In this article, I argue that in order to design for trust, we must first update our conceptions of trustworthiness. Networks are inherently poly-nodal. They are created by and are productive of many interconnected relations between people, energy, and machines. And yet, our conceptions of trust and fidelity are ill-fittingly monogamous. Drawing from feminist theorists—including Wendy Chun and Dossie Easton—I propose an ethical non-fidelity for our networked technologies. Etymologically, fidelity shares a Latin root with fealty. As many feminist theorists have argued, the Euro-American version of marriage descends from feudal practices of property ownership. Current economic models for networks wed our digital doppels to platform and provider policies with no option for negotiation or even comprehension of the terms to which we will surely comply. This odd marriage of individual propriety to proprietary network is most obvious in the terms and conditions to which we all (coercively) agree in order to access everything from our email to social media. These unread, banal confirmations of contractual obligations create expectations that are then inevitably dashed. Every reported data leak feels like lipstick stains on a partner’s collar; just more proof of ill-placed trust. Rather than chasing authentic(ated) relationships based on an outdated version of trust, it might be time to embrace the radical openness of relationality. Building from ethical non-monogamy, I propose a future network ethics based on non-possessiveness and the inherent vulnerability of relationality. I close by exploring how a commitment to mutual flourishing and responsiveness would reconfigure networks and trust as we practice them.
We need to talk. We’ve tried monogamy with monopolies for decades, and it’s just not working. I think we should see other paradigms.
Trust in our networks is so low it’s laughable. Our media reaches through our screens at night and whispers of leaks and betrayals; our passwords are compromised, our identities vulnerable, our friends are security risks. Even models of secure relationships are suffering leaking spouses and insidious home wreckers. If the US Department of Defense can’t keep their business behind closed doors, what hope do the rest of us have?
Of course, the relationships were doomed from the start. We’ve never really been partners with our significant tech giants. Google, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, we have a type. We swiped right on every hoodie clad, glasses wearing, college dropout turned tech mogul in his uncle’s garage. We fell for the American Dream boys.
They seemed good for us, at first. We went to new and picturesque places, updated our styles, made new friends, we even read more books. Our relationships changed us, but we were glowing up. Eventually, the glow dimmed. It fell apart so slowly we almost didn’t notice. We missed how isolated we became, how unhappy. We started picking fights over everything: politics, pranks, detergent pods, once we even fought over the color of a dress (it was obviously blue).
These relationships have left us jaded, depressed, and insecure. No one seems trustworthy, so we trust no one. But we also can’t seem to quit. They just know us so well. They know our friends, our family, where we eat, bank, and shop. To paraphrase Dua Lipa, we can’t get over them when we’re under them, and we’re always under them.1
We should have ended it when they were called before Congress for that anti-trust hearing in 2020. Those emails did make it seem like Zuckerberg wanted Instagram whether they consented or not. But the tech giants in that hearing argued so convincingly that they’re just here to serve our needs, that their monopolies benefit us. Though, As Shoshana Zuboff argues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, tech giant monopolies rarely look like traditional monopolies. Instead of unfairly eliminating competition and raising prices at will, internet monopolies often rely on cornering our behavioral data and extracting it.2
Cornering data looks much like cornering a woman in a bar. Behavioral data is considered unregulated surplus. By cornering that surplus, tech giants gain sole access to that information. Cornered or not though, we consented to that extraction; agreed to the terms and conditions we naively never read. All our salacious little data could have never cornered, manipulated, and/or leaked if we hadn’t handed them over to begin with.
Currently, our relationships with virtual networks are abased on extreme power disparities. The premise seems simple: we receive access to pleasures we could never achieve alone and in return all these entities want is our time and attention. Power disparity can be a fulfilling fantasy. However, those relationships have become increasingly abusive. For example, internet scholars Michael Luca, Tim Wu, and a team of data scientists found in 2015 that Google favors its own content and products on Google searches.3 This means that when we’re seeing Google, Google ensures its difficult for us to see anyone else.4
Google isn’t the only tech bro trying to monopolize our time. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, candidly admitted that Facebook was designed to consume as much of our time and attention as possible. Platforms like Facebook rely on a dopamine loop modeled after Las Vegas casino games.5 Every notification potentially provides a dose of social gratification; we like to be liked on a chemical level. This combination of engagement algorithms, casino style chimes, and persistent notifications have left us dependent. And even if we can wean ourselves off and re-regulate our dopamine away from their ever-entertaining resources, they’ve infiltrated our lives so deeply that we can’t seem to extract ourselves from their ever-extractive influence.
