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The Meme Hustler
April 1, 2013 7:25 AM   Subscribe

"The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly." (Evgeny Morozov, for The Baffler)
posted by box (77 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly. The founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a seemingly omnipotent publisher of technology books and a tireless organizer of trendy conferences, O’Reilly is one of the most influential thinkers in Silicon Valley. Entire fields of thought—from computing to management theory to public administration—have already surrendered to his buzzwordophilia, but O’Reilly keeps pressing on. Over the past fifteen years, he has given us such gems of analytical precision as “open source,”...

Factually incorrect 1:
The label "open source" was adopted by a group of people in the free software movement at a strategy session[11] held at Palo Alto, California, in reaction to Netscape's January 1998 announcement of a source code release for Navigator. The group of individuals at the session included Christine Peterson who suggested "open source", Todd Anderson, Larry Augustin, Jon Hall, Sam Ockman, Michael Tiemann and Eric S. Raymond. Over the next week, Raymond and others worked on spreading the word. Linus Torvalds gave an all-important sanction the following day. - Wikipedia
Factually incorrect 2: "open source" has a precise definition.

Spiritually incorrect: I seriously doubt that if Tim O'Reilly had never existed, marketroids wouldn't come up with stupid things to express their non-thoughts.

Also, I like O'Reilly manuals. That buys him a lot of pass.
posted by DU at 7:34 AM on April 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


I feel compelled to point out that the very next sentence following what you quoted begins with "O’Reilly doesn’t coin all of his favorite expressions..." I think "given us" is meant in the sense of "widely disseminated through his ginormous publishing empire so that it enters common usage."
posted by XMLicious at 7:43 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Why does this article feel like an april fools joke?
posted by hellojed at 7:43 AM on April 1, 2013 [13 favorites]


Actually, he gets it right later in the essay: "The term “open source” was not invented by O’Reilly. Christine Peterson, ... coined it in a February 1998 brainstorm session ..."

But the whole article has a seriously weird "Tim O'Reilly is the root of evil" vibe to it that doesn't really seem justified. As DU notes, a lot of what O'Reilly does is standard marketspeak.

My eyes started to glaze over at some point, but the note at the end caught my interest again, as it showcases the author's psychological state to some degree:

"In researching this essay, I tried to read all of O’Reilly’s published writings...But I decided against interviewing him. First of all, I don’t believe in interviewing spin doctors: the interviewer learns nothing new while the interviewee gets an extraordinary opportunity to spin the story even before it’s published. ... [In an] email, he offered to explain all his positions to me face to face—an opportunity I turned down, having just spent three months of my life reading his tweets, blog posts, and essays. That said, I have no doubt that everything in this essay will be meme-engineered against me."
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:46 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Reading this article I imagine O'Reilly grinning over Stallman, stroking his black mustache as he knots the ropes holding him to the train tracks.
posted by Dmenet at 7:50 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


The author's main beef with O'Reilly is the Open Source/Free Software schism. Fair enough, since it's mine, too, if only because it gave us the ugly "FOSS" compromise coinage. The difference is, I don't go around trying to tie drone strikes and Ayn Rand around his neck to grind that axe. Mostly I just blame it on esr, who is less useful than any ORA book I have ever owned, including the lamentable "Learning Python."
posted by mph at 7:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


My eyes started to glaze over at some point

Same here. This essay was all over the place.

The difference is, I don't go around trying to tie drone strikes and Ayn Rand around his neck to grind that axe.

After the third iteration of "Rand" or "Randian," I wanted to tell him "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
posted by zombieflanders at 7:58 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Compared to ultra-libertarian technology mavens like Peter Thiel and Kevin Kelly

He did not just class Kevin Kelly as an ultra-libertarian like Peter Thiel. He didn't. Because that would be ... I have no words for the wrongness.
posted by feckless at 8:22 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


His publishing empire is worth $100 million? The Olsen Twins are worth $300 million. P. Diddy is worth $580 million.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:27 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I feel like Evgeny Morozov is either just trolling coders or has found this sort of contrarianism to be profitable.
posted by yerfatma at 8:28 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


If "create more value than you capture" and "work on stuff that matters" are the catchphrases of a new generation of Randians, then I guess we need more Randians.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:29 AM on April 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


But the whole article has a seriously weird "Tim O'Reilly is the root of evil" vibe to it that doesn't really seem justified. As DU notes, a lot of what O'Reilly does is standard marketspeak.

Those two things seem perfectly compatible to me.
posted by frijole at 8:35 AM on April 1, 2013


Those two things seem perfectly compatible to me.
Have you ever actually used a book published by O'Reilly? His job is to sell the books that he publishes, but a lot of those books are both very good and very affordable.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:41 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is a weird essay because Morozov is trying to do two incompatible things at once: get into depth about O'Reilly himself, reading him as an ideologue, and at the same time talk about the political consequences of his "ideas," reading him as basically a symptom of Silicon Valley technocratic political ideology. I'd have rather seen more of the latter and less of the former — O'Reilly isn't really that interesting a "thinker" in his own right, and like others have already said, outside of the world of VC-worship most of us just know him as a name on a really good series of programmers' manuals — but Morozov for some reason seems dead set on the latter:
In researching this essay, I tried to read all of O’Reilly’s published writings: blog posts, essays, tweets. [...] Serious thinkers can be judged by their published output alone.
Conspicuously missing is any argument for why it's interesting or useful to treat him as a "serious thinker." In fact the article is stuffed with whole paragraphs of hedging on this question, talking about O'Reilly's ideological typicality as an apostle of techno-entrepreneurial libertarian ideas dressed up in progressive language, and yet simultaneously, for some reason, committed to treating him as an isolated, individual case.
posted by RogerB at 8:48 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


Same here. This essay was all over the place.

Duh.

