I'm reading Evgeny Morozov's book To Save Everything, Click Here -- and it's both boring and fascinating because it's like deja-vu all over again -- I've written on exactly the same topics myself for nearly ten years, usually as a dissident surrounded by geeks who relentlessly hated and bullied me.
It's filled with the hypothetical hystericals that he castigates geeks for -- he's adopted this as a literary style worthy of Jeff Jarvis or Seth Godin. For example, he tells us the horror of something called BinCam that can document our garbage and put it up on social media so that -- in theory -- our neighbours or the vigilant state could examine our detritus and tell whether in fact we were recycling sufficiently or perhaps not even eating correctly.
The problem with these stories is that they are anecdotes. Nobody has BinCam. BinCam isn't anywhere installed in such sufficient quantities as to cause anything like the ruckus Morozov imagines. That's because nobody wanted it -- maybe a few "quantified life" geeks experimenting did. Or if it did get installed, it was not with the privacy-busting social-media-shaming factor, but with more of the mundane city planning capacity to tell where the garbage pick-ups could be deployed, to save energy and time and money.
It's filled with name-dropping and citation-dropping that most people won't recognize. Couldn't we ask whether in fact the theory of "flow" comes from Plotinus and not Heraclitus? Oh, and let's not forget my favourite quote from Heraclitus (I think): "Although reason is common to all men, most men behave as if they have their own private understanding".
When you have intimidating stuff like the invocation of Plotinus and Pliny, nobody might dare to say the obvious: but Evgeny, there isn't any software that has a message TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE. It doesn't exist. It's a sort of fable you've made, like your other fables.
Real software -- the ubiquitous Windows of the proprietary and much-hated Microsoft, on which everything is based -- simply says SAVE -- SAVE "as is", so to speak. Or you get the choice: "SAVE AS" -- and you *chose* then. Silicon Valley may not be as world-changing in its aspirations as you wish, at least without giving some agency to users! I can't think of a single application that actually says "TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE". Can you? Is this on a Mac or something? If it doesn't really exist anywhere, isn't that telling? It *might* -- it almost sounds as if it does! But it doesn't! (Correct me if I'm wrong.)
So yeah, I've been writing about the issue of the Silicon Valley hustlers for years and years on this blog and at Second Thoughts. But it's not like I'm vindicated with the appearance of the Sage of Soligorsk on the scene -- because it's like looking at the same landscape through a kaleidoscope, where everything is shifted 25% and skewed.
Each time Morozov is criticizing the same thing I've already criticized, and where he could point out their collectivism and -- dare I say it, technocommunism -- he shifts, and starts calling them some other name. Randians. Schumpeter-trumpeters. Or crypto-followers of some crazy Polish guy. Who in fact is no different in his scientism and socialism than H.G. Wells or Maxim Gorky, or for that matter, at the end of the day, Evgeny Morozov.
So, Morozov beams and tweets triumphantly that he has found that exact place in a video about Mark Zuckerberg, where in fact he revealed long ago his plans for world domination that are now being examined today in his call for some kind of Silicon Valley sort of PAC that would work on issues like start-up visas and immigration. Well, I found that exact spot on that video more than four years ago in 2008, with "We Are Not 69 Million of Anything" -- back when the threat that Zuckerberg could harness all of us in creepy ways was limited to only 69 million, not one billion. I examine the connectivity cult (the same one Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen of Google have) in ways I think Morozov doesn't -- but now he's covering it in his book and will forever be credited for "discovering" this particular critique of Zuckerberg.
Oh, well, I get how it works, instead of working as a low-wage OSI worker for years on end, I should have been born in Eastern Europe and become a Soros fellow!
Still, for the record I'll note that I covered this topic back in 2008 when Morozov was still playing at being a Soros fellow or something, waiting for Lenny Benardo to give him research tips. (It's perhaps telling that Lenny Benardo absolutely refuses to speak about Belarus with me, because I might keep pointedly asking about the Soros mess-ups and question the priorities of grant-giving, whereas Lenny probably never has to talk to Morozov about Belarus, ever, because Morozov doesn't "do" Belarus, his homeland.)
