Dec 192009

[Note: I recently took part in a conference in New York at the New School University on “The Internet as Playground and Factory,” chiefly organized by Trebor Scholz, a professor there. What follows are my reflections afterward.]

As with others, if a bit belatedly, I join in offering kudos to Trebor Scholz and everyone else involved in bringing about and running the conference, handling the complex logistics, volunteering their time, etc. The conference was a success for me in stimulating a lot of thoughts, introducing me to some quite interesting new people, as well as renewing a few old friendships. What I heard from Catherine Driscoll, Gabriella Coleman, Fred Turner and Chris Kelty seemed especially fresh and insightful, and it was probably no accident that the last three spoke in a session delightfully moderated by Ted Byfield. There were more than a few other talks I was sorry to miss. However, based on the majority of the sessions I ended up attending, including the final plenary — and maybe I chose badly — what I heard had also had a negative side, which I think is worth addressing.

The Internet is arguably the largest collective creation of humanity in all of history. In various degrees it has incorporated an ever-growing series of inventions, modes of participation and very widespread involvement in one or another of its forms, from e-mail to blogs to social media to search engines etc, etc. All of this activity I think fits neatly under the broad rubric of work and/or play, to which the conference seemingly was addressed. Yet I think from Trebor’s intro on, the conference on the whole mischaracterized this vast and unparalleled achievement, seeing it as primarily a source of profits for capitalists. The prime evidence, beyond an ideological bias in favor of such views, comes from the fact that corporations officially own many websites and try, sometimes with some success to make money, principally by selling advertising and by offering data they collect as tools for advertisers.

In order to be outraged at this, a number of speakers at the conference take it for granted or loudly proclaim that very bad results can come from this, including the highly nonsensical claim that extracting data on from the actions, say, of Facebook users, amounts to infinite exploitation. This is a total misuse and misunderstanding both of what goes on with advertising and of Marx’s (anyway antiquated) formulations. Marx would have laughed uproariously at this absurdity, I suspect.

Incidentally, the same person who made that bizarre claim misstated Google’s stock policy — falsely asserting that employees do not own shares — and misunderstands Facebook’s terms of service — implying that the company asserts rights to use personal creations in other settings for its own reasons, rather than to permit users to post pretty much where they expect to while still acknowledging their ownership of their own “intellectual property.” In each case, the bias is towards making capitalism re the Internet seem considerably worse than it actually is.

It is not just one person’s shocking incomprehension that is at issue, for a number of other speakers focussed on the practice of collecting data from users as the basis for their intense criticism of the Internet, as well as for proof that it is fundamentally a capitalist tool. Advertising is an annoyance at best, in my view, but the idea that there are some highly vital data about personal preferences that advertisers can grab hold of and somehow influence purchases strikes me as exaggerated, unimportant and of basically trivial impact on individuals. That’s so even assuming, which is often not the case, that these data are at all useful in drawing Internet users’ attention to what is advertised. These ads rarely work, because we are already inundated with too many ads, leading us to ignore them however they are presented. Further, knowing that somebody was interested in a category of item or service as recently as as a few minutes ago may be utterly useless in reaching that person now, because they quite likely already made a relevant purchase and do not want more ( A new suit? A new mortgage? A new plane reservation? —Too late, already chosen or rejected.)

Likewise, we are supposed to be very worried about governments finding out our political convictions or other damaging information. Since when do inquisitions bother with accurate fact collection? Domestic spy agencies from the KGB to the FBI act on the basis of misunderstandings, rumor, innuendo, outright lies, prejudice, corruption, etc. By asserting that “Big Brother is Watching” we only help spread the paranoia that in Orwell’s novel the slogan was designed to create. Detailed and precise data collection has very little to do with it.

Anyway all such data collection is done only because capitalist firms have found few other ways to make the Internet — and the services through it that people enjoy — pay for themselves. Advertisers and governments are always desperate for new tools, but that doesn’t imply that the tools on offer will be of any great use to them, or even that very much will be paid for such data or for very long. Meanwhile, the Internet keeps functioning in other ways of much greater import. As I have long argued, and find more valid than ever, the Internet is primarily a system for individuals to obtain attention for themselves, even if they do make use of channels provided by corporations. (By the way, Lenin supposedly said, more or less, “the capitalist will be happy to sell you the rope you will use to hang him;” why do I suspect some at the conference would say, ”Don’t buy the rope; the capitalist will make a profit” ?) Using these tools adroitly we may get some form of socialism, or we may simply find that those who do use them have created a new kind of post-capitalist class economy. In the latter case, would-be supporters of socialism would certainly need to understand the new system if they hope to make progress in their preferred direction. For those wearing the heavy blinders that many did at this conference, no such enlightenment would be possible.

