Cultural critic Evgeny Morozov has just written the essay equivalent of The Social Network. "The Meme Hustlers," published yesterday in The Baffler, is a fictional-but-true account of a well-known Silicon Valley figure, O'Reilly Books publisher Tim O'Reilly. It's also a story about the future that Silicon Valley pioneers want to build for the world, using corrupt memes that could wreck democracy.
Morozov's new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, is about how tech-loving pundits and corporate leaders want us to believe that our political problems can be solved by making governments more like Silicon Valley. You can think of his essay about Tim O'Reilly as a deep dive into this idea, where he uses the career of tech biz evangelist O'Reilly as a way of talking about how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are trying to change politics — for the worse. Specifically, Morozov is interested in how a 1990s meme that grew out of software development, "open source," has come to influence the idea of "open government." Because O'Reilly was a major popularizer of the open source meme, he's at ground zero of Morozov's salvo.
Though Morozov's essay is nonfiction, I think we should keep my earlier comparison with Mark Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network in mind when reading it. Morozov isn't really interested in O'Reilly the person, as he explains in a note at the end of his essay — he's just interested in what O'Reilly has written, what he's created with his books and events about high-tech entrepreneurialism. O'Reilly, like Zuckerberg in The Social Network, emerges as an allegorical figure who embodies the worst impulses of his generation.
Is Zuckerberg the man as amoral as the "Zuckerberg" of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's movie? Probably not. Does he inhabit (and steer) a culture that encourages antisocial abuses in the name of "connecting friends"? Absolutely. Likewise, O'Reilly the man is not a venal spin doctor with the power to quell social revolutions and control the future direction of government. But that doesn't mean Morozov is wrong about the style of futurism that emanates from the board rooms and fancy redwood forest retreats of Silicon Valley corporations.
These are also corporations whose leaders adore O'Reilly events, and treat them as opportunities to dream up a future where government becomes an open platform, just like Android. And citizens build their own apps to solve social problems.
Morozov explores the fascinating history behind the use of the word "open" here, tracing it back to a late-1990s schism between free software advocates and entrepreneurs. The "free" in free software, as movement leader Richard Stallman is fond of pointing out, means "free as in freedom, not as in beer." Free software is released with all its source code open to the public, and anyone in the public is free to alter and use it as they like — as long as they also make their software code open to the public. It's viral anti-marketing, with each new piece of software spawning more free software, and so on. In 1999, Neal Stephenson wrote a terrific nonfiction essay, "In the Beginning . . . Was the Command Line," explaining how free software works.
The problem was that companies could sell free software, but they weren't always happy about the public mucking around in their code and changing it. So O'Reilly helped a group of entrepreneurs come up with the alternative term "open source" software, which described a bunch of different licenses that people could use to release software in ways that free software would not allow. You might say that open source allowed companies to release code that was partly open, but partly closed. In some cases, people could read the source code, but not change it. In others, they could change the code, close it, and then resell it as proprietary software.
The legacy of open source software is today's app marketplace. Companies like Facebook and Google make parts of their code publicly available so that other companies can develop apps that work with Facebook, Android devices, whatever. The software isn't free, because you can't download Facebook's source code, tweak it to be awesome, and start your own social network called Assbook. But you can get bits of that Facebook code (for a price) so that your Friendfucker app works beautifully on top of Facebook.
What disgusts Morozov about the slide from free software to open source is that a revolutionary idea — radical transparency, radical sharing — became yet another corporate landscape with a little bit of cooperation between companies. Morozov blames O'Reilly's "meme engineering" for this shift, for popularizing open source at the expense of freedom.
The real problem, however, is the way this shift to open source has spawned a creepy kind of political futurism devoted to "open government."
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 . . . A decade earlier, O’Reilly had redefined “freedom” as the freedom of developers to do as they wished; now it was all about recasting “openness” in government in purely economic and innovation-friendly terms while downplaying its political connotations.
The problem, for Morozov, is that this new open government — the thing that Silicon Valley types would love to inject into our actually existing government — wouldn't be about accountability to its citizens and political transparency. It's would be about making government data available to companies that will mine it for profit. While there's nothing inherently wrong with making a buck, that's not the main role that government should play. Morozov adds that there are many things the government should do that will have absolutely no benefits to entrepreneurs and innovators. After all, the government should be devoted to ensuring that its citizens are protected from abuses of power, and that it is accountable to those citizens, even when those citizens don't have money or lots of followers on Twitter.
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? Perhaps by forcing it to make targeted disclosures of particularly sensitive data sets. Perhaps by strengthening the FOIA laws, or at least making sure that government agencies comply with existing provisions. Or perhaps by funding intermediaries that can build narratives around data—much of the released data is so complex that few amateurs have the processing power and expertise to read and make sense of it in their basements. This might be very useful for boosting accountability but useless for boosting innovation; likewise, you can think of many data releases that would be great for innovation and do nothing for accountability.
Ultimately, Morozov's key point is that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are trying to get involved in politics by directly translating technical ideas into political ones. The problem? The ideas of "distributed intelligence" developed by companies like Google to optimize search can't really help us with getting humans to participate in political change:
There is nothing “collective” about such distributed intelligence; it’s just a bunch of individual users acting on their own and never experiencing any sense of solidarity or group belonging. Such “participation” has no political dimension; no power changes hands . . . O’Reilly wants to redefine participation from something that arises from shared grievances and aims at structural reforms to something that arises from individual frustration with bureaucracies and usually ends with citizens using or building apps to solve their own problems.
Morozov is worried that the memes of Silicon Valley will reshape our government's future in a way that sounds democratic and progressive on paper — but will turn out, in practice, to create a nation whose citizens are impoverished and disempowered. Government will abdicate responsibility for providing its citizens with basics like roads, schools, scientific research, and health care. Instead, it will create an "open platform" that allows private industries to plug their private schools into the government system. That's fine for the people who can pay for those schools, but leaves the rest of us saddled with the burden of "solving our own problems" by creating a Kickstarter to fund our kids' elementary school science education.
More importantly, Morozov believes this future will fragment our citizenry, eroding group solidarity and turning us into little monads who can't organize a protest or social movement. After all, we'll be busy trying to set up DiY schools and build roads that our government stopped providing because doing so was inefficient.
It's a dystopian vision of the open future, and one that's worth paying attention to.
As a coda, it's worth noting that Morozov's rhetorical style in this essay has a history that stretches back as far as the one he attributes to O'Reilly. This is the kind of article that made The Baffler famous back in the 1990s, when founder Thomas Frank ran the zine as the intellectual wing of an indie movement whose biggest political enemies were artists and thinkers who had "sold out" to corporate capitalism. Morozov's essay eviscerates O'Reilly's career in order to out him as a fake progressive who confuses entrepreneurialism with political freedom. In this story, O'Reilly is the indie rocker who sold out — or maybe the hipster marketer who induced other indie rockers to sell out. Either way, O'Reilly's foundational crime is taking something radical and transformative like free software and mainstreaming it by making it palatable to entrepreneurs and consumers. And this is the kind of mainstreaming that also turns participatory, responsible governments into pathetic tools of crony capitalism and (in a worst-case scenario) privatized military forces.
As I said, the essay must be read as an allegory about a set of memes, not as a profile of a man. But Morozov is correct to identify a disturbing slipperiness at the core of the "open government" meme. It sounds like freedom but is really just another way of turning you into a passive data point, easily mined by the highest bidder.
Read "The Meme Hustlers," on The Baffler.