[note: I wrote the following post one Sunday afternoon nearly two months ago. It was no great shakes, but I was happy to have finally written something to break out of my Wetmachine doldrums. I set it aside to jell overnight, intending to re-read, put in links, give it a once-over the next day before posting it. However on that next day, Monday , the bombing attack at the Boston Marathon occurred, and publishing this little essay was clearly inappropriate. Time has passed & I’ve finally gotten around to re-reading and putting in the links. It’s no longer as timely as it was, but in any event, here it is. . .]
Evgeny Morozov is a guy with a soapbox and a schtick.
His soapbox is his position as a “go to” authority on technoskepticism — that is, he makes his living pointing out, to any who care to listen, The Folly of Technological Solutionism (which phrase I italicize because it’s also the subtitle of his latest book, whose primary title is To Save Everything, Click Here).
His schtick is finding influential people who embrace (or appear to embrace) this philosophy of technological solutionism and taking them down a peg or two. And he’s really good at peg-decrementing — which probably accounts for the prominence of his soapbox, which includes positions at prestigious academic institutions (Stanford, Georgetown) and think tanks, and regular appearances in prominent publications (New York Times, Foreign Affairs) and a TED fellowship.
Consider, for example, Morozov’s hilarious (and quite well-deserved, in my opinion) evisceration of former San Francisco mayor, and current Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, in a Bookforum review of Newsom’s book Citizenville:
In a flourish [in the publisher’s catalog] as logical as it is grammatical, we learn that “Newsom’s quest to modernize one of America’s most modern cities—and the amazing results he achieves—form the backbone of this far-reaching book.”
Alas, this dubiously signifying nonsense does not let up between the covers of Citizenville. To say that Newsom’s ruminations on technology and politics come in fifty shades of bullshit is to give this all-too-representative study in online civic boosterism too much credit. Newsom’s bullshit is solidly and tediously monochrome.
The essay gets only more brutal from there. I loved it when I read it; I actually exclaimed “YES!” out loud a few times, which seemed to startle my fellow passengers on the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Chatham, New Jersey. When he’s on target, Morozov can be brilliant, funny, and merciless.
Recently Morozov turned his attention on Tim O’Reilly, the founder of O’Reilly Media (formerly O’Reilly & Associates), the so-called visionary whose careers first as a publisher of books on computer technology and then as impresario of various conferences that bear his name catapulted him to international prominence as a commentator on where technology is, or might be, taking us as a nation and even as a species.
To put it mildly, Morozov doesn’t care much for O’Reilly. In fact he seems to reserve for O’Reilly a disdain much more intense than that which he evinced for the poseur airhead Gavin Newsom. In a recent piece in the smugly iconoclastic magazine The Baffler, (“The Meme Hustler — Tim O’Reilly’s Crazy Talk”) Morozov goes after O’Reilly like an angry Rottweiler. Or more accurately, he goes after a caricature of O’Reilly like a caricature of an angry Rottweiler. I really enjoyed Morozov’s take-down of Newsom, and O’Reilly (“Saint Tim”) is, frankly, an object of veneration in some circles who could stand a little ribbing. I’m a Walt Whitman kind of guy in that I don’t have much tolerance for the veneration of popes, Dalai Lamas or Steve Jobses; Whitman enjoined us to “tip your cap to no man”, and I’m down with that. So I wouldn’t mind seeing St. Tim taken down a notch or two, just on general principles. I had done a 30-second skim read of Morozov’s essay when it first appeared in The Baffler and it looked promising, so I was looking forward to actually reading The Meme Hustler when I found the time to do so. I found the time yesterday.
Man, what a disappointment. What a pompous, shallow, unfair, error-filled and hysterical piece of dreck. Essentially, I found The Meme Hustler stupid and baffling. It made me angry. I explain why below the fold.
Disclosure & Preamble
I know Tim O’Reilly. I’ve known him for a long time. We met in 1984, when we were both working on technical documentation for a long-defunct computer company called Masscomp. (1984, is, incidentally, according to Wikipedia, the year that Morozov was born.) I wouldn’t say that Tim and I are friends, exactly. I don’t think I’ve ever had a beer with him; I’ve never been to his house, we don’t exchange Christmas cards. But we’ve worked together in a few capacities. Early in his career I was able to do him a few small favors, and he has since repaid them many times over, most recently in 2009. The last time I saw Tim was in 2010, at SXSW. He didn’t recognize me and only realized who I was after he read the name on my badge. As I said, he has done favors for me — but he has also snubbed me, said things I thought were uncalled for (see below). So, should anybody characterize me as an O’Reilly apologist or acolyte, I preemptively refute those labels. Tim O’Reilly is a guy I know. That’s about as far as it goes.
In the Author’s Note that accompanies his Baffler piece, Morozov explains several reasons why he did not interview O’Reilly for the story, including this one: “[M]y main interest has been O’Reilly the thinker, not O’Reilly the human being. Serious thinkers can be judged by their published output alone.” Fair enough, Evgeny. But I unavoidably must read Mozorov’s profile of O’Reilly the thinker in the light of my experiences with O’Reilly the human being, which date to when Morozov was literally in diapers, so I’m not going to pretend to talk about O’Reilly’s “published output alone”. Morozov’s “published output alone” approach is perfectly legitimate, in other words, but it’s not where I’m coming from.
