Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Feeble Tribalism of the Technoblatherers

Of course there are plenty of things one can legitimately talk about, elaborate, complicate, criticize in the substance and emphases and so on in Morozov's book, like any other. But, a whole lot of the response to Morozov is feeling to me much more like some sort of collective freakout than any kind of actual engagement with the actual words he has actually written. All this instant intense wagon-circling defensiveness surely feels worryingly familiar even to some of the folks who are moved to indulge in it?

I am frankly flabbergasted to see Cory Doctorow describe Tim Wu's review of Morozov as "admirably economical and restrained" even if he has arguable reasons to support Wu's views over Morozov's. In my review of Wu's review I showed that his piece was mostly a diatribe against name-calling in which his own name-calling was rather prevalent. I've got to say it is actually pretty astonishing to me the way Doctorow (whose every book is sitting on a shelf in my house after my reading of it) actually reprises these criticisms of Morozov the name-caller while at once reproducing long passages in Wu's piece in which Wu is literally engaging in the same name-calling before our eyes, with the difference that Wu's piece actually consists of little but a painstaking essay-long elaboration of an act of name calling -- if not name-calling Morozov as a "name caller" and hoping this gambit won't make heads explode, name-calling him and all who appreciate Morozov's argument as "luddites" in perhaps the tiredest techno-utopian dance move known to man. Apart from the transparent hypocrisy of this sort of thing, which we can skip because there are obviously a whole lot of frayed nerves and bruised egos around here, the deeper problem is that it suggests people like Wu and Doctorow who very appealingly like to declare themselves open to criticism and championing of criticism aren't exactly open to actually threatening forms of criticism in the mode of ideologiekritik in which one implicates actual figures and actual arguments in logical, topical, tropological, citational, historical, organizational, symptomatic relations and contextualizations of which they may not be fully aware themselves or publicly approve. Since Morozov's style is acerbic (he's like me this way, and so you would be right to say that in defending him on this I am also being a bit defensive myself) it can become difficult to untangle these sorts of critical assertions from ad hominem attacks, I guess (I really don't know that I truly agree it is that hard to tell the difference in most cases) -- and which in turn, I fear, also makes it all too easy to dismiss uncomfortable questions and problematizations as ad hominem attacks rather than the critical assertions they are.

I have to say that what I feel I am actually seeing from Doctorow here -- as well as from my friend Michel Bauwens, from the smart but disappointing Annalee Newitz and many others who are usually more or less congenial to me -- is folks taking sides in what is shaping up as an essentially tribal conflict pretending to be a battle over ideas. (As someone who has engaged in grassroots queer politics, labor union politics, academic departmental politics I can't say that this is exactly unfamiliar to me.) In such a conflict, social ties and subcultural signals often end up standing in for the work of actual thinking. I am the last one to deny the importance of the information conveyed by such social ties and sociocultural signals as it happens, but it matters that we not pretend that they are what they are not, or that they can do work that they cannot.

I have long noticed that while people like to pretend that they are moved to conviction by the persuasive force of arguments, they actually more often seem in practice to be moved to conviction by their attraction to those who make arguments than to the arguments themselves. I say I have long noticed this, but of course Aristotle noticed it long before I did when he referred to ethos as one of three rhetorical registers (logos, the propositional content and orderliness of an argument, pathos, an argument's address of its audience's affective life and useful mobilization of specific emotions of admiration, fear, greed, and so on, and ethos, the projection of character -- or more usually a useful character -- and engaging in subcultural signaling of parochial belonging or welcome to the audience one addresses). Of course, students are still astonished to discover that this least discussed dimension of argument -- ethos, as against logos and pathos which everybody talks about when they talk about rhetoric -- was for Aristotle the most powerful of them all.

I am truly flummoxed -- and I don't mean that as a slur but as an honest confession of personal perplexity -- when I read Doctorow declaring:
[Morozov] is fundamentally pandering to censors, surveillors, and repressors. All of the former are cheerful about their attempts to lock down and spy upon the net, because, they assert, nothing of much importance happens there... Morozov's biggest boosters are the copyright thugs, the spyware vendors, and the data retention snoops who argue that ripping up the Internet's fabric does no particular harm because the Internet isn't even a thing.
Now, it is not empirically the case that Morozov's "biggest boosters are... copyright thugs [and] spyware vendors," that is simply and obviously not factually true. It is not true even if the fact that Morozov writes in a way you feel insulted by makes you assume that he must belong to the tribe that praises those you revile. What Doctorow surely substantially means is something more like that he thinks copyright thugs and spyware vendors are the ones who should, in his view, regard Morozov's views as congenial, and perhaps he is actually predicting that Morozov's formulations may lend comfort or eventually may be enlisted to support these reactionary anti-democratizing constituencies. One would expect such a belief would encourage him to read Morozov more closely for usefully exploitable tensions and fissures in his account rather than to celebrate dismissive superficial readings like Wu's honestly is, even if one sees Wu as a more natural ally. If Doctorow wants to make this kind of engaged case in greater depth I personally welcome it. Since Morozov seems to me to be proposing critique precisely in the service of anti-incumbent democratization in the face of a complete propertization and panopticization of networked formations while tech-enthusiasts mostly just endlessly applaud the latest vacuous bleeding edge app, to make the kind of case Doctorow seems to imply he believes I have to warn him that he would probably have to engage in precisely the kind of ideologiekritik that gets Morozov castigated by his friends as nothing but a name caller.

