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.

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.

Why?

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.

Notes
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’.

Andrew Barry’s new book: Material Politics

Stuart Elden has highlighted on his blog that a new book by Andrew Barry entitled ‘Material politics: disputes along the pipeline‘ is forthcoming in the RGS-IBG book series, its currently set for release in September.

Andrew Barry is a thoughtful commentator on the politics intimately concerned with technology and, one might say, technics. His book ‘Political Machines’ was of significant help to me during my PhD work for thinking through how we can conceptualise the sorts of politics that emerge within institutions or networks focused on ‘innovation’ in technology.

Perhaps more importantly, Barry is also one of a still-limited number of social scientists engaging with the work of the philosopher Isabelle Stengers. In fact, his talk at the recent ‘Politics and Matter‘ event held by the University of Bristol’s geography department offered an excellent and rigorous exegesis of Stengers’ project of ‘cosmopolitics’, which, as he suggested, is not easy.

This new book clearly draws upon some of the thinking that Barry has been engaged in around these themes, as the blurb on the book’s web page demonstrates:

In Material Politics, author Andrew Barry reveals that as we are beginning to attend to the importance of materials in political life, materials has become increasingly bound up with the production of information about their performance, origins, and impact.
* Presents an original theoretical approach to political geography by revealing the paradoxical relationship between materials and politics
* Explores how political disputes have come to revolve not around objects in isolation, but objects that are entangled in ever growing quantities of information about their performance, origins, and impact
* Studies the example of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline – a fascinating experiment in transparency and corporate social responsibility – and its wide-spread negative political impact
* Capitalizes on the growing interdisciplinary interest, especially within geography and social theory, about the critical role of material artifacts in political life

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.”