But let’s be clear: Morozov makes two main arguments in his Baffler piece, not one: his first argument is about what O’Reilly’s ideas actually are. His second argument is about where those ideas came from and their influence in society at large. My history with Tim doesn’t give me any particular privilege with respect to either the first or second line of argumentation. With regard to the first, Tim’s own words speak for themselves. Morozov has his interpretation of them, I have mine, and you, dear reader, can form your own opinions.
Similarly, we can each come to our own determinations of where Tim’s ideas come from (I’m not going to “go there”, although Morzov does), and how much influence they have in society at large. My opinion about such things are not a priori any more valid than yours, dear reader. But my long acquaintance with Tim O’Reilly does perhaps give me a bit of an advantage over most readers when it comes to spotting a straw man. And Morozov’s O’Reilly is as full of straw as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. So that’s one thing I hope to be able to add to the discussion.
Morozov also has things to say in his essay about a few other people, including the self-promoting blowhard “software theoretician” Eric Raymond and the legendary hacker/activist Richard Stallman. These are also people with whom I’ve interacted in the past. So maybe I can add a few insights into what Morozov has to say about them as well.
Further preamble: Technoskepticism. Evgeney, welcome to the club!
Evgeny Morozov first made a name for himself by sticking a pin in the naive soap-bubble fantasy that technology in general, or the Internet in particular, would magically bring about freedom and sex and bunnies and unicorns and beer for oppressed people everywhere — for example, in Russia, China, Myanmar, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This belief in the magical properties of “technology” to solve all social ills is called “technological utopianism” or “technological solutionism”, and you can find it everywhere; it’s pretty much the state religion in many places in the world, especially in Palo Alto, California, and the areas North, East, South and West of it. Contra that, Morozov argued (and still does), that in fact technology sometimes actually enhances the powers of the bad guys relative to the good guys, curtails freedom and weakens the hands of regular folk who just want to get along. Naive belief in the magical powers of technology is not only stupid but harmful, he asserts.
Similarly, Morozov has no patience at all for adolescent Ayn Rand cultists, Libertarians, Milton Friedman fetishists and other varieties of magical thinkers who ascribe to “the market” properties that are even more wondrous than those of the benevolent “technology” unicorns. (I’ll call such people “Randians” hereafter.)
In general, I’m very sympathetic to Morozov’s arguments against technological utopianism, especially the variant of that religion that has been prevalent in Silicon Valley since the mid 1970’s at least. In fact, the novel Acts of the Apostles, a thriller about a Silicon Valley messiah and the dangerous cult that grows around him, is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s been called, among other things, “the greatest hacker book ever,” and here’s what web guru Jeffrey Zeldman had to say about it:
As a techno-themed conspiracy thriller, it works. You can’t wait to find out what happens next. But just beneath the surface, “Acts of the Apostles” is more than a page-turner. It is a dark meditation on futurism, and specifically on the implicit moral quandaries of nano- and biotechnology. We know what greed is. We know what people do on Wall Street. What would the most powerful people in the world do, if they could reprogram DNA? (Are they already doing it?)
Seemingly apropos, Morozov writes:
Silicon Valley has always had a thing for priests; Steve Jobs was the cranky pope it deserved. Today, having mastered the art of four-hour workweeks and gluten-free lunches in outdoor cafeterias, our digital ministers are beginning to preach on subjects far beyond the funky world of drones, 3-D printers, and smart toothbrushes. That we would eventually be robbed of a meaningful language to discuss technology was entirely predictable. That the conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley would also pollute the rest of our vocabulary wasn’t.
Ah, but there you’re wrong, Evgeny! The conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley was absolutely, undeniably predicted in at least this one prescient novel, which also quite explicitly picked upon on that whole religious aspect of Silicon Valley culture to which you alluded (hint: note the title). Read it for yourself and see if I’m lying!
Moreover, Acts of the Apostles is novel imbued with deep (dare I say “Morozovian”?) skepticism about both technology and the sanctity of “the market.” So much so, in fact, that none other than the arch Randian Eric Raymond himself called this book “immoral and deeply ugly.” Did I mention that I wrote Acts of the Apostles? Well, I did. And I also wrote the similarly technoskeptic novellas Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains, and I’ve written technoskeptical essays for Salon including How I Destroyed the New Economy and How I Decoded the Human Genome and Artificial Stupidity. I’ve even written a soul-bearing essay (warning: not for the squeamish) about how my own internal wrestling with issues of technology and morality nearly (or actually?) drove me off the deep end. So I don’t think even as accomplished a hatchet man as Evgeny Morozov could attach to me the label of technophilic crazy-talker, which, as we’ll see, is exactly what he calls Tim O’Reilly.
With the forgoing throat-clearing taken care of, we can now proceed to our critique of what Morozov actually wrote.
Morozov’s DC Comics history of “Open Source”
I have several problems with The Meme Hustler, but they all more or less relate to Morozov’s characterization of the roles played by Tim O’Reilly and Richard Stallman in an obscure semantic debate about the meaning of a simple two word phrase, “Open Source.”
Basically, according to Morozov, Stallman was a good angel and O’Reilly was a bad angel and they did battle in the heavens over the control of the magical words “Open Source.” But by some inexplicable cosmic mixup, O’Reilly (the bad angel) won, and now everybody on earth (except Stallman and Morozov) misunderstands the true essence of software and freedom, and thus everything in the world is broken.
