David Golumbia is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of The Cultural Logic of Computation.
Jacobin, 4 December 2013
Technological innovation does not inherently promote the Left’s goals.
The digital revolution, we are told everywhere today, produces democracy. It gives “power to the people” and dethrones authoritarians; it levels the playing field for distribution of information critical to political engagement; it destabilizes hierarchies, decentralizes what had been centralized, democratizes what was the domain of elites.
Most on the Left would endorse these ends. The widespread availability of tools whose uses are harmonious with leftist goals would, one might think, accompany broad advancement of those goals in some form. Yet the Left today is scattered, nearly toothless in most advanced democracies. If digital communication technology promotes leftist values, why has its spread coincided with such a stark decline in the Left’s political fortunes?
Part of this disconnect between advancing technology and a retreating left can be explained by the advent of cyberlibertarianism, a view that widespread computerization naturally produces democracy and freedom.
In the 1990s, UK media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, US journalist Paulina Borsook, and US philosopher of technology Langdon Winner introduced the term to describe a prominent worldview in Silicon Valley and digital culture generally; a related analysis can be found more recently in Stanford communication scholar Fred Turner’s work. While cyberlibertarianism can be defined as a general digital utopianism, summed up by a simple slogan like “computerization will set us free” or “computers provide the solution to any and all problems,” these writers note a specific political formation — one Winner describes as “ecstatic enthusiasm for electronically mediated forms of living with radical, right-wing libertarian ideas about the proper definition of freedom, social life, economics, and politics.”
There are overt libertarians who are also digital utopians — figures like Jimmy Wales, Eric Raymond, John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Julian Assange, Dread Pirate Roberts, and Sergey Brin, and the members of the Technology Liberation Front who explicitly describe themselves as cyberlibertarians. But the term also describes a wider ideological formation in which people embrace digital utopianism as compatible or even identical with leftist politics opposed to neoliberalism.
In perhaps the most pointed form of cyberlibertarianism, computer expertise is seen as directly applicable to social questions. In The Cultural Logic of Computation, I argue that computational practices are intrinsically hierarchical and shaped by identification with power. To the extent that algorithmic forms of reason and social organization can be said to have an inherent politics, these have long been understood as compatible with political formations on the Right rather than the Left.
Yet today, “hacktivists” and other promoters of the liberatory nature of mass computerization are prominent political voices, despite their overall political commitments remaining quite unclear. They are championed by partisans of both the Right and the Left as if they obviously serve the political ends of each. One need only reflect on the leftist support for a project like Open Source software to notice the strange and under-examined convergence of the Right and Left around specifically digital practices whose underlying motivations are often explicitly libertarian. Open Source is a deliberate commercialization of Richard Stallman’s largely noncommercial notion ofFree Software (see Stallman himself on the distinction). Open Source is widely celebrated by libertarians and corporations, and was started by libertarian Eric Raymond and programmer Bruce Perens, with support from businessman and corporate sympathizer Tim O’Reilly. Today the term Open Source has wide currency as a political imperative outside the software development community, despite its place on the Right-Left spectrum being at best ambiguous, and at worst explicitly libertarian and pro-corporate.