Quinn Norton leads an interesting life, to say the least. She's written for publications from Wired to the Guardian, taken aim at the tech elite's class bubbles and still found time to get a magnetic implant. Currently, she's among the adjunct faculty at NYU, teaching courses on body and self, among other matters.
Recently, we sat down (virtually) for an interview/conversation that used the digital divide as a starting point. It ended up going into upheaval, political lock-in, labor strife, infrastructure, the Romans, the difficulties of spinning down a superpower and how community remains the most profound prosthetic human beings have ever invented. Also; Thomas Jefferson was apparently the first psychohistorian (you heard it here first).
So, in what I hope is the finest Breaking Time tradition, it ended up militantly eclectic. My own questions are in bold. Enjoy, there's plenty of food for thought here.
What are some of the biggest mis-impressions popularly about the digital divide, or lack thereof?
You have to scope it, because the digital divide is a really different matter in the US than it is internationally. Have you heard the statement that “after dark, Twitter is black”?
Twitter, unlike most of the social networks, actually overrepresents African-Americans compared to percentage of population, and there's a black Twitter-sphere that looks very different from the white Twitter-sphere. After night, you see a lot of social grooming and a lot less of the broadcast branding that many of the white Twitterers do. So at night, after work, you can look at the trending topics and see ones — like things my boyfriend or girlfriend says — that don't seem to relate to the “normal” trending topics. If you go and look, the people tweeting them will often be black; it's a whole different type of tweets.
Yes, to some degree I've seen that happening in my own city. Essentially, different times of the day, different social groups use Twitter. If you can't go on Twitter at work, which tends to happen when you have a desk job, you'll go on at night.
You mentioned that scope differs. How is it different between the U.S. and internationally?
I don't know if you've followed Danah Boyd's research, it's really interesting. She researches youth and social networks. You remember when MySpace was the old Facebook? It was huge. What Danah identified that it was actually white flight to Facebook. You don't have that kind of divide with Twitter, but you do have an emerging phenomenon of racial homophily on the internet.
I don't know what exactly to make of that. I think we're in a situation where there's less of a big digital divide than there used to be and many, many more small digital divides than there used to be. So you have the internet being used by different groups for social grooming in a way it didn't used to be, but social grooming along a lot of race and class lines.
At the same time you do have a really profound destruction of the local going on, so homophilies are replacing local in kind of a mindshare.
This is one reason why local news coverage has a really big problem on its hands, because that's just not as strong of an identity marker anymore, not when you can find a lot of other people that are like you online. It's an opportunity/cost issue; paying attention to the particulars of the place you are in takes away from time to pay attention to the particulars of people who are like you.
So if you can immediately find a group of people like you across the country and even the world, then why bother with where you live?
Yes, exactly. When you think about it, while there are a lot of people that would kind of poo-poo that change, but where you live is kind of an arbitrary marker [laughing]. Why should you be more concerned about the fate of your neighborhood than the fate of someone else across the country? Presumably, because you'd see them more, but that's not the case anymore.
Well, you've heard a lot of remarking in the political struggles in which Twitter and Facebook have played a role about strong ties and weak ties, and that people you see face to face, you do tend to have a stronger tie with. You're more likely — this is the theory, anyway — to show up on the street with them than with somebody you just know over Facebook.
I have to say, one of my problems with the whole strong ties-weak ties dichotomy — and it does play into some of the class and race stuff — is that it is extremely poor. Saying ties slide along a linear scale does not describe relationships at all. I've been doing a lot of study on Anonymous and there's just no way you could sit there and go “are these strong ties or weak ties?” They're obviously something completely out of that paradigm.
These are people who are doing actions that would be associated with either strong ties or weak ties. In a way, watching how horrible they are to each other would imply tremendously strong ties, because you don't let weak tie people be complete dicks to you and stick around. [Laughing] Mostly you do that with your family, but in this case being part of Anonymous is either important enough or compartmentalized enough or, in my theory, both, that you can let people behave in ways that are tremendously strong tie-ish without ever actually having that dynamic.
Or: that subculture expects that, to some degree
Yes, and that makes it a safe space. I'm describing myself, while I'm doing this, as a “media fag.” [Laughing]. You can be a “morals fag” and you can be a “lulz fag.” The only thing you can't be in Anonymous is an “ego fag.”
Yes, and “leader fag,” which is a subset of “ego fag.” So if you start pretending like you're a leader, it's not a good scene.
That brings up another topic. You hear a lot about digital democracy and, that really thorny word, empowering people. Seems like a lot of people talking about the power of that tend to be fairly well off already. How is this all playing out with the whole digital divide part?