Except to write his book at his parent's dacha there. Oh, the hissing samovar! The buzzing bees! The jam made by babushka from wild raspberries! And the skewering of Silicon Valley between sips of barely-diluted zavarka.
The kind of skewering I did without the summer house for years -- for example, confronting Jeff Jarvis both on his blog and in person about his "bill of rights" favouring collectivist ideas. Or having a long drawn-out battles about "gamification" back in 2008, when Jane McGonigal first appeared with this awful idea that "reality was broken" and that we had to gamify it to fix it, or the creepy TED talk about Jesse Schell sparked this debate in 2010.
Is Morozov going to mention that McGonigal worked for the Chinese government during their Olympics?
I had to sit through the vilification of being told even by a friend, Raph Koster, that my non-gamer culture and the culture of gamers (ostensibly superior) was the source of my problem with gamification -- and shunned because I dared to say that the deified Richard Bartle had social engineering-socialism in his games. I had to sit through legions of fanboyz villifying me because I dared to question the wackiness of McGonigal. Read it, it's truly extraordinary, in light especially of how much safer it has become now to criticize Jane.
Or take even the (formerly) obscure essay by Coase. Why, our own Philip Rosedale was reading it (not just O'Reilly) long before Shirky, back in 2005, because Mitch Kapor gave it to him, and touting it as a way to run a company today -- even the ultimate company without employees!
With SL, Rosedale took the idea of reduced "coordatination costs" to come up with this idyllic notion -- never put in practice:
By putting up a page where thousands of people can cast a fixed number of votes to prioritize (or modify) a fairly specific work list of features and changes for upcoming versions of Second Life, we are further blurring the boundaries between the ‘company’ of Linden Lab and the residents of Second Life. We are asking for help (and I suspect comitting ourselves substantially to what we hear) in what is generally a very private and hallowed process – the setting of development priorities.
Ultimately, Philip and his successors shut down the voting tool because people either asked for priorities the company, mindful of their competitors in the gaming industry, didn't think should be coded; or they didn't like some of the things asked for because they went against their geek religion; or they would prohibit the compay from being sold to marketers (i.e. IP masking). And this is how the whole Internet will go, as Second Life has often been used as a prototyper, deliberately or simply using its virtuality as an affordance for petri-dish work.
Back then, I asked whether a theory from efficient firms from 1937 was exactly the time period to be mining for ideas...In fact, the Taylorism that migrated into Stakhanovitism and later the Kaizen method in Japan was what we had to worry about -- was collectivizing everyone with open source software merely a way to reduce transaction costs for firms and ensure oligarchy for them, communism for the rest of us? You know, "We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us." So I had critiques like this one about the Leninism of the Linden Tao.
Now Morozov has produced a 16,000 word piece for The Baffler -- you wondered who they were going to get to write on tech after their co-editor Aaron Swartz killed himself. It's too long for a magazine piece and too short for a book, so it's a pamphlet of the sort socialists and the Catholic Church still specialize in -- where the author is erudite, wordy, didactic, and exasperated with the unbeliever.
And here, too, two years ago, I was criticizing O'Reilly very specifically, as I had for years in SL before that to his fanboyz. Morozov of course has produced the state-of-the-art critique in 16,000 words, complete with his intellectual antecedents, but yet, he never mentions O'Reilly's outrageous speaking fees and the scandals around them. He alludes to, but never really quite explains how open source is a racket that Big IT benefits most from in its California business model.
Here's the nutshell of my critique of O'Reilly and his invasion of the State Department and government in general with his "gov 2.0" and even "civ soc 2.0":
Civil society is something I do know about, having studied it and lived it for 30 years. And open source and web 2.0 is something I know about, having studied it and lived it for the last 6 years. And I see something very destructive and corrosive that could occur by the arrogant imposition of the open source mystique and "business model" on to the more fragile and complex organic human systems of civil society that aren't mechanical like machines and the Internet.
