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March 13, 2011 9:03 PM   Subscribe

An Accelerated Grimace. Chris Lehmann takes down Clay Shirky's cyber-uptopianism by way of Evgeny Morozov.
posted by Sparx (39 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man, that's not the Cognitive Surplus I read. From what I remember, he was ambivalent about whether or not the INTERNET could be used for organized direct action instead of ambient semi-positive musings. He was the most negative of the optimists I've read.
posted by zabuni at 9:26 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeesh, I can't even read through this. Why is it that all of the people pushing these anti-technology views are scientists or engineers? That's the thing I really don't understand. I mean, if you see the end result of all your hard work as ultimately subtracting from the world (or being, at best, neutral) shouldn't you get a different job?

This reminds me of the people who hate Wikipedia because they just can't believe that it could ever accumulate more truth than falsehood.
posted by Xezlec at 9:33 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does this thing get any less sanctimonious as the pages go on?

If the first umpteen paragraphs are any indication, I can sum it up:

"Oh noes, the crazy people on their computers are out there saying things, and they are not directed on the paths of virtue, truth, and good citizenship by book publishers, TV producers, and other infallible guardians of our culture. And Clay Shirky thinks that's a GOOD thing?"
posted by edheil at 9:35 PM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Whatever haters. Techno Utopians will win out in the end. Or we'll all be killed by robots and it won't matter.
posted by delmoi at 9:37 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Dick versus Dick - whoever wins, meh.
posted by Artw at 9:38 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chris Lehmann and Clay Shirky are wrong to approximately equal degrees, but out at the opposite ends of the analytic teeter totter.

As a consequence, I choose to award my cookie to whoever entertains me the most.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:42 PM on March 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Interesting piece. Whilst I agree with some of his points, I can't help but feel his commits the very same error he accuses Shirky et al of, namely: exaggerating and extrapolating small movements or factors into game-or-culture-changing behemoths.

He gets very close to positing that the pre-internet, mass media era didn't suffer from the kind of problems he talks about, but I think it's really more of a case of "same shit sandwich, different bread". The idea that the internet alone is responsible for an unknown but irrefutable degree of social atomisation is both ignorant to the history of mass communication, and begging for some evidence, of which he provides none.

Also he elides the fact that a lot of these writers are focussing on the potential of the web as a leveller, democratiser, etc moreso than the reality. Now, you can certainly criticise that as utopian thinking, but not on the grounds that their isolated case studies are being purported as the reality. I haven't seen a lot of evidence that these writers - especially Shirky - do that.

Whilst I do think a more explicitly class based analysis regarding the internet would be welcomed, this piece desperately requires more in the way of hard-facts, rather than fuzzy, cultural generalisations (regardless of whether the subjects of his criticism lack the same). Further to that Marxist line, those facts need to be in context of the history - dare I say dialectic - of mass communication, and shouldn't simply start in the 2000s. That's the kind of piece I would like to read.
posted by smoke at 9:44 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I made a word cloud out of this and the biggest word is "Shirky".
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:51 PM on March 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shirky's much more nuanced and ambivalent than this article indicates.

Shirky is a keen observer and thoughtful person. Don't read this without seeing this panel, which offers a great balance of thinkers on the question of technology in social movements recently.

Also, this as a single link post, does not stand on its own very well.
posted by artlung at 9:56 PM on March 13, 2011


related: Gladwell's takedown of Chris Anderson's book Free. I'm not always on the Gladwell bandwagon, but his pithy and cogent criticisms of Anderson's book actually cuts to the meat of these issues, without committing the same error of wild, unreferenced generalisation.

Certainly, a less grandiose review, but he succintly outlines the questions that need to be asked, and answered, before we can move on to the more philosophical ground that the linked piece attempts - and fails, imho - to cover.
posted by smoke at 10:03 PM on March 13, 2011


Why is it that all of the people pushing these anti-technology views are scientists or engineers? That's the thing I really don't understand. I mean, if you see the end result of all your hard work as ultimately subtracting from the world (or being, at best, neutral) shouldn't you get a different job?
First of all, the idea that this backlash is "anti-technology" is wrong - it's pro-thinking-about-how-we-use-technology.

