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

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why Does Tim Wu Side With the Technoblatherers?

Also published at the World Future Society.

In works like Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World, Tim Wu has written clear and incisive critiques of a whole generation's conjoining of facile to flabbergasting market libertarian/crypto-anarchist/neoliberal assumptions and aspirations and conceits to an irrationally exuberant, digi-utopian, techno-triumphalist hype endlessly promising an end to borders, nation-states, identities, limits-to-growth. Of course, by 2006 the writing was really on the wall as far as the crypto-anarchistic Extropian no death! no taxes! Cyberspace home of mind crowd went -- and, gee, just sayin', some of us were already pointing out how imbecilic this sort of vision was in 1996, if not well before then -- but, the point is, Tim Wu was a critic of a prevailing techno-utopian ideology that symptomatically played out in variations and in levels of intensity across layers of discourse from the pages of WIRED to B-movie plots to ad copy to editorials to DARPA reports.

Even if Tim Wu didn't enjoy as much as I did the acerbic stylings of Evgeny Morozov's recent book To Save Everything, Click Here, which is, after all, a matter of taste, I would have expected him to grasp the underlying assumptions about the rich symtomatic expressiveness of ideology as well as to sympathize, at least in a general sort of way, with the democratizing aspirations driving Morozov's latest work. It would appear that I was wrong.

In the first sentence of Tim Wu's review of Morozov's book, published yesterday in The Washington Post and attracting quite a lot of energetic praise from folks in and around my twitter feed today, he writes: "Silicon Valley desperately needs good critics, for the tech industry represents an enormous concentration of private power and rivals government in its influence over our lives." If Wu had continued the sentence adding, simply, "only, you know, nicer than Evgeny Morozov," he could have saved a whole lot of printer's ink.

It is hard to believe that serious (perhaps I should say Very Serious) writers are still offering up variations on the theme of Civility! Whatever the Facts May Be! in response to critiques of self-appointed incumbent elites being wrong about things, but I fear that here we are once again, and offered up, once again, in the same assured cadences, the same aggrieved tone, the same line in bull:
Although I share his concerns about private power, Morozov oversells his points with a vehemence that takes a good cause and gives it a bad name.
It is indeed a terrible thing when one hurts the tender feelings or upward fail prospects of opportunists peddling corporate-military PR hype as expertise for quick bucks and attention from the "Creative Class" Makers-not-Takers in the TED circuit forever feeding their venture capital hunger pangs and for technoscientific illiterates avidly swallowing pop-tech informercials forever feeding their desire for quick thrills about miracle cures, sexy sexbots, and technicolor robocalypse. (Perhaps sometimes bullies should be bullied for bullying, you know.)

Although Wu is incapable of denying the force of Morozov's critique when it applies to the literal promise "that all of humanity’s problems can be solved by 2035" by sooper-technologies in a book like Peter Diamandis' Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (which I took my own whack at here), it would appear that he is made uncomfortable by the suggestion that we hold to any account those who make arguments that offer qualified variations on the same premise or which depend for their legibility and force on unstated -- or even disavowed -- variations of it.

Morozov tweeted his own reaction to Wu's very public spectacle of pearl-clutching and calling for the smelling salts at Morozov's critical incivility by observing that "Wu exhibits no desire to even entertain the possibility of Ideologiekritik." This is true, and also more generally true. Wu's argumentative strategy in his review seems rather like the one Annalee Newitz offered up in her own recent defense of Tim O'Reilly against Morozov's critique of O'Reilly's rhetorical practice as a symptom of the ideology he exposes and ridicules.

In it, Newitz reframes Morozov's expose of O'Reilly as an "allegory" rather than merely an attack for her readers. Her io9 futurological fandom didn't buy it, of course, and Newitz gave in to them almost instantly, at any rate in public, stroking O'Reilly's ego in a highly undignified fashion soon thereafter (I respond to Newitz here). All this circumlocution reproduces the contours of Wu's "civility" discourse as far as I can see, in which an expressed desire for substance over personalities functions mostly to evacuate critique of any contact with actual practices, actual consequences, actual substance. Clearly, what is playing out beneath the surface of an apparent preference for ideas over personalities in Wu's spectacle of wounded sensibilities, too, is a worrying retreat from intellectual standards. When Wu declares "Kevin Kelly['s]... What Technology Wants" to be "an ambitious work of tech philosophy" he is making recourse to an argumentative shorthand via personalities no less than Morozov did in condemning Tim O'Reilly as a "meme hustler." But what really matters most here is that in calling "Kevin Kelly['s]... What Technology Wants, an ambitious work of tech philosophy," Wu is saying something literally laugh out loud funny to anybody who has any intellectual standards at all when it comes to what might count as a "work of tech philosophy" let alone an "ambitious" one.

