Book Review: James J. Brown, Jr’s “Ethical Programs”

Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software (Review)

James J. Brown, Jr.’s 2015 book, Ethical Programs: Hospitality and the Rhetorics of Software is part of The Digital Humanities series from The University of Michigan Press which is targeted more towards rhetoric and computation scholars under the umbrella of DH scholarship. Although the text is established in Derrida’s work on hospitality, Bogost’s procedural rhetorics, and general network and ecological theories, Brown does a great job of explaining the more difficult concepts through repetition and four major case studies which would put the average academic at ease. I did find myself looking up some acronyms and software terminology from time to time—I would have killed for a glossary of terms or a hyperlinked text—but the main concepts were more or less thoroughly explained.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, the main ideas revolve around hospitality and the rhetorics of software. Most of the introduction establishes the basic concept of a networked life. We all live in a networked life that revolves around constant intrusion where “information and bodies constantly move and collide” which is defined by Derrida’s Law of hospitality (1). He describes this constant bombardment as a swarm of both invited and uninvited others. Some harmless, others that are viral. He uses several examples describing the host and guest relationship through Derrida’s concepts of the Law and laws of hospitality.

Brown explains the capital “L” Law of hospitality as the hosting/open door to “an anonymous other, regardless of identity or name” (23). Using the internet as an example, the moment you are connected, a swarm of others are invited into your hospitable space, however, we instantly start to filter through the guest others via negotiated actions mitigated by software. These filters are called the laws of hospitality which are built upon exclusion rather than open acceptance. Brown explains: “The laws of hospitality must always be both hospitable and inhospitable, simultaneously welcoming and excluding” (23). A balance is maintained through the laws of hospitality, both protecting the host and guest others, receiving and transmitting information in a complex network that is both horizontal (peer-to-peer) as well as vertical (the protocological network). In this complexity, he shows, through software and hardware participation, the host is simultaneously the guest in a networked life where the lines of the “home” and domestic space is blurred and infringed upon by government policy, hackers, and data-mining, which is where ethical programs come in.

Brown calls the laws of hospitality “ethical programs,” which are processes “that determine the shape of network infrastructures…[which] shape and constrain how or whether writing and communication happen in networked life” (30). Ethical programs “enact rules, procedures, and heuristics about how (or whether) interactions should happen” (6). These filters, are sometimes enacted in face-to-face conversation—denying someone entry to your house—but are oftentimes through computation.

An example of an ethical program would be the filtering protocols Twitter has enabled that allow you to select privacy settings. Ethical programs, when made explicit, raise questions about the guest other that helps with making decisions on what information you want the public to see. Who do you want to follow and who can follow you? What content do you want to see? The ethical programs maintain a balance between the absolute hospitality which would raise security risks to the user and their devices and the over correction of an isolated/disconnected network. The ethical programs can be made for us without our say, such as in the case of net neutrality where certain packets of data would be privileged over others, creating a “less hospitable space,” that limits access to the Internet (25).

Limitations are built into software through written procedures in code. Ian Bogost’s procedural rhetoric is often explained in relation to video games. Brown uses it in relation with video games first in order to show its importance: “Video games use procedural expression to make arguments; players interact with those arguments and, depending upon how the game is designed, are offered a conceptual space to critique them” (48). Bogost’s main example is using Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where procedures are written where the player must eat to sustain health, however, food availability and gaining weight from eating junk food “expresses arguments about problems with inner city life” (48). Although an important aspect of computation and rhetoric studies, Brown critiques procedural rhetoric as not seeing the full picture in all situations, such as his first case study about the Obama political campaign in 2008.

The Obama political campaign used social media, community organizing, and aspects of gamification to persuade volunteers to promote Obama via the campaign website referenced to as MyBO (mybarackobama.com). Using procedural rhetoric, Brown’s analysis reveals that the website values the “get out to vote” activities and writing/calling initiatives instead of the core issues of their candidate. Also, procedures were in place to where if callers found themselves interacting with supporters of other candidates, they would avoid confrontation and thank them for their time. Brown sees “procedural rhetoric’s insistence on the modeling of a worldview and on an interaction with that worldview means that it is both a tool for control and a tool for gaining insight into control” (57). The context of the control comes from the procedures on the site—activity indexes and point systems—which “put forward important procedural arguments, specifically that certain activities are most important and that campaign volunteers best serve the cause by remaining involved” (61). The procedures are interacted with by the volunteers of the campaign which in turn receive host guides for events which address concerns with hospitality, guest/host relations, and ethical programs.

Using procedural rhetoric, Brown breaks down the scripts for phone conversations into simple if-then statements. He says, “The nested if-then statements of these scripts lay out an ethical program, they present arguments to volunteers about the best way to address a potential voter, they indicate who is worthy of attempts at persuasion, and they provide some instructions about how and when to distribute information (about polling locations, absentee ballots, and so forth)” (67). He makes the distinction, again, using procedural rhetoric, that these are not talking points on the issues of the campaign in order to persuade voters, this is a simple script on how to engage and inform voters that are already favoring Obama. Although they campaign even has templates for writing letters or making calls, there is a strong emphasis on taking the initiative and being creative. The creative aspects of the procedures are not captured by procedural rhetorics, Brown stating that “procedural arguments do not lay all their cards on the table” (71), however, they have a strong affinity with rhetoric and hospitality, as the enacted ethical programs can be engaged and disengaged when needed by the user. Although it does have some lacks, Brown does admit, and he makes the argument several times throughout the book in different case studies, that “procedural authorship is both a method of controlling and reining in the complexities of the hospitable network and also a method by which we might act, argue, persuade, identify, and communicate in such networks” (70). Managing the complexities will still leave questions because procedural arguments naturally ask to be engaged with and it is the role of the “audience to fill the gaps” which may in fact, through reflection, cause the audience to “challenge them, refute them, or make them their own” (71).

There are three more major case studies that Brown discusses involving exploits in Twitter’s code both on their primary platform and third-party applications, as well as ethos in archives and narrative compositions using bot software. They all deal with hospitality in unique ways, and ask questions of software that lead to deep rhetorical conversations, sometimes begging for more voices, both in the public and private domains, to enter the conversation. I appreciate the many examples Brown gives, however, the repetitious defining of hospitality, protocol, and ethical programs became tedious at times. Even though the book is less than a year old at the time of this review, several of Brown’s examples regarding social media and political campaigning have shifted. For instance, the new algorithms in Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that control what the user sees adds another layer of complexity on the Law of hospitality. Since these applications determine what sponsored items and services the user sees based on viewing history and ethical programs the user has enacted, it is being less hospitable by restricting the flow of unrestricted data, influencing users into paying premiums to rid the applications of advertisements or to have access to more ethical programs which make the network more hospitable.

Most of my critique petty, for I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I appreciate the framework Brown sets up to further analyze other issues of hospitality in our networked lives. What about encryption and the U.S. government litigating to get a hack for all iPhones? The protection of free speech on college campuses using YikYak? Navigating protocological systems and exploits of saving non-savable Snapchats?
James Brown admits his framework is only a start and he doesn’t have all the answers and everything isn’t a perfect fit. He repeatedly states that rhetoricians need to look past the “screen as another page” and use both procedural rhetoric and hospitality studies to analyze new instances of protocol and computation.

I strongly recommend this book.

Amazon Link to Book

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