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Everything New Is Old Again: Two Critiques of Cyber-Optimism

Everything New Is Old Again: Two Critiques of Cyber-Optimism

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...



Great post! :)


First, speaking as someone who has tried it, I'm not buying Lehmann's comparison of crowdsourced projects like Wikipedia to a digital plantation for a very simple reason: no one is forced in any possible sense of the term to contribute to them. If people didn't want to contribute to Wikipedia or its for-profit sister, Wikia, they simply wouldn't. If peopld didn't want to write fanfiction, they wouldn't. Nor is there any indication at all that Shirky is speaking of his economic inferiors, as Lehmann alleges; in fact, I imagine that if you polled Wikipedia editors on income, you'd find that most of them are comfortably middle or upper class.

Second, I think it is clear that Lehmann is making a deeply authoritarian argument--one which is in fact very, very old. Let's begin by looking at his comments on free speech, democracy, and corporations:

American Net companies—hailed in State Department speeches as the vanguard of the freedom revolution—are often fleet of foot when political controversy threatens to roil their plans for overseas market expansion. It’s not hard to see why that should be the case: their shareholders expect them to be profitable, and in many stops along the global marketplace, freedom and democratization stand directly athwart that prime directive. To take just one example, last year Facebook pulled the plug on a group maintained by an activist in Morocco named Kacem El Ghazzali, which promoted discussion about secular education in the theocratic country. When El Ghazzali e-mailed Facebook engineers in Palo Alto requesting an explanation, they deleted his profile on the site for good measure. Eventually, Facebook relented and restored the education site, once the episode got press attention in the West, but El Ghazzali was left to rebuild his Facebook profile on his own. In Egypt, as the New York Times recently reported, Facebook shut down Wael Ghonim’s page because he had violated the company’s terms of service by using a pseudonym to create a profile as one of the page’s administrators. Hence, as Morozov observes, “contrary to the expectations of many Western policymakers, Facebook is hardly ideal for promoting democracy; its own logic, driven by profits or ignorance of the increasingly global context in which it operates, is, at times, extremely antidemocratic.”

The point is clear: having self-interested corporations like Facebook and ISPs able to exercise absolute control over such a large portion of the public sphere is, or at the very least can be, inimical to democracy and free speech, or more generally, the public welfare. Straightforward enough. Further down, however, he writes:

By contrast, to hail a cascade of unrefereed digital content as a breakthrough in creativity and critical thought is roughly akin to greeting news of a massive national egg recall by laying off the country’s food inspectors. This contradiction should be obvious in an age where the best-known persecutor of the media mainstream—excuse me, lamestream—is one Sarah Palin, who has also cannily harnessed the social media revolution to a classic one-to-many political broadcasting concern. (One might also gingerly suggest that Shirky’s own blogging output could have benefited from a healthy dose of filtration, given the sexist character of his now notorious, if forthrightly titled, blog offering “A Rant About Women.”)

Lehmann's implicit problem here is simple: the web lacks the kind of purportedly disinterested gatekeepers who might put a muzzle on Clay Shirky or Sarah Palin, for their own good and that of the public. He finds it at best obnoxious and at worst downright dangerous that Palin is able to communicate with her supporters without the interference or intermediation of media gatekeepers who might very well seek to shut her down (in fact, I rather doubt they would--she's much too good a story), and that Shirky might have been better served if he had had a gatekeeper or three to take him aside and suggest that he might not want to publish that particular blog post.

Lehmann's vision of the ideal Internet, which undergirds his entire article, is thus in fact far more restrictive and authoritarian than anything Facebook contemplates. It is one in which gatekeepers meticulously regulate online discourse in the name of the public interest. Indeed, it is almost as if it were ripped directly from the pages of Plato's Republic. To phrase Lehmann's argument in Platonic terms, he appears to view the Internet as an unholy cross between a corporate oligarchy and a wild, untamed democracy. Remember that Plato classifies oligarchy as the third-worst form of government and democracy as the second-worst.

Lehmann's problem is thus not that the web has gatekeepers, but that it has the wrong gatekeepers, who squelch healthy discourse while not doing nearly enough to keep the crazies in line--and line their pockets all the while. On the contrary, his vision is one in which the gatekeepers who keep watch over the Internet's public discourse are rational, cool-headed, disinterested, intelligent, the best members of society, the very spitting image of the Enlightened man or woman--in short, one suspects, people very much like Chris Lehmann. Yet incredibly, even as he advocates for what is in essence a Platonic Internet Republic, Lehmann wraps himself in the snark-spangled banner of democracy.

If Lehmann had had the courage or self-awareness to state his plainly authoritarian convictions, I would have had considerably more respect for his arguments. There is, after all, a long and venerable philosophical and political tradition which states that the publicly spoken word has real power, and that society lets madmen, bigots, fools and fanatics exercise that power at its own peril. And indeed, in a number of European states hate speech, Holocaust denial, the use of Nazi symbols, and even blasphemy are criminal offenses. Certainly, there are plenty of reasons to be highly skeptical of corporate oligarchy, liberal democracy, or some combination thereof as models for the Internet, given the propensity of capitalist democratic states to exploit and ignore their minorities. On the other hand, benevolent dictatorships, especially permanent ones as opposed to Cincinattian emergency governments, rather rarely turn out to be all that benevolent. Nor, for that matter, has anti-capitalist authoritarianism proven particularly successful, at least when tried in meatspace.

However, Lehmann did not make that argument. Instead, he couches his article in the language of democracy, even as he plainly yearns for a most undemocratic system. As a result, given a choice between the flawed Facebookian, Shirkian neoliberalism we have now and Lehmann's disingenuous Republic, I know exactly which one I'd choose.