If you keep track of America's cultural exports, you know about Sharknado, this year's viral sensation. This horror flick has a ridiculous title – Sharknado is short for "shark" and "tornado" – and an even more ridiculous plot – a tornado lifts thousands of sharks out of water and drops them on Los Angeles.
Subpar entertainment but excellent material for thought experiments. Imagine you wake up in LA and turn on TV. A news program warns you of a coming "sharknado." Two pundits start debating whether "sharknados" are good or bad for humanity, the economy, our brains. One of them warns of the impending collapse of civilization. The other counters that sharknados could disrupt moribund industries and promote innovation. Someone knocks on your door. A nicely dressed gentleman informs you that he works for "Sharknado Evacuation Solutions," a start-up that, at a small fee, will get you out of town on a helicopter – as long as you act right now. Confused, you hand him the money.
Welcome to the contemporary Internet debate. Internet intellectuals have two roles to play in it: they can be either television pundits or door-to-door salesmen. The pundits typically welcome every new development or condemn anything that smacks of electricity. The pragmatic types moonlight as entrepreneurs, eager to monetize our anxieties. The most skilled Internet intellectuals do it all: they prophesy in the morning, consult in the afternoon, and confuse – via Twitter – in the evening.
For some, this is all that Internet intellectuals can do. A recent essay in Democracy Journal on the sad state of Internet intellectuals in America – apparently, it was me who ruined it all! – posits that "public intellectuals are supposed to explain ideas and arguments for a larger public audience." On this reading, the task of public intellectuals is to explain first and to scrutinize second.
Internet intellectuals can certainly act as purveyors of easily digestible wisdom –as perfect cognitive fuel for TED, the high-brow conference, where complex ideas are reduced to catchy sound bites. TED follows in a much longer tradition of "public understanding of science," whereby great scientists – think of Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson – make their fields accessible to the lay public.
Many Internet intellectuals aspire to do just this. So they try to popularize particular aspects of "the Internet": how open-source software or Wikipedia get made, how social media topple dictators, how blogs expand our cosmopolitan horizons. Those with business acumen quickly turn these explanations into lucrative pieces of "actionable advice."
This explains why, when it comes to Internet intellectuals, utility has become the benchmark of success. A case in point: When I wrote a long essay about Tim O’Reilly, a prominent entrepreneur, investor and intellectual guru of Silicon Valley, his public response was that my critique "fails precisely because it is not meant to be useful." Precisely> I make every effort not to be useful to such dubious characters.
Could Internet intellectuals do better? I believe so. Whether you find my logic persuasive depends on whether you think that "the Internet" is more like an asteroid to be explained by an astrophysicist or more like "the sharknado" – an object that can certainly be explained but only at the cost of making it more real and believable that it should be.
The peculiar thing about the Democracy Journal essay is that it completely ignores how a concept like "public intellectuals" emerged. There's no need to retell this history in detail – it starts with the Dreyfus affair in France and with Emile Zola's intervention in it.
Note, however, that Zola famous "j'accuse" was not a tweet or a slide in a TED Talk; he was not "explaining ideas and arguments" – he was challenging power. Since then, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault have offered two alternative visions of how it can be done. For Chomsky, the task of intellectuals is to speak truth to power; for Foucault, it's to reveal truth as power.
Chomsky made his case in a famous 1967 article where he faulted intellectuals of his day for becoming advisers to the US government in the middle of an unpopular war and lying to the public. The proper task of intellectuals was to "speak the truth and to expose lies" and "see events in their historical perspective."
Foucault, in contrast, wanted to draw a distinction between general intellectuals like Sartre and a new breed of "specific intellectuals" who have expertise in specialized and increasingly consequential domains like physics and biology. Pointing to Robert Oppenheimer, Foucault argued that the specific intellectual "is no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death."
What physics and biology were to the 20th century, computer science is to the 21st. And it's not just matters of privacy and the NSA; no, we are literally talking about matters of life and death. Now that Google has formed a company that aims to tackle questions of aging – it will be led by the former chairman of Genentech – the search giant is addressing issues of life and death directly.
But what does Foucault expect of "specific intellectuals"? It's not immediately clear:
"The essential political problem for the intellectual today is not to criticize the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth. The problem is not changing people's consciousness – or what's in their heads - but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth."
The Sharknado example, for all its vacuity, elucidates the differences between these two thinkers. Confronted with TV pundits and salesmen, Chomsky would list the errors in their presentations. To put "events in their historical perspective," he would mention CIA's affinity for sharks. He would remind us how America’s imperialist foreign policy stands to benefit from "sharknados." Marxism has made this form of critique predictable – and easy to counter with propaganda.
