[iDC] Learning from 1967

Gabriella Coleman biella at nyu.edu
Mon Jun 22 12:33:06 UTC 2009

When it comes to the value of some of these technologies and social 
formations, such as Wikipedia and Linux, it is certainly not to usher in 
The Great Social Transformation, which is what a Wired article will (of 
course) emphasize (it is Wired). But it is worth, I think, not throwing 
the baby with the water when challenging these grand narratives as these 
examples have generated some important social change, even if limited in 

This conversation reminds me of a few pages from David Graeber's 
pamphlet, “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” which urges us to 
ditch the idea of revolution as a break in time, space, and 
consciousness where everything in its wake is different and urges us to 
identify action that leads to a series of transformations that confront 
some form of power and alter social relations.

Whether it is the alternative to an IP regime (which does kill, when it 
comes to patents), Free Software and the movements it has inspired, have 
been at some level (or when compared to a more limited standard), 
powerful. Having a robust alternative is something significant given the 
power of IP to regulate every “intellectual” and non-intellectual object 
on earth. Yes, there are limits to what it can do and yes there are 
limits to what it should do(it does not make sense for every group out 
there to adopt CC licenses, as many anthropologists have emphasized ) 
and yet limits, which will always exist, do not take away from what is 
most powerful about these examples.

Also another lesson it teaches us has nothing to do about computers or 
even collaboration but vocational ethics. Some have raised the fact that 
open source developers are often paid or university students, which is 
indeed the case. With some important exceptions, these are not rag tag 
flag waving anarchists trying to undue the state: they are concerned 
with what matters to them—software and making sure that there is a 
certain level of integrity when building this stuff. What is amazing is 
that there is a movement, not firmly anchored in one institutional space 
(the university, the corporation) that insists there are certain 
standards which must be followed, standards that go against the grain of 
corporate policies. The outcome, which arose in part accidentally, is a 
vast army of software developers with a remarkably deep ethic for their 
craft, which has led to an amazing pool of software that runs a good 
portion of the Internet and is also used by social justice activists to 
do some great work.

The exceptions I referred to above are the political geeks, which have 
built an counter-network used by social justice activists around the 
world, as their sense of ethics and integrity is one that melds secure 
technology with social justice which  in some instances does help get 
food on people's plates ((for example, Riseup.net, which is powered 
entirely on free software, is used to coordinate over 60 Food not Bombs 
mailing lists, among hundreds of others). No, it is certainly not 
enough, and it is limited, nor the type of stuff covered in mainstream 
news, but it is key I think to let this stuff air out in the open, if 
nothing else to inspire some sort of optimism of the will, in the midst 
of the pessimism of the intellect, to rephrase Gramsci's famous 
description of the nature of radical politics.

If other vocational groups from academics, journalists and doctors also 
insisted on the integrity of their craft (and individually many many 
many do and there are organizations which also work to make this happen 
but they have not scaled as floss has), we would have pretty dramatic 
forms of social change or at least a wall that prevented some of the 
worst abuses of capital.

If we are going to take a theory of labor to heart, we also have to 
remember that bodies and attention and affect are molded by what people 
do, day in and day out. It is for this reason that I find it makes a lot 
of sense that developers, for example, care more about software than.... 
medicine, for example. The idea of a liberal subject who cares 
universally about everything is somewhat of a fallacy. But I  have 
included the “somewhat” deliberately, for I have hope we can move, at 
least in part, away from the particularities of our upbringing, of our 
labor, of our prejudices: it is key to link the particular to a more 
universal idea of justice: the question is how can we link people's 
passion for what they do (software, medicine, art, teaching and also 
recognized how we are molded distinctly by culture) to issues that may 
exceed the particular plane?  How do we inspire people to go beyond the 
particular in a way that integrates their sense of perception, 
affect/passion and exploits their practical skills?

Trenchant critique of Netboosterism is so so important and many on this 
list do this exceedingly well. It is far to easy to collapse the 
differences that exist in the networked world and differences must be 
made clear. Punching holes in a frictionless narrative that places all 
to much faith and power in the capacity of media/technology (the 
“medial” as Dominic Boyer has theorized in a great little prickly pear 
pamphlet called A Philosophy of Media) must be debunked. And as I 
mentioned above, I would rather keep the baby in the bathwater as well 
when it makes sense to do so and the sense I refer to is for the purpose 
of inspiration, which is as much part of politics as critique.


