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No issues without media The changing politics of public controversy in digital societies

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Abstract

Marres, Noortje (2021) No issues without media : the changing politics of public controversy in digital societies. In: Swartz, Jeremy and Wasko, Janet, (eds.) Media : A Transdisciplinary Inquiry. Bristol, UK ; Chicago, USA: Intellect Books. ISBN 9781789383263
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No issues without media
The changing politics of public controversy in digital societies
Noortje Marres (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick)
Draft Chapter, February 2018
Published as: Marres, N. (2021) "No issues without media, The changing politics of
public controversy in digital societies,” In: Media: A Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Jeremy
Swati and Janet Wasko (Eds). Chicago: Intellekt Books.
1. Introduction
Technology is a favoured topic of public controversy today, arguably more so than it
was before. Take Dieselgate, the emission test rigging scandal that engulfed car
manufacturers in 2015. While what was ultimately at stake in this scandal was the
willful deception of the public by car companies, the role of digital technology in the
realization of this deceit was granted special importance in much publicity
surrounding the scandal. In news and media reporting on Dieselgate, the 'defeat
device' - the software that enables cars to detect test conditions and to modify their
behaviour accordingly - featured prominently. An extreme case of the commitment
to turn technology into the protagonist of the scandal can be found in the public
demonstrations entitled the "Exhaust emissions scandal" by two self-proclaimed
geeks, Felix Domke and Daniel Lange, to the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg in
December 2015, and available on Youtube.
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Their presentation put on display the
computational object that sits at the heart of Dieselgate: the Engine Control Unit
(ECU) of a Volkswagen Diesel car (Figure 1). It is on this type of circuit board that the
software runs that is now known as the defeat device. What Domke and Lange
endeavoured to demonstrate, among others, was that to expose the deceit of a VW
diesel car all one needs is an actual defeat device.
As they report in their ingeneous demonstration , Domke and Lange
purchased their ECU on eBay, and then used a method called “real-time logging” to
show how the device is able to rig emission tests. Hooking up the ECU to his own VW
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9HJw3AUvGk
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diesel car, Domke ran the software while driving around in his own neighbourhood,
initially, and then on a so-called dyno, a machine for simulating a driving
environment, a pretty routine facility, in a local garage. In this way, Domke produced
a log graph that shows the test rigging device "kicking into action" (Figure 2). As long
as the car is driven according to the EU's regulatory specifications of emissions
testing - the temperature must be 20C, and one must drive slow/fast/slow/fast -,
poisonous NOX emissions remain low, but as soon as Domke shifted into a normal
on-the-road- driving style, these emissions radically shot up. Presenting his graph to
loud cheers of the audience, Domke and Lange made several points. Importantly,
they showed that corporate deceit can be proven without access to institutions: they
bought their VW ECU from eBay, they ran their test on public roads and in a local
garage. But they also suggested that to demonstrate this violation, all one needs is
the ECU, the technological device "itself." It is with this latter point that I would like
to respectfully take issue.
There are certainly good reasons to direct attention to computational objects
in making sense of Dieselgate. It seems unlikely "they" would have gotten away with
it without computational ingenuity. And it is surely important to show that technical
wizardry is not only abstract, but takes material, actual and concrete form in a
sizable thing, the ECU, which sits in most cars on the street today, and is thus utterly
mundane, even it usually remains invisible. However, the notion that if we are to
understand this scandal it is sufficient to examine technology itself does not hold up
to scrutiny. For one, the type of test results that Domke and Lange presented to the
Chaos Computer Clude had been known for several years by experts and
professionals familiar with the car industry (Lippert, 2016). It was only after the
sustained attention from non-governmental, news and other media organisations
that these "technical" results gained the capacity to cause scandal (Marres, 2018).
On a more general level, a narrow preoccupation with the functioning of technology
risks to contribute to a romantic misunderstanding of how scandals happen, of what
is required for the enactment of public accountability, for holding industry and
government to account. Briefly put, this requires not just technological
demonstration, but mediatization.