And then look what happens: Wu lets us know in no uncertain terms that "Kelly [is] an optimistic and religious man," and then complains that "I kid you not, [Morozov] accuses Kelly of holding the same views as the Nazis... If that weren’t enough, he also accuses Kelly of Ayn Randism, and for an intellectual it is hard to say which is more disrespectful."

Of course, everybody knows one needs to get really careful and attentive when Nazi analogies start getting glibly thrown about. But it actually is true that there was a strain of techno-triumphalism in Nazi ideology and practice (I talked about this briefly in this post and recommend Jeffrey Herf's 1984 book Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, which I discovered in a conversation provoked by that very post). Of course, calling attention to the argumentative and promotional confluences between contemporary neoliberal and digital-utopian discourse and such strains in fascist discourse is pretty easy to read as a generous appeal to an expectation that enthusiasts for Kelly's work and possibly even Kelly himself (whether or not he is also an "optimistic and religious man") might rethink their facile assumptions and aspirations were they more alert to this historical context. Maybe that is what Morozov is up to rather than merely shooting off a playground taunt because he is a Meany McMeanerson who lives to be Mean to all the Very Serious oh so Well-Meaning Tech-Talkers? And, yes, this can still be perfectly true even if Morozov happens to write in a style that is more biting and satirical than warm and conciliatory (thank god).

So too pointing out that Ayn Rand's views function as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of prevailing market conservative and neoliberal pieties is obviously (I should think) as much an appeal to the common sense of intellectual partisans of the latter (of whom there are many) as it might also be just a dismissive insult implying some neoliberals are closeted members of the Ayn Rand Superior Human Fan Club (however well deserved that might be for some of them, and they know who they are). That Kevin Kelly, like Tim O'Reilly, is another member of the broadly White Brite Third Culture Wired digirati panoptic zero comment democracy social web Ted squawk club isn't exactly irrelevant here ("at least I'm in good company," cheers Tim Wu -- but I suspect not everyone would agree quite so speedily about that on further scrutiny), nor, by the way, is this observation without substance if one allows that citational relations, subcultural affinities, organizational ties actually do have substance in the world. And they do.

Wu proposes that "[t]he real utility of his theory is to imply that nearly everyone who writes about the Internet is an idiot, setting up virulent attacks, Morozov’s true passion." Let us set aside the fact that this effort to pathologize Morozov's project is just a facile circumvention of Morozov's arguments rather than an engagement with them, not to mention that in making this move Wu is actually performing the kind of character assassination he claims to deplore and nothing more (one never goes far expecting the champions of Civility First! to practice what they preach when it comes to their opponents after all). What is crucial here is that this amounts to the disqualifying admission on Wu's part that either he does not grasp or he does not care to attend to the distinction between ad hominem attacks and critiques of ideology in which the actual words and practices and effects of key public figures are taken to express or symptomize this ideology (and, heaven forbid, folks even taken to task for this).

I say that one should never expect advocates of civility over substance to be particularly civil themselves. Enjoy:
To Save Everything, Click Here is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.
Do you really suspect Morozov aspires to be Bill O'Reilly any more than he does Tim O'Reilly, Tim Wu? Of course not -- but trolling trolls for trolling is such a seduction, is it not? This facile name calling is never more acute in this editorial against facile name calling than when Wu smugly assures us that "the main audience for Morozov’s work won’t be Silicon Valley readers, but tech-hating intellectuals warmed by his attacks because they already despise Google, Twitter and maybe just the West Coast in general." This is hard to distinguish from the usual vitriolic charge of "Luddism!" from transhumanists and techno-utopians who declare that anybody who counsels skepticism in the face of hyperbolic projections of sooper-progress and sooper-powers from modest research results and situated technical innovations is a hypocrite because they do not live naked in a cave like the tech-haters and future-cowards they are.

