Eric Schmidt's manifesto

Wall_street_journal_pencil_drawing_eric_In yesterday's Financial Times, Google CEO Eric Schmidt articulated an Antonio Gramsci like manifesto in favor of the "democratisation of information". In "Let More Of The World Access The Web", Schmidt seeks to empower African schoolchildren to challenge the dominant elites by accessing information on the Internet:

"For centuries access to the world’s information – and the ability to communicate it – was controlled by the wealthy and the well educated. Today the internet has broken down many of the barriers that exist between people and information: effectively democratising access to human knowledge."

But Schmidt is wrong. He overvalues and misunderstands the history of information. And his Gramscian theory of the ideological hegemony of the dominant class, is probably anachronistic, even for such a revolutionary enclave such as the People's Republic of Mountain View.

The truth is much more prosaic. In previous centuries, access to the world's information was "controlled" by dusty/crusty librarians, little old ladies who had little better to do with their time than checking out books. The wealthy and well educated were much too smart to want to "control" information. They were making money, seducing each others wives, buying land, fighting wars and colonizing Africa.

And before the little old ladies, there were priests, and before the priests there were scribes. Information had little value, either symbolically or in practical terms. Only the losers, the socio-economic and cultural lumpen proletariat, associated themselves with something so mundane, so useless, as raw information.

Schmidt should read Thorstein Veblen on this. Veblen's book, now published as a Penguin Classic, is called The Theory of the Leisure Class.

As it happens, Veblen's universe has been turned on its head. today's winners -- the Eric Schmidts of the world  -- have a near-monopoly on information. The old leisure class has become the new information class.

What Eric Schmidt doesn't tell us, however, is that as more of the world accesses the web, he wins. Schmidt has a BA from Princeton and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He's a multi billionaire too -- one of world's richest men. Schmidt is, in Weberian terms, an ideal-type version of the "wealthy and well educated" elite who now "control" information. The Google CEO personally benefits financially from every African schoolchild who gets on the web. Those web browsing African kids will put money into Schmidt's pocket.

If Antonio Gramsci was around today, he might write a manifesto, reminding us of the continued relevance of his theories about hegemonic cultural elites. The interesting question is whether this manifesto would appear in the Financial Times.

REMIXING CAMP

Later this summer Silicon Valley will host Mashup Camp – known playfully as "the unconference for the uncomputer." This is an event bringing together people with "mutual interest in the mashup ecosystem."  It is probably only be a matter of time before some Silicon Valley wag comes up with Remix Camp -- an event where the creative commons mullocracy celebrate the inalienable legal rights of artists to scrawl their signature onto any other people's art.

So here's my version of Remix Camp. It's a remix of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" (available in Sontag's Against Interpretation). Writing for Partisan Review in 1964, Sontag introduces the concept of "Camp" as a "certain mode of aestheticism":

"It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization."

In 1964, the Web 2.0 revolution wasn't a dot on even Marshall McLuhan's horizon. But Sontag could have been describing the aesthetic of the digital remix, with its core elements of stylization and artifice.

Whatever the creative commons people say, remixing is about aesthetics rather than morality or the law. Take the work of Danger Mouse, the performer of Grey Album, the cause celebre 2004 remix of rapper Jay-Z's Black Album and the Beatles' White Album.  As Brian Burton, the producer of the Grey Album, admitted in to MTV News:

"A lot of people just assumed I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it's really a deconstruction," he explained. "It's not an easy thing to do."

A deconstruction..... The playful Burton sounds like a postmodernist here. And it's probably not coincidental that "Notes on "Camp" is really Sontag's critique of postmodern intellectual playfulness:

"Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It's not a lamp, but a "lamp"; not a woman, but a "woman." To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater."

Sontag's attack on this aesthetic is echoed by Daniel Bell, another critic of postmodernism, in the 1996 afterword to his The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism:

"The great genius of PoMo was Andy Warhol. Warhol produced portaits of Mao Zedong, Marilyn Monroe, and Jacqueline Onassis and multiplied these images in chaning phosphorescent colors, like frozen strobe lights, as silk screens. But his greatest stroke of genius was to paint 100 Campbell soup cans as a literal representation of htose stacked objects. Marx wrote of the "fetishism of commodities," in which the worker is separated from the product he has made. With Warhol, the artist appropriates the commodity and sells it to the bourgeoisie."

