Wikibollocks: Lawrence Lessig/Kevin Kelly Edition

I don’t usually read Wired so I didn’t see Kevin Kelly’s article called “The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society is Coming Online“. I didn’t miss much. It was a precis of Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody (my views on that are here), about how the Internet is dramatically enhancing our abilities to cooperate, collaborate, share, join and do all kinds of groupy things, prefaced by a few paragraphs in which he tried to claim that this groupiness is “socialism”. In that it’s social, or something. KK doesn’t really care if it’s socialism or not of course, but using the word in the pages of a Condé Nast-owned publication sounds daring and provocative, so why not? And what else would you expect from someone who calls himself “Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine” [link]? (In the comments section of the first link of the following paragraph, Seth Finkelstein says all this more energetically.)
Law professor Lawrence Lessig took umbrage at the dread word, because “at the core of socialism is coercion” so “I will never agree to call what millions have voluntarily created on the Net ‘socialism.’ That term insults the creators, and confuses the rest.” I didn’t read his posts when they first came out either, so I missed the sentence “No one forces Wikipedia editors to build a free encyclopedia”, which is close enough to a certain book title to catch my eye.

But I did see Henry Farrell’s fine post, calling Lessig’s arguments “a horrible, horrible mess”:

Item one: under Lessig’s definition, when the Young Socialists League of the Socialisty Socialists of America organizes its volunteer commune in Ann Arbor, this commune isn’t a socialistic one, because no-one is being forced to join. Item two – that if you are to deplore your critics for having mysteriously misinterpreted you as associating coercion with Stalin, you probably shouldn’t have been arsing on about Stalin, collective farms und so weiter in your original post. This class of rhetorical maneuver is what we call running with the hare and coursing with the hounds in the country where I grew up.”

This sent be back to the original articles, which I read with increasing irritation. I’m eagerly awaiting Henry Farrell’s promised longer post on the subject, but there’s no sign of it yet. So as a substitute here’s what gets me pissed off about the Lessig/Kelly debate. 
It’s not what they disagree about that annoys me. Is this socialism or is this just love? At some point the label doesn’t matter: you say tomayto and I say tomahto, a rose by any other name, sticks and stones, etc.
No, it’s what they agree on that drives me spare. The idea that the technological innovation surrounding the Internet is a transformative social movement and, what’s more, a political movement in the broad sense. LL and KK ascribe explicit political consequences to open source software, the hacker ethos, Wikipedia, and so on. They adopt and share with others an implicit belief in technological determinism, in which new technology is inherently linked to a particular kind of progressive and liberating social change. Clay Shirky is another who looks at the world this way:

“The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever.” [link]

KK calls the development of open source and social software “an alternative to capitalism and corporatism”, and LL sees the debate in explicitly political terms:

… sloppiness here has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement “socialist,” that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. 

Here’s the problem. 
This rhetoric of liberation has led many a talented and idealistic young person to believe that coding, especially for free, is a political statement. In the guise of an anti-establishment, scrappy, can-do underdog attitude, LL, KK and their colleagues have created an environment in which well-intentioned people really believe that the commercialization of friendship by Facebook is a democratizing force, that it’s progressive for technology entrepreneurs to make billions from the work of artists who get nothing, and that posting book reviews on Amazon and movie reviews on Amazon-owned IMDB is contributing to a public good. In which otherwise intelligent people believe that Google and Twitter are somehow morally different from Microsoft and Wal-Mart because their employees are younger and because they use phrases like “radical transparency” without living up to them.
Some of those young people have created great things. Others have been suckered into digital sharecropping efforts believing that they are doing something worthwhile, painting a fence for some Tom Sawyer with a venture capitalist behind him who makes a mint off their efforts. And others have become those rich young men (almost always men) with their private jets. As Time Magazine wrote in its portrait of Flickr founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield: “IPOs? Web 1.0. Building it and flipping it to Yahoo, Google or Microsoft? Web 2.0”.

So let’s get some things clear. 

