the accidents of openness and safety in digital spaces

While I haven’t been very active here of late, I have been writing a fair amount on the topic of openness. Similarly the theme of safety has become a familiar one in academic circles; safety comes up often in relation to students and classrooms but also, as it does here, in terms of creating safe digital spaces. Sean Micheal Morris posts today in the Digital Pedagogy Lab discussing the intersection of these themes.  As he observes “For all its posturing as a liberational space, the Internet remains entirely too hegemonic.”

I wonder if we still imagine online spaces as liberatory. Once upon a time, it was easier to imagine the virtual world as separate from the “real world,” where no one would know that you were a dog and such. Certainly we do not see social media that way any longer. In fact, it’s value often lies in the lack of separation. However, inasmuch as the Internet is part of the world, it’s part of the world. There’s no reason to expect the Internet to be more or less subject to hegemony than anything else.

From that respect, it’s easy to see openness and safety as opposing values. Like the real world, we are safe online when we are behind locked doors. We further rely on the policing of open spaces to ensure our safety, even when we are locked away. However in such an argument, there is a built-in assumption of a natural world that is open by default, and the natural world, of course, is dangerous. I suppose one might head down the rabbit hole of Heidegger and finitude here, but I’ll leave that for another day.

So here’s a different approach. What is described here as an open space is not a wild or natural one, but rather a territory. Territorialization, in the Deleuzian sense, need not be a strictly cultural or human operation. Animals mark territories. Climates and continents form territories. Even galaxies might be viewed as processes of territorialization. Agriculture territorializes land, removing existing plants, opening the ground, and making it safe for farming. In short, one might say that open spaces are always bounded by the assemblages and forces that produce them and are selective (whether intentionally or not) in terms of the future processes they engender. Of course all territories are finite and subject to deterritorialization. The upshot is that the Internet is a product of the State and it is made (mostly) open and safe via processes of territorialization. I do not mean to suggest that it is made safe for me or for other people (or that that is the goal) but only that it is made safe in the sense that the territory creates favorable conditions for engendering its own processes.

In these terms, Morris’ project is to alter territorializing processes. Can that be done? Of course, those processes are always shifting. His interests in this post are primarily on discursive spaces. The project is to redraw the territories of what is sayable or at least what is permissible to be said. Does that seem evil or unethical? It shouldn’t. Without territorialization there is no saying at all. Why can’t I say lfidhjfiopaewjfpoiaewijgfa? Because symbolic behavior is itself a product of territorialization, territorializing the lips, mouth, larynx, brain, etc, etc. To brush past Virilio, what I’m discussing here is an accident of discourse and symbolic behavior, of openness and safety. No doubt, exclusion can be intentional. But the creation of boundaries is also an unintended or unavoidable consequence of any symbolic-discursive practice.

In the end, I have no objection to the project of improving the lived experience of social media for people who are the regular targets of trolls. I’m not exactly sure how his post then turns toward the digital humanities though clearly there are a range of conflicts which he crystalizes in the statement, “Women are not safe in the Digital Humanities. Women of color, queer women, trans women, or gender nonconforming people, either.” I’m not a part of that community so I can’t tell you.  However one has to suspect that the intention to change other people’s behavior or values will result in conflict.

And that’s fine too, I suppose as creating open and safe spaces requires it’s own kind of force.