Digifesto

Tag: evgeny morozov

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

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.

averting the techno-apocalypse

I was worried when I wrote this that I was exaggerating the phenomenon of literati denouncing technical progress. Then I happened upon this post by a pseudonymous Mr. Teacup, which echoes themes from Morozov’s review.

(At a company Christmas party, we exchanged Secret Santa gifts drawn from each other’s Amazon wish lists. I received Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, and was asked by the Ivy-League educated hacker founder what the book was about. I explained that the book’s lost cause was Enlightenment values, and he was totally shocked by this because he had never heard that they were even in doubt – a typical example of hackers’ ignorance of intellectual trends outside their narrow fields of engineering expertise. But this naivety may explain why some parts of the public finds Silicon Valley’s pseudo-revolutionary marketing message so compelling – their hostility to the humanities has, for good or ill, spared them the influence of postmodernity, so that they are the only segment of society that unselfconsciously adopts universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Admittedly, this rhetoric is misleading and conceals a primarily capitalist agenda. Nonetheless, the public’s misrecognition of Silicon Valley’s potential to liberate also contains a moment of truth.)

All of this is true. But it’s also a matter of perspective. The “narrow fields of engineering expertise” require, to some extent, an embrace of Enlightenment values and universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Meanwhile, the humanities, which have adopted a kind of universal-problematic rhetoric (in which intellectual victory is achieved by labeling something as ‘problematic’), are themselves insulated. Can it be truthfully said that such rhetoric is an ‘intellectual trend’ outside of the narrow fields of high brow wordslinging?

I wouldn’t know, as I’ve been exposed enough to both sides to have gotten both bugs. And, I’d guess, so has Mr. Teacup, who writes in what I believe is an hyperintellectualized parody:

The reader will find in these pages a repository of chronologically-arranged personal writings on topics at turns varied and repetitious, circulating around certain themes: the Internet and the problematics of New Media; Capitalism; Anti-Capitalism; Psychoanalysis; Film; the works of Žižek, Lacan and others; etc.

…while the author is in fact a web professional living in this century.

I think Mr. Teacup does a good job of diagnosing some of the roots of technophobia. The technophobe denies that the technologists are in fact transforming society because they believe change is possible and are terrified that it will occur, while the technologist is happy to say that Things are Changing–but just as they Always Have, though perhaps much more significantly in their era. (Isn’t the rate of technological change “increasing”? Isn’t that a natural consequence of Moore’s law?)

Those who domesticate social change are telling us that nothing is going to happen: “Yes, things will change, but don’t worry about it! Society will adjust and everything will go back to normal.” This is true conservatism. But some are afraid, because they believe change can really happen. (For example, the Tea Party is the only political group that believes in socialism, while progressives continually deny that it is a possibility.)

What if the converse is also true: those who believe in change are afraid, and this is not the same as opposing it. The technophobic nightmare scenarios of machines spinning out of control is not a delusional fantasy. On the contrary, it gives us an extremely accurate psychological representation of what genuine social change entails. The radical step is to simply endorse it. From the standpoint of the old ways, the birth of the New must be subjectively experienced as an apocalyptic event.

So, Morozov‘s loathing of the Hybrid Reality Institute is due to what again? A legitimate fear that technological change will usher in an autocratic regime that is run by technocratic industrialists without democratic consent. Mr. Teacup writes:

This reveals the general problem with deconstructing the human-technology binary: it frequently undermines legitimate grievances about the coercive uses of technology. People are not that stupid, they don’t oppose technology because they don’t realize they are always-already technologically mediated. They oppose technology because they do realize it – this is what makes it a crucial site of political resistance.

The problem, though, is that technophobia, however entertainingly it is articulated, will do nothing to stop technical change, because (as it’s already been conceded) the people responsible for technical change don’t bother reading expansive critiques informed by the intellectual trends in the humanities. Rather, it seems that technologists are developing their own intellectual tradition based on theories of the Singularity and individual rationality. A more mathematized, libertarian, and pragmatic great-grandchild of Enlightenment thought.

The question for those concerned with the death of democratic politics or the rise of technocolonialism, then, has got to be: how do you do better than whining? Given that technological change is going to happen, how can it be better steered towards less “problematic” ends?

The difficulty with this question is that it is deeply sociotechnical. Meaning, it’s a question where social and technical problems are interleaved so densely that it requires expertise from both sides of the aisle. Which means that the literati and digerati are going to have to respectfully talk to each other.

Protected: The jealousy of the literati in the Hybrid Age

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