MC433: Technology and Justice


These are my notes for MC433 at the London School of Economics for the 2017-2018 school year. I took this module as part of the one-year Inequalities and Social Science MSc program.

The usual disclaimer: all notes are my personal impressions and do not necessarily reflect the view of the lecturer.

Taught by Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.


A 3,000 word essay on a topic mostly of your choice. I wrote about the dangers of algorithmic advertising (mark: Distinction)

Lecture notes

  1. Communication Technologies and Justice (September 28)
  2. Civil Rights and the Press (October 05)
  3. Human Rights, Communication Rights, and Media Literacies (October 12)
  4. Media Justice (October 19)
  5. Inclusion and Access (October 26)
  6. Reading week (November 02)
  7. Content Production, Human Development, and Participation (November 09)
  8. Internet Infrastructure and Presence (November 16)
  9. Prediction, Accuracy, and (Un)fairness (November 23)
  10. Automated Technologies and Autonomy (November 30)
  11. Communication Futures (December 07)

Communication Technologies and Justice - week 1


Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace by Lawrence Lessig (chapters 1-3)

He believes in a sort of constitutional approach to regulating the Internet—not necessarily a top-down one, but he thinks we need to find a flexible way of governing things otherwise it will all devolve into either anarchy or totalitarianism. So we need sort of government regulation, but we also have to be careful about letting governments regulate too much, because they can’t be trusted in their current context.

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (chapter 1)

He builds on the idea of the social contract (as in Locke, Rousseau, Kant) and primarily focuses on the idea of justice as fairness, in contrast to utilitarianism, which he criticises as teleological (that’s one of my favourite words, incidentally) and unable to “take seriously the distinction between persons”.

Inclusion and Democracy by Iris Marion Young (chapter 1)

She differentiates between two models of democracy. The aggregative model (which treats democracy is a matter of aggregating self-interested preferences in a fair and reliable way) is, partly problematic because it treats all preferences as equal no matter their origin or level of rationality. The deliberative model, on the other hand, is about communication and reason: more weight is given to preferences that stand up to dialogic examination. She also talks about structural inequality, and has a wonderfully pithy line on it: “For democracy to promote justice it must already be just.” My personal opinion on this book so far is that it’s pretty great (much more considered than Rawls’) and you should probably just read it.


(What follows is my own account of the general thrust of the lecture, which may or may not align with what was actually said by the lecturer. Use at your own risk.)

In the age of mass communication, it’s hard to deny the power of a photograph. The right photograph or, a fortiori, video, can open up a world hitherto unknown to the public and consequently change public sentiment on a scale that would previously have been unimaginable. The implications of this for social justice are massive. In the US, during the civil rights era, mass broadcasting played a transformative role in showing a glimpse of the injustices faced by black Americans in a way that couldn’t be easily ignored by the rest, thus opening the floodgates to widespread social change.

Now, of course, we live in a networked age. With the ascendence of social media and the technologies that made it possible, access to the media is much less gated, and so it’s not only journalists who have the power to shape discourse. Contemporary injustice can be captured on video by a passerby and, from there, quickly ignite the fury of the world—like when Walter Scott was killed by a policeman in 2015.

(Tangentially, as I type these notes, it’s Sunday, October 1 and I’m watching an absolutely mindblowing video showing Spanish military police going up against Catalonian citizens during the Catalan referendum. I’d heard about what was happening, but hearing about it and seeing what it actually looks like on the ground are two very different things. A good example of the power of imagery.)

Looming on the horizon is the next great age of communication: the intelligent age. Rather than humans networked with other humans, we now have machines networked with other machines. At this point, the class is shown a startup promo video, whose casual tone and cutesy animations completely belie the terrifyingly misguided (not to mention harmful) nature of what this startup does: predictive policing. See if you can guess the racial composition of its executives before you click the link. The reasons why this sort of approach to policing is so dangerous were beyond the scope of the lecture (and hence this post), but you can probably guess. What happens when the existing biases of society are codified in data and thus used to direct future actions? What sort of chthonic vicious cycle do we create then?

