Musings, Politics

Facebook Live, BLM, and the Nature of Rights in Virtual Space

My first start-up was an MMO company. My role was to design the socioeconomic and governance structures for an online world. It was wonderfully geeky opportunity for a 20-year-old political theory major and gamer.

As Raph Koster has written, the advent of many-to-many live video (Facebook Live; Periscope) and augmented reality gaming (Pokemon Go) has brought new relevance to that work, highlighting the challenges of having vital communication controlled by private interests and the resulting importance of civic tech projects.

One of the big questions we grappled with was whether participants in mediated space (games, social media, chat rooms, etc.) could claim to have rights. (See this fun and earnest declaration.)

In political theory, rights — as in civil rights — have one of three points of origin that place them above government, laws, and other forms of human decision-making.

  • Natural: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ You are human, you have rights.
  • Divine: They are granted and flow from a god.
  • Social: We grant them to each other.

The question was whether any of these premises could hold true in a mediated environment. It boiled down to whether participant(s) could use their rights to overrule the will of the the mediator — the game maker, social media company, etc. And, in each instance, they couldn’t.

  • Natural: The mediator invents and controls the laws of nature. “Right to free speech? You’re no longer able to talk.”
  • Divine: The mediator is, functionally, god. What they grant they can take away.
  • Social: This works as long as the mediator sees themselves as part of the community. But it’s a choice they can reverse at any time. (Today? Today I’m a god.)

Our concept of inalienable rights assumes the basis for those rights is inaccessible and immutable. Even (most) religious people assume their god isn’t going to show up and change their mind.

In a mediated environment, the mediator is an active participant, accessible to the participants, and most definitely mutable. They can change or pull the plug on the whole thing at any time, ending you, your world, and your rights.

Conclusion: Our concept of rights cannot apply in mediated, or virtual, space.

So, can you have rights in Facebook? Can they be obligated to broadcast your side of an interaction with the police?

Facebook exists as a private entity in meatspace. They are subject to the laws and regulations of government, which means they can’t be the origin point for rights. Further, nothing prevents Zuckerberg from shutting the whole thing down tomorrow, or simply removing live streaming as a feature.

So, no, you can’t have rights in Facebook. The best case scenario is where they choose to use their power to defend your rights. But they don’t have to. And this is a huge problem when Facebook (and other mediated technologies) are our central means of exposing and communicating injustice and the abuse of state power.


Ambition & Individual Responsibility

The light and dark of America’s two most dominant traits

As a Canadian, I grew up in a place that is almost but not quite the USA. We consume the same culture, eat the same food, work in the same industries. American and Canadian values are closely aligned. But they differ in two big ways.

Through a Canadian lens, Americans are distinguished by their innate ambition and sense of individual responsibility. At their best, they represent America at its best. But their echoes can be held responsible for this country’s dark side.

Ambition underpins America’s innovative industries, its dominance in sport, the (eroding) strength of its middle class, its cultural force around the world, and its remarkable universities.

Walk into any coffee shop and you’ll find two American 20-year-olds working on a start-up to take down Citibank. In the USA, they’re cheered on. In Canada, they’d be politely patted on the head.

The belief that anything can be accomplished is uniquely American. It’s what has drawn me and countless other immigrants to this place: the promise of unbounded, global opportunity.

Similarly, a profound sense of individual responsibility is what makes America one of the most philanthropic countries in the world. Americans are dedicated and loyal to their families. They volunteer their time and join community organizations. They hold a deep reverence for public service.

Americans do things because if they don’t, no one else will. They step up.

But ambition is also responsible for the idiocy of Donald Trump and the dumbing of political debate, capitalism’s devastating interventions in the Middle East, nuclear weapons and the military industrial complex, the damaging and divisive myth of American Exceptionalism, the unprecedented consumption of natural resources and the resulting environmental damage, the 21st century crusade against Islam, and Kim Kardashian and the worship of fame.

You’re with us or against us. USA! USA! USA!

Similarly, individual responsibility is why America has no social safety net, imprisons more of its citizens than any other major country, is the only western democracy to still have the death penalty, fails to recognize systemic injustice, champions the second amendment, has 6 of the top 15 cities with the most homeless residents, sees poverty as a sin, and believes that a black President marks the end of racism.

They had it coming. Sink or swim. Should’ve known better.

Still, I find myself drawn here. I love Canada but ran into its limits.

I hope my daughters grow up with the best of this country and deep, personal ambition to fix the rest.