The Meme Hustler

While the brightest minds of Silicon Valley are “disrupting” whatever industry is too crippled to fend off their advances, something odd is happening to our language. Old, trusted words no longer mean what they used to mean; often, they don’t mean anything at all. Our language, much like everything these days, has been hacked. Fuzzy, contentious, and complex ideas have been stripped of their subversive connotations and replaced by cleaner, shinier, and emptier alternatives; long-running debates about politics, rights, and freedoms have been recast in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and efficiency. Complexity, as it turns out, is not particularly viral.

This is not to deny that many of our latest gadgets and apps are fantastic. But to fixate on technological innovation alone is to miss the more subtle—and more consequential—ways in which a clique of techno-entrepreneurs has hijacked our language and, with it, our reason. In the last decade or so, Silicon Valley has triggered its own wave of linguistic innovation, a wave so massive that a completely new way to analyze and describe the world—a silicon mentality of sorts—has emerged in its wake. The old language has been rendered useless; our pre-Internet vocabulary, we are told, needs an upgrade.

Fortunately, Silicon Valley, that never-drying well of shoddy concepts and dubious paradigms—from wiki-everything to i-something, from e-nothing to open-anything—is ready to help. Like a good priest, it’s always there to console us with the promise of a better future, a glitzier roadmap, a sleeker vocabulary.

Silicon Valley has always had a thing for priests; Steve Jobs was the cranky pope it deserved. Today, having mastered the art of four-hour workweeks and gluten-free lunches in outdoor cafeterias, our digital ministers are beginning to preach on subjects far beyond the funky world of drones, 3-D printers, and smart toothbrushes. That we would eventually be robbed of a meaningful language to discuss technology was entirely predictable. That the conceptual imperialism of Silicon Valley would also pollute the rest of our vocabulary wasn’t.

The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly. The founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, a seemingly omnipotent publisher of technology books and a tireless organizer of trendy conferences, O’Reilly is one of the most influential thinkers in Silicon Valley. Entire fields of thought—from computing to management theory to public administration—have already surrendered to his buzzwordophilia, but O’Reilly keeps pressing on. Over the past fifteen years, he has given us such gems of analytical precision as “open source,” “Web 2.0,” “government as a platform,” and “architecture of participation.” O’Reilly doesn’t coin all of his favorite expressions, but he promotes them with religious zeal and enviable perseverance. While Washington prides itself on Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist who rebranded “global warming” as “climate change” and turned “estate tax” into “death tax,” Silicon Valley has found its own Frank Luntz in Tim O’Reilly.

Tracing O’Reilly’s intellectual footprint is no easy task, in part because it’s so vast.[*] Through his books, blogs, and conferences, he’s nurtured a whole generation of technology thinkers, from Clay Shirky to Cory Doctorow. A prolific blogger and a compulsive Twitter user with more than 1.6 million followers, O’Reilly has a knack for writing articulate essays about technological change. His essay on “Web 2.0” elucidated a basic philosophy of the Internet in a way accessible to both academics and venture capitalists; it boasts more than six thousand references on Google Scholar—not bad for a non-academic author. He also invests in start-ups—the very start-ups that he celebrates in his public advocacy—through a venture fund, which, like most things O’Reilly, also bears his name.

A stylish and smooth-talking self-promoter with a philosophical take on everything, O’Reilly is the Bernard-Henri Lévy of Route 101, the favorite court philosopher of the TED elites. His impressive intellectual stature in the Valley can probably be attributed to the simple fact that he is much better read than your average tech entrepreneur. His constant references to the learned men of yesteryear—from “Archilochus, the Greek fabulist” to Ezra Pound—make him stand out from all those Silicon Valley college dropouts who don’t know their Plotinus from their Pliny. A onetime recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant to translate Greek fables—“Socrates is [one of] my constant companions”—he has the air of a man ready to grapple with the Really Big Questions of the Universe (his Harvard degree in classics certainly comes in handy). While he recently told Wired that he doesn’t “really give a shit if literary novels go away” because “they’re an elitist pursuit,” O’Reilly is also quick to acknowledge that novels have profoundly shaped his own life. In 1981 the young O’Reilly even wrote a reputable biography of the science fiction writer Frank Herbert, the author of the Dune series, in which he waxes lyrical about Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers.