By his dastardly usurpation of the meaning of the words “Open Source,” Morozov says, Tim O’Reilly single-handedly warped how society, American society in particular, came to relate to software: how code is produced, consumed, licensed, paid for, shared, and talked about. And as with software, so too with all other technology. Thus, with Tim O’Reilly as the Pied Piper, all the fools in the land (including you, dear reader, and me) have set off on a tragic doomed frolic towards a nonexistent utopia, where surely we will soon be set upon by dragons, or something (Morozov is a little bit unclear about this part).
Yes I’m exaggerating what The Meme Hustler says, but not by much. Morozov has a particular fetish about the phrase “open source”, which he claims was usurped (“co-opted” we might have said in the 60’s) by O’Reilly. When I got to that part of his thesis, which comes relatively early in the essay, I had one thought:
Oh my Jesus Fucking God. Not this crap again.
To hear Morozov tell it, the “battle” between O’Reilly and Stallman (who is often referred to by his sig, RMS) over the meaning of the phrase Open Source (and its cousin “Free Software”) was as epochal as any contest between Superman and whatever nemesis The Man of Steel happened to be struggling with in the latest ish over the very continued existence of the Universe. Or like Darth Vader (O’Reilly) versus Luke Skywalker (RMS). Whoever controls the meaning of “Open Source” controls the future of the galaxy. Really, that’s what it’s like in Morozov’s telling. And the pathetic thing is, this is not a new beef. This is quarrel nearly as old as the one between the Big Endians and Little Endians in Gulliver’s Travels, who went to war over which end of a boiled egg it was proper to slice off in order to eat it.
The Big Endians, who were Randian anarcho-capitalists, said slice off the selfish end and eat the damn egg forthwith, because selfishness is the ultimate virtue. The Little Endians, who were communalists, said slice off the little end and share everything because information wants to be free. And this obscure argument about two words, “Open Source,” used to describe software development and licensing, is vitally important to the human race, because Tim O’Reilly uses the words incorrectly, according to Morozov, and thus distorts power relations among all people on earth. That’s the essence of the rant that is The Meme Hustler.
I wish I were joking.
It’s as if neither you nor I nor anybody else who ever breathed has any autonomy whatsoever when it comes to how we think about technology. According to Morozov, you and I have no capacity for independent thought in the presence of the preternaturally gifted meme-hustler Tim O’Reilly. Nobody else exists who has any power to shape how we think about things. No Steve Jobs, no Ruppert Murdoch, no George W. Bush, no Ronald Reagan, no Zuckerberg. . . Tim’s mind-waves rule us all. Once he gained dominion over the phrase “Open Source,” says Morozov, our fate was sealed.
Meanwhile RMS, our noble Don Quixote, temporarily overmatched, has gone off to lick his wounds (or something), leaving Tim O’Reilly with sole power to control all discourse. And O’Reilly’s discourse (says Morozov) is a Randian discourse. The end. That’s basically what the whole long Baffler article says.
One might say that it’s stupid, but it’s actually beyond stupid. It’s insulting, in the implication that only Evgeny Morozov can clearly see through all the Tim O’Reilly/Gavin Newsom bullshit.
But while I probably should just stop here and do something useful with the rest of the day, let me say a few words about this “Open Source” stuff. I’m just enough of a geek to find the history of RMS and the many meanings of “open source” interesting, perhaps because the issues related to the debate were part of my daily life for ten years or so. It’s interesting to me kind of in the way that 7th century debates over obscure heresies about the nature of Christ are interesting. If you’re into that kind of thing, I recommend Chris Kelty’s book “Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software”, which I reviewed here. But I warn you, it’s high nerd shit. It’s inside baseball that only the most obsessive geek will relate to at all. Actually it’s not even “inside baseball,” because baseball is interesting. It’s more like “inside miniature golf.”
Anyway, once you reject Morozov’s notions that anybody actually gives a shit about the precise theological import of Open Source or that Tim O’Reilly is an all-powerful antichrist who has unlimited powers to shape how people think about technology, society, and culture, then the rest of his Baffler article becomes hardly worth refuting. So I’m not going to do a point by point rebuttal; that would be just as stupid as the article itself. Besides, Tim can speak for himself.
But, for the record, I do believe that Morozov exaggerates not only O’Reilly’s influence, but also his positions on issues. In other words I believe that O’Reilly is neither as influential nor as Randian as Morozov says he is. Which makes one wonder why the hell Morozov invested so much energy research and writing his essay (and it was a lot of time and energy; see the Author’s Note at the bottom of the story).
There’s only one Silicon Valley personality I can think of who has or had anywhere near the power or evil intent that Morozov ascribes to Tim O’Reilly, and I don’t mean Steve Jobs. I’m referring, of course, to Monty Meekman. Now, there’s a guy to be afraid of. Look him up. But Tim O’Reilly is no Monty Meekman.
A Little Historical Perspective
(In this section I’m going to examine some Unix viscera for the sake of completeness. You’re advised to skip it unless you’re really into this stuff.)
According to Morozov’s picture of Tim O’Reilly as arch-propagandist of amoral techno-libertarianism, everything before 1998 (when the cosmic Open Source battle was waged) was mere prologue. (We note that Morozov was 14 years old in 1998, about the age when young men often get obsessive about things like technology, politics, sports. Does that signify?) According to Morozov, O’Reilly did an evil thing by ascribing the attribute of “Open Source” to Unix (and its descendants and ilk). Because if Unix, which has its origins in the 1970’s, indeed was “Open Source,” then all the angst over debates that happened in the 1990’s is even less significant than it appears, if such a thing is possible. But I believe it is exactly that; that is, “Open Source” is an even more diluted currency than it might appear, even if it already appears worth about as much as a $1 bill in Monopoly money. To understand why, see my church’s certified origin myth, presented in convenient condensed form below. (I REPEAT: THIS IS BORING STUFF. I SUGGEST YOU SKIP IT. I ONLY INCLUDE IT TO EXPLICITLY REFUTE MOROZOV.)