The backlash exists because we've seen the past, and how wild idealism about new technologies turns out. We're scientists and engineers because we're still hopeful for the future.

Some/many/most/all (pick one) of the problems that are created by new technologies are surmountable, but only if we stop telling each other that there's nothing wrong, that's a feature not a bug, and besides society will magically find solutions without requiring actual effort from anybody.

You can like science/tinkering/gadgets/etc. without having to buy into the ideology that things always get better.
posted by cdward at 10:07 PM on March 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


Thanks - I was just searching for that same link, artlung.

Part of the reason I dislike articles like this (yet can't stop reading them) is because they employ buzzwords that people already have significantly differing connotations attached to. From the Internet to Facebook to Twitter to the Web, there are already enough rubes and enthusiasts who have already made up their minds about what the technology is about. I know this isn't an original thought, but the "Facebook/Twitter Generation" label is too often applied liberally whether or not the story warrants it. As a whippersnapper, I'd like to know (seriously) if during the deployment of phone lines, did people call those teenagers the "phone generation"?

The less-sexy reality has more to do with democratized communications, and less to do with Silicon Valley startups. Thought Leaders who write about technology for a living tend to gloss over the fact that cell phones (for example) are really really new, and that we are still going through the "growing pains" of what their realization entails for everyone. Two-way communications are just a means of empowering people in new ways, and most people who try to pin the credit for Movement XYZ onto some Web2pointOh startup are either missing the boat or are trying to sell print copy to an analysis-starved first-world market.
posted by antonymous at 10:20 PM on March 13, 2011


To sum up, the Long Tail implies that there is going to be an exponentially increasing number of ever smaller, niche-market kids on this fellow's lawn any minute now.
posted by mhoye at 10:25 PM on March 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


My corollary to the above is that 'Clay Shirkey' is an absolutely hilarious name, so he's well in the lead in the getting-a-cookie race without even trying.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:49 PM on March 13, 2011


There are days when serious thought Internet seems to consist entirely of polemics and takedowns, and takedowns of takedowns, and polemics about takedowns. The takedown economy. Behold: the takedown surplus.

Bless 'em both, but sometimes I just want to lock Morozov and Shirky in a cage with instructions to call us when they're done.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:50 PM on March 13, 2011


I would click your plus sign more times if I could, cdward.

The technology is usually neutral. A hammer is just as happy building a house as it is bashing in a skull.
posted by anarch at 10:53 PM on March 13, 2011


This is basically a huge strawman argument. He's painted a caricature of Shirkey and then proceeds to dismantle it.

In technical debating terms, he is what's known as a "raging douchenozzle."
posted by bardic at 10:55 PM on March 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


The man's last name is "Shirky" ... in the post it is spelled "Shirkey" and the tag is "shrikey."

That is either very lazy posting or some really stupid typo-SEO.
posted by artlung at 10:59 PM on March 13, 2011


Hah. I spelled it right from memory the first time, then second-guessed myself on the second one.

Clay Shrikey'd be a pretty amusing name, too, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:03 PM on March 13, 2011


The man's last name is "Shirky" ... in the post it is spelled "Shirkey" and the tag is "shrikey."

Urk - bolloxed that up but good. Fixed the tag, the post will have to record my shame until a kindly mod sees fit to correct.
posted by Sparx at 12:16 AM on March 14, 2011


Xezlec: “Why is it that all of the people pushing these anti-technology views are scientists or engineers? That's the thing I really don't understand. I mean, if you see the end result of all your hard work as ultimately subtracting from the world (or being, at best, neutral) shouldn't you get a different job?”

If you believe that technology is of necessity a net good, you might be a scientist or engineer, but you wouldn't be a very good one. Scientists and engineers are supposed to be rational; and a rational consideration of the uses of material things - not to mention a rational survey of history - shows that technology is at best neutral, and generally can have some very unfortunate uses indeed.

