Sharing for Money

An interview with technology writer Tom Slee

by Houston Davidson

Illustration by Julieta Cárdenas

published February 14, 2014

Technology lingo rings hopeful. Recently, a Silicon Valley-endorsed candidate for national office promised to bring about “Government 2.0” and claimed to wear “tech groupie” as a badge of honor.” President Obama keeps encouraging Americans to learn to code. A perpetual heroic aura hovers over the latest tech “start-ups,” promising “disruptive” impact through visionary innovation. A Great Laptop Theory of History. Yet there seems to be a troubling inattention to how it really impacts our society with its political and economic arrangements. What will happen to the classic stuff of political conflict? Beyond the buzzwords and glamour, much writing on technology lacks good answers.

     Tom Slee’s work concerns the ethical and political consequences of the way we think, talk, and engage with technology. His columns have appeared in The New Inquiry, Jacobin Magazine, and on his own blog, Whimsley. In his published work, he challenges the popular vision that technology provides access to a shiny utopia where politics and economics are solved. We talk here about the loudly esteemed “sharing economy” and political ideology of Silicon Valley.

The College Hill Independent: I’ve heard the common Silicon Valley political ideology, if it indeed exists, referred to as Cyberlibertarianism. What does this term mean to you?

Tom Slee: It’s the view that technologists should be able to do whatever they want to do without interference from the state, rooted in a techno-utopian belief that digital technologists can solve social problems through engineering. Many belief systems are more about the culture people live in than an explicit set of commitments though, and Cyberlibertarianism is no different: it’s linked to Silicon Valley in the 1990s and California rugged belief in the unfettered individual. It has a strong appeal to people who haven’t thought much about what it means to build a good society.

The Indy: You talk about the language of transparency, the language of non-commercial civic engagement, and the romantic language of rebellion all being used as an appealing façade by tech companies for an agenda that has nothing to do with these things.

TS: If you go back into the early days of the Internet there has been a tension between sharing stuff on the one hand and commercialism on the other. There’s this idea that we can now collaborate in a non-commercial way because of the Internet, because the costs of finding other people and the costs of working together with other people are lowered by the network infrastructure.

     This idea feeds into broadly leftist ideas of self-organization, anti-hierarchy, an almost localism as if they [Internet users] were in a community, but now that community is the whole world. Those are very appealing ideas for a lot of people, including myself I might say. The problem is that what’s happened is that the rhetoric has stayed there, but the bulk of the activity when people are talking about this is now hugely commercial activity. There’s a real clash there in my mind between the commercial side and these notions of openness and transparency. This has been going for ten years now but this contradiction seems to get stronger and stronger.

The Indy: What do you make of the existence of an anti-government refrain in a lot of the tech sector’s cyberlibertarian intellectual circles? Tech companies partially colluded in state surveillance; Smartphone makers didn’t wake up one day totally surprised to find that they had somehow implanted tracking devices in millions of pockets.

TS: Good question. If you look back at the early days of the Internet and its technological architecture, the idea was that of a large number of independent computers communicating with each other, with no particular center. It had that topology of being very egalitarian. Anyone could join and register an IP address.

     Now, that architecture has changed. Now there is this hub and spoke thing, whether it’s Facebook or Wikipedia. You might try and picture it as a network of people, but it’s all peripheral computers talking to a central computer. Who is that central body that is mediating everything? It becomes important.

     It’s not surprising if those technology companies like to continue talking about this as if it’s a network of individuals. At the same time that everything goes through their network, the rhetoric stays at the level of the individual. “We’re just about people talking together,” they might say. Yet all those communications are stored on the same set of servers. The surveillance stuff comes out quite naturally from this.

The Indy: Do you think within the next decade we will see something in politics that will mobilize a tech-sector vision (e.g. cyberlibertarianism) into a real-world political coalition?

TS: First, I’m in Canada and things here are a bit different. Some of that seems to be particular to the States. But we certainly see it within some arms of government and not all of those necessarily all on the right. The [US] State Department has a fair amount, as is the case with their former employee Jared Cohen who is now working with Google [as the Director of Google Ideas, Google’s “think/do tank”]. If people of that kind decide to go political, they have the money clout to do it. But in the end it has a natural hostility to politics. I think that will keep them from entering politics. Now if they do enter, I think they’ll do it on the right and be inherently “anti-government.” On the other hand, there’s a strand that says that Silicon Valley votes Democrat. Maybe the California ideology is a simplification of what’s going on in the technology world.