As produsers6 of the internet, we sign away the rights to our information, our emotional labor, our desires every time we click “I agree” to a set of terms and conditions. These agreements present as casual. We agree to provide our time and trace information and in return our benevolent tech giants provide us with resources, connections, entertainment. Structurally, these coercive contracts parody marriage contracts; drawing from a Euro-American lineage of marriage as property exchange. We join their domains, and, in exchange, they profit from our emotional labor, our leisure time, our very identities.
To be fair, we’re allowed to see other monopolies. Google is happy to set us up with YouTube, to support our Windows OS, to connect with our dated Flickr arrangement. We’ve never actually been monogamous. But our significant others are becoming significantly more jealous of our time. They’ve rolled out engagement algorithms to keep us around longer, to draw us in deeper, and siphon off more and more of our information.
That jealousy hasn’t kept them from trading our secrets, from selling them to their buddies and mutually profiting from their increasing insights into what drives us. Early adopters of the web lauded the utopian freedom of the next great frontier. But like many frontiers that came before, we quickly started to mine the web for its resources. Though, in this case we were the new resource. As John Cheney-Lippold argues, we are data. And we are tired of being mined, lied to, exposed, betrayed.
The trust that feels so often betrayed is both unfounded and modeled after a monogamous version of trust. We trusted tech giants to keep our information secure and provide them with our time and unpaid labor in return. In 2017 Pew Research Center found that 64% of Americans have experienced some form of data leak. Types of data theft included everything from social media accounts being taken over to notices that social security numbers have been leaked. Like a 50’s housewife, we ignored theses indiscretions when they felt private. But now the betrayals are out in the open.
If we’re going to maintain this relationship, it’s time to redefine trust. Rather than trusting tech giants to have and to hold our information, we should acknowledge the poly-nodality of networks and apply poly notions of trust to the problem. As Dossie Easton, co-author of the poly classic The Ethical Slut has argued, flourishing polyamorous relationships are not generally built on contractual legalese. Contracts or agreements may be a part of how partners navigate open relationships, but “[t]hese contracts or agreements are not about what is right, but only about what fits and feels safe to the people involved, they are very subjective, they are very individual and they change over time.”7
For many of us, our relationships with our networks no longer feel safe. A 2016 Pew Research focus group on privacy and information sharing found “creepy” and “Big Brother” to be common terms Americans used to describe demographic profiling on the internet. There are many causes for that sense of unease: the creepiness of increasingly targeted advertising, the incessant leaks that break our trust, a lack of understanding of how the internet works technically, hackers, vigilantes, the exacerbation of identity politics, the rise of deepfakes, or the as of yet unrealized chatbot revolution. Take your pick. The move fast and break things approach to virtual life has left many of us brokenhearted.
Of course, we can increase our technical, if not emotional, security through encryption. Encryption is practically necessary for secure transactions like banking online, but like most security measures its more discouragement than actual safety. Encryption conceals our information, hides it in digital noise or transforms it to appear as something else. However encryption, like lies, unravels eventually. Encryption also signals secrecy and a desire for concealment. A desire that, in the US at least, is destined to go unfulfilled as all encrypted data is subject to search and seizure.
As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Sarah Friedland argue in “Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards,” what we need is not necessarily more security. Instead, we need a right to vulnerability. A right to loiter, to take up public space without judgement for being desiring and desirable beings. A right to be on the internet without being cornered as a new behavioral data source. And we need trustworthy architecture to support that right to loiter in poly-nodal networks.
Our trust cannot reasonably be built upon the contractual fidelity offered as terms and conditions of use. Trust in poly relationships is not based on fealty or fidelity. Instead, as Easton aruges“[b]eing an ‘ethical slut’ means that we respect other people’s rights and feelings, that we behave with honesty and integrity, that we are not selfish, but work for the whole community, that we don’t exploit people, and that we don’t treat people like objects.”8 These are basic principles of poly-romance as outlined by Easton and Hardy. Applying a ethically slutty lens to the internet would be mean designing platforms that do not exploit people or treat people like objects.