It means monetarizing things for a few consultants -- like one man and his team that maybe shouldn't be monetarized (and don't pretend that the non-profit work of the O'Reilly empire is somehow unrelated to the expensive workbooks and conferences and the high human cost of open source in general).
It means low or no wages as a way of life and aspiration and necessity to keep work tools free for people that have high sources of compensation elsewhere.
But worse than all that, making everything into a stack and an ap means less freedom and less participation in decision-making, not more, *because the very decision about mechanization in the first place was ripped out of people's hands before they could think about it*.
Indeed, despite his enormous study of the subject, Morozov hasn't really touched on the corrosive effect of the "Code for America" stuff invading cities all over the place, a debate I took on in 2010 here.
And Morozov barely discusses the pernicious evangelist role of Alex Howard, who insists, against all common sense and logic and reason, that he is a journalist, and not a propagandist or public relations agent -- as I did here, after a lot of discussion on Whimsley, where Tom Slee confronted Howard on the entire "gov 2.0" racket which is exploited by conservative governments (and leftist governments, too, I might add, as Obama has abused it) to hand out consulting contracts to cronies and pretend to innovate and avoid hard topics.
(Of course, I haven't read the book all the way to the end yet, so maybe that's to come).
I'll come back to do a more thorough book review when I can, in which I explain that funny twist that happens with every single critique -- where Morozov misses the moment to recognize something as in fact "Soviet," shall we say, or collectivist, or socialist -- and then declares it something else. For example, you have to wonder -- how did he get through his critique of Clay Shirky, whom he skewers, without ever mentioning his seminal "The Group is Its Own Worst Enemy" -- which might really be re-titled, as I've written repeatedly for years, "The Group Members Are Our Own Worst Enemy". And to miss Shirky's one big forray into foreign policy on the webzine of the same name, from his areas of expertise in Internet culture, where essentially, he tells people to forego their Twitter revolutions until the advance guard tells them it's okay, because they've become sufficiently mature for democracy -- an ideology Nazarbayev would be proud of, and in fact invokes (and maybe that's how he was able to win over Jimmy Wales).
For now, let's just look at the things hidden in the 16,000 word piece about O'Reilly.
Morozov decides O'Reilly is a Randian, because he's for entrepreneurs forging their businesses in the face of conservative big, ostensibly backward, proprietary-software companies. I guess Morozov never studied the role of the peredovik in Soviet culture and the winners of socialist competitions.
Ayn Rand, of course, is as Bolshevist as the Bolsheviks she countered, and she got that way having to counter them fiercely, but she's a product of her time and copies their revolutionary methods. The rigidity of her ideology; her hatred of religion; her relentless ideological struggle with other sectarians or the slightly-politically-incorrect within her own circles -- these are all products of the Bolshevik age we still live with. If someone worked harder in the collective farm of open software and also figured out how to make money with the $39.95 manuals to actually work this "free" stuff and also charged big speaking fees, they merit a spot in the Soviet Union of Constructors, not a blast as a Randian or hypothetically an exaggerated capitalist.
O'Reilly's earlier nods to Microsoft or to a hypothetical "choice" between open and proprietary software, even defending it as an intellectual freedom, was only tactical and only present 10 years ago. Today, Code for America culture adherents deride as "vendorocracy" any proprietary software that a municipality runs, and as we see from Cyrus Farivar's uneven critical examination of Code for America on Ars Technica, somebody making a zippy little startup with open source software and getting the city contract ahead of others is the "good guy" whereas those other contenders are evil (or companies that *should* be contending if you still kept a free-market competition system and competitive bids at city hall instead of ecstatic free software cronyism).
O'Reilly peddled that line only tactically for a time, like the pro-abortion crusaders used "choice" for a time until they could change their causes' title to "women's health" and beat any critic as wishing the illness of women and waging a war on women. So O'Reillyites at State today would describe as backward and fearful of technology and consumed with FUD anybody who suggests that an older vendor with proprietary software not as caught up in the giddyness of 2.0 might be better for security or privacy.
