Stephen Johnson, the author of a book very popular among geeks called Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter (!), tells a very Big Lie in the Times today. He claims he is not a Communist, although his ideas for "innovation" are merely another form of Shakedown Street for the masses, with yet another form of Bolshevism for a few oligarchs. He can get by telling that very Big Lie because of a basic subterfuge we see all the time from the Technocommunists: reliance on a classic definition of Communism that has to do with "state ownership of the means of production." Thus, he can tap-dance his way out of the label of "Communist" when confronted by ordinary people with concerns about his Bolshevik methods by saying, essentially, the same thing that the Bolsheviks taking power in various Eastern (and Western) European countries used to say: that he is for "people's" ownership of production (are you starting to get the idea, now?).
When Stephen Johnson tells you that "the people" own social media projects on the Internet, in a grassroots, democratic sort of way, it sounds very nice, doesn't it? Hardly sounds like evil Communism with its evil top-down management! But just as East Germany and the other Communist states used to mask their statist oppressive policies by qualifying themselves as "People's Democracies," so the massive crowdsourcing and Creative-Commons-sharing that Johnson and his friends like Lawrence Lessig incite are supposed to be "about capitalism" (and it is, for a tiny number of big new media oligarchs, or a few connected designers lucky enough to have the devs put them on the "recommended" list).
So he can craftily -- and cunningly -- say he is "not a Communist" merely because he's shifted the scrutiny away from *methods* to *institutions*, and got everyone scratching their heads over how there could *possibly* be any Communism in a seemingly "grassroots" system where there is..money being spent.
That the public -- the people -- never benefit from this transfer of cash *really* is one of the giveaways. It's not real.
That the system relies on an elite cadre of coders and their connections and thus is eminently akin to Milovan Djilas' New Class is another giveaway. It's fake.
Johnson waxes ecstatic about "amateur scientists of the Enlightenment," or university researchers, or volunteers on opensource platforms. Finally, someone in Seattle hearing Johnson warble on asked him a question he says he has never heard before: "Are you a Communist?" And small wonder, given that he celebrates these innovative folks without really ever looking at what props them up: the state, big IT (which pays for and benifits from opensource and also pays programmers in day jobs enabling them to pursue opensource in their free time), and of course, Mom -- and her basement.
Johnson said Stalin would have despised Wikipedia -- as if to say that his system can't *possibly* be Communist because it's not centralized. Oh, not on your life. Not at all. The early Bolsheviks dreamed of just such a thing as Wikipedia. Gorky, who was first a friend and then somewhat of a critic of Lenin dreamed of an all-encompassing Everyman's Encyclopedia that would contain all world knowledge and help educate the masses. He had big ideas about how to write this, contacting various great minds in Europe like H.G. Wells. He also wanted to gather up all world literature and rewrite it for the masses, in a kind of precursor to the Readers' Digest concept of the Great Books.
Wikipedia ultimately, when you get down to who decides, who ajudicates, and who handles the worst controversies, amounts to a very tiny cadre of people -- people whose identities are anonymous and whose actions are not any more accountable or transparent than the Politburo! Controlling all knowledge, all search -- that would be Stalin's dream, not his hate. And that's what Wikipedia -- hand-in-glove with Google -- in fact does to a large extent already. The argument with Johnson here is about the nature of Wikipedia -- he believes that, at face value, it's some sort of giant researcher's boon that thousands of entries thoughtfully provided by thousands of selfless people. I see how it is controlled -- by its own admission -- by a very small number of people and takes a tilt to the left on many important subjects and persons -- and shows up first in nearly every search. That's not freedom; that's a form of totalitarianism.
Getting a lot of people to work for free -- to not get paid! -- and producing something that is less than the truth -- that *is* Communism, Stephen Johnson!
So, essentially Johnson makes the false claim that because this new form of socialism on the Internet is dressed up in cyber-clothing, with "connectivity" and "apis" and "innovation" -- it isn't socialism or Communism. The centerpiece of his argument is Kickstarter, a platform that enables people to donate, sometimes very small amounts, to various entrepreneurial projects or artistic efforts they would like to see supported, *but not for ownership* in those inventions or art pieces or installations. Instead of *ownership* of this "product," the "investor" gets a CD or a t-shirt or an invitation to an art show and "the satisfaction of knowing that he has supported a good cause".
Take a look and you will instantly see the problem: yes, ideas for widgets like a tripod stand (the inventions hew largely to the geek selection of Internet-related and digital-media-related projects) that *might* make a profit, but many are goofy ideas like the "art happening" that will involve taking over an empty storefront and putting in a fake business -- an endeavour that has already soaked $876 out of some hapless art nuts.
Likely the most successful Kickstarter project is the more than $200,000 raised to fund the programmers making the opensource competition to Facebook, called "Diaspora". It has no obvious business model other than trying to get a jillion sign-ups and a gadzillion clicks on ads to make a buck (somewhat like the thing its cloning, eh? Or are we going to see, um, an addictive game like Farmville only with socially-redeeming messages inciting hatred of the extractive industries?). It's driven by ideology, not rationality, in hating the "walled garden" proprietary nature of Facebook and the inability of API engineers to scrape as much data as they like for their inventions -- while at the same time, as power users, to keep *their* own private information as private as they need it to be.
So...these aren't the next PC or even the next paperclip. These aren't causes helping starving children in Africa. These are art stunts by geeks and designers waiting to get noticed, and various widget makers and start-ups of API "innovations" that are variations on the theme of TwitterFacebookGoogle and often aspire, as the best form of their "liquidity event," to be bought out by these big companies.
