Production Narratives

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking toward a car with someone in the field and mentioned the pleasure I’d taken in being a part of the production process that helped move her article from acceptance toward publication. It was a cool, damp, overcast afternoon, and we talked about the production process: how we correspond with authors, the various checks and edits that get made once a piece is accepted for publication, and the real-life material contexts in which that work gets done. Academic buildings crowded bare trees behind us, and in front of us a hill sloped down with roads and paths to a narrow river. Our conversation took place among meetings and introductions and arrivals and conversations and meals, the recounting of the enjoyment of the work of production taking place in its own situated material contexts.

Here’s a portion of the story I told in that conversation: two summers ago, I was on a road trip; the Orientalist and I traveling by car from New York to Michigan to Pittsburgh to Delaware to the Assateague National Seashore for a wedding, and then back up to New York. I had academic work to do, and brought along my laptop, an AC inverter to power the laptop from the car, and an old iPhone 3 that I’d jailbroken to broadcast its cellular data connection as a wireless hotspot. I was doing editorial work at 65 miles per hour, uploading and downloading draft files and making changes and asking via email for specific corrections and adjustments, and at one point, I found myself finishing up the edits by evening lamplight and firelight on a picnic table at the Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware, just outside the tent we’d set up, within peaceful earshot of the Atlantic surf. That was the pleasant memory of the production process that I shared on that cool, damp, overcast afternoon, two years later and thousands of miles away.

Both of those stories — the conversation and its internal flashback — are production narratives. They’re reflective stories about how texts (and the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that permit and constitute and shape them) get produced. I like production narratives, and I use them in my teaching: for every major assignment students turn in, I ask them to write a reflection about those material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor. For them, it’s actually a somewhat familiar genre, especially when I ask them to make the self-aware turn toward metacognition: as Kathi Yancey’s wonderful book and other studies have convincingly demonstrated, metacognition promotes knowledge transfer, and the Army makes use of that positive relationship in its systematic use of After-Action Reviews, or AARs. The cadets have all done AARs and know how they work and use AARs to refine and improve their process as well as to make what they’ve learned stick, so I sell the reflective production narrative to them as a form of AAR.

Beyond fulfilling those purposes of knowledge transfer, though, I think Kairos also points out in compelling ways how production narratives function as scholarship. The Inventio section is one of my favorite sections of the journal (well, in addition to the one that I’ve recently been promoted to editing — thanks, Cheryl and Doug!) because of cool, smart, charming webtexts like Susan Delagrange’s “When Revision is Redesign” and Daniel Anderson’s “Watch the Bubble” and the ways they demonstrate the pleasures of the text in demonstrating, analyzing, and performing how scholarship gets produced. Kairos describes the section as “focus[ing] on the decisions, contexts, and contributions that have constituted a particular webtext. Inventio authors include, alongside or integrated with their finished webtexts, materials that help them articulate how and why their work came into being.” Again: critical, reflective production narratives. But I’ve also started to see my own scholarship turning in that direction as well: I’ve recently sent off an extended economic analysis of how the Army’s plagiarized field manual was produced that attempted to account for the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that demanded and constituted and shaped that significant piece of doctrine, and I’ve got articles in the works that perform a sort of time-use study of the production of other pieces of scholarship, as well, and the Orientalist and I are starting to work on a study that attempts to account for the relationship between faculty time, scholarship, teaching, and student time in quantitative terms. So, yes, again: critical, reflective production narratives about how scholarship gets produced and — at a more abstract level — how education gets produced.

I’m a little uneasy, though, about the quantitative focus of that last study I described, because I think it departs from my particular economic focus on the fundamental purpose of what production narratives do. Production narratives are a way of paying attention to and making qualitative sense of the work and experience of composing and producing. They’re texts that operate on other texts, including ourselves, because information is an experience good. Experience goods are not always going to be quantitatively commensurable, and this fact is what I think constitutes the mistake Victor Villanueva makes when he declares that economic analysis requires mathematics and numbers, and more seriously the fundamental and crippling flaw to Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. The process of production and the attention that accompanies that process are both activities that transform and aggregate; as such, they respond poorly to zero-sum quantitative economic analysis. If we’re paying attention to the value of composing and how it happens, we’re talking about information that is qualitative at its core. That’s part of what makes production narratives so appealing as irreducible experience goods.

