Silicon Valley’s libertarian capitalism and Burning Man

I’m a fan of Fred Turner’s work – especially his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture that charts the shift from hippy-like communalism to libertarian cyberculture by Stewart Brand and a few other Californian countercultural torch-bearers associated with the Whole Earth enterprise.

In the book Turner outlines the ways in which the rhetorics of a kind of collectivised, networked utopian society became a rationale for a non-hierarchical way of living using internet technologies and a basis for offering strategic business advice about how these new technologies would ‘disrupt’ the status quo of contemporary life (and thus are a business opportunity). The book is, of course, more nuanced than that and it is well-worth a read!

In a separate journal article, around the same time, Turner charts out how a similar logic underlies the Burning Man festival and how this resonates with the core beliefs of those at the top of Google. Peer production and re-finding the social value of your labour using the kinds of communal working models that came out of the counter/cyber- culture nexus emerges as a key value at Burning Man, as people make and share and gain notoriety & kudos accordingly. But the article sort of paints too-rosy a picture of the benevolence and horizontalism of Burning Man.

For, we can also see how the ethos of peer production and forms of free labour has been something that Google has exploited from day one (they don’t make ‘content’, they index it and sell adverts alongside it back to us, who make it). And as the Valley millionaires increasingly use Burning Man as the highlight of their social calendar, and do not sully their own hands in ‘contributing’ to the festival but employ others to do so, we can see how that exploitation spreads…

In a recent article in Jacobin Keith Spencer compellingly articulates how this exploitation of forms of communalism is the basis for the creation of a wealthy elite constructing themselves as the benevolent harbingers of a different kind of society.

Burning Man foreshadows a future social model that is particularly appealing to the wealthy: a libertarian oligarchy, where people of all classes and identities coexist, yet social welfare and the commons exist solely on a charitable basis.

Its worth reading all of the above, but definitely read Spencer’s piece in Jacobin.

A political economy of Twitter data – revised and published on LSE Impact blog

Last year I wrote a blog post for the Contagion project website, building from the experience of attempting to do research with Twitter data as relative novices. Putting the pragmatic techniques of doing such to one side, it became striking that doing this kind of research with Twitter’s apparatus is neither easy, nor, when one delves a bit deeper, is it ‘free’.

The post was been picked up by the LSE Impact blog, who asked to re-blog it, which was very nice of them. So, you can find a slightly updated (numbers, sources and bit more nuance in the argument) version of the blog post there.

The question I end up posing is: “Should researchers be using data sources (however potentially interesting/valuable) that restrict the capability of reproducing our research results?” This is not easily answered, not least when so many ‘non-academic’ researchers are merrily plugging away producing social scientific research, increasingly consumed by the general public, which is gaining influence, and which, perhaps, could benefit from some critical engagement…

Please do read the post and get in touch if you’d like to discuss this, and any of our research, further.

Translation> “Bernard Stiegler: ‘Salaried employment will become uncommon'”

Bernard Stiegler has been very active over the last year and there are a number of interviews in the French press and on francophone websites with him on a range of issues, especially the future of work and of the economy and the (continuing) rise of the far-right (particularly the Front National in France).

With a bit of infant-and-weather-induced sleeplessness I busied myself with a quick translation of one of the recent and quite interesting interviews, undertaken at the OuiShare festival (deliberate pun), with a theme of ‘age of communities‘ which aims to provoke discussion about the ‘collaborative economy’ (lots of peer-to-peer and suchlike).

There’s some familiar themes in relation to contribution, but also some more direct criticism of contemporary political policy — not least directed at Arnaud Montebourg, the French ‘Minister for the Economy, Economic Renewal and the Digital‘. The interview can probably  be read in tandem with an earlier interview (I’ve translated) for Rue89 that advances Stiegler’s argument for an ‘economy of contribution‘.