  • The Internet doesn’t have one product, it has many products. Some of which are wonderful and some of which are politically reactionary. It has produced some admirable and exciting cultural innovations, and it has also led to a huge influx of money to the pockets of Silicon Valley billionaires and away from proprietors and employees of small-scale, independent outfits that are vital to our cultural health.
  • The Internet is not inherently anti-corporate and it is not anti-state. If you want to be part of an anti-corporate movement, simply doing your digital thing is not enough.  
  • Google is not an upstart. Anyone who can read their statement about making YouTube profitable and still think Google is run by coders, not bean counters, is kidding themselves. 
  • The open source “movement” is not a political movement and open source is not a political virtue. Open source is perfectly compatible with businesses as conservative as they come. The largest death machine on the planet has its own open source initiative [link]; anything key to IBM’s strategy is not an alternative to capitalism. Of course, Google says that in building its new Chrome OS on top of Linux “We have a lot of work to do, and we’re definitely going to need a lot of help from the open source community to accomplish this vision” [link]. So go ahead, help them, but don’t think you’re doing something progressive.
  • I’m not saying that the Internet is inherently reactionary, any more than it is inherently progressive. Political activists are spending a lot of time building digital tools to help maintain movements and promote worthwhile causes, to promote worthwhile goals, and these are useful activities. Even I use Drupal and CiviCRM for groups I am a member of. But let’s not think that these tools make this generation of activists materially different from previous generations. Elsewhere on this blog Phil Edwards (blog here) relayed a question he asked John Curtice: “has pervasive Internet access been a force for good in terms of expanding participation, i.e. were people who wouldn’t previously have been informed & involved using the Net to get informed & involved? His answer was, um, no, not really – political activism was a minority pursuit & always had been, and the Net hadn’t made it any less of one. Afterwards I asked the Shirky/Howard Dean question – had the Net been a negative influence, in that the frictionless ease of Net activism actually attracted people away from real-world politics? His answer was, um, no, not really – political activism was a minority pursuit & always had been, and in all probability the same minority were going to the physical meetings and joining the Facebook groups” [link].
Somehow the digirati choose to ignore the fact that the major media corporations they love to knock are doing just fine in the brand new world of the Internet – but then a Condé Nast publication may be expected to believe that. LL’s talk of a “hybrid economy” is filled with optimistic assumptions about the behaviour of the new corporations and breezy acceptance, even approval, of the fact that his young children’s everyday social interactions are now a legitimate target of advertisers. Even when a cool kid shows signs of disillusionment, as Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow did recently, he wraps his claims in qualifiers:

I sympathize with companies and creators who want to keep Google or Amazon from becoming gatekeepers on culture. Not because of who runs Amazon or Google — I know senior people at both companies whom I believe to be honorable and decent — but because no one should be that gatekeeper. I’d oppose consolidation in distribution and sales channels, even if the companies involved were Santa Claus Inc., Mahatma Gandhi Ltd., and Toothfairy Enterprises LLC. [link]

Cory – you’re on the right track, but why would you think that the character of the people you know matters a damn? It certainly sounds like you think the “honorable and decent” nature of people at Google and Amazon ameliorates the impact of those companies. The problems with the mainstream institutions you have so little time for are nothing to do with levels of honour and decency among their senior people. This is not a matter of good guys and bad guys. As someone who knew a bit about socialism once said “In the social production of their existence, men [and women too] inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.”

I’m not anti-technology. But it’s time to think about the Internet and digital technology in the same way that we think of the road system or other pieces of our social infrastructure. It would be ludicrous to claim that roads have one product. I just watched my son drive off with a car full of friends to a weekend at a cottage – a form of freedom possible only because of the technology of the road. But I worry a little, as any parent does, because roads are dangerous places too (as a scar on forehead from when I was eight years old reminds me). Few people are pro- or anti-road in general any more; instead the interesting questions are about how to make the most of the benefits roads can bring and how to limit the damage they can cause. The same goes for the Internet: let’s not assume its progressive nature, let’s not assume that everyone working in an open source manner or building new technologies is somehow on the same side, let’s appreciate those who are building progressive spaces on the Internet because they are progressive spaces, not because they are on the Internet.

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  1. Gnucialism! Who knew. Your living the dream blograde. This comment is covered under the Creative Communism License.

  2. I think this is spot on. Part of the problem, I think, is that deep down in our romantic souls, many of us want to believe that the Internet is a great liberating force which will defeat Satan, destroy the military-industrial complex, conquer climate change, and convince Starbucks to start making real coffee.
    But wanting to believe that the Internet will do it isn’t the same as actually getting it done.
    And thinking that Satan, the military-industrial complex, climate-change deniers and Starbucks aren’t going to use every means at their disposal, very much including the Internet, to create the world they want is simply delusional.

  3. I’d like to see a concise description of what it means to be progressive. It seems to me that the term is all about group identity. Can progressivism be defined in terms of core principles rather than lofty praise for the in-group and disdain for the out-group? What is a corporatist? At what point do we start making-a-buck instead of puting food on the table.

