Talk: ‘Cyberlibertarianism: The Extremist Foundations of ‘Digital Freedom”

Talk delivered at Clemson University, September 5, 2013

Full paper: Cyberlibertarianism: The Extremist Foundations of ‘Digital Freedom’

Abstract

Cyberlibertarianism has rapidly become the dominant mode of political thought of our time. Especially in the US, but also around the world, the view that might be summed in the slogan “computerization will set you free” has taken remarkably firm hold, especially of young people who perceive some of the many structura l political problems our world faces. Yet when we examine the premises of cyberlibertarian thought, here including the work of writers who appear to range across the political spectrum–from Clay Shirky and Yochai Benkler on the “left” to Peter Thiel and Eric Raymond on the “right”–we find remarkable uniformity in the grounding principles of their belief system, especially in the definition of terms like freedom, democracy, and property. This uniform belief system maps much more closely than the rhetoric would suggest to what Philip Mirowski and other economic historians have carefully traced to origins in the Neoliberal Thought Collective (NTC)–that is, a far-right political vision that is not compatible with both left and even traditional conservative thought of many different stripes. The long-term practice of the the NTC reveals many points of convergence with cyberlibertarian thought, and highlights areas of profound divergence with regard to other forms of political thought, especially around the value of equality. Both the practice of Wikipedia and the discourse of and surrounding hacking reveal close alignments between digital utopianiasm and the political agendas of the extreme right.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted September 8, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Enjoyed this, as usual.

    “I will discuss it today as a Cyberlibertarianism: The Extremist Foundations of ‘Digital Freedom’ – 2
    politics and as an epistemic theory, and above all an ideology, which is to say a belief system that serves purposes other than those goals at which it says it explicitly aims.”

    Politics, epitemology, ideology. All of this suggests to me an *ethics*, which seems to me the thing that is absent (or maybe just unarticulated) among all of those espousing what you rightly call “cyberlibertarianism.”

    Witness the peculiar absence of any kind of coherent ethical response to recent events at Comic Con (http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/penny-arcade-expo-dickwolves/).

    Perhaps I just don’t accept cyberlibertarianism as a good idea. But it seems to me that for those who espouse this idea, ethical standpoints are just skipped over in favor of manifesto-like statements of action. The question to ask of Coleman is something like: Is this consequentialism? Virtue ethics? Deontology? Many don’t seem to be interested in this question at all.

    None of us are going to transcend ideology, of course, but ideology implies a politics and an epistemology. Perhaps it doesn’t always allow us to adjudicate ethical propositions outside its domain, but if it doesn’t (or does so poorly or in a knee-jerk fashion), it’s time to reconsider one’s ideology.

    • Posted September 8, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for reading it and for your comments. Much appreciated.

      I could not agree more about the centrality of ethics–that has been one of my clues to this line of thinking, in fact. Cyberlibertarians (as I’m defining them) routinely subscribe to consequentialism in ethics and utilitarianism in politics, in fairly disturbing instances (w/regard to the racist, sexist terrorizing of another individual named in the paper, in fact, whose actions they say should be judged by their consequences–that is, by how his victims respond, which I find truly abhorrent). As a committed deontologist, I find these positions unwelcome, and I also have trouble reconciling them with most left and even traditional right politics that are not willing to abandon altogether norms like equality, justice, rule of law, & minority rights.

  2. Posted September 8, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Sorry, meant PAX above (not Comic con).

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