Thursday, November 17, 2005

Deconstructing Doc Searls

Doc Searls, card-carrying commons-ista of the Cluetrain Cabal, published his magnum opus today entitled Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes, with some auxiliary notes as well (for some reason the first 10 times I tried to load Saving The Net I got an access denied message, but it came through eventually so YMMV). In the essay, Doc commits the same mistakes he has made consistently throughout his Cluetrain career.

No Doc, the Internet is not (just) a market.
Despite his many attacks on bad metaphors in his contributions to the Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc doesn't seem to know any other words for describing the Net than "market" or "marketplace". How about a "park" where people come to relax, chat and play in the sunshine? How about a "club" where people go to find like-minded people to discuss worthy issues over a glass of something cold? How about a "school" where people who want to learn congregate to get answers to life's questions from experts? How about a "theatre" where artists can show off their content to appreciative audiences? Or God forbid, how about a "commons" where people come to listen to inflammatory speeches about the burning themes of public discourse? No, that last one sounds too much like communism to Doc. Of course there is that buzzphrase of "letting developers and users party together", but the conversation topic of the "party" is focused squarely on improving the software developed by the developer, which inevitably benefits the developer's bottom line. That leads me to the next point...

No Doc, software is not the only thing of value in the stack.
Doc paints himself as part of the "technical community", and he spends most of the essay complaining about telcos wanting to get return on investment. He references the NEA Principle - "Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, Anybody can improve it" - as if the telcos didn't actually spend money to build the pipes in the first place. Saying "anybody" can improve the pipes he talks about is ludicrous unless that "anybody" has billions of dollars to spend laying fibre. Don't get me wrong, I'm one of the last people who would defend telcos - having spent most of my career butting up against the orifice-monster Telstra - but denying that telcos provide anything of value is couter-productive and undermines your argument, particularly in a document that is supposed to be a positioning statement for the technical community in their dealings with the US government. Oh, and on Washington...

No Doc, you're ignoring the bigger enemy.
Doc mentions ICANN once, in reference to .com registry pricing. He ignores the much more important issue which is being fought over as we speak, and its most recent battle was not fought in the Beltway or in the Valley, but in Tunisia, where the US government managed to thrash out a shaky compromise with the EU on retaining control over ICANN. Libertarians like to say the Internet was shaped out of nothing by its users, but the truth is that it was devised by governmental institutions (the military), propagated by governmental institutions (universities), popularised through software developed at governmental institutions (NCSA et al) and is still operational only through the benevolent activities of governmental institutions (ICANN, US Department of Commerce et al). If the EU wins in its battle for control over ICANN, the Internet in repressive regimes such as China and Cuba will be a lot more centrally controlled and censored, without the groundswell of educated local hackers to subvert the system like the First World has. Does that matter more to Doc than instantly-obsolete US-centric legislation which the Internet will treat as damage and route around, as it always has? It doesn't seem to matter to him at all, he'd prefer going after his pet hate. On that topic...

No Doc, it's not all about big corporations versus you and the people.
Mitch Ratcliffe linked a fine piece on anti-authoritarianism by Todd Gitlin which speaks to another of Doc's hangups: he always has to frame his own arguments in opposition to big business.
Analytically, it might be possible to disentangle two strands of anti-authoritarianism: the questioning of authority in order to put authority on a stronger foundation, and the challenging of authority as a tropism of disrespect. The first is a matter of questioning authority in order to get answers. The second is a matter of punky naysaying.
Doc has shown recently in the fight over Audible, and in this essay, that he's not interested in any type of authority at all, even if it's the minuscule authority of a random guy or gal straight outta the zeitgeist on a podcast who wants to be paid for their content. He'd much rather wear his underpants on the outside and fight the forces of evil through punky naysaying, even if the "evil" could enable the little guy to fight the corporations (like legions of small podcasters fighting the MSM by creating a viable industry). That's why when he read quotes from Edward Whiteacre, CEO of major telco SBC, Doc must have experienced a little death. O frabjous day, an authority figure to rebel against! Never mind that Whiteacre's comments are wholly unsupported by any actual activities on the part of SBC, Doc has his smoking gun and he's going to ride it. Tim Lee does a fine job puncturing Doc's central argument that US telcos could ever close the Internet.

Doc's faults are largely shared by all American libertarian hackers, he's just one of the more articulate and famous of them. If this is his self-described "most important" post ever, I hope there's another one some time soon which is even more important, and less flawed.


Blogger Rob said...

Re: you saying that Doc only refers to the Net as a market or marketplace, I noted in this piece where he called it: "a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons..." so he does seem to take it beyond the market.

11:29 pm, November 20, 2005  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

The quote you're referring to is: "See, to the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn't a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes." He's not characterising the Net as those things himself, he's saying the carriers only think in terms of pipes.

The passage where Doc does take it upon himself to choose his favoured metaphor is:

"That context is best understood as a place. When we speak of the Net as a "place" or a "space" or a "world" or a "commons" or a "market" with "locations" and "addresses" and "sites" that we "build", we are framing the Net as a place.

Most significantly, the Net is a marketplace. In fact, the Net is the largest, most open, most free and most productive marketplace the world has ever known."

So his primary metaphor is marketplace.

11:40 pm, November 20, 2005  

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