Johnny’s Condensed Open Source Origin Myth: Operating systems control the basic operations of a computing device. They’re important for many reasons, among them is that they’re vital constructs for teaching students of programming and computer science. It the foggy mists of time, there were various operating systems that had two sources: universities and corporations. Operating systems that came out of universities were often underpowered, specialized, or experimental; operating systems from corporations were considered extremely valuable intellectual property, their source code full of trade secrets not to be shared with anybody, least of all college students. Data General had RDOS and AOS. IBM had System 360. Digital had Tops and Decus and VMS. Borroughs and Sperry and a bunch of computer makers long since vanished from the earth had their own specialized operating systems.
Then along came Unix out of Bell Labs, and it had a license that allowed students to view, study, modify, share its source code. Whaddya know, suddenly a whole generation of computer scientists grows up having cut their teeth, so to speak, on Unix. Companies (such as Sun Microsystems) spring up that base their operating systems on Unix. They displace the old dinosaur companies. Stallman writes the GNU operating system. (GNU stands for “GNU’s Not Unix”. Why did Stallman call it that? Maybe because GNU sure as fuck looks like Unix.) But GNU lacks a kernel. Linus Torvalds writes a kernel & calls it Linux. And thus GNU/Linux/Unix displaces every other OS in the world, more or less. And now everything in the whole wide world is Unix of one form or another. But why? Why did Unix displace all those other alternatives? Because Unix was, in many important ways, Open Source. End of Johnny’s Condensed Open Source Creation Myth.
As somebody who wrote operating system manuals both for closed source companies like Data General and for Unix companies like Masscomp and Sun, I can assert that the “openness” of Unix, in the 1980’s, was a new and significant thing that took some getting used to. And furthermore, as somebody who was responsible for much of Sun’s documentation over a period of several years, and as somebody who was involved in the colossal project when Sun moved its code base from BSD Unix (“SunOS”) to System V Unix (“Solaris”), I can tell you that where the industry was going, how things would play out, was very murky indeed. This a period known to us old farts as The Unix Wars, and I won’t bore you any further with it. I only mention it because it bears upon what Morozov says about O’Reilly, because if you buy my argument about the nature of Unix, then Morozov’s obsession with O’Reilly’s influence becomes even more stupid than it appears on the surface, which is already stupid enough.
Say, Where Did that O’Reilly Empire Come From?
Morozov mentions that O’Reilly’s empire is valued at $100 million or so. But I remember the day I met Tim. We were in a meeting at Masscomp (in Westford, Massachusetts. It would be a few more years before Tim moved to California.) I noticed that there were holes in the soles of his penny loafers. I remarked that fact because I too was wearing penny loafers and my shoes also had holes in them. It was just one of those things that you remember: two guys, both young fathers, in the same room wearing loafers with holes in their soles. Anyway, at the time, 1984, O’Reilly & Associates (ORA) was a small consulting company — I think it had about a dozen employees — that specialized in providing technical documentation services for startup companies that did not yet have their own in-house documentation staffs in place. Tim both ran his company and wrote documentation — he was a working manager. It so happened that another fellow, Steve, and I had just joined Masscomp as full-time employees. Eventually responsibility for all the work that Tim & his company had been doing was going to be transferred to me and Steve (and our colleagues as Masscomp’s doc group grew). So that’s what the meeting was about.
A few years later California-based Sun Microsystems opened up an east coast engineering operation in Massachusetts. I left Masscomp for Sun and wound up running the east-coast documentation group. There was too much work for me to do by myself and I didn’t have time to hire a staff. So I called up Tim and I hired O’Reilly & Associates to do the work until I could get my own group up and running.
At some point, if I remember right, Tim didn’t have enough work to keep all of his staff busy, so, rather than lay them off, he assigned them to write “Unix in a Nutshell” and other “Nutshell handbooks”, which he advertised in the back of computer hobbyist magazines. These were small format chapbooks that were assembled by hand in a house in Chestnut Hill that served as ORA headquarters.
One day Tim approached me with a proposition: he wanted to get his hands on a ( (n) already obsolete) Sun 2 computer so that he could typeset his growing line of Nutshell books. But he couldn’t afford one. He asked: would I be able to arrange a barter between ORA and Sun of (technical writing services) for (a used computer)? I was able to, and I did. In fact, I delivered the equipment myself, which is how I came to be in the Chestnut Hill house to observe the Nutshell Handbook book-assembly operation. This was the origins of the O’Reilly publishing empire: a bunch of young hacker kids writing books about Unix, formatting them on a used computer obtained by barter, and stapling them on a kitchen table.