Throw in the Internet and broadband connectivity and Warhol's version of Mao Zedong is the same as Danger Mouse's version of the Beatles. The only difference being  that instead of appropriating the commodity and then selling it, Danger Mouse stole the White Album and is now giving it away for free.

So what started in Sixties Paris with Derrida and Foucault is now ending in Silicon Valley with Remix Camp. To remix Marx (who was stealing from Hegel), history is repeating itself twice, first as tragedy, now as farce.

SHARECROPPING McCARTHYISM

Sharecrop_intro_imgWho is the silliest digital utopian in Silicon Valley?

Vint Cerf, with his life-on-Mars fetish, might qualify. So might the Google guys with their neo-colonial desire to import wi-fi & $100 laptops to Africa. But in my mind, the silliest of all the digital sillies might be Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford University, and the most militant ideologue of the "remix" culture.

What makes Lessig so undeniably silly is his (mis)use of language and his plundering of inappropriate metaphors from American history. Here he is, in an interview today on the AlwaysOn Network, talking about what he considers to be the most profound injustice of our age:

"We now have technology that begs our kids to take culture and do stuff with it—not just consume it or hoard it but actually transform it. All sorts of people are beginning to recognize the extraordinary creativity around this form of cultural production, but in the context of existing copyright law, that remix is either legally problematic (to put it politely) or plainly illegal (from the standpoint of the content industry). People are creating extraordinary stuff and posting it on the Internet, only to have the content industry threaten major retaliation."

What Lessig is describing the fashion today for amateur digital artists to take original songs or movies and impose their own signature on the original work. It's a sort of digital graffiti, not much different from scribbling on walls. That's what the lawyerly Lessig calls "extraordinary creativity". It is what the legal scholar considers superior to consuming or hoarding culture (ie: watching movies passively without wanting to film over them).

It gets even sillier. Lessig calls on technology companies to take on big media over copyright law:

"The hard question is whether companies that stand to benefit from that type of market—companies like Apple—will be creative enough or bold enough in this atmosphere of IP McCarthyism to take a lead in trying to create these markets."

The atmosphere of IP McCarthyism? Can Lessig really be serious? What is McCarthyist about media companies defending their own intellectual property? What has Joe McCarthy got to do with the responsibility of media companies to extract maximum value out of their intellectual property? 

It gets even sillier when Lessig turns to the unjust lot of the remix artist. Here he sounds like a  mashup of Bukharin and Proudhon:

"Lesser-known artists have already identified the Internet as a way to distribute content. In that sense, the market will take care of itself for those artists. The big guys have signaled their desire to embrace the new technologies, but I don't think any of them really have. Someone like David Bowie—who has all the money in the world—should be out there saying, 'Fine, take my content. Here are five songs: Remix my content, and you own the remix.' But instead he runs these mashup contests, where he encourages people to remix his songs and then awards the winner a car or something similar. Cool, right? Wrong: If you read the license for those mashups, you'll see that David Bowie owns not only his own music but all of the creativity produced by the thousands of people who mashed up his work. This, to me, is a sharecropper vision of creativity."

A SHARECROPPER VISION OF CREATIVITY

Yes, Lessig actually said this. He really did compare the tribulations of today's digital mashup artist to the lot of the freed slave in Reconstruction America.  Wow, is that silly!  It beats life-on-Mars and $100 laptops in Africa. And it crowns Lawrence Lessig as the silliest digital utopian in all of Silicon Valley.

CONFESSIONS OF A SILICON VALLEY THIEF

ImagesI’m not sure if I should call myself an entrepreneur, an impresario, a salesman, a visionary, a marketer or a just crazy fool in an even crazier world, I confess to my old friend Tessa Ross.

I have to raise my voice. We are sharing an organic cherry pie at COCO 500, the Web 2.0 restaurant that has replaced that old Web 1.0 haunt, Bizou, on the corner of Fourth at Brannan. The formerly mustard yellow restaurant is packed with noisy diners. Today, the cash is back in San Francisco; today, nobody is singing for their supper. 

Ross and I are talking about my life over the last fifteen years, ever since I arrived at San Jose airport with a backpack and a desire to "get into new media". I know mine is a Silicon Valley story, I tell her, but I’m still not clear how to identify myself? It’s a struggle to connect all my dots, I explain, and even when they are joined, I’m not quite sure what I see.

