Wednesday, April 03, 2013

On Naked Capitalism and the Meme Hustler

Beyond all the vitriol, the essence of the argument put forward by "New York Times guest columnist" Evgeny Morozov in the "Meme Hustler" is that economic and technological development is not the same as the progress of a society. This is a perfectly reasonable point as progress requires some concept of where you are heading whilst economic and technological development are simply a means to an end. 

Unfortunately the author fails to acknowledge that the target of the article Tim O'Reilly has made the same point on numerous occasions in the past with his discussions on what is the system that we are creating. Rather than dealing with this, the article has been selective in its facts to suit its own pursuit of being a source of "truth" and portraying O'Reilly as a ruthless propagandist of commercial and political interests. 

The article, written by an author of a recently published work with their own commercial interest would appear guilty of conducting the very same acts they would accuse others of. It is at the least unwittingly hypocritical. The accusation that it will help Morozov sell a few more books resonates too loudly and is bound to be repeated. 

In 2006, I wrote on my concerns of our continued development of a Stentorocracy (from the greek hero with the big lungs) - a society based upon who shouts loudest - rather than a true meritocracy. If Morozov's article does one thing then it highlights how discussion, debate and enquiry are replaced by shouting, trolling and propaganda and his article is simply part of this rather than the solution. 

I highlighted the quote "New York Times guest columnist" because for me this is akin to the issue of "You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you". The arguments need to stand on their own merit, the references to credentials as though this provides some authoritative weight has always been at the heart of the problem whether it's the New York Times, The Edge or any other group that professes to be a fountain of truth. 

I would argue that O'Reilly was right to be concerned about what is the system or machine that we are creating and Morozov has clearly pointed out a path which I don't believe we should be heading down. More the pity is the questions Morozov raises are worthy of discussion just not in this manner. Strip out the vitriol and the ad hominem attacks and underneath is the basis of a good and worthy article. How cheaply such discourse and enquiry has been sold.


Rurik Bradbury said...

But there's a significant difference between

1) O'Reilly "raising the questions" and then saying, "oh, never mind, let's just carry on down the path PS send me tons of cash"


2) Morozov saying "I'm raising the questions, I don't have many answers, but I *don't* approve of the status quo and I *don't* stand to make a fortune if the status quo persists."

In leveling that distinction with a "they're both out for themselves, to maximise revenues/publicity/book sales" it diverts the debate.

Here in Russia, Putin often speaks out strongly against corruption, yet he benefits from the continuation of the system. (Not saying O'Reilly is on par with Putin, but you get the point...)

Simon Wardley said...

Hi Rurik,

I would certainly agree with you that there is an issue, in my view the problem relates to the formation of a "Stentorocracy" (per my 2006 post) - alas I couldn't find a word to actually describe it.

However, whilst this is an area which should be discussed because there is a world of difference between economic and technological development vs. progress as a society - what are we building. a Stentorocracy or a Meritocracy? - the manner in which Morozov raises these issues is part of the problem.

Will future enquiry be based upon self appointed holders of truth shouting ever louder with accusations and vitriol? Is this what we are being reduced to? The pantomisation of discourse whether social or scientific enquiry - oh no he didn't, oh yes he did etc.

There is merit in the points raised but not in the manner. The problem of course is the points raised are all fundamentally about the manner - memes, propaganda etc.

Unknown said...

Simon -

I too am sad that Morozov frames what could be good questions in a way that makes it almost impossible to discuss them. His personal attacks, his inaccurate retelling of other people's ideas - all buttressed with carefully selected quotes that he then interprets for the reader sometimes even in a way at variance with the quote but so persuasively that the spin outweighs the source - are so tendentious that they are not worth the time to rebut. You'd spend all your time defending yourself rather than on discussing the issue at hand.

As you point out, I have spent much of my writing and speaking articulating ideas about where the technological choices we are making are taking us, for good or ill, and reflecting on practical steps we can take to improve the outcome. If Morozov wanted to critique my actual views, we might have had a productive discussion. It is true that I am somewhat more sanguine about the course of our future history than he is, but I too see many dark clouds on the horizon. I have enough sense of history, though, to know that things are rarely as dark - or as rosy - as they seem, and an attitude that says it is better to focus on and encourage human goodness and ingenuity than to rail against perceived sins.

Rurik -

I have most certainly not said "oh, never mind, let's just carry on down the path, PS send me tons of cash" - I have consistently made choices that send me less cash, but have more positive social impact. I do make my living doing what I do, but so, I imagine do you. And so, most certainly, does Morozov.

And if you actually read the sources that Morozov excerpts so selectively, and look at the real history of the causes I've been involved in, you'll see that I have been both a more persistent and more effective critic of the status quo than he has been.

And to be quite clear, Morozov is privately quite cynical about why he does what he does. He wrote to me (and gave me permission to quote) that he knows what game he's in, but wonders if I do. (I think he regretted the permission, because he later deleted the even more damning private twitter messages that he'd given me permission to quote.)

Simon Wardley said...

I agree that what could and should have been a discussion on the nature of progress as a society vs simple economic and technological development, an exploration of the nature of what is being created has instead been presented in such a manner that makes any reasonable discussion difficult.

Cut through all the vitriol and there is a gem worth discussing. Instead we end up with a polarised debate, mired in mudslinging which has turned this subject into pantomime.

How does anyone respond? Oh no I didn't, oh yes you did, oh no I didn't ... I can't hear you etc. He who shouts loudest wins?

This is only made more galling as we are entering a time of wonder where we will experience a rapid growth in higher order technology systems built with common components - the growth of intelligent software agents (Google Now, MindMeld), a potential further division between the haves and have nots, a possible stratification of society through access to data etc.

There are many issues which touch upon the question of what do we mean by progress, how the pursuit of innovation & efficiency (inevitable consequences of economic competition) have become synonyms for progress, how society is more than just technology and economics and what sort of society are we aiming for anyway and does anyone know?

Morozov's article is a wasted opportunity to discuss things which matter, the nature of what we are creating and where we are heading at a time when this is probably most critical.

I can't help but slow hand clap and yes, I'm sad this was framed in such a negative way.