Bluntly: a good engineer isn't likely to observe the technology that went into tear gas canisters, or crappy television shows, or heavily pollutant leaf blowers, and conclude sunnily that all is right with the world and everything we know about engineering technology is being used for wonderful things. Those things don't mean that technology is a net bad, either - for every bad example I come up with, there are several good ones - but that is sort of the point.

The only way to ensure that technology remains a net good for our world is to be skeptical about its uses and to carefully consider its value in every situation. It helps nothing to sit around gushing about how great the brave new world is. We still have a moral obligation to diligently consider the consequences of technology.
posted by koeselitz at 12:18 AM on March 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


"It helps nothing to sit around gushing about how great the brave new world is."

But who, exactly, is doing this? Certainly not Clay Shirky.

And the fact that I can reasonably expect to live to past 75 strikes me as a pretty huge net positive for the wonders of technology. Or penicillin at least.
posted by bardic at 12:57 AM on March 14, 2011


I thought Cognitive Surplus was 60 pages of cheerleading stretched to book length, but the book was essentially right about some things. Lehmann is being unfair.

For example, it's weird how Lehmann wrongfully attributes to Shirky the Thatcherian dictum of "there is no such thing as society," especially when Lehmann is apparently so fond of that viewpoint himself. For better and for worse, conversations on the internet are not "unrefereed." These conversations are all mediated by varying amounts of active moderation, explicit rules, tacit rules, the rules of various subcultures, the rules of overarching culture, the kyriarchy, the patriarchy, Robert's Rules of Order, etc. Lehmann assumes the world operates according to broadly Marxist principles; Shirky, for all of his cheerleading and flaws, seems to understand a bit more deeply that communities usually have more nuances to them.

Lehmann also indulges in a bizarre extended metaphor about digital sharecropping, digital plantations, and digital slavery - although not, of course, to imply that Shirky is a "slavery apologist." While it is true that the capitalist machine loves it when consumers eagerly generate surplus value for them (see: Facebook), to call this "slavery" is to favor loaded terminology over a mature analysis of what's unfolding here. Even these "slaves" choose to do what they do, and they are, indeed, compensated, in a sense; we can be (and should be) critical of this arrangement, but to write it off as plantation work is inapt and tone deaf.

Further, Lehmann observes briefly that the people who freely work on Linux kernels are usually compensated in their own day jobs. He cites this as if this somehow refutes Shirky's book, when it reality this is quite damning to Lehmann's point. Shirky never claims that the people behind Linux are these starving waifs who choose to code over getting paid. In reality, these coders do what they do because their basic needs are already met by their day jobs (or student loans or parental support). They choose to tweak and create, without expectation of recompense, because it is a satisfying hobby and mission for them - something more satisfying than simply buying stuff or simply watching television or simply reading or simply clocking in overtime or simply starting their own company.

Lehmann is right about the overoptimism surrounding the Internet's role in North Africa, and Lehmann is right about the West's hypocrisy over internet freedom. But his article is not the sleek, effective takedown of Shirky that he seems to think it is, and his boom-goes-the-dynamite tone obscures his more salient points.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:53 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


First of all, the idea that this backlash is "anti-technology" is wrong - it's pro-thinking-about-how-we-use-technology.

That's how I read it too. And I liked it. Especially stuff like this:

Morozov patiently unpacks the ways that Shirky and other American Twitter champions overestimated the technology’s impact. Just over 19,000 Twitter accounts were registered in Iran before the uprising, he notes—meaning that roughly 0.027 percent of Iran’s population could have plugged into the Twitterfied protests. Many of the accounts reported on by the media belonged to sympathizers and Iranian diaspora, such as the blogger oxfordgirl, who supplied indispensable updates and aggregated news roundups on the protests from her perch in the British countryside....

