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[liberationtech] Scathing Critique of 'Public Parts'

Pranesh Prakash pranesh at
Thu Oct 13 11:39:59 PDT 2011

Evgeny Morozov delivers a scathing critique of Jeff Jarvis' new book
'Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work
and Live' in the latest issue of the New Republic.

> THERE IS NOT much consistency in Jarvis’s thought about technology. Whenever he needs to explain something positive, his instinct is always to credit the Internet: it is the one factor responsible for more publicness, more democracy, more freedom. And every time he turns to darker and more difficult subjects—like discrimination, or shame—he announces that they have nothing to do with the Internet and are simply the product of outdated social mores or ineffective politics. In Jarvis’s universe, all the good things are technologically determined and all the bad things are socially determined.
> This perverse analytical framework is most pronounced when he criticizes privacy advocates for not wanting to tackle more fundamental problems—such as social stigmas—that are made less severe by invoking one’s privacy rights. Jarvis writes that “a larger fear of sharing health information is the stigma associated with illness. That stigma is most certainly society’s problem. Why should anyone be ashamed of being sick?” He applies the same logic to discrimination based on sexual orientation: “That anyone would still feel shame about being revealed as gay ... is also our failing. If we think that technology is the problem, we risk ignoring the deeper faults and more important lessons.” Yet Jarvis seems blind to ways in which the rhetoric of publicness could be mobilized to distract from finding equally “deeper faults and more important lessons” about the sprawling national security state. “Knowing that no security at all is not an option, what’s your choice: body scans, physi
cal searches, facial recognition via surveillance cameras, more personal data attached to travel records?” he asks—and quickly informs us that he objects to none of the above. He includes this tirade in a section called “publicness protects us”—but he presents no evidence that it does protect us. And why, one might ask, is the choice so stark? Why not entertain the option of extirpating the roots of terrorism rather than investing more money in surveillance technology and embracing “publicness”? It seems that Jarvis wants to fight root causes only of problems such as shame and discrimination; for everything else, there are quick technological fixes.
> Jarvis’s understanding of the law is as careless as his understanding of technology. Discussing the proposed “Do Not Track” legislation that would allow users to opt out of online tracking, he complains that “there’s no real need [for it], since users already have tools to stop tracking.” How far can such logic take us? Should we acquiesce to the NSA’s wiretapping of our phones because we can already speak in code? Should we allow dubious food products to be sold in supermarkets because we already have the tools to disinfect them? There may be strong reasons to oppose the legislation, but Jarvis is not interested in exploring libertarian arguments against paternalism or consumer protection. “The problem with regulating ... new technology around the bad things that could happen is that it also cuts off the possible good,” he writes. This is an oft-repeated criticism of the Precautionary Principle, the idea that technologies should be regulated if there is any probable cause 
to believe that they may be harmful; but Jarvis refuses to discuss it in any more detail, just as he refuses to discuss anything that reeks of public policy, philosophy, or law. It’s hard to say whether he is incapable of discussing such matters or simply worries that they are not the kind of eyeball-grabbing material that he wants for his blog (where many of the ideas in Public Parts were originally published).
> The more of Jarvis one reads, the harder it is to avoid the impression that all he wants is to wow the reader and move on to extolling the next cool technology. Consider his celebration of the nascent “open government” movement, a coalition of geeks and policy wonks who seek to make government information more accessible online. After declaring how wonderful it is, Jarvis makes a passing reference to Lawrence Lessig’s much-discussed argument in these pages that the blind pursuit of government transparency may lead voters to disgust—and then drops the issue almost as abruptly as he mentions it. This aversion to philosophical considerations is deeply irresponsible. Is hypocrisy an inalienable part of the political life in democracies, as Judith Shklar and, more recently, David Runciman have argued? Will efforts to make governments and politicians more open and transparent undermine government and politics? Jarvis never broaches such subtleties. His is a simple world: “outside
 of war, crime, and protecting the individual, there is no reason for public officials to hide what they know and do from their publics.” What about debates about monetary policy by central banks? Or court deliberations? Should they be streamed online in real time? Jarvis doesn’t say.
> Still, he is sufficiently convinced of his opinions to demand the appointment of “publicness czars” who will “represent the interest of the people in openness.” After all, he is the people’s advocate: he knows what the people want, and the people cannot be wrong. In his first book, Jarvis announced that “we no longer need companies, institutions, or government to organize us.” (An exception must have been granted to his publisher, his university employer, and his consulting clients.) Now he is just as forthcoming about his populism. In fact, he would fit right in with the Tea Party:
> Publicness is a sign of our empowerment at [the incumbents’] expense. Dictators and politicians, media moguls and marketers try to tell us what to think and say. But now, in a truly public society, they must listen to what we say, whether we’re using Twitter to complain about a product or Facebook to organize a protest.
> This stuff must elicit a lot of applause from basement-bound geeks. But why not consider the possibility that the incumbents may be using the same tools, Jarvis’s revered technologies, to tell us what to think, and far more effectively than before? Internet shelf space may be infinite, but human attention is not. Cheap self-publishing marginally improves one’s chances of being heard, but nothing about this new decentralized public sphere suggests that old power structures—provided they are smart and willing to survive—will not be able to use it to their benefit. What George Carlin said of the American dream is also true of the Internet dream peddled by cyber-utopians like Jarvis: you have to be asleep to believe it.


Pranesh Prakash
Programme Manager
Centre for Internet and Society
W: | T: +91 80 40926283

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