But here's the thing about Evgeny -- he loves open source software. He himself is not for the intellectual proposition of choice between types of software, even tactically until the Better Day comes. In this Baffler essay that many will read and write about as "a critique of the open source software culture" that is invading everything (and thinking it can even use the sectarian principles of agile software production on governance of people in general), in fact, Morozov roots most vigorously for just that -- in a more pure form unalloyed with any capitalism
Morozov is more of a Stallmanite that Stallman. He pretends to admit that Stallman is obviated by being preoccupied with licensing schemes at a time when "the cloud" has obviated them.
Of course, "the cloud" has done no such thing, as proprietary cloud software can exist; private firms deploy their cloud magic even with open source in ways they don't publish; and big companies still fiercely fight over what the standards of cloudness will be. At the end of the day, the cloud is just other people's computers, not your own. There should be a new study of server farms and server farm politics underneath the cloud, that Morozov hasn't gotten to yet.
Stallman isn't about license schemes, really -- he's more of a cultural coder than O'Reilly precisely because he hasn't converted his empire, still very active (with the friends of Bradley Manning, for example) into a cash cow in the same way and therefore has more street cred. The Stallmanite ideals -- that everything has to be free, that bugs are shallow to the thousands of eyes let in to see that software, in fact is something Morozov exhuberantly proclaims, with this telling paragraph:
Underpinning Stallman’s project was a profound critique of the role that patent law had come to play in stifling innovation and creativity. Perhaps inadvertently, Stallman also made a prescient argument for treating code, and technological infrastructure more broadly, as something that ought to be subject to public scrutiny. He sought to open up the very technological black boxes that corporations conspired to keep shut. Had his efforts succeeded, we might already be living in a world where the intricacies of software used for high-frequency trading or biometric identification presented no major mysteries
Now that's just sectarian clap-trap of the sort we thought Morozov was supposed to be critiquing, not embracing. See what I mean? There's a strange technno-determinism of the sort Morozov is supposed to be denouncing if he believes that "if only" we could see the magic code that enables traders to use the speed and amplification properties of the Internet to move markets perilously (to their own profit and sometimes to the detriment of countries), why, we could somehow cure the faults of capitalism. But the Internet is merely (sometimes) a capitalist tool, and the real problem for Morozov which he most decidedly disdains is capitalism and free enterprise and free markets themselves. Sure, capitalism should be regulated even in a free society with free enterprise -- and it is, and the debate about "how much" is what politics is about. Here, I suspect Morozov thinks that "transparency" on the kind of software some capitalists have made good use of will somehow enable a naming and shaming (or industrial sabotage?) effort or an "equalling of the playing field"...or some other socialist fantasy.
But in a free world, you have to ask why traders can't have proprietary software that gives them an edge in trading fast, and if your real problem is capitalism itself, this particular facet of it really isn't the issue; and if your real problem is that you just want to regulate some of the fiercest aspects of capitalism that can be destructive, you've never explained why you couldn't do this with organic law instead of transparency of the code to those putative million eyes.
As for biometrics, something that states from South Korea to Turkmenistan are using now -- while gas-rich Turkmenistan may not be able to supply clean water and jobs and even gas to all of its people, especially in remote areas, it has seen fit to rush to apply the latest scientific methods to create a biometric passport of the future -- and control its citizenry.
Knowing the software code that probably the Chinese wrote for the Turkmens or knowing the code of what might be implemented in the US won't change anything -- what's at stake here is the will of the government, its undemocratic nature, and its resorting to organic methods of control as well as electronic.
Morozov's critique of Silicon Valley-orchestrated collectivism -- yes, he does come up with an actual critique of collectivism now in rather a cunning way -- is that it is soulless. It's not "true" collectivism. That's because all it is, really, is a zillion individual actions -- clicks on likes, or retweeting of messages or copying of memes or whatever the individual act is -- without any sense of camraderie or joint purpose.Says Morozov:
This is a very limited vision of participation. It amounts to no more than a simple feedback session with whoever is running the system. You are not participating in the design of that system, nor are you asked to comment on its future. There is nothing “collective” about such distributed intelligence; it’s just a bunch of individual users acting on their own and never experiencing any sense of solidarity or group belonging. Such “participation” has no political dimension; no power changes hands.
