Spaghetti, meet wall (on public intellectuals, activists in residence, and just another existential crisis of a phd student)

by Sebastian Benthall

I have a backlog of things I’ve been planning to write about. It’s been a fruitful semester for me, in a number of ways. At the risk of being incoherent, I thought I’d throw some of my spaghetti against the Internet wall. It’s always curious to see what sticks.

One of the most fascinating intellectual exchanges of the past couple months for me was what I’d guess you could call the Morozov/Johnson debate. Except it wasn’t a debate. It was a book, then a book review (probably designed to sell a different book), and a rebuttal. It was fantastic showmanship. I have never felt so much like I was watching a boxing match while reading stuff on the Internet.

But what really made it for me was the side act of Henry Farrell taking Morozov to task. Unlike the others, I’ve met Farrell. He was kind enough to talk to me about his Cognitive Democracy article (which I was excited about) and academia in general (“there are no academic jobs for brilliant generalists”) last summer when I was living in DC. He is very smart, and not showy. What was cool about his exchange with Morozov was that it showed how a debate that wasn’t designed to sell books could still leak out into the public. There’s still a role for the dedicated academic, as a watchdog on public intellectuals who one could argue have to get sloppier to entertain the public.

An intriguing fallout from (or warm up to?) the whole exchange was Morozov casually snarking Nick Grossman‘s title, “Activist in Residence” at a VC fund in a tweet (“Another sign of the coming Apocalypse? Venture capital firms now have “activists in residence”? “), which then triggered some business press congratulating Nick for being “out in the streets”. Small world, I used to work with Nick at OpenPlans, and can vouch for his being a swell guy with an experienced and nuanced view of technology and government. He has done a lot of pioneering, constructive work on open governance applications–just the sort of constructive work a hater like Morozov would hate if he looked into it some. Privately, he’s told me he’s well aware of the potential astroturfing connotations of his title.

I got mixed feelings about all this. I’m suspicious of venture capital for the kind of vague “capital isn’t trustworthy” reasons you pick up in academia. Activism is sexy, lobbyists are not, and so if you can get away with calling your lobbyist an activist in residence then clearly that’s a step up.

But I think there’s something a little more going on here, which has to do with the substance of the debate. As I understand it, the Peer Progressives believe that social and economic progress can happen through bottom-up connectivity supported by platforms that are potentially run for profit. If you’re a VC, you’d want to invest in one of them platforms, because they are The Future. Nevertheless, you believe stuff happens by connecting people “on the ground”, not targeting decision-makers who are high in a hierarchy.

In Connected, Christakis and Fowler (or some book like it, I’m been reading a lot of them lately and having a hard time keeping track) make the interesting argument that the politics of protesters in the streets and lobbyists aren’t much different. What’s different is the centrality of the actor in the social network of governance. If you know a lot of senators, you’re probably a lobbyist. If you have to hold a sign and shout to have your political opinions heard, then you might be an activist.

I wonder who Nick talks to. Is he schmoozing with the Big Players? Or is he networking the base and trying to spur coordinated action on the periphery? I really have no idea. But if it were the latter, maybe that would give credibility to his title.

Another difference between activists and lobbyists is their authenticity. I have no doubt that Nick believes what he writes and advocates for. I do wonder how much he restrains himself based on his employers’ interests. What would prove he was an activist, not a lobbyist, would be if he were given a longer leash and allowed to speak out on controversial issues in a public way.

I’m mulling over all of this because I’m discovering in grad school that as an academic, you have to pick an audience. Are you targeting your work at other academics? At the public? At the press? At the government? At industry? At the end of the day, you’re writing something and you want somebody else to read it. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to build something and get some people to use it, but that’s an ambitious thing to attempt when you’re mainly working alone.

So far some of my most rewarding experiences writing in academia have been blogging. It doesn’t impress anybody important but a traffic spike can make you feel like you’re on to something. I’ve been in a world of open work for a long time, and just throwing the spaghetti and trying to see what sticks has worked well for me in the past.

But if you try to steer yourself deeper into the network, the stakes get higher. Things get more competitive. Institutions are more calcified and bureaucratic and harder to navigate. You got to work to get anywhere. As it should be.

Dang, I forgot where I was going with this.

Maybe that’s the problem.