The Picture and the Paint

Over the past few days I’ve been dipping into Cory Doctorow’s Content, David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, and Larry Lessig’s Remix. I like them all for different reasons; Doctorow is an irrepressible enthusiast for online openness, Weinberger connects that openness to older patterns of information storage and retrieval, and Lessig sings of the creativity it can unleash. Anyone thinking deeply about the new relationships between art and commerce created by the internet should consult Lessig’s book; it’s beautifully written and animated by a strong moral vision of what the net can be. However, in the spirit of Felix Stalder’s review of Clay Shirky’s zeitgeist-capturing Here Comes Everybody, I’d like to talk a bit about what seems to be missing in Lessig’s vision, given a single metaphor he uses to defend copyright minimalism online. Here’s the quote:

Some draw a downright foolish conclusion from the fact that Google’s value gets built upon other people’s content. Andrew Keen, for example . . . writes “Google is a parasite: it creates no content of its own.” But in the same sense you could say that all of the value in the Mona Lisa comes from the paint, that Leonardo da Vinci was just a “parasite” upon the hard work of the paint makers. That statement is true in the sense that but for the paint, there would be no Mona Lisa. But it is false if it suggests that da Vinci wasn’t responsible for the great value the Mona Lisa is. . .

The complete range of Google products is vast. But . . . practically everything Google offers helps Google build an extraordinary database of knowledge about what people want, and how those wants relate to the web. Every click you make in the Google universe adds to that database. With each click, Google gets smarter. (127-128)

The picture/paint metaphor is a provocative one. Is Lessig vividly illustrating the new economy mantra that information is rapidly being commoditized? I’ve always thought of Google as an aid to helping me find things–a utility that mixes elements of a telecom carrier and a card catalog index. Does Google’s supervenient value of organizing the web by query really make it as much more meaningful, more expressive, than the content it indexes, as the Mona Lisa is more meaningful than paint? I know few people searching for search results, so I’ll conclude that’s not a good interpretation.

Another way of glossing the metaphor is to deem Google the “Lord of the Memes,” because, as David Brooks wryly observes, “prestige has shifted from the producer of art to the aggregator and the appraiser.” I like this interpretation because it complements Lessig’s characterization of Google as “getting smarter” with every click. Indeed it is–but it’s also getting more powerful, more capable of framing your window on the world. We may celebrate a world where we can all personalize our search results, and where each of us has a chance to fight for salience in Google results on a topic (rather than pray for a New York Times editor to pull our editorial out of the slushpile). But do we really understand how that salience is determined? Is there any objective answer to how it should be done? And as in so much of our weightless economy online, isn’t the perception of relevance really the reality?

To his credit, Lessig has been more frank than most fans of Silicon Valley about the dangers this power poses (as this Jeffrey Rosen article notes):

“During the heyday of Microsoft, people feared that the owners of the operating systems could leverage their monopolies to protect their own products against competitors,” says the Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School. “That dynamic is tiny compared to what people fear about Google. They have enormous control over a platform of all the world’s data, and everything they do is designed to improve their control of the underlying data. If your whole game is to increase market share, it’s hard to do good, and to gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.”

So perhaps we are left with the idea that Google does some good things, and some bad things–and that Lessig’s new stint at anti-corruption activism is designed to produce a government capable of promoting the former and curbing the latter.

But that paint metaphor nags at me, as an expression of Whiggish technophilia as pronounced as that of Shirky or Benkler. Note the leveling character of the shorthand used for what search engines organize: “content,” “data,” “information.” From a God’s/Google’s eye perspective, it’s just all 1′s and 0′s. But to actual human beings, there are values encoded both in the “data” and in how much salience it has. We have very little idea of exactly how that salience is being generated–and most people seem to like it that way, assuming that whatever power is accumulated will be used for good.

I have a sense that the general public’s cavalierness about how search engines generate publicity is the mirror image of the slow death of privacy. Greg Conti notes that “our complacency, Google’s capacity for building compelling services, and the inadequacy of our browsers and other tools in alerting us to potential information disclosure have created a situation where Google ends up in possession of an alarming amount of information about us, our beliefs, our movements, our finances, our health, our employment and our social circles.” We think of all that as innocuous paint, oblivious to the pictures of ourselves that various digital dossiers may be creating.

Iris Murdoch has stated that “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture. This is the process which moral philosophy must attempt to describe and analyse.” But in Lessig’s Remix, Google is the entity is which makes pictures of our world (and ourselves), and we invited to celebrate our participation in that process while downplaying the moral questions raised by its opaqueness.

Before taking up that invitation, I hope we learn to question the distributive justice involved in Google’s deals with authors, publishers, advertisers, and others. As Lew Daly and Gar Alperovitz have ingeniously documented in their book Unjust Desserts, all of today’s technical progress is founded on centuries of past endeavor. Those at the top of today’s pyramids of Web 2.0 are enriched by the millions of searchers and clickers who marginally improve their services with virtually every use.

Finally, before we consign newspapers and other “content providers” to the social importance of paint-sellers, perhaps we should consider James K. Galbraith’s reflections on the relationship between technology, labor value, and values generally:

[T]he setting of wages and the control of the distribution of pay and incomes is a social, and not a market, decision. It is not the case that technology dictates what people are worth and should be paid. Rather, society decides what the distribution of pay should be, and technology adjusts to that configuration. Standards–for pay but also for product and occupational safety and for the environment [and privacy]–also promote the most rapid and effective forms of technological change, so that there is not trade-off, in a properly designed economic policy, between efficiency and fairness. [The Predator State, xiii]

To call Google the old master and content providers its mere paint-providers smacks too much of the hierarchizing, inequality-enhancing policies that have wrecked our economy over the past 30 years. If Google’s preeminence is attributable to its status as our “cultural voting machine,” tabulating the weighted votes PageRank relies on to create a picture of what’s relevant, true, and popular, then let’s really understand the nature of that voting process. But if its place at the top of the internet food chain is really a reflection of network effects, network power, and other market pathologies of self-reinforcing dominance, let’s not crown the winner with the metaphorical laurel of ending up on the superior side of an art/craft binary that is as much about class and power as it is about aesthetic worth.

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