- Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code and the Play of Everyday Practice by Julie Cohen
Issues such as surveillance, privacy, and copyright are fraught with framing problems. Each concept is multi-dimensional and each is mutating at an ever accelerating rate – important items appear daily in the press and popular media, ‘revelations’ about state and corporate surveillance, scandals about the security of personal and commercial information, and worries about the ‘loss of privacy.’ How do we frame these issues, when the definitions are so fluid and the advent of new, tough issues so frequent?
Julie Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self offers some welcome relief by considering the big picture within which the more specific problems arise. Her book is an intelligent critique of the ways that privacy and copyright are frequently perceived, a consideration of the peculiar characteristics of networked information, and an invitation to reconsider who are the selves that inhabit this contemporary world. It’s a no-stone-unturned sort of book that requires constant pauses for reflection. In the end, she also asks us to raise our eyes above the – albeit significant – question of reducing harms to the more expansive frame of ‘human flourishing.’
In a disarming move, Cohen observes that two cognate problems – questions of copyright and creativity and questions of perceived threats to personal data – have been considered separately for too long. Much, she argues, can be learned from opening a dialogue between these two, in this way avoiding a clash between the camps of information-as-freedom and information-as-control. The paradox, writ large in the United States but clearly visible elsewhere as well, is that ‘the emerging regime of rights and privileges is publicly justified in terms of economic and political liberty, but as a practical matter, it allows individuals less and less control over information flows to, from and about themselves’ (3).
How, then, has the self primarily been configured, until now? As autonomous, abstract, and disembodied, says Cohen, while at the same time, legal and policy treatments of this self have been committed to a belief in rational, value neutral analysis. Such simplistic models, so far from fostering relevant debate and policy, impede it. Over against them, Cohen reminds us that human beings are in fact embodied and relational, inhabiting cultural and material webs of connection. Laws, technologies, and institutions cannot be judged from some neutral position; nor can they be assessed only with respect to their contributions to free [End Page 130] speech or free choice. They are important because they shape our subjectivities, ethics, and politics.
Cohen’s analysis is necessarily – and delightfully – multi-disciplinary. She shows how the ‘social practices of information use are mediated by context: by cultures, bodies, places, artifacts, discourses and social networks’ (5). And this is how she finally frames the argument that law should work within the networked information society to promote the well-being of its situated, embodied participants; in other words, why human flourishing – the common good – should be the positive goal of such development. This approach, in Cohen’s view, promotes access to knowledge, creates operational transparency, and maintains space for what she calls ‘the play of everyday practice.’
This is a plea for legal scholars – and many others – to come to terms with the real lives of people who use information systems, social media, hand-held devices, and the like. ‘Expressive liberty’ and ‘market exchange,’ the common currency of (ir)relevant scholarship, are far from exhausting the ways that networks and information are perceived and engaged. So, far from being abstract and disembodied, real, everyday lives are embodied – and sometimes idiosyncratic – in particular places. In effect, says Cohen, we should think about online and offline life, first, through the lens of embodied perception. There are ‘networked spaces’ but no separate ‘online world.’ Second, the issues raised by our increased interactions with information should be considered in terms of everyday practice that includes play. Liberal theory’s notions of ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘freedom of choice’ are square holes into which...