Morozov’s dogged reporting on how authoritarian regimes have nimbly adapted to the Internet age underlines what an empty gesture it is to treat “Internet” and “freedom” as synonyms. Much as US policy thinkers have clung to the naïve cold war faith in data transmission as revolution by other means, they have also propped up the outmoded image of the authoritarian state as a lumbering, clueless mass bureaucracy, easily toppled or terrified into submission before a well-timed hacker attack or a heroic blog post. Instead, today’s strongmen are just as apt to be on the delivering as the receiving end of blog outbursts and denials of service.

Tomaar, a Saudi website promoting philosophical inquiry outside the confines of Muslim orthodoxy, attracted a mass following soon after it was launched, especially as its discussion boards expanded to include the question of politics and culture in the Arab world. In short order, though, the Saudi government denied access to the site on all servers used by its citizens. When Tomaar’s webmasters devised a straightforward workaround via a third-party Internet connection, that stopped working as well—and the US-based service provider abruptly canceled the site’s contract, condemning it to a series of improvised connectivity patches. Even so, it still suffers regular denial-of-service attacks—the same tools that have been used to disable the site for Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks operation. Nothing in the battery of attacks on Tomaar points directly back to the Saudi government—another sign, in all likelihood, that authoritarian webmasters have grown as adept in covering their tracks as they are in disrupting web service.

posted by mediareport at 5:56 AM on March 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


me: “It helps nothing to sit around gushing about how great the brave new world is.”

bardic: “But who, exactly, is doing this? Certainly not Clay Shirky. And the fact that I can reasonably expect to live to past 75 strikes me as a pretty huge net positive for the wonders of technology. Or penicillin at least.”

That is, on the contrary, exactly the sense I get of Clay Shirky's books. I started reading Cognitive Surplus, but quit when it became clear that it was just the same stuff that he'd always written in his other books. I admit that Clay Shirky is more intelligent than many of the pro-modernist boosters, but it still is what it is.

Also, maybe we have a different notion of what "net positive" means. First of all, I'm skeptical that life has been improved all that much; and considering the lives overseas that have been damaged by increasing industrialization all over the world, I think a case can be made that it hasn't. But even if it has been a positive impact on us overall, that doesn't mean that technology is of necessity good. That's the point: that there is a potential for misuse, and always will be. That means that there is a moral responsibility to think about consequences.

Whatever else Clay Shirky talks about, he seems to me quite unconcerned about consequences. He's concerned with all the good things the internet can do, and is happy to tell us about those; what's funny to me is he doesn't seem capable of being actually scientifically skeptical about the benefits and harms of this technology. It's all sunny positivity.
posted by koeselitz at 7:21 AM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Distorting what Shirky wrote doesn't prove anything else other than Lehmann (and Morozov) need to fabricate arguments to support their assertions.

Adding that Shirky is not a "serious public intellectual" is not only a low blow, but it shows that Lehmann has fundamental problems with intellectual honesty.

That's too bad because there is a lot to say about the negative impacts of the Internet without making up scarecrows. We are living through a catastrophic event, observed long ago by McLuhan: electricity makes us all fall into each other. It can't happen nicely: it breaks every kind of social structure that we have been used to. So of course we can cry for this indiscriminate destruction.

But it also creates new social structures that a lot of people, including Shirky, find promising.

I think that Stringbean's report form Japan answers every objection from Lehmann or Morozov. When stringbean writes "MetaFilter does earthquakes well", he simply states that the disruptive effect of the Internet is overwhelmingly good.
posted by bru at 7:36 AM on March 14, 2011


Adding that Shirky is not a "serious public intellectual" is not only a low blow, but it shows that Lehmann has fundamental problems with intellectual honesty.

Yeah, not only is it an especially childish ad hominem, but it's also wrong. Clay Shirky is a professor at a major university and his books, which are within his academic discipline, are popular sellers. You can't say that people aren't "serious" merely because you disagree with them. Love or hate Shirky, but the accusation is total nonsense. It's like calling Mike Tyson small. It's a stupid remark and it obscures the worthwhile things Lehmann has to say.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:49 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can like science/tinkering/gadgets/etc. without having to buy into the ideology that things always get better.

