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.
Anti-hustlers need not look for bright sides
I think Morozov's narrative arc is more "You are being so screwed by digital HUSTLERS in so many ways that you can't even imagine" - saying "technologies" imputes a deterministic framework to him which I don't believe is present. And indeed, it is pretty dismal. But why does Morozov have any sort of intellectual obligation to look for (my phrasing) rays of hope or reasons for optimism? Why isn't it valid to have a perspective of being pessimistic and depressed? (or at least, dour and downbeat?)
You seem to be criticizing him for not writing a different narrative - "explore alternative institutions or movement strategies ...". But why can't he take the viewpoint that it's not his strength, and any such efforts by others are complemented by a strong rhetorical engagement with the hustlers? (and particularly, they're doomed to failure unless there are vocal hype-debunkers running interference against the grifters).
Here's an analogy - let's say someone writes fiery take-downs of televangelists, their high-living off congregation donations, phony miracle claims, very unChristian personal lives, etc. You then say "But there's a robust corps of ordinary preachers who work with the poor, practicing humility, poverty, chastity - why doesn't this guy give them a platform? I can only guess that doing so might call into question his journalistic franchise.". See the problem?
Seth, your analogy is fine as far as it goes. It’s perfectly legitimate – indeed, important – to have hustlers and hype-mongers exposed. And yes, most such stories are usually “negative” in implication. My complaint with Morozov is that he purports to offer an overview of the hacker/maker movement, but in fact he reduces it to a handful of famous authors who are focused on personal emancipation through D.I.Y. technology and who ignore the larger political and institutional realities. While this mindset surely describes a significant segment of the maker world, the movement is far more diversified and politically engaged than Morozov lets on. Why anoint Brand, Anderson and Kelly as proxies/spokesmen for the maker world when there are so many politically engaged hackers out there as well? Could it be that mentioning such facts might complicate Morozov's too-tidy narrative?
If the existence of these other kinds of hackers were well-known, then I would have no problem with Morozov ignoring them, or giving them a quick reference. But his piece was introducing the maker world to a mainstream readership that knows little of the movement. That’s where the “preacher analogy” fails. Most readers of The New Yorker know that there are humble preachers who work with the poor, etc.; mentioning them in a story about flashy televangelists could indeed be off-point and gratuitous (although note that the contrast between the two types of preachers is the implicit premise for such a story in the first place). In this case, an introductory feature on the maker world, I fear the existence of politically engaged hackers/makers is NOT well-known or self-evident, and therefore omitting any mention of them provides a misleading characterization of the movement.
I have no general quarrel with Morozov’s pessimistic outlook on digital trends, and I’m thrilled that he debunks a lot of the digital hype out there. But it bothers me that his (temperament-driven?) narrative is allowed to eclipse relevant facts and skew the fuller picture.