Course overview

The split between mass, networked, and intelligent communications in the paragraphs above roughly parallels the division of topics over the course of this module: over the next nine weeks, we’ll spend three weeks on each topic. The focus will be on the US, because the lecturer is American, but we’ll look at some examples from the Global South.

We’ll be focusing on the intersection of history, governance, and theories of justice, and how that relates to technology. When we consider the governance of technology, we should remember that it’s not just about governments; in fact, we can break down the primary forces for regulation as law, code (as in software), norms, and markets. These can interact with each other in unexpected ways—markets can produce the ascendence of corporations that change our behaviour and thus our norms (for example, by conditioning us give up our data).

Theories of justice

In accordance with the readings, we’ll be looking at two competing theories of justice: John Rawls’ view, from his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, and that of Iris Marion Young, from her 1990 book Justice and the Politics of Difference.

For comparison, here’s a quote from Rawls that was shown in the slides:

A conception of social justice … is to be regarded as providing in the first instance a standard whereby the distributive aspects of the basic structure of society are to be assessed.

And here’s a quote from Young:

Justice should refer not only to distribution, but also to the institutional conditions necessary for the development and exercise of individual capacities and collective communication and cooperation.

(she’s really on her consonance game there)

Their theories are almost polar opposites. Rawls is in favour of a liberal democratic society and believes that to get there, we individuals must come together from our “original positions”, detached from our own personal identity and history, and rationally figure out how to distribute goods in a fair way. Everyone should be considered an equal, and we should accordingly distribute things equally, with inequalities only justifiable if they benefit the least-advantaged members of society (the “difference principle”). His approach seems fairly proceduralist & based on the idea that humans are intrinsically capable of reason and rationality.

Young, on the other hand, does not (and I agree with her) buy into the whole “original position” theory. History and context do matter; we can no more shed the cognitive baggage associated with the specific lives we have led than we can shed our corporeal selves to float free in an ether of bodiless rationality. A self is not something you just have, but rather something you build, and as such it is inextricably bound up with identity and other worldly matters. I could write about this all day but instead I’ll just refer you to David Foster Wallace’s essay on Kafka and move on. Young is partial to a communicative democracy, not a liberal democracy, and believes that we have to consider non-quantifiable inequalities in addition to quantifiable ones like wealth (think culture or access to speech). She’s interested in justice from a collective, as opposed to an individual, perspective and emphasises the role that institutions can play in silently maintaining oppression.

(My summaries above are bound to be tendentious because of my personal views on the topic, so you should check out the original texts if you want a better understanding of the difference between these two philosophers.)

Anyway, the whole point of understanding these theories of justice is to start with some sort of normative framework that will ground us in the weeks to come, as we take a closer look at the interplay of communication technologies and justice.


(I’m in seminar group 1, led by the professor.)


As an icebreaker, we were asked to introduce ourselves to each other (in pairs) and tell the other person where our maternal great-grandmother was born. This was a very geographically diverse group so we had a ton of different answers, from those who were very well acquainted with their personal family histories to those who had absolutely no clue. Personally, I was uncertain, but I would guess somewhere in Shandong, simply because all of my grandparents are from Shandong and I don’t know where else she would have migrated from. Part of the reason I’m so uncertain has to do with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, under which certain members of my family suffered more than most; sadly, lots of family history was lost or buried in the process. Others had similar reasons for uncertainty due to, for instance, the chaos of WWII, or the legacy of colonialism. This was an interesting exercise that highlighted just how intimately our personal family histories can be bound up with geopolitical events.

The summative essay

A 3000-word essay is due at the beginning of the seminar in week 7. Details (including potential topics, though we are encouraged to choose our own) can be found in the “Coursework Questions” document on Moodle.

I asked, given that the essay would be due the beginning of week 7, if we should limit ourselves to pre-week 7 content (i.e., omitting intelligent communication). The answer was no—we should feel free to address any topics that were or will be mentioned in class—although it was acknowledged that we would be at a slight advantage if we chose to address something that hadn’t yet been covered.

Someone else asked if we should take a specific approach to the essay (policy proposal? literature review?), to which the answer was also no: we should feel free to take whatever approach we want (within reason).

What is justice?

