the apartheid state”, Kwet goes on to suggest that:
“There are many software tools available for privacy protection. If source code is open forinspection and modification by the public, it can be evaluated by public experts for security flaws or malicious features. For this reason, many privacy advocates endorse Free and open source software (FOSS) for computer security (e.g., Schneier, 1999; Snowden, 2016). The South African government has a FOSS policy preference for use in the public sector. Under this policy,proprietary software should only be used if it is demonstrated to be superior to FOSS alternatives. The policy holds that FOSS is best practice for security. In this regard, FOSS should be addressed by policy-makers for use in the classroom, in the interests of privacy and security.”
– Michael Kwet
Socialist Circuit Boards
Kwet’s advice thus comes down to “build your own app”, as we so often hear from keyboard warriors on social media when expressing dissatisfaction with a particular network’s terms of service. Indeed, Dr. Kwet has recently proposed to “overthrow digital capitalism and colonialism” through “The Digital Tech Deal: a socialist framework for the 21st century” – a ten-point plan of sorts that contextualizes “all digital analysis, policy and activism […] within a framework of eco-socialism and decolonial degrowth”.
Perhaps too extreme for Yale’s ISP official publication catalog, Kwet’s framing is nonetheless fully in line with the general trend offered in its whitepapers – a collection of modern day apologetics peppered with mea culpas and ‘solutions’ to the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by the technologies, which are nevertheless deemed to be an inevitable feature of our future.
In his introduction, Kwet describes his proposal as “an ecosocialist Digital Tech Deal which embodies the intersecting values of anti-imperialism, environmental sustainability, social justice for marginalized communities, worker empowerment, democratic control and class abolition.” Among its ten points we find exhortations to place the digital economy “within social and planetary boundaries”; the socialization of Benkler’s “physical layer”, which would be “maintained by an international consortium that builds and maintains it at cost for the public good rather than profit”, and similar concepts.
At no point is the necessity or desirability of a data economy questioned at all. As in most, if not all of the material that emanates from the Yale ISP faculty, any questions surrounding digital identity, artificial intelligence, and data privacy are addressed through a lens where the cybernetic enclosure is a fait accompli. Instead of interrogating the utility of social media, data collection or even surveillance, Kwet recommends socializing these elements of the digital enclosure.
Beginning in 2020, ISP began publishing a series called Digital Future Whitepapers “to propose new ways to align legal and ethical frameworks to the problems of the digital world”, which largely commit to a similar strategy. In one of the whitepapers, “Nowhere to Hide: Data, Cyberspace, and the Dangers of the Digital World”, like Kwet, the author bemoans the plethora of instances where our exposure to these systems shines through, but reserves his optimism for the data economy’s promised land, the healthcare sector:
“To be clear, this is not all bad news. Although I may have shaped it that way by focusing on the downsides, I don’t actually see all these developments as entirely negative. In the healthcare space, for example, many of these trends will certainly lead to new insights, perhaps better diagnoses, more easily accessible medical services and even saved lives. There is a world of undiscovered correlations hidden within all our data that I am genuinely excited about.”
– Andrew Burt, Nowhere to Hide: Data, Cyberspace, and the Dangers of the Digital World
Healthcare is where it all intersects and where, if we allow it, the data economy will establish its immovable anchor. Benkler also understood this, which is why he reserved the genome project as his shining example of a “commons-based and peer production” model sixteen years ago at the Center for American Progress:
“In medicine, bioinformatics […] movement is more important than other forms of bioinformatics. They are like the free software and the open source software development community. That is how the human genome is done today. That’s how the haplotype mapping projects are done today.”
As covered by Silicon Icarus, the holy grail of the data economy is found in the healthcare sector, where genomics is set to “drive tremendous progress in life and health insurance [as well as] tremendous progress in healthcare delivery by powering a next generation of healthcare and healthcare models” by “hacking the software of life”, according to Dr. Bradley A. Perkins of The Commons Project.