In this chapter, I would like to develop this point, not only by way of a
reflection on Dieselgate, but also to develop a wider argument about the relations
between technology and media in a digital society. Not only in geek circles, but in
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social and cultural studies of media and technology, too, there is growing agreement
that we need to focus our attention on computational devices (Gerlitz and Helmond,
2013; Gillespie; 2010; Tkacz, 2014). Researchers are seeking to come to terms with
the increasingly important role that digital machines for rating and ranking play in
the organisation of society and culture. Faced with the increasing entanglement of
technology and media in our societies, scholars in both these areas - technology
studies and media studies - are today reconsidering the formative concerns of their
disciplines (Turner, 2014). In the emerging field of social studies of media
technologies, scholars are taking up concepts of the "agency of technology" and
technical 'scripts', notions that were originally put forward in technology studies to
develop the claim that machines have 'recipes for action' designed into them
(Gillespie et al, 2014, Akrich, 1992). However, the uptake of these kind of concepts in
the contemporary context puts social studies of media technologies at a risk, I want
to argue, not dissimilar to that highlighted by Domke and Lange's presentation: we
may end up attributing to computational technologies normative capacities that in
fact derive from elsewhere.
The contexts in which we study technology have significantly changed since
the early 1990s: back then, it was possible to claim that the role of technology in
society was under-appreciated, and received too little attention from social and
cultural commentators (Latour, 1991). Today the opposite may well the case: rather
than being kept in the background, technology is consistently put on public display,
in political, media, cultural, activist and academic life. This situation, I would like to
argue, requires intellectual strategies that move in the opposite direction from 1990s
technology studies: rather than participating in the foregrounding of technology at
the expense of other entities and forces, we need to find ways to better appreciate
the role that media and processes of mediatization play in the conferral onto
technology of normative capacities. I will argue that a focus on public controversy
about technology, media and society enables us to make this move.
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A scandal like
Dieselgate demonstrates the critical importance of the mediatization of
technological objects if they are to gain moral and political capacities.
2
It has been proposed we should now turn our attention to 'infrastructure' or
'representation' (Turner, 2013). I would then like to add to these two concerns, that of
controversy. [To make this case, I will briefly return to controversy analysis as an approach
in science and technology studies, and then make the argument that digital controversies
invite or indeed necessitate a re-working of this approach
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2. Controversy: a changing interface between innovation and the public
The scandal of VW's emissions test rigging is special but it is not an exception.
Computational devices and arrangements routinely attract societal controversy
today, and there is a long list of applications that have caused public outrage in
recent years, from leaky apps like the smart phone flashlight that collects mobile
location data (Shklovski, 2014), to Facebooks 'dark posts' that allowed dubious or
even criminal agents to target particular demographics with manipulative content.
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Steve Jackson and colleagues (2014) offer an interpretation of this situation in their
article on "Policy Knots in Social Computing." Discussing a range of digital
controversies, including one about the location-aware app "Girls Near Me" - which
uses the geek platform's Foursquare API to identify social media users that fit this
profile - Jackson et al suggest that the tech industry increasingly approaches ethical,
social and political issues in ‘beta-testing’ mode. They rely on early releases, user
trials and field tests to identify not only technical issues with products and services,
but equally, social, ethical and legal problems with their functioning in society (see
on this point also Neff and Stark; Marres, forthcoming). Thus, concern and outrage
expressed online about the Girls Near Me app and its privacy and gender
implications, resulted in a prompt decision to pull the app, and adjustment of the
Foursquare API policy, as well as a public statement by said platform announcing
their commitment to improve and address ethical wrong-doing. Something similar
happened in the case of Facebook’s social graph search engine, which allowed users
to query Facebook for particular profile attributes and which was pulled after users
started posting screenshots of “creepy queries” including “young women who live
near me” on sites like Tumblr.
