The “Meme Hustler” hustler: Evgeny Morozov’s Stupid Talk about Tim O’Reilly

[note: I wrote the following post one Sunday afternoon nearly two months ago. It was no great shakes, but I was happy to have finally written something to break out of my Wetmachine doldrums. I set it aside to jell overnight, intending to re-read, put in links, give it a once-over the next day before posting it. However on that next day,  Monday , the bombing attack at the Boston Marathon occurred, and publishing this  little essay was clearly inappropriate. Time has passed & I’ve finally gotten around to re-reading and putting in the links. It’s no longer as timely as it was, but in any event, here it is. . .]

Evgeny Morozov is a guy with a soapbox and a schtick.

His soapbox is his position as a “go to” authority on technoskepticism — that is, he makes his living pointing out, to any who care to listen, The Folly of Technological Solutionism (which phrase I italicize because it’s also the subtitle of his latest book, whose primary title is To Save Everything, Click Here).

His schtick is finding influential people who embrace (or appear to embrace) this philosophy of technological solutionism and taking them down a peg or two.  And he’s really good at peg-decrementing — which probably accounts for the prominence of his soapbox, which includes positions at prestigious academic institutions (Stanford, Georgetown) and think tanks, and regular appearances in prominent publications (New York Times, Foreign Affairs) and a TED fellowship.

Consider, for example, Morozov’s hilarious (and quite well-deserved, in my opinion) evisceration of former San Francisco mayor, and current Lieutenant Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, in a Bookforum review of Newsom’s book Citizenville:


In a flourish [in the publisher’s catalog] as logical as it is grammatical, we learn that “Newsom’s quest to modernize one of America’s most modern cities—and the amazing results he achieves—form the backbone of this far-reaching book.”

Alas, this dubiously signifying nonsense does not let up between the covers of Citizenville. To say that Newsom’s ruminations on technology and politics come in fifty shades of bullshit is to give this all-too-representative study in online civic boosterism too much credit. Newsom’s bullshit is solidly and tediously monochrome.


The essay gets only more brutal from there. I loved it when I read it; I actually exclaimed “YES!” out loud a few times, which seemed to startle my fellow passengers on the New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Chatham, New Jersey. When he’s on target, Morozov can be brilliant, funny, and merciless.

Recently Morozov turned his attention on Tim O’Reilly, the founder of  O’Reilly Media (formerly O’Reilly & Associates), the so-called visionary whose careers first as a publisher of books on computer technology and then as impresario of various conferences that bear his name catapulted him to international prominence as a commentator on where technology is, or might be, taking us as a nation and even as a species.

To put it mildly, Morozov doesn’t care much for O’Reilly. In fact he seems to reserve for O’Reilly a disdain much more intense than that which he evinced for the poseur airhead Gavin Newsom. In a recent piece in the smugly iconoclastic magazine The Baffler, (“The Meme Hustler — Tim O’Reilly’s Crazy Talk”) Morozov goes after O’Reilly like an angry Rottweiler.  Or more accurately, he goes after a caricature of O’Reilly like a caricature of an angry Rottweiler. I really enjoyed Morozov’s take-down of Newsom, and O’Reilly (“Saint Tim”) is, frankly, an object of veneration in some circles who could stand a little ribbing. I’m a Walt Whitman kind of guy in that I don’t have much tolerance for the veneration of  popes, Dalai Lamas or Steve Jobses; Whitman enjoined us to “tip your cap to no man”, and I’m down with that.  So I wouldn’t mind seeing St. Tim taken down a notch or two, just on general principles. I had done a 30-second skim read of Morozov’s essay when it first appeared in The Baffler and it looked promising, so I was looking forward to actually reading The Meme Hustler when I found the time to do so. I found the time yesterday.

Man, what a disappointment. What a pompous, shallow, unfair, error-filled and hysterical piece of dreck. Essentially, I found The Meme Hustler stupid and baffling. It made me angry. I explain why below the fold.

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Tell Hollywood “Thou Shalt Not Put A Stumbling Block Before The [WIPO Treaty For The] Blind!”

Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but thou shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD. — Lev. 19:14

In a few weeks, the 186 governments that are members of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will gather in Morocco with the goal of ratifying the Treaty For The Blind — an agreement that would facilitate global production and lending of audio books and otherwise enable the visually impaired and those with certain learning disabilities to have access to printed material and visual works.  But last minute lobbying by Hollywood and publishing interests in the U.S. and Europe have threatened to derail the Treaty for the Blind at the last minute. Despite previously expressing support for the Treaty in the past, the Obama Administration is — surprise! — wavering in its support.

Why would the Obama Administration, or anyone else for that matter, throw the blind under the bus in favor of Hollywood and the rest of the IP Mafia, especially when the laws of the United States already comply — or go beyond — what the new Treaty for the Blind would require? Perhaps this Biblical verse can provide an answer:

Do not take [campaign contributions from corporations and trade associations] for [campaign contributions from corporations and trade associations] blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. Deut. 16:19

As we all know now from long experience, the Obama Administration can do the right thing when they get pushed hard enough. So remind the Administration: Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the [Treaty for the] Blind. Please sign this We The People Petition telling the Obama Administration to side with the blind, not Hollywood and the rest of IP Mafia.

