“Technology will not advance democracy and human rights for (and instead of) you”. Zygmunt Bauman on the use and mis-use of new media.

In a recent article published by the Social Europe Journal, Zygmunt Bauman reflects on the use we make of new media and social networks and how this can be exploited to control us, rather than increasing our freedom of expression.

More and more world politicians have now started to publicly promote the use of such platforms as Twitter and Facebook, portraying them as critical tools for organising resistance, spread democracy and advance human rights (i.e. in the Arab Spring). However, Bauman’s analysis sheds light of a much ‘darker’ use that can be made of social networks—a use that is more instrumental to the advance of surveillance than democracy, and that benefits political powers rather than people.

In Bauman’s words, “we live in confessional society, promoting public self-exposure to the rank of the prime and easiest available, as well as arguably most potent and the sole truly proficient, proof of social existence”. By using social networks we voluntary put on public record ‘who we are’, ‘what we do’ and ‘what we think’, disclosing in this way our identity and the most intimate aspects of our lives—making them available at a click. In this sense, social websites can be understood not as tools for the advance of democracy and human rights—but rather as instruments that allow a cheap, quick, thorough and easier surveillance. This is made even more effective by the voluntary cooperation of its intended targets, who happily (and deliberately) fill in pages with private information and personal data to build their profiles and express their views.

This system of do-it-yourself surveillance beats any specialist professional agency on costs and results, and can provide a great source of power and control. In this way, for example, authoritarian regimes may beat the supporter of freedom and rights in their own game, by exploiting for their own benefit the very technology in which new-media apostles put their hopes for advancing democracy.

After all, as Bauman reminds us, this is an old story told over again: one can use axes to cut either wood or heads. The choice does not belong to axes but to those who hold and handle them. Whatever the holders’ choices, the axes won’t mind…

Arianna Giovannini is a PhD researcher at the School of Cultural Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University. She holds a degree in Sociology with a specialisation in Politics, and a Masters in Territorial and Urban Politics, both from the University of Urbino, Italy. She also teaches Social Science, Political Theory and Research Methods at the University of Sheffield International College.

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