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Michel Foucault and Social Media Group Think

Submitted by on June 25, 2009 – 5:37 pmNo Comment

foucault“We know what we do.  We know why we do what we do.  What we don’t know is what what we do does” – Michel Foucualt*

@lucatoledo reminded me that it is the 25th anniversary of French Philosopher Michel Foucault’s death.  I have been sitting on this short post that was originally going to cap my series on The Digital Panopticon.   So, on the occassion, and a bit unpolished, here it is.

Discussions about technology largely focus on immediate utility.  They rarely address the larger effect that technology might have on the individual and society.   So it goes with the social media phenomenon – we are absorbed in very granular discussions of use (what it is, why it matters for commerce and how to gain advantage from it) and abuse (Twitter addiction leads to the break up of  Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer etc.) while a much larger drama is unfolding as a consequence of these technologies – the changing notions of identity, society and government.

We need to get better at figuring out “what what we do does”.   What are the consequences of living in a totally networked society?   What will be the new equilibrium we reach on identity, privacy rights, work-life boundaries etc?
The Social Nervous System we are building makes it possible to create a smarter world.   From sensor based infrastructure management like the smart grid, to deep text mining  to assess market sentiment (what the cloud of conversations means for your company) and the social graph.  But  smarter is not necessarily better.   Better is a blend of technology with foresight and ethics.

As I have written before, “It is very possible that just as the development of the neuron enabled a proliferation of new, sophisticated life forms we are developing the next equivalent, the social neuron that binds us into a new, larger social organism.”   I believe the Social Nervous System spells profound and protracted changes to every aspect of society, economy and government.  We should be asking questions that live up to the scope of the change we see around us.   We should not limit this conversation to academia.  This conversation should be social (pun intended).

This is my biggest argument around social media commentary– there is not enough critical questioning – it is one giant echochamber of early adopters focusing on a narrow set of issues – New marketing, new PR, or better business as usual…  Most of those talking (myself included) are also making a living doing the talking so the deck is a bit stacked (see – The Evangelist Fallacy for more on this).
At bottom, no one is quite sure of where things will shake out – what the benefits and consequences will be.  While I am generally optimistic (see Why Business Needs to Get Social) I am aware that the theory of things (what I believe a thing is for) often misses the effect those things have in the world… We should always have one eye on “what what we do does” for therein lies the true significance of any technology or institution.

In the meantime you can catch me giving it up on the Social Web (@jmichele)…

(Image from @schuschny’s blog post on Foucault)

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