Who wants to be a gadget? …I am not a #digital #Maoist

August 4, 2010

I’m reading Jarron Lanier’s You are not a gadget this week and thoroughly enjoying his thoughtful and no nonsense approach to digital utopians and his critique of the so-called ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and the ‘hive mind’.

But I was most intrigued by his use of the term ‘Digital Maoists’. I had no real handle on what he meant by this term, but I instantly took to it as an apt description of what I call the technological determinist and digital utopian viewpoints about the wonders of Web 2.0; user-generated content and insightful mobs.

so I went in search of a definition and also to work out my own perspective on digital Maoism. This is a rough guide to what I found.

The first reference seems to be this long article by Lanier in an online publication called Edge Reality Club.

The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
By Jaron Lanier

In this piece -which also contains some interesting responses from a range of digital gurus and digital sceptics – Lanier introduces us to Digital Maoism, but does not provide anything like a substantial definition.

What we are witnessing today is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective…

History has shown us again and again that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot. Nasty hive mind outbursts have been flavored Maoist, Fascist, and religious, and these are only a small sampling.

This is it really, there’s not much more to go on, even though Digital Maoism is a long (by Internet standards) piece. A tease…what more could there be?

Well, there’s this  piece;  an interview with Lanier by the Guardian‘s Aleks Krotoski, published earlier this year, containing a much fuller definition:

What is digital Maoism? Twenty-five years ago some friends and I had this thought that perhaps the internet would be a fount of wealth and opportunity, that it could be entirely open such that people could give away the fruits of their brains and hearts, and the rewards they would get in return would be huge. Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that was a mistake.

We’re faced with a stark decision: we give people a way to live off their brains – to earn with dignity, to not have to constantly sing for their supper – or we have to accept that our problem is socialism, that we’re trying to shut down personal reinvention and self-determinism and want to create a system where people will be universally supported by some institution. I personally support the former.

I call the alternative digital Maoism because, unlike other Marxists, the Maoists had this real distaste for people earning from their brains. They worshipped the peasant, the person who’s really toiling. Every time we give a musician the advice to give away the music and sell the T-shirt, we’re saying, “Don’t make your living in this more elevated way. Instead, reverse this social progress, and choose a more physical way to make a living.” We’re sending them to peasanthood, very much like the Maoists have.

[Krotoski, 2010: My bright idea]

More satisfying? Yes, in an unsatisfying way.

Let me unpack this discourse.

we give people a way to live off their brains – to earn with dignity, to not have to constantly sing for their supper – or we have to accept that our problem is socialism

Huh? This is a big logic jump here. How is giving people a way to earn with dignity incompatible with socialism? I’m not sure I’m reading this correctly, but I think that one interpretation is that Lanier is saying that the creation of the hive mind is some how a misguided effort of socialists (or sympathisers).

The ‘alternative’ posed here: either earning with dignity or digital Maoism is no real alternative at all. It presupposes that the market will actually provide the solution. But I would argue that it is the market forces of capitalism that have led to the situation today of the exhaltation of the hive mind, collective intelligence and the myths of the digital utopians — what Vincent Mosco refers to as manifestations of the “digital sublime”.

It is market forces that have created the behemoth that is Google powered by the invisible hand of the algorithm at the service of the pursuit of profit and greater capital expansion.

Perhaps this statement from Lanier also displays a lack of real knowledge of the Maoist project in China after 1949. While it is true that the class basis of the Maoist revolution was the peasantry, the victory of the Chinese Communist Party actually led to the urbanisation and industrialisation of China on a massive scale.

Farms were collectivised; farmers were encouraged to engage in the production of crude iron and steel products and there was a massive population shift into the major urban centres. The whole point of Mao’s essentially bourgeois revolution in China was to create a nationalist structure that would unite the nation and allow it to build its economic, political and military strength vis the world’s super powers – at that stage imperialist USA and Stalinist (and imperialist) USSR.

Maoism was not a celebration of the Chinese peasantry; Mao was not Pol Pot and the Chinese Communist Party (though essentially Stalinist and petty-bourgeois) was not the Khmer Rouge.

