(2013-04-30) Baffler Oreilly The Meme Hustler
Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier alternatives
In the last decade or so, Silicon Valley has triggered its own wave of linguistic innovation, a wave so massive that a completely new way to analyze and describe the world—a silicon mentality of sorts—has emerged in its wake.
That we would eventually be robbed of a meaningful language to discuss technology was entirely predictable. That the conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley would also pollute the rest of our vocabulary wasn’t.
The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly.
Over the past fifteen years, he has given us such gems of analytical precision as “open source,” “Web 2.0,” “government as a platform,” and “architecture of participation.” O’Reilly doesn’t coin all of his favorite expressions, but he promotes them with religious zeal and enviable perseverance.
No one has done more to turn important debates about technology—debates that used to be about rights, ethics, and politics—into kumbaya celebrations of the entrepreneurial spirit while making it seem as if the language of economics was, in fact, the only reasonable way to talk about the subject.
As O’Reilly discovered a long time ago, memes are for losers; the real money is in epistemes.
“There’s a way in which the O’Reilly brand essence is ultimately a story about the hacker as hero, the kid who is playing with technology because he loves it, but one day falls into a situation where he or she is called on to go forth and change the world,” he wrote in 2012.
His true hero is the hacker-cum-entrepreneur.
A decade after producing a singular vision of the Internet to justify his ideas about the supremacy of the open source paradigm, O’Reilly is close to pulling a similar trick on how we talk about government reform.
So what did matter about open source? Not “freedom”—at least not in Stallman’s sense of the word. O’Reilly cared for only one type of freedom: the freedom of developers to distribute software on whatever terms they fancied. This was the freedom of the producer
That “what works” for developers might eventually hurt everyone else—which was essentially Stallman’s argument—did not bother O’Reilly. For all his economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities.
That such an argument could be mounted reveals just how much political baggage was smuggled into policy debates once “open source software” replaced “free software” as the idiom of choice.
In the late 1990s, O’Reilly began celebrating “infoware” as the next big thing after “hardware” and “software.” His premise was that Internet companies such as Yahoo and E-Trade were not in the software business but in the infoware business. Their functionality was pretty basic
The “infoware” buzzword didn’t catch on, so O’Reilly turned to the work of Douglas Engelbart, the idiosyncratic inventor who gave us the computer mouse and hypertext, to argue that the Internet could help humanity augment its “collective intelligence” and that, once again, open source software was crucial to this endeavor.
O’Reilly couldn’t improve on a concept as sexy as “collective intelligence,” so he kept it as the defining feature of this new phenomenon. What set Web 2.0 apart from Web 1.0, O’Reilly claimed, was the simple fact that those firms that didn’t embrace it went bust. All Silicon Valley companies should heed the lesson of those few who survived: they must find a way to harness collective intelligence and make it part of their business model.
By 2007, O’Reilly readily admitted that “Web 2.0 was a pretty crappy name for what’s happening.” Back in 2004, however, he seemed pretty serious
In his 1976 book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, Neil Postman pointed to a certain linguistic imperialism that propels crazy talk.
Stupid talk is relatively harmless; it presents no threat to its semantic environment and doesn’t cross into other ones.
Crazy talk, in contrast, challenges a semantic environment, as it “establishes different purposes and assumptions from those we normally accept.” To argue, as some Nazis did, that the German soldiers ended up far more traumatized than their victims is crazy talk.
For Postman, one of the main tasks of language is to codify and preserve distinctions among different semantic environments.
Postman’s thinking on the inner workings of language was heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Korzybski.
Korzybski argued that we relate to our environments through the process of “abstracting,” whereby our neurological limitations always produce an incomplete and very selective summary of the world around us.
He wanted to artificially induce what he called a “neurological delay” so that we could gain more awareness of what we were doing in response to verbal and nonverbal stimuli
To that end, Korzybski developed a number of mental tools meant to reveal all the abstracting around us; he patented the most famous of those—the “structural differential”—in the 1920s. He also encouraged his followers to start using “etc.” at the end of their statements as a way of making them aware of their inherent inability to say everything about a given subject and to promote what he called the “consciousness of abstraction.”