Click Here To Sign Petition

More details  below . . .

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Commissioner Pai: A ‘Consensus’ Of Incumbents Without Consumers Is No Consensus And means Disaster For 600 MHz.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Wireless Bureau issued what should have been a fairly routine and highly technical Public Notice about possible alternative band plans for the 600 MHz Auction aka the Incentive Auction aka “that incredibly crazy, complicated deal Congress came up with last year where broadcasters sell back licenses to the FCC so the FCC can sell them to wireless companies.” Since public comment makes it clear that the various proposals present a lot of challenges (see my incredibly long and wonky explanation here), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Wireless Bureau asked for further comment after holding a band plan workshop a few weeks ago.


But Commissioner Pai issued a separate statement blasting the Wireless Bureau. In particular, Pai berated the Bureau for departing from what he called the “consensus framework” for one particular band plan – the band plan favored by AT&T, Verizon, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the largest equipment manufacturers. Pai ignored objections to the AT&/VZ/NAB plan and support from consumer groups (including Public Knowledge), competitors such as Sprint, or tech companies such as Microsoft. Over and over in his statement, Pai cited to the comments of AT&T, Verizon and NAB as proof of a “broad consensus” as if none of these objections existed.

As someone fairly active in this proceeding, who actually participated in the Band Plan Workshop, I am more than a little peeved. Yoo hoo! Commissioner Paaaaiiiiii!!! What am I, chopped liver? I am also more than a little irked at the allegations that the Bureau somehow behaved improperly in issuing the Public Notice. Pai’s accusation that the PN violates the Bureau’s delegated authority by soliciting comment on alternatives to the AT&T/VZ/NAB “consensus plan” appears designed to bully the Bureau into submission.

Setting my personal pique aside, as I keep trying to explain, letting the broadcasters and the largest wireless incumbents write the rules for the auction spells absolute disaster. If Pai genuinely wants to see a successful Incentive Auction, that means looking past industry “consensus” and getting into the very nasty and complicated details to figure out the right set of tradeoffs that will (a) get the broadcasters and wireless guys to the auction, but (b) not let them short the U.S. Treasury out of the cash it expects to collect in the process.

I vent and take one more shot at explaining this below . . . .


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Associated Press is shocked –SHOCKED — To Discover Government Cannot Be Trusted With Power to Spy

Dutch explorer and author Arthur Wichmann summed up the history of bungled exploration attempts of New Guinea with the phrase “Nothing learned, everything forgotten.”

I find myself thinking of this phrase in light of the revelations that the Department of Justice (DoJ) asked for, and got, two-months of phone and data records for Associated Press reporters. DoJ apparently asked for the data because it wanted to find the source of a leak that the Administration foiled an Al-Qeda plot. According to sources, the AP apparently sat on the story for several days to protect the lives of U.S. agents, but balked at further delay so the Administration could break the news itself in a press conference. AP accuses the DoJ of abusing its surveillance powers to punish AP for raining on its parade. Verizon apparently turned over the information with nary a quiver or question.

The Administration denies any knowledge of DoJ’s actions, it also denies any comparisons to Nixon, saying: “People who make these kinds of comparisons need to check their history.”

Actually, a bunch of us do and did. Which is why I say “nothing learned, everything forgotten.”

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Content Developers and the Cloudy Future

My wife, a graphic designer/publications gal (not her actual title), was worried by Adobe’s recent announcement that their entire creative suite will now be cloud-based.  After reading the actual Adobe press release/happy marketdroidspeak, it looks like things are a bit less dire than she feared. Designers will still be able to download and install the “Creative Suite CC.” locally, rather than depending on always having reliable net access just to use the basic tools of their trade. Adobe, of course, couches all of this in happy cloud-talk… you’ll seamlessly collaborate, shooting files off to people hither and yon, and you’ll get to show off your work (key for the many designer freelancers out there). You’ll be free! You’ll be happy!

These features seem nice and all, but not something that really sounds like it has to be tied to Adobe’s Cloud. Using Dropbox, social media, and other third-party services probably can come close, or even surpass what Adobe has cooked up. So, it’s nicely integrated, yes… but not something that is world-shattering.

What’s not mentioned in the hype is how this may dramatically shift access and ownership of a designer’s own set of tools.

The implications of this below.

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Briefly on Bitcoin — There Is Nothing New Under The Sun.

After lurking around for some years, Bitcoin has become quite the buzz. For those fortunate enough to have avoided Bitcoin mania to date, Bitcoin is a digital currency, best explained by Stephen Colbert. It has certain qualities that make it attractive to some people. Specifically, it is not associated with any government, and the algorithm that generates Bitcoin creates a preprogrammed number that cannot be increased faster than they can be “mined.”

