12 September 2013
The Tech Intellectuals
The good, bad, and ugly among our new breed of cyber-critics, and the economic
imperatives that drive them.
By Henry Farrell
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 intellectualsDwight Macdonald, I.F. Stone, and their likeonce
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 Jacobys 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
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 arent 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 doesnt 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
The possibilities today reflect a different set of material conditions again,
which dont determine individual choices so much as they pull on them,
gently but insistently. They influence what is discussed and what isnt,
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. Its 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
arent interested in hearing what they have to say.
This basic fact of the attention economyhow few entrants truly master
itis obscured by rhetoric about the Internets 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 dont
like the things that everyone else likes dont 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 dont
want to find obscure thingsthey 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
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
doesnt 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 dont get paid a penny for it. Aspirants begin on a modern version
of the rubber-chicken circuit, road-testing their message and working their
TED is the apex of this world. You dont get money for a TED talk, but
you can get plenty of attentionenough, 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 audiences 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, Shirkys
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.
Jarviss 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 [Jarviss] public
reputation, which would lead to other business. And it has done just
that. While Jarviss first book sold reasonably well, its royalties
were almost certainly dwarfed by other sources of incomehe 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 industrys intellectual prejudices and sell them back,
all the while highlighting the authors many influential friends and
the multitudes of important people who take him seriously. Like Randall
Jarrells 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
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
Parisers 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 shouldnt enter the world of new technologies, even when these
technologies generate big political problems. Similarly, Tim Wus 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
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.
To be clear, this suasion isnt typically a product of lobbying or
deliberate strategy by the technology industry. Its usually far more
indirect. The people (and businesses) who have pioneered the new technologies
have strong convictions, which bleed over into the world of debate that they
support and sometimes participate in. These convictions reflect both their
experiences and their self-interest.
Equally, this does not mean that current intellectual debates over technology
are so compromised as to be worthless; for the most part, they are not. What
it does mean is that these debates have a tidal force that pulls participants
in certain directions and not others. Some participants, like the late Aaron
Swartz, could artfully tack back and forth across these debates, while
persistently trying to pull participants towards more directly political
questions. Larry Lessig, for example, credits Swartz with having pushed him
to realize that the public problems he wanted to solve could not be remedied
without radically remaking the U.S. political system. However, to do as Swartz
did is to work against the current, which few are inclined to do.
Troll and Response
And what of the critics of these new technology debates? Alas, the material
conditions described above affect not only the debates protagonists,
but their critics as well. They help explain why these critics have not come
up with any very convincing intellectual alternative to the mainstream they
anathematize. These critics work within the same economy of attention as
the people they want to argue against, and labor under many of the same
intellectual burdens. Their obligation to gather attention undermines their
Take Digital Vertigo, a recent book by the aspiring public intellectual
and media entrepreneur Andrew Keen. Its main argument is a rambling diatribe
on how the very personality of contemporary man is threatened
by the hypervisibility that we suffer as we all succumb to the relentless
scrutiny of social networks. Yet this critique is simultaneously a calculated
effort by the author to become scrutinized by as many people on as many social
networks as possibleKeen boasts about his number of Twitter followers,
makes it clear that he would like to have many more, and volunteers to the
reader that he aspires to become a highly visible super-node.
Keens criticisms are self-undermining because his intellectual commitments,
if that is what they are, contradict his interest in becoming a well-known
technology intellectual. He wants both to attack the economy of attention
and try his damnedest to succeed in it. The books purpose is to attract
notice and curry favor with the influentials whose names Keen drops assiduously
at every opportunity. Its very incoherence demonstrates the constraining
forces that it claims to have set its face against.
The most extraordinary example of these contradictions is the well-known
cyber-pessimist Evgeny Morozov. Trollscommentators who flout the norms
of a given community in order to spur angry responsesare ubiquitous
on the Internet. Morozovs success shows how trolling can be a viable
business model for aspiring public intellectuals.
Morozov is a Belarusian who has received fellowships from the Open Society
Institute, Yahoo!, the New America Foundation, and Stanford University. He
once believed that new technologies had great political benefits, but has
spent the last several years vigorously and repeatedly denouncing the
techno-utopianism and Internet-centrism of other
technology-focused public intellectuals. His brand identity is harsh
denunciation. Morozovs first book, The Net Delusion, took
aim at some of the more ludicrous claims about how the Internet spread democracy
worldwide. His second, To Save Everything, Click Here, tries to
do the same trick for technology-focused efforts to solve problems
as varied as fixing potholes and stopping terrorism.