Evgeny Morozov.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's a bigger story which is the way libertarianism split the hippies... so you can see O'Reilly falling into the same camp as John Mackey, Mr. Whole Foods, though he's probably more pleasant dinner company. Some of the libertarian hippies got very rich, which obscures the broader counter-culture that fostered them. Which is sort of Morozov's point.

Have you ever actually used a book published by O'Reilly? His job is to sell the books that he publishes, but a lot of those books are both very good and very affordable.

As you may have noticed, the book industry isn't doing so well. I think O'Reilly makes more money off of conferences and consulting than text. Last I heard him talk, he was waxing ecstatic about the monetization potential of YouTube... which maybe is why I'm trying to expunge the tube form my life.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:07 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


In a world full of myopic technology enthusiasts, Evgeny Morozov spotted a market opportunity and he seems to be doing a pretty good job exploiting it. I've seen him all over the place recently.
posted by leopard at 9:12 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


or has found this sort of contrarianism to be profitable.

Yep.
posted by ook at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2013


Gosh, that was long. I was really hoping that there would be a giant comment section padding my scrollbar, but no, it was all Morozov's verbiage.
posted by scruss at 9:39 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I was really hoping that there would be a giant comment section padding my scrollbar

Ha, that's what I was thinking too. Figured there'd be a nice FOSS flamewar in the comments, but nope.
posted by kmz at 9:45 AM on April 1, 2013


I thought a rereading of the title of this post in the context of leopard's comment was a useful exercise.

Nevertheless, I also think Morozov's contributions lately have been useful, too. There are political dimensions under the veneer of our technik that should be monitored and evaluated. And I learned about Alfred Korzybski.

This Baffler essay would have benefited from some focused editing. I was worn out by the time I got to the interesting stuff about the implications of O'Reillyism and "Open Government" and didn't come away with the feeling that Morozov's critique was well focused, either. I'll reread that bit again later.

On Preview: Morozov's subjects lately -- and his contrarianism -- demand that he undergo the same scrutiny. How profitable is his contrarianism, exactly? (Probably not very.) Is he offering anything more than "No"? (His critique seems pretty solidly ground in economic progressivism; so, yes.)
posted by notyou at 9:47 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


then I guess we need more Randians.

Never, ever say that, not even in jest.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:57 AM on April 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Lots of great O'Reilly books on this engineer's office bookshelves. And, they all have an animal on them! You can say "I found this in the camel book..." and everybody knows what you mean.
posted by newdaddy at 9:58 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


How profitable is his contrarianism, exactly? (Probably not very.)

I don't know anything about his personal finances. In terms of name recognition and maintaining one's position on the lecture circuit -- which in his line of work is the stock in trade -- he's certainly found his niche.
posted by ook at 10:05 AM on April 1, 2013


Lots of great O'Reilly books on this engineer's office bookshelves. And, they all have an animal on them! You can say "I found this in the camel book..." and everybody knows what you mean.

If by "what you mean" you mean "I'm using a language whose author thought applying flatten to lists of lists by default was a good idea."
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:07 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


And, they all have an animal on them!

Some are ripe for parody.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:22 AM on April 1, 2013


Here's Tim O'Reilly's response.

I think of Tim as a friend as I know several other MeFiers do. He's definitely got a bit of the promoter to him; one of his skills is finding an idea and polishing it until he communicates it clearly to a large audience. It's weird to look at that role he plays and ascribe malice. But mostly I just want to say that in person, and in business, Tim has always been honest and friendly and generous with me. I think he's genuinely a kind person, something rare in successful leaders in our business.
posted by Nelson at 10:27 AM on April 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


Conspicuously missing is any argument for why it's interesting or useful to treat him as a "serious thinker."

The most influential ideas don't always come from the "serious thinkers." O'Reilly's Web 2.0 manifesto is heavily cited by many academics, so the point of critiquing his ideas as if he were a serious thinker is, I assume, to embarrass them for substituting rigor and insight with market success and popularity.
posted by AlsoMike at 10:49 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, this essay could use some condensing. That said, I enjoy ol' Picklepuss. The past few months I've found myself increasingly creeped out by the happy-clappy world of tech, where how innovative an idea is can be determined by how many middle class jobs it destroys and entire companies are merely resume builders, where you trick a couple million people into using your product in order to attract google's attention so it sucks you into its maw, at which point the useful thing can safely be destroyed, where billions of dollars of the most advanced technology and a collection of some of the greatest minds of our era are being assembled to create the perfect invisible, irresistible scalpel, in order to carve into my mind and laser-etch a Netflix banner ad to the inside of my skull....

/rant
posted by Diablevert at 11:26 AM on April 1, 2013 [13 favorites]


Over the last 15 years, either I've gotten smarter or The Baffler's gotten dumber.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:19 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why's everyone insisting that Morozov was trying to personally demean O'Reilly here? He wasn't. It's perfectly possible that O'Reilly is an interesting, engaging, honest guy, as well as a charlatan. In fact, I'm pretty sure that anyone who has the ideas about society that O'Reilly has is, by definition, a charlatan.

When you consider that Morozov's main project is dispelling the notion that governing and governance is a technological problem to be solved by technocrats (focusing most of his energy on the Silicon Valley crowd), and when you consider that Tim O'Reilly is the main dude behind all this "open government" nonsense that hasn't advanced actual freedom a whit but has certainly enriched lots of companies along the way, this essay makes perfect sense.
posted by downing street memo at 12:55 PM on April 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've been reading (and wailing at) more of Morozov's writing (and following him on Twitter) over the past month or two, and I think that this essay is very, very much his distinctive style. It's full of carefully structured arguments about very important issues, but blows most of its early impact on frustrating polemics directed at the personalities he disagrees with.