It's true or, at least if not financially well-off, culturally well-off, which is another part of the digital divide that needs more attention than it has.
My kind of optimism about this is largely perspective; I don't feel like we're living in the second Enlightenment caused by homeless people getting laptops. Yet. [laughing]
But I do think there's a tremendous value to each community, and each lifestyle, that each one has to suss out for itself online. Something for you to identify; I ended up in this really interesting conversation with Clive Thompson awhile ago where we were talking about this perception that investigative journalism is dying on the vine, that there's not the budget for it, so on and soforth.
Actually, no one's ever presented any evidence that that's true.
It does seem more of an assumption: everyone says it, everyone believes it.
Specifically, investigative journalism, because it's supposed to be dying from a lack of budget. But the nasty little secret no one ever talks about in our business is that investigative journalism got about 1,000 times easier after the internet came along. So you don't really need to fund someone for three months with no results. You can say “look, give me some idea of where you are in a few days and we'll say whether or not we're going forward with this.” Because if you have a combination of being willing to pick up the phone and decent search engine skills, you can get really far in a profound investigation.
Even if it's shoeleather stuff, you can use the net to find out who you're supposed to talk to. You've got all these places where you can plug in that giant database of human knowledge. It doesn't necessarily change the data you were going to get, but instead of taking two days to find out the right person in the right bureaucracy, you can find that out in five minutes. The internet scales investigation in a way we don't really talk about when we say investigative journalism is suffering right now.
It was totally, totally unrealistic for freelancers to do investigative journalism, back in the '90s and before. I've been doing it as a freelancer.
It seems to weird to me that people think it can't be done, it's been done for years now.
Yes, but it was really, really hard to do without a generous and well-heeled spouse or something before the 2000s.
As communities, professions, classes and races and so on come online, things change. It didn't occur to journalists from the start that they could replace 80 percent of the time sinks in investigative journalism with the internet. That was a slow realization, but it seems to be inevitable in a “if you leave the treats in the room long enough, people will eat them” kind of way that every community will find its particular value set and its needs met in a way online. But it doesn't happen overnight, it takes awhile.
With the possible exception of people who are illiterate — literacy seems to be a bar — but past literacy the prosthetic quality of the internet is something each community is going to mold to itself.
I think that's true even if you're talking about the digital divide in terms of high and low bandwidth. If you're looking at a population of rural poor, where their population is going to be seriously restrained by the bandwidth, then they're still going to find their niches, they're still going to find their communities, they're still going to find their social grooming, they're still going to find the information they need for different things.
There's kind of an effect of all tribes meet at Wikipedia, for instance, though, that's partly that's because Wikipedia comes up so high in Google.
Interesting you mention the word “tribes,” because this is where I see a kind of obstacle on the horizon. These tribes are getting their own niches, finding their own value sets and then — an example of this in politics is the Tea Party — it kind of creates an echo chamber.
The homophily effect. One thing that intrigues me though, and this is an argument I've been having with a lot of my friends, is that I don't see any evidence that the internet creates homophilies; it exposes that they're there.
You hear “oh, now that there's the internet people are isolating their media consumption to things that reinforces their beliefs” but previously, they isolated their media consumption to what they could get.
I feel like, actually, one of the amazing benefits of the internet is that you can find out you're in a homophily. Because we've always had these homophilies. Largely location-based, largely due to the ambient culture in the location and the specifics of our role in that location: black inner-city youth, rural, poor whites and so forth. There were value sets that went with these things, there were echo chambers involved in these things and there were points of interface in and out of those communities all the time.
Now, people are like “rural white poor are just going to these websites.” Well, they were just going to those spots in their minds before. Now, they and we have an opportunity to see that process. We can have a discussion about whether homophily is a good or bad thing, and it's both. Especially when you talk about homophilies in persecuted communities. They've been tremendously powerful and helpful.
But they're also the foundation of some prejudice, backlash and delusion. Double-edged sword?
Yes. I'm increasingly of the opinion that the internet takes what's already happening and amps it and exposes it. The internet doesn't have a lot of direct effects.
Look at what the internet's doing to our industry and you can see that these are the sins of media consolidation. This was all happening before the internet came along, it's just that now we can see it really clearly.
At the same time this is all going on, there's been worsening inequality in a lot of industrialized countries, especially in the US and you mentioned that if poverty was not alleviated or balanced in some way, “the poor will eat you.” Can you elaborate on that?