Morozov owes his success to an instinctive genius for leveraging the weaknesses
of the system against itself. He shows how the attention economy can be hacked
by someone sufficiently dedicated to making himself into a public nuisance.
Morozov attacks prominent public intellectuals of technology, denigrating
their motivations and distorting their arguments (sometimes to the point
of intimating that these people are saying the opposite of what they do say).
He then purports to refute the caricatures that he himself has created, and
waits for the outraged reaction and ensuing controversy to attract attention.
To take a few examples: In his most recent book, Morozov depicts MIT Media
Lab researcher Ethan Zuckerman, who repeatedly argues against grandiose claims
that the Internet will bring the world closer together, as insisting that
the reason people from Idaho have not yet talked to people from
Indiaexcept when on hold with a call center in Bangaloreis that
[inadequate] technology somehow has stood in the way. Likewise in
Morozovs telling, Jonathan Zittrain, who wants open-Internet advocates
to accept the need for security and safe zones, becomes a zealot opposed
to gatekeeping in nearly every form. Lessig, a notoriously mild-mannered
constitutional law professor, is condemned for his fanatical dedication
to the religion of Internetcentrism. The unflappable Clay Shirky
brims with populist, antiestablishment rage. And so on.
By criticizing prominent intellectuals in ways that are both offensive and
extravagantly wrong, Morozov tempts these intellectuals to respond in public.
Their response (and Morozovs further responses to the response) attracts
still more controversy and attention, fueling the next phase of a repeating
cycle. When this strategy works, it creates a kind of perpetual motion machine
of error and public controversy. The world being what it is, the error is
forgotten, the controversy remembered, enhancing Morozovs stature and
Morozovs relative success speaks to tensions between the new model
of public intellectualism and the older academic one that it destabilizes
around the edges. Despite his repeated references to the work of sociologist
of science Bruno Latour, Morozovs approach is more aptly described
by Pierre Bourdieu, another famous French sociologist. Bourdieus most
well-known book, Distinction, depicts traditional intellectuals
as engaged in a perpetual semi-articulated struggle against the well-resourced
bourgeoisie, in which they try to inflate the value of the intellectual and
cultural capital that they are rich in, while discounting the relative worth
of mere bourgeois economic capital. Just in this way, Morozov sells himself
as a disinterested and true intellectual, deeply immersed in the academic
literature. He characterizes his opponents, in contrast, as a pack of
opportunistic quasi-literates on the make.
Keen and Morozov do not solve the problems of current technology debates:
They exemplify them and recreate them in new forms. Both, in different ways,
reproduce the system that they purport to attack. Both end up writing bad
books because any interesting arguments they might have in them are overwhelmed
by their need to position themselves in the attention economy. This is most
crudely obvious in Keens book, which in one breath condemns online
super-nodes and in the next proclaims Keens ambition to
become one. With his relentless desire to become a network superpower by
kissing up to those who already have this coveted status, Keen is all too
obviously part of the problem that he affects to deplore. Behind the purported
radicalism of an iconoclast and rebel lurks the unctuous garrulity of a
tech-industry Dominick Dunne.
Morozov, in contrast, is all too happy to bite the hand that feeds him, as
long as it provokes his victim to thrash around sufficiently. Steven Johnson,
a subject of Morozovs attentions, and the author of Emergence
and other excellent books, has memorably compared Morozov to a vampire
slayer [who] has to keep planting capes and plastic fangs on his victims
to stay in business. Yet Morozov is perhaps better compared to the
vampire himself, affecting a lofty and aristocratic disdain so as to better
mask his dependence on his victims for sustenance. If he did not have more
mainstream technology intellectuals to bait, his modus vivendi would
This hidden dependency ruins Morozovs second book, which, like Public
Parts, spends its energies promoting the authors brand rather
than making a coherent argument (stare not too long into the Jarvis, lest
it stare into thee). Its incoherence is deepened by Morozovs efforts
to further discomfit his enemies by touting semi-digested arguments from
the academic literature. Here and there the text hints at a different, and
genuinely fascinating, project on the effect enduring political disagreements
have on debates about technology, but the idea is never
developedits the cheap hits that get the love. Morozov certainly
has the capacity to write a good and serious bookit would be nice to
see him try.
