Doctorow’s Definition of “Techno-Optimism” Is Full of Fear & False Choices

by on May 3, 2011 · 7 comments

I’ve spent a great deal of time here defending “techno-optimism” or “Internet optimism” against various attacks through the years, so I was interested to see Cory Doctorow, a novelist and Net activist, take on the issue in a new essay at Locus Online.  I summarized my own views on this issue in two recent book chapters. Both chapters appear in The Next Digital Decade and are labeled “The Case for Internet Optimism.” Part 1 is sub-titled “Saving the Net From Its Detractors” and Part 2 is called “Saving the Net From Its Supporters.” More on my own thoughts in a moment. But let’s begin with Doctorow’s conception of the term.

Doctorow defines “techno-optimism” as follows:

In order to be an activist, you have to be… pessimistic enough to believe that things will get worse if left unchecked, optimistic enough to believe that if you take action, the worst can be prevented. […]

Techno-optimism is an ideology that embodies the pessimism and the optimism above: the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.

What this definition suggests is that Doctorow has a very clear vision of what constitutes “good” vs. “bad” technology or technological developments. He turns to that dichotomy next as he seeks to essentially marry “techno-optimism” to a devotion to the free/open software movement and a rejection of “proprietary technology”:

There are many motivations for contributing to free/open software, but the movement’s roots are in this two-sided optimism/pessimism: pessimistic enough to believe that closed, proprietary technology will win the approval of users who don’t appreciate the dangers down the line (such as lock-in, loss of privacy, and losing work when proprietary technologies are orphaned); optimistic enough to believe that a core of programmers and users can both create polished alternatives and win over support for them by demonstrating their superiority and by helping people understand the risks of closed systems.

In other words, recalling his definition of techno-optimism, Doctorow is basically saying that the way we “steer” technology to “make the world better” is by taking steps to foster or favor “open” technologies over “closed” ones:

It falls to techno-optimists to do two things: first, improve the alternatives and; second, to better articulate the risks of using unsuitable tools in hostile environments. … Herein lies the difference between a ‘‘technology activist’’ and ‘‘an activist who uses technology’’ — the former prioritizes tools that are safe for their users; the latter prioritizes tools that accomplish some activist goal. The trick for technology activists is to help activists who use technology to appreciate the hidden risks and help them find or make better tools. That is, to be pessimists and optimists: without expert collaboration, activists might put themselves at risk with poor technology choices; with collaboration, activists can use technology to outmaneuver autocrats, totalitarians, and thugs.

I have no problem with Doctorow issuing a clarion call to programmers to “find or make better tools.” Power to him and the developers who take him up on the request. But I do have a problem with the sort of ‘you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us’ sort of attitude Doctorow adopts here and in much of his past writing, which attempts to force a false choice upon us regarding “open” vs. “closed” digital technologies.

The irony of Doctorow’s definition of “techno-optimism” is that, as he notes, it’s actually rooted in the fairly pessimistic belief that unless we do something to affect the balance between “open vs. closed” technology then “technology could be used to make the world worse,” he says. I think that view is myopic and misguided for several reasons.

First, I think it’s a mistake to tether “techno-optimism” to overly binary conceptions of “good vs. bad” / “open vs. closed” technology. I spent a great deal of time in the second of my two “Case for Internet Optimism” chapters addressing the group of thinkers that I refer to as “Openness Evangelicals,” or those who believe that “Openness” is almost always The Good; anything “closed” (restricted or proprietary) in nature is The Bad. In a sense, it’s tantamount to picking (or at least favoring) technological winners and losers regardless of what others prefer and voluntarily choose to use because it gives them greater satisfaction.

Second, there are no clear definitions of “openness” or “closedness” (if that’s even a word); both are matters of degree. You can call Apple and Facebook “closed” — and they certainly are in many senses of the term — but they are not nearly as “closed” or “proprietary” as the communications devices or platforms of the past. To put it in Zittrainian parlance, “generativity” continues to thrive even in environments or on platforms that are “closed” is some ways. Almost all modern digital devices and networks feature some generative and “non-generative” attributes. “No one has ever created, and no one will ever create, a system that allows any user to create anything he or she wants.  Instead, every system designer makes innumerable tradeoffs and imposes countless constraints,” note James Grimmelmann and Paul Ohm.“Every generative technology faces … tradeoffs.  Good system designers always restrict generativity of some kinds in order to encourage generativity of other kinds.  The trick is in striking the balance,” they argue.

And most companies now have stronger incentives to strike a better balance between “open” vs. “closed.” Attempting to completely lock-down digital innovation or “generativity” on any platform these days would be a kiss of death. Netizens have come to expect a fair degree of freedom to tinker with and to configure digital technologies in unique ways. That’s why the general progression of things is increasingly toward more “openness,” even if it’s not the perfect openness that Doctorow and others seem to demand.

