The new technology intellectuals
September 11, 2013 4:43 PM   Subscribe

All debates about ideas are shaped by their material conditions...Technology intellectuals work in an attention economy. They succeed if they attract enough attention to themselves and their message that they can make a living from it. It’s not an easy thing to do.
posted by shivohum (12 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You say "technology intellectual," I say "blogger".
posted by SansPoint at 6:29 PM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Nailed it.
posted by edheil at 6:33 PM on September 11, 2013

Trolling pays.
posted by ocschwar at 6:39 PM on September 11, 2013

Musicians and writers have been doing this forever. Welcome to my world.
posted by tspae at 6:41 PM on September 11, 2013

In some ways, the technology intellectuals are more genuinely public than their predecessors.

I don't know about that. One of the geekiest moments in my life came last year at Readercon when, while casually walking through the front lobby, the Richard M. Stallman suddenly leapt out of nowhere and handed me a printed treatise* on the danger of eBooks.

I can't imagine some of the "technology intellectuals" mentioned in the article being so dedicated as to show up on a proverbial street corner with a stack of photocopies and randomly distribute them to passersby with little fanfare and no speaking fees. But then again, I don't think any of them have had nearly as much of an impact on "technology" as Stallman has.

* Well, it was more like a pamphlet. But treatise sounds cooler.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:11 PM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Interesting article. I know shots against TED are somewhat passe now, but this is probably the most succinct summary of my feelings:
While making your way up the hierarchy, you are encouraged to buff the rough patches from your presentation again and again, sanding it down to a beautifully polished surface, which all too often does no more than reflect your audience’s preconceptions back at them.
On a semi-related note, Disciplined Minds is good examination of how the university system produces the sort of undiversified, corporate/governmental slant that pervades most professional thinking.
posted by ayerarcturus at 7:15 PM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

So true.

I consider myself something of a technologist and I always feel like I'm just wasting my time when I do my job and don't even blog about it. How am I going to get in on the ground floor of a hot new startup with only programming skills. VCs are going to be like "who the fuck is that loser he isn't even on quora."
posted by Ad hominem at 7:22 PM on September 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

I thought this article was an interesting update to David Brooks' hilarious and cynical chapter on contemporary intellectual life in his 2000 book, Bobos in Paradise. He narrates the rat race of the aspiring public intellectual from think tank intern ghostwriting for VIPs to locating an expertise niche in the marketplace of ideas to networking to writing op-eds to publishing a book to getting on TV and to finally, if all goes well, becoming the kind of person who's invited to sit on panels at the Aspen Institute and at Renaissance Weekends.

Seems like tech intellectuals have established a newfangled version of that.
posted by shivohum at 8:18 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Somewhat related, Jill Lepore,, The New Economy of Letters:

Every day, more scholars are writing more words for less money than ever before: They are self-publishing and tweeting and blogging and MOOC-ing. Much of this is all to the good, especially insofar as it disseminates knowledge. But publicity and public-spiritedness are not one and the same, and when publicity, for its own sake, is taken for a measure of worth—some tenure evaluations are conducted by counting "hits"—attention replaces citation as the academic author's compensation. One trouble here is: Peer review may reward opacity, but a search engine rewards nothing so much as outrageousness.

The new economy of letters hasn't made academic writing better, but it has made it harder for certain kinds of intellectuals to be heard. All the noise has silenced the modest, the untenured, and the politically moderate.

Then, too, in an online culture that values opinion and personality over research and reporting, academics keen to reach readers generally have the best shot at success if they are willing to offer cavalier and often unsubstantiated opinions, promote their own work, and even expose their lives to public view. Few female intellectuals, and not many men, are willing to do these things. Not everyone wants to be paid in attention.

posted by jfuller at 8:21 PM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Keen and Morozov do not solve the problems of current technology debates: They exemplify them and recreate them in new forms. Both, in different ways, reproduce the system that they purport to attack.

So Farrell takes Keen to task for inconsistency, and then for no obvious reason, assigns Morozov the same views, as if he was Keen's co-author or something. But Morozov has never purported to attack "the attention economy", so if he exploits it to promote his critiques and ends up reproducing it, there's no contradiction.

This is kind of an important point, because in Farrell's account, the attention economy has the effect of making our public debates more shallow, as can be seen in the work of Jarvis, Shirky, Wu on one side, and (allegedly) Keen and Morozov on the other. But how can we blame them for this? They are all merely responding to economic incentives. Farrell provides the answer: Keen and Morozov are hypocrites! They're trying to remove the mote in their opponent's eye without first noticing the log in their own. The other side is at least consistent.

But Morozov does not hold these views, he is characterized in this way so that Farrell can reject his points and still project an image of open-mindedness and neutrality with respect to the underlying issues. But really, Farrell's whole premise is extremely charitable. Shirky/Jarvis/Wu/etc. aren't shallow because they're trying to sell books, it's because they're propagandists for Silicon Valley and are trying to mobilize the public to support their agenda.

They're the Fox News of Silicon Valley, spinning rosy tales that downplay or reframe the problems that have been created, and they've largely gotten away with it because there hasn't been any dissent until quite recently.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:33 PM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's amazing how much money people will pay to have someone else stand on a stage and tell them what they already believe is right.
posted by softlord at 6:56 AM on September 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's interesting the way the shortness of this thread itself seems like evidence in favor of Farrell's argument — as if his claims weren't inflammatory enough to compete in the attention economy.

But the reason I'm coming back to it is that something about the way his argument's seeming evenhandedness actually redounds to the defense of the Shirkys of the world stuck in my craw after reading this piece. It's very similar to the political disingenuousness of Jill Lepore's lament about the "silencing" of the "moderate," which is really code for conservatives — Farrell's facile evenhandedness here isn't really evenhandedness, it's actually a defense of the cheerleader crowd. The problem is not that Farrell is wrong that, e.g., Morozov often behaves like a troll in arguing for his critique of the techno-utopian cheerleaders: it's that Farrell is wrong to claim symmetry between the critics and the cheerleaders. In a choice between cheap social critique and cheap status-quo cheerleading, the cheap critique is always to be preferred — and assuming a false balance between the two positions is just as cheap, and just as conservative, a move as just coming down squarely on the side of the cheerleaders in the first place. I absolutely agree that Morozov should score fewer cheap points and make more detailed arguments, but there's only a false symmetry to be had between his form of critical trolling and the tech/TED industry house intellectuals' cheerleading for the status quo.
posted by RogerB at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2013

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