When triumphalists fail, they fail triumphantly


Progress turns everyone into a nostalgist sooner or later. You just have to wait for your own particular trigger to come along — the new thing that threatens the old thing you love.

David Weinberger has a new article in The Atlantic called “The Internet That Was (and Still Could Be).” It’s a tortured and ultimately dishonest piece that calls to mind some lines from a great old Buzzcocks tune:

About the future I only can reminisce
For what I’ve had is what I’ll never get
And although this may sound strange
My future and my past are presently disarranged
And I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia
For an age yet to come.

Weinberger, coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto and author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, has long argued that the “architecture” of the internet provides not only a metaphor but an actual working model for a more perfect society. The net was created with data-communication protocols that enabled “packets of information [to be moved] around without any central management or control,” and that technical architecture, he contends, not only facilitates but promotes democratic values such as “open access to information” and “the permission-free ability to read and to post.” Spanning civil and commercial interests, the net is “an open market of ideas and businesses” that provides “a framework for bottom-up collaboration among equals.”

More than that, though, Weinberger saw a deterministic power in the networking technology. The “open” technical protocols of “the One True Architecture,” as he puts it, were fated to become society’s protocols. He offered an “argument from architecture” positing that the technology’s political and social values would by necessity become the values of its users:

The Internet’s architecture reflects certain values.

Our use of the Net, based on that architecture, strongly encourages the adoption of those values.

Therefore, the Internet tends to transform us and our institutions in ways that reflect those values.

But the actual development of the web frustrated that utopian dream. The Triumphalists were, Weinberger now admits, naive and even delusional:

It is not enough for the Internet to succeed. It must succeed inevitably. Or so many of us Internet Triumphalists in the mid-1990s thought. For, if the march of the Internet’s new values were not unstoppable, then it would surely be stopped by our age-old inclinations and power structures. The Net, as we called it then, would become just another venue for the familiar patterns of marginalization, exclusion, oppression, and ignorance.

Now I’m afraid the argument for inevitability that kept me, and others, hopeful for 20 years no longer holds.

What the Triumphalists mistook for the one true architecture was merely a foundation, it turns out, and that foundation could support many different kinds of media structures with many different “values.” And so the net gave rise to, for instance, private content distribution networks, or CDNs, which, despite the underlying democratic protocols for information exchange, allowed big companies to distribute their informational wares with greater speed and reliability than the rest of us could afford. On the net, as elsewhere in society, some equals turned out to be more equal than others. “The architecture itself has been distorted by the needs of commercial content creators and their enabling pals,” Weinberger laments. “Paradise has been well and truly paved.” So much for inevitability.

And then there’s Facebook, the vast city-state, the virtual Singapore, that sprawls atop the net’s foundation like Smaug on the dwarves’ treasure.

Facebook is not ours. It’s theirs for us to use. … If the new prototype of the Internet is not the Blogosphere but Facebook, then the argument that’s maintained me for 20 years has fallen apart. If users don’t come into contact with the Internet’s architecture, that architecture can’t shape them. If they instead deal almost exclusively with Facebook, then the conclusion of the Argument from Architecture ought to be that Facebook is shaping the values of its users. And Facebook’s values are not much like the Net’s.

Weinberger, like the other Triumphalists, has invested much intellectual and emotional capital into the net over the years. And now he arrives at his moment of crisis: the dreaded moment when he has to write off all that investment and declare bankruptcy.

And yet.

And yet?

At the moment of accounting, Weinberger loses his intellectual nerve. Rather than offer a critique of the net as it is, he gives in to nostalgia for the net as it was and should be. He crawls back into the empty bank vault and searches in the dust for the bright, untarnished penny that will redeem everything — or at least buy him a little more time. “The Internet’s architecture still shows through many of the big corporate apps that are the Internet’s new pavement,” he writes. And: “The Internet’s architecture shines through the Facebook layer, as it does through virtually all Internet applications.” And: “Those lessons of the Internet’s architecture shine through the layers built on top of it.” The glimmers! The glimmers! And then the reversal: “The pavement is well penetrated by the Internet. Maybe ‘pavement’ isn’t an apt metaphor at all. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

Well, that’s convenient. In the asphalt’s mirror, the Triumphalist’s failure is revealed to have an aura of triumph. What’s disappointing here is not Weinberger’s gobbledygook; it’s the self-justifying nature of the gobbledygook. He’s covering something up, and what he’s covering up is his own role in subverting the values he cherishes. As Weinberger makes clear, his work, dating back to The Cluetrain Manifesto, has argued that the “openness” of the net’s protocols would inevitably dissolve traditional sources of economic and political power. Everyone on the net, whether an individual or a corporation, would inevitably act as equals. Rather than pursuing their own interests, they would act as the technology demanded. By suggesting that the net’s democratic future was a fait accompli, a technological necessity, Weinberger abetted the kind of commercialization of the web that he now rues. The Triumphalists served as the flagmen for the paving crew.

Given the opportunity to examine the role that technological triumphalism played in the development of the net, Weinberger instead resurrects that triumphalism in a ghostly form.  When he claims that the “values” of an open architecture remain alive, if latent, in the closed architecture of Facebook, he’s giving himself a free pass. He concludes his piece with what can only be described as a kind of cynical sunniness: “We can try to teach the young’uns how the Internet works and remind them of its glory so that it can be as if they were present at the Revelation.” If the Triumphalists hadn’t been blinded by the Revelation, perhaps things would have worked out differently.

One thought on “When triumphalists fail, they fail triumphantly

  1. Brutus

    Weinberger’s “if only” argument for thwarted inevitability still being inevitable sounds a lot like the mumblings of market fundamentalists whose pure ideology about how markets (ought to) work trumps the messy way markets work in actuality. Always becoming, never being; that way, one can acknowledge abysmal failure happily but still cling to the idea that “if only” things had developed according to plan rather than the way they did, all would be well. Unfortunately, society drifts across a wide range of endeavor, steadfastly refusing to be forced into preconceived channels by well-intentioned planners.

    My bigger issue is that Weinberger seems to understand society not as a processor of material or energy but primarily of information. James Beniger reinforces this notion in his book The Control Revolution:

    [The] reason why the Control Revolution has been so profound in its impact on human society [is that] it transformed no less than the essential life function itself. Rapid technological expansion of what Darwin called “marvelous structure and properties” and what we now see to include organization, information processing, and communication to effect control constitute a change unprecedented in recorded history. We would have to go back at least to the emergence of the vertebrate brain if not to the first replicating molecule … to find a [comparable] leap in the capability to process information.

    While this may be true, information processing is a cultural development, not a biological one, unless one plays semantic games to argue that biology is just a vehicle for genetic information. Again, the elevation of unfettered ideology over such mundane things as, oh, I dunno, breathing and eating, is only possible in the context of relative safety and security. If one were scrambling to secure the next meal and/or find a warm place to sleep, as are many homeless and destitute people, all the abstract theorizing about social architecture would be revealed pretty quickly as irrelevant.

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