The Tech Intellectuals
The good, bad, and ugly among our new breed of cyber-critics, and the economic imperatives that drive them.
A quarter of a century ago, Russell Jacoby lamented the demise of the public intellectual. The cause of death was an improvement in material conditions. Public intellectuals—Dwight Macdonald, I.F. Stone, and their like—once had little choice but to be independent. They had difficulty getting permanent well-paying jobs. However, as universities began to expand, they offered new opportunities to erstwhile unemployables. The academy demanded a high price. Intellectuals had to turn away from the public and toward the practiced obscurities of academic research and prose. In Jacoby’s description, these intellectuals “no longer need[ed] or want[ed] a larger public…. Campuses [were] their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”
Over the last decade, conditions have changed again. New possibilities are opening up for public intellectuals. Internet-fueled media such as blogs have made it much easier for aspiring intellectuals to publish their opinions. They have fostered the creation of new intellectual outlets (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books), and helped revitalize some old ones too (The Baffler, Dissent). Finally, and not least, they have provided the meat for a new set of arguments about how communications technology is reshaping society.
These debates have created opportunities for an emergent breed of professional argument-crafters: technology intellectuals. Like their predecessors of the 1950s and ’60s, they often make a living without having to work for a university. Indeed, the professoriate is being left behind. Traditional academic disciplines (except for law, which has a magpie-like fascination with new and shiny things) have had a hard time keeping up. New technologies, to traditionalists, are suspect: They are difficult to pin down within traditional academic boundaries, and they look a little too fashionable to senior academics, who are often nervous that their fields might somehow become publicly relevant.
Many of these new public intellectuals are more or less self-made. Others are scholars (often with uncomfortable relationships with the academy, such as Clay Shirky, an unorthodox professor who is skeptical that the traditional university model can survive). Others still are entrepreneurs, like technology and media writer and podcaster Jeff Jarvis, working the angles between public argument and emerging business models.
These various new-model public intellectuals jostle together in a very different world from the old. They aren’t trying to get review-essays published in Dissent or Commentary. Instead, they want to give TED talks that go viral. They argue with one another on a circuit of business conferences, academic meetings, ideas festivals, and public entertainment. They write books, some excellent, others incoherent.
In some ways, the technology intellectuals are more genuinely public than their predecessors. The little magazines were just that, little. They were written for an elite and well-educated readership that could be measured in the tens of thousands. By contrast, TED talks are viewed 7.5 million times every month by a global audience of people who are mostly well-educated but are not self-conscious members of a cultural elite in the way that the modal reader of Partisan Review might have been.
In other ways, they are less public. They are more ideologically constrained than either their predecessors or the general population. There are few radical left-wingers, and fewer conservatives. Very many of them sit somewhere on the spectrum between hard libertarianism and moderate liberalism. These new intellectuals disagree on issues such as privacy and security, but agree on more, including basic values of toleration and willingness to let people live their lives as they will. At their best, they offer an open and friendly pragmatism; at their worst, a vision of the future that glosses over real politics, and dissolves the spikiness, argumentativeness, and contrariness of actual human beings into a flavorless celebration of superficial diversity.
This world of conversation and debate doesn’t float unsupported in the air. It has an underlying political economy, which is intuitively understood by many of its participants. As Jacoby emphasizes, all debates about ideas are shaped by their material conditions. The intellectual possibilities of the purported golden age of the 1950s were in part the product of bad pay, cheap rent, and a small but intensely engaged audience of readers. Those of the 1960s and ’70s were influenced by a burgeoning university system, which rewarded intellectuals for writing impenetrably for an audience of their peers.
The possibilities today reflect a different set of material conditions again, which don’t determine individual choices so much as they pull on them, gently but insistently. They influence what is discussed and what isn’t, who wins and who loses. And much goes undiscussed. The working consensus among technology intellectuals depicts a world of possibilities that seems starkly at odds with the American reality of skyrocketing political and economic inequality. It glosses over the deep conflicts and divisions that exist in society and are plausibly growing worse. And the critics of this consensus fare no better. They work within the same system as their targets, in ways that compromise their rejoinders, and stunt the development of more useful lines of argument.
Technology intellectuals work in an attention economy. They succeed if they attract enough attention to themselves and their message that they can make a living from it. It’s not an easy thing to do: Most aspiring technology intellectuals fail, whether because of bad luck (academic research shows that the market for attention is highly chancy) or because the relevant audiences aren’t interested in hearing what they have to say.
This basic fact of the attention economy—how few entrants truly master it—is obscured by rhetoric about the Internet’s openness to new and wonderful things. Technology intellectuals like Chris Anderson argue that culture is governed by a “long tail,” a statistical pattern in which a few bands or books or magazines at the peak of the distribution are very well known indeed, followed by a rapid decline in visibility as the curve slopes down toward a “long tail” of very many bands or books or whatever, whom few people pay attention to. They claim that the Internet has changed the meaning of the long tail. People who don’t like the things that everyone else likes don’t have to pay attention to those things anymore. The Internet has made it much easier for them to find the things they do want to pay attention to, and build a community with others who share their tastes. If you prefer klezmer bands covering Deep Purple to Katy Perry, you will have a much easier time finding those bands and fellow fans today than you would have two decades ago.
The metaphor of the long tail, though, is misleading. Certainly, it is easier to find obscure books or bands than it used to be. But most people don’t want to find obscure things—they want to focus their attention on what everyone else is paying attention to. Those who are already rich in attention are likely to get richer, while the long tail still trails off into darkness and obscurity.