Tim O’Reilly is, perhaps, the most high-profile follower of Korzybski’s theories today. O’Reilly was introduced to Korzybski’s thought as a teenager while working with a strange man called George Simon in the midst of California’s counterculture of the early 1970s. O’Reilly and Simon were coteaching workshops at the Esalen Institute.
O’Reilly deploys Korzybski in much the same way that the advertising industry deploys the latest findings in neuroscience: the goal is not to increase awareness, but to manipulate.
An Edwin Schlossberg quotation he really likes—“the skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think”—is cited to explain his willingness to enter so many seemingly unrelated fields.
There is considerable continuity across O’Reilly’s memes—over time, they tend to morph into one another.
All the familiar pathologies of O’Reilly’s thinking are on full display in his quest to meme-engineer his way to “Government 2.0.” The free software scenario is repeating itself: deeply political reform efforts are no longer seen as “moral crusades,” but are reinvented as mere attempts at increasing efficiency and promoting innovation.
Occasionally, these four efforts—aiming at greater efficiency, deliberation, transparency, and innovation—overlapped, but mostly they have been driven by two very different agendas.
One cohort, interested in increasing efficiency and spurring innovation, pursued campaigns that were mostly economic in character
The other cohort, interested in deliberation and transparency, was primarily concerned with transferring power from governments to citizens and increasing the accountability of public institutions
Most modern governments, not surprisingly, prefer the economic aspects of digitization reform to the political ones.
a term like “open government”—which, until then, had mostly been used as a synonym for “transparent and accountable government”—was reinvented as a shortened version of “open source government.”
With Obama’s election, Washington was game for all things 2.0. This is when O’Reilly turned his full attention to government reform, deploying and manipulating several memes at once—“Gov 2.0,” “open government,” and “government as a platform”—in order to establish the semantic primacy of the economic dimension of digitization.
How do we ensure accountability? Let’s forget about databases for a moment and think about power. How do we make the government feel the heat of public attention?
If Participation 1.0 was about the use of public reason to push for political reforms, with groups of concerned citizens coalescing around some vague notion of the shared public good, Participation 2.0 is about atomized individuals finding or contributing the right data to solve some problem without creating any disturbances in the system itself.
Governments should learn from Hawaii and offload more work onto their citizens; this is the key insight behind O’Reilly’s “government as a platform” meme.
This platform meme was, of course, inspired by Silicon Valley. Instead of continuing to build its own apps, Apple built an App Store, getting third-party developers to do all the heavy lifting
Applied to politics, all this talk of bazaars, existing motivations, and self-interest treats citizenship as if it were fully reducible to market relations—yet another form of crazy talk.
we are not building new services—we are outsourcing public services to the private sector
O’Reilly ends up claiming that “we have to actually start moving away from the notion that politics really has very much to do with governance. To the extent that we can fix things without politics, we’d be much better off.” It’s the ultimate conceit of Silicon Valley: if only we had more data and better tools, we could suspend politics once and for all.
His treatment of feedback as essentially an Internet phenomenon is vintage O’Reilly. As long as “algorithmic regulation” is defined against a notion like Web 2.0, O’Reilly feels no need to engage with the vast body of thought on feedback systems and the sociology of performance indicators. That most of the ideas behind algorithmic regulation were articulated by the likes of Karl Deutsch and David Easton in the 1960s would probably be news to O’Reilly
A decade before he wrote Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski wrote another weird book—Manhood of Humanity. He, too, was very keen on feedback.
Korzybski’s solution, surprisingly, also lay in turning government into an algorithmically driven platform
For all his insight into the nature of language and reality, Korzybski was a kooky technocrat who believed that science could resolve all political problems.
future of collective intelligence applications is a future in which the individual that we prize so highly actually has less power—except to the extent that that individual is able to create new mind storms. . . . How will we influence this global brain? The way we’ll influence it is seen in the way that people create these viral storms . . . . We’re going to start getting good at that. People will be able to command vast amounts of attention and direct large groups of people through new mechanisms.
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