If you hold up a mirror to this paragraph to see what, then, Morozov might find ideal, not only might he himself disappear, but you see the yearning for collectivism nevertheless straining through as an ideal: It would be great if we did have collectives, just better, more meaningful collectives! It would be great if they actually democratically participated! It would be cause if they had a sense of solidarity and group belonging! It would be even better if they had a "political dimension" and actually took power! Hey, let's Occupy Wall Street with that!
I'm not talking about libertarian survivalism here and the lone individual on the range -- I'm just criticizing bureaucratic socialism. Really, how does Morozov's "better" group with solidarity differ from, oh, the Leninist notion of "democratic centralism" (the Politburo can debate, but nobody else) or Central Asian notion of the kuraltai (very free group debates with even the powerless included until the power-possessors decide after sifting out what they see as "the voice of the people" and then ruthlessly silencing all further debate) -- or Chinese "self-criticism" circles?
Morozov is still celebrating the group and its dynamics; he doesn't have a vision of the protection of individual rights or the protection of minorities, or how to change the group afterward, when it becomes "its own worst enemy", i.e. strays from the rigid ideal that may have been once "collectively" decided. What is the theory of change that really constitutes democracy, not just a glorification of "participation" that leads us to "participatory democracy" where the cadres end up deciding everything? Because not everybody participates. Because not everybody can or should have a stake. Why should a bunch of jobless students get to overthrow the stock market?
So I'd make a sharper critique of this Silicon Valley "collective intelligence" stuff than Morozov by pointing out --again -- the pernicious thinking of Clay Shirky in "The Group is Its Own Worst Enemy" which is really about how straying group members who revolt against non-democratically decided goals should be controlled -- or Beth Noveck, who thinks you can't have "here comes everybody" (which Shirky himself disavowed later) because you get people who aren't appropriate or are off-topic or are too stupid -- which is why a network of self-selecting experts under her guidance and filtration is the best kind of collective. You know, "the cadres decide everything," as Stalin put it so well. And he should know; despite being called "rude" by Lenin, he was eventually able to take over everything just by performing the simple task of keeping the minutes for meetings (and shaping them subtly) -- sort of writing the code for the group, if you will...
Of course, there's plenty of sense of joint purpose to go around among the Internet socialists on their campaigns, but I've generally found that the groups like Moveon or Daily Kos or Organizing for America are cadre-run, with the masses seldom having any real choice but to enthusiastically "like" and retweet what is peddled to them by a few cunning intellectuals at the top of the pyramid.
Morozov should be troubled by the bureaucratic socialism of Moveon or Center for American Progress, too, but never is.
And for him, the ideal of the collective still shines goldenly on the yawning heights:
As a result, once-lively debates about the content and meaning of specific reforms and institutions are replaced by governments calling on their citizens to help find spelling mistakes in patent applications or use their phones to report potholes. If Participation 1.0 was about the use of public reason to push for political reforms, with groups of concerned citizens coalescing around some vague notion of the shared public good, Participation 2.0 is about atomized individuals finding or contributing the right data to solve some problem without creating any disturbances in the system itself. (These citizens do come together at “hackathons”—to help Silicon Valley liberate government data at no cost—only to return to their bedrooms shortly thereafter.) Following the open source model, citizens are invited to find bugs in the system, not to ask whether the system’s goals are right to begin with. That politics can aspire to something more ambitious than bug-management is not an insight that occurs after politics has been reimagined through the prism of open source software.
