An Accelerated Grimace: On Cyber-Utopianism
Skepticism, conflict and the attendant public goods that they may help to identify and redefine are mostly taboo on the Shirky-channeled web. As the subtitle of Cognitive Surplus indicates, Shirky thinks there is little about the content of our trillion-hour tidal wave of just-in-time web data that is not benign, and quite reliably melioristic. As digital media continue to spread their influence across the globe, they also come bearing the relentlessly tinkering, innovative spirit of social generosity. For techno-optimists like Shirky, most people online are donating their time to the heroic project of the digital commons, and that act alone is a sort of all-purpose social fixative—enforcing cultural standards of behavior online, rewarding crowdsourced contributions and punishing trespasses against agreed-upon digital decorum.
But what’s different and exciting about the social-minded Web 2.0, Shirky insists, is that it seems to be well on its way toward abolishing the gray, divisive conceptions of cultural authority and labor that used to reign in the now discredited age of information scarcity. He argues that behavioral economic studies such as the so-called Ultimatum Game—in which one test subject offers to split $10 with another—point to the extra-material motivations most people share beneath the surface appearance of economic self-interest. As Shirky explains, neoclassical economic theory would hold that the subject who begins the game with the $10 in hand would always proffer a nine-to-one split, because that’s the cheapest way for the divider to enlist the recipient’s support—and because the latter subject is still up a dollar in the transaction. But in test after test, the exchanges cluster in the center spread, because a 50-50 split seems more intuitively fair—even when the stakes in the experiment are raised to hundreds of dollars. The inescapable conclusion, Shirky writes, is that, contra economic theory, markets and selfish behavior correlate “in the opposite way you might expect.”
Markets support generous interactions with strangers rather than undermining them. What this means is that the less integrated market transactions are in a given society, the less generous its members will be to one another in anonymous interactions…. Exposure to market logic actually increases our willingness to transact generously with strangers, in part because that’s how markets work.
In the manner of Malcolm Gladwell, Shirky extends this dictum across a range of didactic vignettes drawn from digital culture. He offers the standard encomiums to open-source computer-engineering collaborations such as the Linux operating system and Apache server software. But he also finds stirring samples of digitally enabled generosity in a volunteer-run charity that sprang up on a Josh Groban fan discussion board, a vast online exchange of J.K. Rowling–inspired fan fiction and PickupPal.com, a site that began life dispensing contact information for would-be Canadian carpoolers (which, wouldn’t you know, was the subject of an iron-fisted shutdown campaign from statist Ontario bus carriers).
What’s common to these parables of the information marketplace is a vision of an uncoerced social order within the reach of any suitably wired and enterprising soul inclined to donate a microsliver of that unfathomably huge surplus of time to crowdsourced tasks. This being the general drift of our social destiny, Shirky waves away the old-school leftist critique of crowdsourced content as “digital sharecropping” as so much “professional jealousy—clearly professional media makers are upset about competition from amateurs.” Such critics are also guilty of a category error, because “amateurs’ motivations differ from those of professionals.” What if the dispensers of free user-generated content “aren’t workers?” Shirky asks. “What if they really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What if their labors are labors of love?”
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And if not? Consider the study that is often the touchstone of Shirky’s trippy speculations. The utility of the Ultimatum Game for a new market-enabled theory of human nature thins out considerably when one realizes that the players are bartering with unearned money. They aren’t dividing proceeds that “belong” to either player in any meaningful sense. Consult virtually any news story following up on a lottery winner’s post-windfall life—to say nothing of the well-chronicled implosion of the past decade’s market in mortgage-backed securities—and you’ll get a quick education in how playing games with other people’s money can have a deranging effect on human behavior.
In this respect, the Ultimatum Game is an all-too-apt case study to bring to bear on the digital economy—but to paraphrase Shirky, in the opposite of the way one might expect. Despite all the heady social theorizing of Shirky and the Wired set, the web has not, in fact, abolished the conventions of market value or rewritten the rules of productivity and worker reward. It has, rather, merely sent the rewards further down the fee stream to unscrupulous collectors like Chris Anderson, who plagiarized some of the content of Free, a celebration of the digital free-content revolution and its steady utopian progress toward uncompensated cultural production, from the generous crowdsourcing souls at Wikipedia. How egalitarian. It’s a sad truth that in Shirky’s idealized market order, some people’s time remains more valuable than others’, and as in that gray, old labor-based offline economy, the actual producers of content routinely get cheated, in the case of Free by the very charlatan who urges them on to ever greater feats of generosity.