Foucault would ask different questions. Could "sharknado" be an excuse for treating sharks, people and weather in a way that maximizes our feelings of anxiety? Is there another way to talk about all three that does not force us to think about matters of life and death? What is it about sharks and tornadoes as objects of scientific inquiry and national security policy that makes a concept like "sharknado" believable and coherent?
Chomsky's denunciations are easier to grasp but the advent of electronic media highlights the limitations of his method. If revealing "the truth" is just a matter of revealing "the facts," then the public would be well informed already: the facts are just a click away. Something else stands as a barrier to "truth." For Chomsky, like Marx, this something is ideology. But the way to disentangle oneself from false ideology is to demand more facts: this model runs in circles.
Foucault has little use for ideology, as he seeks to understand what's involved in defining something as "true" or "false" within a particular knowledge regime. This doesn't imply relativism: Foucault doesn't believe that sharks are going to destroy LA. For Foucault, figuring this out is the least interesting aspect of intellectual work; the real task is to understand how something like "sharknado" becomes a stable concept around which a TV show and a for-profit evacuation service are built and a whole set of behaviors like "getting ready for sharknado evacuations" become possible. The emancipatory aspect of his project is to reveal that other types of relations to sharks, water, and weather – not just the one we call "sharknado" – are possible.
To say that "the Internet" is our "sharknado" is to accept that the current configuration of practices, services, and conversations – the Internet discourse – already structures how we talk, what we say and what we do after all the talking is done.
It's not that the current crop of Internet intellectuals are factually wrong or blinded by some false ideology. It's that, in seeking to explain "the Internet," they keep reinforcing a discourse that itself is in great need of disruption. Simply put, the Internet discourse has outlived its usefulness. It leads to what I call the coherence fallacy, the origins fallacy, and the objectivity fallacy. These fallacies corrupt our thinking and confuse our policies.
Take the coherence fallacy. It assumes that there's a certain logic uniting all developments unleashed by "the Internet," so that ideas and insights from one domain can be easily applied to another. Know something about Wikipedia? Great – this means that, in the "Internet age," you also know how to fix political parties, for – remember – the coherence fallacy makes you think that "the Internet" disrupts knowledge in much the same way that it disrupts politics.
Here is Steven Johnson, an Internet intellectual par excellence: "Wikipedia is just the beginning... we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, governance, health, local communities, and countless other regions of human experience." The faulty premise of such logic is evident in the recent electoral defeat of the Pirate Party.
The coherence of "the Internet" as an autonomous force wrecking our lives is then invoked to justify all sorts of political and legal interventions to adjust ourselves to it. Thus, writes Rebecca MacKinnon, "without a major upgrade, [our] political system will keep on producing legal code that is Internet-incompatible." The idea that political systems can be compared based on their compatibility with "the Internet" is itself a consequence of the coherence fallacy.
Or take another Internet intellectual, Clay Shirky. Shirky's rhetorical moves are well-known: assume that "the Internet" has similar effects everywhere and then use "the Internet" to claim expertise over various fields it disrupts. Magically, an expert on "the Internet," Shirky also becomes an expert on everything it disrupts. A foundational myth of "disruption" – in Shirky's case, it's the appearance of Napster – does the rest.
Thus, Shirky's job, as a consultant-cum-intellectual is to warn of the impending "Napster moment" – a digital sharknado! – in one industry after another: journalism, democracy promotion, education. Shirky is the pundit who pops up on TV to warn that Napster keeps disrupting everything – only to knock on your door moments later.
The origins fallacy, in contrast, confuses causes and effects, assuming that our current digital infrastructure – "the Internet" – gave rise to our practices and behaviors – and not vice versa. Thus, the story of every single component of "the Internet" is retold through the history of "the Internet" itself.
Take a search engine like Google. It's easy to forget that the efforts to facilitate classification and access to information predate the advent of networked computing. Those working in information science and library science debated issues like automation and digitization long before Google's founders were born. Those debates have shaped a service like Google far more than the fact that it's accessed via a digital network. The network aspect is the least relevant development here.
Yet once incorporated into heroic recent histories of "the Internet" – the one on offer in Tim Wu's book, The Master Switch, is a good example – those earlier developments and debates disappear from view. It's as if, in writing the history of the airplane, we would treat the emergence of the tray table as unrelated to either the practice of eating or to the many tables that came before the airplane. To say that "the Internet" gave birth to Google makes as much sense as to say that the airplane gave birth to the tray table.