Morozov writes like an angry academic, not a blogger, and a lot of his work focuses on the philosophical underpinnings of technocratic positivism. The real heart of what he's attacking comes late in the article:
O’Reilly’s prescriptions, as is often the case, do contain a grain of truth, but he nearly always exaggerates their benefits while obfuscating their costs. One of the main reasons why governments choose not to offload certain services to the private sector is not because they think they can do a better job at innovation or efficiency but because other considerations—like fairness and equity of access—come into play. “If Head Start were a start-up it would be out of business. It doesn’t work,” remarked O’Reilly in a recent interview. Well, exactly: that’s why Head Start is not a start-up.

The real question is not whether developers should be able to submit apps to the App Store, but whether citizens should be paying for the apps or counting on the government to provide these services. To push for the platform metaphor as the primary way of thinking about the distribution of responsibilities between the private and the public sectors is to push for the economic-innovative dimension of Gov 2.0—and ensure that the private sector always emerges victorious.
All these things are true, and pointing them out is important. Society-wide we've sacrificed most of the linguistic landscape to economics, and we can see the results all over the place. Examining and critiquing the direction that tech-utopianists are pointing is worthwhile.

Once he burns through his righteous rage and indignation at the leading proponents of this philosophical shift, he's on target, but the reader has to dig through a lot of (what feels like) ad hominem sniping to find that meat. Whether his thoroughly-footnoted philosophical takedowns are petty sniping or essential critical analysis is a matter of perspective, I think.

In conversational mediums (like Twitter) Morozov seems to fall back on disdainful, snarky posturing. In longer essays, he comes across as a polemicist. I think of him as the Matt Taibbi of digital culture, but with a much stronger academic bent.
posted by verb at 12:57 PM on April 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


I think of Tim as a friend as I know several other MeFiers do. He's definitely got a bit of the promoter to him; one of his skills is finding an idea and polishing it until he communicates it clearly to a large audience. It's weird to look at that role he plays and ascribe malice. But mostly I just want to say that in person, and in business, Tim has always been honest and friendly and generous with me. I think he's genuinely a kind person, something rare in successful leaders in our business.

This has been my (limited) experience as well. I'm an O'Reilly author, I'm employed by an acquaintance of his, and I've had a chance to cross paths with him once or twice. Morozov carefully avoids ascribing malicious intent in his article, but it's blindingly clear that he believes O'Reilly is playing the Pie Piper on a massive scale. The core arguments that Morozov puts forth stand on their own merits, but most readers would probably appreciate it if he addressed the fact that O'Reilly and other technocrats may have the best of motivations while still missing, ignoring, or glossing over the downsides of their visionary dreams.
posted by verb at 1:03 PM on April 1, 2013


most readers would probably appreciate it if he addressed the fact that O'Reilly and other technocrats may have the best of motivations while still missing, ignoring, or glossing over the downsides of their visionary dreams.

With all due respect - why? Why should he have to couch his writing in a conciliatory tone? So O'Reilly's and your feelings won't be hurt?

Tim O'Reilly has gotten rich off of peddling nonsense. He has done actual harm - in my opinion, a good deal of it - to the project of building a more equitable society with his "Gov 2.0" bullshit, a line of bullshit that has made him and others very influential and personally wealthy.

I agree with you that this is likely not out of malice. But who cares?
posted by downing street memo at 1:10 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


With all due respect - why? Why should he have to couch his writing in a conciliatory tone? So O'Reilly's and your feelings won't be hurt?

I didn't say that he should, or that he has to. Like I said, Morozov writes as an angry academic trying to build a bulletproof case for his ideas. That's not, however, the same as convincing people. I think he's doing good work, but his style also means that articles like this will be binned as personal attacks on personalities.

I'm not sure why you think that my feelings would be hurt by this. I think I'm pretty clear in my post that I agree with Morozov's fundamental critique. My extremely brief interactions with Tim O'Reilly and ORA don't mean that I have an emotional stake in how Morozov writes, just a wish that in his extremely long, thoroughly researched article he had bothered addressing the issue of motivation.

I mean, it's 16,000 words. I ragged on Morozov for glossing FS/OSS history in his 800 words NYT piece, and he noted that space constraints made it difficult to capture the nuances of the issue. He was working on this much longer one at the time, and I think that it clearly demonstrates that he gets the Free/Open distinction and what it means.

I agree with you that this is likely not out of malice. But who cares?

I guess the big question is Morozov's motivation. Does he want to convince people who think well of O'Reilly that the man's ideas are dangerous? I can't speak for him, so I can't say.
posted by verb at 1:18 PM on April 1, 2013


Why should he have to couch his writing in a conciliatory tone? So O'Reilly's and your feelings won't be hurt?

He doesn't have to, but it's probably in his best interest to do so. There's so much spittle-flecked bile out there these days (that I usually skip reading, because life is short and the Internet is big), it's worth tuning your rhetoric to distinguish yourself from that background.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:48 PM on April 1, 2013


Over the last 15 years, either I've gotten smarter or The Baffler's gotten dumber.

Yeah, I really want to love this latest incarnation of the Baffler, but it seems to be full of trolling by half-serious provocateurs like this guy, and not to have much material of the caliber of Why Johnny Can't Dissent from its halcyon days.

Too bad I lack the language to meaningfully discuss his views on technology, though, now that Tim O'Reilly has robbed me and the rest of the world of our vocabulary.
posted by whir at 1:50 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: a much-needed voice of reason—even of civic spirit—in the shallow and ruthless paradise-ghetto
posted by pleurodirous at 1:55 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the main reasons why governments choose not to offload certain services to the private sector is not because they think they can do a better job at innovation or efficiency but because other considerations—like fairness and equity of access—come into play. “If Head Start were a start-up it would be out of business. It doesn’t work,” remarked O’Reilly in a recent interview. Well, exactly: that’s why Head Start is not a start-up.