Ceci Tuera Cela, Take Two

Hal Varian is the chief economist for Google and retired professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, where he founded the School of Information and held positions with the Haas School of Business and the Department of Economics. In The Economics of Information Technology, he and Joseph Farrell and Carl Shapiro outline a market-based philosophy of the relationships between economic factors and for-profit information technology companies. They note that in technological industries, constant and substantial fixed costs are coupled with low or nonexistent marginal costs for each additional incremental unit (3). This is of particular interest when coupled to the careful distinctions they draw between “Information technology,” which “is used to manipulate information,” of which a portion “may be intellectual property” (4). We know these are not separate categories. Often, in the economic cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production, one becomes the other. When that happens, we should understand it as an instance of the transformation problem and the aggregation problem. Varian is a lot smarter and a lot more well-educated about economic phenomena than am I, but I’ll point out that this illustrates a difference in emphasis and perspective: mainstream neoclassical economics is synchronic in its analysis, while I’m concerned via that economic cycle I’ve outlined with what takes place over time. Varian wants to categorize economic inputs and transactions and look at their intersections in the moment. I’m looking at processes over time and how time is always and inevitably the factor in the three problems (transformation, aggregation, substitution) that I see as being characteristic of the way we teach composition. We aggregate the labor of production into the commodification of both the grade and the skill, but the process itself attends to the phenomenology of writing in ways that blur value together rather than separate value into distinct domains.

What would happen, then, if we worked to closely examine the ways in which value is appropriated into different domains and by different parties at different stages in the economic process? Varian discusses the phenomenon of “price discrimination” enabled by “high-tech industries” in the ways that “price will often exceed marginal cost” and “a seller can offer prices and goods that are differentiated by individual behavior and/or characteristics” (12). This phenomenon, exemplified in wishlists and egocasting and the splintering of the supply of goods — Zuboff and Maxmin’s so-called “support economy” — would seem to be a strong counter to the rhetorically idealized massed economic forces of depersonalized corporations and ideologies of mass consumption. Chomsky’s critique of “Weapons of Mass Distraction” refers to advertising, and homogenizes capitalist entities in order to criticize them homogenously, as an undifferentiated group, while simultaneously surrendering to them as the overpowering metonymic avatars of an irresistible global capitalism. For critiques such as Chomsky’s, which are all too common to the discourse of composition, the game is already lost and it is always already the end of the world and the only things we can do is shake our heads and say, “If only they had listened to us, but they didn’t, so there’s nothing to be done except decry the fact that they didn’t listen to us and so reinforce our nobly subaltern position”: we have met the enemy, and he is us. On the other hand, if we were to attend to the diverse economic landscape and extend the metaphor of price discrimination to non-market activities, we would recognize ourselves and the work we do with information as an experience good.

Consider the concept of versioning as it takes place in the non-market context of revision in the composition classroom or in scholarly discourse. Varian describes “versioning” as “a way to price discriminate between collectors and casual viewers, and between buyers and renters,” and notes that “the price differences between the two version is much greater than the difference in marginal cost” (17). We know as scholars, and we teach our students, that once you educate yourself enough about a particular subject, you can shift your arguments about that subject to pitch some to experts and some to non-experts, who will take away slightly different messages and be inclined to react in different ways to your rhetorical pitch, despite how little you needed to adjust your fundamental message. We do versioning, too, in the ways we compose and ask students to compose for different audiences, and in the ways we return to habitual concerns. We embody versioning, in fact, in our variations on particular topics and our returns to the same concerns in conference presentations and scholarly articles. But it’s not price we’re interested in; it’s value, and how it circulates, and we hope that others take up our concerns and differentiate theirs from ours in new and unique ways.

