MC433 - week 1

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These are my notes from September 28 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.

Communication Technologies and Justice


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.