Heidegger in Silicon Valley: technology and the hacker way

Racing-with-machines‘Software is eating the world!’ US tech investor Marc Andreessen claimed in 2011, on the eve of launching his venture capital firm, Andreessen-Horowitz. This extraordinary claim has become the mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, codifying a new philosophy of tech entrepreneurialism and kickstarting a bold new era of creative destruction. Decoded it means: software engineers are world-builders – so look out! Bored with building apps, games, and websites, the latest generation of tech entrepreneurs are creating social operating systems for the societies and economies of the future. Reconfiguring the relationships between goods, consumers, and service-providers, these new social operating systems are swallowing whole marketplaces at a time, eating up business that was previously enjoyed by recruiters, cab companies, hotel chains, and estate agents.

Take the sharing economy startup Airbnb, for instance (recipient of $112 million in funding from Andreessen-Horowitz in 2011). Andreessen claims:

Airbnb  makes its money in real estate. But … Airbnb … has much more in common with Facebook or Google or Microsoft or Oracle than with any real estate company. … Airbnb is building a software technology that is equivalent in complexity, power, and importance to an operating system. It’s just that it’s applied to a section of the economy.

An operating system is low-level software that runs on a computer and directs its operations. Andressen’s application of this idea to a company like Airbnb speaks volumes about the ambition of the new startup entrepreneurs and their world-building philosophy. Just as a computer operating system organises the hardware resources of the computer unit, creating a functional machine, social operating systems refigure the ‘hardware’ of human reality, connecting people and things in new and productive ways. Airbnb puts people with spare rooms to rent in touch with travellers seeking short-term accommodation. Uber and Lyft put passengers looking for a ride in touch with drivers looking for a fare. TaskRabbit links people to a universe of micro-entrepreneurs who are ready to run their errands, clean their houses, and mow their lawns for a fee.

This is creative destruction on a grand scale. The social and economic strata constructed over decades is being rapidly redesigned by plucky young geeks in the shadow of the Google campus.

[Read more…]

2045 United Federation Report on the Great Transition: The Culture of Transition

cyber-radicals-003The following passages are taken from the 2045 United Federation report on the Great Transition. This report, released on the eve of the East-West Realignment and founding of the United Federation in December 2045, was the first comprehensive account of the shift in social and economic relations that swept the world between 2015 and 2040, a period known as the Great Transition. The paragraphs are taken from Part 3 of the report, which deals with the role of sharing and social innovation in the Great Transition. For the complete report, see Realignment Mandate 12337 (released by authority of UF Secretary-General Tirrab Hassan 04/04/75).


2045 United Federation Report on the Great Transition

Part 3: The Culture of Transition

Parts 1 and 2 of this report have outlined the policy and strategic planning work that underlay the Great Transition. We have described the vision shifts in energy and carbon policy that enabled the rapid development and roll out of carbon negative infrastructure, and the social policy associated with the transition to a Totally Mobilized Agenda, including the adoption of civil agency and ‘zero unemployment’ schemes, massive federal and state investment in sustainable cities, and the expansion of the social enterprise sector as a viable hub for commercial investment. We have seen how these policy and planning shifts contributed, between 2015 and 2040, to the re-engineering of the international economy and the creation of a global carbon negative environment.

Part 3 of the report looks at the social and cultural changes associated with the Great Transition. We leave aside the oppositional and countervailing views expressed in parts of the online and corporate media in this period. These views, and the reasons why they lost purchase on the public imagination through the 20-teens, are discussed in Part 4 of the report (see also Appendix 2: Dangerous Liaisons: Big Oil Inside the Beltway). Part 3 seeks to explain the widespread and well-documented shifts in social and creative culture that gathered steam in the 20-teens and fuelled the forces of Transition. We are particularly concerned to understand the role of ‘open source culture’ in this period and how it contributed to new historical framings and existential orientations.

[Read more…]

Social media as gift culture: sharing circles and tribes

kulaThis is the second post in a series on social media gift cultures. I am interested in how indigenous gift cultures can help us understand the psychological and motivational dynamics of online social sharing. The first post in the series, Social media as gift culture: the reputation game, used the Potlatch ceremony of native North Americans to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing, I argued, involves a reputation game – a ‘virtuous competition’ premised on the free exchange of gifts. As in the Potlatch, social media prosumers seek to create value for their followers through ‘gifts’ in the form of posts, tweets, pins, shares, comments, vouches, etc. The more value they create, the more reputation they earn and the more support they stand to gain from their communities.

In sharing content online, we are playing a reputation game. The object of the game is not to beat other players but to challenge them to greater expressions of generosity. It is a battle of abundant spirits that contributes to the common good.