Let me say that I for one am a real fan of Evgeny Morozov's work (which is obviously not to say that I endorse his every word or notion) and (yet?!?!) that I am also a strong advocate of the application of consensus science to public policy, a strong advocate of public investment in science education and medical research and renewable infrastructure. I also know that technoscientific changes are never inevitably or "naturally" progressive, that they must be made to be progressive by people being made to be attentive and responsive to the actual diversity of stakeholders to the costs, risks, and benefits of these changes and that this, in turn, requires the ever-ongoing political work of education, agitation, organization, legislation, regulation, redistribution. The almost ubiquitous futurological trend-spotting, techno-triumphalism, scientistic and deterministic reductionism, and deceptive deranging norms and forms of marketing hyperbole that suffuse our public discourse all profoundly disable progressive democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle in my view. Morozov's work exposes some of these errors, deceptions, tendencies and so contributes indispensably in my view to the work of progressive democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle. And, yes, I do think the work of many of those he singles out for disapproval and ridicule are specifically undermining that progressive, democratizing work -- even if they are also perfectly nice and earnest people to hang out with who vote for Democrats as they rake in the cash and the accolades from their corporate-military paymasters and the technofixated consumer fandoms they attract.

I agree with Wu that there are ways in which Nicholas Carr, whose work The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains I also mostly enjoyed, might be regarded as more an ally than a foe of the sort of critique Morozov is proposing -- but I do not agree that Morozov's criticism of Carr is really only conceivable as the "savaging... of an "unforgivable sin[ner]" for "medium-centrism" rather than the proposal to precisely such an ally that their otherwise congenial critique might be rendered more forceful were it more attentive to the problem of a "medium centrism" into which so much "tech-talk" seems to drift, whether critical or not. I also agree with Wu that there are ways in which Morozov's critique of monolithic characterizations of "the internet" exhibits an argumentative continuity with some of Lawrence Lessig's earlier arguments, as in his wonderful book Code. Perhaps that continuity helps account for my own tendency to assign works by both Lessig and Morozov in my science and technology courses on this topic, and why I regard both Lessig and Morozov as pretty indispensable (and still rather rare) thinkers on these issues. I must say Wu's insinuation that this continuity amounts to an unattributed appropriation of Lessig by Morozov is fairly hilarious -- since surely even Lessig would point out that lonely though he was he was not the only one making arguments of this kind, and just as surely many who use Lessig's writings could point to generations of scholarship and theory with which Lessig's work has important affinities (with no insinuations of unattributed appropriation the least bit implied).

Wu's chief theoretical point is that "Morozov's idea that the Internet is just a concept goes only so far." That such a critique of the idea also goes only so far is the equally obviously true rejoinder which explains why even in making this comparatively more substantial point Wu must eventually fluff it up with silliness about "thought crime." Wu continues: "Even if it is dangerous to overgeneralize, we necessarily use concepts all the time, such as 'the United States' or the 'NFL.'" Again, all this is fair enough as far as it goes, but notice what happens when one grasps that not only the NFL and the internet are concepts but that "concept" is a concept as well. Once we assume a vantage subjecting abstractions to scrutiny, what will end up mattering to us is not whether or not such scrutiny is possible as such, but what particular realities tend to vanish or not when just this or that abstraction is the one getting deployed (by whom, under what circumstances). "It sometimes makes sense to discuss the future of the United States, or the Internet, as one entity, even if we know it may change," Wu patiently explains. But surely it is in the specifications of just which times "sometimes" this is so, that all the real action is? When one speaks of "the future of the United States" it is inevitably true that not all of the citizens of the United States will be the beneficiaries of the benefits ascribed to that future, not all citizens will take on the same risks or bear the same costs of that future. The different stories told by the winners and the losers in these distributions, the different stories told by the ones holding the guns as opposed to being aimed at by the guns will "sometimes" matter most of all, at least to some people. It seems to me that Morozov is trying to clear a space in which such attention is more possible, in the face of an incredible confluence of voices which out of ignorance, fear, greed, cynicism, and even inertia make it hard to pay such attention for anybody for long, especially in ways that make a difference when possibly they should.

Needless to say, it is always true that any concept as such can be made subject to this kind of scrutiny but at the same time it is always true that engaging in scrutiny as such requires that few concepts be made subject to it at any one time. I believe and I think Morozov also believes that given the force of technoscientific changes in our historical moment, especially given the levels of ignorance, opportunism, and irrational passion that attend so very many of them, now is a very good time to make concepts like "technology," "progress," "innovation," "the internet," "the future" the subjects of our critical scrutiny. Wu declares the theory, to the contrary, that "For Morozov, however, any such discussions amount to 'Internet-centrism,' which for him seems to be a kind of thought crime." You will forgive me (actually, many of you probably won't) if I say that this assessment seems to me not only wrong, but frankly embarrassing.

"Does Morozov have an alternative vision of technology’s future?"