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Jackson et al do not quite conclude this, but it is possible to infer that in digital
societies the very role of public controversies may be changing. In social studies of
science and technology, public controversies have historically been analysed as
processes of problematization, as public occasions in which the role of innovation in
society is called into question and opened up for interrogation, as in the case of
controversies about electric cars, genetically modified foods and the Challenger
3
See Thompson, N. and Vogelstein (2018) Inside the Two Years That Shook Facebookand
the World, 12 February, Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/inside-facebook-mark-
zuckerberg-2-years-of-hell/
4
See http://actualfacebookgraphsearches.tumblr.com/ (Accessed November 12, 2015)
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disaster (Latour, 2005). However, in the public controversies about digital
technologies under discussion here, another dynamic can equally be discerned:
controversy presents not only an occasion for the articulation of public concern, it
also offers an opportunity to companies for product improvement and brand
positioning, and the organisation of an audience for them. Similarly, in the case of
Dieselgate, Volkswagen and other automotive companies took advantage of the
heightened public attention to announce a series of ambitious plans for sustainable
innovation, in the area of electric cars and "intelligent" - computerized - mobility. As
Mr Muller, the newly appointed CEO of Volkswagen put it to the Financial Times two
years after Dieselgate first broke: "“The crisis, of course, was a huge problem and it
was also rather costly,” [..] “but it actually worked as a kind of accelerator to address
issues that, before, were unable to be addressed.”
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In this same period, another
company also introduced "intelligent" automotive technology onto public roads in
America, Europe and China, in the shape of "Autopilot" software, which was also
controversial, and very successful in attracting public attention too.
This instrumental quality of controversy has been noted by researchers
drawing on Science and Technology Studies, most recently by marketing scholar
Susan Geiger (2015; see also Frankel, Ossadon et al, 2015), in her work on
“concerned markets.” This work proposes that when technology becomes a matter
of collective concern, this not only offers occasions for problematization - the critical
interrogation of existing relations between science, technology and society - but
equally provides opportunities for the configuration of new markets. Reversing the
sequence of classic approaches to controversy analysis, which assumed that
problematization of existing states of affairs comes first and the proposition of
innovation, of new science and technology, second, Geiger et al (2015) propose that
“the production of matters of concern is an ordinary consequence of the functioning
of markets, and by no way a failure to allude to the term used by economists
deploring the encroachment of social and political issues into the economic area.” (p.
3). They go on to describe the opportunities that public controversies offer for the
configurations of new markets from food supplements to, again, electric cars. In an
aptly titled section “CONCERN, TROUBLE, WORRY Controversies on-going” the
authors claim: “At the market boundary, these matters of concern, unstable as they
5
McGee, P, (2018) What went so right with Volkswagen's re-structuring, Financial Times,
Januaery 18, https://www.ft.com/content/a12ec7e2-fa01-11e7-9b32-d7d59aace167
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may be, represent a rallying point for concerned groups, who can start troubling the
market space by making matters of concern visible to other market actors.” From
this perspective, then, the making of markets and the articulation of public concern
then do not necessarily pull in opposite directions but may be aligned in their effects
or even purpose.
However, while Geiger and al emphasise the allignment between market
making and controversy (problematization), this leaves a different question
unanswered: how does the purposeful deployment of controversy by 'market-
makers' affect the status and efficacy of "public controversy" in society? To what
extend are the very media and institutional architectures - the genres - of
controversy affected, or indeed, actively transformed, by instrumental deployments
of controversy by companies and organisations? When public controversy about
technology was still defined as a moment of problematization, it was assumed to
enable public knowledge and participation: it was a moment in which hidden
assumptions about technology and society were revealed (Nelkin, 1979); when the
range of participants in the making of opinions, decisions and policy about
technology is radically extended (Callon et al, 2001); where dry, technical matters
such as the protocols for the measurement of the quality of sea water are opened up
to public scrutiny through media reporting (Barry, 2001). Each of these descriptions
confer onto public controversy the capacities of an "accountability machine": it
opens up hidden practices to wider scrutiny, allows outsiders to gain access to
institutional settings; it facilitates public articulation of routine, taken-for-granted
states of affairs. What happens to these capacities of controversy in digital societies
marked by beta-testing? The purposeful and almost routine deployment of public
issue articulation in this context brings into relief the promotional role of controversy
- instead of reputational risk, controversy offers an opportunity to claim
organisational "learning". Something has clearly happened to the humility that used
to associated with the enactment of "public accountability" in science and
technology (Jasanoff, 2003) . But how exactly are relations between innovation and
the public changing in digital societies? Controversy has long been regarded as one
of the principal ways of injecting 'accountability' into this relation, but does it still
have this capacity (Dean, 2002)?