In these brief interviews there is a danger that Stiegler can be read as having an argument that is too ‘meta’, over-arching and so potentially glib, but if we turn to his more considered writings (books and so on) and the activities of IRI I think we can see the substance.

As usual clarifications or questions over the translation of a particular word are in square brackets and all emphasis is in the original text.

Bernard Stiegler: “Salaried employment will become uncommon”

While digital technologies demolish the paradigms of the 20th century, philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls for a push towards an economic model founded on voluntary contribution and co-creation.

Interview conducted at OuiShare Fest, a festival for the collaborative economy, Paris, 5-7 May 2014.

Do politicians understand the impact of the digital on our economies?

Absolutely not. They think in terms of the software of the 1950s. I recently attended a brilliant presentation by an industrial foresight specialist for ARCEP (Autorité de régulation des communications électroniques et des postes [The Postal and Electronic Communications Regulation Authority]). He demonstrated how the American car is bouncing back because manufacturers understand that the car of tomorrow is a connected car. In the Gallois report[1] on French competitiveness, commissioned by the President of the Republic 18 months ago, there is not a word on such issues!

You regularly call the digital an industry. So, do you share the opinion of Arnaud Montebourg?

Montebourg is smart but he is too much of a butterfly. He must temper his ambitions and take an interest in the major project of the publishing industry becoming digital. One must understand that what is happening at Libération [2] will extend across all of the cultural industries. There is an urgent need to reinvent the publishing industry through what Ars Industrialis calls an “industrial politics for technologies of spirit”, in the context of the convergence of the audiovisual broadcasting, telecommunications and information technology – but also and above all the industries of text, notably scientific texts, which is a strategic sector for France and for Europe.

Furthermore, Arnaud Montebourg has begun a strategy of roboticisation that we must situate in the context of widespread automation that will lead to the liquidation of the Keynesian model, i.e. the end of “growth” conceived as the base for the redistribution of spending power via earnings and employment.

It is useless to cling to these old models.

The salary model as we know it today and which has been defended by the trade unions is that of Keynes and Ford. A rational model that says for the economy to work, we must redistribute some of wealth made by gains in productivity through technology through salaries, creating purchasing power. It is through this paradigm that the welfare state and its corollary of an economic policy of growth appeared, with its economic indicators such as the famous GDP. This model began to crumble with the first oil crisis and finally cracked in 2008. But it did not die because it has been drip-fed by states which offset insolvency, resulting in the austerity measures we have today which are totally unproductive. But it is dying – and us with it.


As Bill Gates said: employment is over. Robots replace people [3]. In such a context, Francois Hollande obviously cannot “reverse the unemployment trend” — other than by expedient measures that do not last. Amazon is trying to replace employees with robots and Foxconn has announced the same intention. The price fo robots will drop, through the effect of economies of scale, and SMEs, for which they were too expensive, will gain access to them and, in addition to which, international competition will push adoption. This is a new industrial era that is beginning, and which shall not be based on employment.

What new model can emerge?

Salaried employment will become uncommon. Following this we must consider a new model for distribution. A contributory model of distribution, based not on work-time but on the model of the “intermittents du spectacle” [casual/part-time workers in the creative industries]. There should be the possiblity of regularly investing into contributive projects, which may be mercantile or may not. Projects of general interest would be funded by public authorities. A business would be a particular case amongst many other models.

Doesn’t the collaborative economy sketch the contours of this new mode of organising work?

Alongside the old world alternatives are emerging. The collaborative economy could be one, provided it is not recuperated by consumerism thus becoming an improved margin. The collaborative economy may also be a way to displace some of the work to the consumer. All of which merits further analysis on a case by case basis.

With what criteria?

In fact, the collaborative economy as such interests me only insofar as it allows us to think about the economy of contribution discussed earlier. Yet there is also a toxic form of the collaborative economy, which is that of Facebook. An economy in which the value of a company resides in the content users provide. Algorithms allow this to be exploited through surgical marketing which specifically trace and track products and people. This falls back into consumerism. A stupefaction [l’abrutissement].

