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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.

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curt cloninger June 4 2009 15:33Reply

Thanks Brian.

see also Keith White's "The Killer App: Wired Magazine, Voice of the Corporate Revolution" (1995):

And this excerpt below from my essay here ( http://lab404.com/articles/commodify_your_consumption.pdf ):


Institutional Production of the "Interactive Subject"

The problem is, not all forms of web 2.0 "interactivity" are inherently "tactical." Put another way, mere "use" does not automatically constitute "resistance."

Is using off-the-shelf corporate software to create a "unique/personal" MySpace page a way of subverting the institutions of mass media production, or is it simply one more example of these institutions using the myth of "originality" to assimilate and amass a demographic market of "unique" individuals? Artists who use these templates have to be particularly wily if they hope to keep from being assimilated and rendered "tactically" impotent.

How do you hack/resist a platform that already allows (indeed, invites) you to customize it? Either we have arrived at an open source utopia and we simply need to keep using these social networking tools appreciatively in the ways that they afford; or the agency of our radical "resistance" has been rendered irrelevant because the corporations have decided to let the people eat cake (provided we eat their particular brand of interactive cake).

The agency that de Certeau's consumer enacted to tactically reassemble the one-to-many media broadcasted to her in 1980 is being increasingly usurped by institutionally recommended (and protocologically enforced) modes of interactive behavior. Once the consumer mistakes these institutional "suggestions" for the exercises of her own tactical agency, she fails to exercise that actual agency. With so many "customizable options" available, how can she "resist?"

In a fleeting moment of insight, Billy Joel sings, "I got remote control and a color TV / I don't change channels so they must change me." The corollary may actually be more accurate. The more I change channels, the more they change me. I sacrifice my "resistant" agency at the altar of trivial difference. The danger of MySpace and YouTube is not the threat that they may wind up archiving and owning all the "content" I produce, or that they are currently getting rich off the content I produce, but that they control the parameters within which I produce "my original" content.

"Production" turns out to be an amorphous term. It begs the question "production of what?" Now that "consumers" have become "content producers," we should be asking ourselves, Who are the meta-producers? Who produces the contexts surrounding "creative" prosumer production? Who produces the tools that suggest the proper "way" in which amateur's are to produce? These meta-producers are no longer producing "content." Or rather, their "content" is the production of an "interactive" human subject – a subject who feels autonomous, empowered, and creative; but who may have difficulty enacting any pragmatic agency. This transition from spectacularized consumption to spectacularized production is insidious.

The placebo effect of web 2.0 "empowerment" is at least as problematic as the original one-to-many TV effect of disenfranchisement. At least in 1980 there was a suspicion that something needed to be resisted.

Domenico Quaranta June 5 2009 15:15Reply

Google an example of digital socialism? ahah!

the following happened this night to me… sorry for submitting a personal case, but I think it can be significant.


This night I've been killed by Google. When I woke up, I tried to enter my Google Account as usual, but what I got was only a short message:

«Sorry, your account has been disabled.»

“This fucking password!”, I thought, and I retyped it. Same message. At the end of it there was a question mark with a link. I clicked on it, and this is what I read:

«If you've been redirected to this page from the sign in page, it means that access to your Google Account has been disabled.

In most cases, accounts are disabled because of a perceived violation of either the Google Terms of Service or product-specific Terms of Service.

Google reserves the right to:

* Suspend a Google Account from using a particular product or the entire Google Accounts system if the Terms of Service or product-specific policies are violated.
* Terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice.

If your Google Account has been disabled, please review the relevant Terms of Service before attempting to create another account. For guidelines on a specific Google product, please visit the product homepage for a link to its Terms of Service.

If you believe your account has been disabled in error, please contact us so that we can assist you.»

“Terminate your account at any time, for any reason, with or without notice”? Wow! If God exists, probably he is more democratic than Google. But, well, of course it's a mistake. So, let's fill the form.

I did it, and this is what I got:

«Thanks for contacting our Google Accounts team. Please note that we'll only reply if we have additional information to share about your disabled account.»

I take a cigarette. “Hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper”, I think. Tons of emails, two blogs, about one hundred images, videos, documents, web pages, presentations, two years of work lost for… what? Because I believed in a fallible God.

I don't believe in God, actually. That's why I always have to understand what happens to my life. So, I start making some research. Google invites you to put your whole hard disk online. If you have a Google account, you can check your email, but you can also run one or more blogs. Picasa lets you share your pictures, and since Google bought Youtube, you can create and access a Youtube channel with the same username and password. Google Documents is a kind of Microsoft Office. You can create and share word documents, spreadsheets, Power Point presentations, databases. It's far but easy to fascinate me, but if I find something useful, I use it. So, I run two blogs, I have a Picasa account, a Youtube channel, and several documents online - most of them being material I use for teaching, and that I share with my students. All under the same Google Account.

