Category Archives: capitalism

report on democratization and the networked public sphere

I was at the “Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere” panel on Friday night in a room full of flagrantly well-read attendees. But it was the panelists who shone. They fully grasped the challenges facing the network as it emerges as the newest theater in the political and social struggle for a democratic society. It was the best panel I’ve seen in a long time, with a full spectrum of views represented: Ethan Zuckerman self-deprecatingly described himself as “one of those evil capitalists,” whose stance clearly reflected the values of market liberalism. On the opposite side, Trebor Scholz raised a red flag in warning against the spectre of capitalism that hovers over the ‘user-generated content’ movement. In between (literally—she sat between them), Danah Boyd spoke eloquently about the characteristics of a networked social space, and the problems traditional social interaction models face when superimposed on the network.
Danah spoke first, contrasting the characteristics of online and offline public spaces, and continuing on to describe the need for public space at a time when we seem obsessed with privacy. The problem with limiting ourselves to discussions of privacy, she said, is that we forget that public space only exists when we are using it. She then went on to talk about her travels and encounters with the isolation of exurban life—empty sidewalks, the physical distances separating teens from their social peers, the privatization of social space (malls). Her point was that with all this privacy and private space, the public space is being neglected. What is important though is to recognize how networked spaces are becoming a space for public life. Even more important: these new public spaces are under threat as much as the real life publics that have been stripped away by suburban isolation.
Ethan Zuckerman began with a presentation of the now infamous 1984 Mac ad, remixed to star Hillary Clinton. He then pointed out that a strikingly similar remix had been made in 2004 by the media artist Astrubal, featuring Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Zuckerman was excited because it pointed to the power of the remix, and the network as an alternative vector for dissent in a regime with a highly controlled press. While the ad is a deadly serious matter in Tunisia, in America it is just smear. The Hillary ad seems to be a turning point in media representations on the network in the US. Zuckerman asserted that 21st century political campaigns will be different than 20th century campaigns precisely because of the power of citizen generated media combined with the distributive power of the network.
Trebor Scholz warned that unbridled enthusiasm for user-generated content may mask an undercurrent of capitalist exploitation, even though most rhetoric about user-generated content proposes exactly the opposite. In most descriptions, user-generated content is an act of personal expression, and has value as such: Scholz referenced Yochai Benkler’s notion that people gain agency as they express themselves as speakers, and that this characteristic may transfer to the real world, encouraging a politically active citizenry. But Trebor’s main point was that the majority of time spent on self-expression finds its way onto a small number of sites—YouTube and MySpace in particular. He had some staggering numbers for MySpace: 12% of all time spent online in America is dedicated to MySpace alone. The dirty secret is that someone owns MySpace, and it isn’t the content producers. It’s Rupert Murdoch. Google, of course, owns YouTube. And therein lies the crux of Trebor’s argument: someone else is getting rich off a user’s personal expression, and the creators cannot claim ownership of their own work. They produce content that nets only social capital, while the owners take in millions of dollars.
It’s a tricky point to make, since Boyd noted that most producers are using these services expressly to gain social capital—monetary concerns don’t enter the equation. I have a vague sense of discomfort in taking a stance that is ultimately patronizing to producers, saying “You shouldn’t do this for fear of enriching someone else.” But I can’t get away from the idea that Trebor is right —users are locked in to a site by their social ties, and the companies hold a great deal of power over them. Further, that power is not just social but also legal: the companies own the content.
On the other hand, users have a great deal of power over the companies, a fact made plain by the recent protest against the ‘News Feed’ feature added to Facebook. The feature caused a huge uproar in the Facebook community and a call for boycotting Facebook spread—ironically—using the News Feed feature. Facebook removed the feature. responded by allowing users to control what went in the feeds. [updated 4.17.07. thanks to andrew s.]
This discussion spun off into another one: what does it mean that 700,000 users found it in their willpower to protest a feature on Facebook, when only a portion of those would be as active in any other public sphere? Boyd claims that this is a signal that networked public spaces are a viable arena for public participation. Zuckerman would agree—the network can activate a community response in the real world. Dissidents working against repressive governments have used the network to amplify their voices and illuminate the plight of people and nations ignored by the mainstream media. This is reason for optimism. In America we’ve recently seen national and regional politics embracing networked spaces (see Obama in MySpace). Let’s hope they do so in good faith, and also embrace the spirit of openness and collaboration that is an essential part of the network.
I have hope, but I am also circumspect. The networked public space can serve the needs of a democracy, but it can also devolve into venality. There is a difference between using the network to further human freedom and the lesson that I take away from the Facebook uprising. What happened on Facebook is not a triumph of a civil polity; it’s more like the plaintive cry in a theater when the projector breaks. Public outcry over a trivial action doesn’t improve our democracy—it just shows how far into triviality we have fallen.
Ethan Zuckerman’s follow up to the event
Trebor’s presentation and follow up to the event

