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The Public and Its Algorithms:Investigating Digital Age Calculative Devices as Political Philosophies

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  • Philosophy
  • Political Science


What is public and private anyway?: a pragmatic take on privacy and democracy 18 feature XRDS • f a l l 2 0 1 3 • V o l . 2 0 • N o . 1 t he Web should work in the most democratic way viable, while doing as much as possible to protect the privacy of its users. These are statements that most people seem to agree with, to an extent where they have become common sense. The widespread uptake of social media use, however, suggests the conventional distinction between something private and something public does not always hold in practice. For example, prominent Web scholars like Nancy Baym and danah boyd note how we might understand social media better if we see that “even the most private of selves are formed in relation to diverse others.” This insight is taken from pragma- tist philosophy, and I would like to sug- gest that this line of thinking is fruitful for challenging our tendency to think about the Web in terms of a strong public/private dichotomy. My source of inspiration is the classic American pragmatist John Dewey [1]. In a deceptively small book from 1927, The Public and its Problems, Dew- ey offers an alternative take on the public/private distinction. Like any other pragmatist his vantage point is practice, that is, human actions. What Dewey is interested in is how we might come to better understand our actions and their consequences. More specifi- cally, the problems of the public that Dewey is pointing to arise from the observation that as our societies grow increasingly technological, our ac- tions also tend to have an increasing number of unforeseen and indirect consequences. In order for people to live democratically, by which Dewey simply means to be able to direct one’s own life in a meaningful way, it is imperative to come to grabs with all these indirect consequences. This is where the public enters the picture. Dewey distinguishes between di- rect and indirect consequences of ac- tions. If consequences are direct, it means t

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