Alas, O’Reilly and the dead Germans parted ways long ago. These days, he’s busy changing the world; any list of unelected technocrats who are shaping the future of American politics would have his name at the very top. A Zelig-like presence on both sides of the Atlantic, he hobnobs with government officials in Washington and London, advising them on the Next Big Thing. O’Reilly’s thinking on “Government 2.0” has influenced many bureaucrats in the Obama administration, particularly those tasked with promoting the amorphous ideal of “open government”—not an easy thing to do in an administration bent on prosecuting whistle-blowers and dispatching drones to “we-can’t-tell-you-where-exactly” destinations. O’Reilly is also active in discussions about the future of health care, having strong views on what “health 2.0” should be like.

None of this is necessarily bad. On first impression, O’Reilly seems like a much-needed voice of reason—even of civic spirit—in the shallow and ruthless paradise-ghetto that is Silicon Valley. Compared to ultra-libertarian technology mavens like Peter Thiel and Kevin Kelly, O’Reilly might even be mistaken for a bleeding-heart liberal. He has publicly endorsed Obama and supported many of his key reforms. He has called on young software developers—the galley slaves of Silicon Valley—to work on “stuff that matters” (albeit preferably in the private sector). He has written favorably about the work of little-known local officials transforming American cities. O’Reilly once said that his company’s vision is to “change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” while his own personal credo is to “create more value than you capture.” (And he has certainly captured a lot of it: his publishing empire, once in the humble business of producing technical manuals, is now worth $100 million.) Helping like-minded people find each other, sharpen their message, form a social movement, and change the world: this is what O’Reilly’s empire is all about. Its website even boasts of its “long history of advocacy, meme-making, and evangelism.” Who says that spiritual gurus can’t have their own venture funds?

O’Reilly’s personal journey was not atypical for Silicon Valley. In a 2004 essay about his favorite books (published in Tim O’Reilly in a Nutshell, brought out by O’Reilly Media), O’Reilly confessed that, as a young man, he had “hopes of writing deep books that would change the world.” O’Reilly credits a book of science fiction documenting the struggles of a young girl against a corporate-dominated plutocracy (Rissa Kerguelen by F. M. Busby) with helping him abandon his earlier dream of revolutionary writing and enter the “fundamentally trivial business [of] technical writing.” The book depicted entrepreneurship as a “subversive force,” convincing O’Reilly that “in a world dominated by large companies, it is the smaller companies that keep freedom alive, with economics at least one of the battlegrounds.” This tendency to view questions of freedom primarily through the lens of economic competition, to focus on the producer and the entrepreneur at the expense of everyone else, shaped O’Reilly’s thinking about technology.

The Randian undertones in O’Reilly’s thinking are hard to miss, even as he flaunts his liberal credentials. “There’s a way in which the O’Reilly brand essence is ultimately a story about the hacker as hero, the kid who is playing with technology because he loves it, but one day falls into a situation where he or she is called on to go forth and change the world,” he wrote in 2012. But it’s not just the hacker as hero that O’Reilly is so keen to celebrate. His true hero is the hacker-cum-entrepreneur, someone who overcomes the insurmountable obstacles erected by giant corporations and lazy bureaucrats in order to fulfill the American Dream 2.0: start a company, disrupt an industry, coin a buzzword. Hiding beneath this glossy veneer of disruption-talk is the same old gospel of individualism, small government, and market fundamentalism that we associate with Randian characters. For Silicon Valley and its idols, innovation is the new selfishness.