Kickstarter itself takes a piece out of your donation to sustain its business at a profit and...we don't know how those start-ups do (unless the "successful" ones can be tracked somehow over the next few years to see if the funding translates at least to a profit for that start-up). I personally know one that is *not* making a profit, and I see a few others that may or may not be, it doesn't seem to tell you *the truth about all this*. (If there is sunlight on this, please send me a link).
There's another name for a machine that takes people's value, gives it to other people, and enables the machiner maker to take a profit: it's called "a collective farm" and "communism".
The other part of the Big Lie that Johnson tells us -- in the headline although not as developed in the op-ed -- is that "innovation" is not the property of "either left or right". This is part of that overall shill that has technologists claiming that their ideology-infused tech, which is most certainly political, is "beyond" politics of left or right (what a neat trick!).
This is merely a way the left has of smuggling in the "progressive" or "socialist" agenda by stealth. They can then entlessly banter and joke and even viciously argue that they "aren't socialists" and sneer and ridicule people who find collectivism in what they are doing by invoking some "profit" to be made. It's like the way Cory Doctorow constantly tells you that its a "business model" to give away books, and that people will donate to him. Yet he doesn't tell you that he doesn't make a living that way. That he makes a living from lecture and consulting fees that in part hinge on the notion that people will still pay you to... go around lying to other people that by giving away your creations for free, you will actually ultimately earn money. Yes, a few do. Most don't. A system that merely extracts from one set of people (those "funders" at Kickstarter) and enables a few to skim off their funds (Kickstarters' devs) and then passes on money to people who *might* make a profit but might not -- and won't give anybody else any of it -- isn't a system that creates value; it's a system that destroys value, like Communism does. It's not "efficient"; it's destructive.
Instead of forcing self-indulgent and over-fertilized companies traded among VCs and then traded among big IT (and often *destroyed* in the process) to *go public* where they would have to justify themselves to directors on a board and the shareholders, they stay in their infantalized state perhaps forever, hitting up the boys for beer and pizza money on the Internet, using the wonders of connectivity on social media. It's not a market; it's a form of managed philanthropy -- an offshoot of the philanthrocapitalism of Gates which is so destructive in the Third World because it isn't a holistic and complex means of helping societies but merely a technological quick fix.
Johnson himself struggles to analyze and name the phenomenon of what he and his fellow "thought leaders" and Silicon Valley influencers are doing when they strip value from the middle-class and poor and covert it to oligarchic riches for a few, influencing and even replacing the state in some places. If he was willing to read a little more Communist philosophy, he might learn that the Soviets believed the state would "wither away" under Communism, when it was finally perfected by its founders. Well, here we are now. The state *has* withered and Google has replaced it, educating people, guiding their every economic and social decision, and even providing some small pittance (and for a very few, a decent profit) for those willing to educate themselves on the Internet and then spit back what they've absorbed on their blogs. Happy now?
BUT the problem is that we don’t have a word that does justice to those of us who believe in the generative power of the fourth quadrant. My hope is that the blurriness is only temporary, the strange disorientation one finds when new social and economic values are being formed.
The choice shouldn’t be between decentralized markets and command-and-control states. Over these last centuries, much of the history of innovation has lived in a less formal space between those two regimes: in the grad seminar and the coffeehouse and the hobbyist’s home lab and the digital bulletin board. The wonders of modern life did not emerge exclusively from the proprietary clash between private firms. They also emerged from open networks.
Well, I don't believe in the generatives (Kevin Kelly invented this term). They almost all involve what I call the geek mantra of "your information wants to be free/mine is only available for a consulting fee". They almost all involve forced sharing, hijacking of content until the DMCA axe falls (and it rarely does), browbeating into the Creative Commons (creative Communism), etc. and enabling only a tiny number of geeks and gurus to enrich themselves. Everyone else is supposed to make do with a warm glowy feeling of friendship induced by connectivity on Facebook and other interfaces.
Open networks aren't open. They are dominated by a sect of geeks who have a very harsh regime for how they should be run, often designing software through tyranny, with Stakhanovite "scrums" with "benevolent dictators for life". Forcing GNU and other types of licensing on people isn't innovation or some kind of global good deed; it can often harm development because nobody can be paid for their work or modify and resell something in a niche market they've found. The dual licenses that do enable this have a nasty side that mean that all those selfless donors of code get screwed when some company (like Linden Lab) makes a big killing all of a sudden on an opensource project that takes a turn to a customized special deal (like with the Electric Sheep Company, for their specialized viewer for the CBS-funded CSI tie-in in Second Life).
In the grad seminar, hobbyist's basement and coffeehouse Stephen Johnson celebrates as places where innovation is happening outside private firms, *somebody else is always paying*. It's either the university or the state or a foundation; it's either mom or the other working spouse; it's the corporation Starbucks enabling people to have a free office to sit in for half the day for only a $3.95 latte. Free isn't free.
If this was just all kind American barn-raising, I wouldn't oppose it. But it's not. It's always about the many having to supply content for free, provide attention for hours, and even give *payment* for merely a t-shirt and a warm fuzzy feeling -- as just a small number of people skim this and make bank. It's not fair or just. It's *not* a better world. There's nothing innovative whatsoever. It's the oldest story in the book, and a story that has led to the destruction of many lives.