  4. While I of course agree that we shouldn’t “assume” the progressive nature of the Internet, I think that the evidence for the weak form of the technological determinist hypothesis is pretty solid: e.g., birth control pills have liberated women more than they have oppressed them (the Pope’s counterarguments notwithstanding).
    Free software is not a total solution to political oppression. It is instead, when contrasted with proprietary software, a method of production that 1) is much more efficient, 2) draws relatively more from the efforts of individuals rather than industrial institutions and from non-profit-based rather than profit-based motivations, and 3) inheres to the benefit of a much larger class of people. All of these, but particularly (3), have social and political consequences. It lowers barriers to entry to certain markets and certain industries for companies and individuals. It leads to the collapse of other markets. It works against consolidation of market — and political — power in the hands of large institutions. Nobody — AT&T, the NSA, Microsoft — ever spied on me using free software running on my computer. Nor did they ever tell me what I could or couldn’t read. Those two freedoms aren’t going to create the Worker’s Paradise — they won’t put food on my table, for one thing — but to dismiss them as devoid of political content is just silly.
    Maybe I’m mischaracterizing your argument. But it seems to me that you flip pretty casually in this post between “the Internet is not a panacea, and even contains some potential dangers to freedom” and “the Internet is completely neutral with regard to political freedom”. The latter is just not true.

  5. It’s a good question and not one that I can answer. Certainly it is too vague a term for this discussion. If there is one principle that seems applicable here it’s something that is not progressive, which is the enclosure of digital commons.

  6. Thought provoking. What gets my goat – and this is obviously a bit of an emotional post rather than a careful one – is when people invoke the benefits of open source (and open content) for private gain, or when they gloss over the difference between the open source and commonly-owned.
    An example I keep coming back to is the Bebo social networking site that Billy Bragg worked with (to build a community of musicians), only to then find out that this “community” site was sold by its owner to AOL for $850million. Then sites like mashable ( say “that wasn’t part of the deal”.
    Or Google, to take another example, promotes itself as a proponent of open source software and as part of the open source community, and yet runs the key parts of its enterprise on closed software (which does spy on you, of course). At the same time, too many commentators skip over that awkward fact and include Google as an example of the new sharing, new openness, whatever.
    So I do agree that open source and open content is an appropriate and exciting way of working for many groups that have sharing and community at their heart, and perhaps that’s what you mean by the “weak determinism”. But I don’t think that open source or open content implies sharing and community.

  7. I have a quick question about this selection: “They adopt and share with others an implicit belief in technological determinism, in which new technology is inherently linked to a particular kind of progressive and liberating social change.” This may sound like nitpicking, but are you suggesting that this is THE definition of technological determinism (even in this limited context)?
    Is it possible to have a technological determinist viewpoint that is more nuanced (or even negative)? I’m rather certain that I know the answer, but I was hoping to clarify. Am I being confused by semantics?

  8. I think you are being confused by a badly-written sentence.
    I meant to write that technological determinism means that the social effects of particular technologies are inherent to the technology, rather than socially constructed. And secondarily that LL and KK believe the social effects of the Internet to be inherently positive. So no, I don’t mean to suggest that technological determinism implies positive social change.

  9. So I do agree that open source and open content is an appropriate and exciting way of working for many groups that have sharing and community at their heart, and perhaps that’s what you mean by the “weak determinism”. But I don’t think that open source or open content implies sharing and community.
    Well, open source/free software actually pretty much does imply “sharing” — sharing of code is a legal requirement of the licenses in question. Whether that sharing of code actually benefits more than a few people is a different question — i.e., whether sharing code results in sharing, say, money. But is it true that freedom of speech results in more prosperity for more people than censorship? Or is it an important liberty interest that needs to be protected irrespective of its effects on the distribution of wealth?
    Yes, Google is a good example of arguably getting more goodwill out of “open source” rhetoric than they actually deserve — although there are much better examples out there. (Google, in its defense, donates quite a bit of money to fund the development of open source projects used by tens of thousands of people, including its competitors.) But the question of whether “open source” rhetoric can be used for nefarious purposes is much like the analogous case of “green” rhetoric we’re seeing so much of these days. Thousands of companies — from small startups to ancient behemoths — are raking in record profits by raising their prices, gobbling up government subsidies, and fleecing naive would-be environmentalists of donated time and money, all by clever invocation of nebulous “environmental” rhetoric. Does this mean that protecting the environment is all a big scam? Not at all, although one does build up a bit of cynicism about the whole enterprise when one takes a look at what’s going on in the marketplace and the legislature under that banner.
    The Internet and free software are two phenomena that have led to measurable improvements in human liberty. The first has a troubling capacity to also be used for evil and oppression, and both of them are prone to hype, which means that the rhetoric that has grown up around them can be used to manipulate people into acting against their interests. And while I’m glad you’re on the case, deflating some of the overhyped ideas in this space, I also caution you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  10. Point taken and I will try not to make that mistake.
    In my defence, the Lessig/Kelly pieces were more about shared content (Wikipedia, IMDB and so on) than about open source software. In the content case the material not distributed among participants but is hosted on one aggregator’s servers of course, so in this case the “sharing” is less intrinsic to the technology. I like the points Zittrain makes on these developments in general (
    In your favour, I would have argued that MySQL could be a case where the division between sharing and openness was unclear to say the least, but it looks like that’s evolving in a way I did not expect. The ownership of MySQL by Sun, and now Oracle, seems to be producing multiple distributions of MySQL and it seems unlikely that Oracle will be able to capture much of the commercial value of the technology.