I made it through the whole thing, and think this is a key point of Morozov's argument - but I think it's disingenuous. In the linked article for that quote O'Reilly is not saying Head Start shouldn't exist - he's saying it should be able to be modified iteratively via a constant feedback mechanism, so it works better. The enemy here is not government social work, but 'set it and forget it' approaches to curing social wrongs. Fairness and access are good things to worry about when it comes to programs that do what they are supposed to do, lipstick on a pig otherwise.

Of course, in that interview O'Reilly opens himself to some criticism by focussing on social wrongs ('welfare and education'), traditional targets of conservative budget hacks. That same approach should be attached to economic wrongs. But it's a short article, and it's hard to tell if it's O'Reilly's only words on the matter.
posted by Sparx at 2:22 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I made it through the whole thing, and think this is a key point of Morozov's argument - but I think it's disingenuous.

I'm not sure that it is. In that specific piece, O'Reilly may emphasize the iterative improvement aspect of startups, but it's impossible to separate the "try it, fail, and move on" values of startup culture from the solutions that are being proposed. I have a number of friends who work in education tech, and the dizzying amount of coverage that MOOCs get is frustrating for that reason.

A lot of dialogue in the edu tech space is filled with the sort of vague pronouncements Morozov rails against, emphasizing "solution efficiency" rather than broad access and equality.

This, IMO, is the reason that it's problematic to focus just on Tim O'Reilly's writings and speeches on the topics. He may emphasize that he isn't saying we should go that far, but there's a much larger crowd of people who think we should. They're the ones who are diving in and working out the details of O'Reilly's high-level keynote philosophies.
posted by verb at 2:34 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sparx, that link perfectly encapsulates why O'Reilly is a charlatan. This, from the article, is utter nonsense:

Government programs have no feedback loops to judge their effectiveness.

It isn't true, obviously. There are numerous of organizations within the Federal government and across all the branches therein whose sole responsibility is evaluating policy. There are any number of third-party organizations - from any number of ideological and temperamental orientations - that mirror that function. There is a relatively rigorous press - newspapers, television stations, blogs, and the like - that also do this work.

But that sentence isn't designed to be "true", strictly speaking. What it is designed to do is activate a circuit in the lizard brain of congressmen, Senators, and highly-placed administrators within the government (as well as those who seek to join their ranks). This circuit says "government is wasteful and bad". And the lede of the article has the solution to the "problem" that emerges from O'Reilly's adept stimulation of this circuit: "Government 2.0"!
posted by downing street memo at 2:35 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Government programs have no feedback loops to judge their effectiveness.

Having worked with quite a few startups, I'm also amused at the assumption that small, VC-funded web business do have feedback loops to judge their effectiveness...
posted by verb at 2:41 PM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


The discourse of techno-ameliorism -- defined separately from more esoteric stuff like Kurzweil's singularity -- is now sufficiently well-established that it demands to be treated in breadth and depth. In that regard, I'm with verb: Morozov's methodology seems perfectly sound, in treating O'Reilly's published output as a body of work worthy of general analysis for its themes and tropes and narratives. It's noting all the trees, stepping back, and talking about the forest.

From the same academic perspective, I have problems with Morozov's polemic, wish he wouldn't throw around "Randian" so much, and can see some of the joins in his argument. (In passing: King George III wasn't personally responsible for all the "He has..." stuff, either.)

All that said: we can look at a few basic points without resorting to essentialism about either O'Reilly or Morozov.

1. In the late 1990s, adoption of the "open source" moniker undoubtedly sidestepped Stallman's advocacy of "free software"; this happened to coincide with the commercial aspirations of Linux distributors like Red Hat and other developers using non-proprietary software at a time when there remained some degree of scepticism around its use. The historical (and historiological) argument here is whether it should be seen as a deliberate, ideologically-driven marketing effort by O'Reilly and his cohorts... or something else. For "something else", we can go back to the Slashdot archives and Usenet and mailing lists and come up with a different conclusion, and that can be as superficial as "RMS gives us the creeps".

2. The Korzybski segment reads like an overstatement of ideological foundations. New fields require new terminology; that terminology has to come from somewhere, and it's often a combination of metaphor and neologism and reshaped jargon. Sometimes that bootstrapping has ideological undercurrents. (Meta-analysis: Korzybski is to Morozov as Bernays is to Adam Curtis.)

3. Does O'Reilly (by which I mean "him and his organisation") serve as a gatekeeper, defining and elaborating tech fields? All signs point to yes, particularly in the past decade or so: for instance, the Peer to Peer Conference in 2001 that subsequently became ETCon, then ETech, was hugely influential in shaping a number of "web 2.0" discourses related to social media, API-driven sites, and so on -- enough so that you'll hear persistent wishes for it to be revived. Likewise, FooCamp may not be the tented Bilderberg Group that its critics claim, but it's clearly a gathering with a form and format that has an impact upon those who attend.

Whether his thoroughly-footnoted philosophical takedowns are petty sniping or essential critical analysis is a matter of perspective, I think.

Perhaps even more to the point: disliking Morozov's particular style doesn't invalidate the need for that kind of broad, well-sourced assessment of what people have been saying about technology for the past 20 years. We definitely shouldn't let tl;dr become a kind a get-out clause. Just because this stuff appears in short-form doesn't mean it shouldn't be subject to long-form analysis.
posted by holgate at 3:14 PM on April 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


I seriously doubt that if Tim O'Reilly had never existed, marketroids wouldn't come up with stupid things to express their non-thoughts.

It's highly possible this isn't the place for it, but I've noticed the term "marketdroids" or some derivative thereof being thrown about on Metafilter a bit lately, and I think it's kind of bullshit.

I don't work in marketing, but I often work alongside marketing departments, and whilst I'm often the first to deride them, I don't do it as a discipline. Marketing is a huge discipline and can be staggeringly complex, containing multiple schools of thought, rigorous methodology and lots of very smart, very creative, very hard-working people.