How can we conceptualise a positive contributive economy?

There is an alternative contributive economy arrayed through free or open source software. This has developed a form of industrial activity that relies upon communities for the free development of knowledge. This is what, in the 1980s, we called concurrent engineering, but the web allows us to think at a greater scale. This is a “deproletarianisation” in the sense in which Marx intended “proletarianisation” to mean a loss of knowledge, induced by the arrival of machines.

Stupefaction [Abrutissement] on one hand and learning [apprentissage] on the other…

Exactly. All technology has, equally, curative and toxic potentials. There is both a generative web and a mimetic one, which destroys the know-how [savoir-faire] of those who use it. This crisis is related to the automation which arose with algorithmically-controlled high-frequency trading. Following the 2008 crash, Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the United States’ Federal Reserve, admitted to having been wrong to have left the economy of his country to be organised by machines. Actors like Google, for their part, impoverish language by operating a website that over-represents the words of interest to them. What results is a semantic standardisation constituted by the auctioning of [particular] words to become ‘Adwords’. We now have, following the hypertextual web of 1993 and the ‘web 2.0’ of the 2000s, a third age of the web.

What will this new era of the web look like?

The basis of Western society has been to undertake what Heraclitus called Polemos [struggle/war]: confrontation and debate. I call for a new “hermeneutic web” which will facilitate exactly such forms of engagement between people who do not share the same views on political and environmental issues to enable them to work together. This was the first purpose of the web: to enable exchange and discussion between universities. At IRI, we are currently working on “Twitter Polemique” [Polemic Tweet], through which it is possible to associate a tenor/sense with a tweet: agree, disagree, querying, neutral. More genenerally, we need to develop a graphical language for annotation and an sharing of such annotation to stimulate collective debate.

Who should do this?

At the Chaos Computer Club in Hamburg, Glen Greenwald, the journalist who published the Snowden revelations, told the participants: “the future of combatting the NSA is in your hands”. He was both right and wrong. For a start, the problem is not solely the NSA: it is also the hyper-consumerist exploitation of data. I do not believe that the future of the web will solely be in the hands of activists, of states, or even of intellectuals like me. We must get everyone around the table. We will need hackers for their technical knowledge, political activists who believe in the public good — which still exists, manufacturers who are amongst the most lucid on these issues, universities, and Europe.

Interview by Côme Bastin.

1. The former boss of aerospace group EADS, Louis Gallois, was asked by President Holllande to investigate what was holding back French productivity, which resulted in a report, by Gallois, calling for a slashing of employment costs, see this 2012 BBC News article: ‘IMF and Gallois report urge France to cut labour costs’.

2. Due to plummeting circulation figures the management of the newspaper have recast the newspaper’s website as a kind of social network and former Libération journalists are responsible for the creation of the Rue89 news website, which has incidentally carried a few interviews with Stiegler.

3. For example, see the Business Insider article ‘Bill Gates: People Don’t Realize How Many Jobs Will Soon Be Replaced By Software Bots‘, quoting from the 2014 conversation with Bill Gates at the American Enterprise Institute: From poverty to prosperity: A conversation with Bill Gates [approx 46-minutes in]. Quote: ‘Capitalism, in general, will over time create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of the skill set. “¦ Twenty years from now labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower and i don’t think people have that in their mental model’.

Fred Turner talks about his “Democratic Surround”

Fred Turner (STS Assoc. Prof. at Stanford), author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, has written another book examining the development of theories of what Turner calls ‘the democratic personality’ by Margaret MeadGregory Bateson and others into an alternative form of propaganda to encourage opposition to fascism, described as the Democractic Surround, which serves as the title of the book. Turner describes some of the important themes of the book in conversation with Howard Rheingold (who is, incidentally, one of the people that appears in From Counterculture to Cyberculture). Charting movements between American anthropology (through Mead et al.), European avant grade arts (the Bauhaus refugees) and their subsequent absorption into the American cultural milieu in the form of the Black Mountain College (and so John Cage), Turner skilfully weaves an interesting narrative.