Ultimately too it seems Jarron Lanier may himself be guilty of digital utopianism. His proposed solution to the problem of digital Maoism is actually a return to subsistence labour and even digital peasantry:

In You Are Not A Gadget I propose five different approaches to a solution. The one I am the most hopeful about is to return to the very first vision of the web: a universal micro-payment system. For practical purposes, that would mean that there’s only one copy of a creative thing, and you pay a half penny every time you access it.

With things like the iPad and the Kindle and Xbox Live, we’re creating this big studio system. I’d much rather see a world where, when you make some quirky comment on a blog or news story or you upload a video clip, instead of just a moment of fame for your pseudonym, you’ll get 50 bucks. The first time that happens, you’ll realise that you’re a full-class citizen. You have the potential to make money from the system. Once you hit that point, you’ll realise there’s a social contract, and then maybe you’ll stop illegally downloading content for the same reason you don’t break into houses or cars even though you could: because it’s part of a system that’s better for everybody.

A champion of micro-payments…how very 20th century. It is also confusing consumerism and workshop production (craft work) with citizenship. His idealism that this will somehow stop illegal downloads of content is quaint, but unrealistic.

What creates illegal downloads and pirate enterprises such as content sharing and bit torrent sites is the system of property rights entrenched in the system as a whole.

Capitalism has virtually eliminated craft production from the global economy – and for good reason: it is inefficient from the point of view of the reproduction of capital. From capital’s perspective there is no moral equation here, simply a monetary one.

A further point is that capitalism also flourishes from the activity of the hive mind. The whole Fordist project of assembly lines, pioneered nearly 100 years ago in the American car industry and based on the examples of the Industrial Revolution works on the basis of an unquestioning hive mind and singularity of purpose.

A return to agrarian utopias or the horse-drawn cart will not be better for the world. So too it is with the logic of micro-payments on the web.

Paywalls are coming

If we return to Lanier’s 2006 article on Digital Maoism there are some insightful and useful comments about the broken business models in journalism and publishing.

Compounding the problem is that new business models for people who think and write have not appeared as quickly as we all hoped. Newspapers, for instance, are on the whole facing a grim decline as the Internet takes over the feeding of curious eyes that hover over morning coffee and even worse, classified ads. In the new environment, Google News is for the moment better funded and enjoys a more secure future than most of the rather small number of fine reporters around the world who ultimately create most of its content. The aggregator is richer than the aggregated.

These lines are fascinating from the perspective of today because Lanier doesn’t mention paywalls – at that time they were not really on the agenda of digital capital. Now they are rapidly expanding and there is a real possibility that they will become universal in relation to news and information. But let’s be clear, paywalls benefit media capital, they do not provide a return to the digital peasants (the content providers) working on information assembly lines.

The content farms are here – Demand Media, for instance – and Lanier is right: “the aggregator is richer than the aggregated”.

Content farms and paywalls impoverish the rest of us and turn digital workers into contracted peasants. I agree with Lanier that it is the new ruler of the universe – the search engine algorithm – that is turning us (or has the potential, at least, to turn us) into gadgets.

I also agree with the theme of Lanier’s manifesto. It is our duty to resist this.

There’s plenty more to say on this, but it’s time to go home.

I haven’t finished You are not a gadget and will post some thoughts and a review when I have.

But here’s a rather dissing review from The Digital Skeptic.

More generally, Lanier’s view of the modern Netizenry as mindless sheep being led to the commercial slaughter is unjustifiably bleak. Social-networking sites, he suggests, are manipulating people and “violating privacy and dignity.” “The whole artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship,” he claims, “is just bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers.” But nobody’s forcing us to join social-networking sites or to use free online services. Indeed, Lanier’s labeling the free-culture movement “digital Maoists” is ironic, given that he’s trotting out classic Marxist themes about consumer manipulation and false consciousness.

Hhmmm, some meaty issues there as well, ripe for the EM dissection.

Content farms - digital sweatshops of the future present