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The Political Imaginary of User Democracy

The Society of Fellows hosts the Thursday Lecture Series (TLS), which runs regularly throughout the academic year. The Fall Semester TLS, our Fellows present their own work, chaired by Columbia faculty.

“The Political Imaginary of User Democracy”

Lecture by Irina Kalinka
Chaired by David C. Johnston

Debates about the political impact of digital platforms often revolve around a central, limiting dichotomy: Does digital media revitalize or undermine democracy? This talk makes the case that this popular debate blinds us to another crucial development: tech corporations promote and engender their own normative conceptualization of democracy through the services they oversee. The resulting political imaginary of user democracy is informed by a technocratic understanding of politics, valorizing data, automation, predictability, and systematization. It imagines community and popular sovereignty as operational and, thus, potentially programmable. Assuming a master discourse of global reach, democracy becomes framed as a project of optimization and management, not of common struggle.

This talk will trace the underlying assumptions of user democracy through various examples, from leaked tech-sector memos to public social responsibility campaigns, such as YouTube’s efforts to diversify the results of its search algorithm and Meta’s decision to downrank content labeled ‘political’ altogether.
The resulting critique of tech-corporate governmentality is animated by an emancipatory understanding of democracy, which emphasizes that popular sovereignty is not an object to be facilitated from above but a continuous, collective process of struggle to be in common with others from below.

This event also will be recorded. By being electronically present, you consent to the SOF/Heyman using such video for promotional purposes.

Please email disability@columbia.edu to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.

Photo by Victoria Prymak on Unsplash


Oct 05 2023


12:15 pm - 2:00 pm


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Columbia University - The Heyman Center
74 Morningside Dr, New York, NY 10027

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