illusions of a borderless world

china google falun gong.jpg
A number of influential folks around the blogosphere are reluctantly endorsing Google’s decision to play by China’s censorship rules on its new service — what one local commentator calls a “eunuch version” of Here’s a sampler of opinions:
Ethan Zuckerman (“Google in China: Cause For Any Hope?”):

It’s a compromise that doesn’t make me happy, that probably doesn’t make most of the people who work for Google very happy, but which has been carefully thought through…
In launching, Google made an interesting decision – they did not launch versions of Gmail or Blogger, both services where users create content. This helps Google escape situations like the one Yahoo faced when the Chinese government asked for information on Shi Tao, or when MSN pulled Michael Anti’s blog. This suggests to me that Google’s willing to sacrifice revenue and market share in exchange for minimizing situations where they’re asked to put Chinese users at risk of arrest or detention… This, in turn, gives me some cause for hope.

Rebecca MacKinnon (“Google in China: Degrees of Evil”):

At the end of the day, this compromise puts Google a little lower on the evil scale than many other internet companies in China. But is this compromise something Google should be proud of? No. They have put a foot further into the mud. Now let’s see whether they get sucked in deeper or whether they end up holding their ground.

David Weinberger (“Google in China”):

If forced to choose — as Google has been — I’d probably do what Google is doing. It sucks, it stinks, but how would an information embargo help? It wouldn’t apply pressure on the Chinese government. Chinese citizens would not be any more likely to rise up against the government because they don’t have access to Google. Staying out of China would not lead to a more free China.

Doc Searls (“Doing Less Evil, Possibly”):

I believe constant engagement — conversation, if you will — with the Chinese government, beats picking up one’s very large marbles and going home. Which seems to be the alternative.

Much as I hate to say it, this does seem to be the sensible position — not unlike opposing America’s embargo of Cuba. The logic goes that isolating Castro only serves to further isolate the Cuban people, whereas exposure to the rest of the world — even restricted and filtered — might, over time, loosen the state’s monopoly on civic life. Of course, you might say that trading Castro for globalization is merely an exchange of one tyranny for another. But what is perhaps more interesting to ponder right now, in the wake of Google’s decision, is the palpable melancholy felt in the comments above. What does it reveal about what we assume — or used to assume — about the internet and its relationship to politics and geography?
A favorite “what if” of recent history is what might have happened in the Soviet Union had it lasted into the internet age. Would the Kremlin have managed to secure its virtual borders? Or censor and filter the net into a state-controlled intranet — a Union of Soviet Socialist Networks? Or would the decentralized nature of the technology, mixed with the cultural stirrings of glasnost, have toppled the totalitarian state from beneath?
Ten years ago, in the heady early days of the internet, most would probably have placed their bets against the Soviets. The Cold War was over. Some even speculated that history itself had ended, that free-market capitalism and democracy, on the wings of the information revolution, would usher in a long era of prosperity and peace. No borders. No limits.

jingjing_1.jpg chacha.jpg
“Jingjing” and “Chacha.” Internet police officers from the city of Shenzhen who float over web pages and monitor the cyber-traffic of local users.

