Don't be evil

Don't be evil

Fred Turner on Utopias, Frontiers, and Brogrammers

Engineers try to do politics by changing infrastructure.

That’s what they do. They tweak infrastructure. It’s a little bit like an ancient Roman trying to shape public debate by reconfiguring the Forum. “We’ll have seven new entrances instead of six, and the debate will change.”

The engineering world doesn’t have a conception of how to intervene in debate that isn’t infrastructural.

When you take away bureaucracy and hierarchy and politics, you take away the ability to negotiate the distribution of resources on explicit terms. And you replace it with charisma, with cool, with shared but unspoken perceptions of power. You replace it with the cultural forces that guide our behavior in the absence of rules.

What are the “politics of infrastructure"? What does that phrase mean?

It means several different things. First, it involves the recognition that the built environment, whether it's built out of tarmac or concrete or code, has political effects. I was joking earlier about reshaping the Forum, but I shouldn't have joked quite so much, because the fact that the Forum was round encouraged one kind of debate.

Think about an auditorium where someone sits onstage and the audience watches, versus a Quaker meeting where everyone sits in a circle. They're very different.

So, structure matters. Design is absolutely critical. Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another. How are those constraints built? What are its effects on political life?

To study the politics of infrastructure is to study the political ideas that get built into the design process, and the infrastructure’s impact on the political possibilities of the communities that engage it.

I want to say one more thing about politics.

One of the legacies of the counterculture, particularly on the left, is the idea that expression is action. This idea has haunted those of us on the left for a long time.

But one of the reasons that the Tea Party came to power was that they organized—they built institutions. So the challenge for those of us who want a different world is not to simply trust that the expressive variety that the internet permits is the key to freedom. Rather, we need to seek a kind of freedom that involves people not like us, that builds institutions that support people not like us—not just ones that help gratify our desires to find new partners or build better micro-worlds.

The New Communalists believed that the micro-world was where politics happened. If we could just build a better micro-world, we could live by example to create a better world for the whole. I think that's wrong. Our challenge is to build a world that takes responsibility for people not like ourselves. And it's a challenge we won't meet by enhancing our expressive abilities, or improving the technologies of expressive connection.

The other thing to say about the utopian idea is that it lives in the Valley partly as a marketing strategy. This is a political operation of the first importance. If the Valley can convince Washington that the Valley is the home of the future and that its leaders see things that leaders back in stuffy old DC can’t see, then they can also make a case for being deregulated.

Why regulate the future? Who wants to do that?

So, it’s very tactical. Claiming the high ground of the utopian future is a very tactical claim.