Category Archives: Technology

Esther Dyson: I own my own content


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.

Thought-coins in the Fountain of Non-Edification

What the Customers Want

“I was quite surprised to find that students will absolutely defend to the death the lecture – a mode of learning that many of us are getting used to thinking of as an out-of-date method of teaching.”

From a report cited in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Cornell West photo

The Cloud of Unknowing Revisited

The Cloud is another way to make people property-less. Capitalism does not want you to have property. Rather than have a DVD or a piece of music or a book, capitalism will lure you into the Cloud, where all the property is elsewhere, and you are permitted to have a virtual relationship with that property. However, the property is owned by someone else who does not live anywhere near you.  The owner will stream it to you — for a fee. The owner will allow you to store things in the Cloud — for a fee. The owner will allow you to access the data in the Cloud — for a fee. But after you pay the fee, you have no object, no property, no-thing.  No Used Stream Store will open up on the town square, the way there is a secondary market for books, for example.

All of this signals a future you might not enjoy. Sounds like an empty future, a dark future, full of clouds.

You might be interested in the interview with Jaron Lanier.

The problem with our cloud software right now is that it does tend to be run by the person with the biggest computer on the network, and serve certain interests more than others. It’s not an honest broker. We are constantly running into a situation where a company like Google is saying: we are being the honest broker. Of course that is ridiculous because they are a commercial concern.

Celebrating a Contrarian

Sometimes it helps to have someone say “no.” The naysayer often deserves gratitude. Think of it as appreciating the black smoke during the pope’s election.*  Didn’t some of us feel a little bit better when the vote did not produce a new pope?  Evgeny Morozov is our non-pope. I imagine that when all the well-to-do tech gurus were rushing toward Second Life, now a piece of internet detritus, Evgeny was there yelling, “No!”  And, “In what craziness are you people engaged?” However, no one listened. Shall some of us try listening to him by reading his new book?

What makes today different is that the overall excitement about “the Internet”—I find this concept so sickening and suffocating that I use it in scare quotes throughout the book—makes us blind to the pitfalls of solutionism and justifies many silly interventions and reform agendas. Why not do all these things—eliminate hypocrisy or crime—if “the Internet,” this revolutionary technology, allows us to? — Evgeny Morozov

*Yes, of course the black smoke is a metaphor for the black soul of the church, in the same way the dark smoke signals the appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. Is it an accident in light of Evgeny’s new book that WWW should be her initials?

Photo of Wicked Witch of the West

The Gift of Feedback

Internet Librarian 2012 attendees — you have exerted your power via social media. Your reactions to “Why I Am Not At Internet Librarian 2012” caused JD to send me an e-mail yesterday afternoon as I was preparing to have something coherent to say about Nicole Loraux’s The Divided City for the students in my night class. Unfortunately, I have not seen the discussions and interactions from those of you out in Monterey Bay because of said class preparation and then class itself. My pace is nowhere near the velocity of the Internet. Picture the tortoise and the hare, with the hare harnessed to a jet pack. In JD’s message to me, she mentioned early on a whirlwind of activity on FriendFeed. JD is paying attention to your voices. Judging by the statistics WordPress provides about TFP, I have no reason to doubt JD’s report about the capacity for your collective persuasiveness. Usually, I calculate the readership of TFP by the number of eyeballs that might have come across it, so that I can double the figure, maintaining the customary two eyes per person ratio.

image of South Park's ImaginationlandBefore passing along more about JD’s e-mail of yesterday, I feel obliged to report that I had not anticipated JD encountering my posting on TFP about our meeting at the 2011 Internet Librarian conference. TFP is available for almost anyone to see, but it’s only a relatively public space (remember those eyeballs). The IL audience for TFP has mainly been a consequence of the people of IL granting me “official blogger” status at several of the IL conferences, and since I am not attending the conference this year, I lack that official status and the link from the IL site that previously brought some of you in contact with TFP.

Back to the narrative. I have been preoccupied with Loraux’s book, not that anyone beyond my students should care about that, but it’s a segue. You’ll see. Loraux’s book concerns, in part, the national imaginary in ancient Athens, and that can serve as a minor theme here. Loraux is not a household name, so South Park’s episode on “Imaginationland” will serve the same function as invoking Loraux’s work. I am writing from a place where I have to imagine what is happening among some of the attendees of IL2012, and am about to ask you, dear readers, to imagine the content of JD’s e-mail message to me from yesterday afternoon, since that act of imagination will — the beans are about to be spilled, or, as the young people say, “Wait for it!” — likely result in a delightful surprise for the annals of human communication when you learn that JD was both gracious and disarming in her message. For instance, she signed her message “JD/Cruella.” Give her credit for a sense of humor. On a dark day, one might wonder about the seeming disjunction between the JD of the 2011 meeting and the JD of yesterday’s message, possibly concluding that a version of Ms. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde was at work. However, it’s not a dark day, especially when a group of people attending IL2012 express concerns and others listen. Thus it seems fitting to mirror the magnanimity of JD’s message, which includes the line: “I try to look at feedback as a gift.” All of you have given the gift of feedback. JD read what you wrote. That bodes well for turning Internet Librarian from a divided city into a space as comfortable as the Monterey Bay weather in October, a space where conflict is understood as constitutive of democratic life.

Why I Am Not at Internet Librarian 2012

The quick answer is JD. It’s not WWJD in the traditional sense, but what JD did (WJDD). She contacted me by e-mail the last time I was at Internet Librarian.  She wanted to meet me between sessions by the registration booth. Important, wrote JD.  I have encountered such messages before, usually from angry people who wanted a power display. Someone convinced me that, no — librarians are not like that. They like to find out what is not working and tinker with ways to satisfy patrons.  That seemed plausible. “I bet she likes your blog entries about IL,” the person insisted. The flattery gave me pause. Maybe JD would bestow on me some leadership role, given my helpful commentary over the years. Maybe she would give me the secret handshake as DF had received in the mythic past outside a shady bar in Asilomar. I had been writing blog entries at several IL conferences, and even delivered a paper at one.  No one would call me a cheerleader for the topics and presentations at IL. However, I was not throwing acid in people’s faces either.

image of Cruella de Vil I expected some better, more thoughtful presentations at IL, and said so.  That was the problem for JD. When we met,  it showed in the storm clouds forming between her eyebrows as I approached to meet her for the first time. She opened with, “Why do you hate this conference?”  You can imagine the rest. Wishing something were better is far from hating that something, though the two realms are not mutually exclusive, so her question was not completely implausible.  It was the old power play, and once JD made clear her purpose, she decided to switch gears to cloak it all in an I’d-like-to-hear-from-you-how-to-improve-the-conference mode, all the while giving me a look that said, “I find you, like, insufferable.” Had the conversation started off differently, I might have believed the initial description that librarians want to fix things when someone has a complaint. JD wanted to voice her distaste for me in a clear effort to discourage what she perceived as potentially further negativity in TFP, and she remained utterly unconvinced (sent her a detailed message after our meeting suggesting, at her request, alterations to IL) that some changes in the conference format and presentation roster might turn a general (please note modifier) farce into something fantastic, a conference with a frisson that might be as bracing as a chilly Pacific Grove morning in October. While JD viewed the insider sycophancy at IL as something more than adequate, perhaps praiseworthy, I found the same set of circumstances the debilitating core of the conference. As anyone could see from our meeting at the IL registration booth, I was a scorned, nascent savior of Internet Librarian, and JD was the warped offspring of Cruella de Vil. Can’t it be that simple?  Probably not.