Sunday, May 22, 2011

Beyond Cyber-Utopianism

Frank Pasquale

What encapsulates the ethos of Silicon Valley? Promoting his company's prowess at personalization, Mark Zuckerberg once said that, "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa." Scott Cleland argues that "you can't trust Google, Inc.," compiling a critical mass of dubious practices that might seem quite understandable each taken alone. Apple's "reality distortion field" is the topic of numerous satires. As the internet increasingly converges through these three companies, what are the values driving their decisionmaking?

For some boosters, these are not terribly important questions: the logic of the net itself assures progress. But for Chris Lehmann, the highflying internet-academic-industrial complex has failed to think critically about a consolidating, commercialized cyberspace. I was a big fan of Lehmann's book. His review of Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus is is both scathing and insightful:

With the emergence of Web 2.0–style social media (things like Facebook, Twitter and text messaging), Shirky writes, we inhabit an unprecedented social reality, “a world where public and private media blend together, where professional and amateur production blur, and where voluntary public participation has moved from nonexistent to fundamental.” This Valhalla of voluntary intellectual labor represents a stupendous crowdsourcing, or pooling, of the planet’s mental resources, hence the idea of the “cognitive surplus.” . . .

[But why] assign any special value to an hour spent online in the first place? Given the proven models of revenue on the web, it’s reasonable to assume that a good chunk of those trillion-plus online hours are devoted to gambling and downloading porn. Yes, the networked web world does produce some appreciable social goods, such as the YouTubed “It Gets Better” appeals to bullied gay teens contemplating suicide. But there’s nothing innate in the character of digital communication that favors feats of compassion and creativity; for every “It Gets Better” video that goes viral, there’s an equally robust traffic in white nationalist, birther and jihadist content online. . . .

What’s common to these parables of the information marketplace is a vision of an uncoerced social order within the reach of any suitably wired and enterprising soul inclined to donate a microsliver of that unfathomably huge surplus of time to crowdsourced tasks. This being the general drift of our social destiny, Shirky waves away the old-school leftist critique of crowdsourced content as “digital sharecropping” as so much “professional jealousy—clearly professional media makers are upset about competition from amateurs.” . . .

[Shirky ignores] the small matter of what, exactly, is being produced and exchanged in the social networks [he] hails as the cutting edge of new-economy innovation. Services such as PickupPal and CouchSurfing—a site for tourists seeking overnight stays in the homes of natives—are mainly barter clearinghouses, enabling the informal swapping of already existing services and infrastructure support. Meanwhile, the Linux and Apache projects are the web equivalents of busmen’s holidays . . ..

The one hint of possible production for exchange value in Cognitive Surplus unwittingly shows just how far this brand of web boosterism can go in studied retreat from economic reality; it involves a study by Eric von Hippel, a “scholar of user-driven innovation,” who found that a Chinese manufacturer of kites sought out a crowdsourced design from an outfit called Zeroprestige, which worked up shared kite designs using 3D software. . . [This] is the logic of outsourcing metastasized. Like the sort of fee-shifting exploitation of content providers that prevails in online commerce on the [Chris] Anderson model—and, I should stipulate, in underpaid “content farms” operated within the orbit of my own corporate parent, Yahoo—outsourcing is a cost-cutting race to the bottom. . . . It’s certainly not as if those lower costs will translate into higher wages for China’s sweated, open-shop manufacturing workforce—the people who will end up making the kites in question.

Scholars Trebor Scholz, Miriam Cherry, and Jonathan Zittrain have explored the regressive economics of cyberspace in many interesting ways. Lehmann has crystallized these concerns. In Shirky's defense, it's pretty hard to do elite work in internet studies & consulting without boarding the cyberutopian bandwagon. Criticize too loudly, and you'll be dismissed as old-fashioned, left-wing, or lacking understanding of the technology. (Of course, much of the technology is a black box, so that last critique doesn't have that much sting for those in the know.)

But there are some encouraging signs of dissent. For example, Princeton University Press recently published a novel by Shumeet Baluja, a senior staff research scientist at Google, focused on the potential privacy violations enabled by Silicon Valley data centralization. As the press explains, the novel "raises serious ethical questions about today's technological innovations and how our most confidential activities and minute details can be routinely pieced together into rich profiles that reveal our habits, goals, and secret desires--all ready to be exploited in ways beyond our wildest imaginations." No one should celebrate a cornucopia of web-enabled possibilities without acknowledging the many compromises we make to access them.

As Slavoj Zizek has noted, on today's web, "Everything thus becomes accessible, but only as mediated through a company which owns it all — software and hardware, content and computers." Those who hold the "master switches" can "filter the software they provide to give [their] 'universality' a particular twist depending on commercial and ideological interests." The work of Lehmann, Baluja, and Eli Pariser is a welcome corrective to the cyber-utopian bias in today's networked public sphere.

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.

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