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[liberationtech] Henry Farrell for Democracy Journal: The Tech Intellectuals

Yosem Companys companys at
Wed Sep 11 14:52:06 PDT 2013

The Tech Intellectuals

The good, bad, and ugly among our new breed of cyber-critics, and the
economic imperatives that drive them.

Henry Farrell

A quarter of a century ago, Russell Jacoby lamented the demise of the
public intellectual. The cause of death was an improvement in material
conditions. Public intellectuals—Dwight Macdonald, I.F. Stone, and
their like—once had little choice but to be independent. They had
difficulty getting permanent well-paying jobs. However, as
universities began to expand, they offered new opportunities to
erstwhile unemployables. The academy demanded a high price.
Intellectuals had to turn away from the public and toward the
practiced obscurities of academic research and prose. In Jacoby’s
description, these intellectuals “no longer need[ed] or want[ed] a
larger public…. Campuses [were] their homes; colleagues their
audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”

Over the last decade, conditions have changed again. New possibilities
are opening up for public intellectuals. Internet-fueled media such as
blogs have made it much easier for aspiring intellectuals to publish
their opinions. They have fostered the creation of new intellectual
outlets (Jacobin, The New Inquiry, The Los Angeles Review of Books),
and helped revitalize some old ones too (The Baffler, Dissent).
Finally, and not least, they have provided the meat for a new set of
arguments about how communications technology is reshaping society.

These debates have created opportunities for an emergent breed of
professional argument-crafters: technology intellectuals. Like their
predecessors of the 1950s and ’60s, they often make a living without
having to work for a university. Indeed, the professoriate is being
left behind. Traditional academic disciplines (except for law, which
has a magpie-like fascination with new and shiny things) have had a
hard time keeping up. New technologies, to traditionalists, are
suspect: They are difficult to pin down within traditional academic
boundaries, and they look a little too fashionable to senior
academics, who are often nervous that their fields might somehow
become publicly relevant.

Many of these new public intellectuals are more or less self-made.
Others are scholars (often with uncomfortable relationships with the
academy, such as Clay Shirky, an unorthodox professor who is skeptical
that the traditional university model can survive). Others still are
entrepreneurs, like technology and media writer and podcaster Jeff
Jarvis, working the angles between public argument and emerging
business models.

These various new-model public intellectuals jostle together in a very
different world from the old. They aren’t trying to get review-essays
published in Dissent or Commentary. Instead, they want to give TED
talks that go viral. They argue with one another on a circuit of
business conferences, academic meetings, ideas festivals, and public
entertainment. They write books, some excellent, others incoherent.

In some ways, the technology intellectuals are more genuinely public
than their predecessors. The little magazines were just that, little.
They were written for an elite and well-educated readership that could
be measured in the tens of thousands. By contrast, TED talks are
viewed 7.5 million times every month by a global audience of people
who are mostly well-educated but are not self-conscious members of a
cultural elite in the way that the modal reader of Partisan Review
might have been.

In other ways, they are less public. They are more ideologically
constrained than either their predecessors or the general population.
There are few radical left-wingers, and fewer conservatives. Very many
of them sit somewhere on the spectrum between hard libertarianism and
moderate liberalism. These new intellectuals disagree on issues such
as privacy and security, but agree on more, including basic values of
toleration and willingness to let people live their lives as they
will. At their best, they offer an open and friendly pragmatism; at
their worst, a vision of the future that glosses over real politics,
and dissolves the spikiness, argumentativeness, and contrariness of
actual human beings into a flavorless celebration of superficial

This world of conversation and debate doesn’t float unsupported in the
air. It has an underlying political economy, which is intuitively
understood by many of its participants. As Jacoby emphasizes, all
debates about ideas are shaped by their material conditions. The
intellectual possibilities of the purported golden age of the 1950s
were in part the product of bad pay, cheap rent, and a small but
intensely engaged audience of readers. Those of the 1960s and ’70s
were influenced by a burgeoning university system, which rewarded
intellectuals for writing impenetrably for an audience of their peers.

The possibilities today reflect a different set of material conditions
again, which don’t determine individual choices so much as they pull
on them, gently but insistently. They influence what is discussed and
what isn’t, who wins and who loses. And much goes undiscussed. The
working consensus among technology intellectuals depicts a world of
possibilities that seems starkly at odds with the American reality of
skyrocketing political and economic inequality. It glosses over the
deep conflicts and divisions that exist in society and are plausibly
growing worse. And the critics of this consensus fare no better. They
work within the same system as their targets, in ways that compromise
their rejoinders, and stunt the development of more useful lines of


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