Archives for category: Academic Musings

Technological advancement is synonymous with societal progress.

At first glance, many people would fully support this seemingly obvious claim—medical advances, the telephone, electricity—these are all generally held to be good things. However, a handful of relatively recent advances in technology have the potential to negatively impact our lives in ways that we might not even realize. In this digital era, mp3s, digital videos, and eBooks seem like they have been woven into the fabric of society, and, to some extent, they have. However, these new digital forms of media have the potential to limit our consumption of art and culture in ways that we have not yet confronted.

As media has migrated to digital forms, publishers have developed methods of regulating the use of these digital cultural artifacts. These new restrictions are rooted in and justified using copyright law—but this term does not accurately reflect what these restrictions have become in the modern era. Rather than promoting societal progress, as originally intended, the ways in which consumers now encounter copyright law in their daily lives could be more accurately described as “personal property regulation.” This term may seem over-dramatized, but some of the newly implemented technical manifestations of copyright law are actually an unfair invasion of a user’s right to his or her own personal property.

In every major culture industry there has been a gradual collapse of fair use. We’ve recently seen how the use trusted systems and Digital Rights Management have eroded the first sale doctrine in the eBook market, which has existed since copyright law was originally drafted many decades ago. These changes alone have drastically increased the extent of control a copyright holder has over the use of his work. Because of the rapid uptake of digital media in the market, content publishers can now exercise near perfect control over a huge segment of their products, even after they are owned by the end-user. These changes, if left unchecked, will result in a complete upheaval of copyright as codified by Congress under their Constitutional mandate. (A tech-savvy reader might suggest seeking out a work-around for such restrictions, as undoubtedly they exist. Unfortunately anti-circumvention provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibit such behavior, even if the intended use could otherwise be considered fair.)

By its very nature, the code enforcing restrictions on copyrighted works is focused on the economic gain of its benefactors. Short of some sort of government intervention or a drastic change in the market, this code will continue to erode at the culture of our society. The culture industries have implemented a complex and rigid technical solution to the social problem of copyright infringement, one that clearly is not in the best interest of society as a whole. In order to halt and reverse the negative impact of their technical solution, other societal forces must push back on these changes, before it’s too late. Every day we spend with these technical restrictions in place is a day that cultural development is stifled, thereby robbing the American public of the “Progress” promised by the U.S. Constitution.


It’s an interesting question, one that I was faced with while trying to convince an underclassman to concentrate in the Department yesterday. Unfortunately, the go-to standard for college-level research isn’t much help with this one. “The study of society.” Really. So now we’re back where we started. What is Sociology? One would hope that after over 3 years of training as a sociologist at Princeton, I would be able to answer this question to some degree of certainty. After some reflection, I decided that an answer to this question wasn’t going to be much use to any given undergraduate anyway (or anyone, really). Since an answer isn’t that useful, let’s revise the question. Rather than attempt to settle on a definition of what sociology is, I will address what it can be.

Sociology can be the study of interactions between individuals. It can be the study of the interplay between a government and its people. It can even be the study of a users’ interactions with technologies he or she encounters everyday. Sociology can be the study of the effects of race, class, and gender on any of these things. The beautiful thing about sociology is that it can be (nearly) anything you can imagine—and then through that imagination (the sociological imagination), you have the potential to influence what sociology is. The field is evolving constantly, investigating new developments in nearly every corner of daily life, from the effects of Facebook on employment markets, to the observable differences between students attending small, private liberal arts colleges and those attending large public universities. Instead of placing such an emphasis on defining what sociology is, efforts would be better spent on developing new ideas for what sociology can be.

And that is where we, as students at a prestigious University, should focus our time. Rather than simply conforming to existing conceptions of what research in our subject-areas are supposed to look like, we should be breaking free from those constraints to develop completely new areas of interest for academia. By doing that, we might even manage to interest those outside of our academic-journal-reading bubbles. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to spend time answering the question “What is Sociology?”