It would be like liking bloodshed. If you believe that those gadgets have a random effect on the world rather than a good effect, then why make them? People should like good things, not neutral things or things with unforseeable levels of goodness.

a rational consideration of the uses of material things - not to mention a rational survey of history - shows that technology is at best neutral, and generally can have some very unfortunate uses indeed.

If it is at best neutral, then it is not rational for us to try to improve technology, therefore science and engineering are a bad idea because they waste effort for something with no net benefit. Effort should be directed toward things that are good, overall, not things that are neutral.
posted by Xezlec at 7:55 AM on March 14, 2011


I blame Mayor McCheese.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:05 AM on March 14, 2011


it is at best neutral, then it is not rational for us to try to improve technology, therefore science and engineering are a bad idea

Are you aware of the distinction between pure and applied science?
posted by IjonTichy at 8:13 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


First of all, I'm skeptical that life has been improved all that much; and considering the lives overseas that have been damaged by increasing industrialization all over the world, I think a case can be made that it hasn't.

It's certainly gotten longer. Average life expectancy has shot way up over time. That's taking into account lives of people "overseas". It's also gotten more interesting. Average IQs have risen as more intellectual stimulation has become available. (I could cite lots of other things, but those two are my favorites.)

But even if it has been a positive impact on us overall, that doesn't mean that technology is of necessity good.

Well, duh. The point is that if it has a positive impact overall, it's worth doing overall. We can worry about how to reduce the negative consequences once we've decided it's worth doing at all. That's the question I thought was in dispute.
posted by Xezlec at 8:29 AM on March 14, 2011


koeslitz: "That is, on the contrary, exactly the sense I get of Clay Shirky's books. I started reading Cognitive Surplus, but quit when it became clear that it was just the same stuff"

An "exact sense" from a partially read book. Your confident and keen "exact sense" may be incomplete if you failed to complete the book.
posted by artlung at 9:15 AM on March 14, 2011


artlung: “An "exact sense" from a partially read book. Your confident and keen "exact sense" may be incomplete if you failed to complete the book.”

I was clearly speaking about his work as a whole. I've read many of his essays, and I read Here Comes Everybody and even Voices From The Net from cover to cover, as I indicated in my comment. Can you tell me how Cognitive Surplus is different?

“You can like science/tinkering/gadgets/etc. without having to buy into the ideology that things always get better.”

Xezlec: “It would be like liking bloodshed. If you believe that those gadgets have a random effect on the world rather than a good effect, then why make them? People should like good things, not neutral things or things with unforseeable levels of goodness.”

I think you're confusing the difference between the good of the individual and the good of society. A person can love guns for what they are: a beautiful piece of human engineering, little hand-held machines that can do amazing things that would have been unthinkable two hundred years ago. One can love handling guns, and firing guns at targets, etc. Does that necessitate that one believes guns are a net good for society? That guns are good in every circumstance? That a gun should be put in the hands of every man, woman, and child in America?

Doesn't this seem a little silly? Of course it's possible for technology to be a net good. You might even believe that it has been a net good in the past – but that certainly doesn't you believe it's a necessarily good thing at all times and in all places. You may as well ask: is a hammer good? A hammer has the potential to be a lot of things; as someone else noted above, you can use a hammer to build a house just as easily as you can use a hammer to bash a skull. What makes it good or bad is its use, and that use is up to us; neither the good of it nor the bad of it is necessary.

All this is aside from the fact that your statement that "people should like good things" is very true, but quite often we see that it's not the case, unfortunately. People drink themselves to death; people overdose on heroin; people smoke; people eat foods that will make them sick. This is the human condition; we seem to be a bit confused about what is good for us. But I think that's a side-note, because I don't think science is like any of those things.

me: “a rational consideration of the uses of material things - not to mention a rational survey of history - shows that technology is at best neutral, and generally can have some very unfortunate uses indeed.”

Xezlec: “If it is at best neutral, then it is not rational for us to try to improve technology, therefore science and engineering are a bad idea because they waste effort for something with no net benefit. Effort should be directed toward things that are good, overall, not things that are neutral.”