As for crowdsourcing being a “labor of love” (Shirky primly reminds us that the term “amateur” “derives from the Latin amare—‘to love’”), the governing metaphor here wouldn’t seem to be digital sharecropping so much as the digital plantation. For all too transparent reasons of guilt sublimation, patrician apologists for antebellum slavery also insisted that their uncompensated workers loved their work, and likewise embraced their overseers as virtual family members. This is not, I should caution, to brand Shirky as a latter-day apologist for slavery but rather to note that it’s an exceptionally arrogant tic of privilege to tell one’s economic inferiors, online or off, what they do and do not love, and what the extra-material wellsprings of their motivation are supposed to be. To use an old-fashioned Enlightenment construct, it’s at minimum an intrusion into a digital contributor’s private life—even in the barrier-breaking world of Web 2.0 oversharing and friending. The just and proper rejoinder to any propagandist urging the virtues of uncompensated labor from an empyrean somewhere far above mere “society” is, “You try it, pal.”
There’s also the small matter of what, exactly, is being produced and exchanged in the social networks Shirky hails as the cutting edge of new-economy innovation. Services such as PickupPal and CouchSurfing—a site for tourists seeking overnight stays in the homes of natives—are mainly barter clearinghouses, enabling the informal swapping of already existing services and infrastructure support. Meanwhile, the Linux and Apache projects are the web equivalents of busmen’s holidays, places where software designers can test-drive and implement innovations that overlap with day job or research duties where their services are, in fact, compensated.
The one hint of possible production for exchange value in Cognitive Surplus unwittingly shows just how far this brand of web boosterism can go in studied retreat from economic reality; it involves a study by Eric von Hippel, a “scholar of user-driven innovation,” who found that a Chinese manufacturer of kites sought out a crowdsourced design from an outfit called Zeroprestige, which worked up shared kite designs using 3D software. The transaction, Shirky enthuses, meant that “the logic of outsourcing is turned on its head; it was possible only because the description of the kites, which was written in standard format for 3D software, was enough like a recipe for the manufacturer to be able to discover them online and to interpret them without help.”
That is not the logic of outsourcing “turned on its head”—it is the logic of outsourcing metastasized. Like the sort of fee-shifting exploitation of content providers that prevails in online commerce on the Anderson model—and, I should stipulate, in underpaid “content farms” operated within the orbit of my own corporate parent, Yahoo—outsourcing is a cost-cutting race to the bottom. All that’s achieved in the outreach of the Chinese kite maker is the elimination of another layer of production costs involving the successive prototypes of marketable kite designs. It’s certainly not as if those lower costs will translate into higher wages for China’s sweated, open-shop manufacturing workforce—the people who will end up making the kites in question.
But Shirky, like all true Net prophets, can’t be detained by such crude concerns. The old social contracts of labor, presumably, are like the discredited habit of “getting news from a piece of paper”—part and parcel of the “twentieth-century beliefs about who could produce and consume public messages, about who could coordinate group action and how, and about the inherent and fundamental link between intrinsic motivations and private actions,” which in his Olympian judgment turned out to be “nothing more than long-term accidents.” It’s little wonder that Shirky should show such fastidious disdain for recent history. Cognitive Surplus is already aging badly, with the WikiLeaks furor showing just how little web-based traffic in raw information, no matter how revelatory or embarrassing, has upended the lumbering agendas of the old nation-state on the global chessboard of realpolitik—a place where everything has a price, often measured in human lives. More than that, though, Shirky’s book inadvertently reminds us of the lesson we should have absorbed more fully with the 2000 collapse of the high-tech market: the utopian enthusiasms of our country’s cyber-elite exemplify not merely what the historian E.P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity” but also a dangerous species of economic and civic illiteracy.