3. Controversy as the curation of media ensembles
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How to investigate transformations of the role of public controversy in digital
societies? This is surely an interdisciplinary question, as the analysis of digital
controversies is currently undertaken across diverse fields, including digital media
studies, science and technology studies, digital sociology, anthropology, law et cetera
(for a discussion see Venturini, 2012; Marres, 2015). However, it seems to me that if
we are to formulate viable research strategies in this area, a re-conceptualization of
the object of enquiry is required. Most importantly, the role of digital media
technologies in public controversy requires much more attention across disciplines
than it has received to date. Studies of public controversy in fields other than media
studies have tended to de-emphasize the mediating role of news and other media
(Couldry, 2008). Controversy analysts have been especially concerned to establish
the significance of substantive issues - say of nuclear power, or climate change. For
science and technology studies, the aim was to direct attention to interrelations
between knowledge, power and nature in society, while environmental scholars
aimed to shift attention to the non-human, ecological and geological scales. From
these various perspectives, too much attention to the mundane realities of media
circulation would risk to distract from substantive and ontological matters. However,
if we make it our aim to address this lacuna, it is equally crucial that we do not end
up displacing attention away from public controversy. To be sure, it has become
more difficult today to bracket the role of media technologies such as social media
platforms in the organisation - and dis-organisation - of public controversy. But I
want to argue it is nevertheless to the public articulation of societal problems that we
should attend. Let me unpack this point before briefly outlining the implications for
public controversy in a digital society.
In an important recent article, David Moats (2017) has argued that
controversy analysis offers a fruitful approach for social studies of digital media
technologies insofar as it offers an alternative to the "social shaping" approach that
has been prominent in Anglo-American contributions to this field. Instead than
defining digital media as an "underlying structure" that has a formative influence on
"discourse", controversy analysis adopts a dynamic perspective on media
technologies, one that recognizes that these devices play multiple and variable roles
in digital societies. It has long been argued that digital media signal a move beyond
"the media" as a unified category (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995), but digital
controversy analysis offers an operationalisation of this proposition. Controversy,
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Moats argues, indicates a process by which heterogenous media sources enter into
relation, and in context of multi-media, or even media fragmentation, this process
gains special importance as a logic of mediation. Controversy signals the formation of
"media ensembles": heterogeneous sources - from 'news', to activism,
organisational communication, social networks, artworks, etc. - are variously
activated, brought into relation and configured into a topical assemblage through the
unfolding of publically mediated events (Cf. Volkmer and Defner, 2009). Moats give
the example of a terrorist incident in London in which different social media
accounts were extensively quoted in the news media, and thus emerged as the
designated channels in the public mediation of this event, and, indeed, as
protagonists in a public dispute (was this a terrorist incident or not?).
Controversy analysis, then, does not define digital media as a substructure or
even 'platform' for societal debate, of which the 'fundamental' formative attributes
must be specified, in order to determine how "the media" shape "discourse" or
"opinion" or "public understanding." Studying media through the lense of public
controversy makes it possible to treat this as an empirical question: what is media?
what sources and channels emerge, over the course of controversy, as the conduits
for the enactment of public dispute? In the context of digital transformations of
society and culture, Moats proposes, "media" should be understood as referring to
an empirically variable assemblage - a loose collection of hetergeneous elements
deriving from different media architectures that are curated by way of controversy
(See also Schneider and Foot, 2005; Anderson, 2013). Did a given controversy start
through a spreadsheet shared on Twitter, or was it a report leaked to a journalist?
