Symposium IV: Speculative Media

Friday, May 11, 2012
2:00 - 5:00pm
McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB

Helen Nissenbaum is Professor of Media, Culture and Communication, and Computer Science at New York University, where she is also Senior Faculty Fellow of the Information Law Institute. Her areas of expertise span social, ethical, and political implications of information technology and digital media. She has written and edited four books, includingPrivacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life, which was published in 2010 by Stanford University Press. The National Science Foundation, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Ford Foundation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the National Coordinator have supported her work on privacy, trust online, and security, as well as several studies of values embodied in computer system design, including search engines, digital games, facial recognition technology, and health information systems.

Thomas Streeter is Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Vermont. He is author of The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet (NYU Press, 2010), a study of the role of culture in the social construction of internet technology. His award–winningSelling the Air (University of Chicago Press), a study of the cultural underpinnings of the creation of the U.S. broadcast industry and its regulatory apparatus, was published in 1996.


"Obfuscation: Sacrilege in the data–driven society" Helen Nissenbaum

As the epistemology of evidence gathers strength, it drives the inexorable pursuit of personal information, everywhere, and all the time. In limited domains, data obfuscation promises relief against powerful machinations of aggregation, mining, and profiling but whether it can withstand countervailing data analytics remains an open question of great practical concern. Equally important, however, is whether it can withstand moral challenge from those who laud “big data” and suggest that data obfuscation is unethical or, at best, ungenerous. My talk addresses these moral and political challenges, locating their sources, and exploring the extent of our obligations to provide information about ourselves to others, even for the common good.

"The Net Effect, or Why, Really, Do We Love Steve Jobs?" Thomas Streeter

Accurate or not, claims about the future, about the new and the different, have functions in the present. The outpouring of media attention and hagiography about Steve Jobs in the fall of 2011 confirmed my argument in The Net Effect that there has emerged, within the legitimatory apparatus of capitalism, a romantic individualist alternative to the original utilitarian construction of the idealized capitalist individual. Technological romanticism encourages us to narrate stories of technological development, not in terms of rational progress, but through tales of colorful individuals who ignore convention and then triumph because they follow their dreams instead of the norm. The celebration of Steve Jobs is evidence of the institutionalization of that narrative. Like the frontier metaphor, it articulates macroeconomic policies with everyday life, albeit in problematic ways. The appeal of this story is in part that it presents a vision of capitalist life with the possibility of integrity. If progressive change is going to come, we need to take the desires expressed in that narrative seriously, while at the same time providing a more practical analysis of how to address them.