Open the Data Centers

A simple proposal to transcend dead-end debates about privacy and build international tech solidarity

Thirty-six years after its publication, Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition has not aged gracefully. Like Remembrance of Things Past or Volume 3 of Capital, it’s now a text cited more often than it is read, which is perhaps fitting considering that Lyotard has admitted that he never actually read many of the works cited within the essay’s 231 footnotes.

But regardless of its faults, the piece ends with an intriguing and provocative call to arms, one which may be even more relevant today than it was in 1979:

We are finally in a position to understand how the computerization of society affects this problematic. It could become the “dream” instrument for controlling and regulating the market system, extended to include knowledge itself and governed exclusively by the performativity principle. In that case, it would inevitably involve the use of terror. But it could also aid groups discussing metaprescriptives by supplying them with the information they usually lack for making knowledgeable decisions. The line to follow for computerization to take the second of these two paths is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks. Language games would then be games of perfect information at any given moment.

In this passage, Lyotard seems to be proposing a technological kind of categorical imperative: collect only that information which you are willing to share with everyone. This proposal certainly raises its own problems, but it offers two advantages over other radical theories of technology.

First, Lyotard entirely sidesteps the question of “privacy,” an inherently liberal problematic which structures so many of today’s debates about technology. Instead of debating the boundaries of individual rights in a hyper-networked society, Lyotard interrogates the power relations built into those technologies. Under his analysis, NSA spying is not bad because invades individuals’ privacy; it’s bad because like all panoptic systems, it points in only one direction.

More subtly, Lyotard also undermines the idea that “information wants to be free.” Certainly, The Postmodern Condition supports the idea that information should be free, but Lyotard is clear that computerization might simply serve the interests of capital (the “performativity principle”), thus disputing that freedom of knowledge is the natural outcome of technological development. In fact, his qualification that opening up the data centers is “in principle, quite simple” implies that in practice, it may be exactly the opposite.

For Lyotard, the freedom of information is not a prediction, but rather an imperative: “give the public free access to the memory and data banks.” And while the subject of this imperative is left unstated, Lyotard is clear that the market won’t do the job.

Lyotard’s proposal, then, transcends both the tired liberal debates about privacy rights, and the naive techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley. But it also points the way to an even more radical position: not just public access to the “memory and data banks,” but public ownership of their material basis — in other words, the socialization of the means of communication.

Whether Lyotard realized this or not, it quickly becomes obvious that private ownership of the physical servers, cables, and switches that host and transmit data is incompatible with public access to that data. The best way to make sure Facebook cannot gather private data on us, its users, is to require it to use public servers, rather than allowing it to build, maintain, and protect its own “memory and data banks.”

Otherwise, as the current state of the industry proves, the logic of the market provides an immense competitive advantage to any company able to gather information which it is not required to share. Each of today’s tech behemoths, from Google to Apple to Facebook, has generated billions of dollars from privileged access to its own information, whether that information takes the form of search and advertising algorithms, hardware manufacturing specs, or personal data. And in each case, the public suffers.

This extension of Lyotard’s proposal offers the added benefit of bringing the high-altitude rhetoric of the Silicon Valley back down to earth in a properly materialist fashion. To hear the titans of tech, it would seem that computing today has entirely detached itself from actual things — motherboards and servers and ethernet cables — to live exclusively in the idealist paradise known as the Cloud.

A renewed emphasis on the materiality of tech is not just accurate, it is also strategic. Current interests do everything they can to make consumers forget that real labor goes into assembling gadgets, building data centers, and ultimately disposing of highly toxic technological waste. Piercing this particular form of commodity fetishism lays the groundwork for a new, meaningful kind of solidarity, since public ownership of the means of communication would benefit both the workers who create the material infrastructure for communications technology, and the knowledge workers whose labor depends on that infrastructure. If the means of production means anything for a freelance writer, it means a functioning MacBook and a reliable internet connection.

Of course, Lyotard’s framing brings up new questions; I would guess that he never entertained the possibility of such practices as revenge porn or doxing. But democratic control of the online space is the best way to curtail these practices, and such control can never come about as long as the material substrate of this space remains privately owned. Recent efforts to regulate the internet without addressing the underlying problem of private property only emphasize this point.

Like any other tool, the internet can either help us emancipate ourselves, or contribute to our further enslavement. If, like Lyotard, we wish to fight for the former, we need to reckon with both the entrenched liberal conceptions of technology, and the institution of private property upon which it is based. The battles of the 19th century played out in the factories — today, the same must happen in the data centers.

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Originally published at evanburger.wordpress.com on June 4, 2015.