Wired Misses the Marx

Can behavior in space as large and diverse as the internet be assigned an ideological marker? Kevin Kelly tries to do that in "The New Socialism," an article in the June issue of Wired. The premise is that the widespread use of technology that harnesses communal activity—whether on Wikipedia, Reddit, or Yahoo! Groups—heralds a major shift in the way people think. To define what he sees as a new phenomenon, Kelly repurposes an old word, “socialism,” a choice that deliberately spites both twentieth-century U.S. propaganda and Marxist philosophy.

The resulting essay brims with missteps, fallacies, and self-contradictions. Kelly lists Google among his examples of a place where “digital socialism” flourishes, but “The Secrets of Googlenomics," an article that shares tease space with Kelly’s piece on the cover, gives a detailed description of how the company operates as a fast-paced auction house. Another example of communal activity is that “tagged snapshots of the same scene from different angles can be assembled into a stunning 3-D rendering of the location”—which, interestingly, echoes Russian critic Ekaterina Degot’s theory that Soviet public spaces and events were constructed so as to be impossible to view in full from an individual vantage point—but Kelly gives Microsoft’s Photosynth as an example of a program that enables this, even after kicking the piece off with a quote from Bill Gates casting Microsoft’s founder as the arch-nemesis of leftist action. Open source software is another keystone of Kelly’s argument, but he neglects to mention that many companies use open source as a stage in product development, a low-cost investment in refining a good for later sale. Wikipedia, an example that crops up several times, is a non-profit, but as many critics of the site have noted, the self-appointed editors delete the addition of any information that has not been pre-approved by corporate publishing houses and media.

If the internet today can be defined by a single dominant ideology, it is most certainly capitalism, not because there is something inherently market-like about networked technology, but because corporate forces have done the most work to shape the web’s development. The ten most visited sites on the internet have built-in commercial structures, designed to bring the user to the marketplace in one click if they don’t put them out there at the start. Furthermore, as artist Olia Lialina has written in her essays on the Vernacular Web, the production of the new internet is in the hands of a few companies, and almost all activity takes place on sites with streamlined, professional design that leaves some room for advertisement—in other words, the structures of the internet are built and defined by corporations, which makes it naïve to speak of collective agency of the herds of people using their services. Then there’s the fact that a limited segment of the population has the constant access to technology and the leisure time necessary to share and tweet. Calling these conditions “digital socialism” is like proclaiming a communist utopia at American grocery stores after watching shoppers at Whole Foods try the free samples.

So why would Kelly write an article based around a word he doesn’t understand, in real or feigned ignorance of how the internet actually works? A hint to the inspiration for the piece comes in its last page, when Kelly begins discussing the current U.S. political situation. Softening perceptions of the “s-word” among Wired’s cultivated demographic of 18 to-35-year-old educated, professional males will help weaken attempts to discredit the Obama administration with that same word. But by repackaging the word “socialism” for the benefit of the current elite, Kelly dilutes the verbal arsenal of those who actually believe in alternatives to capitalism. Moreover, Kelly’s article hands over too much responsibility to technology. Without the corresponding intent, group activity cannot be labeled socialist, communist, democratic, or anarchist. Assigning those terms carelessly encourages belief that a tool itself provides the solution to change, when in fact change comes from how it is used.