At the beginning of the lecture, we were all given post-its on which we were to write, anonymously, what we each thought “justice” meant. My own personal definition was very much inspired by having recently read Philosophy and Social Hope by the neopragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, and it had to do with it being a way of trying to make life better for actually existing human beings, not backed by an absolute moral force but still an asymptote we should push toward. Something like that, I can’t really remember. You should read Rorty if you want a better definition (he has some good ones).

At the end of the seminar, we were each given 3 randomly-chosen post-its (there are 3 seminar groups, and I assume the other groups did the same later) from earlier and asked to collectively group them by subject on the whiteboard. It was tricky because a lot of the definitions blended into each other, and it was hard to prescriptively delineate where one subject should end and the other begin. (It was also physically tricky because a few mavericks inexplicably chose to write on the wrong side of their post-it.) In the end, we had the following groupings (I’m paraphrasing):

Another student mentioned that there seemed to be a clear split between those who thought justice had to do with already existing rules and institutions, and those who defined in a more subjective or goal-oriented or immanent way. This is especially notable in light of the theory (alluded to in the lecture) that institutions are always indelibly shaped by the personal beliefs of the individuals and groups that create them, and thus are never neutral, never fully unbiased; the degree to which they reinforce or counter existing ideology depends heavily on the balance of social forces. So the fact that a sizable chunk of students seem to implicitly trust existing institutions and the rule of the law (at least when trying to define “justice”) says something about the extent to which they subscribe to that theory, which may itself be due to personal experiences (or lack thereof) with these institutions. It would be fascinating to conduct this experiment again at the end of the semester to see if the definitions have changed.

Civil Rights and the Press - week 2


Rethinking the public sphere by Nancy Fraser

This is a wonderful paper found in the book Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig J. Calhoun. (You can download a PDF of the paper here.) I was pretty stoked to see something on Habermas in the reading list (I haven’t actually read any of his work yet, but it’s been high up on my list ever since I read Grand Hotel Abyss), and this paper lived up to that promise.

Fraser’s goal here is to dissect Habermas’s concept of the “public sphere” (introduced in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and assess its blind spots and limitations. In Habermas’s definition, the (bourgeois) public sphere is a place where “private people can come together as a public”, thus opening a space for citizens that is not part of the state apparatus (and potentially serving as a means of checking authoritarian state behaviour). It should also be separate from the economy, and thus guided by discursive instead of market relations.

The idea of a public sphere in itself may be good, but it comes with lots of assumptions that we need to unpack:

This idea that it’s possible to shed status distinctions within this sphere (with the corollary that inequality in the real world is acceptable for the purposes of the public sphere—i.e., that you don’t need real-world status equiality for a functioning democracy). Rebuttal: of course you can never fully bracket differences, especially when the protocols themselves serve as class distinctions. Bracketing always works to the advantage of the dominant groups. Think all this “I don’t see gender/race” discourse coming from members of the dominant class as a way of dismissing the (very valid) concerns from marginalised people.

That a single sphere is better than multiple. Rebuttal: in a stratified society, with rampant inequality and groups that are dominated by others, you need what Fraser calls subaltern counterpublics. This is true when a society is not stratified, as long as it is heterogeneous—public spheres are important for the forming and enacting of social identities, and so you need multiple such sphers to accommodate different norms (otherwise you end up privileging the dominant group over the others).

The focus on topics relevant to the common good, and not private matters. Rebuttal: what counts as “public” is itself a contentious topic, and different groups will have different opinions on the matter. There are ideas that are initially seen as private concerns (think domestic violence) and are only later seen as public/common concerns, after they’ve been first developed in subaltern communities. There may not be a universal “common” good in a society consisting of groups that dominate/exploit others, and the designation of particular ideas as private has a tendency to benefit the dominant groups (though not always: think Roe v. Wade or Bowers v. Hardwick).

The assumed separation of civil society and the state, which seems to imply the necessity of laissez-faire capitalism and a limited form of government. Rebuttal: Habermas’ definition assumes that participants in the public sphere are not government employees, but this only results in a weak public (i.e., one with no civil servants and thus no civic decision-making power). Distinguished from a strong public (e.g., a sovereign parliament). Having such a sharp division between public/private citizens can be deleterious because then you miss out on potentially important forms of accountability.