Bitcoin appears to have reached the tipping point where enough people treat it as a currency to raise some questions about its future as a currency rather than a fad. In addition to online trading, we now have what might be the first Bitcoin exchange floor in meatspace.  An increasing number of people and businesses are willing to take Bitcoin as payment for transactions. Needless to say, this has generated great excitement among some and yawns among others. Some fret that Bitcoin has become a new way for money launderers, drug dealers, and other unsavory characters to engage in illegal transactions untraceably. Others celebrate Bitcoin as the realization of the Libertarian dream of divorcing money from government.

I fall into the yawn category. Back in 2006, we briefly had a similar buzz around the artificial currencies used in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORGs). Second Life was going to replace real life, news organizations were setting up “Second Life Bureaus,” and Congress actually held hearings on whether to find some way to tax the transactions in imaginary worlds. In a post I wrote back then called “Keep Azeroth Tax Free,”  I observed that existing tax law already did the job quite nicely. Imaginary currencies and transactions that stayed within the game and had no impact on the real world stayed imaginary. Transactions impacting the real world, such as selling game-based artifacts for cash or converting game currency to traditional government-backed currency, were already captured by existing regulations.

The U.S. Treasury has now conducted a similar analysis for Bitcoin, and come to the same conclusion. Addressing laws that regulate money transfer service, the Treasury  explained in this advisory memo that existing law already addresses virtual currencies. If the transfer is convertible into real money or other value, then it is a money transfer. If the exchange is to facilitate a “bona fide sale” (e.g., I exchange Bitcoin for real goods or services), then it is a sale and not a money transfer. If all it does is swap virtual currencies, no one cares.

In other words, virtual currency does not create an exciting new loophole to engage in illegal transactions or escape taxes — which should be the limit of what policy cares about. To the extent Bitcoin may teach folks that money is simply a medium of exchange and that there is nothing magic about, say, gold or other precious metals — well and good. To the extent Bitcoin crashes and takes down unwary investors — sucks to be them. For all that Bitcoin may create excitement in a subset of the tech set, it is fairly boring from a policy perspective. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Stay tuned . . .

First Reactions To The FCC’s 600 MHz Band Plan Workshop.

I was pleased to participate in the FCC’s 600 MHz auction (aka the Incentive Auction) band plan workshop last Friday. This was a pretty intense nerd-fest, with discussion limited as much as possible to real honest-to-God technical issues that arise with the band plan. While I knew some of this, the full scope of the problems associated with developing a band plan for this auction had not truly become clear to me until I sat through about 6 hours of technical discussion on the subject.

My biggest take away from this is that about the only way to get a rational bandplan on this is to go back in time to 1996 and tell Congress not to stop at Channel 51, but to clear all the way to Channel 37. Then, we go ahead to 2002, and tell Congress not to require the FCC to hold the first 700 MHz auction so we can actually com up with a rational band plan ion 2007. Given that I am unlikely to find either a souped-up DeLorean or a blue police box anytime soon, we are probably stuck with the existing constraints.

Most importantly, all the people yapping about how the FCC needs to focus on getting the maximum amount of spectrum to maximize revenue, please review this workshop before you open your yaps again. Srsly.

I explain why people who seriously care about the auction outcomes — even if it is only from a revenue maximization perspective — need to actually care about the technical issues before blathering on about recovering the most spectrum below . . . .


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Would Tom Wheeler Really Have Approved The AT&T/T-Mo Merger? Why I don’t Think So.

After weeks of speculation, it now appears certain that President Obama will nominate Thomas Wheeler to replace Julius Genachowski as Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to serve as acting until Wheeler’s nomination gets confirmed by the Senate. In recent weeks, Wheeler’s background as a lobbyist many years ago for first the cable industry and then the wireless industry have raised concerns that Wheeler remains more sympathetic to business interests than the public interest. As anyone who has read Public Knowledge’s official statement in response to the nomination can see, while we understand those concerns, we agree with many other public interest colleagues who think that Wheeler has an independent perspective and an open mind. Certainly we will have disagreements with the new Chairman (assuming Wheeler is confirmed), but we expect that Wheeler will actively work to promote competition and protect consumers.


Yeah, I know, that sounds like either wishful thinking or Washington insider talk. So allow me to explain my line of reasoning (since, unlike a number of other Wheeler supporters, I actually don’t know Wheeler at all). In particular, I want to tackle the current “Tom Wheeler would have approved the AT&T/T-Mobile merger in 2011.” It’s easy to say “oh, all that lobbying for the cable and wireless industry was long ago when they were scrappy upstarts. Why, that was so long ago that the cable industry were battling the broadcasters and the wireless industry were battling the telcos (as opposed to these days when the cable industry battles the telcos and the wireless industry battles the broadcasters)!” But if Wheeler was actually a supporter of AT&T/T-Mo, then it would seem to prove he still has sympathies to his old industry incumbent comrades.


I examine the People v. Tom Wheeler in the matter of AT&T/T-Mo below . . .

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