That act of versioning, however, can only offer value in a context where enough people possess the motivation and the ability — the will and the skill — to make that discrimination. Varian talks about “network effects” and how those effects “are endemic in high-tech products,” pointing out that “the demand for the [technological] infrastructure depends on the availability of applications, and vice versa” (33). The condition of literacy is infrastructure. These are “demand-side economies of scale” (33): how valuable a skill is depends on how many people have it. As Varian notes, “average revenue (demand) increases with scale” (34). Increasing the number of people who know how to use computers increases the value of knowing how to use computers. The same phenomenon occurs with literacy. There is a hump, a tipping point, that one has to get over, and to a large degree we’ve done so in the U.S., and so we’ve hidden from ourselves that obstacle. That obstacle is wholly present in Afghanistan, even if we don’t know quite where it is: we only know that we have to get over it. That’s what the counterinsurgency battle is about, and that’s why we should be thinking about Plato and the Phaedrus when we’re engaging the Afghans. There are plenty of things that are going to influence them, and enjoyment of literature might be one, and familiarity with Western culture might be another (even as I cringe at the ugly inherent colonialism of such a statement). The coupled abilities of post-print literacy and computer literacy will be of enormous benefit to the Afghans if they can get enough people practiced in those abilities. Right now, they don’t have it, but we know that network effects are hugely influential, and we know that once that positive-value tipping point is passed, improvement in multiliteracies and economic gain (both market and nonmarket) can become mutually self-sustaining. In observing such a self-sustaining relationship, however, we should not confuse ourselves that marked effects are in some way equivalent to network effects, as we so often do.

In fact, as smart as Varian and Farrell and Shapiro are, they are in their attention to markets missing the broader and much more important picture: it’s not about money; it’s about value. Varian problematically asserts that “copyrighted computer software, such as Microsoft Windows, can have far greater economic significance than any single book, musical composition, or movie” (34), apparently ignoring the Bible, The Communist Manifesto, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, The Internationale, Triumph of the Will, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As market economists, they see only market effects. They are once more engaging in the reductive “ceci tuera cela” argument familiar from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame: this will kill that. The book will kill the cathedral. Postmodernism will kill the author. The screen will kill the page. In fact, I would argue that the market-based economic arguments of Varian, Farrell, and Shapiro all carry within them their own unseaming and show how success with market-based interpretations of the functioning of information technology actually show and illustrate how the market is circumscribed, bound, and supplemented by a broader nonmarket economy. Not that this will kill that, but that this will coexist with that, and many more things besides, and necessarily so.

Who Sells Writing?

Most of the plagiarized essays available at the online term paper mills are terrible. The free ones I’ve seen are largely incoherent or semi-coherent patches of writing recycled for high school writing assignments so obvious they’re kind of embarrassing. I haven’t seen all that many of the for-hire ones, but the excerpted samples available at some of the sites and the experiments I’ve seen from some of those investigating online plagiarism mostly point toward a consensus that the canned essays students sometimes pay for with a credit card aren’t much better than the free ones. What’s left are the custom for-pay papers, and the prices for those are pretty high. I would imagine the quality is better than that of the canned papers, and I’m sure the for-hire term paper artists are pretty good, but I have to wonder if the trade-off in cash versus time is really worth it: for a custom paper, the going rate seems to start at around $20 per page and go up steeply. So a three-page paper will put you out at least sixty bucks.

Most students don’t make more than $10 an hour, if they work. Is a three-page paper worth six hours of your time? It depends on the student, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think working students are the ones paying $60 for a three-page paper: if they’re working and going to college, there’s a sort of value equation there that would lead most of them, I would think, to sit in front of the keyboard and do whatever one can to get the work of writing done. That work might be lackadaisical or slapdash, but from what I’ve seen, they mostly do it. (It should be clear at this point that I’m not talking about cadets, who are not permitted to hold paid employment, and who are so overscheduled as to be completely incapable of doing so. They’ve got other pressing concerns.) So if you see a good paper from a student, and it’s a plagiarized paper exchanged in a market transaction, I’d bet there’s a good chance that student isn’t a working student.