When I see those pissy, snide dismissals of marketing, it reveals to me - much like the pissy, snide dismissals of economists here on mefi and a few other select vocations - that the person making those remarks basically has no knowledge or understanding about what marketing is or does, and that their profound ignorance is no barrier to them spouting off about it. It makes me wonder what else they've blithely held forth on from positions of extreme ignorance and judgmentalism. It also, in my opinion, lowers the tone towards newspaper website comments and provides no insight or interest.

I'm sure this will provoke a torrent of comments along the lines of "But but marketing really is horseshit filled with arseholes!" I'm not trying to change anyone's mind here, but I would suggest such confidence is misplaced.
posted by smoke at 3:20 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Perhaps even more to the point: disliking Morozov's particular style doesn't invalidate the need for that kind of broad, well-sourced assessment of what people have been saying about technology for the past 20 years. We definitely shouldn't let tl;dr become a kind a get-out clause. Just because this stuff appears in short-form doesn't mean it shouldn't be subject to long-form analysis.

This, a thousand times over.

I mean, I think Morozov hurts his arguments by taking such a cutting tone. It will turn off a lot of people that might otherwise thoughtfully absorb a nuanced critique. That acknowledgement is not the same as saying that he is wrong however, any more than acknowledging Justin Bieber's popularity and excellent marketing means that I consider him a top-notch artist.

Morozov is a deep thinker and deserves critiques on both levels, I think.


The Korzybski segment reads like an overstatement of ideological foundation.

Indeed. It's fair to say that if any of us became influential, a critic could make hay out of the people we list as our influences. Sometimes it's a legitimate critique, but it can easily turn into the "LEO STRAUSS IS THE PUPPETMASTER BEHIND THE IRAQ WAR!" wackiness, too. I think that a lot of O'Reilly and company's techno-utopian optimism is much easier to explain as a desire to find more transcendent meaning in the work they've dedicated their lives to. It's an understandable impulse, but different people apply it in different ways. Some fund antimalaria campaigns, others try to increase government transparency so watchdogs and wihstleblowers won't have their lives ruined, others try to figure out how they can make a buck off of government procurement processes.

All of which is to say, Morozov provides a really valuable critique, and the weaknesses in his own work only make it clear how little serious attention is being dedicated to this realm.
posted by verb at 3:57 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?
posted by AaronRaphael at 4:10 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


And my silliness about Larry Wall was just silliness (and bile), but one of the arguments you could make about GNU and the FSF's defeat at the hands of open source and the capitalists is that it was fueled, in part, by RMS's technical idealism, and the FSF's less successful projects, such as HURD or Guile.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:14 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Baffler's editors must really flailing here.

Yes, Tim O'Reilly has spent his career pushing the state of the art in computing, as a publisher, in ways that have nothing to do with politics and must therefore be a distraction from The Cause. But his work and that of others in advancing the state of the art have enabled progressive activists to do lots of things they would not otherwise have been able to do.

I mean, seriously, Tim O'Reilly as a boogyman? Do they not have bigger fish to fry?
posted by ocschwar at 4:43 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


the weaknesses in his own work only make it clear how little serious attention is being dedicated to this realm.

Exactly. There's an viable argument that supports Morozov's contention that O'Reilly (again, synecdoche for "the man and his organisation") tempered some of the radicalism of free software by presenting it in ways that are palatable to corporate and government hierarchies, but departs from his thesis by arguing that even a tempered tech radicalism is empowered in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways through institutional access, compared to an unbridled one on the margins.

That's perhaps overly embracing M's structural premises, but my own sense is that a fuller and more generous analysis would focus on the tension between insider and outsider status that seems to be part of web/tech's institutional growing pains, particularly over the past half-decade. What does big data expose, and what does it conceal? What does the institutionalisation of algorithmic modelling give us, and what does it take away? What can it say about Aaron Swartz, an insider in the tech domain declared an outlaw by the state? And so on.
posted by holgate at 5:17 PM on April 1, 2013


Yes, Tim O'Reilly has spent his career pushing the state of the art in computing in ways that have nothing to do with politics and must therefore be a distraction from The Cause

Did you read the same article I did? As I understand it, Morozov argues that the various memes O'Reilly has promoted (Web 2.0, Gov 2.0, etc.) have problematic political implications, even as O'Reilly himself claims that they are not political.

I don't see where Morozov's blaming him for distracting us from "the Cause", unless you mean that the cause is Free Software. But there are other problems with O'Reilly's views, like his arguing for smaller government, taking for granted that it is a good thing.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:26 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


And I'm predisposed to be a skeptic, but something like How Data Science Is Transforming Health Care [pdf] makes O'Reilly sound like a pure propagandist, peddling bullshit under the name of some vague concept.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:53 PM on April 1, 2013



Did you read the same article I did? As I understand it, Morozov argues that the various memes O'Reilly has promoted (Web 2.0, Gov 2.0, etc.) have problematic political implications, even as O'Reilly himself claims that they are not political.


Yes, so problematic for those Silicon Valley droids to think that various branches and agencies of our government should be seen as, oh, having a job to do, rather than as fiefdoms to be kept by Our Side at all costs.

And absolutely criminal to talk about it in terms that might be amenable to a discussion including right and left wingers. Clearly O'Reilly should be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.
posted by ocschwar at 7:04 PM on April 1, 2013


Your snark is showing. It's not very pretty.
posted by holgate at 7:22 PM on April 1, 2013


my own sense is that a fuller and more generous analysis would focus on the tension between insider and outsider status that seems to be part of web/tech's institutional growing pains, particularly over the past half-decade.

Absolutely. I have a pretty microcosmic view of that conflict -- I've been a core dev on a largeish GPL'd project, one that's been used by a lot of small nonprofits and political action groups. It's a piece of software that was built by a distributed self-organized community, and grew rapidly once it reached a particular utility inflection point.

