An experiment with anarchy

The philosophy of Silicon Valley is shallow and self-serving
April 24, 2013
The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (John Murray, £25)

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier (Allen Lane, £20)

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov (Allen Lane, £20)

It’s 2075 and you’re lounging on the beach. You receive a message informing you that microscopic robots are ready to start applying your suncream. How would you like to pay? You can watch a two minute advert for a local casino or transfer some nano-payments you’ve collected from your blog. Now for some lunch. While you eat, you decide to watch a holographic replay of the 1936 Olympics games, seating yourself in the stands next to Adolf Hitler to watch Jesse Owens win gold. Your desires are automatically monitored by particles in the sand, which send a robot to massage your back. Feeling better? It’s another beautiful day in the late 21st century.

If this seems like a world you might like to inhabit, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen have plenty more to offer. The executive chairman of Google and the director of Google Ideas have crammed their new book with futurist techno-dazzle which, they assure us, is only a few clicks away. For Schmidt and Cohen, the genius of the internet is that it lacks any “top-down control.” “The largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” as they call it, will not only enrich nearly everyone’s lives but—barring a few disasters—usher in a golden age for individual citizens who have until now been at the mercy of their states.

Schmidt and Cohen are not the only ones positioning themselves as guides to our “new digital age.” This spring also sees the publication of two new books by writers more sceptical about the utopian promise of the internet, Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov (of whom more later). A pioneer of virtual reality, and a promiscuous consultant in the digital industry, Lanier is now better known as a coast-to-coast tech guru, with millions of fans. He casts himself as a heroic dissenter from conventional Silicon Valley thinking, like that of Schmidt and Cohen. His main concern in Who Owns the Future? is that companies like Google and Facebook are responsible for the looming spectre of mass unemployment. In a world where so much manual labour—laundry, paperwork, policing, truck-driving—will soon be done by highly efficient robots, Lanier sees wealth ending up in too few hands. He is particularly worried by the way in which the internet tends to produce information monopolies. Mega-sites such as Facebook and Google collect tremendous amounts of data about their users, which they sell for tremendous profits. In return for their lucrative personal data, the users of Facebook or Gmail are compensated by not having to pay for those services. For Lanier this is too little for too much. He argues that we should set up “a humanistic information economy,” in which you are paid for everything you do online that ends up being useful to other people. His example is an online dating site that brings together a couple who go on to have a long and happy marriage. If, over the years, other happy couples are united by the website’s statistical algorithms, then the original couple should be paid royalties for their data (that is, the data that helped refine the website’s matchmaking algorithm). In a world without work, where everything is automated, it’s the simple act of sharing our information with each other that will pay the bills.

Put aside any thoughts about how this scheme would actually work. What Lanier is proposing is the total commodification of daily life. Instead of pricing goods bought and sold on the market, he wants to price everything you do online. This is the market gone wild and Lanier is a noble savage of the market. Remember when eBay was just a website for people who wanted to exchange kitsch collectables? That is what the internet needs to be like again, says Lanier. Only this time people will trade their thoughts, their desires, their data. Your mind becomes a supermarket for everybody else. All this would make for good Swiftian satire, but alas, Lanier is serious.

At least Lanier bothers to trouble himself about the fate of today’s workers. That is less of a concern for Schmidt and Cohen, who blithely accept that “a digital caste system will endure well into the future.” No need to worry about unemployment: there will be “endless opportunities” for the poor to perform small online tasks for a pittance—an idea already underway in the form of Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” scheme.

If unemployment is Lanier’s main concern, the focus of Schmidt and Cohen’s book is the geopolitical future of the internet. What if Iran develops the capacity not to launch nuclear weapons—but worse!—to create a Sharia-law-based internet? What if North and South Koreans fight online—erasing one another’s identities and committing “virtual kidnappings” and “virtual genocide”? In the interest of passing themselves off as foreign policy mandarins, Schmidt and Cohen cite their tête-à-têtes with the likes of Henry Kissinger and the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, who deliver polished banalities about social revolutions. But Schmidt and Cohen’s message eventually emerges: the best possible future is one where the internet improves most of our lives without disrupting the current hierarchies of the present world order—except of course that between “states” (mainly bad) and “individuals” (mainly good).

The problem with books like The New Digital Age and Who Owns the Future? is less one of techno-hubris—of promising a future that won’t come to pass—than a view of humanity that overlooks what we value about being human in the first place. “It’s a book about humans,” Schmidt and Cohen assure us in their introduction. “I love technology, but I doubly love humans,” declares Lanier. But these “members of the technological sector” protest too much. Reading their books is like watching a new breed of replicants describe a world that is not quite ours, and then spawn fantasies about saving it. The authors sidestep the world’s true problems—which are irreducibly political problems—by mistaking technological progress for political progress. For all their talk of “creativity,” “connectivity,” “efficiency,” “content” and “big thinking,” there is no talk of art, friendship, family, justice and actual thinking. There is not even earnestness where you might expect it—about how to make the world more equitable—except for some vague observations about how kids in Sri Lanka can now watch Yale professors on YouTube.