There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with how markets work differently for different people. In “The Subject and Object of Commodification,” the Introduction to the Ertman and Williams collection Rethinking Commodification (NYU Press, 2005), Margaret Jane Rabin and Madhavi Sunder call into question

the economic neutrality of markets. Markets affect the rich and poor differently. The poor are more likely to be the sellers, and the rich, the buyers, of questionable commodities such as sexual services or body parts. Unequal distributions of wealth make the poorest in society, with little to offer in the marketplace, more likely to commodify themselves. (11)

The immaterial labor of education, and of writing, is self-work, and written products are often close to the self, even if they aren’t the gushing public exposure of self that compositionists too often misrepresent as what we call expressive writing. Writing is work, and it’s hard, and that work that we and our students do carries portions of our selves. (Poststructuralist objections and pointed remarks about the illusory nature of the unified subject noted, and I’m mostly in agreement. Randall Freisinger’s perspective in the Peter Elbow Landmark Essays volume on voice stands as required reading for those who raise such objections.) In higher education, students who are sufficiently privileged not to have to exchange their labor for a wage enjoy the relative privilege of being able to at least partially appropriate the value of their own self-work: they get to write their own papers, and in writing their own papers, they are turning that labor of writing into the capital of skill at writing, as well as exchanging their papers-as-commodities in return for the good grade that will presumably contribute to the furthering of their careers.

The ultra-privileged students who don’t need to work and who have the resources to pay for custom-written papers are also exempted from the need to turn any labor into capital, because any shortcomings they might have in human capital (the ability to write well, for example) are compensated for by the advantage their financial capital will give them after college. Who remains, then? The poor. And as Rabin and Sunder note, the poor are more likely to commodify themselves, and are also more likely to have experienced the educational advantages familiar to those with more wealth. In other words, the reason that so many canned for-hire term papers — and even some of the products of the custom term paper services — are so lousy is that they’re an instance of how market economies treat different classes of people in different ways. Poor people, who are more likely to have had poor experiences in the educational system, are more likely to be the ones who try to commodify their educational experiences by selling their term papers.

Commodification and Time

I boasted yesterday that I “work the hell out of the clock.” It’s true: I do. But I’m having second thoughts about that boast. Is it a good thing to “work the hell out of the clock,” either in class or out of class?

I think it’s important, certainly, to respect classroom time and student time, and to do so by planning well, which means planning at once precisely and flexibly. My first-year composition course has an arc marked by graded events, and sequences of lessons that lead up to those graded events, and I plan those sequences themselves both at the small scale and the grand scale while at the same time allowing enough space for things to shift right or left on the calendar as they need to. I’m one of those teachers who always overplans his classes, always having ready to go more than we’ll have time to do. At the same time, I’m also one of those teachers who always cuts himself short, insisting that students have their minimum of 20 minutes each class to write what I ask them to write. Respect the time.

That’s something that not enough people here say, or maybe that not enough people here do, cadets and faculty alike. We abuse time on either side, teachers assigning cadets too much to do, cadets at all levels giving themselves too much to do, to the point where the plebes (who are still earnest, still eager to succeed at everything) in class nod like those mechanical water-sipping birds, because they’ve tried to complete all the tasks set upon them, rather than realizing (as upperclassmen do) that there are some tasks at which they will fail.

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Here’s one way to start a rumination on the uses of classroom time in teaching writing: at West Point, classes are 55 minutes long, and I work the hell out of the clock. The section marcher renders the report at the :00 second mark, and we go until I dismiss students, usually no earlier than about 54 minutes and 50 seconds after that :00 second mark, and certainly no later than the 55:00. Our class time is precious and I plan it well, including incorporating at least 20 unbroken minutes (and often more) for students to write during every lesson. Students’ time outside of class is equally precious: West Point cadets are overscheduled, and one of the essential things I can do for a plebe is to respect the time he or she spends beyond my classroom. I do so scrupulously.

Here’s another way to start a rumination about time: I’m turning 42 in a little over two months, and while I’m thinking about time and economy, it seems appropriate to note that in 1748, a 42-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that his “friend, A. B.” should “[r]emember, that time is money.” I never liked that saying. Taken as a component of the broader argument of the “Advice” piece, the statement makes sense, but I don’t like the way it categorically commodifies the dimension across and within which we all live our lives. Time is money? Well, yes, it can be. Time is theft? Sure, if you do it right and avoid your workplace internet filters. Time is a gift? Certainly, if you’ve lost a loved one to an illness.