This post shifts geographical focus from North America to the Western Pacific. I want to look at the Kula ring of the Kiriwina Islands to reflect on the nature and origins of social media tribes. Your tribes are comprised of people with whom you commonly chat and share online. Sometimes they are based in offline friendships, but not always. Shared values and interests are ultimately all that are required to hold a tribe together. If you are wondering who among your followers count as members of your tribe, make a list of the people who commonly like, favourite, share or RT the things you put online. Make another list of the people whose content you like, favourite, share and RT. Look for names that appear on both lists. These are the members of your tribe. [Read more…]

Social media as gift culture: the reputation game

first-people1This is the first in a series of posts exploring the gift cultural dimensions of online social sharing. It builds on The Gift Shift and The Family History of Facebook, in which I introduced the idea of social media as a gift culture. It also represents a critical response to the position I developed in the Foucault and social media series, in which I used Foucault’s idea of the Panopticon to explore the psychological effects of sharing in the presence of a crowd. The ‘virtual Panopticon’ idea is not wrong but it is incomplete. What it leaves out is the virtuous competition that takes place between participants in the open social space – a competition based in the free exchange of gifts.

It comes down to how we relate to our followers. If we feel alienated from them, or intimated by them, sharing in public can be difficult. We are uncomfortably aware that our content is tagged with an existential marker: ‘I like it – it reflects my values and interests’. Like prisoners in a Panopticon, we can’t help feeling that we are judged on the basis of our posts and shares, and it is hard to shake the sense that we need to prove ourselves in some way. If, on the other hand, we feel supported and empowered by our followers, sharing in public is a different experience. We feel like valued participants in a multi-player game. We feel able to make valid contributions to the mix – to add content that may be passed around and enjoyed, that enriches the social experience. The fact that the content of our posts and shares reflects personally on us becomes a positive thing. We want to be known for the things that we share. We affirm our right to step forth and lead the conversation. It is by leading that we develop a positive reputation.

Don’t think of your followers as judges. Think of them as your tribe. Yes, they implicitly judge your contributions. Yet, for the most part, they value your gifts. Think of yourself as a tribal chief, competing for status in a virtual Potlatch. The crowd is there to witness your gifts, not to judge and condemn them. Your goal is to enrich your tribe with whatever gifts you have to offer.

Play the reputation game. Celebrate the virtual Potlatch and give.

[Read more…]

Swarms and norms: refiguring the multitude

globalizationA few years ago, I published an essay in the journal Radical Philosophy titled, ‘Refiguring the multitude: from exodus to the production of norms’ (2005). It was about swarms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The publication was a coup for me. I was a struggling contract academic, vying for attention. Radical Philosophy was an ‘up there’ journal in political philosophy circles, edgy but respectable. My paper was one of the first academic responses to Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s sequel to their best-selling book, Empire (1999).

The essay was a bit of dog’s breakfast. But the crux of the argument resonates today. I have pasted some paragraphs below. If you are into Deleuze and social movements, this one is for you.

Re-reading ‘Refiguring the multitude’ for the first time in years, I am struck by how much of this material has become part of my mental DNA. I didn’t realise at the time, but ‘Refiguring the multitude’ was crucial to my intellectual development. Multitude certainly resonates with the high-tech world of 2013. Empire and Multitude are books you should have on your shelf, whatever part of the political spectrum you inhabit. They are books about globalization. Hardt and Negri are essentially right. Of course, they are wrong in important respects too.

The paragraphs from ‘Refiguring the multitude’ that I’ve pasted below are the crux of a line of thought that I started developing in 2002 or 2003. It was a response to the failure of the anti-globalization movement that got started in the 1990s. I was looking for a theoretical trajectory that would enable me to continue on the line of flight that I’d experienced at the height of this movement (1999-2001), this time reflecting on how swarms and social movements could contribute to creating something, in the first case, a new set of norms.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I stepped from this argument to write Coalition of the Willing.

[Read more…]

The rise of social reputation systems

Social media is driving a ‘gift shift’ through the cultural fabric of our societies. Social reputation systems are one expression of the shift. They have immense disruptive potential.

If you are new to reputation systems, check out this piece in Wired by Rachel Botsman, who is writing a book on the topic. You might also read this post for the In the Room blog.

Examples of reputation systems:


What do reputation systems measure?

1. Identity — is this person a real person? Are they are who they say they are?
2. Character — consistency of behaviour (for ex. reliability and helpfulness) over time
3. Trustworthiness — essential for the P2P economy

The neurological basis of ‘reputation capital’:

Botsman writes: ‘Norihiro Sadato, a researcher at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Aichi, Japan, along with a team of colleagues, wanted to determine whether we think about reputation and money in the same way, by mapping the neural response to different rewards.

Sadato devised an experiment: participants were told they were playing a simple gambling game, in which one of three cards would result in a cash payout. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers monitored brain activity triggered when the subjects received a monetary reward. When the subjects returned on the second day, they were each shown a picture of their face, with a one-word descriptor underneath that a panel of strangers had supposedly written about them. Some of the descriptions were positive, such as “trustworthy”, others neutral, such as “patient”, and others negative. When participants heard they had a positive reputation, a part of the brain, the striatum, lit up.

The same part would also light up if they had won money. As Sadato puts it: “The implication of our study is that different types of reward are coded by the same currency system.” In other words, our brains neurologically compute personal reputation to be as valuable as money’.

[Read more…]