Meanwhile, at Sun, my work responsibilities grew and I began spending more time at Sun’s mother ship in Silicon Valley. At some point, Tim asked me if I would introduce him to some people in the California office about an idea he had about licensing documentation. I gave him the name of the person to talk to and I wrote a three or four sentence letter of introduction for him. Tim then worked some kind of deal with the people on the west coast; I was not party to it. Pretty soon after that O’Reilly & Associates had transitioned completely out of the technical-writing-for-hire business; they were becoming a publisher with a sterling reputation for excellent books about computer technology which hit the market months before anything from the competition. And Tim himself was well on his way to being a star. He and his family moved to California and there he set up the west coast headquarters of his company (leaving the Cambridge, MA office in place). Anyway, those were the favors I did for Tim: I gave a small technical writing contact to his company, I helped him obtain a computer by barter, and I introduced him to some people in Sun’s headquarters in California. Small potatoes.
Please don’t think I’m claiming credit for any of his success. I’m just documenting how we happened to do some business together back in the day, and how I was able to watch him make some very clever moves that gave early indications of the kind of star he would become.
Morozov doesn’t mention any of this stuff. He begins his story with Tim’s empire already worth a hundred million bucks, as if it fell out of the sky or something. Morozov talks about Tim O’Reilly’s prominence as if it were inevitable, preordained. It wasn’t. Morozov mentions the windfall Tim got from the sale of O’Reilly’s Global Nework Navigator, which was kind of the first browser — before there was an HTTP protocol, and nobody had heard of or imagined such a thing as a browser. But that windfall didn’t just happen.
Tim Repays Favors, a Few Times Over, & Why That Matters
I spent nine years at Sun, and during that time O’Reilly’s books took over the world of computers. The company went from literally a handful of young people stapling books on a kitchen table to an international publishing powerhouse within a decade. And the reason for that success was that O’Reilly’s books were always better than anybody else’s, and they appeared on bookstore bookshelves months ahead of the competition.
Sometime during that period I was invited by Tim to interview for the job of Editor in Chief (or something like that) at ORA. ( I don’t remember what the job was, exactly, only that it would have been a big step up for me.) I didn’t get the job. I don’t think I even got a second interview. But the point is, Tim & I were in touch. He thought enough of me to interview me for one of the top spots at his company.
Years later, after I had left Sun, I set out on a career as a writer. I got an advance from O’Reilly & Associates to write a book on software process management. The project didn’t go well. I only finished 1/3 of the draft, and the editor decided to pull the plug. I was not asked to return the advance.
Later I wrote and published my first novel, the aforementioned Acts of the Apostles. By this time O’Reilly & Associates had become O’Reilly Media and was in the business of putting on conferences. I wrote to Tim asking if I could set up a table at one of his shows from which to hawk my books. He said yes and gave me the name of his conference organizer, Andrew, who became a friend and loyal fan of my books. Over the years I was given prominent tables, free of charge, from which to hawk my books at O’Reilly Bioinformatics conferences in Tucson and San Diego, and at O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conferences in Santa Clara and San Jose.
Since my novels are aimed at so-called “alpha geeks,” and since people who are or would like to be alpha geeks (or who just want to bask in their company) congregated at O’Reilly conferences, Tim’s allowing me to sell my books at his conferences was a great kindness. Andrew, the conference manager, promoted my books relentlessly to anybody who passed by. “Buy John’s books! They’re great!” Being at those conferences boosted not only my sales but my visibility and my (nanoscopic) stature in the geek universe. At one O’Reilly conference I shared a table with Stephen Wolfram, Tim’s keynote speaker, whose book A New Kind of Science was making all kinds of waves. I piggy-backed on Wolfram to sell a pile of books. All of which is to say that Tim himself and the O’Reilly team gave me all kinds of opportunities, over many years. I’m grateful to Tim for that.
But although I’ve known Tim for a long time, I don’t know him well. It does seem to me that the guy (Tim) these days has a pretty big ego, which clearly gets under Morozov’s skin. But really, what would you expect? If I had had the kind of career success O’Reilly’s had, I imagine my ego would be pretty big as well. Tim can be snotty. I remember hawking my books at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference in 2003 when Tim walked by my table and said, “John, you’re shameless,” and laughed at me and my hand-lettered signs. It really was a pretty cutting thing to say, and I blushed like a child. But I just said, “Oh yeah, how’d you get your start, Mister Big Guy. You hustled books on street corners too,” as he walked away. It was humiliating, but when you sell books by barking out to passers-by at trade shows you encounter lots of humiliations. It goes with the territory. More importantly, Tim may have been snide, but he bought copies of my books; he paid cash. I have no idea if he ever read them, but who cares. He’s alright by me.
I would have given anything to have O’Reilly, Inc, publish my books, of course. The O’Reilly imprimatur would have helped me sell a hundred thousand copies of my novels, I’m convinced of it. So of course I nagged him a few times, trying to get him to publish my books. Tim told me that he was very skeptical about moving into fiction; he hadn’t had any luck when he tried to branch out from computer books into travel and medical books. (During O’Reilly’s short foray into medical guides, they published a book called something like “The Parents’ Complete Guide to Hydrocephalus”, and it was excellent. That won’t mean a lot to most people, but as the father of someone with that condition, I certainly was very grateful for the book. I was disappointed when the company unceremoniously abandoned that line. But Tim told me how much money he had lost on those ventures, and it was a lot.)
But even though he was dubious about publishing fiction, he delegated decisions about what to publish to his Editor in Chief and told me to speak to him. (That was the late Frank Willison, who liked Acts and invited me to O’Reilly’s East Coast headquarters to talk about it. Although he decided to stay out of the fiction business he did say a few nice words about my book on his blog.)
