The New Yorker recently featured an interesting overview of the Maker movement – a welcome bit of exposure for a subculture that is nearly invisible to the mainsteam. It’s refreshing to see the hacker ethic given some due recognition and reportage – and more, serious political and economic analysis.
Alas, the analysis has its limits because it is served up by the ubiquitous scourge and skeptic of all things digital, Evgeny Morozov. Morozov has carved out a franchise for himself by providing well-written, reflexively negative critiques of the digital world. Morozov excels at penetrating analysis and he deserves credit for original reportage and historical research. But he tends to wallow in the “dark side” of the digital universe, conspicuously avoiding or discounting the positive, practical alternatives.
Almost every piece of his that I’ve read seems to conform to this narrative arc: “You are being so screwed by digital technologies in so many ways that you can’t even imagine. Let me expose your naivete.” Then we are left to splutter and stew in the dismal scenario that is sketched -- and then Morozov exits. He is rarely willing to explore alternative institutions or movement strategies that might overcome the problems that he limns.
Still, I must thank Morozov for pointing out some important truths in his survey of the Maker world. Besides suggesting the wide extent of the movement, he does a nice job exposing the sly propagandizing of Chris Anderson, Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand. These are among the leading tech gurus who rhapsodize about the coming era of individual freedom and progressive social change that 3D printing, fablabs and hackerspaces are ushering in.
Morozov revisits the history of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 1900s, which in its time touted amateur crafting as a force for personal autonomy and liberation. The idea was that do-it-yourself craft projects would help overcome the alienation of industrial production and provide a basis for political transformation. As some critics at the time pointed out, however, the real problems were economic inequality and corporate power – something that the craft ethic and individual projects could never overcome on their own.
The naïve faith in individual liberation through technology has continued nonetheless, Morozov argues. The hobbyist Homebrew Computer Club in the late 1970s and early 1980s was famous for convening a community of amateur computer sophisticates and incubating new innovations. Many of the Club’s participants drew inspiration from Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, which “called for devices and machines that would be easy to understand, learn and repair, thus making experts and institutions unnecessary,” writes Morozov. “‘Convivial tools rule out certain levels of power, compulsion and programming, which are precisely those features that now tend to make all governments look more or less alike,’ Illich wrote.”
While this ethic and practice was certainly an alternative, it was a highly vulnerable one. In fact, once Steve Jobs and Apple Computer arrived on the scene, it was the beginning of the appropriation and corporatization of the D.I.Y. ethic. Apple adopted the patois of personal empowerment, but shrewdly ignored the substance. There would be no freedom to examine the source code of software and modify it to suit individual needs. For insisting upon such freedoms, Richard Stalllman would be denounced as a zealot and crank.
Counterculture giants of the time, like Stewart Brand, Buckminster Fuller and Ivan Illich, championed vernacular tools as a way to give people the personal autonomy and choices they craved. But the consumerist version of this ultimately vision prevailed, such that the decentralized empowerment that networked computers provided has been a mixed bag. Morozov correctly points out that there has been a general failure among the digerati to talk seriously about politics, institutions and law:
“A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channeling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors. Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like ‘Cool Tools’ [Kevin Kelly’s latest book] is at its zenith….But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets – nothing could be more decentralized than this! – but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M. – only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the ‘de-institutionalization of society.’”
My question is, Why didn’t Morozov go further and report on the many actual initiatives and organizations that are trying to prevent history from repeating itself?
While there will always be market-oriented boosters like Chris Anderson and Kevin Kelly, they are easy foils for Morozov….even straw men. The hackerspace world has its own voice, apart from such celebrity commentators. Why not give a platform to these on-the-ground, politically committed activists, hackers, academics and project participants? I find that there is a lot of talk in these circles about policy and institutions – and about taking pro-active steps to protect the hacker ethic.
I think of folks like Michel Bauwens and his vast P2P Foundation network, Rick Falkvinge and the international Pirate Parties, Richard Stallman and the free software world, La Quadrature du Net in France, the Free Culture Forum in Spain, the International Modern Media Institute in Iceland, and beyond. There is the Government of Ecuador’s strategic research initiative to support commons-based peer production, and there are many commons-based knowledge initiatives that have repulsed attempted corporate seizures of their platforms and output. There is the digital grassroots that defeated ACTA [the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement] in 2012, and the growing networks of digital resistors mobilized by the Snowden revelations. I could go on.
But Morozov is too obsessed with the self-delusions of technologists and the dark side of digital change. It’s easy for him to let Anderson, Kelly and Brand serve as spokesmen for the hacker world and then reveal the corporate partners lurking nearby. But it doesn’t take much looking to discover that there is also a robust corps of hackers out there who are fiercely political, technically sophisticated, highly venturesome and on the move – people who are all too ready to talk about institutions and political change. Why not dig more deeply into this universe of D.I.Y. players who are trying to protect their tools and their right to tinker? I can only guess that doing so might call into question Morozov’s signature pessimism, a familiar journalistic franchise.