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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"People Die From Exposure"

It turns out that Rebecca Solnit was never asked permission for her commencement address to be recorded, let alone promoted as I have done, and she wanted to let it be known that such permission should always be requested.

While I suppose I can see why this might seem a worthy courtesy in the context of academic ceremonials like graduation events and conferences, which are premised on public registrations of respect for the authority of situated/trained intellectual voices, I personally do not agree that this is true. Or more to the point, I think that most of the contexts rendering this intuition plausible are enormously problematic for the academy.

The expectation of privacy understood as authorial control over the terms in which a rhetorical performance circulates seems to me as wrongheaded as daydreaming that one could demand control over the terms on which one's rhetorical performance was apprehended and remembered by all the members of a live audience. To speak in public is to be exposed to interpretation, misapprehension (including creative and subversive misapprehensions that contribute their own indispensable measure to ongoing creation), memorialization (including selective note-taking, creative recounting, and vantaged recording), and more.

Although Solnit expressed frustration that she wasn't asked permission to be recorded that doesn't necessarily mean that she would have refused her permission were she asked, of course, nor does it mean a frustration directed at an institution would likewise be directed at a blogger like me who took advantage of the existing recording to express public enthusiasm for her and engage in a public conversation with her talk. Nevertheless, I have taken down both my post of her talk and my tweet promoting the post, to respect her wishes.

In that earlier post, I noted that Solnit expressed support for the adjunct organizing -- of which I am a part -- taking place at SFAI, and that her expression of support was followed by an enthusiastic expression of support from graduating students who cheered for her when she declared it, and that her support was all the more powerful because it was expressed in the company of SFAI administrators who have resisted our organizing quite conspicuously. SFAI President Charles Desmarais sat just behind Rebecca Solnit and was quite as visible in the recording of her talk as she was, lit by the same spotlight, and Dean Rachel Schreiber actually introduced Solnit's talk. As I have written elsewhere, these two administrators have been the public face of resistance to adjunct organizing -- which is not to say that they will not partner with us as congenial and productive partners once we secure the union representation they presently fear.

But I ended up spending more of my time in that blog post engaging with the ideas in Solnit's talk that formed the context for her support of our organizing. Solnit recalled that during the Clinton administration Al Gore famously declared the internet "a highway to the twenty-first century," but she argued that the internet has instead been a highway back to the plutocratic predation of the nineteenth century. She exposed the vaunted libertechbrotarian "sharing economy" of SillyCon Valley as a digital sharecropping economy, in which visual artists, writers, thinkers, and critics are reduced to "content providers" presumably so thrilled by the "exposure" of our work that we are willing to provide it for free or mostly for free while a vanishingly small minority of owners and managers of the momentarily successful platforms on which the content is provided rake in millions and billions of dollars. Far from being thrilled or even settling for the free "exposure" of our work, Solnit recounted the aphoristic observation of a friend from a conversation on the topic: "People die from exposure." It was one of best lines and biggest laughs of her talk. I wonder if she asked her friend's permission for using it, or should have done on her terms, or refrained from naming the friend out of consideration for the friend's ownership of the insight communicated by that string of noises or out of consideration instead for the flow of the talk itself?

I guess I should have expected a bit of prickliness about permissions to promote Solnit's talk given this critique of the digital sharecropping economy and especially that bit about artists and intellectuals dying from exposure. But I didn't. The fact is, I found that I was unexpectedly even more excited to hear her critique of the expropriative fraud of Bay Area crowdsharing enthusiasms and the vacuity of the various digital democratic spontaneisms (which amount to getting targeted for incessant marketing harassment, being framed in advance by surveillance and Big Data profiling, and being drafted into social networking for zero comments and empty likes) than I was to hear her endorse our union organizing. While I still forcefully agree with her diagnosis of the injustice and idiocy of the essentially feudal "sharing economy," I suspect that I may not finally agree with her recommendations in the face of that injustice and idiocy. This happens quite often with me, of course, and my disagreements look on first blush to be more or less the ones I have with Jaron Lanier on these questions while remaining a fan.

I personally think that intellectual property regimes for what remain the ineradicably citational and collaborative practices of creative expressivity is profoundly wrongheaded. I do not agree that the erection of artificial rivalrousness through copyright continues to function "to promote the progress," in Constitutional parlance. I've long regarded the securing of the freedom of assembly guaranteed in the First Amendment neglected in the foregrounding of the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment in discussions of the politics of privacy/publicity/property. In my view the solution to the dilemmas Solnit rightly criticized in her talk is not (even as a short term measure) to rewrite artists and intellectuals even more catastrophically into alienated producers of alienated commodities and to rewrite all creativity and criticality in the fraudulent image of entrepreneurial skimming and scamming to the ruin of the openness on which beauty and thought depend.

Instead, I would recommend steeply progressive income (all the way up to a 96% bracket) and property and inheritance and transaction taxes to combat wealth concentration that always abets minority control of creativity and in the absence of which the pursuit of obscene profit is a continual siren song mobilizing sociopathy to its worst effort to try and then always fail to fill with treasure the hole where a soul should be.

Although the more equitable distribution of benefits (and hence of costs and risks) of everyday commerce by steeply progressive taxation is a democratizing end in itself, it also happens to provide the funding through which one can fund the building and maintenance of public goods and the equitable support of common goods and invest in sustainable social infrastructure, and fund the lifelong healthcare, education, and a basic income guarantee (BIG) which would ensure that consent (a value foundational to market ideologues but only so long as it is vacuous) to the terms of everyday commerce is legibly informed and nonduressed by precarity once and for all. That is to say, the politics of progressive taxation are democratizing both in what they prevent (anti-democratizing wealth and authority concentration) and in what they provide (a scene of informed nonduressed consent to the terms of everyday life).

As it happens, a sufficiently rich bundle of social democratic welfare entitlements, from lifelong universal healthcare and education, counseling, and training opportunities, to paid family leave, long-term unemployment, life-long injury and disability insurance, and absolute retirement security (up to an outright universal non-means-tested basic income guarantee or negative income tax at best) could support a life devoted to nothing but creative expressivity, critical engagement, civic participation, and social support for those who wanted to live a humane existence on their own terms. On such terms, the exposure of work offered freely to the world would not demand the exposure of the worker to the lethally icy forces of isolated neglect as they do now. (Not to mention the fact that genuine general welfare/BIG would also function as a nifty permanently available strike find for workers seeking to improve their labor conditions -- and as an alternative to those who are presently drafted by the precarity of their circumstances into cannon fodder for unethical unpopular wars of conquest.)

To those who might contend that this is an idealism that amounts to an advocacy of the status quo, I must say that there are highly organized partisan, scholarly, activist, and general constituencies that support raising taxes -- while not as high as I would like, certainly higher, and in many contexts that taken together add up to more than you might think. If you want to talk about naivete, I propose you take a real, critical look at the copyright dead-enders and micropayment schemers and distributed-IP reformers who would leave plutocrats in place and all of whose gimmicks would be gamed by predators as night follows day and hence will solve nothing while wasting time the exploited don't have to waste. Again, in my opinion the solution to the present problem of digital sharecropping in particular and the plutocracy more generally of which it is a part is not the next techno-whizbang algorithm but the tried-and-true technique of taxation spent in the provision of sustainable consensualizing equity-in-diversity in the context of democracy. That's right, my answer is tax and spend.

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