Fraser’s conclusion is that we need a postbourgeois conception of the public sphere.

A Free And Responsible Press (pages 79-95)

Also known as the Hutchins report. Published in 1947 by The Commission On Freedom Of The Press. This report is extremely historically significant, and can be seen as partly responsible for the unique role of the American press. The main goal of the report was to clarify the commission’s ideal level of government involvement in the functioning of the press (spoiler: very little). Their whole idea was that the press should find a way to self-regulate, and that it could do that even despite the exigencies of the profit motive.

Proposals for the govt:

  1. include radio & film in freedom of the press
  2. fund more technology and maintain competition via antitrust laws if necessary (but preserve concentration where it’s beneficial to consumers)
  3. alternative to libel (civil action for damage)—we should have a better way for libel victims to get a correction/retraction. I think they’re arguing for more voluntary corrections? not really sure
  4. this is a weird one addressing some technicality w/ freedom of speech and urging the overthrow of the government by force (I think they’re saying: don’t prosecute this unless it’s actually likely to result in violence)
  5. govt should inform the public of policies through existing or new channels if necessary (not entirely sure that their goal with this one is)

Basically they’re saying that the communications industry should remain private, but with the knowledge that it serves the public interest. The Commission hopes that the press will recognise its own responsibility and uphold it so as to avoid the need for government regulation. Optimistically thinks that the profit motive and a good press can coexist (which I tentatively disagree with, because you can get a vicious/virtuous cycle, depending on reception by the public … there’s an aleatory element as well, of course).

Proposals for the press:

  1. Large companies should be responsible but not broken up
  2. Companies should fund new experimental technologies/ventures even if they’re (initially) unprofitable, as long as they serve the public better
  3. Members of the press need to engage in mutual criticism
  4. Improve staff effectiveness (better pay, conditions, education)
  5. Radio: don’t let programming be dictated by advertisers (should be like newspapers in this regard)

The Race Beat by Gene Roberts, Hank Klibanoff (chapters 1-3)

On the role of the press in the civil rights era. Very accessible read & highly engrossing (more journalistic than academic). Seems to be focused on the stories of the white southern editors who helped pave the way for public acceptance of the civil rights movement (partly riding on the work of black journalists who would have otherwise been ignored by white America).



We continued our discussion of the last question from the lecture. No real answer was proposed—I think we all the dangers of relying on self-regulation while at the same time acknowledging that you can’t always rely on the government, either.

Some points raised:

We then got into pairs to summarise key readings to each other (Rawls, Young, Fraser, etc). It then transpired that the point of this exercise was to encourage us to, in the future, better ground our seminar discussions in the texts we’re reading.

Human Rights, Communication Rights, and Media Literacies - week 3


Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (chapter 1)

Published in 1970 in English (originally published in Portuguese 2 years earlier). This is a lovely & quite philosophical work that draws heavily on critical theory, though its practicality may be limited (and it may be used as a way of shifting the burden away from the oppressor and onto the oppressed). I have some rough notes below, but if you’re into Hegel or Lukács or just beautiful prose, you might as well read the original.

MacBride report (pages V-1-18)

A UNESCO publication entitled “Many Voices One World” from 1981. A fairly radical take on the key role of communication in the world, and how we need national media/education/etc to try to alleviate the effects of the market. Moving away from the right to free speech and toward the right to communicate.



Media Justice - week 4


Media and Morality by Roger Silverstone (chapter 6)

On hospitality and justice. I thought this was quite a good read . Incidentally, Silverstone was a founder of the Media and Communications at LSE!

Media Concentration and Democracy by C. Edwin Baker (chapter 1)

Published in 2006. On the need for a less concentrated media landscape. I agree with a lot of his points about media concentration but I worry that his solution isn’t radical enough …

Speaking for Ourselves in The Nation

By Makani Themba and Nan Rubin. A short article on media portrayal during the civil rights era & its impact on racism in real life.