To do well in this economy, you do not have to get tenure or become a contributing editor to The New Republic (although the latter probably doesn’t hurt). You just need, somehow, to get lots of people to pay attention to you. This attention can then be converted into more material currency. At the lower end, this will likely involve nothing more than invitations to interesting conferences and a little consulting money. In the middle reaches, people can get fellowships (often funded by technology companies), research funding, and book contracts. At the higher end, people can snag big book deals and extremely lucrative speaking engagements. These people can make a very good living from writing, public speaking, or some combination of the two. But most of these aspiring pundits are doing their best to scramble up the slope of the statistical distribution, jostling with one another as they fight to ascend, terrified they will slip and fall backwards into the abyss. The long tail is swarmed by multitudes, who have a tiny audience and still tinier chances of real financial reward.
This underlying economy of attention explains much that would otherwise be puzzling. For example, it is the evolutionary imperative that drives the ecology of technology culture conferences and public talks. These events often bring together people who are willing to talk for free and audiences who just might take an interest in them. Hopeful tech pundits compete, sometimes quite desperately, to speak at conferences like PopTech and TEDx even though they don’t get paid a penny for it. Aspirants begin on a modern version of the rubber-chicken circuit, road-testing their message and working their way up.
TED is the apex of this world. You don’t get money for a TED talk, but you can get plenty of attention—enough, in many cases, to launch yourself as a well-paid speaker ($5,000 per engagement and up) on the business conference circuit. While making your way up the hierarchy, you are encouraged to buff the rough patches from your presentation again and again, sanding it down to a beautifully polished surface, which all too often does no more than reflect your audience’s preconceptions back at them.
A Culture of Conformity
Technology and media pundit Jeff Jarvis takes this logic to an extreme. He is the author of What Would Google Do?: Reverse-Engineering the Fastest-Growing Company in the History of the World and Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live. He is a prolific blogger and podcaster, and a holotype of the technology intellectual as entity adapted to fit a given set of material conditions.
Public intellectuals are supposed to explain ideas and arguments for a larger public audience. Technology intellectuals such as Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Nicholas Carr write books that do just this in very different ways. For example, Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody applies ideas from his study of economic transaction costs to make a novel argument about how new communications technologies allow us to organize ourselves without traditional organizations. His conclusions can surely be challenged, and Shirky has changed his views in response to criticism, but they stand as a model of how to communicate important ideas, simply and clearly, to the broader public.
Jarvis’s two books, in contrast, are branding exercises, ritual objects of exchange, not meant to introduce new insights so much as certify that the author occupies the role of the published guru. In Public Parts, Jarvis thanks entrepreneur Seth Godin for having encouraged him to become an author, recounting how Godin told him that he would be “a fool” not to write a book, and a bigger fool if he “thought the book was the goal.” Instead, the book should “build [Jarvis’s] public reputation, which would lead to other business.” And it has done just that. While Jarvis’s first book sold reasonably well, its royalties were almost certainly dwarfed by other sources of income—he claims that he requires up to $45,000 for a speaking engagement.
Unsurprisingly, the books are neither interesting nor good. Jarvis is a technology intellectual only in the sense that he fills a particular sociological niche. Overly provocative ideas would tarnish his brand. His books repackage the technology industry’s intellectual prejudices and sell them back, all the while highlighting the author’s many influential friends and the multitudes of important people who take him seriously. Like Randall Jarrell’s President Robbins, Jarvis is so well attuned to his environment that sometimes you cannot tell which is the environment and which is Jarvis.
But Jarvis, however intellectually unappealing, is not the real problem. Every economic elite, in every age, has had its overt courtiers. More worrying are the more subtle homages paid by the new culture of public debate to the existing culture of the technology industry.
Technology debate relies tacitly or indirectly on the tech industry for many things: funding of conferences, support of fellowship positions, speaking engagements, a purchasing public for technology books. And this reliance manifests itself in the culture of argument. Nearly all prominent technology intellectuals (Siva Vaidhyanathan and Susan Crawford are honorable exceptions) share technology entrepreneurs’ conviction that business has a crucial role to play either in pushing back government to make room for market-driven entrepreneurialism (the libertarian version) or working together with government to make balky bureaucracy more publicly responsive (the liberal-leaning-toward-left version).
This is not a ridiculous position to hold. But when it is held by nearly everyone of prominence, it conducts toward a drab uniformity, a narrowness of vision of the possible that plagues otherwise excellent books. Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble is just one example of a fine book that takes up real and interesting problems (how technologies like Google search, as they adapt to their users, may reinforce their prejudices) but that has only feeble recommendations for how to solve them (better corporate practices and perhaps a little bit more government oversight). Pariser, like most other technology intellectuals, takes it for granted that traditional politics shouldn’t enter the world of new technologies, even when these technologies generate big political problems. Similarly, Tim Wu’s The Master Switch has many wonderful insights about the persistent tendency toward monopoly among large communications firms. But as Paul Starr has pointed out, it assumes that government intervention is always a problem and never the solution.
There are few real left-wingers among technology intellectuals. There are even fewer conservatives. The result is both blandness and blindness. Most technology intellectuals agree on most things. They rarely debate, for example, how private spaces governed by large corporations such as Google and Facebook can generate real inequalities of power. Much of our life is conducted online, which is another way of saying that much of our life is conducted under rules set by large private businesses, which are subject neither to much regulation nor much real market competition. Facebook users may not like the ways in which Facebook uses their personal information, but their only real choices are to put up with it or to cut themselves off from a large part of their social life. But these dilemmas go ignored by technology intellectuals, who consistently find themselves tugged toward other, safer issues, such as net neutrality, where the interests of the public and of large technology firms are more plausibly compatible.
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