I have several friends who’ve worked at O’Reilly for decades. Tim and his organization have been generous to me. So on a personal level, I’ve got nothing bad to say about the guy. That doesn’t make Morozov necessarily wrong about Tim’s messages and meme-hustling. I just think Morozov often reads meanings into O’Reilly’s words, meanings that aren’t there. It seems to me that he’s got an idee that’s pretty fixe, and one that doesn’t square with my experience at all.
Dale Doherty is Tim’s close associate from the earliest ORA days. Dale is the publisher of Make Magazine, creator of Maker Faire and a big force in the “maker” movement, which is kind of an intellectual anti-consumerist phenomenon that celebrates the joys of understanding, designing, engineering and making things instead of just buying them. As far back as their days as technical writers, Tim and Dale have always said that they were interested in empowering people with knowledge, bringing people together to learn and share, having fun watching the emergence of new technologies. (Note: Tim is a bonafide hacker himself, co-author of Unix Power Tools, an indispensable book). True, Tim & Dale have also made one hell of a lot of money. But I don’t see that being inconsistent with their other stated values. My whole point is, taking what O’Reilly says about technology at face value makes a lot more sense to me than doing what Morozov says to do, which is to look for the crazy-talk meta-message in everything O’Reilly says and does.
A Few Snapshots of Raymond and Stallman
Eric Raymond and Richard Stallman figure prominently in The Meme Hustler. Here’s my experiences with them. I met Eric Raymond (ESR) at the Geek Pride Festival in Boston in 2000, where I was, you guessed it, hawking my book. Raymond is another person about whom Morozov and I evidently agree. ESR’s a guy with a big ego, some software skills, and an extreme Randian view of the world. At the Geek Pride Festival, Raymond bought a copy of my book and promptly sat down to speed-read it. He finished reading more than half of Acts of the Apostles in about an hour and pronounced it “competent;” he promised to finish reading the rest of it soon and to send me his feedback, which he did a few days later.
Eric Raymond, among other things, esteems himself a connoisseur of literature. When we met at Geek Pride he seemed surprised that I didn’t know who he was (and this was before his The Cathedral and the Bazaar came out, after which he became even more insufferable), and that I didn’t value his opinion over anybody else’s. We exchanged email addresses and continued our conversation through that medium for a short while after he had finished reading it. Our email exchanges were few and increasingly unpleasant; he told me that the book was “immoral and deeply ugly” because it implicitly mocked Libertarian and techno-utopian ideas. Ultimately I deleted his messages and blocked him after he wrote me that I “had blood on my hands” because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer doing drought-relief work in west Africa, helping to deliver emergency food to people at risk of starvation. He was of the opinion that I was culpable because I was fostering dependency. I was of the opinion that he was an asshole. (Being able to say that Eric Raymond found my book politically incorrect helped me sell many copies, by the way. See this review/article about me & my book in Salon, Hacking the Overmind.)
A few years later Eric Raymond and I found ourselves on a panel together at the Arisia Science Fiction Convention, where he was a Guest of Honor that year. If he had any idea who I was or that we had ever communicated, he didn’t show it. I did not remind him that we had met before.
A few years later I was on another panel at another Arisia convention. I don’t remember what the subject was (which is funny since I was the panel organizer), but it was a packed room. Richard Stallman (RMS) was one of the panelists. People had warned me to be prepared for him to be an arrogant jerk, but I found him perfectly pleasant and a model panelist. Anyway, after the panel had concluded, several people approached us at the front of the room and offered to buy copies of my book, of which I just happened to have on hand a small supply. I asked Stallman if he wanted to buy a copy. He told me that instead of selling physical books I should put it online for free download. I replied, “that’s all well and good for you to say, Richard; you’ve got a McArthur Grant and you give speeches at thousands of dollars a pop. Some of us are trying to make a few dollars selling books. What’s wrong with that?” He started to walk away and I added, “by the way, my books are all under Creative Commons license and you can find them for free download all over the net. I just like it better when people buy them.” Whereupon he took out his wallet and bought a copy. He later put up a nice note & a link to my website on his home page.
Why do I recount these encounters? Because Morozov concocts a story of a great Clash of Titans — Tim O’Reily versus Richard Stallman, as if it were Jesus versus Satan or some such. I’ve met these guys. To borrow a line from The Man Who Would be King, “they’re no gods. They’re men like you and me. Why, they can break wind at both ends simultaneous!”
Can We Talk About This “Internet” Thing for a Minute?
In addition to the other concerns in his Baffler rant, Morozov recoils against the idea of the internet itself as an Open Source project — a “fiction” he accuses O’Reilly of promoting for propagandistic reasons. Frankly, I have a hard time understanding Morozov’s point. I know what he has said about the uses of the Internet and related technologies for nefarious reasons by authoritarian regimes and other bad actors, and I share his concerns (again: I was writing about this very subject when he was a child). But I don’t get (and frankly don’t care) why calling the Internet an Open Source project is so objectionable.
Rather than elaborate out another whole technology wonk lesson, I think I’ll simply refer interested readers to perhaps my most popular Wetmachine essay ever, this first-hand account of the FCC hearing on Net Neutrality that took place at Harvard in 2008.
Many of the Internet’s original architects were there and spoke as expert witnesses. Read (above) what they have to say about how the Internet was designed and how it actually works, and see if you can figure out how this is so horribly incompatible with the ideas behind free and/or open source software. I certainly can’t.
SO Let’s Complete the Circle, Shall We, and Transcend the Machines in Our Midst?
