Critical Web Literacies

« Speaking

On October 25, 2018, I gave a talk at Learning On/With The Open Web, a one-day MozFest fringe event celebrating the open web and held at the Coventry Transport Museum. The abstract:

It’s easy to be distracted by the novelty of the web, to be taken in by its apparent virtuality. Ultimately, though, this virtuality is itself virtual. The internet could not exist without its material underpinnings, which means that the way it works is shaped by material concerns – namely, the drive for capital accumulation.

So what does this have to do with the open web? First, we need to recognise that our very conception of “openness” is conditioned by the material circumstances of the world we currently inhabit. In this era of entrenched neoliberalism, where privatisation is the norm and wealth inequality appears unchallengeable, we take for granted that most of the infrastructure of the web – from the physical cables, to the digital platforms – is owned by a few multinational corporations. As a result, this privatised landscape of the internet appears natural and inevitable – the only way things could be – rather than the outcome of political choices. This has implications for how we understand the “open web”, and limits what it could be.

The aim of this talk is to foster a critical understanding of the web, going beyond the purely technical details to sketch out the political economy of digital infrastructure. The goal will be to challenge our preconceived notions of what the internet is and could be, in order to suggest a more radical interpretation of the “open web” that we could be fighting for.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of my talk. If you prefer audio, you can find a video of it here.

I’ll be taking this discussion in a slightly different direction. My talk won’t be about using the open web. Instead, I’d like to take a step back and deconstruct the very concept of the open web as we understand it. Then, in its place, I’d like to construct a more radical idea of “openness”, in order to show the difference between what the web is now and what it could be.

I should start by saying that I was quite surprised when I was asked to speak at this event. I’m a writer, and I write about tech, but I don’t write about the open web, or digital literacy, or pedagogy. Instead my main focus is on the political economy of tech, a topic that I approach from a very critical perspective. A lot of my writing over the last year has been about the downsides of technological development being driven by corporations. Not only in terms of making all the decisions and accruing all the wealth, but also in the way they shape the ideological landscape. The tech companies that have profited massively from the emergence of the internet - who are now among the world’s most valuable companies - have become so naturalised that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. And I think that constrains our imaginations when we try to reimagine the web. It limits our understanding of what’s possible.

And so, when people talk about the “open web”, I instinctively kind of wince. Not because I think it’s a bad thing, to be clear. I don’t think a “closed web” is in any way desirable. It’s more that I think the open web, as it’s currently formulated, is not enough. So I guess that’s why I’ve been asked to speak on this - it’s useful to have a critical voice sometimes.

I think we need to investigate the concept of openness, and identify its limitations as a progressive ideal. Specifically, we need to understand how the term gets co-opted by corporations, which results in the term being watered down in a way that limits its radical potential.

In a 2013 book by filmmaker and activist Astra Taylor called The People’s Platform - which I highly recommend - there’s a section on the limitations of “openness” in the context of Facebook, which likes to justify itself by saying it’s making the world more “open and connected”. Taylor talks about the history of the term, which originally came from the world of software production:

the designation “open source” was invented to rebrand free software as business friendly, foregrounding efficiency and economic benefits (open as in open markets) over ethical concerns (the freedom of free software). In keeping with this transformation, openness is often invoked in a way that evades discussions of ownership and equity, highlighting individual agency over commercial might and ignoring underlying power imbalances.

Now, I didn’t always believe this. I had a bit of an unusual journey to get to my current perspective, which included a long detour through the land of techno-optimism. See, these days my focus is on writing about tech, about the problems I see in tech. But I only started doing that quite recently.

Before that, I was a software developer. I started coding when I was 12, and spent most of my adolescent years on my computer, building websites or talking to people on IRC. I studied computer science in uni, I did a software engineering internship at Google in San Francisco, I went to tech conferences, I worked on open source projects in my free time. I would read Hacker News every day.

Basically I was all set up for an extremely lucrative career in Silicon Valley. After I interned at Google, in 2013, I was given a return offer which meant that I could go back to uni, finish my final year, then immediately working full-time at Google in the Bay Area.

Everyone kept telling me that this was an amazing opportunity. But I wasn’t really excited about it. My experience during my internship was a quite disillusioning. Sure, the pay and the perks are incredible, and you get a lot of autonomy. But it was also quite stifling. And more than that, it just felt really hollow and empty. Just devoid of any real purpose. I felt like a cog in a giant machine that was too big to understand and too big to control. Where was it going? Was it actually making the world a better place? I didn’t know. I kind of just had to take it on faith. Everyone I talked to seemed to think it was, and I figured they couldn’t all be wrong.