There's a long, fairly noncontroversial history that shows systemic inequality leads to civil instability. I feel like that's the core of what I'm saying. It's not controversial, I'm just putting it in a way where people can go “I wonder how my fingers taste?”
But I do think that amping effect from the internet might be interesting here. Because what happens — and this actually started with TV — when the poor and the rich share the edges of the same internet and you do see the borders of your homophily is that you can see a little more into the lives of those other people, which has the positive effect of humanizing them and the negative effect of pissing people off.
So, if you want to get pissed off at upper-middle class and rich people's whiny asses, do a search for “problems for iPhone 4” on Twitter. You will end up like “shut up and you, shut up too.”
Not everyone does that search, but it's there now, you have all these very thin membranes, which not everyone crosses. But when they do cross them, well, they never had a way to cross them before, they weren't membranes, they were vast distances.
I argue with xenophiles that if you force people into that position too quickly, or without the proper emotional tools to deal with it, well, historically the way groups deal with being forced into the recognition of the power and position of another group is by trying to kill them all.
And back into pre-history, it's always easier to adapt to change if you have the resources and safety net to do so.
I think it's whether or not you find the other party threatening. Which is a really complex question. There's an ongoing joke in the liberal community — because obviously they can't undersand it — that if gays could marry it would invalidate all the heterosexual marriages.
I always felt a little uncomfortable watching my friends go on about that, because it felt like such a misunderstanding of the other side's position. It would, in a way, invalidate heterosexual marriage because it would take away a position of privilege that was tremendously important. If everybody can have this thing, this thing is no longer special, even if we still have our marriage.
Because privilege means private right, private law
Right. I don't agree with the other side's position, but they [liberals] are misunderstanding this. One of the things that's important to realize about conservatives, and this goes even more for poor conservatives, is that the one thing they have is living in the right world. They can't share that world with you and still have that one thing anymore.
Yes, then, I acknowledge, with my lifestyle and my history, that I am their enemy. I am their sworn enemy and, in some way, they have to destroy me in order to live the life they want. That's true. We are, to some degree, mortal enemies. If I get what I want, I take away their world, even if I never actually injure what I think of as their world.
So if you're going to understand how another group feels in a certain way, it's not good enough to put yourself in their shoes. You have to kind of think with their mind, to get out of your own head and not just imagine you were plopped there by some alien.
This ties back, because less equality, whatever the specific political groups it applies to, creates a more unstable circumstance for anyone taking the brunt of it.
The other thing I think we're seeing tremendously in the Middle East with the digital divide and inequality is that letting poor people coordinate's terrible for the rich [laughing]. This ends badly for them.
That's something the Soviet bloc and all sorts of different people knew. China is actually amazing at this. The reason China hates Falun Gong is not because they find their meditation rituals abhorrent, it's because they're an organizing body. China has several thousand years of history to confirm to them that the problem with poor people is when they get together.
Chinese police suppressing a Falun Gong protest in Tiananmen Square
In which case they kill your dynasty and one becomes the next emperor.
Exactly. We have this problem in America to my mind, which is that we're afraid of the government and the government's not afraid of us. When you look at governments in China and France, the governments at least have a good and proper fear of their people [laughing]. Which is how it should be.
You speak of fear of their own people, but the US hasn't had upheaval in the same widespread sense that exists even over in France; which had, as recently as 50-60 years ago a complete upheaval in government, with several threats since then. The US has had plenty of upheaval certainly, but nothing on that scale. Is that a reason behind it?
I feel like we are a little bit stuck. Funny thing about technology in America is that when I started traveling in Africa in 2001, I was disheartened to find that the cell network in southern Africa was much better than the one in California.
There's a whole lot of that with America and the rest of the world. Our civil infrastructure is often terrible, because it was the first one, we hadn't gotten all the bugs worked out and now we're stuck with it because it's expensive to replace.
I feel like that's true with our democracy. We have a really hard time changing institutions. We're in a terrible case of lock-in. To some degree that's because, fearing tyranny, we set up our government to be tremendously resistant; it's way too easy to not do anything.
Even Jefferson wrote that one of the possible bugs was corporate power, that if corporations rise into these things, they'd be able to do all sorts of stuff. I think of Jefferson as kind of America's first psycho-historian that way, in a kind of Asimovian sense.
The man knew his shit
With civil infrastructure and technology and governmental forms, we did all these things first, and we have this terrible case of lock-in, with all sorts of stuff. Even in countries that are less stable, with more upheavals than we have, like France, has a less stable government, but a much lower infant mortality rate. They have a much better life expectancy, they have a much higher quality of life.