What are the contours of the digital media spheres that formed during the
controversy to enable its staging? In the case of the public scandal that is now known
as Dieselgate, it was a test report by an NGO - the Council for Clean Transportation -
discussed in newspapers by investigative journalists which re-ingited discussions in
online media about emission test rigging. As noted in the introduction, these
discussions foregrounded a state of affairs that has been known among experts for
years. It was the public mediation of a known circumstance that activated the
scandal.
As such, Dieselgate is arguably different from other important environmental
controversies, such as the Chernobyl disaster. To be sure in the case of both
Chernobyl and Dieselgate, it was in the material minutae of everyday living that
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environmental disaster left its most powerful and damaging traces - in the
contaminated food crops in affected agricultural fields, in the air we breathe. And in
both cases, invisible toxins crossed boundaries that existing governmental
institutions proved incapable of policing. However, in the case of Dieselgate it was
not the big explosion of a massive factory accident, but the creeping crimes of
software engineers who were allowed to get away with duplicitious programming
that emerged as the object of scandal. The latter case is lacking in the sensational
features of an accident and perhaps partly for this reason, the role of mediatization
in the controversy is more noticeable: It was the circulation of a fact that was already
well-established between experts, among environmental organisations, news papers
and social media that led to its 'issuefication' (Marres and Rogers, 2005): the
translation of a technical "fait accompli" into a cause of public disapproval and
indeed criminal proscecution.
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Another difference was hinted at in the previous
section. During Dieselgate the very genre of public controversy about technology,
environment and society lost its innocence.
Dieselgate can seem to have had only superficial effects: for Volkswagen its
lasting legacy is apparently to have set the stage for its continued and future success.
However, I want to conclude this chapter by offering a different assessment. Even if
it is the case that public controversy in a digital society has lost its innocence, it has
not lost its critical capacities. Indeed, this loss of innocence can also be understood
as an effect of the "mediatization" of public controversy in a digital age. As the role
of digital media architectures in the cultivation of "public outrage" is becoming
increasingly obvious, it is now undeniable that controversy presents as much a media
genre as it is an event (Marres, 2015). However, while the role of media in the
production and management of public disputes canno longer be bracketed in digital
societies - no issues without media! - , it is nevertheless on public controversy that
we should continue to focus.
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While the epochal importance of mediated controversies was recognized in prominent
theories like Ulrich Beck's "Risk Society", Latours non-modernity and Stengers Cosmpolitics :
Controversy-generating events like the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the entry of climate
change into public awareness - were accorded central importance in his and related
theories, indeed they were treated as indexing an epochal transformation of modern
society into a different societal form. [Here according to controversy to capacity to define
epoch, seemed to require the bracketing of the role of media in their public-ization]. Yet the
role of public media in is not given any sustained attention, or appreciation, lest it detract
from the ontological and epoch-defining significance of "the event".
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4. The critical capacities of a digital controversy
Controversy analysis has sometimes been criticized for paying disproportionate
attention to surface phenomena. As it is concerned with public disputes, it almost
automatically privileges those conflicts that organisations, activists, institutions and
media can be bothered to perform in public, at the expense of al those under-
articulated tensions, neglected contestations, and unchallenged problematics that
equally define social, cultural and public life in a technological society, if not more so
(see for a discussion Shapiro et al, 2017). This criticism is pertinent and it gives
further support to the diagnosis of the decreasing efficacy of public controversy as a
mode of intervention. However, the claim that public controversies only scratch the
surface leaves out of consideration a crucial circumstance: controversy is one of the
very few available mechanisms by which under-explicated states of affairs may come
to be explicated, in ways that are able to challenge established, i.e. under-
challenged, societal understandings. In this respect, it is not technically correct to say
that controversy analysis limits attention to the surface of social and public life:
controversy is precisely a public mechanism for the explication of underlying, latent,
under-explicated societal transformations. On this final point too, Dieselgate can
serve a an example: this scandal did not just put on public display the dubious -
indeed, criminal - operations of a respected Germany company. It brought to light a
wider, more fundamental, creeping crisis of accountability in digital societies.