It’s interesting now to see how exactly the opposite has occurred. Bubbles burst. Towers fell. History, as we now realize, did not end, it was merely on vacation; while the utopian vision of the internet — as a placeless place removed from the inequities of the physical world — has all but evaporated. We realize now that geography matters. Concrete features have begun to crystallize on this massive information plain: ports, gateways and customs houses erected, borders drawn. With each passing year, the internet comes more and more to resemble a map of the world.
Those of us tickled by the “what if” of the Soviet net now have ourselves a plausible answer in China, who, through a stunning feat of pipe control — a combination of censoring filters, on-the-ground enforcement, and general peering over the shoulders of its citizens — has managed to create a heavily restricted local net in its own image. Barely a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have the Great Firewall of China.
And as we’ve seen this week, and in several highly publicized instances over the past year, the virtual hand of the Chinese government has been substantially strengthened by Western technology companies willing to play by local rules so as not to be shut out of the explosive Chinese market. Tech giants like Google, Yahoo! , and Cisco Systems have proved only too willing to abide by China’s censorship policies, blocking certain search returns and politically sensitive terms like “Taiwanese democracy,” “multi-party elections” or “Falun Gong”. They also specialize in precision bombing, sometimes removing the pages of specific users at the government’s bidding. The most recent incident came just after New Year’s when Microsoft acquiesced to government requests to shut down the My Space site of popular muckraking blogger Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti.
One of many angry responses that circulated the non-Chinese net in the days that followed.
We tend to forget that the virtual is built of physical stuff: wires, cable, fiber — the pipes. Whoever controls those pipes, be it governments or telecomms, has the potential to control what passes through them. The result is that the internet comes in many flavors, depending in large part on where you are logging in. As Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu explain in an excellent article in Legal Affairs (adapted from their forthcoming book Who Controls the Internet? : Illusions of a Borderless World), China, far from being the boxed-in exception to an otherwise borderless net, is actually just the uglier side of a global reality. The net has been mapped out geographically into “a collection of nation-state networks,” each with its own politics, social mores, and consumer appetites. The very same technology that enables Chinese authorities to write the rules of their local net enables companies around the world to target advertising and gear services toward local markets. Goldsmith and Wu:

…information does not want to be free. It wants to be labeled, organized, and filtered so that it can be searched, cross-referenced, and consumed….Geography turns out to be one of the most important ways to organize information on this medium that was supposed to destroy geography.

Who knows? When networked devices truly are ubiquitous and can pinpoint our location wherever we roam, the internet could be censored or tailored right down to the individual level (like the empire in Borges’ fable that commissions a one-to-one map of its territory that upon completion perfectly covers every corresponding inch of land like a quilt).
The case of Google, while by no means unique, serves well to illustrate how threadbare the illusion of the borderless world has become. The company’s famous credo, “don’t be evil,” just doesn’t hold up in the messy, complicated real world. “Choose the lesser evil” might be more appropriate. Also crumbling upon contact with air is Google’s famous mission, “to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful,” since, as we’ve learned, Google will actually vary the world’s information depending on where in the world it operates.
Google may be behaving responsibly for a corporation, but it’s still a corporation, and corporations, in spite of well-intentioned employees, some of whom may go to great lengths to steer their company onto the righteous path, are still ultimately built to do one thing: get ahead. Last week in the States, the get-ahead impulse happened to be consonant with our values. Not wanting to spook American users, Google chose to refuse a Dept. of Justice request for search records to aid its anti-pornography crackdown. But this week, not wanting to ruffle the Chinese government, Google compromised and became an agent of political repression. “Degrees of evil,” as Rebecca MacKinnon put it.
The great irony is that technologies we romanticized as inherently anti-tyrannical have turned out to be powerful instruments of control, highly adaptable to local political realities, be they state or market-driven. Not only does the Chinese government use these technologies to suppress democracy, it does so with the help of its former Cold War adversary, America — or rather, the corporations that in a globalized world are the de facto co-authors of American foreign policy. The internet is coming of age and with that comes the inevitable fall from innocence. Part of us desperately wanted to believe Google’s silly slogans because they said something about the utopian promise of the net. But the net is part of the world, and the world is not so simple.

Wikipedia to consider advertising

The London Times just published an interview with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales in which he entertains the jimmywales.jpgidea of carrying ads. This mention is likely to generate an avalanche of discussion about the commercialization of open-source resources. While i would love to see Wikipedia stay out of the commercial realm, it’s just not likely. Yahoo, Google and other big companies are going to commercialize Wikipedia anyway so taking ads is likely to end up a no-brainer. As i mentioned in my comment on Lisa’s earlier post, this is going to happen as long as the overall context is defined by capitalist relations. Presuming that the web can be developed in a cooperative, non-capitalist way without fierce competition and push-back from the corporations who control the web’s infrastructure seems naive to me.

a better boom?