Time is context. In 1748, Franklin was writing in the context of what was still a largely mercantile and manual-labor economy. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Raymond Williams argues that the broad cultural changes associated with the industrial revolution started around 1780. Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville was executed in 1793, but his treatise The Commerce of America with Europe (translated and published in English in 1795) declared that

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What I Mean by “Post-Process”

I’ve lately felt overwhelmed with all I’m trying to do: go on the job market, go up for promotion, organize a wedding, and paint the interior of the house, in addition to the usual work of teaching and scholarship and service and self-development and cooking and quotidiana. The Orientalist and I are good at helping each other out and filling in for one another — she’s an amazing planner — but there are things that she simply can’t do for me, or I for her. I can’t do her reading or writing or PhD program applications and she can’t do my teaching or grade my papers, because that intellectual work — that immaterial labor, as I’ve called it in the past, borrowing Hardt and Negri’s useful term — is inextricably a part of one’s own professional identity. The same holds true for the scholarship I’m working on (the monograph’s projected title is Antimonopolist 2.0, which I hope indicates its attention to post-capitalist economics as well as to computers and writing) and the personal and professional development reading I do and the service work I do: all these things are personal labor, self-work, in addition to whatever commodifiable or exchangeable or transactional work they might hold beyond my self. Immaterial labor as personal labor is at least in some part exclusive and non-transferable, and it’s non-transferable because of the transformation problem. What happens to the surplus value of immaterial labor when that value is appropriated by the laborer? The laborer becomes capital. While the production of experience goods and self-work and immaterial labor in general might all seem to resist what many decry as the all-too-common tendency towards commodification, we should understand as well that the (often poorly understood) arguments offered by Smith and Marx — and by Keynes and Hayek — require careful re-thinking as our understandings of what constitutes work and value change.

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The Labor of Being Social

After a series of back-and-forth emails among the academic advisors, the training branch, the contracting officers, and the contractors themselves, we arrange a face-to-face meeting at one of the bases. The Afghans who stand to benefit from the projects discussed in the meeting are not included in the meeting or in the email exchange. Afghans don’t do business by email, for the most part. They talk face-to-face in the most senior person’s office. They have tea.

The meeting is held on the second floor of a building constructed out of transmodal shipping containers. The military calls them conexes or milvans. The shipping containers are bolted together; holes are cut with torches for windows; thin sheets of laminate are riveted or scabbed onto the corrugated steel walls, and electrical junction boxes and conduit and plumbing screwed onto the interior face of the laminate. The only available room large enough to accommodate all of us belongs to one of the Christian chaplains. There are three amplifiers, a drum kit, an electronic keyboard, an upright piano, stained glass appliqué paper on the steel casement window, stacks of bottled water, a rough-hewn plywood lectern, particle-board shelves lined with ecclesiastical and religious-themed books and DVDs: Francis Chan’s Forgotten God, Chris Fabry’s Dogwood, study bibles, hymnals, Robert Wilson’s The Story of God, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. We sit in a semicircle in plastic chairs. Above us, we hear the sound of pigeons nesting in the gaps of the corrugated steel.

There are discussions of the relative merits of the various graduate programs the Afghan instructors might attend: local universities, regional universities, online programs, United States universities. Funding is the primary concern, and the funding roadblocks to raising the English-language expertise of the faculty. We talk about TOEFL prep programs. One of the contracting officers observes that the multimillion-dollar contract for literacy instruction is the biggest contract in Afghanistan.

Later, one of the senior academic mentors on our team notes that his email inbox has recently filled up extraordinarily quickly, to more than 2,600 messages. “And all of it for nothing,” he says. “These don’t get anything done.” I remark again that the Afghans don’t use email: their communication is almost entirely face-to-face.

C. Paul Olson points out in his essay “Who Computes?” that computers replace labor-intensive processes with capital-intensive processes. We sometimes forget, I think, that sociality itself can be labor-intensive. Composition classes operate at least in part based upon a labor theory of value: one learns by doing, and the more work one puts into doing, the more skilled one typically becomes.