As Chun and Friedman argue, the internet is already “slutty.” Though our user interfaces make it seem like our computers connect directly to our desired sites with no mediation, a simple trace shows that our data gets around. The internet works by passing our data packets through routers and servers as quickly as possible. Further, Web 2.0 has fallen into a pattern of virtual slut-shaming in which information leaks are regarded as personal responsibility; either of the victim or of those who spread/stole the information. Rather than an endless cycle of slut-shaming, we need an ethically slutty internet.
An ethically slutty internet is technically feasible with some modulations to our current paradigm. Though, like much of poly-realities, the answers to this problem aren’t that sexy: it starts with publicly owned infrastructures, user owned platforms, and personally managed content feeds. This shifts in how the average user interacts with the internet would help us better understand that we’re already in poly-nodal relationships.
If we want to be equal players in our poly partnerships, we need to seize the means of connection. We need community-owned and managed cooperatives. Versions of co-op broadband are already being facilitated by rural electric co-operatives. Further, though the cost is currently prohibitive for many mid-to-lower income communities, cities like Santa Monica have built their own fiber optic networks in conjunction with regular street maintenance. These are important, if imperfect, steps to challenging internet service provider monopolies that mirror the domination of virtual tech giants.
To harmonize platform power disparities, we also need user owned social networks. Nascent versions of these networks already exist. One of the largest decentralized social media networks currently operating is Diaspora. The macro-blogging platform has three basic principles: decentralization, freedom, and privacy. Decentralization means that the site runs on servers, or pods, owned by members around the world. New users can join existing pods, or those with the requisite sysadmin skills and funds can start their own pod. Freedom means that real identities are not required. Finally, privacy refers to the fact that personal data is not sold to third parties, nor is there any targeted advertising. The network is user owned, community operated, and exists without algorithms or other addictive add ons. It’s just a simple platform to connect you with your metamours, no commodification necessary.
If a user-owned network seems like too big of a leap, we could also consider going retro and bringing RSS feeds back. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and gives users the option to craft their own dashboards that collate updates from around the internet. RSS feeds are still popular amongst podcasts, but have fallen out of favor in text-based internet content because they disrupt embedded ad placement native to feeds found in places like Facebook or Pinterest. Think of RSS feeds as a kitchen table poly group chat for all your favorite internet content.
Lastly, we need to redesign operating systems to flaunt rather than conceal the traffics through our networks. We need to visualize our literal connections to others. Users can currently track their packets using a traceroute command, but this function is really intended for trouble-shooting rather than a general practice of understanding information flows. Another option is switching our wireless network interface controllers to promiscuous mode, so we can view all packets traveling through our networks whether our nodes are their specific endpoint or not. However, doing so requires more technical skills than the average internet user deploys. Ideally, we could design operating systems that show network traffic as a basic feature and internet browsers that show the connections between pages, rather than presenting a false impression of a one-to-one connection.
Monogamy with monopolies isn’t working, but we can still embrace an open relationship with an internet guided by poly principles. An ethically slutty internet could begin with co-op fiber optics, mingle through user-owned social networks, titillate our interests through our own curated RSS feeds, and arrive on devices that uninhibitedly exhibit the poly-nodal entanglements between us all.
Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond : from Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
Cheney-Lippold, John. We Are Data : Algorithms and the Making of Our Digital Selves. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2017.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong, and Sarah Friedland. “Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards.” Differences (Bloomington, Ind.) 26, no. 2 (2015): 1–28.
Easton, Dossie, and Janet W. Hardy. The Ethical Slut : a Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love. Third edition. California: Ten Speed Press, 2017.
Klesse, Christian and Dossie Easton. "The Trials and Tribulations of being a 'Slut' - Ethical, Psychological, and Political Thoughts on Polyamory." Sexualities 9, no. 5 (2006): 643-650.
Luca, Michael, et al., “Does Google Content Degrade Google Search? Experimental Evidence” (working paper, NOM Unit, Harvard Business School, August 2016), http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2667143.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression : How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Schüll, Natasha Dow. Addiction by Design : Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism : the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. First edition. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.
Macy McDonald is a PhD candidate in English with a focus on algorithm studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Their dissertation "Fictive Analytics" analyzes predictive technologies—including recidivism algorithms, overdose risk scores, and hiring algorithms—that automate cultural narratives under the guise of statistical authority. Macy recently held a pre-doctoral fellow position with the Fisher Center for Gender and Justice at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where they designed and taught interdisciplinary courses on the 2022-2023 theme: machine. They now hold a Freedom on the Move data fellowship at Cornell University.