An editorial in today’s New York Times by The Search author Jon Battelle makes the argument that the current resurgence in technology stocks is not the sign of another technology “bubble,” but rather an indication that companies have finally figured out how to capitalize on the internet. Batelle writes:
… we are witnessing the Web’s second coming, and it’s even got a name, “Web 2.0” – although exactly what that moniker stands for is the topic of debate in the technology industry. For most it signifies a new way of starting and running companies – with less capital, more focus on the customer and a far more open business model when it comes to working with others. Archetypal Web 2.0 companies include Flickr, a photo sharing site; Bloglines, a blog reading service; and MySpace, a music and social networking site.
In other words, Batelle is pointing out that one way to “get it right” is not to sell content to users, but rather to give them the opportunity to create and search their own content. This is not only good business sense, he says, it’s also more enlightened — the creators of social software such as Flickr are motivated equally by a desire to “do good in the world” and a desire to make money. “The culture of Web 2.0 is, in fact, decidedly missionary,” Batelle writes, “from the communitarian ethos of Craigslist to Google’s informal motto, ‘don’t be evil.'”
O.K. Doing good while making money. Reading this, I’m reminded of Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism and the larger sustainability movement — the optimistic philosophy that weaves together environmental ethics and profitability. But is that what’s really going on here? Isn’t the “missionary” culture of the internet a bit OLDER than Web 2.0? Batelle is suggesting that Internet capitalists have gotten all misty and utopian; isn’t it the case that some of the folks who were already misty and utopian have just started making some money?
I guess the more viable comparison here would be to Marc Andreessen’s decision to transform his Mosaic browser from its public-domain University of Illinois incarnation into the Netscape Browser. Andreessen certainly started out as a browser missionary — and, like the companies Batelle sees as characteristic of Internet 2.0, Andreessen’s vision for Netscape (and in the beginning, Jim Clark’s vision as well) was a strong customer focus and open business model. What happened? Netscape’s meteoric success helped inflate the internet “bubble” Batelle’s referring to, and in the end, after the long battle with Microsoft, the company’s misfortunes helped to burst that bubble as well.
So what paradigm fits? Is “Internet 2.0” really new and more socially enlightened? Or are we just seeing a group of social software businesses — and one big search engine — just in the early stages of an inevitable transformation into corporations that are less interested in doing good than making money?
Incidentally, last month, Marc Andressen launched a social networking platform called Ning.

some thoughts on katamari damacy:everything bad is good for you, part 3.5

Responding to Bob’s “games provide much more than a cognitive workout”
Growing up in the 80s, video games were much less sophisticated and probably less effective as a matrix for training consumption. TV performed that role. I remember watching on Nickelodeon competitions between children in a toy store in which each contestant had 60, or 120 seconds to fill a shopping cart with as many toys as they possibly could. The winner — whoever had managed to grab the most — got to keep the contents of their cart. The physical challenge of the game was obvious. You could even argue that it presented a cognitive challenge insofar as you had to strategize the most effective pattern through the aisles, balancing the desirability of toys with their geometric propensity to fly off the shelves quickly. But did that excuse the game ethically?
I’ve played a bit of Katamari lately and have enjoyed it. It’s a world charged with static electricity, everything sticks. Each object has been lovingly rendered in its peculiarity and stubbornness. If your katamari picks up something long and narrow, say, a #2 pencil, and attaches to it in such a way that it sticks out far from the clump, it will impede your movement. Each time the pencil hits the ground, you have to kind of pole vault the entire ball. It’s not hard to see how the game trains visual puzzle-solving skills, sensitivity to shape, spatial relationships (at least virtual ones), etc.
That being said, I agree with Bob and Rylish that there is an internal economy at work here that teaches children to be consumers. A deep acquisition anxiety runs through the game, bringing to mind another Japanese pop phenom: Pokémon. Pokémon (called “Pocket Monsters” in Japan) always struck me as particularly insidious, far more predatory than anything I grew up with, because its whole narrative universe is based on consumption. “Collect ’em all” is not just the marketing slogan for spinoff products, but the very essence of the game itself. The advertising is totally integrated with the story. Here’s Wikipedia (not a bad source for things like this) on how it works:

“The Pokémon games are role-playing games with a strategy element which allow players to catch, collect, and train pets with various abilities, and battle them against each other to build their strength and evolve them into more powerful Pokémon. Pokémon battles are based on the non-lethal Eastern sport of fighting insects, but the Pokémon never bleed or die, only faint. The game’s catchphrase used to be “Gotta catch ’em all!”, although now it is no longer officially used.”