Dieselgate offered a public demonstration of the role of computational
systems in the dismantling of institutional arrangements for evidence-based
governance. The technology at the heart of the scandal has been lucidly dubbed the
"defeat device": the firmware built into VW Diesel cars enables a devious type of
automated intelligence, whereby a machine becomes capable of detecting an
evaluative situation, to select for "virtuous" behaviour, and on this basis, to gain
regulatory approval and access to society, free to cause harm while 'out on the
street'. It is surely tempting to note the aptitude of this behavioural profile as a
descriptor for how certain corporations operate in society. However, the public
reporting of the workings of the defeat device occasioned by the Dielsegate scandal
precisely does more than an exemplify a moral problem about which "everybody
knows." The scandal offered an empirical demonstration of a more complex harmful
effect on society. As Doctorow (2017) has argued, the capacity of computational
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devices to detect test conditions as in the case of the defeat device, changes the
balance of power between companies, governments and consumers.
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I would add to
that the public. Dieselgate brought into view a complex transformation of public
politics and the public sphere, a creeping crisis of accountability that arises from the
design of "intelligent" software into societal infrastructures.
What made Dieselgate powerful was its demonstration of direct harm to
human and environmental health. It was found that " [..] excess emissions from
Volkswagen’s defeat devices will cause around 60 people in the U.S. to die 10 to 20
years prematurely.”
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However, the scandal also demonstrated a series of indirect
harmful effects. The software designed into VW Diesel cars has the capacity to
change the relations between the street - everyday environments in society - and the
laboratory - the test sites of research and governance - which provide the empirical
basis for regulatory regimes in democratic societies. The defeat device makes it
possibe to inscribe test conditions (the laboratory) into computationally enhanced
vehicles: VW diesel cars “knew” when they were undergoing tests, and because of
this they were able to game these tests. This 'smartness' enabled Volkswagen to rig a
lot more than emission tests: it demonstrates how computational systems are
undermining the ability of governance to regulate behaviour in society through
experimental evaluations of performance. As announced in frontpage news articles
across the world, computationally enhanced cars are able to “change their behavior
without telling us”. As such, this scandal also put on public display the creeping
dismanting of accountability regimes in computationally intensive societies: the car’s
7
Doctorow notes that these developments are not just affecting the automotive sector:
these developments also occur in the regulation of gambling machines, and there are
many other examples, including in the field of mental health and social care, where
troublingly social media companies come to be enrolled as partners in 'social care
provision' (Marres, 2017). However i have a different interpretation of this behaviour than
Doctorow, whoi writes: "Software can say, ‘‘If there’s a chance I’m undergoing inspection,
then be totally honest – but cheat the rest of the time.’’ I would say that the defeat device
precisely was dishonest during the test. By not calling out its deceptive operations in test
environments, the crisis of public truth remains under appreciated. Doctorow notes that it is
the rights of consumers that are violated by this deceptive behaviour. As he puts it " the
computers we rely on are sneaking around behind our backs, treating us as their enemies."
However, it seems to be the threat to consumers is not more fundamental than the threat
of public accountability regimes: the latter undermines the very possibility for redress.
http://locusmag.com/2017/09/cory-doctorow-demon-haunted-world/
8
Barrett, S. R., et al (2015). "Impact of the Volkswagen emissions control defeat device on
US public health." Environmental Research Letters, 10(11), 114005.
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performance in the lab may be strictly regulated, but its behaviour on the street is a
different matter, and happens beyond the control of empirical forms of governance
that are anchored in lab-based test regimes. They seem able to operate beyond the
reach of "good governance."