As is typical of most academic conferences, a great many of the papers only discuss trivia because that is the route to academic success. This seems particularly true in the sorts of theories put forward under the guise of cultural studies; I found it indicative that after the conference several people think the most exciting thing that occurred was a discussion of in terms of Said’s “Orientalism” as applied to a miscellany including the “Mechanical Turk” and and Chinese ‘World-of-Warcraft gold” hunters. The point is not wrong, and it may reveal a bit of bias, but given that numerous participants in Internet firms hail from or work in various Asian countries and are treated with just about the same respect as anyone else, the charges of Orientalist exoticization seem overwrought and beside the point. This is simply not anything to get excited about except for scoring purely academic points. It says nothing about the value of the Internet, or even about how it might better promote international exchange and understanding.
Along the same lines, another conference participant is fond of asserting that billions of people have been dispossessed by capitalism. As he uses it, this seems more a rhetorical stratagem to criticize capitalism than any indication that he wants to try to see how the Internet might be used to help ameliorate that suffering. In some ways capitalism is to blame for such immiseration, but the situation is complicated. So many would not be suffering were it not that since the advent of industrial capitalism population has grown rapidly as famines and infant mortality have been much reduced, even in the worst-off countries. This due in part to better food distribution, higher crop yields, better hygiene, vaccination, some spread of drugs such as antibiotics, and the like, for which capitalism certainly deserves some credit.

In most social systems historically, there were many who were supernumerary; in the past most such people were killed in infancy, starved to death or had to to take up vows that kept them from reproducing. Less of that happens now, though they still live with much less than others in the same culture, and very often live permanently quite close to starvation. It is a huge and horrendous problem, but not one that should be used for scoring purely rhetorical points. The Internet does hold out great promise in this regard, but that is not a promise that many at the conference seemed much interested in investigating, forwarding or even discussing.

Another comment at the final session, from Jodi Dean, struck me. It is that she had finally been convinced by Christian Fuchs that “communism” cannot be achieved without “computers.” One reason this struck me is that it is such an old idea, dating back to the 1950’s, when the Soviets and others — such as the Western economist Wassily Leontief — in fact devoted considerable efforts to investigating how to use mainframe computers to do better with central planning. But I also found it odd that in the context of this conference Professor Dean would say “computers” rather than “the Internet,” which has much more promise in terms of bringing about some sort of participatory socialism.

Jodi Dean is well-known for promulgating the thought of “communicative capitalism” to describe the Internet,,etc. It’s very easy to claim that whatever change has occurred is just some new sort of capitalism, but this hardly an analytic success, as I see it. Of course any term can be stretched to mean whatever one chooses, but hiding distinctions in this way is not necessarily perspicuous. To be sure, Dean is far from alone in engaging in such broad use of terms like capitalism and capital. “Human resource” people widely speak of “human capital,” though it hard to see how a human a can be capital (for herself), and certainly not simply by being educated as they imply. Likewise, Pierre Bourdieu was fond of such terms as “cultural capital,” which again is certainly not capital in the Marxian sense, and does not suppose the same sort of exploitation as plain old capital. Many on the left, such as David Harvey, and many not at all on the left take most changes in the life around them to be proof of the continued strength of capitalism, when an entirely different possibility is utterly neglected. Inflating a formerly precise term in this fashion should be avoided if one wishes to speak with any sort of intellectual or analytic precision, certainly in a conference such as this one. But that is not widely done.

