[iDC] A Curmudgeonly Look at last month's Conference.

Michael H Goldhaber mgoldh at well.com
Tue Dec 15 09:55:53 UTC 2009

Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Curmudgeonly Look at the IPF  

As with others, if a bit belatedly, I join in offering kudos to Trebor  
Scholz and everyone else involved in bringing about and running the  
conference, handling the complex logistics, volunteering their time,  
etc. The conference was a success for me in stimulating a lot of  
thoughts, introducing me to some quite interesting new people, as well  
as renewing a few old friendships.  What I heard from  Catherine  
Driscoll, Gabriella Coleman, Fred Turner and Chris Kelty seemed  
especially fresh a nd insightful, and it was probably no accident that  
the last three spoke in a session delightfully moderated by Ted  
Byfield.  There were more than a few other talks I was sorry to miss.  
However, based on the majority of the sessions I ended up attending,  
including the final plenary — and maybe I chose badly —  what I heard  
had also had a negative side, which I think is worth addressing.

The Internet is arguably the largest collective creation of humanity  
in all of history. In various degrees it has incorporated an ever- 
growing series of inventions, modes of participation and very  
widespread involvement in one or another of its forms, from e-mail to  
blogs to social media to search engines etc, etc. All of this activity  
I think fits neatly under the broad rubric of work and/or play, to  
which the conference seemingly was addressed.  Yet I think from  
Trebor’s intro on, the conference on the whole mischaracterized this  
vast and unparalleled achievement, seeing it as  primarily a source of  
profits for capitalists. The prime evidence, beyond an ideological  
bias in favor of such views, comes from the fact that corporations  
officially own many websites and try, sometimes with some success to  
make money, principally by selling advertising and by offering data  
they collect as tools for advertisers.

In order to be outraged at this, a number of speakers at the  
conference take it for granted or loudly proclaim that very bad  
results can come from this, including the highly nonsensical claim  
that extracting data on from the actions, say, of Facebook users,  
amounts to infinite exploitation. This is a total misuse and  
misunderstanding both of what goes on with advertising and of Marx’s  
(anyway antiquated) formulations. Marx would have laughed   
uproariously at this absurdity, I suspect.

Incidentally, the same person who made that bizarre claim misstated  
Google’s stock policy — falsely asserting that employees do not own  
shares — and misunderstands Facebook’s terms of service — implying  
that the company asserts rights to use  personal creations in other  
settings for its own reasons, rather than to permit users to post  
pretty much where they expect to while still acknowledging their  
ownership of their own “intellectual property.” In each case, the bias  
is towards making capitalism re the Internet seem considerably worse  
than it actually is.

It is not just one person's shocking incomprehension that is at issue,  
for a number of other speakers focussed on the practice of collecting  
data from users as the basis for their intense criticism of the  
Internet, as well as for proof that it is fundamentally a capitalist  
tool. Advertising is an annoyance at best, in my view, but the idea  
that there are some highly vital data about personal preferences that  
advertisers can grab hold of and somehow influence purchases strikes  
me as exaggerated, unimportant and of basically trivial impact on  
individuals. That's so even assuming, which is often not the case,  
that these data are at all useful in drawing Internet users' attention  
to what is advertised. These ads rarely work, because we are already  
inundated with too many ads, leading us to ignore them however they  
are presented. Further, knowing that somebody was interested in a  
category of item or service as recently as  as a few minutes ago may  
be utterly useless in reaching  that person now, because they quite  
likely already made a relevant purchase and do not want more ( A new  
suit? A new mortgage? A new plane reservation? —Too late, already  
chosen or rejected.)

Likewise, we are supposed to be very worried about governments finding  
out our political convictions or other damaging information. Since  
when do inquisitions bother with accurate fact collection?  Domestic  
spy agencies from the KGB to the FBI act on the basis of  
misunderstandings, rumor, innuendo, outright lies, prejudice,  
corruption, etc. By asserting that “Big Brother is Watching” we only  
help spread the paranoia that in Orwell’s novel  the slogan was  
designed to create. Detailed and precise data collection has very  
little to do with it.

Anyway all such data collection is  done only because capitalist firms  
have found few other ways to make the Internet — and the services  
through it that people enjoy — pay for themselves. Advertisers and  
governments are always desperate for new tools, but that doesn't imply  
that  the tools on offer will be of any great use to them, or even  
that very much will be paid for such data or for very long. Meanwhile,  
the Internet keeps functioning in other ways of much greater import.  
As I have long argued, and find more valid than ever, the Internet  is  
primarily a system for individuals to obtain attention for themselves,  
even if they do make use of channels provided by corporations. (By the  
way, Lenin supposedly said, more or less, “the capitalist will be  
happy to sell you the rope you will use to hang him;” why do I suspect  
some at the conference would say, ”Don’t buy the rope; the capitalist  
will make a profit” ?) Using these tools adroitly we may get some form  
of socialism, or we may simply find that those who do use them have  
created a new kind of post-capitalist class economy. In the latter  
case, would-be supporters of socialism would certainly need to  
understand the new system if they hope to make progress in their  
preferred direction. For those wearing the heavy blinders that many  
did at this conference, no such enlightenment would be possible.