What I mean is that it's at best neutral in its actuality. It's only good potentially; and in general it is also bad potentially. Technology is nothing until it is used, and can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good.

A few hundred years ago, people like Francis Bacon had an idea that the creation of new technology would necessitate that the world would become a better place. I don't think that's true. I think it's still up to us; and we could fuck it up completely if we so chose. That's all I mean.
posted by koeselitz at 10:04 AM on March 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is basically in the same tradition as David Wallace-Wells's equally breathless takedown of Lewis Hyde. It's a shame to see the Nation consistently going with the intellectual dishonesty on the media/intellectual property/Internet/culture front.
posted by grimmelm at 10:41 AM on March 14, 2011


Xezlec: "Average life expectancy has shot way up over time"

You can thank your local sewage engineers for most of this increase. And the governments, both local and national, that enacted regulation and in many cases forcibly claimed private property to build sewage transportation infrastructure.

Xezlec: "Average IQs have risen as more intellectual stimulation has become available. (I could cite lots of other things, but those two are my favorites.)"

The first part of your statement relies on a naive, totalising interpretation of the Flynn Effect (an interpretation which Mr Flynn himself actually explicitly rejected).

The second part of your statement asserts the exceptionalism of the modern era's stimulation as apparently the sole hypothesis for an explanation of this "effect", neglecting the other possible explanations: 1) the spread of universal and longer public schooling (once again created by the confiscation of private capital to create public good), 2) the spread of analytic test taking practices, 3) the spread of adequate nutrition throughout the class structure and especially during infancy, often characterised by the socialised supply of public food subsidies, again created by the confiscation of private goods, 4) a reduction in the disease and morbidity burden throughout the population and across classes (again, thank mainly your sewage engineers), 5) hybrid vigour caused by an increase in outbreeding between classes and ethnic groups (thank social mobility created largely through a combination of the recentlargse-scale historical movement of populations into relatively empty lands often cleared through war, genocide or population transfer... and of course the ensuing private enterprise and income redistribution).

The third part of this statement promises that you will cite more evidence to support your extraordinary claims. But in fact you have not cited anything. This is what citing could look like.

And yes, there is a difference between being "anti-" something, and being "skeptical of" something. "Pro-" is the antonym of "anti-", but "cynical about" is not an antonym of "skeptical of".
posted by meehawl at 2:48 PM on March 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


And for a more... post-literate exploration of the benefits of informational technologies versus the reality (and the teleology), Charlie Brooker's recent How TV Ruined Your Life is worth watching. Episode 5, Progress, has quite a lot to say about people's irrational relationships with technology.
posted by meehawl at 2:55 PM on March 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


So I tried to get through this whole article, but the writing was really awful, and I got the same sense as many here that he was really mis-reading Shirky at times. Yes, I would say that overall Shirky's tone in his writing is pre-technology, but I would hardly classify him as a full-on utopian.

He's concerned with all the good things the internet can do, and is happy to tell us about those; what's funny to me is he doesn't seem capable of being actually scientifically skeptical about the benefits and harms of this technology.

I don't entirely disagree with you here, because I would say that he is concerned with pointing out the good things, but perhaps this is because there are other writers who are chiefly concerned with pointing out only the negatives?

Perhaps all tech writers should be more concerned with nuance and with arguing both sides, but that really doesn't seem to happen much.

The technology is usually neutral.

Well, I wouldn't necessarily say that technology is usually neutral--technologies are designed by people, and people have biases and values, and often, consciously or unconsciously, these values and biases seep into the design of technologies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can have the potential to be, depending on the technology.

On the other hand, once a technology is out in the wild, it can, and will be used by people in a variety of ways, often in way never envisioned by the creators (in Adaptive Structuration Theory this is called "ironic appropriation").

The internet that hath wrought Maru also wrought GOATSE. The internet that hath wrought MetaFilter also wrought 4chan.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:43 PM on March 14, 2011


grr...mean to say Shirky's writing is protechnology, not pretechnology, though that would be a neat trick.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:44 PM on March 14, 2011




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