Again holding up the mirror and thinking about the shining heights, you see the recipe for the real Better World:
o challenge the entire system of capitalism -- it's time, comrades!
o have the code contributions disturb the system -- how about apps to name and shame every contributor to the mayor's campaign and dox them?
o take on issues much bigger than potholes -- why not march and demonstrate right in front of Jamie Dimon's house?
o don't go home to your bedrooms after your hackathon, camp in a tent on the square
And so on. In other words, Morozov is merely annoyed that O'Reilly, like the 1970s head shop owners, capitalizing on the zeitgeist of the SDS 1960s, began to profit from the sale of bong pipes and posters and black lights, is derailing the Revolution by selling open source software as something grafted on to capitalism -- at least, capitalism for some people in Sillicon Valley.
He castigates O'Reilly for seeming to "hate" protests -- by which he means, again, O'Reilly's actual cooptation of the antagonistic group dyanmics so often available online into "patch or GTFO" coder culture operations. He then picks anodyne things to work on -- a park -- rather than anything that might substantively challenge either politics as usual (which Morozov seems to believe is "bought out by corporate interests) or the socialist theories of the 1960s and 1970s (Ilyich) that rule the unions and the schools and are profoundly challenged by schemes like school vouchers.
Interestingly, O'Reilly mentions the Moldova Twitter protests in that piece positively -- up to a point:
The internet provides new vehicles for collective action. A lot of people pay attention when social media is used to organize a protest (as with the recent twitter-fueled protests in Moldova.) But we need to remember that we can organize to do work, as well as to protest!
He might as well be Lukashenka (never challenged by Morozov) telling the intellectuals to stop babbling in the cafes in the city and help bring in the potato harvest. Time to stop complaining and work, comrades! Patch or GTFO! In fact, the Twitter protests didn't lead to solutions of protracted problems caused by the Russians, like Transdniester.
Morozov's critique of O'Reilly, if he weren't burdened by his own idealistic vision of collectivism, could involve calling out the cadres who decide everything in gov 2.0, whether the Sunlight Foundation or the latest Google staff or collectivist academics installed in various White House agencies. That's what I do. Morozov doesn't, because his target is conservative Western governments that get in the way of old-time socialism, and to some extent, the Kremlin's agenda -- like the Cameron government in Londongrad. Hence gripey paragraphs like this:
At the same time that he celebrated the ability of “armchair auditors” to pore through government databases, he also criticized freedom of information laws, alleging that FOI requests are “furring up the arteries of government” and even threatening to start charging for them. Francis Maude, the Tory politician who Cameron put in charge of liberating government data, is on the record stating that open government is “what modern deregulation looks like” and that he’d “like to make FOI redundant.” In 2011, Cameron’s government released a white paper on “Open Public Services” that uses the word “open” in a peculiar way: it argues that, save for national security and the judiciary, all public services must become open to competition from the market.
Market competition might be a good thing -- say, in competing for software contracts. I've often wondered if that enormously expensive boondoggle on the time-clock software for the City of New York was open or proprietary software, and what that story was really all about -- even if it turns out that the software is proprietary, the notion of the endless chain of experts required to keep it working because people can't be empowered to run it themselves normally seems to be at the heart of the problem. And the problem with New York City is in fact that it has outsourced to nonprofits and religious groups too much of the work of managing difficult populations that it needs to keep under one roof and monitored and kept transparent to the public far, far more than it does.
If you can get through the 16,000 words, you will be left with this: unadulterated worship of Stallman -- indeed, a fresh appreciation of Stallmanism with all the zeal of a new convert:
Once the corporate world began expressing interest in free software, many nonpolitical geeks sensed a lucrative business opportunity. As technology entrepreneur Michael Tiemann put it in 1999, while Stallman’s manifesto “read like a socialist polemic . . . I saw something different. I saw a business plan in disguise.” Stallman’s rights-talk, however, risked alienating the corporate types. Stallman didn’t care about offending the suits, as his goal was to convince ordinary users to choose free software on ethical grounds, not to sell it to business types as a cheaper or more efficient alternative to proprietary software. After all, he was trying to launch a radical social movement, not a complacent business association.
But...go back to that socialism part. That was what was wrong with it in the first place.