I went to SXSW in 2010 to host a panel on the future of the self-published novel. It went OK; I had fun in Austin. Among other things I enjoyed seeing Bruce Sterling in full rant mode, hollering out “Boomers, shut up!” to a ballroom full of people in which he and I were the only two people who looked old enough to be baby boomers. (Sterling had written of my practice of going to geek conclaves and “hand-selling” my books that I was “the future of printed fiction” — but that’s another story.)
I later went to see Tim O’Reilly being interviewed on the main SXSW stage in packed grand ballroom. He was like the oracle or something, a hushed crowd of hundreds waiting on his every word. The main topic of the interview was Tim’s conceit of Government as Platform, that Eric-Raymond-named topic that Tim’s been going on about these last several years and which seems to so irritate Evgeny Morozov. Sitting in the audience, I didn’t think that O’Reilly said anything especially profound that day, but neither did I think he said anything very obnoxious. I thought he was pretty interesting. The thing I most clearly recall was his contrasting the idea of “government as vending machine” (you put your money in in the form of taxes, you get the product in the form of services) versus a true participatory government in which we all not only pay taxes, but work together as citizens to solve common problems. Morozov insists on saying this calling for citizens to be involved in their own government is a kind of crypto-Randianism on O’Reilly’s part. He says that when O’Reilly calls for us all to be engaged with a “governmental platform”, he’s implying that we should all just fill our own potholes and so forth, let the magical market solve all problems and the commonwealth be damned. And if Tim were indeed saying that — which is basically the standard Republican line in 2013 –then indeed that would be bad, in my opinion.
But I didn’t hear Tim say that at all. I thought he was simply making a case for participatory democracy, using all available technology, including the Internet. His message didn’t sound especially pernicious to me. I though he was saying, more or less, “Hey, we citizens, we have to use our government, and technology, and our ingenuity, and our elbow grease, to solve all the problems that beset us. But don’t discount the technology part.” Sounds good to me. But hey, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I’m a volunteer firefighter, so maybe I’m just a sucker.
Anyway, after Tim’s interview I went up to say hello and thanks for the talk. He said hello, clearly didn’t recognize me, then leaned over to read the name on the badge on the lanyard around my neck. He saw my name, laughed, turned on his heel walked a few steps and began talking to somebody else. No, “Hi, John, how are ya? How’s the family?” He just laughed in my face and turned away, as if I were a punchline to some kind of lame joke.
What do I make of that? I don’t make anything of it. Does Tim O’Reilly think I’m a joke or a moocher or something? Was he afraid I was going to impose on him for some kind of favor? I hope not, but how would I know? Maybe he just wanted to talk to any of the other umpteen people trying to get a minute of his time. He was being mobbed, as I guess he is frequently. I can’t say it left me with a warm feeling when he turned his back on me; I certainly don’t enjoy being snubbed. But what the hell do I care if he doesn’t act all chummy? He’s already done me any number of significant favors. He doesn’t owe me anything.
All these anecdotes aside, here’s my summary of why I think Morozov’s Baffler story is pompous, shallow, unfair, error-filled and hysterical.
- It’s pompous because Morozov implies that only he, Evgeny Morozov, can see though O’Reilly’s flam-flam.
- It’s shallow because it doesn’t get into the meat of any of O’Reilly’s arguments. What were Tim’s substantive opinions about SOPA and CSPA, for example? Who knows? Morozov doesn’t tell us. With Morozov it’s all about the “meta”. That’s just bullshit.
- It’s unfair because Morozov accuses O’Reilly of being an Eric Raymond-style “devil take the hindmost” Randian Libertarian nut-job, without producing any real evidence. The closest he can come is one or two ambiguous statements from O’Reilly and a lot of guilt by association. Furthermore he accuses Tim of being a propagandist because he “hustles memes”, but please, what does Morozov do for a living if not hustle memes? Come on. They’re both guys who are in the business of influencing opinions. If Tim O’Reilly is a meme hustler, then so is Evgeny Morozov. Give me a break.
- It’s error-filled in the sense that lacks any historical sense of what “closed source” and “open source” actually meant in the years before 1998 or so. The foundation of his argument is full of cracks. He’s simply wrong about what happened.
- And it’s hysterical because (a) it imputes to O’Reilly all kinds of influence that he does not in fact have. Tim O’Reilly does not own a television network. He does not have a TV show. He is not the President of the United States of America, or even a Senator with a the power to pocket-veto by putting a hold on legislation. He’s just some guy who has opinions about some stuff and who happens to be a very shrewd businessman, and (b) it implies that the whole fate of humanity hangs on the finer nuances of the relative epistemologies of “free software” and “open source” software. This makes the resolution of the theological battle between the Name Glorifiers and Name Fighters seem positively “vital for your everyday life” by comparison. We should be concerned about Mr. O’Reilly because he hijacked the phrase “Open Source”? Really, Evgeny? What are you going to tell us next, that Led Zeppelin didn’t actually invent the blues?
On the Folly of the Folly of Technological Solutionism
I want to wrap up by talking about what Morozov calls “the folly of technological solutionism”, something on which Morozov and I are of similar mindsets. For decades now I’ve been a fan of Steve Talbott, editor of the NETFUTURE newsletter, whose subject is “Science, Technology, and Human Responsibility.” Steve is a deep thinker and earnest fellow who lives mostly “off the grid.” I used to get Netfuture as a monthly email newsletter (which one wag called “Steve’s anti-email email”) until one day Steve announced that he was reverting to paper and no longer using email.