As is typical of most academic conferences, a great many of the papers  
only discuss trivia because that is the route to academic success.  
This seems particularly true in the sorts of theories put forward  
under the guise of cultural studies; I found it indicative that after  
the conference several people think the most exciting thing that  
occurred was a discussion of in terms of Said’s “Orientalism” as  
applied to a miscellany including the “Mechanical Turk” and and  
Chinese ‘World-of-Warcraft gold” hunters. The point is not wrong, and  
it may reveal a bit of bias, but given that numerous participants in  
Internet firms hail from or work in various Asian countries and are  
treated with just about the same respect as anyone else, the charges  
of Orientalist exoticization seem overwrought and beside the point.  
This is simply not anything to get excited about except for scoring  
purely academic points. It says nothing about the value of the  
Internet, or even about how it might better promote international  
exchange and understanding.

Along the same lines, another conference participant is fond of  
asserting that billions of people have been disposessed by capitalism.  
As he uses it, this seems more a rhetorical stratagem to criticize  
capitalism than any indication that he wants to try to see how the  
Internet might be used to help ameliorate that suffering. In some ways  
capitalism is to blame for such immiseration, but the situation is  
complicated. So many would not be suffering were it not that since the  
advent of industrial capitalism population has grown rapidly as  
famines and infant mortality have been much reduced, even in the worst- 
off countries. This due in part to better food distribution, higher  
crop yields, better hygiene, vaccination, some spread of drugs such as  
antibiotics, and the like, for which capitalism certainly deserves  
some credit.

In most social systems historically, there were many who were  
supernumerary; in the past most such people were killed in infancy,  
starved to death or had to to take up vows that kept them from  
reproducing. Less of that happens now, though they still live with  
much less than others in the same culture, and very often live  
permanently quite close to starvation. It is a huge and horrendous  
problem, but not one that should be used for scoring purely rhetorical  
points. The Internet does hold out great promise in this regard, but  
that is not a promise that many at the conference seemed much  
interested in investigating, forwarding or even discussing.

Another comment at the final session, from Jodi Dean, struck me. It is  
that she had finally been convinced by Christian Fuchs that  
“communism” cannot be achieved without “computers.” One reason this  
struck me is that it is such an old idea, dating back to the 1950’s,  
when the Soviets and others — such as the Western economist Wassily  
Leontief —  in fact devoted considerable efforts to  investigating how  
to use mainframe computers to do better with central planning. But I  
also found it odd that in the context of this conference Professor  
Dean would say “computers” rather than “the Internet,” which has much  
more promise in terms of bringing about some sort of participatory  

Jodi Dean is well-known for promulgating the thought of “communicative  
capitalism” to describe the Internet,,etc. It’s very easy to claim  
that whatever change has occurred is just some new sort of capitalism,  
but this hardly an analytic success, as I see it. Of course any term  
can be stretched to mean whatever one chooses, but hiding distinctions  
in this way is not necessarily perspicuous. To be sure, Dean is far  
from alone in engaging in such broad use of terms like capitalism and  
capital.  “Human resource” people widely speak of “human capital,”  
though it hard to see how a human a can be capital (for herself), and  
certainly not simply by being educated as they imply. Likewise, Pierre  
Bourdieu was fond of such terms as “cultural capital,” which again is  
certainly not capital in the Marxian sense, and does not suppose the  
same sort of exploitation as plain old capital. Many on the left, such  
as David Harvey, and many not at all on the left take most changes in  
the life around them to be proof of the continued strength of  
capitalism, when an entirely different possibility is utterly  
neglected. Inflating a formerly precise term in this fashion should be  
avoided if one wishes to speak  with any sort of intellectual or  
analytic precision, certainly in a conference such as this one. But  
that is not widely done.