For those interested, there is a review essay by Fred Turner of Peter Mandler’s Return From the Natives, on Public Books, which examines the influence of Boas’ ‘school’ of anthropology on war-time (WWII) propaganda.

You can also see Stanford’s form of ‘propaganda’ in the shape of the promotional video they created for Turner’s book…

Reblog > Nigel Thrift and Steven Koonin discuss urban science and big data

Stuart Elden points to an interesting video of a conversation with Nigel Thrift, discussing urban informatics, ‘big data’ and so on. Slight hint of Thrift buying into the rhetoric around ‘big data’ but still an interesting discussion…

Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of University of Warwick, and Steven Koonin, Director of New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, partners in this endeavour, discussed the emerging field of applied urban science and informatics, the opportunities it presents, and how it is challenging the way we think about information. The discussion was moderated by Sallie Keller, Director, Social Decision and Analytics Laboratory, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech.

Thomas Lemke on the ‘new materialism’, bio-capital and biopolitics

A talk by Thomas Lemke bringing together his own, substantial, work on biopolitics (through Foucault) and what has been characterised as the ‘new materialism’, or the acknowledgement of ‘vibrant matter(s)’ in Jane Bennett’s words, as well as the growing study of the relations between ‘neoliberal capitalism and changing understandings of what constitutes life in the emerging biotechnical industries’. For Lemke these extend Foucault’s project by opening up new directions for the analysis of biopolitics in the guise of the modes of politics and the matters of life.

The talk was given at the Central European University and I came across it through the ANTHEM blog.

UnLike Us – Bernard Stiegler: Social Networking as a Stage of Grammatisation and the New Political Question

The video below captures Bernard Stiegler’s talk at the UnLike Us #3 conference in March 2013, the content of which is similar to that of a talk he gave at Warwick in January 2013. The associated publication for the conference series has a good contribution from Stiegler too, available online.

Unlike Us #3 – Bernard Stiegler: Social Networking As a Stage of Grammatization and the New Political Question from network cultures on Vimeo.

Katía Truijen offers a live blogpost of the talk on the Network Cultures website that acts as a useful summary of some of the elements of Stiegler’s argument.

ESRC benchmarking review places UK Human Geography at the top

Over on his blog Pop Theory, Clive Barnett points out that the ESRC have completed an international benchmarking exercise that argues strongly that British Human Geography is world-leading. As Clive says: ‘say it loud, say it proud’, heh. This news has also featured heavily in my twitter stream this morning…

Clive suggests this is the take-home paragraph:

“Our unanimous conclusion from the evidence presented to us is that human geography in the UK is innovative, vibrant, and in most sub-fields is the world leader. Its students and staff are gifted and committed, its research outputs are disproportionately influential, read and referenced throughout the English-reading world – and, in translation, beyond. It is radically interdisciplinary and with the spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences has become an exporter of ideas and faculty to other disciplines. In the 1960s and 1970s the overseas export of geographers was substantial, and though slower today and more likely to be two-way, this trade in academic knowledge continues. UK geographers have an art not only for innovation but also for synthesis and a large number of the seminal publications (books as well as articles) continue to have a UK origin. So too among the major disciplinary journals – the UK publishes more than its share. Bibliometric indicators reveal that both in volume and in citation impact UK human geography exceeds the scores of other countries and almost all UK comparator social sciences. Cumulatively, this evidence supports the conclusion that human geography as a whole in the UK ranks first in the world.”

