Towards a Contemporary Philosophy of Authorization — Işık Barış Fidaner

Authorization as a concept received its universal definition during the conceptual elaboration of the Internet [1]. ‘Request for Comments’ (RFC) is the codename that designates the technical documents published by the Internet Society. These RFC-coded documents constructed a standard conceptual framework for the Internet. The RFC-2196 (published in 1997, also called the Site Security Handbook) defines authorization as a universal term: “Authorization refers to the process of granting privileges to processes and, ultimately, users.”

In the RFC definition of authorization the word ‘privilege’ simply refers to the user’s ability to access a computer file for reading, writing or executing it. It does not carry the contemporary political baggage of having unjustly obtained a social entitlement and privilege through a reliance on oppression and/or exploitation of other people based on gender, race, class, etc. Instead it designates a simple minimal privilege, like your present privilege of reading this text or my privilege of having you as my reader.

As for ‘granting’ the privilege, in the context of computer systems, users’ privileges are traditionally granted by a person who is the system administrator (admin). So the RFC definition of authorization implicitly refers to the exceptional role of the administrator who is in some sense like the king or queen of the computer system.

But the role of the admin gained a larger scope in the age of social media: Any social media user can play a limited admin role in the scope of their own profile page and ‘grant privileges’ to their friends, followers ‘and, ultimately,’ other users regarding the content they create. The authorization that social media affords may involve (1) the privilege of being able to access others’ content, (2) the privilege of having others access your content, or (3) the privilege of exchanging these privileges. Any user’s social media activity automatically authorizes and reinforces the activities of the rest of the users in the same network and the giant social media companies like Facebook and Twitter thrive on this network effect: This mutual reinforcement is a positive feedback loop. Every user plays the king or queen in their own profile page but the real kings and queens are always the network service providers who thereby gain a certain control over the users’ attention. So ‘authorization’ presently functions like a universal trick or trap to capture people in private networks, but this deceptive function of authorization is not particular to the present age of social media.

Remember that the Marxist analysis of capital and capitalism was the historical culmination of the concept of ‘class’ in philosophy. The concept ‘class society’ was the key to understanding not only capitalism but also the slavery and feudalism that historically led to the creation of capitalism. On the other hand, there were classes both in slavery and feudalism, but the capitalist class of bourgeoisie defined by the exploitation of surplus-value was the ‘class’ as such, incomparable to the previous social classifications. ‘Classy’ meant bourgeois.

In the Internet age, there is a new historical culmination around the concept of ‘authorization’ that must be elaborated by a new philosophy of authorization. It is true that authorization mainly functions like a trick and trap to capture people in private networks. This is the truth of neoliberalism. Just as ‘classy’ meant bourgeois, ‘authorized’ means a netocrat [2]. But just as the working class could be organized as the proletariat, there is an alternative road to achieving authorization [3].

The universal model of authorization is the interlocutor (addressee) [4]. When two people engage in a dialogue (or three people in a trialogue), one of them speaks and the other one listens for a while, and then they switch their roles. The listening person grants to the other the privilege of speaking and the speaking person grants the other the privilege of listening; and when they switch roles, they grant each other the privilege of exchanging these privileges. This alternation and switching is an active process of authorization (as in the case of an enunciation that functions as a ‘request for comments’). Such processes of mutual authorization can be experienced in the Zoom conferences of the present corona years. Setting up this model of the interlocutor is just the initial step towards a contemporary philosophy of authorization.

Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner

Notes:

[1] It is not a coincidence that a computer scientist constructs a philosophy that is centred around the concept of authorization. See “Life, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis”

[2] Alexander Bard & Jan Söderqvist (2012). The Netocrats: Futurica Trilogy 1. Stockholm Text.

[3] I distinguish the symbolic fetishistic trick of authorization from the real symptom of authorization in this text: “Symbolic Authorization of Fetishes and Real Authorization of Symptoms”

[4] The interlocutor is related to what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the Other. See “Interlocutorship and the Four Discourses”

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