Professor's book takes critical look at social, other digital networks

SUNY Oswego faculty member Ulises Mejias recently published his first book, a critique of a networked world that he says treats personal information as a commodity, perpetuates inequalities and has sown the seeds for spying and misuse of data.

Ulises MejiasUniversity of Minnesota Press this summer published the book, “Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World,” and agreed with Mejias’ request for simultaneous online open-access publication.

While his theme reflects recent headlines about government surveillance, online invasions of privacy and the case of NSA contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden, Mejias said the book, in the works for years, avoids sensationalism and evidences no antipathy for the digital networks that he teaches about and uses in class.

“I don’t think we need to be scared of or fear networks,” said Mejias, an assistant professor of communication studies. “The argument I try to make in the book is that we just need to be more critical, a little bit more discriminating about the kinds of networks we’re using.”

Mejias began thinking about effects of digital networking while working on his dissertation at Columbia University starting in 2005. “Off the Network” integrates research and a great deal of experience and thought since then, he said.

“I think what the Snowden case has proven is that all this information that we produce is not just going into a void, never to be seen again,” he said. “There is the potential for that information to be collected and to be used in some way.”

Mejias said the average Facebook or Google user “knows enough to understand that network technology has made it possible for this personal information to be collected cheaply, for the first time in history.”

Informed consumers

In an introductory anecdote, Mejias writes about the 2010 Quit Facebook Day, which resulted in 33,000 users “committing suicide” by exiting the social networking giant. While the movement failed to achieve the volume of dissent it sought, Mejias writes “the desire to kill one’s networked self illustrates the need for a language to talk about these tensions, to talk about the darker aspects of the relationship between platforms and individuals.”

What can the average computer user, when viewed as a single node on a network of billions, do to control his or her online integrity? “The answer is going to depend on who we are,” Mejias said. “We could all become more informed consumers and demand information. For example, take the NSA’s PRISM (nationwide surveillance program collecting telephone and computer metadata). Demand answers: Why?”

Mejias writes about the privatization of social life, the commodification of personal information and the commercialization of research and other intellectual property. Individuals will need to make more informed decisions about network participation and about actively trying to counter abuses on the net, he argues.

“If someone wants to be more of an activist, there are ways to put pressure more directly on governments or companies,” Mejias said. “I think we are at a time right now where companies like Facebook and Google believe they can get away with just about anything, because we’re so enamored of their products.”

He points to the Arab Spring and other mass movements that have relied on social networks to push back the forces of control.

“But we should not let some isolated examples obstruct the truth of what the network has become for the majority of its users: not a tool for changing power structures, but a tool for arresting that change through consumerism and entertainment,” Mejias writes.

There could come a day, as it has for many whose online activities have been deemed suspicious, that the information people so readily share on social and other networks comes home to roost, he said.

“The argument I hear about surveillance, for example, is, ‘Well, I’m not doing anything wrong. Why should I worry about it?’ The trouble is, while the government might not want to go after you today, the definition of what is ‘wrong’ might change tomorrow, depending on who has the power,” Mejias said.

“Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World” can be purchased, read or downloaded at University of Minnesota Press, www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/off-the-network.

(Posted: Jul 17, 2013)

Tags: ulises mejias, online privacy, communication studies