But there was always part of me that wanted something more. Some sort of moral purpose beyond trying to increase shareholder value, which was all I could really discern at Google. Its motto at the time may have been “Don’t be evil” - since removed, by the way - but I was starting to realise that “not being evil” was not the same thing as being good.

I think I just wanted some sort of higher purpose for my programming skills than being just another employee at a huge corporation that had long ceased to have any laudable societal goals. And maybe that was silly, maybe it was impractical, but it was something that I had picked up during my time in the open source community as a teenager. I fell into open source when I was just starting to get into programming and the whole community around it, and I fell hard. I read books like Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture; Richard Stallman’s Free Software, Free Society; Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

I was a true believer. The ideas behind the free software movement felt so obvious to me - intellectual property was obviously bad. Openness - sharing source code, and knowledge - was obviously good. Corporations like Microsoft or Apple who relied on proprietary software, and keeping users in the dark, were the enemy.

And so I spent a lot of time in the open source community: writing code, helping out other people, going to meetups. Eventually, it dawned on me that the movement as it existed in reality didn’t quite live up to the ideals that I had fallen in love with.

There’s this conference that takes place every year in Portland called the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, which is meant to be a celebration of free and open source software. I first went in 2011, and again in 2012, on behalf of this one open source project I was volunteering with. The second year I went, I was quite shocked at how much more corporate sponsorship there was. I remember Microsoft had this huge booth in the centre of the exposition hall: they had this drone flying around and salespeople trying to convince us to use Microsoft products. Lunch was sponsored by some customer relationship management software. The physical area that they dedicated to actual open source projects - theoretically the conference’s reason for existing - had actually shrunk, in absolute terms.

It was unsettling. For me, it confirmed that open source, which was ostensibly about openness and freedom and production outside the corporate form, was being co-opted by corporations. I was starting to realise that the open source movement - which was basically all that remained of the original free software movement, the variant of it that had gone mainstream - was about refuge, not agency. It wasn’t about challenging corporations. It was about hiding from them. At best, it was carving out a little spot outside the realm of the corporation where you could talk about how corporations were bad.

But you can’t feed yourself on anti-corporation sentiment. The open source project that I spent most of my time involved with got some money from donations, but most of its money came from advertising. And most of the work was provided by volunteer labour - people like me who lived at home and didn’t really need money, or people who eked out a few hours a week in between their day job.

The point is that it wasn’t sustainable, in material terms, to avoid corporate money. And if you look at what’s happened lately - how open source is funded today - well, a lot of open source development is funded by huge corporations. They’re paying developers to work on open source projects, either directly - through employment - or indirectly, through donations. Plus, Microsoft, long the enemy of open source, recently announced that it was open-sourcing its entire patent portfolio.

Now, there are two ways of looking at this. One is to think, great, open source has won! Even Microsoft has been won over. Openness as a virtue has prevailed and we should all celebrate.

But I think there’s a fundamental incompatibility here. I don’t think corporation sponsorship and acceptance of open source is something to celebrate. If anything, it’s a pyrrhic victory. If you take the ideals behind the free software movement to their logical conclusion, you see a glimpse of a radically different world, one where you don’t need corporations like Microsoft to donate their patents because they never had the ability to do so in the first place. Where you don’t have to beg corporations for scraps in order to fund the open source projects they rely on, because these corporations were never allowed to amass that wealth in the first place.

But that world never materialised. And I think the reasons for this failure are instructive when it comes to the idea of the “open web” more broadly. Because “openness” on its own is not enough when you’re an on unequal power terrain. Unless it is directly aimed in the direction of power - unless the goal is to challenge power - then it will merely entrench existing power relations. If the goal is merely to co-exist harmoniously alongside its opposite - that is, corporations whose entire commercial advantage comes from being closed off - then it will get subsumed.

The question, then, is what is the goal of this openness. Openness as a means to achieving what, exactly? Achieving freedom? But freedom means different things to different actors. And some freedoms are incompatible. My freedom as a hobbyist may come into tension with the freedom of corporations to commercialise and commodify everything it touches. My freedom as a consumer may come into tension with other people’s freedom as producers, as workers.

Now I want to explore this last point in more detail, because it’s one that frequently gets lost in conversations about the internet. When we talk about the internet - the benefits of it, the dangers it brings - it’s almost always within the context of consumption. When talk about what the internet has given us, we talk about Wikipedia giving us instantaneous access to knowledge. We talk about Twitter and Facebook and email giving us the ability to communicate with people on the other side of the world. We talk about its equalising potential for social mobility, the idea that anyone who has access to a computer can learn to code and get a six-figure job in the Valley. We talk about the wave of entrepreneurship and innovation that it’s spurred, the way digital natives can unleash the power of mobile apps and the internet to create billion dollar companies in record amounts of time.