However, it’s not his politics that makes O’Reilly the most dangerous man in Silicon Valley; a burgeoning enclave of Randian thought, it brims with far nuttier cases. O’Reilly’s mastery of public relations, on the other hand, is unrivaled and would put many of Washington’s top spin doctors to shame. No one has done more to turn important debates about technology—debates that used to be about rights, ethics, and politics—into kumbaya celebrations of the entrepreneurial spirit while making it seem as if the language of economics was, in fact, the only reasonable way to talk about the subject. As O’Reilly discovered a long time ago, memes are for losers; the real money is in epistemes.

O’Reilly got his start in business in 1978 when he launched a consulting firm that specialized in technical writing. Six years later, it began retaining rights to some of the manuals it was producing for individual clients and gradually branched out into more mainstream publishing. By the mid-1990s, O’Reilly had achieved some moderate success in Silicon Valley. He was well-off, having found a bestseller in The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog and having sold the Global Network Navigator—possibly the first Internet portal to feature paid banner advertising (“the first commercial website” as O’Reilly describes it today)—to AOL.

It was the growing popularity of “open source software” that turned O’Reilly into a national (and, at least in geek circles, international) figure. “Open source software” was also the first major rebranding exercise overseen by Team O’Reilly. This is where he tested all his trademark discursive interventions: hosting a summit to define the concept, penning provocative essays to refine it, producing a host of books and events to popularize it, and cultivating a network of thinkers to proselytize it.

It’s easy to forget this today, but there was no such idea as open source software before 1998; the concept’s seeming contemporary coherence is the result of clever manipulation and marketing. Open source software was born out of an ideological cleavage between two groups that, at least before 1998, had been traditionally lumped together. In one corner stood a group of passionate and principled geeks, led by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, preoccupied with ensuring that users had rights with respect to their computer programs. Those rights weren’t many—users should be able to run the program for any purpose, to study how it works, to redistribute copies of it, and to release their improved version (if there was one) to the public—but even this seemed revolutionary compared to what one could do with most proprietary software sold at the time.

Software that ensured the aforementioned four rights was dubbed “free software.” It was “free” thanks to its association with “freedom” rather than “free beer”; there was no theoretical opposition to charging money for building and maintaining such software. To provide legal cover, Stallman invented an ingenious license that relied on copyright law to suspend its own most draconian provisions—a legal trick that came to be known as “copyleft.” GPL (short for “General Public License”) has become the most famous and widely used of such “copyleft” licenses.

From its very beginning in the early 1980s, Stallman’s movement aimed to produce a free software alternative to proprietary operating systems like Unix and Microsoft Windows and proprietary software like Microsoft Office. Stallman’s may not have been the best software on offer, but some sacrifice of technological efficiency was a price worth paying for emancipation. Some discomfort might even be desirable, for Stallman’s goal, as he put it in his 1998 essay “Why ‘Free Software’ is Better Than ‘Open Source,’” was to ask “people to think about things they might rather ignore.”

Underpinning Stallman’s project was a profound critique of the role that patent law had come to play in stifling innovation and creativity. Perhaps inadvertently, Stallman also made a prescient argument for treating code, and technological infrastructure more broadly, as something that ought to be subject to public scrutiny. He sought to open up the very technological black boxes that corporations conspired to keep shut. Had his efforts succeeded, we might already be living in a world where the intricacies of software used for high-frequency trading or biometric identification presented no major mysteries.

Stallman is highly idiosyncratic, to put it mildly, and there are many geeks who don’t share his agenda. Plenty of developers contributed to “free software” projects for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. Some, like Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of the much-celebrated Linux operating system, did so for fun; some because they wanted to build more convenient software; some because they wanted to learn new and much-demanded skills.

Once the corporate world began expressing interest in free software, many nonpolitical geeks sensed a lucrative business opportunity. As technology entrepreneur Michael Tiemann put it in 1999, while Stallman’s manifesto “read like a socialist polemic . . . I saw something different. I saw a business plan in disguise.” Stallman’s rights-talk, however, risked alienating the corporate types. Stallman didn’t care about offending the suits, as his goal was to convince ordinary users to choose free software on ethical grounds, not to sell it to business types as a cheaper or more efficient alternative to proprietary software. After all, he was trying to launch a radical social movement, not a complacent business association.