The shift from "Software built by a circle of hobbyist and professional users" to "Software that large organizations consider as a competitive alternative to commercial options" has changed a lot. Some of the changes have been positive, others not so much. Tim O'Reilly is actually one of the series A investors in the first major startup to come out of the community, and the insider/outsider split has definitely been mirrored in certain shifts.

Commercial interests harness sufficiently useful Free Software and Open Source regardless of the name and marketing. That doesn't necessarily level the playing field for small players, though, as those large organizations often drive the development of open source projects towards greater complexity and specialization. The result is software with a free license but less utility for smaller institutions or individuals.

In some ways, that small-scale story mirrors some aspects of Morozov's narrative in this article. The "Open X" framing establishes a certain expected mode of interaction that privileges individuals with influential platforms. Perhaps that is a kind of democratization, but it's not terribly removed from the "pay to fund political campaigns model." It just allows people to pay with whuffie instead of cash.


Yes, so problematic for those Silicon Valley droids to think that various branches and agencies of our government should be seen as, oh, having a job to do, rather than as fiefdoms to be kept by Our Side at all costs.

And absolutely criminal to talk about it in terms that might be amenable to a discussion including right and left wingers. Clearly O'Reilly should be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.


It... really does sound like you didn't read the article at all.
posted by verb at 7:27 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


It... really does sound like you didn't read the article at all.


I'm slogging through it, and I'm having a little trouble getting though gems like this:

"Even before the coup, O’Reilly occupied an ambiguous—and commercially pivotal—place in the free software community. On the one hand, he published manuals that helped to train new converts to the cause. On the other hand, those manuals were pricey. They were also of excellent quality, which, as Stallman once complained, discouraged the community from producing inexpensive alternatives."

You're just going to have to forgive me if I'm not finding Morozov's gems of insight amidst dross like this. I am sitting by a bookself loaded with O'Reilly "animal books" as well as books from the Free Software Foundation (The GDB book, and I think I have the Flex/Bison book around somewhere.) And well, the "inexpensive alternatives" cost in the same price range as the animal books, and are not as good. The reason for that is that TO's modus operandi is to find people who can write professionally, and then pay them to do so, advance plus royalty, even if they never wrote a single line of code for the product they are writing about. The FSF wasn't running that kind of operation.
posted by ocschwar at 7:57 PM on April 1, 2013


Some of the comments against Morozov in this thread remind me a lot of a recent article on the way people attack Noam Chomsky's tone because they actually aren't capable of engaging with his arguments.

Morozov might be a polemicist, but he does seem to have done his homework.

That's worth at least a little forgiveness on the question of tone.

Anyway, as far as O'Reilly being the "root of all evil", I don't know how anyone sees that in the piece. From what I read, Morozov is saying that O'Reilly is a naif, a true-believer of his own brand, and a bit of a post-Esalen wacko. But not evil.

For me, Morozov's larger critique of O'Reilly's scientism is the most powerful though, because it strikes at the heart of internet culture. The belief (faith, really) that data is politically neutral and powerful enough to encompass the most complex human problems, when it's neither of those things, is O'Reilly's greatest failing.

And if there's a glaring fault in Morozov's argument, it's that his description of exactly why and how data is a) politicized and b) destructively reductive, is pretty thin.

The anti-dote to O'Reilly's brand of techno-evangelism is more frank talk about just how data is manipulated by governments and corporations to serve a narrow agenda - and how the techno-libertarian ideology of Silicon Valley is undermined by the human capacity to exploit the credibility and authority of data-driven arguments for selfish, entirely non-objective ends.

Until we learn to treat data with as much skepticism as we do "opinion", opinions are going to find better and better ways of hiding themselves inside data. There's just too much to gain from all this trust in numbers.
posted by macross city flaneur at 8:07 PM on April 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


From what I read, Morozov is saying that O'Reilly is a naif, a true-believer of his own brand, and a bit of a post-Esalen wacko. But not evil.


He is claiming that O'Reilly committed a "coup" against Richard Stallman, thereby frustrating Stallman's ambition to start a broad social movement based on his free software ideas. I challenge Morozov to go work for Richard Stallman for a week as his aide-de-camp, and come out still claiming that.
posted by ocschwar at 8:11 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


ocschwar: I'm slogging through it, and I'm having a little trouble getting though gems like this:

That's fair, and I think that's what I find so frustrating about Morozov's writing. His razor-sharp critiques of what is best described as "movement dogma" are muddled with sloppy personal needling like the bits you mentioned. In many ways he's guilty of cherry-picking to build a narrative that supports his thesis, and I wish he could play it straight and let the important critique stand on its own.

I am sitting by a bookself loaded with O'Reilly "animal books" as well as books from the Free Software Foundation (The GDB book, and I think I have the Flex/Bison book around somewhere.) And well, the "inexpensive alternatives" cost in the same price range as the animal books, and are not as good.

I think the Stallman critique described in the article (that expensive professionally written books crowd out libre alternatives) is kind of crap, but I would be lying if I said it wasn't worth considering. I say that as someone who co-authored an animal book about a GPL'd piece of software I and my co-authors helped write. Many of us wrote the free documentation beforehand. In many ways the same documentation we'd previously written served as a jumping-off point, and while we labored on the Real Book for almost a year, our work on free community documentation took a necessary hit. There's only so much time in the day.

Our book did very well, and there was some limited backlash in the community by people who felt we were "cashing in" and setting up what amounts to a paywall around information that had previously been free.

