tech intellectuals and the military-technological complex

I was looking forward to reading Henry Farrell’s essay on “tech intellectuals”, but after reading it I found myself wishing for a deeper treatment. Still, what’s there is a good start.

The “tech intellectual” is a curious newfangled creature. “Technology intellectuals work in an attention economy,” Farrell writes. “They succeed if they attract enough attention to themselves and their message that they can make a living from it.” This is the best part of Farrell’s essay:

To do well in this economy, you do not have to get tenure or become a contributing editor to The New Republic (although the latter probably doesn’t hurt). You just need, somehow, to get lots of people to pay attention to you. This attention can then be converted into more material currency. At the lower end, this will likely involve nothing more than invitations to interesting conferences and a little consulting money. In the middle reaches, people can get fellowships (often funded by technology companies), research funding, and book contracts. At the higher end, people can snag big book deals and extremely lucrative speaking engagements. These people can make a very good living from writing, public speaking, or some combination of the two. But most of these aspiring pundits are doing their best to scramble up the slope of the statistical distribution, jostling with one another as they fight to ascend, terrified they will slip and fall backwards into the abyss. The long tail is swarmed by multitudes, who have a tiny audience and still tinier chances of real financial reward.

This underlying economy of attention explains much that would otherwise be puzzling. For example, it is the evolutionary imperative that drives the ecology of technology culture conferences and public talks. These events often bring together people who are willing to talk for free and audiences who just might take an interest in them. Hopeful tech pundits compete, sometimes quite desperately, to speak at conferences like PopTech and TEDx even though they don’t get paid a penny for it. Aspirants begin on a modern version of the rubber-chicken circuit, road-testing their message and working their way up.

TED is the apex of this world. You don’t get money for a TED talk, but you can get plenty of attention—enough, in many cases, to launch yourself as a well-paid speaker ($5,000 per engagement and up) on the business conference circuit. While making your way up the hierarchy, you are encouraged to buff the rough patches from your presentation again and again, sanding it down to a beautifully polished surface, which all too often does no more than reflect your audience’s preconceptions back at them.

The last point seems exactly right to me. The big tech businesses have the money to pay those hefty speaking fees, and they are certainly not going to hand out that cash to someone who would like to knock the props right out from under their lucrative enterprise. Thus, while Evgeny Morozov is a notably harsh critic of many other tech intellectuals, his career is also just as dependent as theirs on the maintenance of the current techno-economic order — what, in light of recent revelations about the complicity of the big tech companies with the NSA, we should probably call the military-technological complex.

The only writer Farrell commends in his essay is Tim Slee, and Slee has been making these arguments for some time. In one recent essay, he points out that “the nature of Linux, which famously started as an amateur hobby project, has been changed by the private capital it attracted. . . . Once a challenger to capitalist modes of production, Linux is now an integral part of them.” In another, he notes that big social-media companies like Facebook want to pose as outsiders, as hackers in the old sense of the word, but in point of fact “capitalism has happily absorbed the romantic pose of the free software movement and sold it back to us as social networks.”

You don’t have to be a committed leftist, like Farrell or Slee, to see that the entanglement of the tech sector with both the biggest of big businesses and the powers of vast national governments is in at least some ways problematic, and to wish for a new generation of tech intellectuals capable of articulating those problems and pointing to possible alternative ways of going about our information-technology work. Given the dominant role the American university has long had in the care and feeding of intellectuals, should we look to university-based minds for help? Alas, they seem as attracted by tech-business dollars as anyone else, especially now that VCs are ready to throw money at MOOCs. Where, then, will the necessary voices of critique come from?

opting out of the monopolies

At the Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer has been reviewing, in installments, Tim Wu’s new book The Master Switch, and has received interesting pushback from Wu. One point of debate has been about the definition of “monopoly”: Wu wants an expansive one, according to which a company can have plenty of competition, and consumers multiple alternatives, and yet that company can still be said to have a monopoly. (Thierer responds here.)

I think Wu’s definition is problematic and not, ultimately, sustainable, but I see and sympathize with his major point. I can have alternatives to a particular service/product/company, and yet find it almost impossible to escape it because of what I’ve already invested in it. When I read stories like this, or talk to friends who work for small presses, I tell myself that I should never deal with Amazon again — and yet I do, in part because buying stuff from Amazon is so frictionless, but also because I have a significant number of Kindle books now, and all those annotations that I can access on the website. . . . I don’t want to lose all that. I can feel my principles slipping away, just as they did when I tried to escape the clutches of Google.

Amazon is not, technically speaking, a monopoly, and neither is Google. But they have monopoly-like power over me — at least for now. And I need to figure out just how problematic that is, and whether I should opt out of their services, and (if so) how to opt out of them, and what to replace them with. . . . Man, modern life is complicated. These are going to be some of the major moral issues of the coming decades: ones revolving around how to deal with services that have a monopolistic role in a given person’s life. Philip K. Dick saw it all coming. . . .

revenue

Writing below about the now-defunct web services Stikkit and I Want Sandy, I remarked that, as far as I could tell, Rael Dornfest and the other makers of those services never even tried to come up with a revenue model. Certainly they never asked their users to contribute to the maintenance of the service. Instead, Stikkit and Sandy were offered for free until (I suppose) that became unsustainable, and then they were simply shut down. James Surowiecki, writing recently in The New Yorker, points out that the newspaper industry is in a curious situation, because industries usually fail when people lose interest in their product. But, Surowiecki points out, “people don’t use the [New York] Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.” “For a while now,” he continues, “readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.” This is no doubt true, and not just for traditional journalism. Consider this: Wikipedia — or, more accurately, the Wikimedia Foundation — is trying to raise a bunch of money to keep the service going. And they probably will succeed: even if they don’t raise all the money they want, Wikipedia is unlikely to be shut down as Stikkit and Sandy were. But the point is, it could happen. In a very short period of time, Wikipedia has become a fixture in people’s lives, something we all expect to be there whenever we want, something we are confident we can count on — just the way people for many decades thought of General Motors. But nothing is forever, and in tough economic times, we may discover just how fragile some of the economies of the internet really are.