A while back Steve wrote a book called “The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending The Machines in our Midst”.
I don’t always agree with Steve Talbott, but I respect him and like him and appreciate the playful seriousness he brings to the subjects he writes about. He’s an actual philosopher, and a kindhearted one. In many ways he reminds me of Neal Postman, an author of who Morozov thinks highly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Morozov were to like Talbot’s book and newsletter.
I haven’t seen Steve in a long time, but I used to work with him quite closely. In fact, he was in that meeting with me on the day I met Tim O’Reilly. Yes, Steve Talbot and I were Masscomp’s first two full-time tech writers (aside from hiring manager Janet Egan); we took over Tim’s documentation project. Steve, originally a full-time organic farmer, was a self-taught and highly skilled programmer and technical writer; he showed me Unix source code and taught me how to read it. He came from the farm, and after a dozen years or so in high-tech land, Steve went “back to the land”.
Perhaps you’ve guessed the punchline by now. O’Reilly & Associates was the publisher of The Future Does Not Compute, a great book about the folly of technological solutionism twenty or so years before Morozov’s. Tim O’Reilly himself was the editor of The Future Does Not Compute. For indeed, after leaving Masscomp ( a company with which a few other O’Reilly editors and authors had connections), Steve Talbott went to work for Tim at ORA, and there helped to bring about some of those first O’Reilly books whose unrivaled clarity, timeliness, and utility helped put O’Reilly and Associates on the map as the publisher in the realm of software.
Here is a paragraph from the Acknowledgements page to The Future Does Not Compute, written by Steve Talbott.
Special thanks are owing to Tim O’Reilly, president of O’Reilly & Associates, who is not only my publisher and editor, but also my employer. Tim read through the manuscript several times, offering incisive commentary and helping me find my way — often hollering and clawing at the keyboard — toward a proper balance. Despite the fact that my views are not his views, he devoted far more of his resources toward enabling me to write this book than he has any reasonable hope of recovering. He believed the book is important. That stance of conviction symbolizes a good part of the reason why I work for O’Reilly & Associates.
Stupid Talk about Crazy Talk
Morozov’s whole thesis about O’Reilly is that O’Reilly is dangerous because he fosters crazy talk in the Neil Postman sense:
In his 1976 book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, Neil Postman pointed to a certain linguistic imperialism that propels crazy talk. For Postman, each human activity—religion, law, marriage, commerce—represents a distinct “semantic environment” with its own tone, purpose, and structure. Stupid talk is relatively harmless; it presents no threat to its semantic environment and doesn’t cross into other ones. Since it mostly consists of falsehoods and opinions “given by one fallible human being about the remarks of another fallible human being,” it can be easily corrected with facts. For example, to say that Tehran is the capital of Iraq is stupid talk. Crazy talk, in contrast, challenges a semantic environment, as it “establishes different purposes and assumptions from those we normally accept.” To argue, as some Nazis did, that the German soldiers ended up far more traumatized than their victims is crazy talk.
I think Postman’s point is valid and insightful, which ultimately is why I bothered to write this little essay about Morozov’s corruption of it. For Morozov debases Postman with his jeremiad about Tim O’Reilly. In the first place, as I think I’ve shown, O’Reilly is not, in fact, the cartoon “technology solutionist” that Morozov paints him to be, and O’Reilly’s talk is therefore not “crazy talk” in the Postman sense. It just isn’t.
But more importantly, if Morozov were serious about crazy talkers, he would have turned his attention on people whose crazy talk is truly dangerous. The world is full of them, and indeed, so is the United States Senate. In a world full of war and mayhem, where the the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million, who in their right mind gives a shit whether RMS’s or Tim O’Reilly’s use of the phrase “Open Source” to describe software licensing is more correct? Really, who gives a shit? You want to see a real crazy-talker in action? Check out the selected writings and speeches of Jim Inhofe, Senator from Oklahoma, who thinks that man can’t affect the climate because God won’t allow it. That man is a bonafide crazy-talker, and, as a U.S. Senator, in a position to do a lot more real damage than Tim O’Reilly can. People like him may end human civilization.
I hope it’s clear that that’s why I’ve taken the trouble to write this rebuttal of sorts. It isn’t to defend the honor of Tim O’Reilly, an influential, well-connected and articulate multi-millionaire who can speak for himself. Rather, I wrote this because Morozov bugs me. He’s a huckster who is both giving a bad name to techno-skepticism and distracting our attention from the much greater issues at hand with his pseudo-intellectual blather.
So why doesn’t Morozov go after the likes of Inhofe? I don’t know, but I have a guess: Inhofe is already understood to be a dangerous crazy-talker by much of the rational world. You’re not going to make a name for yourself as an edgy techno-hip contrarian by taking down Jim Inhofe. The enlightened people already understand how and why Inhofe is dangerous, a crazy talker. The challenge now is to find some way to get through to the millions of people who think Inhofe is credible. How do we get through to them in time to save the planet? That’s a tough nut to crack. TED darling Tim O’Reilly on the other hand? A potshot at him (if you’re TED Fellow Evgeny Morozov) is sure to get you plenty of television exposure, and more. Even if everything you’re saying is stupid.
[Update: I’ve made a dozen or two typo-corrections & slight editorial revisions for clarity since first posting this. I should also point out that Tim O’Reilly has posted tweets to me, apologizing for any perceived snubs and saying that he meant “shameless” as a compliment to my hustling. I accept Tim’s remarks at face value.]