  11. Yeah, a big part of the problem seems to be the ease with which “the Internet”/”cloud computing”/”open source software”/”web 2.0″/”open content” all seem to be interchangeable concepts in many people’s minds. As someone who has always stood on the Eben Moglen/Richard Stallman side of the “free software” vs. “open source” debate, I feel that this is a problem that has its roots in the early 90s with the birth of the “open source” movement. By intentionally dissociating political ideas like “freedom” from the free software movement in an effort to appear more business-friendly, the “open source” advocates muddied the waters about what was at stake, with the result being the current rash of shysterism that you rightly criticize. Eben famously, and quite ruthlessly, called Tim O’Reilly out on this at OSCON 2007 — you should watch the video on Youtube if you get a chance.
    Each of these phenomena is, of course, distinct. Thaty being said, they share some characteristics, and sometimes these characteristics are politically significant. “Open content” (taken to mean content licensed under terms that preserve readers’ rights to reproduce, share, and/or alter it) has some important things in common with free and open source software — even if that content is primarily hosted on one server, and even if that server is supported by e.g. ad revenue, the open license means that someone else is free to scrape it and set up their own mirror. In a case like Wikipedia, that is not insignificant — copies of most or all of wikipedia’s content have been distributed, for example, on the OLPC laptops. That’s a big deal. That’s real access to valuable knowledge for a whole lot of people, at zero cost.
    In contrast, of course, is something like Facebook, which shares none of the politically relevant characteristics of the previous examples, but gets some amount of feel-good mileage out of its “web 2.0”, “internet”, “collaborative content creation” vibe. But surely this is just a case of people doing what they’ve always done, i.e. loving surface over substance because they can’t be bothered to understand the underlying significance of these buzzwords, when they’re relevant, and when they’re not.
    As for LL and Kelly, well, I agree with you that neither seems to have anything particularly interesting to say on this subject. Lessig has always struck me as a Pollyanna in these matters, striving earnestly to be taken seriously by the mainstream and coming off as dishonest or deluded about the ugly realpolitik of the situation. The fact that he even bothers to respond to idiots like Kelly is a sign of how lost he is. Frankly, the only people in this arena who have managed to stay coherent and credible through the last two decades are those who have been regularly denounced as political radicals and insane idealists — people like Richard Stallman, who has always been consistent in his goals and principles (i.e. the Four Freedoms), and who has consistently denounced any threats to those principles, no matter how shiny its packaging.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is a cadre of people adhering to the rules you seem to adhere to yourself, namely the rigorous examination of information technologies with respect to their political significance. These people take terminology very seriously (some might argue they take it a bit too seriously), and they have been screaming and yelling for a while now about the erosion of meaning and of principles advertised in this arena. LL is trying to fight the good fight, but he is not as rigorous about these issues as he should be, and as a result he sometimes wanders off into these ill-considered skirmishes that do nothing but distract people from the actual issues at stake.

  12. Thanks for the clarification.
    I agree that LL and KK are extremely naive in their impressions on technology (does having an alliterative name blind one to social science?). I wonder what your opinions on Marshall McLuhan’s work are, because he seems to suggest that in certain cases, over the (very) long run, factors inherent to technologies outweigh pre-existing social construction. Might it be possible to be a social constructionist when considering the immediate future, but a technological determinist forecasting the world decades from now?

  13. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read MM. Interesting idea.

  14. Your comments are very helpful in untangling the different threads of the debate over open source/free software, and the ways in which that movement (and I do agree it has been a movement, or at least contained one) has intersected with commerce and with the new technologies. Thanks very much. I haven’t found the Moglen/O’Reilly interview on YouTube, but Google does point out several reactions to the event. Sounds like fun.
    It is difficult for issue-driven political movements to stay relevant for extended periods of time (I recall EP Thompson saying he thought they had 8 or 9 years), before they seem either anachronistic or sell out. Unfortunately, I think Stallman already seems anachronistic. I do hope there is more to come from free/open source software movement, but I find it difficult to see where it plays in the “web as platform” cloud-based world. We’ll see.

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