The Indy: How about San Francisco with its tech commuters? They’re being charged with spoiling the character of the city by driving up real estate prices. Both the employees inside the Google Bus that ferries employees from San Francisco 40 miles south to Silicon Valley and the activists protesting the Google Bus are likely to vote democrat. This may change. With the former group now reportedly being protected by security guards aboard the bus, how could anybody deny that something political is afoot?

TS: It’s politics without the politics. The tech view might say “all that political stuff is old-fashioned, it’s a product of institutions and we don’t like institutions.” There’s a certain naïveté about that that, if it enters the political world, will hit a brick wall fairly soon. That’s just my guess.

The Indy: That brings up a point about the way that a lot of tech people view the role of their skills. A notable amount of tech sector voices espouse the principle that if you bring in the youth with their Computer Science degrees, they will solve things. I’m thinking of Code for America, which sends in “developers, designers, and researchers” to help out cities and counties across the country. Do you think that represents an instance of this tendency?

TS: I do. Municipalities are not simply problems to be solved. They’re complex, interdependent communities. There are political conflicts and all kinds of issues that get in the way of having “effective solutions.”

     If you simply try and stick a technological fix, you don’t end up getting very far. There are some really difficult problems in this world, and there are lots of people who have been working on them for a long time.

     A lot of new technologies come with standard examples of how they can be useful. The Code for America example is that people can report potholes on their smartphones and get them fixed.

     There’s a road around the corner from me that’s had potholes for three years. The problem is not that they don’t know where the potholes are. The problem is lacking the resources and priorities to fix it. Code for America would need to go through the same process of realizing that technology is going to play a subsidiary role in solving complex municipal problems.

The Indy: TIME Magazine lauded the “shared economy” as one of “ten ideas that will change the world”. Pulling back for a second, what exactly is the sharing economy?

TS: It’s easier to list the exemplars than define it: Airbnb in short-term vacations; Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar in taxi services; in Europe there are more long-distance ridesharing services like Blablacar; and then TaskRabbit in the area of errands.

     It’s become a very loose term. It no longer has much to do with sharing. I’d say it’s now become “internet platforms that host peer-to-peer contracts,” so Airbnb matches hosts and guests, the taxi companies match drivers and riders.

The Indy: How do you position services like TaskRabbit, and Mechanical Turk that allow people to essentially outsource chores or brunt work to real people online? Are these really part of the sharing economy?

TS: You have to stretch it pretty far to encompass Mechanical Turk but there is a link, in that both the companies focus on micro contracts between peers. TaskRabbit and even companies like Homejoy, which is for house cleaning, identify as part of the sharing economy.

The Indy: Much investment has gone to scaling up websites that were built and run by volunteers with non-commercial intentions. You have written that “Private capital damages [these] open commons through three mechanisms. It erodes the common, it alienates the community that tends the common, and distorts the essential nature of the common.” Is there a way in which these can be scaled without commercialization?

TS: There are some models but it’s not one-size-fits-all. In the end, there is a possibility as long as there’s modesty on the behalf of a technology provider.

     Ushahidi, a website that came out of Kenya, has tried to provide map resources during times of crisis. During the Haiti earthquake it got a lot of publicity because its maps were supposed to help aid work. There was a lot of talk at the time, not by Ushahidi but by others, that this was a new model of grassroots aid done through the Internet which could provide on-the-ground help, in contrast to these big and cumbersome NGOs. The same tech being “disruptive” story that we hear all over.

     It didn’t change everything in terms of aid. However, over the last three years, they’ve matured as an organization. Now they work with those aid agencies.

The Indy: Is Wikipedia also an exception?

TS: I think it is. It’s huge and has a lot of flaws, but Wikipedia is a hopeful thing. In 2002 there was this event and it gets called “The Spanish Fork”.  It was a discussion whose conclusion was to maintain Wikipedia would be non-commercial.

     Wikipedia continues to be an interesting place and continues to be valuable. Whereas if you take something similar that has gone a different path, like IMDB, which is now owned by Amazon, it’s now a channel for the film industry. It’s useful but fundamentally different.

The Indy: How might you describe the “scene” of techno-criticism, if one can be said to exist?

TS: I don’t think there’s one coherent “scene” because critics (on both sides) come from so many different points of view. There are a lot (on both sides) in the academic world—people like Sherry Turkle from MIT on the critical side, who has a long history of studying human-robot interactions, then there are journalistic writers, and increasingly there are voices of criticism from within the technology world itself—people like Bill Joy who invented the Java programming language. As technology has expanded to encompass so many aspects of our lives it seems like there are an increasing number of people who are moving beyond a simple proor anti-technology position. And I’d say the technology debates seem to cut across political right and left both on the broadly anti and broadly pro-tech sides.