For us, I think one of the things that protects our position is our sheer, ungodly size, both physical and in terms of population. We are startled by the size of India and China because they are amazingly huge, but we're on that short list of countries that are gigantic. Then we had all these civil infrastructures first that helped raise our economic and political status around the world and now we're sitting on top of a broken system while everyone else gets to cherry-pick the good bits and throw out the bad things.
It's not morning in America, at this point.
One speculation about why America's healthcare system has lagged so far behind, for example, is that there wasn't a single crisis like World War II being fought on its own ground or something that allowed a big reshuffling of major civil institutions, so it's easy for it to linger on and just not change.
Well, we almost turned the NIH into universal healthcare after World War II and it didn't happen. I think that goes back to that inertia point. The political structure resists innovation and change, much moreso than most of the parliamentary systems. Israel may have a more fucked up one than we do, but I can't think of anyone else who's in a more resistant system than we are.
It's kind of a powerful lesson. We stood at the door of doing a lot of really good things and were stopped by a system that let lots of minorities stop things from happening.
We'd probably have universal healthcare right now if Watergate had not caused Nixon to leave office.
I've heard that too. People overplayed their hand, the compromises didn't happen and then it's another 30 years.
Nixon was incredibly liberal compared to most Presidents since him on domestic issues. Nixon founded the EPA and so on.
So you combine inequality and an inflexible political system and its kind of a ticking timebomb situation...
This has been handled for about a 100 years by the same mechanism, and I don't see that mechanism not working at any point.
I'm not a Marxist and I'm not a socialist. It's more complex than that, but you can look at the history of capital in America and see points where they talk about stoking racial and class divides to keep people fighting each other and not fighting capital.
“They” being who in this case?
The robber barons of the Teddy Roosevelt industrialist era. They say “we'll just throw these people in together in such a way as they start fighting each other and we'll be fine.”
They were threatened by the unions. Union history in America is a weirdly erased thing. I am completely freaked out by the historical revisionism in that we don't know or teach that there's a tremendously rich history of unions in America, which is actually what gave rise to the socialist movements around the world. That was mainly born here.
So how does this situation get defused?
I don't know. Winding down a superpower is not easy. I've been going through the history of Rome and I can see why so many people draw a lot of equivalents with Rome and America, because trying to figure out how to wind something like that down, how do you land this thing gracefully, is one of those hard questions.
There's a lot of parallels, not just with the story, but also with the value system. The Roman value system put competition above everything else. There was this sense of meritocracy in it and in some ways this myth of the meritocracy we have is very similar to theirs. It's instructive.
One of the things that I wonder is the confound in trying to compare the two, and that's the internet. Because I don't know, with homophilies taking the place of communities, how relevant nation-states are going to be in the time where you'd need to gracefully spin down the US as a superpower.
I think we may just take our ball and go home at some point. My crystal ball's very murky on this.
I think everyone's is, to some degree. That brings us to an interesting point with the political end of this. You've seen a lot of talk, with Government 2.0, things like that, about bringing this sensibility of the internet to government. But government, in a lot of ways, is a battlefield for power. You can't just go out and form your own tribe, to some extent, because one party's going to lead, another's going to be in opposition, there's a limited number of positions and territory to go around, etc. How does that meet smack-dab with this kind of forming your own tribe sort of internet ethos?
I spend a lot of time hoping they don't notice us [laughing].
One of the interesting things, when we're asking about unrest and what it takes for people to rise up and do things, is that it often takes something being taken away.
I was on a tour of the Lowell textile mills, which is one of the birthplaces of the labor movement. We were walking by the original dorms that housed the women at Lowell. I stopped, and thought “those windows are too big.”
The glass panes were enormous, and in the 19th century and before, you used enormous windows as status signs; glass was tremendously expensive. I wondered why this was.
When they first built the dorms, they were trying to attract women from the countryside. This was the dot-com boom of its time when it started. You had the big windows and all these things for the women to do in the dorms to were the equivalent of the ping-pong tables and free dinners at dot-com companies to try and keep people engaged.
If you can't imagine those people organizing and having a strike it's because they got the women in there and as competition came in, they changed the conditions of their labor.
But it was that industry, not the industries were people had been treated like shit since time immemorial. The people whose situation didn't change were less likely to do something. It wasn't ever the people who were completely and totally downtrodden who rose up; it was the people who'd actually had a pretty good deal and had that deal taken away.
A child working in the Lowell mills
That's the interesting thing about the US revolution itself. Even at the height of the tax protest, the British in America were taxed at a lower rate than the people in Britain. It's when you've got it good and someone takes it away that people get all uppity.
