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Vested interests in ‘openness’

To talk of ‘openness’ conveys a sense of lightness, gesturing towards a world without self-interested boundaries. In a world dichotomised in terms of open/closed, barriers are seen as obstacles to be surmounted in order that we might have free exchange. Overcoming these obstacles becomes a moral project, imbued with a sense of historical change: barriers are fleeting constructions, inevitably eroded by the force of openness. As the futurist Peter Schwartz once put it:

Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

These categories are embedded in narrative forms, facilitating certain roles (e.g. the disrupter of closed industries) which elevate business activity to a heroic plane, as Audrey Watters conveys on loc 184 of The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology: 

“The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

My instinct as a qualitative researcher is to immerse myself in these stories, seeking to appreciate how they operate to make sense of one’s own actions. But the reason this is so pressing is that the action they serve to elevate is so often problematic, as Franklin Foer points out on pg 89-90 of his A World Without Mind. They have a vested interest in ‘openness’:

There’s no doubt that they believe in their own righteousness, but they also practice corporate gamesmanship, with all the established tricks: lobbying, purchasing support in think tanks and universities, quietly donating money to advocacy groups that promote their interests. The journalist Robert Levine has written, “Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline. 13 That’s why the company spends millions of dollars lobbying to weaken copyright.” Google and Facebook penalize companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. When newspapers and magazines require subscriptions to access their pieces, Google and Facebook tend to bury them; articles protected by stringent paywalls almost never have the popularity that algorithms reward with prominence. Google, according to documents that have surfaced in lawsuits against the company, is blunt about using its power to bend the media business to its model. Jonathan Rosenberg, the vice president of product management, told company brass in 2006 that Google must “pressure premium content providers to change their model to free.” 14 It’s a perfectly rational stance. The big tech companies become far more valuable if they serve as a gateway to free knowledge, if they provide a portal to an open and comprehensive collection of material.

Categories: Digital Sociology The Political Economy of Digital Capitalism The Technological History of Digital Capitalism Thinking

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