Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2015

Big Data

Filed under: computers,Internet — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

On March 24th Art Francisco posted a link to a NY Times article on my Facebook timeline about Facebook hosting news feeds that read in part:

With 1.4 billion users, the social media site has become a vital source of traffic for publishers looking to reach an increasingly fragmented audience glued to smartphones. In recent months, Facebook has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.

Such a plan would represent a leap of faith for news organizations accustomed to keeping their readers within their own ecosystems, as well as accumulating valuable data on them. Facebook has been trying to allay their fears, according to several of the people briefed on the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were bound by nondisclosure agreements.

This prompted Art to raise the following question:

Facebook is a 21st century social network and news medium owned and operated by our ruling class. Don’t we need a social network and news medium that is for the working class?

Louis N. Proyect, you’re a well known facebook pundit on the left, what do you think? Does facebook serve the needs of the movement, or can we do better?

I was glad to hear from Art since it reminded me that I wanted to write about this matter ever since Greg Grandin’s article on “The Anti-Socialist Origins of Big Data” appeared in The Nation on October 23, 2014. Greg’s article took up in turn a New Yorker article by Evgeny Morozov on the Salvador Allende’s planners making extensive use of computers for economic development as part of Project Cybersyn, the brainchild of cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, whose “Designing Freedom”—about his work in Chile—I read some twenty years ago. I was interested in what Beer had to say since my colleagues and I had been involved in a similar project but on a much smaller scale in Sandinista Nicaragua.

We learn from Greg that big corporations appropriated the technology but for contrary ends:

Morozov makes the case that, ironically, it is in Allende’s Project Cybersyn that one can trace the beginning of today’s use of computers by our hyper-linked, consumer-desire economy, by Amazon’s “anticipatory shipping,” Uber and the like, as well as new schemes of “algorithmic regulation” cooked up by neoliberal urban planners, who want to “replace rigid rules issued by out-of-touch politicians with fluid and personalized feedback lops generated by gadget-wielding customers.” Project Cybersyn looks like a “dispatch from the future.” “The socialist origins of big data,” runs a teaser for Morozov’s essay.

Greg supplements Morozov’s customary techno-pessimism by pointing out that computers were used by Pinochet to keep track of the left as part of its overall counterrevolutionary mission.

But there’s a part of the story that Morozov misses, concerning the darker side of the pervasiveness of “big data” in our daily lives. He writes that when Augusto Pinochet staged his Washington-backed coup on September 11, 1973, overthrowing Allende and installing his long dictatorship, he dismantled Project Cybersyn. “Pinochet,” Morozov writes, “had no need for real-time centralized planning.”

But he did have a need for computers, which, Cybersyn notwithstanding, were rare in Latin America in the early 1970s. Washington began to provide Latin America’s right-wing dictatorships with the latest in computer technology, as part of its larger campaign to “modernize” and “professionalize” their intelligence agencies.

Of course, this was not the first time fascists used electronic recordkeeping for repressive ends. Edwin Black’s “IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation” demonstrates that the same tab machines being used by insurance companies and banks in the USA were put to use in the Third Reich’s census, which kept track of Jews.

For that matter, the Internet itself was Satan’s Spawn to begin with, when you stop and think about it. It evolved out of ARPANET, a Pentagon project that was designed to link remote computers through a network using TCP/IP.

Morozov has become something of a prophet of doom when it comes to the Internet. In books such as “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” and “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism” and countless articles in Slate, the New Republic, and major media, he issues jeremiads that remind me a bit of the classic New Yorker cartoon with some guy in a long robe, wearing a beard, and carrying a sign—this time with the words “Forsake Twitter to Save Your Soul” or some such thing.

Of course, there’s plenty of grist for his mill with people like Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos controlling much of the software we use to communicate and buy things, plus vultures like Time-Warner and Verizon looking after the infrastructure. In an article about FB banning anonymity, Morozov calls for something that sounds like Art Francisco’s “Don’t we need a social network and news medium that is for the working class?”

It’s time that citizens articulate a vision for a civic Internet that could compete with the dominant corporatist vision. Do we want to preserve anonymity to help dissidents or do we want to eliminate it so that corporations stop worrying about cyber-attacks? Do we want to build new infrastructure for surveillance—hoping it will lead to a better shopping experience—that would be abused by data-hungry governments? Do we want to enhance serendipitous discovery, to ensure exposure to new and controversial ideas, to maximize our ability to think critically about what we see and read on the Net.

Maybe because I was a software developer for 44 years and know what it is involved to create a crappy little financial system for Goldman-Sachs or Columbia University, this sort of proposal strikes me as utterly utopian. As long as we live under capitalism, we are going to have to rely on technology that is a double-edged sword.

It is not only the Internet that is subject to government surveillance. Long before there was an Internet, the left was obsessed over wiretapping. In the SWP, our comrades used to joke about it when we called each other to discuss some antiwar demonstration we were organizing. We were so sure that the FBI was listening in on our conversations, we’d make wisecracks like “FBI, get off our phone call.”

It wasn’t just the phone that was problematic. There was also mail. We assumed that the FBI was opening our mail when it saw fit. But why would we stop using the telephone or the post office to help organize our activity? What would be the alternative? Carrier pigeon? Tin cans connected by waxed string?

I have a different take on these questions, influenced to a large extent by what Lenin wrote (as opposed to what Leninists write.) In “What is to be Done”, he proposed organizational norms that conformed to changes in the mode of production. The “Economists” who preferred struggles to be localized at the plant gate level were a reflection of the more primitive, handicrafts phase of Russian capitalism when shops were smaller and more isolated. He noticed the great concentration of large factories in major cosmopolitan centers and concluded that a more professional and more generalized approach was needed in line with the changed circumstances.

Economism belonged to Russia’s past; orthodox Marxism was the way forward. He saw modern social democracy as corresponding to the highly complex and specialized nature of modern mass production. He saw socialist parties as the working-class equivalent of large-scale industrial plants. A centrally-managed, large-scale division of labor was needed to move the struggle forward, just as it was necessary to construct steam locomotives. Lenin was no enemy of capitalist technology and mechanization. Rather he sought to appropriate its positive features whenever necessary.

If the Social Democracy of the early 20th century was a reflection of “Fordist” advances over earlier small-scale manufacturing, isn’t there a need to rethink how we are organized today in light of post-Fordist production, and networked technologies more specifically? If the bourgeoisie relies more and more on such advances for its own purposes, why should the working class be afraid of “being abused by data-hungry governments” as Morozov puts it?

In fact the activists using IPhones to record police brutality for Youtube or Facebook to organize protests do not need to read Lenin to get the green light to build movements that take advantage of the Internet. Our task as Marxists is to help the scattered movements unite into a mighty and united force that is capable of transforming society—in essence the same task that existed in Czarist Russia in 1903 but within the context of less advanced tools.

 

2 Comments »

  1. “Our task as Marxists is to ….” Are you saying that because it is true, or because the FBI is listening, or both? 😉

    Comment by Left Overs t — March 27, 2015 @ 11:32 pm

  2. Despite all the downsides, I think that electronic media actually offers more avenues for organizers and dissidents to protect their internal communications than phone lines and snail mail. Anonymizers like Tails/Tor (or commercial VPNs) and messaging apps like Threema and Telegram with end-to-end encryption should be used far more widely by the left when engaging in the more sensitive aspects of planning and coordinating (although, ultimately, there will be nothing “secret” about calling for mass march or protest). I certainly think people trying to organize unions within their given enterprise should use the aforementioned technology, since that certainly requires some secure communication…

    Comment by Gyzyl gardan — April 6, 2015 @ 2:25 am


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