Esther Dyson spoke this morning as the key note person for the “I Annotate 2017” conference (#ianno17) in San Franciso. It was time to kiss the Blarney Stone of Capitalism. She started off by telling the audience that as a “content creator” she owned her content, and she didn’t want others making a profit from her content. It’s all about the property and the money. In other words, it’s all about capitalism.
Dyson conjured up an image of the world from the 1960s that might be considered fake news now: “When the internet was created, everyone who was on it was nice.” Dyson seems to have forgotten that the internet began as a military project connected with the Department of Defense, formerly the War Department. Some nice people renamed the department in 1949, so that we wouldn’t have to be reminded that the DOD is about war, not about being nice.
When the internet was created, everyone who was on it was nice.
The current problems with trolls, people spreading hate speech, people driving “content creators” from the web in fear of their lives are real, and Dyson is a bright person seeking solutions. However, her solutions are rooted in typical capitalist rhetoric. She posits, for example, that niceness will be restored by letting “the market” work. Like most people who talk about letting markets work, they don’t mean letting things be. We need controls, rules, a grammar, as she called it.
We all want nice things, but out there in the real world are people who will take our nice things, seize our property, do harm to us. They must be controlled, regulated. Dyson is in favor of regulating the internet.
In the early days of the internet, Dyson held the opinion that anonymity was a good thing. She has changed her mind, and she told the audience that it is always interesting when people change their minds. Dyson’s new view is that anonymity needs regulation too. Anonymous people ought not to be free to say un-nice things on the internet. We could use some software to expunge un-niceness, for example, before it ever gets posted. Apparently, the market won’t fix un-nice people, and so un-nice people will need to be marginalized, or silenced, or forced into some other space in the ether where they will be rendered harmless. Dyson isn’t clear about how all of this could be made to come about, but she wants to help people who are working on such outcomes.
Dyson wants a kind of gated community for all of us, so that the Haves can have their property, their protections. They can have a space where entrances and exits are controlled, property is safe, and ownership valued. It’s the world of capitalism we already have, with many people intent on fashioning creative laws and regulations under the guise of the “free market” to keep certain people out of the game.
Luckily, some audience members objected during the Q & A. One person (Tom) suggested that the internet should allow even un-nice people the right to speak, and a librarian from Cal Tech said, in effect, that un-nice people are the cost of openness. As opposed to the seeming common sense opposition between crime and law, the law cannot be known outside of crime. The institution of law (capitalism) allows crime, opens up the possibility of further crime. Law cannot know itself without its exception (crime). This Hegelian reading of the situation is a bit too academic for the context of “I Annotate 2017,” but some audience members seemed to imply an understanding of the logic. Plug in “un-niceness” wherever “crime” appears earlier in this paragraph, and you have a taste of the logic as it fits into the context of Dyson’s presentation.
Dyson invoked Uber as a salutory example of a company that tries to be nice. That company tries to make sure that its drivers are not doing bad things, are not frauds, according to Dyson. Surely Dyson, in retrospect, would want to reconsider that capitalistic example. Uber is not working for the benefit of its own employees, and CEO Travis Kalanick told an Uber driver who complained to Kalanick about the driver’s growing debt: “You know what, some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.” Kalanick’s statement doesn’t seem so nice.
The premise that language belongs to us, that we own it, needs to be questioned. Dyson does not speak English because she chose that language. As James Baldwin, Jacques Lacan, and Valentin Voloshinov have explained, language does not belong to us. Language is always a social phenomenon. It could not possibly arise other than through communication among different individuals. In its original form it exists outside of the mind of any individual as sounds or as written words that were never the property of the person who learns a particular language. As a blogger, then, it seems odd to imagine you are a “content creator.” Who “owns” language? Its an idea only a capitalist could have.