The concept of an ordinary ethics – Laruelle

The Univocal Press blog features a translation of an essay by the philosopher François Laruelle entitled ‘The concept of an ordinary ethics or ethics founded in man‘, translated by Taylor Adkins. The essay concerns, following an apparently recurring theme in Laruelle’s work, the critique and countering of the imposition of particular ontological arguments, in the name of ‘philosophy’, with a ‘non-‘ ethics/ philosophy. As Laruelle states in the first paragraph:

“Philosophical ethics has always already decided what an ethics of everyday, common, vulgar or gregarious man would be, i.e. an ethics of mores; the philosophical is the disjunction of the common and the philosophical. The ordinary is something different, another thought which is not directly philosophical but does not deny philosophy: here it designates the point of identity and reality that renders the articulation of the philosophical and the common possible, a de jure identity prior to their disjunction and thus prior to their synthesis and presupposed by both. No reconciliation of the mores of philosophical ethics is attempted here because the latter is always already this reconciliation fulfilled or thought in its de jure possibility. The identity of the ordinary–this must be said of everything that follows–is not philosophically acquired, i.e. by a decision or scission, and it does not found a philosophy, i.e. a becoming and a reconciliation. If the ordinary is not a simple predicate that can be mastered philosophically, then it is an absolute experience of thought which only arises from itself, from its internal, immanent or transcendental nature, and for which an identifiable name is still lacking…”

The ‘ordinary’ here is the form of thought not performed especially but perhaps arising through everyday forms of life, which does not deny or necessarily oppose philosophy, but does not spring from the enactment of a peculiar identity of the ‘philosopher’. Laruelle, in my all-too-brief reading, appears to suggest that philosophical ethics always undermines, if not destroys, any negotiated forms of (ethical) value and/or morality by the insistence of the a priori preliminary recognition of the authority of the ‘philosophical’ position. Ethics is what ‘every philosophy seeks to isolate and describe’, and thus render special in some way, distancing the ethical from the ‘ordinary’ – the manifold possible forms of life that exist before the individuation of this life, now. So, Laruelle poses the question of an ordinary ethics not in terms of a specific authority (a history, a world, a state) in order to question that authority –such an authority is simply taken as a given, but instead suggests that ‘ordinary ethics’ interrogates the pragmatic reality of negotiating an ethics of the present:

“Ordinary ethics does not explain how and why we obey laws or not, an obedience which is an inheritance and an archaism: but that which we should and can make of ethics. The claim to explain the reason behind our obedience only comes from the domain of philosophy. This obedience and its difficulties are for ordinary ethics instead a given–but nothing more–that it needs as simple material. Ordinary ethics does not interrogate its possibility, it interrogates its reality and formulates rules of usage and transformation of this supposed given.”

For Laruelle, then, there is no transcendent authority of philosophy that presupposes and affords a judgement of ethics, in the form of something like a ‘meta-ethics’. Instead, ethics is not founded in ontological distinctions, offered by Jewish or Greek (his examples), or any other, essential laws of Being, but, rather, ‘ordinary’ ethics is emerges from the immanence, the potentiality, of the world realised in our own becoming as humans. Ordinary ethics, therefore, is resolutely human (as opposed to transcendent, divine, or ontological).  This form of ethics does not take its authority from outside, but only from inside our understanding of ourselves – it does not come from ‘Earth’ or ‘Heaven’, in Laruelle’s terms, but from (the) ‘[hu]man’. And not the reasoned, philosophical, human that abstracts itself from the world, but the imbricated messy human bound up in the interstices of becoming:

“Ethics can only become pure if it reduces the form of the Law itself, Reason; but it can only be real, rather than another quasi-religious empiricism of the Other, if it is founded in the essence of man. Not between Heaven and Earth: ordinary ethics is neither of Heaven or Earth, but of man who is not their difference but instead takes his essence from himself. Only the greatest immanence, purely internal immanence with neither transcendence nor internal relation, can found the reality and validity of prescriptions in a non ethical way or outside moral authority.” (Final Para.)

To think about this from the point of view of my own theoretical interests, in Stieglerian terms, I would suggest that such an ethics consists (like the law it con-sists it does not ex-ist), and is composed in processes of transindividuation – rendering ethics metastable without being necessarily permanent.