Saturday, November 24, 2018

"A 1970s Essay Predicted Silicon Valley's High-Minded Tyranny"

From Wired:
Jo Freeman is one of those people whom Kipling would praise for keeping her head while those all around are losing theirs. The women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s was rebuilding the world in a consciously different way: no designated leaders and no rules on what you could say and when you could say it. Yet Freeman wondered if getting rid of rules and leaders was actually making feminism more open and fair. “I am very analytical, which, frankly, inside the movement was not appreciated,” she recalled over breakfast at a coffee shop near her home in the residential Brooklyn neighborhood of Kensington.

After a hard think, she concluded that, if anything, the lack of structure made the situation worse: Elite women who went to the right schools and knew the right people held power and outsiders had no viable way of challenging them. She decided to write an essay summing up her thoughts. “As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules,” she wrote in the piece, published in Ms. magazine in 1973. “Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.”

More than 40 years later, Freeman’s essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” continues to reverberate, especially in Silicon Valley, where it is deployed by a wide range of critics to disprove widely held beliefs about the internet as a force of personal empowerment, whether in work, leisure, or politics. That a decentralized cryptocurrency like bitcoin gives ordinary folk control over high finance. That driving an Uber means you are an entrepreneur. That Facebook’s largely unsupervised advertising system is designed for small businesses because it allows them to reach a sea of customers inexpensively. Or that Silicon Valley companies with their informal college-campus vibe, including study nooks, snack bars, and a free-thinking debate culture, are immune to the need for corporate protection.

The reality, of course, is a bit different. Bitcoin is dominated by a small cadre of investors, and “mining” new coins is so expensive and electricity-draining that only large institutions can participate; Facebook’s advertising system is exploited by foreign governments and other malevolent political actors who have had free rein to spread disinformation and discord; and Google’s informal structure allows leaders to believe they can act in secret to dispense with credible accusations of harassment.
In Freeman’s unstinting language, this rhetoric of openness “becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others.”

Because “Tyranny” explains how things work, as opposed to how people say things work, it has become a touchstone for social critics of all stripes. During the Occupy movement, Freeman’s essay was on the organizers’ minds when they sought to eliminate hierarchy without introducing a hidden hierarchy. The essay is cited in hundreds of academic papers and books to explain the history of the Vatican, or the women’s movement in Iceland, or the Walmart workforce. But digital culture is where Freeman’s work has the most currency these days.

Arvind Narayanan, an expert on bitcoin at Princeton, recalled analyzing a crisis in how the currency should be governed when he suddenly thought, “Hmm, why does this feel familiar?” He had what he calls an “Oh my God, it’s the ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’ moment.” Benjamin Mako Hill, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where he is studying how free software projects operate, said Freeman’s essay was “really an inspirational thing.” In many of the communities he researches, Hill said, participants reject any hint of formal structures or authority only to discover that “10 years later, there really are a lot of leaders and structures.” Because the leaders and structures arrived informally, he said, they are much harder to uproot.

For the left-wing author and documentarian Astra Taylor, “Tyranny” was a healthy reminder that Silicon Valley’s rhetoric of openness and meritocracy doesn’t match the reality. “I’ve felt that paranoid delusion myself,” Taylor wrote in her book about the internet, The People’s Platform. “How do you explain inequalities in a system where explicit discrimination doesn’t exist? How do you make sense of homogeneity when there’s no sign on the door excluding different types of people?”...