The objectivity fallacy is, perhaps, the most dangerous of the three. The challenge faced by Internet intellectuals is that, in explaining "the Internet," they can't just explain the Internet through itself – they need some external theoretical framework. Take the famous pronouncement – that "code is law" – made by Larry Lessig, the first of Internet intellectuals. Lessig's model assumes four forces – market, norms, laws, and code – and, to many, it looks innocent and objective enough.
But to make full sense of this model, one needs to know where Lessig comes from intellectually. His framework packs many assumptions about human behavior, regulation, knowledge, and political economy. That Lessig matured at the University of Chicago Law School, that he was profoundly influenced by the legal theorist and judge Richard Posner (Lessig clerked for him), that the code framework is rooted in the law and economics tradition of legal theory – a tradition that is very friendly to neoliberalism – all of this matters. Just like there's nothing natural about the discourse of law and economics, there's nothing natural about the discourse of "code" or the discourse of "cyberspace" that Lessig did so much to shape in the 1990s.
The explanations of "the Internet" offered by Internet intellectuals are no explanations at all. Rather, they are attempts to fill the empty theoretical space of an idea like "the Internet" with their own favorite set of economic and political theories that, wrapped in "Internet discourse," suddenly look objective.
Thus, Clay Shirky deploys rational choice theory to explain how the "Internet" affected Iran’s Green revolution; Tim Wu deploys law and economics and antitrust theories to tell the history of "the Internet"; Yochai Benkler deploys a mix of anarchist thought and latest evolutionary social science to theorize the "networked public sphere"; Steven Johnson turns to sociobiology – E.O. Wilson is one of his "intellectual heroes" – to explain online communities; Jeff Jarvis turns to one highly selective reading of book history to argue that the "Internet" is just like the printing press.
Whatever the merits of such theories, it's obvious that an intellectual enterprise like sociobiology is not just an innocent and objective way to describe computer networks and digital media. When E.O. Wilson opines on digital matters, we know that, as a proponent of sociobiology, he's got a perspective and we need to stay put. When Steven Johnson opines on digital matters, well, he's just an Internet expert – why should we distrust him?
The objectivity fallacy convinces Internet intellectuals of their own moral invincibility. In fact, they see it as their moral task to explain the "Internet" to whoever would listen. But to see just how clean their conscience is, we must ask them three questions a) Have they signed up with a speakers bureau and turned "explaining the Internet" into a business? b) Have they ever "explained the Internet" to government agencies? c) Have they ever "explained the Internet" to audiences from the military-industrial complex?
I'm positive that a substantial number of Internet intellectuals would respond in the affirmative to all three questions. Their own tweets and blog postings suggest as much. (My own conscience on all three questions is clean: I refuse to get represented by a speakers bureau, don't get involved with government work, and have never spoken to the intelligence community – fortunately, my Belarusian passport won't even get me through their doors!)
What's so bad about soliciting the help of a speakers bureau? Well, not much – if you are talking about "asteroids"; everything – if you are talking about "sharknados." It's hard to imagine how someone would be motivated to think of a truth regime that might upend the one we call "the Internet" if their economic livelihood depends on explaining its existence.
What's so bad about "explaining the Internet" to governments? Again, nothing per se – but note how a fuzzy notion like "the Internet" can quickly give rise to even fuzzier notions like "Internet freedom," which, in the hands of the US State Department, can mean almost anything depending on who is talking. And explaining "the Internet" to foreign governments is even trickier: when a few years ago I challenged Clay Shirky about his boasting of having consulted the Libyan government under Qaddafi, he explained that he had believed "the Internet" could accelerate the country's economic development.
As for explaining the "Internet" to security agencies, we all know where it leads. And while today most Internet intellectuals keep mum about consulting and speaking gigs with the security community, many were careless enough to boast about such gigs in the pre-Snowden days.
Without liberating themselves from these three fallacies, Internet intellectuals would simply play the role of useful idiots to Silicon Valley and the NSA. Under present intellectual conditions, refusing to be useful is not a crime – it’s actually a duty.
Told that his own interventions were not "useful" enough, Foucault said the following: "It's true that certain people... are not likely to find advice or instructions in my books to tell them 'what is to be done.' But my project is precisely to bring it about that they 'no longer know what to do,' so that the acts, gestures, discourses that up until then had seemed to go without saying become problematic, difficult, dangerous."
The problem with today's Internet discourse is that it's no longer problematic, difficult or dangerous. No, it's one-dimensional, schematic and toothless. The least that Internet intellectuals can do is to warn us whenever we confuse sharknados and asteroids.