All this highlights for me that what some cleave to as “theory” does not seem deserving of that name. I started out my professional life as a theoretical physicist, and as I changed fields still referred to myself as a social theorist. I love theory, if it is good theory — of many sorts from astronomical to zoological, from political to literary theory. By good theory I mean a search for new understanding , often through new concepts of what the world is, how it works, how it can work, and what it should be. Such theorizing has to be self-examining, subject to doubt and critique, always a bit tentative, and certainly constantly tested for its coherence and meaningfulness against new ranges of experience, as well as in comparison with other theories. It should of course strive to be rational, but it can never and probably should never be that purely. To get anywhere, not all hypotheses can be put in question at the same time, yet nothing should be beyond examination. Theory must always be seeking to add new kinds of observations and predictions, examining how it comports or contrasts with other theories, whether it can be improved in its logic and strength of conclusions, where it is on possibly shaky grounds , in what ways it can be useful rather than merely descriptive or pejorative, when it is prematurely reductionist, when it can no longer easily be extended, when there are aspects of the world it has has overlooked, etc.

Good theory must always be — to use a favorite post-modernist term — transgressive —as well as audacious, surprising and offering up new concepts, which lead to new percepts. But even the best theory, by the time it is articulated and typeset, is surely wrong in some significant aspects. It always must be subject to critique, modification, enlargement, and eventual abandonment. Any textual formulation of it is by no means Holy Writ. It is not to be quoted with an air of devotion, or as if by itself it stands for or can prove anything.

For too many people at the conference, I found, too much is taken for granted; too much is asserted without compelling argument; existing texts are treated as if sacrosanct and unarguably correct, as if they were bits of the Bible and we were fundamentalists; and metaphoric or analogical points are taken for logic or careful analysis. (Though thought — as Derrida among others has indicated — can never fully escape metaphor, that is no reason not to seek to do so.) Again, too much that is said seems to be intended as nothing other than academic preening. That leads to highly mistaken assumptions, focussing on trivia, unwarranted smugness, and other irksome behavior. It makes intrinsically intelligent people come off as fools or jerks.

Three things are widely held to be true in the western world today: first, that we live in a more or less strictly capitalist society; second, that, except possibly for some sort of socialism, nothing other than capitalism is possible; and third, that capitalism is much to be preferred to socialism. (What socialism is generally taken to mean — especially in the US, but increasingly elsewhere — is usually some variant of Stalinism. With this definition, if the first two hypotheses are taken as correct, a good argument can indeed be made for the third.) Many or even most participants at this conference reject only the third hypothesis, pointing to or taking for granted the evils of capitalism, while also leaving unstated and little thought how a humane socialism would work. But how do we know that our system is primarily capitalist? Certainly not just by assertion. Nor by metaphor. And equally not by superficial observation of capitalist forms and notions, for the question has to be what other forms might be present at a less explicit level. In other words, without new concepts we cannot clearly perceive what is around us.
But having made the conceptual break with capitalism, perhaps most participants find it too hard to take a further step; perhaps many of you already feel yourselves too far out on a limb. Or, as I suspect, an adherence to Marxism is enough to secure a comfortable academic niche, so why even think of questioning it? One can publish endless papers finding some way to criticize, say, the Internet as inherently and irrevocably capitalist, without having to have any thoughts of doing anything about it. (One speaker even sneeringly joked that he was going to use Facebook to organize a march on Washington in favor of single-payer health care. Many smaller but effective organizing projects have in fact been accomplished through Facebook, but the built-in sneer evidently better preserves his academic pretenses.)

That’s not how to do good theory. The humanist tradition quite honorably has taken up exact quotation, and a desire to get back to the text, in the case of poetry —in the largest sense — or in studying what a particular author thought or said. Such activities are commendable, but they should not be mistaken for theory, any more than a portion of a painting or snatches of a symphony would be . Not even a mathematical formula, not even “E equals m c- squared,” can rest in that light.

All this is true of scientific theories, but it is even more vital to consider when dealing with theories that refer to the state or the future of humanity, for through its own actions the human word is in endless flux. What were indisputable “laws” cease to be, what was the state of affairs has changed. Marx himself wrote in 1851, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Whatever he exactly meant by that then, it has value for us only if reinterpreted to apply to now. Marx’s own work and that of everyone who came after him — in whatever tradition — is today part of a similar “nightmare.” To live now, we must be fully awake to now, not letting the clanking chains of our dreamt ghosts entrap us in fears and formulations of the dead past., not the past of the1860’s, nor the 1960’s, nor even more recent times.

  One Response to “Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Curmudgeonly Look at the IPF Conference.”

  1. It sounds like a pretty frustrating time for you: people discussing trivia, using methodologies and assumptions that are ossified.

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