In this regard, I find it interesting that Doctorow never mentions Twitter in his essay. After all, it’s a somewhat closed system, and seems to be growing more closed in some ways as it searches for a sustainable business model. And yet Twitter — which Doctorow uses aggressively himself — allows for an amazingly “open” channel of constant, instantaneous human communication. By most accounts, it has been a true “technology of freedom” and helped advance importance causes of various sorts.

Will Twitter’s proprietary API make it easier for the company to eventuate manipulate users, or for governments to co-opt for their own nefarious ends?  That seems to be the horror story the Openness Evangelicals want us to believe when they protest proprietary code or private systems. But such manipulation is much easier said than done. And when it is attempted, it is usually unearthed and made visible to us in fairly short order, which spawns the search for, and use of, alternative systems. People and platforms don’t sit still long. Evolution continues at a breakneck pace in the digital arena.

Moreover, say what you will about “proprietary” or “closed” devices and platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and others, but the reality is this: Part of the reason they have been able to “scale up” and become major communications platforms in the first place is because they are focused on developing a sustainable business model.  Yes, I know this will be absolutely heresy to some of the Openness Evangelicals (how dare these companies seek to make money!), but the reality is that the reach of many platforms like these is fundamentally tied up with their success as good old fashion capitalist entrepreneurs. By contrast, the perfectly “free” and “open” technologies and platforms that Doctorow clearly favors have not been able to achieve similar scale.  I suppose he would claim that’s because proprietary technologies have crowded-out his favored systems and platforms, or that consumers have been duped into making bad choices.

But this raises a third issue: Just how far should we go to advance Doctorow’s vision and “steer” technology in a better direction? Again, I wholeheartedly applaud Doctorow’s call to programmers to “find or make better tools” and I should make it clear that my strong preference is for many of the same tools that he tends to favor. I bet I hate Apple and Facebook even more than Doctorow, for example. I don’t own a single Apple device and I only have a Facebook account as a cyber-traffic sign to direct people to find me elsewhere online. Meanwhile, I love hacking and cracking my devices until I have tweaked them to death — usually quite literally since I end up “bricking” a lot of my devices. (My Dad is still pretty angry about the Commodore 128 computer that my brother and I hacked and destroyed in the early 1980s!) So, at heart, I’m with Doctorow and the “openness-is-better” crowd.

But these are my personal choices. I don’t attempt to impress my values upon others or suggest that there is only One True Way when it comes to digital technology. And I would never be so arrogant as to suggest that my preferred technologies were the “good” ones and those chosen by the cyber-hoi polloi were “bad,” even if they were more “closed” or “proprietary.”

Which raises my ultimate concern with the mindset of Openness Evangelicals: If one is so wedded to bringing about the results they desire, ironically, it becomes significantly more likely that the “openness” they advocate will inevitably devolve into expanded government control of cyberspace and digital systems. If you run around all day lamenting that proprietary, unregulated systems will — as the Openness Evangelicals fear — become subject to “perfect control” by the private sector (as Lawrence Lessig claimed) or lead to a diminution of cyber-freedom (as Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Wu claim), then you shouldn’t be at all surprised when the code cops come knocking and insisting that they’re just there to help.

In closing, I remain perplexed that Doctorow and the Openness Evangelicals have so little faith in the “open” systems and technologies they trumpet. If such systems really are superior, shouldn’t they win out in the end? Regardless, what separates them from me is that I’m far more willing to allow things to run their course within digital markets, even if that means someclosed” devices and platforms remain or even thrive at times.

Thus, when it comes to “techno-optimism,” the better disposition is technological agnosticism and a real “openness” to technological evolution. Here’s how I summarized it in my recent book chapter:

History counsels patience and humility in the face of radical uncertainty and unprecedented change. More generally, it counsels what we might call “technological agnosticism.” We should avoid declaring “openness” a sacrosanct principle and making everything else subservient to it without regard to cost or consumer desires. As Chris Anderson has noted, “there are many Web triumphalists who still believe that there is only One True Way, and will fight to the death to preserve the open, searchable common platform that the Web represented for most of its first two decades (before Apple and Facebook, to name two, decided that there were Other Ways).” The better position is one based on a general agnosticism regarding the nature of technological platforms and change.  In this view, the spontaneous evolution of markets has value in its own right, and continued experimentation with new models—be they “open” or “closed,” “generative” or “tethered”—should be permitted.

Moreover, the real “techno-optimist” doesn’t express the sort of fear and loathing we see in Doctorow’s essay or the work of other digital doomsayers like Wu, Lessig, or Zittrain. [See my critiques of all their works here.] Instead, the real “techno-optimist” embraces change, uncertainty, experimentation, evolution, and does not automatic reject alternative conceptions of “good” technologies or platforms as determined by others who may not share our own preferences.

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