Inclusion and Access - week 5


Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen (chapter 3)

Context: written in 1999, seems like he’s trying to sway a fairly libertarian/right-leaning audience into caring about inequality and justice. He starts from a Rawlsian POV but then modifies/builds on it, saying that if we truly care about equality, we can’t just be satisfied by “income” equality—we have to ask if people have different needs. Basically a long-winded way of saying “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” but in a more libertarian-friendly way. I wasn’t really into this reading though I’m sure it was important at the time, and probably had some impact on his intended audience (i.e., people who aren’t me).

Report from Chilean Presidential Commission, 1999

On best practices for how to move toward an information society. Acknowledging the technological revolution (the rising importance of the Internet, non-material assets, and computerisation). The state will have to play a role in modernising—there has already been some push toward greater access to digital resources, but it’s been uneven. Summary of suggested landscape: public-private partnerships, transparent/competitive markets, new legal frameworks for fostering spread of e-commerce, flexible regulations to encourage investment by private corporations. A fairly neoliberal agenda overall.

Technologies of Choice? by Dorothea Kleine (chapter 6)

On digital procurement services in Chile and the problem with them (not really designed for citizens and thus allowed corporate interests to proliferate at the expense of local microentrepreneurs).


(First week of our look at the networked era of communication technologies.)


- week 6

Content Production, Human Development, and Participation - week 7


The wealth of networks (PDF) by Yochai Benkler (introduction)

A fairly breathless (but, unfortunately, foundational) 2006 text on the promises of peer production. I think he’s on the right side of things ethically, but he’s waaay too optimistic about the potential of technology to resist capitalism (and fairly naive about the totalising abilities of the latter). See week 4 of 4AAVC101 for more notes on Benkler’s theories.

From Goods to a Good Life by Madhavi Sunder (chapter 3)

Starts with an anecdote about Solomon Linda, who created the song that later became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” but didn’t receive any royalties from it and died poor (even though he theoretically would have been entitled to at least something, under IP law at the time). As someone who is very opposed to IP law in its current form, I felt like this anecdote completely backfired on me—the problem is not that he should have received $$ as a result of creating this song, the problem is that he shouldn’t have had to create a song in order to maintain a livelihood. Her claim that intellectual property law incentivised his creation is, imo, absolute crap. Using an instance of IP law failing someone in need as a justification for greater IP protections is absolutely inane and an excellent example of undialectical thinking. The problem is a structurally unfair distribution of resources, and extending the reach of intellectual property law will not get us any closer to fixing that.

On the other hand, her approach is at least better than the narrow economic-centred, utilitarian one, given that she does look at the effects of law on “structuring cultural and social relations”, and recognises that IP law doesn’t apply to everyone equally (fairly). She criticises Lawrence Lessig’s seminal 2004 book Free Culture (PDF) (which, incidentally, I fell in love with as a teenager), noting his failure to address real-world inequalities in the ability to exploit common resources. Which is a good point, but her solution doesn’t exactly address that failure, either. Her position is inspired by Sen/Nussbaum whereas Lessig’s is more in the rms mold (quasi-libertarian).

My biggest point of contention with her take is on economic grounds. At one point, she says that “cultural participation secures livelihood” (p.90); my counter would be that it shouldn’t, and any proposal that tacitly accepts that statement as valid is immanently flawed. She also proposes microfinance as a solution to capital deficits in developing countries & educating local “innovators” on how to commercialise their inventions which is just UGH because we need LESS commodification not more :’( Basically this seems like it was written in an attempt to convince classic libs/libertarians that fairness matters, so while I agree with her qualms with the moral implications of the current economic order, I find her proposed solutions to be extremely insufficient (not nearly radical enough).

Later on, she talks about the “politics of recognition”, which is about who has the ability to shape or be represented in cultural production. This stems from the recognition that media representation affects our collective imagination of the realm of possibility—like Obama’s election being influenced by Hollywood previous depictions of black presidents. This concept stems from Charles Taylor (of Hegel fame). She admits that you can’t elevate this concept (which one might call “identity politics”) above that of social/economic power (i.e., class), but, with Young, affirms that recognition can sometimes be a problem independent of other socioeconomic elements. Kind of a counter to Fraser, who thought identity politics was a distraction that would lead to ignoring material inqualities.