For this reason, it’s a particular tonic to have Evgeny Morozov, an acidic technology commentator of Belarussian origin, who sees evidence of ideological groupthink everywhere he looks in Silicon Valley. In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov taxonomises the follies of techno-utopian dogma so deftly that many of the assumptions of Lanier, Schmidt, and Cohen fall like Tetris blocks into his argument.

There are two major problems with the philosophy of Silicon Valley, according to Morozov. The first is what he calls “internet-centrism”—the belief that “the internet” somehow reorders every environment it penetrates, rather than the other way around. Internet-centrists presume that the internet is a precious gift from the gods with its own logic that we must allow to naturally unfold, sowing the seeds of transparency, connectivity and efficiency as it goes. The irony of “internet-centrism” is that it restricts many technologically-minded innovators from thinking beyond the internet, to what might come after it.

The second problem Morozov focuses on is “solutionism.” By this he means the belief that social and political problems require technological solutions. The botched efforts of the solutionists to fix problems (many of which are not real problems anyway), in turn go on to create real problems. Morozov gives the example of the German Pirate Party, which took such pride in making politics “transparent” and “open” by live-streaming its party meetings, publishing its leaders’ phone numbers and trying to incorporate the views of its constituents via an online programme called LiquidFeedback. But nearly all of these solutions backfired: it turns out there is a reason why some politics is conducted behind closed doors, and why politicians might not want their phone numbers readily available to the world. As for LiquidFeedback, it is only one of many recent attempts at increasing political participation—similar efforts were undertaken by the Obama administration—that might well be less effective than traditional means. As Morozov puts it, “being successful at party politics requires a very different set of skills, attitudes, and organisational structures than successfully editing Wikipedia.” Based on past performance, it is far from clear that online direct democracy is preferable to representative democracy.

Morozov reserves his strongest venom for last: the quest for online authenticity. He cites Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook—and lately the media-annointed face of American feminism—who writes pep talks like this for her company:

“Expressing our authentic identity will become even more pervasive in the coming year. Profiles will no longer be outlines, but detailed self-portraits of who we really are, including the books we read, the distances we run, the places we travel, the causes we support, the videos of cats we laugh at, our likes and our links. And, yes, this shift to authenticity will take getting used to and will elicit cries about lost privacy.”

Never mind that this reads like a passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. Never mind what it means to have your authenticity evaluated on the basis of how interestingly your individual tastes fit into the rubric designed by a Harvard undergraduate. As Morozov points out, there is also a question about the presumed value of authenticity itself. On the authority of Lionel Trilling—Morozov likes to call in the heavy artillery of the liberal tradition when he can—he argues that “there’s little to admire about a deliberate question to establish oneself as a truly authentic person.” Without a certain amount of inauthenticity—the false pretences and necessary hypocrisy of everyday life—it’s hard to imagine social relations even being possible.

Sometimes Morozov can lose perspective. He may be right to compare the euphoria over the internet to the euphoria over electricity in the 1890s, the euphoria over the telegraph in the 1830s, and the euphoria over roads before that. All were supposed to usher in revolutions—and in a way all of them did. But perhaps this means we should be more forgiving of the internet-centrists than Morozov allows. Their ahistorical presumption may even be necessary for certain types of innovation. (There’s an undeniable thrill when Lanier mentions in passing that he’s working on “a gigantic, lighter-than-air railgun to launch spacecraft.”) Morozov also has a tendency to go after the extremes of the technological spectrum, such as “self-trackers”—people who obsessively log every detail about their lives online. In the time he spends swatting flies, Morozov leaves himself little chance to say what place he thinks “the internet” should have in our lives.

So what should the future of the internet be like? It is easy to share Schmidt and Cohen’s fears about the internet Balkanising along ethnic, national, or political lines—and that it could reinforce inequalities. But Schmidt and Cohen’s notion that the internet is fundamentally anarchic, that it can’t be governed in any traditional way, seems more than a little self-serving. At present the designs, platforms, values and aims of the internet are all handled by an astonishingly small, well-paid, almost exclusively male elite located mainly in the far reaches of the US pacific northwest. Have they considered what will happen when the people whose fingers are currently assembling their products start assembling themselves online? Will Facebook one day be Ford? Will the internet go the mundane way of television? The answers to these questions cannot be found by googling. They may require thinking.