Ross is visiting from North London, my original home. Her real business in California is in Hollywood, but she has hopped up from Los Angeles to lunch with me. We have been friends for more than twenty years. In 1984, I left London for America;  she stayed and entered English media. Ross is now a mogul. She heads up film and drama at Channel Four and is the producer of many well-known movies including the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliot (2000).

“Andrew, there has to be a single word, just one word, that summarizes what you’ve been doing in Silicon Valley all these years,” she says. The pie is finished now. All that is left are eight empty cherry stones.

A technology idealist, I suggest.

“That’s two words.”

If you ask my friend Rosebud or Larry and Sergei at Google, they would say I’ve failed. I haven’t made their billions, I admit. In fact, I’ve lost quite a lot.”

“How much?”

Financially or mentally, I ask.

“Hard cash,” she says. “In dollars and cents.”

I close my eyes and picture my digital ventures – everything from Fi: The Magazine of Music and Sound to Audiocafe to MB5 to Pulse 3D to Santa Cruz Networks. I grab a COCO 500 napkin and write a five numbers down. Then I add them all up.

Close to a hundred million, I tell her. Not counting the cents.

Momentary silence while Tessa digests the number. “And that’s other people’s money?” she asks.

Pretty much, I admit. Mainly venture capital. But also angel investment including Rosebud’s cash. And some of my own, too.

Tessa is playing with the cherry stones in front of her. “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,” she begins to recite the old children’s nursery rhyme. With each word, she drags another cherry stone across the plate.

I am still searching for that elusive word to describe myself. How about a dreamer, I suggest. A Silicon Valley dreamer?

“Rich man, poor man, beggar man,” she continues, raising her voice above the din of the COCO 500 lunchtime crowd. There is only one uncounted cherry stone left now.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been everything in that nursery rhyme. I’ve tinkered with business models. I’ve tailored digital media business plans. I’ve soldiered in the trenches against traditional media. I’ve been a sailor in the high seas of digital piracy. I’ve been a rich man in theory and a poor man in fact. I’ve begged money from every venture capitalist in the Valley.

Ross fingers the final cherry stone. “Thief,” my old friend concludes, unable to restrain a smirk.

I feel myself coloring with a mixture of pleasure and shame. Tessa Ross has nailed me. It is the single word that joins all the dots and turns me into what I really am.

“Come on, Andrew. Confess,” the North London mogul says, rubbing her little hands together hungrily. “On top of that hundred million dollars, tell me what else you’ve pinched recently?” 

A SHORT HISTORY OF LUCK

Blood_on_the_tracks Here in Silicon Valley, it would be nice to know why some people are lucky and some aren't. A convincing explanation would require an author closely acquainted with fortune. It would need familiarity both with second chancers such as Steve Jobs and with rookies like Sergei Brin and Larry Page, those lucky boys at Google, who have accumulated a more substantial fortune over the last five years than the English monarchy has collected in a millenium.

The source of luck, both good and bad, has always intrigued people. Bob Dylan is good on luck. Think of his “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” from Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan's own creative second chance:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

Like a crooked pack of cards, Silicon Valley is indeed stacked with guys standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts. The question is whether the festival is all over or just beginning. The question is whether we are all planning for a fall.

One of the earliest published writer on luck was the 16th century Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote extensively on the cause of good fortune. In his short book, The Prince (written in 1514, but published posthumously in 1532), an essay of advice to his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli explains that fortune favors the bold thus advising his Prince, not without controversy, to always act decisively:

Fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.

In 1958, almost 500 years after Machiavelli wrote his Prince, Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo, his motion picture about bad luck.  He took the idea from a 1956 French novel called The Living and the Dead by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s a classic Hitchcock nightmare. An ordinary, innocent man falls into spiral of deceit, suicide and murder. There is no reason for this, no metaphysical justification. It’s just bad luck in a world without meaning. A cruel twist of fate.

For Scottie Ferguson, the innocent central character of Vertigo, (mis)fortune was not one woman, but two – blonde Madeleine and the dark haired Judy. Vertigo is a movie within a movie, the first featuring Scottie’s relationship with Madeleine, the second with Judy.  Scottie’s great luck, his second chance comes at the end of the second act, after he has dressed Judy up to look like Madeleine and then realized that they are, in fact, the same woman, and that, in his misfortune, he has been the victim of a murderous confidence trick.