I don't have any guilt about it -- there's a real culture of entitlement in a lot of the second-wave users of lots of free software, after all. But the critique by Stallman and FSF advocates is a genuine one. They have always said openly that efficiency, polish, and so on should be secondary to Libre freedom. That difference of opinion may be silly, but it is mirrored in the more recent issues about open government. I wish Morozov would draw the line between those past battles and the current "Openwashing" trends a bit more clearly, but, you know. I'm just about to dive into his book this week. We'll see how it deals with it.


macross city flaneur: And if there's a glaring fault in Morozov's argument, it's that his description of exactly why and how data is a) politicized and b) destructively reductive, is pretty thin.

Interestingly enough, there's a good piece in the Harvard Business Review blog today that digs into that specifically. The Hidden Biases in Big Data. Good reading.
posted by verb at 8:13 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


. I say that as someone who co-authored an animal book about a GPL'd piece of software I and my co-authors helped write.

Okay, how many ORA books are like yours, versus all the animal books written by professional writers who had no involvement in their subject prior to taking on a project for ORA, i.e. people who would never have written for the FSF anyway? And the FSF's books are expensive small scale print runs of material that is often identical to the info page. It's worth considering the question of whether ORA crowded out free documentation. But the answer is "no." Documentation is for hacks like me. Books are for authors.

So what about the bigger issue, while we're at it? My computer book shelf is loaded wiht the material I studied to make my living. Thanks to ORA, the FSF, and the open Source movement, all of that is material that leaves me un-beholden to any single corporation. Why? Because I do Unix/Linux/POSIX, and not Windows, or Oracle, or IBM/AIX, et cetera.

That lowered barriers to entry for people not just in the western world but all over the world, making it fairer and better. It's not a Stallmanesque utopia, but it's a better one than it would have been without the FSF, the OSI, and yes, Tim O'Reilly. To claim that this world would be further along towards fairness and justice were it not for TO, is a claim that calls for way more evidence than Morozov can muster up.

[Now my own behavior is approaching RMS's in a debate. Bedtime for ocschwar.]
posted by ocschwar at 8:31 PM on April 1, 2013


Okay, how many ORA books are like yours, versus all the animal books written by professional writers who had no involvement in their subject prior to taking on a project for ORA, i.e. people who would never have written for the FSF anyway?

Hard to say. I mean, technically, I was a freelance writer who'd done a lot of tech writing before I got into software development so it wasn't a perfect division between the two extremes. I can only speak to the one community that I'm a part of, but ORA has published at least three more books about the software, and all of them were written by members of the community wo'd been active as developers or contributors in some capacity.

To be clear, I'm not criticizing ORA's publishing model, and I too have the stereotypical shelf of animal books. I'm just saying that the Free/Libre crowd rightly notes that commercialization of the creative process (whether it's code, documentation, or whatever) generally goes hand in hand with the creation of legal or structural barriers around the finished product. Since the FSF wants to create Free/Libre resources and believes that is an implicit moral good to be defended, they find ORA's model problematic.

I think that the 'real world' is much more complex than that, but free software projects are always ravenously hungry for contributor-hours. It can be hard seeing those hours funneled off to paywalled work, especially if you're laboring on the Libre/Open side of things. Having been on both sides of the wall, I just think it's a complex question. Dismissing it as per se absurd means you're dismissing the Free/Libre philosophy itself -- if you think there's at least some value in that camp's views and contributions, it's at worth at least thinking through the implications.

I worry that I'm threadsitting now -- apologies, I don't mean to dominate, it's just something I've thought a lot about and Morozov presses some big, blinky buttons on my board of chatty topics.
posted by verb at 8:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


but Morozov for some reason seems dead set on the latter:

Of the former, I take it?
posted by kenko at 9:01 PM on April 1, 2013


I challenge Morozov to go work for Richard Stallman for a week as his aide-de-camp, and come out still claiming that.

And we all know, thanks to jwz, why cooperation with RMS is impossible. But then you end up with a discussion about how and why it was that ESR became the new RMS, and that's bound to devolve (guns!) away (folk dance!) from anything of value.

To claim that this world would be further along towards fairness and justice were it not for TO, is a claim that calls for way more evidence than Morozov can muster up.

As I suggested upthread, I'm inclined to believe that; however, I still think it's an argument worth having, in the open, that acknowledges the pragmatic compromises involved. There was a very real question in the late 90s about how to make Linux and other non-proprietary software viable for large-scale, high-visibility commercial use, premised on the terms of proprietary software. Who do we call for support? Who do we sue if things break? Who certifies the techs? You might not have been around for that: this isn't meant to be patronising, just a reflection on how the history becomes very blurry very quickly.

Here's the archive.org snapshot of the Slashdot thread in August '98 announcing the Open Source Initiative, preserving the comments that haven't survived in the current version. It's worth a read as a contemporary primary source, because the political faultlines are obvious even then.

Until we learn to treat data with as much skepticism as we do "opinion", opinions are going to find better and better ways of hiding themselves inside data.

And at the same time, we need to learn to treat people as something more than data sources that occasionally complain about what's being done with the data.
posted by holgate at 9:14 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was a very real question in the late 90s about how to make Linux and other non-proprietary software viable for large-scale, high-visibility commercial use, premised on the terms of proprietary software. Who do we call for support? Who do we sue if things break? Who certifies the techs?

And, breaking my promise, that same cycle has been repeated at a smaller scale in the project I discussed. It's not quite Linux-scale, but it does have hundreds of code contributors to the core project (over a thousand with the latest version).

It followed the same adoption path: hacker/hobbyists, then professionals who used it, then adoption by a few large orgs willing to experiment, then a period of consideration by large IT shops and FUD/attacks by commercial enterprise competitors.

The broader ecosystem of small software and design shops weren't in a position to promise 24/7 support contracts or uptime guarantees -- they were used to helping clients build some internal expertise, then moving on. Large orgs wanted to have "One throat to strangle" if something went wrong, rather than a diffuse community of peer developers. Interestingly enough, it was the Tim O'Reilly-backed VC-funded startup that rose to that challenge, and has really pushed the same kind of transformation you describe in the Linux world. Today a huge part of the project's direction is derived from the needs of large organizations, and the need to build features they want/the funding that comes from them is seen by some as a kind of treadmill.