I am tempted to respond to Wu's demand with my own: Does anybody think glib expressions like "technology's future" will themselves have any future except as slogans encouraging the usual facile, a-historical, de-contextualized oversimplfications Morozov is warning against? Wu seems to want us to believe that he too worries about the ways such discursive forms might stealth away pesky social and political complexities, but then why is he using them himself while abusing one who conspicuously does (also?) worry about them? Does Wu grasp the ways in which these slogans invite the familiar irrational passions of agency occasioned by "tech-talk" -- of omnipotent daydreams of supercapacitations and impotent nightmares of apocalypse -- deranging actually urgent questions about technoscientific change and technodevelopmental policy? Does he not think these now customary frames and powerpoint pseudo-aphorisms provide cover for advertorial hucksters peddling consumer-complacent cons and scare-mongers peddling apolitical paralysis?

At the risk of inviting Wu's rolling eye, notice that the expression "technology's future" is assuming there is a "technology in general" about which we can make general claims in defiance of the differences in the vast constellation of real and emerging techniques and artifacts in the made world, and the differences they make to the actual ineradicable diversity of their stakeholders, and the ongoing changes over time in all these differences and stakes. And this is not to mention the way the phrase apparently invests this monolithicized "technology" rather curiously with a "perspective" and a "vantage" that "it" very clearly does not and cannot have but which no doubt all too many technoblatherers will be more than happy to claim to uniquely represent the voice of -- even if, I am hoping, Wu himself would not fall for such a thing.

Again, I am of the considered view (would Wu declare it instead merely "inconsiderate"?) that rhetorical futurisms tend to amount to retro-futurisms, and that they facilitate the projection of parochial fears and fantasies to foreclose the real openness in the present (what I would call its "futurity") inhering in the diversity of its actual stakeholders the better to preserve the power and privilege of incumbent interests. I do not believe that everybody participating in this work understands that this is what they are doing or agrees that this is what they are doing or admits that this is what they are doing, but none of that matters to me more -- even if it does matter sometimes -- than that this is what they are doing. (For more on why I say this is so see my contrarian anti-futurological pieces published by the World Future Society or the pieces archived under the headings Futurology Against Ecology, a Condensed Critique of Transhumanism, and the Superlative Summary.)

It is in this spirit that I notice Wu's concluding derision of Morozov's embrace of the "old intellectual fantasy that constant deliberation about every decision would somehow make the world a better place." I daresay, by way of concluding myself, that the idea of aristocrats or plutocratically-picked "meritocrats" making technodevelopmental decisions for the rest of us instead is also a pretty old intellectual fantasy, and also a pretty not pretty one at that. In so saying, by the way, it matters less to me that Tim Wu may be a nice enough and smart enough person not to explicitly or fully or always endorse such a view himself rather than, say, simply enabling it implicitly, unconsciously, accidentally, only in some degree, only sometimes, or whatever. As far as I'm concerned the best way for Tim Wu -- who is somebody I neither know at all nor expect to be lucky enough to know any more than I do or will Evgeny Morozov -- to actually demonstrate how nice and smart and serious he is about these matters would be for him to treat these proposals of mine as an exposure in good faith (in which I am possibly less right than I think I am, after all, and which I am always open to being shown as such) of vulnerabilities in his rhetoric to reductive, reactionary, inequitable, anti-democratizing entailments, deployments, appropriations he too disapproves of and so makes efforts to overcome in his work to come. I think a more judicious reading of Evgeny Morozov should also be welcome to Wu on those very terms, even if he doesn't appreciate its judgmental tone or contrarian wit. They tell me not everybody likes Swift, Wilde, Twain, or Parker, either, and even if I find this personally hard to credit, hey, let a bazillion flowers bloom.

1 comment:

jimf said...

> It is hard to believe that serious (perhaps I should
> say Very Serious) writers are still offering up variations
> on the theme of Civility! Whatever the Facts May Be!

Well, you know, it's impolite (even if not dangerous)
to dump on other folks' religions. So they say.

Ask -- oh, I don't know -- Chris Mooney.

(Pot to kettle, though:
> I would stay away from LessWrong if I were you. Everything I’ve read
> about it suggests it’s effectively a cult. . ., not meaningfully different
> from Raelism or Scientology.

. . .[M]y response is, “Excuse me? Do you understand the equivalence
you’re making, or are you just ignorant?”
=== )

Chacun a sa culte.

> They tell me not everybody likes Swift, Wilde, Twain, or Parker. . .

Hooray, the taboo against forthright criticism has led to some
great art. And tons of high camp.