All this highlights for me that what some cleave to as “theory” does  
not seem deserving of that name. I started out my professional life as  
a theoretical physicist, and as I changed fields still referred to  
myself as a social theorist. I love theory, if it is good theory — of  
many sorts from astronomical to zoological, from political to literary  
theory.  By good theory  I mean a search for new understanding , often  
through new concepts of what the world is, how it works, how it can  
work, and what it should be. Such theorizing has to be self-examining,  
subject to doubt and critique, always a bit tentative, and certainly  
constantly tested for its coherence and meaningfulness  against new  
ranges of experience, as well as in comparison with other theories. It  
should of course strive to be rational, but it can never and probably  
should never be that purely. To get anywhere, not all hypotheses can  
be put in question at the same time, yet nothing should be beyond  
examination. Theory must always be seeking to add  new kinds of  
observations and predictions, examining how it comports or contrasts  
with other theories, whether it can be improved in its logic and  
strength of conclusions, where it is on possibly shaky grounds , in  
what ways it can be useful rather than merely descriptive or  
pejorative, when it is prematurely reductionist, when it can no longer  
easily be extended, when there are aspects of the world it has has  
overlooked, etc.

Good theory must always be — to use a favorite post-modernist term —  
transgressive —as well as audacious, surprising and  offering up new  
concepts, which lead to new percepts. But even the best theory, by the  
time it is articulated and typeset, is surely wrong in some  
significant aspects. It always must be subject to critique,  
modification, enlargement, and eventual abandonment. Any textual  
formulation of it is by no means Holy Writ. It is not to be quoted  
with an air of devotion, or as if by itself it stands for or can prove  

For too many people at the conference, I found, too much is taken for  
granted; too much is asserted without compelling argument; existing  
texts are treated as if sacrosanct and unarguably correct, as if they  
were bits of the Bible and we were fundamentalists; and metaphoric or  
analogical points are taken for logic or careful analysis. (Though  
thought — as Derrida among others has indicated — can never fully  
escape metaphor, that is no reason not to seek to do so.) Again, too  
much that is said seems to be intended as nothing other than academic  
preening. That leads to highly mistaken assumptions, focussing on  
trivia, unwarranted smugness, and other irksome behavior. It makes  
intrinsically intelligent people come off as fools or jerks.

Three things are widely held to be true in the western world today:  
first, that we live in a more or less strictly capitalist society;  
second, that, except possibly for some sort of socialism, nothing  
other than capitalism is possible; and third, that capitalism is much  
to be preferred to socialism.  (What socialism is generally taken to  
mean — especially in the US, but increasingly elsewhere — is usually  
some variant of Stalinism. With this definition, if the first two  
hypotheses are taken as correct, a good argument can indeed be made  
for the third.) Many or even most participants at this conference  
reject only the third hypothesis, pointing to or taking for granted  
the evils of capitalism, while also leaving unstated and little  
thought how a humane socialism would work. But how do we know that our  
system is primarily capitalist? Certainly not just by assertion. Nor  
by metaphor. And equally not by superficial observation of capitalist  
forms and notions, for the question has to be what other forms might  
be present at a less explicit level. In other words, without new  
concepts we cannot  clearly perceive what is around us.

But having made the conceptual break with capitalism, perhaps most  
participants find it too hard to take a further step; perhaps many of  
you already feel yourselves too far out on a limb. Or, as I suspect,  
an adherence to Marxism is enough to secure a comfortable academic  
niche, so why even think of questioning it? One can publish endless  
papers finding some way to  criticize, say, the Internet as inherently  
and irrevocably capitalist, without having to have any thoughts of  
doing anything about it. (One speaker even sneeringly joked that he  
was going to use Facebook to organize a march on Washington in favor  
of single-payer health care. Many smaller but effective organizing  
projects have in fact been accomplished through Facebook, but the  
built-in sneer evidently better preserves his academic pretenses.)

That’s not how to do good theory. The humanist tradition quite  
honorably has taken up exact quotation, and  a desire to get back to  
the text, in the case of poetry —in the largest sense —  or in  
studying what a particular author thought or said.  Such activities  
are commendable, but they should not be mistaken for theory, any more  
than a portion of a painting or snatches of a symphony would be . Not  
even a  mathematical formula, not even “E equals m c- squared,”  can  
rest in that light.

All this is true of scientific theories, but it is even more vital to  
consider when dealing with theories that refer to the state or the  
future of humanity, for through its own actions the human word is in  
endless flux. What were indisputable “laws” cease to be, what was the  
state of affairs has changed. Marx himself wrote in 1851, “The  
tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the  
brains of the living.” Whatever he exactly meant by that then, it has  
value for us only if reinterpreted to apply to now. Marx’s own work  
and that of everyone who came after him — in whatever tradition — is  
today part of a similar “nightmare.”   To live now,  we must be fully  
awake to now, not letting the clanking chains of our dreamt ghosts  
entrap us in fears and formulations of the dead past., not the past of  
the1860’s, nor the 1960’s, nor even more recent times.


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