David Golumbia wrote:
> Trebor is so right to focus on the claim that "it is almost universally 
> possible to do more outside of the corporate frameworks than inside of 
> them."
> I hope Michael B. will forgive me for saying that I simply do not 
> understand what is meant by this claim--and it is by no means the only 
> version of it I've heard.
> There are thousands of corporations on the US stock exchanges alone. 
> Each of them holds sway over millions, billions, and even trillions of 
> dollars of capital, made of labor, equipment and finances. Just to take 
> one example, Microsoft can use its capital to exclude from the market, 
> manipulate, obscure, and buy out all sorts of smaller initiatives and 
> companies, open-source or privately funded. Few of the open-source OS or 
> application platforms have made much of a dent in their monopolistic 
> practices--government regulation has, to a limited extent, particularly 
> in the EU. Microsoft can do, and DOES do, much more than any of us can 
> individually. It does much more than "we"--at least any focused group of 
> "us"--do collectively. It is a bad formation; it concentrates power; it 
> gives the lie to the "freedom" of free markets.  How do Facebook, 
> wikipedia, even linux and Open Office change that?
> What worries me especially is a strong focus in these and similar 
> discussions on "media" as if "media" equals "capital." Media is one very 
> small part of capital. Yes, certain aspects of media production, 
> consumption, and even creation have been "democratized" in some sense 
> (though i'd argue about what that sense is). If you look at media in 
> particular, the web looks as if it may be distributing some parts of 
> culture that were previously more concentrated. But in the scheme of the 
> capital life-world, they are small potatoes. They don't even affect mass 
> entertainment media that much, unless i have missed all the youtube 
> videos that are grossing top dollar and putting Fox out of business.
> But how does that small democratization of media change what Microsoft 
> does with its vast horde of cash? and that example has enough to do with 
> computers to be possibly deceptive--how does it change what Pfizer does? 
> What Waste Management and Luxor Oil and Genentech and Morgan Stanley and 
> Wal-Mart and Hovnanian Homes do? Because they (the purportedly 
> non-criminal but unevenly distributed, exploitative entities that are 
> the bulk of contemporary world capital) are "the corporate framework," 
> they are the bulk of "capital," and they do what they do regardless of 
> facebook, youtube, twitter, and our email list.
> I want to believe there is a socialist transformation lurking in 
> networked computing--i really do. But I care more about the socialist 
> transformation than I do about whether it emerges from computers. I 
> never even hear a clear mechanism proposed by which that is supposed to 
> happen. The glimmers I have heard of a mechanism are fanciful--somehow 
> everyone quits their jobs and starts contributing to Wikipedia and 
> Linux, and Wikpedia and Linux still exist even though nobody works for 
> Cisco or IBM or Lenovo anymore to make the computers and routers on 
> which the network runs... and how do the Wikipedia contributors buy 
> lunch? and who makes the lunch? and who grows the vegetables for the 
> lunch? and who drives the vegetables to the supermarket? and who works 
> in the supermarket? and what in the world does social media have to do 
> with any of that? not only can we all NOT become "knowledge workers"--a 
> very small, elite few of us can. And that is no road to socialism as I 
> understand it.
> DG
> Trebor Scholz wrote:
>> Michel Bauwens wrote:
>> "We have enticed capital in building sharing and peer production platforms
>> at no cost to us but our voluntary free time and our passionate creative
>> pursuits, making them think that their miserable profits is worth creating
>> the possibilities of massive post-monetary exchange beyond the commodity
>> form." 
>>  "Now the situation has reversed, it is almost universally possible to do
>> more outside of the corporate frameworks than inside of them."
>> "Capital has not won, it is merely recognizing the victory of participation
>> and adapting to it."


Gabriella Coleman, Assistant Professor
Department of Media, Culture, & Communication
New York University
239 Greene St, 7th floor
NY NY 10003

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