Ideas Worth Spreading
Different incentives would lead to different debates. In a better world,
technology intellectuals might think more seriously about the relationship
between technological change and economic inequality. Many technology
intellectuals think of the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian,
yet economist James Galbraith argues that income inequality in the United
States has been driven by capital gains and stock options, mostly in
the tech sector.
They might think more seriously about how technology is changing politics.
Current debates are still dominated by pointless arguments between enthusiasts
who believe the Internet is a model for a radically better democracy, and
skeptics who claim it is the dictators best friend.
Finally, they might pay more attention to the burgeoning relationship between
technology companies and the U.S. government. Technology intellectuals like
to think that a powerful technology sector can enhance personal freedom and
constrain the excesses of government. Instead, we are now seeing how a powerful
technology sector may enable government excesses. Without big semi-monopolies
like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft to hoover up personal information,
surveillance would be far more difficult for the U.S. government.
Debating these issues would require a more diverse group of technology
intellectuals. The current crop are not diverse in some immediately obvious
waysthere are few women, few nonwhites, and few non-English speakers
who have ascended to the peak of attention. Yet there is also far less
intellectual diversity than there ought to be. The core assumptions of public
debates over technology get less attention than they need and deserve.
It is clear that good, tough criticism of these assumptions is possible.
Tom Slee, a Canadian programmer and independent writer, has carved out a
niche criticizing the politics of technology in a consistent and intellectually
serious way (to be clear, I know Slee a little, and have tried in the past
to promote his work; as an amateur in these debates, I have corresponded
electronically with nearly everyone mentioned in this article, and have met
a few in person). He has written extended work on the politics of Google,
the dubious assumptions underlying optimistic arguments about the long tail,
and many other topics. Slee has critiqued the ideas of prominent writers
like Shirky, trying to highlight the differences between Shirkys
interesting insights (as he sees them) and the places where he believes that
Shirky succumbs to a generic optimism. He has ruthlessly criticized Steven
Johnsons recent book Future Perfect for not paying attention
to power and conflict. Yet he has leveled his critiques in the spirit of
serious argument, and his subjects have indicated that they would like to
return the favor, building the foundations of what might be a constructive,
and perhaps even transformative, debate.
It is not so clear that such high-minded criticism is economically sustainable.
In a blog post at the beginning of this year, Slee lamented his inability
to build up a broader audience for his work, despite 15 years of economic
[T]he numbers make it clear that its not working. To reinforce that
feeling, the traffic for an individual post at the blog depends hugely on
whether some of a small number of individuals link to it: I am still dependent,
that is to say, on patronage and on chance, and I have not managed to build
an audience of my own to sustain significant interest.
Slee is perhaps unusually unworldlyas he readily admits, he is a rotten
self-promoter. Yet cogent criticism of the kind he offers is innately a hard
sell. It rubs against the grain of current debates. Obviously, it doesnt
flatter the preconceptions of technological optimists. Yet it doesnt
soothe the feelings of groups who feel themselves threatened by new technologies,
such as traditional humanists. Its just the kind of engaged and intelligent
social criticism that the best of the small magazines published in the 1950s
and early 60s, but it doesnt have an obvious home today.
There is a lot that is worthwhile about the new world of technology
intellectualism. It connects the world of ideas to a broader public in ways
that didnt happen in the heyday of the university, or even the heyday
of the traditional public intellectual. It has elevated some smart and wonderful
thinkers who would never have succeeded under traditional academic standards.
Yet there are also many problems. It ignores the social conflicts and
inequalities that shape American politics and the American economy.
It wouldnt be that hard to find underappreciated intellectuals, like
Slee, who want to take issue with the debates as they are. Nor would it be
very difficult to push the more thoughtful of the currently dominant
intellectuals to respond. The difficult part is figuring out how genuinely
contrary and interesting intellectuals can support themselves in a tacit
economy that seems geared either to co-opt them or turn them into professional
controversialists. If the debate over ideas is shaped by material conditions,
changing the debate requires changing the conditions.
Issue #30, Fall 2013