I just read Evgeny Morozov’s critique of Tim O’Reilly in the Baffler. It misses its mark pretty widely. I know Tim, and have worked with him on some of the things mentioned in the piece, and I don’t recognize the man Morozov thinks he’s writing about.
The article is profoundly intellectually ungenerous. If there are N ways to interpret something, Morozov picks the one that most matches his thesis, whether or not that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense in context. He also indulges in guilt-by-association and guilt-by-superficial-similarity. So what that Eric Raymond likes guns? So what if some things Tim says are similar to some things Ayn Rand said? Does that mean Tim O’Reilly is any closer to being a libertarian, second-amendment-quoting Randian? (He’s not — far from it. I’m not either, but some of my friends are. I wonder what Morozov would say.)
I’m increasingly disenchanted by Morozov’s apparent belief that he is a more careful and rigorous thinker than, well, everyone. This piece contained a great example of why. Morozov starts out by quoting O’Reilly:
Expanding on this notion of “algorithmic regulation,” O’Reilly reveals his inner technocrat:
I remember having a conversation with Nancy Pelosi not long after Google did their Panda search update, and it was in the context of SOPA/PIPA. . . . [Pelosi] said, “Well, you know, we have to satisfy the interests of the technology industry and the movie industry.” And I thought, “No, you don’t. You have to get the right answer.” So that’s the reason I mentioned Google Panda search update, when they downgraded a lot of people who were building these content farms and putting low quality content in order to get pageviews and clicks in order to make money and not satisfy the users. And I thought, “Gosh, what if Google had said, yeah, yeah, we have to sit down with Demand Media and satisfy their concerns, we have to make sure that at least 30 percent of the search results are crappy so that their business model is preserved.” You wouldn’t do that. You’d say, “No, we have to get it right!” And I feel like, we don’t actually have a government that actually understands that it has to be building a better platform that starts to manage things like that with the best outcome for the real users. [loud applause]
Here O’Reilly dismisses the entertainment industry as just “wrong,” essentially comparing them to spammers. But what makes Google an appropriate model here? While it has obligations to its shareholders, Google doesn’t owe anything to the sites in its index. Congress was never meant to work this way. SOPA and PIPA were bad laws with too much overreach, but to claim that the entertainment industry has no legitimate grievances against piracy seems bizarre.
Now, wait a second. Tim was spot-on. He’s pointing out the big problem of representative democracy: the distortion inherent in the transactional, seat-at-the-table model, the distortion that comes from having interest groups with deep pockets. They become, effectively, first-order constituents even though they’re not citizens. Tim reminded the listener that the explicit purposes of copyright law do not include pleasing any particular corporate actors — industry can be a means to an end, in these laws, but it’s not supposed to be an end in itself. If government can achieve the stated ends without making Demand Media happy, then it is free to do so. Of course, that’s understandably difficult for politicians in practice… But Morozov’s refutation isn’t about implementation details. It’s about the philosophy, the underlying purpose:
While it has obligations to its shareholders, Google doesn’t owe anything to the sites in its index. Congress was never meant to work this way. SOPA and PIPA were bad laws with too much overreach, but to claim that the entertainment industry has no legitimate grievances against piracy seems bizarre.
Read that carefully: Morozov is saying that, while Google is only strictly speaking responsible to its shareholders, Congress’s responsibility includes satisfying… industrial/corporate constituents? Not merely as a means, but actually as a first-order end??
Uh? Can he really mean that?
I assume he doesn’t, and that rather he’s just not thinking very carefully. Earlier in the essay, Morozov seemed just fine with the idea of “disrupting someone’s business model”. I guess he’s just not in favor of Tim O’Reilly being in favor of it.
(See how easy a Morozov-style takedown of Morozov is?)
Tim bounces a lot of big ideas around. Anyone sincerely looking for something to criticize could find something useful to say (and in many cases Tim would appreciate it, and even change his mind). Yet when Morozov gets close to one of these things, he shies away from making an effective criticism, and instead opts to make Tim’s ideas look bad through shallow, associative analysis, without saying outright what would be a better idea. Morozov provides no constructive analysis; he wants someone to be wrong, but he doesn’t particularly care what’s right. This is just Andrew Breitbart for intellectuals.
Big ideas have porous boundaries, but that isn’t the same as being meaningless. A good critic recognizes the useful big ideas, and after puncturing them helps define their boundaries better, or else counters with other ideas — puts something on the line, actually comes out and says something capable of being refuted. Morozov never takes the second steps. He plants seeds of doubt, but takes no responsibility for the crop that results.
(Update: O’Reilly himself seems to have had a similar reaction to mine.)