I tweeted awhile back that we've had all this devolution of power and empowerment, but there's been no devolution in the monopoly on force.
Of course not.
That was something I wanted to point out not because I thought everybody should get a gun — that wouldn't help — but because it's both good and bad for stability and it's good and bad for the government that they have the monopoly on force.
One reason it's bad is because when you have the guns, you don't have to evolve as quickly as your environment does. To some degree those things that are tied to force — the persuasion that comes out of the end of the gun, which is what the idea of government has going for it — means that there's a whole lot of things they can keep inefficient for a long time, and they will be motivated to do so.
There isn't a scenario in which the internet revolutionizes how government works and now there's more jobs in the government. There's one outcome from this: we do not need as many people to do things. There are a lot of people in government that can be replaced with a small Perl script and they're all going to shoot at Perl if it comes at them.
They'll have valid reasons to believe they can't be replaced, but there's no pressures, there's no social pressures, there's no market pressures, there's no cultural pressures that bear on the guys with guns the way there are in communities, tribes and even corporations, who kind of rent the guns.
Even then, not being able to say “you have to come to us for this” means they have to respond to the efficiencies. The internet's just computation with a connection between people, that's all that makes it interesting, but like mechanization it changes things a great deal.
We're living with those changes, but we haven't really understood the consequences. More things can be done by robots and Perl scripts and I'm fascinated to find out what the future is like when we have robots with Perl scripts.
In government positions?
Once we have robots with Perl scripts, we don't need a lot of the government positions we have. We need people that know how to maintain robots with Perl scripts, but that's a very different set of people than the ones who are in charge right now.
Even from a political standpoint, it's tremendously disruptive, because the fact that there's all these black boxes of information built into the government is something people in power derive a tremendous amount of political power from. We can have a whole bunch of these partisan arguments because no one knows what the data is. Once we know the data, we can argue with it, which we like to do occasionally. But you go a generation down and you get people who are used to being able to look up facts, who are acculturated to it.
Not people who are acculturated to Facebook or video games, all this other stuff people are worried about. If they really want to worry about what their kids are doing, worry about the fact they don't have to have arguments about facts anymore, because that's really going to change the way you execute on things. The data's there, you can just go get it.
Or it will make fact manipulation a finer art.
Both. Is this all good? No. It's tremendously destabilizing. It's good if you're not scared of change. If you like the hierarchies, if you feel safer in hierarchies, then this is bad.
I'm researching how social software affects relationships, and the thing people who are actually doing the work to try and figure out those questions are saying to me repeatedly is “well, it depends on your value system.” Once you can agree on what education is, what a good relationship is, yeah, we've got tools to measure it. But you've a definitional problem up front, and if you say you don't, you're just not facing your problem upfront, you're just building on your own assumptions.
One of the reasons this is all so hard to talk about is because we're all white-knuckling onto sets of assumptions that are undermined by the way we communicate with people now.
That's the thing that makes the internet interesting: it's a prosthetic that attaches other humans to you, not that it attaches technology to you. Past all the cyborgian stuff, the original and still most profound prosthetic for human beings is community. It's still other human beings. The internet is the giant, cyborgian exo-skeleton that lets us talk to all the other humans.
Anything else you'd like to elaborate on?
There's a fundamental tension between how we have government now and how we communicate on the internet. Like I said, I just spend a lot of time hoping the government doesn't notice.
For example, Wikileaks is at its heart a file-hosting service. Now you know what a file-hosting service can do. There are thousands of them [laughing]. So, to a certain degree, my biggest beef with Wikileaks is that it let the world's governments know what we were up to before I wanted them to notice. I wanted to build more of this infrastructure. The more infrastructure that was under cultural control than directly under the control of force, the better. That's my feeling.
Jumping the gun?
Now the governments are kind of clued-in that this secondary infrastructure is a threat to them. But it's also a prosthetic, so they can't give it up, not totally, not without just losing in the global landscape.
In the end, the deal with prosthetics, the deal with neuro-enhancing drugs, life-extenders, any of the ideas of these technologies that are relegated to the rich — go back to birth control or antibiotics — is that the unenhanced are too expensive to have around.
The ultimate enemy to the digital divide, the ultimate enemy to these specific tokens of inequality is that poor people and old people and people with too many children are expensive. If you can make people healthier and smarter and all these other things, you get more money for everyone. And you get herd effects. The point of giving kids vaccinations isn't because you love poor children, it's because they might touch your darling baby. It doesn't have to come from a good place. What will eventually break the digital divide down is that it's too expensive to maintain an ignorant, unconnected population.