Recognizing this truth makes Scottie bold. Maybe his luck will change. Perhaps fortune is, indeed, a woman. Following his revelation, he drives Judy from San Franscisco, down the peninsula, south of the then sleepy town of San Jose, to the little Spanish colonial mission of San Juan Bautista.  Scottie drags Judy to the scene of the original con – across the mission’s green, through the church door and into a narrow spiral of steps leading up the tower. He seizes her hand. She struggles.  Their claustrophobic fight is more pathetic than heroic since, in reality, they are equally unlucky victims of the same crime. And then Scottie fires his words, amongst the most resonant ever written about luck:

One doesn’t often get a second chance, I want to stop being haunted. You are my second chance, Judy. You are my second chance.

The words were probably written by Samuel Taylor, the movie’s screenwriter, but Hitchcock might have even written them himself, given the close collaborative relationship he had with Taylor. Just as Hitchcock’s movies included his own cameo appearances, they also contained fragments of autobiography. For Hitchcock, California, and Hollywood in particular, represented a lucky second act. As a promising young movie director, Hitchcock came to America in March 1939 on the invitation of David O. Selznick, the movie mogul most famous for producing Gone with the Wind (1940).  Like so many lucky immigrants (for example, Karl Rossman in Franz Kafka's Amerika),  Hitchcock made his American entrance on March 6th 1939 through New York Harbor, sailing past lady luck herself, the Statue of Liberty, on board the Queen Mary before taking the train westwards, out to California.

Selznick had signed Hitchcock to make Rebecca (1940) and seven other films – and he went on to direct thirty two movies as an increasingly iconic Hollywood figure. But there was probably nothing lucky about Hitchcock’s ascent to greatness. He could have just as easily -- like the unlucky Orson Welles -- fallen out of favor with the studio chiefs and out of fashion with the viewing public. But as a talented pioneer of a new type of thriller movie as well as a familiar face on the revolutionary medium of television, Hitchcock made the most of his second chance in California. He stayed until his death in 1980, establishing his home in the Los Altos Hills (then a rural retreat, now a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb) and making many of his movies on location in the Bay Area.

One of those locations was the mission town of San Juan Bautista, fifty miles south of Los Altos and the scene of Scottie Ferguson’s second chance in Vertigo.  San Juan Bautista, originally settled by the Spanish in 1797, is also connected to one of the luckiest second acts in American history. In 1846, about 100 years before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in California, the American population of the state was no more than 500 people. Gold wouldn’t be discovered by James Marshall at Sutters Fort until January 1848, thus unleashing the State’s first great wave of good luck hunters. In 1846, a group of 87 pioneers, led by an Illinois farmer by the name of George Donner, set out for California. Included in the party were Patrick and Margaret Breen, recent immigrants from Canada and their seven children. In the winter of 1846-47, the Donner Party, as it became known, got trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few miles north of the modern town of Truckee, not far from the current route of the Interstate 80 highway. The nightmare of the Donner Party’s ordeal is worse than anything even Hitchcock could have dreamt up. Tortured by starvation and cold, the living were forced to eat the dead in order to survive the brutal winter. What bad luck! Of the original pioneers, only forty five souls would have the good fortune to experience their second acts in California.

All nine Breens survived. The senior Breen, Patrick, not only came down from the pass, but he transformed his ordeal into media. His diary, from which historians have depended for their accounts of the tragic journey, is now the property of the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.  Patrick’s eldest son, John also made much of his lucky second chance. Having arrived in California, he settled in San Juan Bautista and, in 1848, went to the gold fields, returning in March 1849 with $12,000 in gold. He invested the money in the biggest house and stables on the square in San Juan Bautista and in buying 400 acres of land in the San Juan Valley. John Breen’s stables are easy to see today – Hitchcock filmed them in Madeleine’s final scene in Vertigo, before her fake suicide.