Similarly, the Katamari backstory involves the lord of the universe getting drunk one night and shattering the solar system. Each level of the game is the reassembly of a star or planet. If you succeed, a heavenly body is restored to the firmament.
After an hour playing Katamari, having traversed a number of wildly imaginative landscapes (and having absorbed a soundtrack that can only be described as Japanese chipmunks on nitrous) I re-enter the actual world in a mildly fevered state. The cardinal rule in the game is that to succeed I must devour as much as possible. No time is afforded to savor the strange, psychedelic topography, to examine the wonderful array of objects (everything from thumbtacks to blue whales) scattered about in my path. Each stage is a terrain that must be gobbled up, emptied. A throbbing orb of light in the upper left corner of the screen, set within concentric rings representing target diameters, measures my progress toward the goal: a katamari “n” meters in size. The clock in the upper right corner pressures me to keep rolling.
Video games today may not be as blatant as the consumerist spectacle of the Nickelodeon game, and they may provide richly textured worlds posing greater problem-solving challenges than any electronic media that has preceded them. But it seems to me that many of them do not differ ideologically from that shopping cart contest.

more shrinking newsrooms: “the perennial gale of creative destruction”

“Mercury News plans to shrink newsroom by 52 jobs”:

The newspaper whose newsroom topped 400 people at the height of the dot-com economic boom in Silicon Valley could not avoid downsizing to reflect a local economy that never recovered. But the larger problem…is that the stock market offers no slack to news organizations in less profitable years….
…Two weeks ago, the publicly traded Knight Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, announced that earnings per share would fall 20%, which it attributed to higher paper costs and health insurance premiums.

Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy:

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation-if I may use that biological term-that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in….
Every piece of business strategy acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it. It must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood irrespective of it or, in fact, on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull….

copyright lawyers remain richest professionals

Or so is the case in Korea, where the custodians of intellectual property law ranked first (apparently for the sixth straight year) in a recent personal income survey. An interesting nugget blown down the pipeline from Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, in an article barely longer than its headline. Though I am only able to explore the English-language edition, it seems to be a newspaper with no end of information, but little in the way of analysis. One has the feeling of reading oil, a lubricant for the economic wheels that have delivered a war-torn and psychologically divided nation into material prosperity. Korea is now a major regional power of the so-called global information economy.
The Chosun trifle nicely animates the highly abstract, but fascinating “A Hacker Manifesto” by McKenzie Wark, which I recently began reading. The manifesto is a Marxist tract for the information age, redefining the eternal class struggle in terms of intellectual property – the post-capital form of property – which is controlled by a new ruling class, the “vectoralists.” The vectoralists – Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, or the big pharmaceutical companies would be the most obvious examples – control the vectors, or channels, of communication, and seek to subjugate the “hackers,” who Wark defines as a newly coherent class of idea makers – programmers, inventors, artists and philosophers. It’s an important book, and convincingly argues why the intellectual property debate is central in the struggle for liberty.

That the vectoralist class has replaced capital as the dominant exploiting class can be seen in the form that the leading corporations take. These firms divest themselves of their productive capacity, as this is no longer a source of power. They rely on a competing mass of capitalist contractors for the manufacture of their products. Their power lies in monopolizing intellectual property — patents, copyrights and trademarks — and the means of reproducing their value — the vectors of communication. The privatization of information becomes the dominant, rather than a subsidiary, aspect of commodified life.

He goes on to quote from Naomi Klein:

“There is a certain logic to this progression: first, a select group of manufacturers transcend their connection to earthbound products, then, with marketing elevated as the pinnacle of their business, they attempt to alter marketing’s social status as a commercial interruption and replace it with seamless integration.”