So, let's check if everything is working. My email doesn't work anymore. R.I.P. My blogs are still online, but I don't have the right to edit, delete or update them anymore. Actually, I'm not the owner of these sites anymore. They are still there, but they aren't mine - they belong to Google. I realize right now that they always did. As for my Youtube videos and my documents, the same as above: only Google can decide if my students can go on studying what I teach. Finally, I look for my Picasa channel: it's gone.

“You asshole!”, you may say. “You are boring us with your fucking story, and it ends up that you uploaded some sex images or copyrighted material.” I didn't. What I put on my Picasa account are just my photos: some holiday pictures (as private albums, accessible only to me - and Google of course) and some pics related to the exhibitions I organized up to now (as public albums). I go through the terms of agreement about one hundred times, and what I understand is that I didn't violate any rule. Maybe the following one?

«4.5 You acknowledge and agree that while Google may not currently have set a fixed upper limit on the number of transmissions you may send or receive through the Services or on the amount of storage space used for the provision of any Service, such fixed upper limits may be set by Google at any time, at Google’s discretion.»

I don't know how many megabytes I used - unlike for Flickr, there were no upper limits for Picasa till yesterday. Maybe I used too much disk space and they decided to kick me out?

I don't know. Probably, I'll never know. Since this morning, I wrote about 10 emails to Google, but I got no answer. I can just look back to my dead account and wonder: is it dead because God decided to kill it or because it violated some stupid rule?

Of course, I will migrate on other platforms. I'll do even if my Google Account comes back from hell. Nothing is really lost, besides my time. But don't forget: if it happened to me, it can happen to anybody, at any time, everywhere. Everything is there, in the contract you signed with God - or it was the Devil?:

«4.3 As part of this continuing innovation, you acknowledge and agree that Google may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally at Google’s sole discretion, without prior notice to you.

4.4 You acknowledge and agree that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Services, your account details or any files or other content which is contained in your account.»

Michael Szpakowski June 6 2009 12:24Reply

I think your general criticisms are largely on the nail Brian. Nonetheless it does seem to me that hidden in Kelly's confusion is a real and useful insight. One of the arguments I've heard correctly deployed against those who argue that socialism is impossible because there would be no "incentive" to do anything, is that people often labour hard and carefully with no expectation of reward within the family, or for friends or in the service of some cause or in the pursuit of hobbies &c. We have to rehabilitate a good old Marxist term - dialectic - to understand why, because everything is in flux, a phenomenon can be both progressive *and* backward looking. Marx famously praised the bourgeoisie to the skies for its role in developing the means of production at the same time as dedicating his life to overthrowing rule of said bourgeoisie (' I only hope my writings plague the bourgeoisie as these have plagued me' he is said to have remarked of a particularly bad attack of the boils from which he suffered chronically)
So what, for example, Wikipedia serfdom demonstrates is two-fold: (1) just how capable of working constructively and effectively people are even without a boss to crack the whip or without "incentives" and (2) just how capitalism shapes and structures, or, better, distorts said impulse. This is true of open source software too; people work their arses off for nothing & corporations step in and make huge piles from what they've done..
Secondly - there's no doubt that tools such as Google, e mail, social networking have the *possibility* of connecting people up in all sorts of new and exciting and progressive ways. Most of the time they won't, but it doesn't mean that the potential isn't there. Socialism is predicated on technological advance making a society of real generalised plenty a possibility - technology in and of itself of course doesn't do this. I remember when growing up in the sixties we were told that by now we'd all be working a five hour week and our biggest problem would be how to use our leisure time. Of course despite huge technological progress the opposite is true -people work longer hours with greater intensity of labour because that's how capitalism works, *necessarily* squeezing every last drop of profit from those who actually create the wealth. Nonetheless every technical advance has the *possibility* of being used to enhance lives rather than sell things or turn a profit for the already obscenely rich.
So whatever there is that is sinister and controlling about Google there is also a huge freedom in terms of being able to quickly and effectively access not only facts but huge chunks of other otherwise difficult to access cultural and informational artefacts. A block to this being even more useful is the existence of capitalist competition between institutions - imagine if every single academic paper *had* to be posted, with free access, to the net.
Once we've appropriated Google, Apple, Microsoft , the banks , whatever and are running them under real democratic workers control then we'll be able to see that they are used solely and gloriously for the common good, for human growth…
Lastly, there's a whiff of sectarianism of , I think, an unhelpful sort in attacking Kelly for misuse of terminology.
Of course it is important to argue for clarity and against ideas we believe to be mistaken or misconceived but rather than socialism as a concept coming out of hiding amongst groups of intellectuals because of some weird get-Obama-off-some-future-hook notion it seems to me more likely that minds are turning in this direction because of the spectacular scale of economic, social and political crisis we're in, which has seen the failure of capitalism pretty unequivocally demonstrated.