Among legal scholars of technology, it has become commonplace to acknowledge that the design of networked information technologies has regulatory effects. For the most part, that discussion has been structured by the taxonomy developed by Lawrence Lessig, which classifies "code" as one of four principal regulatory modalities, alongside law, markets, and norms. As a result of that framing, questions about the applicability of constitutional protections to technical decisions have taken center stage in legal and policy debates. Some scholars have pondered whether digital architectures unacceptably constrain fundamental liberties, and what "public" design obligations might follow from such a conclusion. Others have argued that code belongs firmly on the "private" side of the public/private divide because it originates in the innovative activity of private actors.
In a forthcoming book, the author argues that the project of situating code within one or another part of the familiar constitutional landscape too often distracts legal scholars from more important questions about the quality of the regulation that networked digital architectures produce. The gradual, inexorable embedding of networked information technologies has the potential to alter, in largely invisible ways, the interrelated processes of subject formation and culture formation. Within legal scholarship, the prevailing conceptions of subjectivity tend to be highly individualistic, oriented around the activities of speech and voluntary affiliation. Subjectivity also tends to be understood as definitionally independent of "culture." Yet subjectivity is importantly collective, formed by the substrate within which individuality emerges. People form their conceptions of the good in part by reading, listening, and watching—by engaging with the products of a common culture—and by interacting with one another. Those activities are socially and culturally mediated, shaped by the preexisting communities into which individuals are born and within which they develop. They are also technically mediated, shaped by the artifacts that individuals encounter in common use.
The social and cultural patterns that mediate the activities of self-constitution are being reconfigured by the pervasive adoption of technical protocols and services that manage the activities of content delivery, search, and social interaction. In developed countries, a broad cross-section of the population routinely uses networked information technologies and communications devices in hundreds of mundane, unremarkable ways. We search for information, communicate with each other, and gain access to networked resources and services. For the most part, as long as our devices and technologies work as expected, we give little thought to how they work; those questions are understood to be "technical" questions. Such questions are better characterized as sociotechnical. As networked digital architectures increasingly mediate the ordinary processes of everyday life, they catalyze gradual yet fundamental social and cultural change.
This chapter—originally published in Imagining New Legalities: Privacy and Its Possibilities in the 21st Century, edited by Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey (2012)—considers two interrelated questions that flow from understanding sociotechnical change as (re)configuring networked subjects. First, it revisits the way that legal and policy debates locate networked information technologies with respect to the public/private divide. The design of networked information technologies and communications devices is conventionally treated as a private matter; indeed, that designation has been the principal stumbling block encountered by constitutional theorists of technology. The classification of "code" as presumptively private has effects that reach beyond debates about the scope of constitutional guarantees, shaping views about the extent to which regulation of technical design decisions is normatively desirable. This chapter reexamines that discursive process, using lenses supplied by literatures on third-party liability and governance. Second, this chapter considers the relationship between sociotechnical change and understandings of citizenship. The ways that people think, form beliefs, and interact with one another are centrally relevant to the sorts of citizens that they become. The gradual embedding of networked information technologies into the practice of everyday life therefore has important implications for both the meaning and the practice of citizenship in the emerging networked information society. If design decisions are neither "merely" technical nor presumptively private, then they should be subject to more careful scrutiny with regard to the kind of citizen they produce. In particular, policy-makers cannot avoid engaging with the particular values that are encoded.
Configuring the Networked Citizen in IMAGINING NEW LEGALITIES: PRIVACY AND ITS POSSIBILITIES IN THE 21st CENTURY (Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas & Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds., Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press 2012)
Scholarly Commons Citation
Cohen, Julie E., "Configuring the Networked Citizen" (2012). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 803.
Originally published in Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds., Imagining New Legalities: Privacy and Its Possibilities in the 21st Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 129-53. © 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University.