I don't think that shift is a bad thing, but it is a pattern and it's worth acknowledging that it's a model that the "Business Open Source" folks explicitly feel is a good one. It's also worth considering what it would look like if the same kind of transformation happened to government.

As much as I grind my teeth at Morozov's style, the fundamentals of his philosophical critique are a strong challenge to current tech orthodoxy.
posted by verb at 9:41 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Marketing is a huge discipline and can be staggeringly complex, containing multiple schools of thought, rigorous methodology and lots of very smart, very creative, very hard-working people.

None of that relates to whether or not marketing, or economics, are or aren't valid, useful, destructive, etc.
posted by pleurodirous at 9:54 PM on April 1, 2013


Yeah... there are probably lots of professional torturers who follow a rigorous methodology and and are smart, very creative, very hard-working people.
posted by XMLicious at 10:00 PM on April 1, 2013


None of that relates to whether or not marketing, or economics, are or aren't valid, useful, destructive, etc.

Indeed, but it speaks against the "droid" characterisation, which is what I was responding to.
posted by smoke at 10:06 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure this will provoke a torrent of comments along the lines of "But but marketing really is horseshit filled with arseholes!"

Not at all. I think it's exactly the opposite.
posted by alloneword at 12:00 AM on April 2, 2013


Bravo for proving my thesis.
posted by smoke at 12:06 AM on April 2, 2013


I'd guess any further discussion of the way marketing/marketers are treated on the site belong in a new MetaTalk post that someone interested could create. Thanks.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:12 AM on April 2, 2013


the techno-libertarian ideology of Silicon Valley
cool, but when you use the word "libertarian", don't be careless
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:24 PM on April 2, 2013


This, I've Seen the Worst Memes of My Generation Destroyed by Madness, by Annalee Newitz is a great and perceptive read of Morozov's article.
posted by maupuia at 12:52 PM on April 2, 2013 [6 favorites]


Evgeny Morozov: Machines of Laughter and Forgetting
posted by homunculus at 4:15 PM on April 2, 2013


O'Reilly's response to the Newitz article is interesting as well.

I'm completely flabbergasted by this:
"Morozov has confirmed to me on Twitter that he did intend this as an allegory about memes rather than a profile of an actual person."

"As I said, the essay must be read as an allegory about a set of memes, not as a profile of a man."

How does this help sway anyone to your side? How does this make me trust you, if you are actually engaged in an argument about the way that capitalism takes power over technocratic levelling and solutionism, why make your writing and online personality about this off-putting rhetoric.
posted by stratastar at 1:16 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's the same move a marketer or meme engineer might make -- recontextualize the idea to better suit the product or service you're trying to sell. Instead of selling books or conventions, Morozov's foregrounding the techniques in play as marketing techniques, and doing so on a couple of different levels, it seems.

But I arrived at this essay more or less pre-swayed. I suspect many of the unswayed are satisfied to remain so, too, and the tone argument makes it easy to dismiss.
posted by notyou at 3:29 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suspect many of the unswayed are satisfied to remain so, too, and the tone argument makes it easy to dismiss.

Nah. verb's interpretations are interesting (and not threadsitting in my opinion, or else they're the good kind of threadsitting). They make me think that I'd agree with the points in the essay. But I've developed a pretty low tolerance for outrage merchants and boogie-man summoners, and that seems to be a lot of Morozov's shtick.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:55 PM on April 3, 2013


Tim O'Reilly on the Newitz piece: I don't mind Morozov's petty mischaracterizations of my motives; it's what he does to garnish attention and I make a convenient target. But I do mind when someone like you, who ought to know better, accepts his twisted history rather than doing the homework to discredit it.
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:16 PM on April 3, 2013


I think that O'Reilly makes a very valid point in that response in terms of commoditisation of software and the irrelevance of the FSF's mission to the data-driven web (or, as he called it back then, in a phrase of his own coinage, infoware). However, Geert Lovink's contemporary take on that Berlin speech is interesting:
Unlike the geek masses, Tim O’Reilly is travelling to other universes within the computer branch. This might be the reason that he took the role of the willing messenger, explaining [to] the ‘community’ that the Open Source revolution will be over soon. Not because it failed. Quite the opposite. Simply because there are even bigger events on the horizon: commercialisation and total corporate take-over. O’Reilly wouldn’t call it that way, of course. He speaks of ‘infoware’ taking over from software. That’s gonna be the real commodity, turning both hard- and software into second grade instances.

[...]

The volume of capital which is circulating at the higher level of applications and e-services which build on top of the Net will gently push aside old software configurations. Roots are fading away, getting irrelevant (sorry, Kittler). Capital, with all its weight is about to smash the Open Source movement. Not with repression. Not in an ignorant way. There is a growing respect, with bits of appropriation here and there. But life goes on. Soon OS will no longer be an issue.
Lovink argues that once corporate institutions embrace open source software as the tools that will power web-related tech, the influx of capital will neutralise any concern with second-order consequences, even in spite of O'Reilly's caveats: "Linux people won’t starve, that much was clear at WOS. Economics is not even an issue for them. They already got jobs. Some are even being paid to write free software."

That's basically a Marxist analysis (and very nettime in character) but there's a certain amount of heft to it. Think of the open source projects that now operate either under corporate ownership or heavy corporate backing, or of the acquisitions and acquihires of startups, particularly in the post-bubble era (c. 2003) that bought off the idealism of their founders in ways that many now regret. (Or, at very least, are trying to avoid now that many of them are angels and advisors.)

The history here is worthy of argument, and "you ought to know better" feels a bit cheap.
posted by holgate at 10:11 PM on April 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


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