You see, I think it is absolutely false and facile to charge that Morozov is "pandering to censors, surveillors, and repressors" but since I side with those who fight censors, surveillors, and repressors myself I would be the most eager person in town to hear how Morozov's formulations enable these bad actors exactly, as I have to say I think Morozov would too. But whining that proposing these entailments and consequences amounts to being mean and indulging in name calling is hardly something I could care less about since I actually care about the issues involved incomparably more than that sort of thing -- and I modestly propose that this is how it should be, people. Frankly, I simply expect debates about important issues to look and feel contentious.

Be that as it may, if Doctorow is actually simply arguing that the metaphor of a monolithic internet -- whether the figure is fabricized or spatialized or formulized or computerized or what have you -- must prevail in order for us to resist the work of censors, surveillors, or repressors I have to say I for one would find that argument... in need of considerable further development. There are a whole lot of figures stuffed in our archive you know, and it's not like we aren't still making new ones as we go along. Codes are dynamic systems of signification, infrastructural affordances are used abused maintained destroyed, networks have both norms and forms, are both situated and moving -- I daresay we might profitably look into the work done by the rich metaphors of sedimentation, branching, weaving, clearing through which we paradoxically (to put it generously) figure and refigure our experiences and stakes in "the" ever-changing network of networks.

Does saying this sort of thing now imbue me with the tribal coloration of panderer to censors, surveillors, and repressors, I wonder? Does that really make sense to anybody? I am used to idiotic Robot Cultists declaring me "anti-science" for refusing to embrace their pseudo-scientific techno-transcendental faith-based initiatives, or describing me as a "luddite" who is "afraid of the future" because I insist that progressive technodevelopmental struggle requires first of all the equitable distribution of actual costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change to the actual diversity of stakeholders to that change. Perhaps now a confession of sympathy for discourse analysis, ideologiekritik, and Latourian interventions will cast me out of suave secular democratic geekdom as well. And yet I am a queergeek, a space and science enthusiast, an advocate for consensus science based harm-reduction models of public policy, a passionate partisan for the democratizing work of equity-in-diversity and for the sustainable work of permaculture, a teacher of science and technology studies, environmental justice, media criticism, and critical thinking and rhetoric at the university level. Choose the TED-squawkers and technoblatherers and the "third culture" hypenotized white brite techno-promoters and self-promoters over the posthumanist/humanist literary/liberal humanities critics if you like. I must ruefully confess as a wide reader that I already know how this story ends.


D. Gloumbia said...

the through line I see in this, that I think you see too, is that, contrary to what Doctorow and even Bauwens seem to say, the computerization of the world is a fundamentally capitalist enterprise, and that the most prominent ideological supporters of computerization--e.g. Mitch Kapor, O'Reilly, Lessig, Benkler--have to maintain their blindness to the real base that drives their interventions. This is why the language of people like these sounds increasingly Hayekian. These people (and I include Bauwens here, although he tries, at least at times) say and even think they are agitating for a more democratic world, but they don't want to face the fact that the most powerful supporters of that view think that the actors in democracy just is capital--and the more concentrated and powerful, the better. That's why I find "cyberlibertarianism" a useful frame, because it indicates the blurring of actors and agents that gets encompassed under what should be opposed points of view. This is nowhere clearer than reading, e.g., Benkler and Tapscott side by side: Benkler nods toward but does not really address the power radical openness gives to capital, while Tapscott openly celebrates it, and but for that difference, in many ways their arguments and even language are identical. I think these people have swallowed so much Kool-Aid that it has become abhorrent to them even to consider that they might be mistaken--that the giant technological experiment they are conducting (on democracy in particular) might be endorsed and even piloted by the very forces the leftier folks believe they are opposing.

Dale Carrico said...

I think these people have swallowed so much Kool-Aid that it has become abhorrent to them even to consider that they might be mistaken--that the giant technological experiment they are conducting (on democracy in particular) might be endorsed and even piloted by the very forces the leftier folks believe they are opposing.

The whole comment, not just that last quoted bit, was very well said. Yes, this seems right. The actually interdependent neoliberal/ neoconservative circuit re-framed the already mostly notionally left right liberal/ conservative re-framing of the actual left right democratic/ aristocratic distinction into variations of incumbent elite right politics: what you are calling computerization and I call the futurological represent registers in the instrumentalizing/ mechanizing non-thinking Arendt maintained abetted de-politicizing wealth accumulation without end. I wonder if you would agree with her that Hobbes is the Big Bad at the root of things -- pumping up plutocracy as it were. I am feeling one of those metanarratives I am so incredulous of forming, like a song coming on.

jimf said...

> The through line I see in this. . . is that, contrary to
> what Doctorow and even Bauwens seem to say, the computerization
> of the world is a **fundamentally** capitalist enterprise,
> and that the most prominent ideological supporters of
> computerization -- e.g. Mitch Kapor, O'Reilly, Lessig,
> Benkler -- have to maintain their blindness to the real
> base that drives their interventions.

"I wanted to hit the place with a programme Lev Davidovitch
would have been proud of. I wanted to see the junta generals
fill their pants when they realized that the future
is - in Earth terms - bright, bright red."

-- Diziet Sma, "The State of the Art"
(when the Culture stumbled on Earth, ca. 1977 local

Oh well.


D. Gloumbia said...

Hobbes: absolutely. I trace that genealogy back in my book, as a matter of fact. He provides exactly the political philosophy that worries me so much and that seems to me to be breaking out all over: a strong leader who is unique, and many interchangeable machine parts over whom he (or they) exerts sovereignty. Hierarchy everywhere.

Dale Carrico said...

Thought I remembered that. Reading Arendt makes me feel more redundant than anybody else I agree with.