October 24, 2006

Wikipedia, and the difficulties of criticizing digital-sharecropping

I'm going to perhaps do something stupid, and comment on a contentious exchange between Lawrence Lessig and Nick Carr, regarding criticism frameworks (getting sucked into this stuff is one reason blogging can be negative ...):

But Lessig isn't really interested in describing the world as it is. His eyes are on a further goal. He wants to redefine "Web 2.0" in order to promote a particular ideology, the ideology of digital communalism in which private property becomes common property and the individual interest is subsumed into the public interest - in which we become the web and the web becomes us.


So Nick Carr charges me with launching the Cultural Revolution, in a post dripping with references to the evils of communism, and with a triumphant close: "The Cultural Revolution is over. It ended before it even began, The victors are the counterrevolutionaries. And they have $1.65 billion to prove it."

In brief, there's two important ideas somewhat in conflict:

1) (fact) There are new businesses which can be built on data-mining or large collections of small amounts of unpaid labor

2) (belief) There is social or economic value in openness and commons

Trying to mix these two ideas is not as easy as it seems. Because in order to promote the social or economic value in openness and commons, one can end up being a cheerleader of data-mining and digital-sharecropping businesses (#1), as supposed proofs of the value (#2). And those businesses can be deceptive and exploitative, and it won't matter as long as they're profitable. Worse, in order to encourage the donation of free labor, such a business may build a cultish presentation around itself, pitching how you can achieve meaning in life and belonging to a higher purpose, by working for free (this is not a new idea!). Then if one is invested (in many senses) in boosting those sorts of businesses, any deflation of the hype becomes a threat.

The problem is that we don't have a good rhetorical shorthand for "negative effects of a communal activity", so it tends to come out as But-That's-Communism. I try to address this by drawing analogies to multi-level marketing, pyramid schemes, lotteries (which note are capitalism). But that has its own rhetorical downside for harshness.

Now, in terms of specifics here, media industry flacks regularly accuse Lessig of being a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Troskyite Commie, so it's very understandable that he reacts strongly to such implications. In an ideal world, Carr might have smoothed it over via "I'm sorry Larry, I didn't mean that. I was only trying to make a criticism using some metaphoric language, but now I understand that it sounded similar to the personal attacks you receive all the time, which wasn't my intention". The key area of dispute got lost in an unfortunate miscommunication, as in the following (Lessig):

And if you don't have time to read, then ask yourself a simple question: Is Jimmy Wales a communist? (Anyone who knows him knows how absurd the question is, but even if you don?t know him, you can figure it out.) There is no better, more effective advocate for the sharing economy. The project he's helped steward - Wikipedia - is perhaps the sharing economy's prize. But when he advises companies, and others trying to use the net, how best to build upon the value of the Internet, is he just doing Chairman Mao's work?

If Wikipedia is the "sharing" economy's prize, it's a booby-prize (and I use that term advisedly). And it's not because anyone is a Communist, rather exactly because of being capitalists - even Venture Capitalists (as in, 4 million dollars here, 100 million dollars there, soon we're talking real money). Wikipedia works off an interesting confluence of factors, some having to do with having investors willing to fund it as a loss-leader, combined with the neat trick of being able to attract an editorial staff willing to work full-time for free. This has almost nothing to do with how peasants divide up agricultural production, except viewed from a long distance there's a large classless society laboring away for not much tangible in return.

But there's no way to easily talk about that, in an environment where anyone who isn't a copyright robber-baron is regularly accused of being a Communist, and on the other hand, digital-sharecropping businesses are viewed as arguments against copyright robber-barons.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on October 24, 2006 05:16 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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As somebody who used to work offshore on oil rig supply boats, I find the idea of someone writing in their blog being described as "unpaid labor" rather laughable.

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 25, 2006 06:54 PM

Umm, why? Aren't you just posturing that white-collar work isn't real "work" compared to blue-collar work? Sure, being an oilrigger is much tougher than being a copy-editor. But an unpaid white-collar job is still unpaid, even if it's not a blue-collar job.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 25, 2006 07:44 PM

I don't regard blogging as white collar "work", any more than I regard watching TV, making a phone call, reading a magazine, meeting a friend for a beer, or doing the crosswords as "work".

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 25, 2006 08:32 PM

Secondly, you're fond of portraying the internet [the blogosphere in particular] as a place where a few people profit handsomely, at the expense of the countless exploited many.

I think if that were actually the case, the internet would never have become the fastest growing media in the history of the planet.

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 25, 2006 08:47 PM

For example, while the generic "making a phone call" is not generally a compensated activity, there is a job of "telephone solicitor". This is often paid employment. To say it is not "work", because all it entails is making telephone calls, is, I think, an unreasonable objection to the usage employed. It's confusing the senses of the word "work" which can mean both "job", and also, "physical effort", and then implying anything which does not involve phyical efforts is therefore not a job, which is transparently fallacious.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 25, 2006 08:50 PM

You second point simply does not follow. To put it very simply, lotteries are situations where a few people profit at the expense of a huge mass which provides that profit. They are nonetheless very popular.

More deeply, the entertainment industry is utterly notorious for dishonest accounting and exploitative conduct, but remains popular.

There's a lot of reasons for this, and let's skip the trivial Panglossian rebuttal, please. Denying it happens is just ludicrous.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at October 25, 2006 08:59 PM

I have some of the same concerns in the free software/open source area. Given the liberty offered by the GPL, great potential exists for reducing the great divide. And yet, with freedom extending in a commercial sense and closed source products allowed in the mix, there is a risk of "stone soup" emerging slowly, almost undiscernibly over time.

It is conceivable that control will never be wrestled from the hands of few, and the world could wind up with an even worse predicament if this volunteer work force, driven by noble cause, simply infuses free labor and innovation into the technology industry but winds up further disenfranchised.

I am not at all certain how we monitor and guide this force but I believe the answer will end up being determined by whether or not 'community' in the open source world turns out to be the next “yuppie fad/resume builder” or a committed and fully empowered democracy.

Strong parallels, of course, to what is going on with intellectual capital -- which should come as no surprise since both emerged from the same source.

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

Even 200 years ago, Jefferson understood there was no disadvantage to him personally for his knowledge to flow freely. And, as long as no one tries to break free from the pack, and run for the finish line, we should be able to walk there together.

In the entire history of the world, when have we ever witnessed that degree of universal restraint?

Posted by: Amy Stephen at October 25, 2006 09:11 PM

Yep, and some people will use the phone to broker million dollar deals, while other poor souls will only use it for phone sex a.k.a. unpaid labor. So I guess the phone must be a lottery, too. Heh.

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 25, 2006 09:34 PM

Phone sex = unpaid labor? For one half of the participants, maybe.

Posted by: Ethan at October 30, 2006 12:47 AM