My conversation with the senior academic mentor shifts topics to the goals of literacy instruction, and what training in computer use might do for the Afghans. “If we come back and they’re doing all their communication by email and planning with Powerpoint,” he says, “we’ve failed.”

On Receiving a Shipment of Computers

Several days ago, I accompanied the advisor team’s supply officer and the Afghans’ supply NCO on an overcast beige-sky afternoon with rainclouds threatening as they went to a warehouse to receive several dozen pallets of laptops. The forklift driver offloaded them from the trucks — one pallet teetered and toppled to its side, but fortunately no damage — and into the central aisle of the warehouse, where another soldier with a skid jack maneuvered them into secure chain-link cages that were then locked and taped, and the doors to the warehouse themselves locked and bolted. A feral cat had made its home in the corner of one cage among the sacks of grain and beans and stacks of boxes and crates, suspicious of people, but clearly healthy and able to find its own way in and out of the warehouse. I took pictures of the unloading. The supply officer was reluctant to have his picture taken signing for the computers with the Afghans and the contract representative.

Raymond Williams, in his (neglected?) essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” argues that there are some obstacles to actually understanding the means of communication as the means of production:

First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of social production, are seen only as ‘media’: devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ or ‘receivers’. (51)

I’ve seen a rhetorical habit in some scholarship today that attempts to avoid or defuse or otherwise subvert this (what I see as valid) criticism of enthusiasms over “new media” by offering a caveat along the lines of but of course all media are material. We think that if we just say we’re doing Actor Network Theory enough, or what-have-you, we’ll be let off the hook for performing those generalizing and abstracting moves.

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Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 2

For the Afghans, the new semester starts in about a week. From my perspective as an advisor, everything looks unsettled: changes to classrooms, registration, new student orientation, teaching schedules. To my eyes, those changes prefigure larger ones in the country, and many of the Afghans seem to me as ambivalent about the smaller ones as the larger ones. I’m sitting in on an interview for a new instructor tomorrow, talking with another instructor later this week about suitable internet readings for the English-language Current Events and Culture elective, still not quite sure what to make of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) attitude that prevails here and the apparent incuriousness that seems to be its analogue. The Afghans I’ve met are enormously skilled in spoken argument, good-humored, passionate, but seem almost imperturbable in the way they take everything as given.

Nobody seems terribly curious about Egypt, or Tunisia, or Syria, or Libya, or at least they’re not willing to express as much to me. The translators and teachers that I work with use the internet, though they’re not nearly as attached to it as the Americans, and they aren’t as much interested in news from it as they are in culture — in YouTube videos, especially of Indian movies, and in Facebook. They’re more interested in radio and TV, and again the most popular TV programs seem to be Indian movies. That lack of interest in news frustrates me some because I’m eager to ask them what they think about the events in other countries in the region, and perhaps that implicit connection (is it as apparent to them as it is to me?) to their situation is why they’re reluctant to engage.

As I wrote last time, I think there is a connection between Egypt and Afghanistan, and a strong one, and it plays out in all sorts of ways with the topics I’ve been thinking about: the relationships between and among government, rhetoric, politics, organizing, technology, economics, and foreign intervention. The debates we’ve seen over what factors produced or contributed to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere — and who’s promoting which factors — seem to be absolutely key to questions of how governance is to work in those countries and what (if any) role foreign governments might have in answering those questions. Folks who study rhetoric and technology might have something to contribute to discussions of how democracies function in the 21st century. The assertions offered by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt as to the nature of those uprisings are as good a place as any to start:

The insurrections of Arab youth are certainly not aimed at a traditional liberal constitution that merely guarantees the division of powers and a regular electoral dynamic, but rather at a form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude. This must include, firstly, constitutional recognition of the freedom of expression — not in the form typical of the dominant media, which is constantly subject to the corruption of governments and economic elites, but one that is represented by the common experiences of network relations.