However, as Dieselgate also demonstrated, the relations between smart
technology and public accountability is not a simple one: after all, it was media
reports of independent tests by the Council for Clean Transportation and others, that
led to the outing of the 'defeat device', the criminal prosecution of Volkswagen in the
US, and the PR Blitz campaign by the company that "the future is electric." Clearly,
some accountability mechanisms are functioning in digital societies. At the same
time, it is not just in the automotive sector but in areas as diverse as mental health
care and gambling that the insertion of computational systems into existing societal
infrastructures is threatening to dismantle arrangements of public accountability
(Kroll et al, 2016). This surely requires more examination. However, from my
discussion of Dieselgate something also follows for controversy analysis. It may well
be the case that controversy about technology is purposefully deployed by the
companies it targets in a digital society, and that as such, its efficacy as a mechanism
of public accountability may be decreasing. However, at the same time public
controversy continues to presents a key mechanism for the demonstration of this
very crisis of accountability.
5. Conclusion
Dieselgate, I then propose, provides a helpful exemplary for thinking through the
changing roles of and status of public controversy about technology in a digital
society. In this context, "societal concern" and "public outrage" are deployed
instrumentally, purposefully, and strategically by interested actors in order to further
their private agendas. We should notably include in this the agenda's of digital
technology and media companies themselves. Online platforms have in recent years
been explicitly adapted to promote public disputes, or more accurately 'pubic
outrage', insofar as the promotion of disagreeable content by way of digital selection
tools (rating and ranking ) has proven an effective instrument to enrol and mobilize
audiences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, offensive texts and images turn out to be
especially effective in mobilizing large crowds and consequently this type of content
has been favoured by social media, for whom the maximization of what social media
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and social media commentators doggedly continue to refer to as 'engagement' -
even if 'enrolment' is the more accurate term - is the chosen commercial strategy.
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(Another way of putting this is that social media increasingly resemble tabloid
media.) As controversy analysts have long pointed out, it is important to distinguish
between controversy - which involves the articulation of a point of contention
through a process of exchange between differently positionsed actors - from mere
dispute - which involves disagreement but not articulation (Barry, 2001). But insofar
as social media are an increasingly prominent factor in the organisation of public
debate in general, the enactment of controversy has not remained unaffected. In a
digital society, controversy can precisely no longer be defined as an "event". It is
noticable informed and inflected by the media environments in which they unfold:
controversy is always also a genre of publicity, a device of communication, and an
unstable one at that.
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The multivalence of public controversy - that it is both a substantive process in
which claims emerge, and eminently deployable as an instrument for mobilizing
audiences - has long been foregrounded by controversy analysts. However, in a
digital society, public controversy presents more than a moment in which, as the
classic phrase has it, "relations between science, technology and society are
rendered visible." As public controversies about digital technology are purposefully
used to organise publics for 'innovation', public controversy itself looses its basic
legitimacy: it is not self-evidently a mechanism for enacting accountability or even
democratization, but may well be put to opposite ends. However, even as we must
bring the genre of public controversy within the frame of critical analysis, it does not
follow that we can or should no longer value controversy 'for its own sake.' A scandal
like Dieselgate plays a critical role in the public articulation of an creeping crisis of
accountability in digital societies. In this event, the mediatization of a known
circumstance - software allows machines to perform to the test and evade
accountability - enabled the problematization of relations between innovation,
9
Thompson, N. and Vogelstein (2018) Inside the Two Years That Shook Facebookand the
World, 12 February, Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/inside-facebook-mark-
zuckerberg-2-years-of-hell/
10
Even if tech companies are notoriously resistant to attempts to frame their role in
society and culture in terms of "publicity", prefering to label themselves as
'technology' companies, as this allows them to operate outside the regulatory frames
and without the public accountability associated with the former.
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government and the public. Controversy remains an important shared occasion for
the critical inspection of previously unsuspected societal arrangments, assumptions,
and states of affairs. And in a digital society this includes socio-technical
arrangements for public accountability themselves.
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