The political ideology of the subjects of the emerging data empire is fundamentally irrelevant. Whether you prefer your Twitter feed to lean Marxist or Libertarian; whether you would like for it to feature the little blue bird or a generic brand, the underlying digital infrastructure remains the same, and leads to the same place. Yale’s ISP and other organizations like it are working to adapt the message to shape “how we should understand the effects of new technology on public discourse, law and society” in order to facilitate its continued implementation.
The Epstein Experiment
Yochai Benkler has since returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts as the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, where he focuses on cyber and communications law. In 2018, he published a new book titled Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, which dissects Americans’ media consumption in an exhaustive analysis of social media data patterns during the Donald Trump election cycle.
Every single aspect of Trump’s election campaign and much of the administration was fodder for social scientists and data analysts, who were able to glean a treasure trove of behavioral data across the entire spectrum of political engagement from indifference to moderate to extreme. The polarizing character that was candidate, and ultimately, President Trump was a sandbox for how to design and strategize for what the U.S. Army calls the “cognitive domain“.
Since the “early experiment” of 2002 with the Diebold voting machine scandal of the Georgia gubernatorial race, Benkler has been paying close attention. By 2006, he understood that “culture – the way we tell stories” superseded the political system in an environment where information had been “democratized”, and that whoever was able to control the cultural narrative would win.
In a presentation at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society for his latest book, Benkler went over a case study in the book titled The Propaganda Feedback Loop vs. The Reality Check Dynamic, which focused on concurrent stories in the media during the 2016 presidential campaign that targeted both candidates with charges of pedophilia. Donald Trump was accused of raping a thirteen-year-old girl, while Hilary Clinton was implicated with her husband and former president, Bill Clinton, of flying to “orgy island” on Jeffrey Epstein’s “Lolita Express”.
“The critical thing we’re trying to establish here,” Benkler states, “is not how does individual X come to hold a false belief. It is how does a false belief take root at the population level in the teeth of the presence of competing evidence in mainstream outlets.” He then goes on to explain how this is generated through a phenomenon called “confirmation of identity bias”, which is stoked by the media outlets themselves by policing deviancy from identity confirmation, and in turn, projected onto the political establishment to drive election results.
Equipped with charts, graphs and headline screenshots, Benkler shows us exactly how the manipulation of society takes place, which is not dissimilar from how the speculative crypto markets are manipulated. Both are made possible by the practically infinite number of media outlets available to us. “The critical innovation,” according to Benkler, is a direct function of this plurality of media outlets, which necessarily offer “a very narrow, specific product” and maintain their audience via constant affirmation of identity bias through shared outrage.
More significantly, this is the nature of the cybernetic enclosure. In other words, it is a feature not a bug. In the spring of 2020, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, unleashed its own cycle of the propaganda feedback loop. Unlike the case study analyzed by Benkler, the pendulum swung heavily to the left, and calls to “defund the police” were reproduced on most outlets of that particular persuasion, buttressed by declarations by the large tech corporations themselves promising to ban sales of their own facial recognition technology.
Point number nine on Yale ISP Fellow Michael Kwet’s socialist Digital Tech Deal calls for the replacement of “military, police, prisons and national security apparatuses with community-driven safety and security services”, arguing that digital technology in the hands of these aforementioned institutions represents a threat to society at large, and that conversely, “socially beneficial applications” of artificial intelligence should be implemented albeit with a “conservative approach”.
The last point drives the farce home, pulling on our heart strings by invoking the “global poor” who stand on the other side of an imaginary “digital divide”, which Kwet intends to bridge through “a process of reparations” and wealth redistribution, not – for example – to return people to the land they may have been displaced from by transnational mining concerns extracting the minerals needed to manufacture the vast inventory of ICT products –, but to “subsidize personal devices and internet connectivity” and “provide infrastructure, such as cloud infrastructure and high-tech research facilities to populations that cannot afford them,” so that they, too, can participate in the degenerate, manipulative propaganda feedback loops that now drive our very ignorant information society.