The Punditocracy of Unelected Technocrats

Saturday 6 April 2013 by Bradley M. Kuhn

All this past week, people have been emailing and/or pinging me on IRC to tell me to read the article, The Meme Hustler by Evgeny Morozov. The article is quite long, and while my day-job duties left me TL;DR'ing it for most of the week, I've now read it, and I understand why everyone kept sending me the article. I encourage you not to TL;DR it any longer yourself.

Morozov centers his criticisms on Tim O'Reilly, but that's not all the article is about. I spend my days walking the Free Software beat as a (self-admitted) unelected politician, and I've encounter many spin doctors, including O'Reilly — most of whom wear the trappings of advocates for software freedom. As Morozov points out, O'Reilly isn't the only one; he's just the best at it. Morozov's analysis of O'Reilly can help us understand these P.T. Barnum's in our midst.

In 2001, I co-wrote Freedom or Power? with RMS in response to O'Reilly's very Randian arguments (which Morozov discusses). I remember working on that essay for (literally) days with RMS, in-person at the FSF offices (and at his office at MIT), while he would (again, literally) dance around the room, deep in thought, and then run back to the screen where I was writing to suggest a new idea or phrase to add. We both found it was really difficult to craft the right rhetoric to refute O'Reilly's points. (BTW, most people don't know that there were two versions of my and RMS' essay; the original one was published as a direct response to O'Reilly on his own website. One of the reasons RMS and I redrafted as a stand-alone piece was that we saw our original published response actually served to increase uptake of O'Reilly's position. We decided the issue was important enough it needed a piece that would stand on its own indefinitely to defend that key position.)

Meanwhile, I find it difficult to express more than a decade later how turbulent that time was for hard-core Free Software advocates, and how concerted the marketing campaign against us was. While we were in the middle of the Microsoft's attacks that GPL was an unAmerican cancer, we also had O'Reilly's the freedom that matters is the freedom to pick one's own license meme propagating fast. There were dirty politics afoot at the time, too: this all occurred during the same three-month period when Eric Raymond called me an inmate taking over the asylum. In other words, the spin doctors were attacking software freedom advocates from every side! Morozov's article captures a bit of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of a concerted, organized PR campaign to manipulate public opinion.

However, I suppose what I like most about Morozov's article is it's the first time I've seen discussed publicly and coherently a rhetorical trick that spin doctors use. Notice when you listen to a pundit at their undue sense of urgency; they invariably act as if what's happening now is somehow (to use a phrase the pundits love): “game changing”. What I typically see is such folks use urgency as a reason to make compromises quickly. Of course, the real goal is a get-rich-(or-famous)-quick scheme for themselves — not a greater cause. The sense of urgency leaves many people feeling that if they don't follow the meme, they'll be left in the dust. A colleague of mine once described this entrancing effect as dream-like, and that desire to stay asleep and keep dreaming is what lets the hustlers keep us under their spell.

I've admittedly spent more time than I'd like refuting these spin doctors (or, as Morozov also calls them, meme hustlers). Such work seems unfortunately necessary because Free Software is in an important, multi-decade (but admittedly not urgent :) battle of cooption (which, BTW, every social justice movement throughout history has faced). The tide of cooption by spin doctors can be stemmed only with constant vigilance, so I practice it.

Still, this all seems a cold, academic way to talk about the phenomenon. For these calculating Frank Luntz types, winning is enough; rhetoric, to them, is almost an end in itself (which I guess one might dub “Cicero 2.0”). For those of us who believe in the cause, the “game for the game's sake” remains distasteful because there are real principles at stake for us. Meanwhile, the most talented of these meme hustlers know well that what's a game to them matters emotionally to us, so they use our genuine concern against us at every turn. And, to make it worse, there's more of them out there than most people realize — usually carefully donning the trappings of allies. Kudos to Morozov for reminding us how many of these emperors have no clothes.

Posted on Saturday 6 April 2013 at 15:01 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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