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.”
“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]
… 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.
- 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].
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]
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.