This is a claim both about the motivations of the rebels involved in the uprisings and about the way they represent themselves and are represented. As is the habit of Hardt and Negri, it hits many of its targets only glancingly because of its degree of abstraction: certainly there are problems with the dominant media’s relation to political and economic interests; certainly there are concerns with corruption; certainly there’s a desire for freedom of expression; certainly the ways people organize themselves into and communicate via and act among and within networks (as even a vexed a figure as General McChrystal has recently argued) need recognition; but all these things are a lot more concrete than Hardt and Negri’s theorizing might indicate. At some points, though, the connections between their claims about media, democracy, organizing, and rhetoric become (refreshingly) more clear, as when they assert that

The organisation of the revolts resembles what we have seen for more than a decade in other parts of the world, from Seattle to Buenos Aires and Genoa and Cochabamba, Bolivia: a horizontal network that has no single, central leader. Traditional opposition bodies can participate in this network but cannot direct it. Outside observers have tried to designate a leader for the Egyptian revolts since their inception: maybe it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, maybe Google’s head of marketing, Wael Ghonim. They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre — that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power. The prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure.

There it is! Symptoms, not causes: that starts to say something a little more intelligent — and a little more interesting — than the tired debate over whether the events in Egypt and elsewhere represent some sort of Facebook revolution. That’s what I’ll talk about here, and that look at the debate over the alleged Facebook revolution takes me to questions of access and privilege in relation to new media, social media, and mainstream media. Those questions, I assert, are fundamentally economic questions, even though those with the privilege of access to such media prefer not to think of them as such, because behind economic questions of access to media lie more fundamental economic questions of access to the basic needs of sustenance. The revolution in Egypt was in very large part about bread. Not a terribly surprising thing, maybe, but in the broader picture of how American development policy via USAID actually caused the shortages, troubling: Americans might happily celebrate the apparent pro-democracy internet freedoms we associate with Tahrir square, but what do we do when we realize that the longstanding design of our economic foreign policy is precisely what the rebels rose up against?

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Egypt and Afghanistan, Part 1

A little less than a month ago, two very small things happened. Both were mediated to me by the internet in the same place where I’m sitting and typing on my laptop now, in front of my window in the KAIA North barracks in Afghanistan, and I’m still thinking about their intersection.

The first thing: I was listening to an intermittent stream of NPR’s Morning Edition that featured Steve Inskeep interviewing Iranian-American academic Vali Nasr about the Muslim middle class and its role in the revolution in Egypt, and Nasr identified the Muslim middle class as “people who are better off, who want new opportunities, participate in the global economy, and also want the political freedoms that go with it. Those are the people who use the social media.” A little later in the interview, Nasr made a firm distinction between “the free flow of information” and “free economics and integration of these parts of the world into the global economy.” Nasr’s first point struck me as an important one, in a way that was underreported in much of the press: the revolution in Egypt had a strong class-based economic component. His second point struck me as curious: aren’t “the free flow of information” and economic freedom fundamentally related, especially today? Why draw a line between them?

The second thing: a friend asked me, via Facebook, “What do the Afghans over there think about what’s going on in Egypt?” It’s a good question, and one I still don’t really have an answer for. The Afghans I talk to are circumspect about their opinions, and understandably so, I think, given their history. And it’s an important question. There are clear intersections — sometimes oppositional, sometimes parallel — between the democracy-building impulses in the two countries, and clear intersections as well between the interrelations among information, democracy, and economics in the two countries.

Both countries’ struggles with and toward democratic freedoms are simultaneously spurred and inhibited by huge and complex economic problems that go far beyond their enormous and systemic corruption and graft. Part of what I’m going to do here is try to use Egypt as a way to think about Afghanistan (as well as a way to think about the concerns with economics, technology, and literacy that occupy my scholarly practice), so I’ll for the moment take Afghanistan’s economic problems — more than a third of the population unemployed, more than a third of the population living below the poverty line, about three-quarters of the population illiterate, a per capita GDP that ranks 212th out of the world’s 229 nations — as a given, to be returned to and examined later in considerably more detail, using Egypt’s example as an analytical tool.

So first to Egypt, and the Facebook hype.

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