Summary: she sees IP as a tool, not a right; it should incentivise cultural production and sharing on “fair terms”. Defines “maximalist” IP law regimes as too totalising/restrictive (not enough fair use or public domain allowances). She does briefly consider tax redistribution but then quickly dismisses it, saying there’s a difference between giving people a “handout” and recognising their contributions by paying them. Which is true, but only under capitalism … Her heart is in the right place imo, but she has so deeply internalised capitalist ideology that she can’t see beyond it and into a better world. Her desired closure for the Solomon Linda case would have involved Linda’s descendents getting royalties in order to stave off poverty, which is fucked up on multiple levels—for one, the idea of inheriting IP rights is repugnant, and for another, how is this a good substitute for global economic redistribution (which she never really mentions)??? She focuses on a tiny symptom of the problem and thus misses the big picture, as current IP law is just an emergent phenomenon of Western economic hegemony.


Much shorter than usual (the first 25 minutes were spent discussing the formative essay).


The question: can commons-based peer production (as proposed by Benkler) help us get to Baker’s goal of a more decentralised media landscape?


Internet Infrastructure and Presence - week 8


Redistribution or Recognition? by Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth (chapter 1)

Only the first Fraser section was assigned, but the book seemed interesting so I just read the whole thing. I thought Fraser’s sections were stronger overall (Honneth’s sections kind of meandered in a way that made my eyes glaze over) but the book as a whole just felt a lot longer than it had to be. My notes are all on Bookmarker.

Main takeaways from this first chapter:

Barbara Van Schewick on network neutrality (YouTube video)

Takeaway: ISPs should be regulated as common carriers! Nationalise em all (my words, not hers)

Prohibition of discriminatory tariffs for data services (PDF)

Released by the telecom regulatory authority of India in 2016. Relates to the whole Facebook Free Basics debacle.



Prediction, Accuracy, and (Un)fairness - week 9


Data mining and the discourse on discrimination (PDF) by Solon Barocas

A short paper from 2014 surveying the literature on how data mining can be used for discrimination:

Data justice (PDF) by Nathan Newman

On data being the bedrock of the new digital economy and so it becomes a matter of economic justice, not just personal privacy. Due to network effects etc etc, the companies are ossifying and the possibility of serious competition is declining. Suggests a combination of bottom-up and top-down approaches: greater consumer awareness and agency, but also better regulation. Some problems outlined: differential pricing; algorithmic profiling; using private data to enforce the will of employers; predatory debt (more than usual, anyway); the death of local journalism as advertiser money flees. Basically these companies are undermining all the presumed benefits of capitalism (which are at least semiotically important to keep people believing in the system) while accelerating all the rapacious elements. My favourite takeaway: Nicholas Carr’s term “digital sharecropping”, in which these companies take advantage of an “incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few”.

Could have used some more editing (like what is, for instance) and it’s a little naive about taking corporate claims at face value. Could have also gone into the attention economy aspects, or how the “value” these companies generate actually fits in to the broader economic picture (imo they’re really just parasitic on commodity production). I have this hypothesis that the ad tech industry is just concentrated capitalism (the combination of its death drive & the technology necessary to fulfill it) which this report doesn’t really address at all, but I guess that just means there is a gap in the metaphorical market of ideas which I now have a duty to fill.

Worth reading, though.

Opening data zine by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition

A (beginner’s) guide to data justice.



Question under discussion (which we didn’t have much time to cover, due to student presentations):

To what extent does the idea of representation differ across the three communication eras studied in this course?

My take: in the intelligent communication age, what matters is representation both among who designs the algorithms and in the data used. Very different from the one-to-many and many-to-many eras.

Automated Technologies and Autonomy - week 10


Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law by Mireille Hildebrandt (chapter 2)

The Definitive Guide to Do Data Science for Good on the DataLook blog

Extremely naive imo but at least it’s a start

Doing good in the cognitive era on the IBM website

literally just corporate propaganda



Communication Futures - week 11


Inclusion and Democracy by Iris Marion Young (chapter 2)



No notes