Two pieces separately crossed my screen today that each offer provocative challenges to the abiding sense of optimism, even triumphalism, that frequently accompanies discussion of new media technologies and their potential impact of global politics. I thought the HASTAC community might like to see these essays as well and help me think through some of their critiques.
The first, from the Nation, is a negative review of Clay Shirkey's Cognitive Surplus that argues the volunteer, free-time "labor of love" that characterizes Wikipedia editorship and fan-site curating is not (as Shirkey would have it) the harbringer of a post-capitalist, cyber-Utopian economy but rather a "digital plantation" in which unpaid digital labor (and leisure time) is transmogrified into ad revenue and otherwise commodified and walled-off:
Despite all the heady social theorizing of Shirky and the Wired set, the web has not, in fact, abolished the conventions of market value or rewritten the rules of productivity and worker reward. It has, rather, merely sent the rewards further down the fee stream to unscrupulous collectors like Chris Anderson, who plagiarized some of the content of Free, a celebration of the digital free-content revolution and its steady utopian progress toward uncompensated cultural production, from the generous crowdsourcing souls at Wikipedia. How egalitarian. It's a sad truth that in Shirky's idealized market order, some people's time remains more valuable than others, and as in that gray, old labor-based offline economy, the actual producers of content routinely get cheated, in the case of Free by the very charlatan who urges them on to ever greater feats of generosity.
As for crowdsourcing being a labor of love (Shirky primly reminds us that the term amateur derives from the Latin amareto love), the governing metaphor here wouldn't seem to be digital sharecropping so much as the digital plantation. For all too transparent reasons of guilt sublimation, patrician apologists for antebellum slavery also insisted that their uncompensated workers loved their work, and likewise embraced their overseers as virtual family members. This is not, I should caution, to brand Shirky as a latter-day apologist for slavery but rather to note that it's an exceptionally arrogant tic of privilege to tell one's economic inferiors, online or off, what they do and do not love, and what the extra-material wellsprings of their motivation are supposed to be. To use an old-fashioned Enlightenment construct, it's at minimum an intrusion into a digital contributor's private life -- even in the barrier-breaking world of Web 2.0 oversharing and friending. The just and proper rejoinder to any propagandist urging the virtues of uncompensated labor from an empyrean somewhere far above mere society is, You try it, pal.
The seemingly extreme comparison to historical forms of racial exploitation seems intended to shock us out of our complacency; Lehmann is challenging us to completely reimagine our relationship to the corporations that structure the digital wonderland. Likewise, Lehmann casts serious doubts on the digitality of so-called "Twitter revolutions" in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, reminding us that "the root causes of the uprising were scarcity, official corruption and social conflict, none of which fit the cyber-utopian narrative or flatter Americas technological vanity," as well as highlighting the ease with which digital technologies like geolocation can be repurposed for authoritarian ends.
The second piece, from John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in Monthly Review, is if anything even more strident in its cyber-pessimism, as is no doubt evident from its title: "The Internet's Unholy Marriage to Capitalism." Again in contrast to narratives of liberation, open access, and freedom from control, Foster and McChesney essentially mourn an Internet that might have been -- a truly free space for cooperative collectivity -- contrasting it with an actually existing Internet that slides faster and faster towards monopoly and rent-seeking:
The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.
We need look no further than Google and Facebook to see this "paradox of the Internet" in action, each of which is at this point almost unchallenged in its respective spheres. Of course the "new" in "new media" suggests the invietable emergence of newer and newer digital technologies, but for Foster and McChesney this is only "a temporary stop on the way to more monopoly":
The exceptional case is not actual competition -- that is not even in the range of outcomes -- but, instead when a new application avoids being conquered by an existing giant and creates another new monopolistic powerhouse (a new Facebook, for example) because the upstart is able to escape the clutches or enticements of an existing giant laden with cash, and create its own walled garden of economic value. The name of the game in such walled gardens of value is to exploit what economists now sometimes call an enhanced surplus extraction effect, that is, the increased ability to fleece those walled within.
The Internet, in this sense, doesn't suspend capitalism, but rather perfects it.
A secondary critique concerns the characteristically neoliberal failure of the deregulated market in the U.S. to effectively promote digital innovation:
Remarkably, the United States, which created and first developed the Internet, and which ranked, throughout the 1990s, close to first in world Internet connectivity, now ranks between fifteen and twenty in most global measures of broadband access, quality of service, and cost per megabit. There is no incentive to terminate the digital divide, whereby poor and rural Americans remain unconnected to broadband far beyond the rates in other advanced nations; a digital underclass encourages people to pay what it takes to avoid being unconnected. There is a striking comparison here to health care, where Americans pay far more than any other nation per capita, but get worse service, due to the parasitic existence of the health insurance industry. President Barack Obama said that if the United States were starting from scratch, it would obviously make more sense (from a public welfare standpoint) to have a publicly run health care system, and no private health insurance industry. The same overall logic applies to broadband Internet access, in spades.
Here again we find information wants to be free -- it just ain't.
To talk this way at HASTAC, where we typically focus on the brighter side of new media (perhaps even to a fault), necessarily feels a bit like peeing in the punch -- but even in the face of the new the task of the critic remains at its core, I am convinced, the "ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be." If that risks making me HASTAC's Eeyore for the night, well, I suppose I'll have to chance it...