Since 1846, California has become American’s second chance, the stage of generation after generation of entrepreneur, eager to make their fortune. Many of these pioneers, like Hitchcock, John Breen and the Silicon Valley crowd, got lucky. But not all these second acts have ended as happily. Take another Scott as an example – this one a real person rather than a movie character. Arriving in California as the acclaimed author of a number of novels including The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood to write screenplays. But he never took to the movies and the movie business never took to him. He was hired, then quickly fired, by the mogul David O. Selznick, to write the screenplay for Gone With The Wind. By the late Thirties, Fitzgerald was washed up, a has-been, a bad luck Hollywood failure and a drunk. In 1940, the same year that Selznick gave Hitchcock his first chance in Hollywood, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. In addition to a wife and daughter, he left an unfinished Hollywood novel called The Last Tycoon based on the life of the mogul Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald also left us with some much quoted autobiographical sentence on bad luck:

"There are no second acts in American lives."

Even after death, Fitzgerald can’t quite shake off the great seduction of California. We look back to Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and that whole West Egg scene to make historical sense of Silicon Valley. It has become common-place now to juxtapose the Twenties and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 with the Nineties and the Silicon Valley crash of April 2000. It doesn't take a F. Scott Fitzgerald to see that both decades were characterized by excessive optimism, an irrationally exuberant bull market and an evangelical faith in future prosperity. The Twenties invented the new media of radio and the movies; the Nineties invented the new media of Internet and cellphones. What good luck; what ill fortune.

One can’t but wonder what sort of history of luck an outsider-on-the-inside like Fitzgerald would have written, had he had the (mis)fortune today of doing his second act in Silicon Valley, next to Steve and Larry and Sergei, amidst the vertiginous hype of Web 2.0, the trumpeted second coming of the digital media revolution. But this time the bad luck is ours. Today, there is neither a Scott F. Fitzgerald, nor an Alfred Hitchcock, a Bob Dylan or a Niccolo Machiavelli to help out. The festival might, indeed, be over and the boys could all be planning for a fall, but we've got to work out the consequences of it all for ourselves. Today, those consequences remain unrecorded, unwritten and unfilmed. And here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the place that is reinventing the technology of media, we continue to wait with uncharacteristic patience to learn why some people are lucky and why some aren't.

THE LAW OF FORGETTING

Venetian_imageThere is real memory and there is digital memory. There are laws about remembering and there are laws easy to forget. There is Moore’s Law and there is The Law of Forgetting.

Here in self-seducing Silicon Valley one can rarely get through a day without some idealist parroting Moore’s Law to justify this or that new business model. The Moore-in-the-law is Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, and his law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years. The consequence of Moore’s Law is that the memory capacity of the personal computer doubles biannually, thereby perpetually stoking the engine of the Silicon Valley economy.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that the opposite of every supposed truth represented an equally valid truth. So what is the antithesis to the truth of Moore’s Law? It is the idea that the more memory we pack onto our digital devices, the less memory we have for other things. This is called the Law of Forgetting.

I stumbled upon this Law of Forgetting earlier this week, while listening to a speech by Jaron Lanier at Berkeley’s Hillside Club. Lanier is a Silicon Valley technologist, best known around here for inventing something called “virtual-reality”. But his Hillside speech was more memorable for what he forgot to say than for anything he actually did say.

Lately, Lanier has become a critic of Silicon Valley’s self-seduction which he describes, memorably, as “digital narcissism”. According to Lanier, Silicon Valley has embraced itself with the notion of perfect technology, perfect bytes, the perfect digitalization of music. The inventor of virtual-reality says, with Heraclitean logic, that the reality of things is quite the opposite of what everyone in Silicon Valley says. Personal computers, Lanier argues, are “pretty shitty” -- they require us to pretend that they work while simultaneously creating a “volunteer slave economy” of users, all ironing out their bugs.

Lanier’s digital narcissism theme is intriguing.  But the Silicon Valley renegade forgot to speak about the past. While sketching his ideas about digital narcissism, Lanier forgot to mention the Narcissus of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a naïve young man whose sad ending might be interpreted as a warning to all those naïve young Narcissuses of Silicon Valley. And Lanier failed to remind his audience about Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissicism (1979), the classic study of an entire culture in love with itself.

The truth of California's Silicon Valley is of collective amnesia. Most of us in the Valley, including critics like Jaron Lanier, can’t remember anything from the pre-digital past. That old jeremiad Christopher Lasch described this as the “waning of the sense of historical time”.  We are governed by the Law of Forgetting. We know the future, but we don't know the past.