But rarely do we talk about the other side of the story. When we glorify what the web has brought us as consumers, we obscure what the costs have been for producers. The benefits that the web has brought have come at a cost, and it’s not a cost that’s evenly spread. Time to descend, then, into the hidden abode of production, as Marx would say. Time to look at the material costs of the new information age that we’ve been ushered into. Which means looking more closely at the corporations that have benefited from the internet, that have built their empires by privatising more and more of the web in exchange for some addictive smartphone apps.

For most of us in this room, our interactions with the web are primarily at the surface level, at the level of the consumer. If we interact as producers, it’s usually as producers of content - we build software, send emails, write articles. Our experiences are mediated by this very high-level form of interaction, and that makes us forget what’s actually happening underneath: the very real exploitation and inequality that has been enabled by the internet.

So let’s talk about the companies that have gone from dorm room startups to global behemoths by capitalising on the internet. You know the ones i’m talking about. All of these companies are, to a greater or lesser extent, built on a global empire of underpaid labour:

— Please read Flat Earth News (@angryaboutbikes) October 19, 2018

Apple’s trillion-dollar valuation wasn’t created out of thin air by Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, and focusing on the stereotype of tech wealth as being created by geniuses at the top is a sleight of hand, one that distracts us from the exploitation of the powerless that’s happening underneath. The internet may have brought untold wealth to Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and opportunities for countless other people, but that wealth isn’t trickling down to all those who actually create it, and the opportunities aren’t evenly distributed.

The coltan miners in Congo, factory workers in China, warehouse workers at Amazon, Uber drivers who work under punishing conditions - they’re not being featured on the cover of TIME Magazine or giving TED talks about making the world a better place. And when it comes to the more “virtual” companies like Google and Facebook - well, their profits don’t materialise out of thin air, either. They come from advertising - i.e., getting a cut of the costs of commodities that are actually being sold. Which means they, too, are complicit in these global neo-imperialist chains of commodity production.

All this is to say that the web isn’t some cloud floating above the physical world of resource exploitation and sweatshop labour. Rather, it’s an extension of those same principles into the digital domain. When you look more closely, you see that basically all of these companies are complicit. This event is meant to be a fringe event for MozFest - well, where does Mozilla get their money from? Most of their revenue comes from Google, from bundling their search engine into Firefox.

That’s not to say that these companies are inherently evil, or that we should hold them responsible. They aren’t the ones who created these global value chains. But they’ve only been able to accumulate as much wealth as they have by virtue of their position at the top of these global value chains. Even if weren’t originally responsible for them, they are profiteering from them in a way that entrenches them.

And I’m sure this is obvious to some people here. But for me, as someone who’d grown up drinking the tech kool-aid, who idolised people like Elon Musk, this honestly came as a shock to me.

See, I’d always thought technology was supposed to be about progress, and freedom, and emancipation - because it was for me. But the overarching function of technology in a capitalist system is a lot more prosaic. It’s an outlet for surplus capital, a way for capital to make returns by coming up with more and more inventive commodities for people to consume. And at the same time, it’s a way to squeeze more surplus value out of labour, through enhanced surveillance and automation. The web has become merely the latest territory to be enclosed by capital.

Returning to the concept of the open web. I think once you understand the current landscape - once you see how it’s been captured by corporations that commodify more and more of the web in order to maximise shareholder value - you see that the liberal conception of “openness” is not enough. It’s not enough to build a sheltered kind of microcosm in which to take refuge, one that exists within the interstices of the system. Because capital has no imperative other than to expand, and in the process, it will warp the very idea of openness into one that suits its agenda. Openness becomes a corporate buzzword, a way to justify increasing wealth and power, and in the process loses all meaning.

So, to conclude. We’re living in an era of stark wealth inequality. The internet has not ameliorated the problem - in fact, it’s made it worse. But that’s not because of something inherently wrong with the internet. It’s because of the social and economic system in which it exists. A system that celebrates private enterprise and dismisses the concept of the public good. A system that tolerates or even glorifies extreme inequality as a necessity for innovation.

The beauty of the concept of the open web is that lets us imagine a different system, an entirely different world, characterised by ideals other than profit maximisation - ideals based on sharing and community and creating social value.

But the corporations that are currently controlling and profiting from the web - they will only allow that to happen on their terms, insofar as it doesn’t interfere with their profit margins. And there’s a point at which the needs of corporations cannot be reconciled with the driving ideals behind the open web - where the two cannot coexist. And that’s the point where we have to decide - do we allow these corporate monoliths to commodify more and more of our digital lives while heavily exploiting their workers when they think they can get away with it? Or can we fight our way to a world without them, where the web truly is for everyone?