silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms

Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, and he spends a fair bit talking about Wikipedia, the touchstone for how the Internet is changing culture.  (Wikipedia researcher Ed Chi offered to review it for the Signpost, but Knopf publicity has so far ignored my every attempt to request a review copy.)  As I understand it, the book is in part an extension of Lanier’s Wikipedia-centered 2006 essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism“.  I haven’t read the book, but I trust Morozov’s assessment.  His central point is this:

Technology has penetrated our lives so deeply and so quickly that the only way to make sense of what is happening today requires not only drinking from the anecdotal fire hose that is Twitter, but also being able to contextualise these anecdotes in broader social, historical and cultural settings. But that’s not the kind of analysis that is spitting out of Silicon Valley blogs.

So who should be doing all of this thinking? Unfortunately, Lanier only tells us who should not be doing it: “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”. Statements like this establish Lanier’s own bona fides – as a Silicon Valley maverick unafraid to confront the cyber-utopian establishment from the inside – but they fail to articulate any kind of vision for how to improve our way of discussing technology and its increasingly massive impact on society.

Morozov says that our understanding of the legal dimensions of the Internet have been elucidated by the likes of Zittrain, Lessig and Benkler.  But humanist and social scientists, he says, have let us down in their duty to explore the cultural dimensions of the rise of the networked society, by either ignoring it or relying “obscure post-structuralist terms” that occlude whatever insights they might or might not have.

The overall point, that the academy hasn’t done enough to make itself relevant to ongoing techno-cultural changes, is right on target.  But I think Morozov’s glib dismissal of work in media studies, sociology, anthropology, etc., is unfair to both the main ideas of post-structuralism and the writing skills of the better scholars who do work on technology and culture (Henry Jenkins and Jason Mittell come to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty of others).  Lanier’s epithet of “digital Maoism” is crude red-baiting; I’m not sure whether Morozov’s jargon jibe is red-baiting (post-structuralism being the province of the so-called academic left), he genuinely doesn’t think much of how humanists have analyzed the Internet, or he is just being contrary.

Post-structuralism is complicated (and I don’t pretend to be an expert) but what’s relevant in this context, I think, is (as the Wikipedia article obtusely puts it) the idea of “the signifier and signified as inseparable but not united; meaning itself inheres to the play of difference.”  Put another way, culture (that is, a work of culture) is valuable in whatever ways culture (that is, a culture, a group of people) values it; what matters is not the work itself (and its inherent or intended meaning) but the relationship between a work an its audience.  Related to this is a value judgment about what kinds of culture are better or more worthy of attention: “writerly” works that leave more opportunity for an audience to create its own meanings vs. “readerly” works that are less flexible and open to reinterpretation.  The relevance of these ideas for the Internet’s effects on culture should be obvious: audiences now have ways collaborating in the creation of new meanings and the reinterpretation of cultural works, and can often interact not only with authors work, but with the authors themselves (thereby influencing later works).

So when Lanier sneers at ‘silly videos’ and Morozov complains that Lessig doesn’t address “whether the shift to the remix culture as a primary form of cultural production would be good for society”, I can’t help but see it as the crux of a straw man argument.  You would have us give up our current system that creates such wonderful culture (left helpfully unspecified, since there’s no accounting for taste) in exchange for remixed YouTube tripe? But humanists are starting to place more value in the capital intensive products of the culture industry precisely because of the way that audiences can remix them and reuse them and create meanings from them.

449 thoughts on “silly videos and obscure post-structuralist terms”

  1. I started You Are Not a Gadget and took it to focus on something a bit different from “Digital Maoism.” I think it’s a book about technological utopianism and the craziness of assuming that technological progress will bring about social progress. It’s an argument that designers and engineers and programers make choices that have social consequences and that they should think about them. The problem is that it’s not very well written and Lanier comes off as relatively ignorant of the existing history of technology and STS literature that’s relevant (and maybe of other literatures that I’m ignorant of too). But I don’t think it’s about Wikipedia, and in general I agree with Lanier’s conclusions more about this stuff than I do about Wikipedia.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Peter! I too, of course, think technological choices have social consequences. But it’s increasingly hard to find technologists (at least in areas related to the Internet) who don’t believe that. Do the techno-utopian attitudes Lanier attacks match up with how technologists think (or don’t think) about culture today?

  2. just to clarify: by no means was I agreeing with Lanier re free culture. What I meant is that it would be great to see more analysis of the Internet’s impact of culture that deal with a) real numbers b) actual cultural theories and paradigms (i.e. go beyond Andrew Keen) c) are original and not based in legal theory

    I am not sure that either Jenkins or Jason Mittel foot the bill. Who is the Neil Postman or Raymond Williams of Web2.0? Not to mention Marcuse, Adorno and the rest of the Frankfurt bunch…Yes, I do know that there are young folks like Christian Fuchs in Salzburg but they are all rather marginalized. In any case, I haven’t seen much of an effort on their behalf to explain the Internet to the public as opposed to a hundred people who read specialized journals in the critical theory of the Internet.

    1. Thanks Evgeny! In the spirit of blaming all disciplines equally, I agree with your main points, but I think maybe you give the lawyers too much credit for reaching the public. Despite their success reaching the kinds of audience you reach, I think in the bigger picture their reach is closer in scale to academic journals than a real mass audience. What portion of the public has any meaningful exposure to the central ideas of Lessig or Benkler?

  3. Now that I’ve actually read the review, which I thought was fantastic, I want to suggest Siva Vaidhyanathan as an academic who has produced accessible cultural analysis of the internet. He’s been pulled into the legal world a bit, partly because he too has focused on copyright, but he thinks and writes like a cultural historian and addresses the kinds of questions Morozov is posing. And his current work isn’t about copyright, so that’s exciting.

    danah boyd also comes to mind, although she’s a different sort of critic because her focus on adolescents often leads her to defend technologies criticized by parents and the media. Nonetheless, I think some of this cultural analysis is in her work.

    1. I’ll have to check out Vaidhyanathan. I’m actually really looking forward to Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows, which is his attempt (it seems) to go a little deeper into the question Evgeny alluded to about Google (and the rest of the Internet). He’s a better writer and less reactionary than the likes of Keen, at least, although he is perhaps still reactionary regarding Culture and its theories.

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