By early 1998 several business-minded members of the free software community were ready to split from Stallman, so they masterminded a coup, formed their own advocacy outlet—the Open Source Initiative—and brought in O’Reilly to help them rebrand. The timing was right. Netscape had just marked its capitulation to Microsoft in the so-called Browser Wars and promised both that all future versions of Netscape Communicator would be released free of charge and that its code would also be made publicly available. A few months later, O’Reilly organized a much-publicized summit, where a number of handpicked loyalists—Silicon democracy in action!—voted for “open source” as their preferred label. Stallman was not invited.

The label “open source” may have been new, but the ideas behind it had been in the air for some time. In 1997, even before the coup, Eric Raymond—a close associate of O’Reilly, a passionate libertarian, and the founder of a group with the self-explanatory title “Geeks with Guns”—delivered a brainy talk called “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” which foresaw the emergence of a new, radically collaborative way to make software. (In 1999, O’Reilly turned it into a successful book.) Emphasizing its highly distributed nature, Raymond captured the essence of open source software in a big-paradigm kind of way that could spellbind McKinsey consultants and leftist academics alike.

In those early days, the messaging around open source occasionally bordered on propaganda. As Raymond himself put it in 1999, “what we needed to mount was in effect a marketing campaign,” one that “would require marketing techniques (spin, image-building, and re-branding) to make it work.” This budding movement prided itself on not wanting to talk about the ends it was pursuing; except for improving efficiency and decreasing costs, those were left very much undefined. Instead, it put all the emphasis on how it was pursuing those ends—in an extremely decentralized manner, using Internet platforms, with little central coordination. In contrast to free software, then, open source had no obvious moral component. According to Raymond, “open source is not particularly a moral or a legal issue. It’s an engineering issue. I advocate open source, because . . . it leads to better engineering results and better economic results.” O’Reilly concurred. “I don’t think it’s a religious issue. It’s really about how do we actually encourage and spark innovation,” he announced a decade later. While free software was meant to force developers to lose sleep over ethical dilemmas, open source software was meant to end their insomnia.

Even before the coup, O’Reilly occupied an ambiguous—and commercially pivotal—place in the free software community. On the one hand, he published manuals that helped to train new converts to the cause. On the other hand, those manuals were pricey. They were also of excellent quality, which, as Stallman once complained, discouraged the community from producing inexpensive alternatives. Ultimately, however, the disagreement between Stallman and O’Reilly—and the latter soon became the most visible cheerleader of the open source paradigm—probably had to do with their very different roles and aspirations. Stallman the social reformer could wait for decades until his ethical argument for free software prevailed in the public debate. O’Reilly the savvy businessman had a much shorter timeline: a quick embrace of open source software by the business community guaranteed steady demand for O’Reilly books and events, especially at a time when some analysts were beginning to worry—and for good reason, as it turned out—that the tech industry was about to collapse.

The coup succeeded. Stallman’s project was marginalized. But O’Reilly and his acolytes didn’t win with better arguments; they won with better PR. To make his narrative about open source software credible to a public increasingly fascinated by the Internet, O’Reilly produced a highly particularized account of the Internet that subsequently took on a life of its own. In just a few years, that narrative became the standard way to talk about Internet history, giving it the kind of neat intellectual coherence that it never actually had. A decade after producing a singular vision of the Internet to justify his ideas about the supremacy of the open source paradigm, O’Reilly is close to pulling a similar trick on how we talk about government reform.

To understand how O’Reilly’s idea of the Internet helped legitimize the open source paradigm, it’s important to remember that much of Stallman’s efforts centered on software licenses. O’Reilly’s bet was that as software migrated from desktops to servers—what, in another fit of buzzwordophilia, we later called the “cloud”—licenses would cease to matter. Since no code changed hands when we used Google or Amazon, it was counterproductive to fixate on licenses. “Let’s stop thinking about licenses for a little bit. Let’s stop thinking that that’s the core of

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