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

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thinking in the Tank

Corporate-military think-tanks -- like the Rand Corporation and the Hoover Institution -- first affiliated and parasitically attached themselves to the academy. Later, think-tanks peddled themselves as a kind of "alternate academy," with the same standards and legitimacy, of course, but now backed by the stunning money and authoritative voices of elite incumbents. Now, before our eyes, they advocate and implement a parochially profitable "think-tankification" of the academy via corporate sponsorship and IP enclosure and digitization (online diploma mills and MOOCs turning teaching into watching syndicated tee vee) over which they have always meant to prevail utterly. There was a certain level of planning involved in all this, as some of the earliest think-tanks were created and funded in the aftermath of the New Deal as social reactionaries and big business interests sought to organize in a way that they had not done hitherto (and had never really needed to do before the Progressive Era), organizing out of which Movement Republicanism emerged and wreaked its still ongoing havoc. But to a more important extent the intuitive rhetorical force and appeal to funders and organizational co-cordination yielding this ongoing multi-generational think-tankification follows quite directly and opportunistically from the rationality that already suffuses a public domain defined by competitive individualism, growth with limit, advertorial deception, and a legislative process driven by moneyed pressure. There is no need to posit a conspiracy or star chamber to arrive at our present distress, though there are definitely real villains and heroes in this story. Although the academy has always been a profoundly flawed and perniciously stratified site in America it also resisted utter determination by Americans drives for profitability, efficiency, and complacency and hence it was earmarked for destruction by definition of the forces of corporate-militarism. We are witnessing the consummation of this project right now. It isn't going well for those who cherish criticality or creativity, let alone those who care about equity, diversity, democracy, or sustainability.


mtraven said...

This is a bit scattershot. Rand and other thinktanks do occupy a weird quasi-academic territory, and blend academic with corporate, military, and government interests in ways that make academic purists unhappy. The original ones like Rand were outgrowths of the way these institutions worked together during WWII, and were an effort to continue that kind of technocratic ethos for military and non-military purposes. So they didn’t really “attach themselves to the academy”. I’ve worked for two of these places (BBN, in Cambridge, and SRI in California) – in SRI’s case, they were un-attached from Stanford in the 70s to keep military research at a safe distance from anti-war protests. Both SRI and BBN were key centers for the work that led to the Internet, which represents the best human results that this kind of cooperation can do.

I spend a lot of energy lecturing libertarians about how their beloved internet was the product of government-led research initiatives; so I guess fairness obligates to lecture left-wingers who don’t like the military-corporate-academic complex. There are plenty of reasons not to like it but it is also a source of good. One thing they are not, particularly, is a source of “competitive individualism”. In Siicon Valley, chock-full of corporations and entrepeneurs and libertardians, SRI (a non-profit) is almost communistic.

Dale Carrico said...

It's fair enough to complain that the paragraph is scattershot -- being a paragraph and all it would be hard for it to pretend to cover that amount of ground and not to be a bit scattershot when it comes down to it. As your two paragraphs also are a bit, after all... only a bit, I hasten to emphasize! You are quite right to lecture libertopians about the indispensability of public education and social investment in the creation and maintenance of what you nicely denominate "their beloved internet." No need to lecture this left winger by any means on such a score. Moving on, I also quite agree one cannot dismiss as poisonous fruits of a poisoned tree those actually good goods that opportunistically arise from the good compromises and good luck of good people working in the belly of the beast of actual history, at the best of times an unlovely admixture of the good and the anything but good, but I don't think one is obliged by that recognition to pretend that evils aren't evil as one judges them or that goods arising in spite of such evils might not have arisen more forcefully still in the absence of the evils over which they happened to prevail, and so I will enjoy your lecture because of the good stories it involves but I will draw my own lessons when it comes to it. I say that warmly, so don't be cross. Often I find myself unenviably tasked with making arguments about the pure being the enemy of the good and so I quite understand where you are coming from. Let me add (though I am sure you are well aware of this already), I do think it is important to note that the network of networks is a site of ongoing contestation and hence one has to be careful not to cherish "it" too desperately lest "it" change in "its" substance, "its" work, "its" norms, "its" capabilities while one is busy cherishing it and one suddenly finds oneself genuflecting at a phantom or, worse, nourishing a fledgling viper. It is too early to attribute to "the internet" the laurel of the "best human results that this kind of cooperation can do." I fear that the story of this cooperation is not over and that the tale may be taking quite a dark turn these days if we aren't careful. You know, Morozov's much reviled but quite commonsensical warnings about "internet-centrism" are of course quite on point here (as they also were when other sensible scholars made variations on the point over the last couple of decades or so -- tho' one hopes this time the lesson will take). Needless to say libertopians who fancy themselves Randian archetypes depend on public goods and government largess all the time without this getting in the way of their sublime egoistic bulldozing. When I speak of "competitive individualism, growth with limit, advertorial deception, and a legislative process driven by moneyed pressure" I speak of guiding, structural assumptions and aspirations which admit of rich latitudes in practice all the while working their larger distortions of the possible and the important. You might in complete justice say the same were I to quibble about your use of the term "communistic." So, I'll keep that little dart in my pocket and blow you a kiss instead. I enjoyed your intervention!