The O’Reilly Factor

If you’re involved in the tech industry and have been following the development of the interwebs over the last several decades, you probably should read The Meme Hustler, the Evgeny Morozov take-down of Tim O’Reilly that was published a couple days ago. You might need to set aside a couple quiet hours for the project — it’s roughly the length of John Galt’s speech.

About halfway through this piece I heard the click of something large, not quite a planes-into-buildings or a tear-this-wall-down click, but definitely a click. It sounded a lot to me like something making a dent in the cult of the internet or what Morozov calls “internet-centrism”, the belief in the social good that comes from broadly applying the the decentralization, radical transparency, network effects and crowd intelligence dynamics that have emerged from people connecting at scale on the internet.

Yes, Morozov is a flawed character — too clever by ten, mean and petty, and addicted to the sardonic turn of phrase. It might be easy to dismiss him as a up-and-coming professional grumpypants kicking people in the shins to get buzz for his upcoming books.

But in the growing collection of voices I’m reading like Lanier and Pariser and Carr who are starting to question the basic ideas of internet-centrism — and the manufacture of those ideas — Morozov dares to name names. And not just any name, but probably the most respected and above-reproach name at the middle of all of cyberlandia, Tim O’Reilly.

If I had to boil this critique of O’Reilly down to a sentence I think Morozov is saying that a belief system held by an important collection of internet capitalists, entrepreneurs, and academics is heavily influenced if not outright manipulated by O’Reilly, and regardless of his intentions, the means and results if this influence deserve to be questioned critically. Morozov’s core case studies are O’Reilly’s semantic engineering work around the shift from “free software” to “open source software”, the development of the “Web 2.0” meme, and more recently O’Reilly’s foray into “government as a platform”.

Despite his crusty prickliness I resonate with Morozov’s deep skepticism of the internet centrist view and I think he makes a pretty compelling case for O’Reilly as a central figure in the development of this dogma. I’m not sure, however, that I’ve been convinced that O’Reilly is a bad guy at all and I think my essential pre-Morozov view of O’Reilly has emerged roughly unscathed — a natural optimist with a builder mentality who has a knack for leading conversations.

What has changed is that I see another O’Reilly layer: a publisher and a salesman of ideas who necessarily (and ironically!) uses insider hierarchies and influence groups to achieve his communication ends. It will be interesting to see how this more complex and commercial view of the man matures in my brain in the coming months.

O’Reilly’s best comeback so far to Morozov’s critique is that while the “hatchet-job” is entertaining it is ultimately “not useful”. My question is — useful for what? It certainly doesn’t wash dishes and you can’t dance to it. And it’s pretty useless for advancing any internet-centrist agenda. But as a check on conventional wisdom and a reminder to let history back into the conversation about our future — for those nudges it was quite useful for me.

One thought on “The O’Reilly Factor

  1. shelby Post author

    btw, my favorite of O’Reilly’s many rebuttals is here.

    My beef w/ O’Reilly remains his unbalanced optimism, that people if given the chance will do nice things for each other as a rule. Sometimes, yes. Bookish and geeky types who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from (people using the internet for most of its history..)? Um, probably often than most. History on the other hand doesn’t provide me with many examples of these decentralized collectivist systems (Iceland in 1000 A.D. or any number of communes in the 1960’s) holding together long.


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