Reflections on Unfinished Live (A Non-Workshop Workshop)

Last month, I attended day two of Unfinished Live at The Shed in Hudson Yards, an event that, in its own words, “brings together leading thinkers and changemakers from a wide variety of disciplines to engage in today’s most pressing questions about the impact of technology on our civic lives.” Though it wasn’t necessarily a Digital Humanities workshop focused on the development of a particular skill, Unfinished Live offered a series of lectures, discussions, interviews, and forums dedicated to illuminating the past, present, and future of ongoing tech-centric conversations pertaining to everything from tech careers after incarceration to the potential for subversive feminist art and activism via emergent Web3 technologies. With the speakers including a variety of digital artists, tech theorists, crypto-evangelists, and venture capitalists, Unfinished Live offered a mixture of diverse insights into the state of Big Tech (for lack of a better term) and the attitudes that exist both within it and on its fringes. Though day passes were exorbitantly expensive, likely prohibiting many of the discussions from reaching the people they were seemingly intended for, I was able to attend thanks to a student discount available in a forwarded message from Unfinished Live representative Rebecca Turner via email-wizard Jason Nielsen. Through this reflection, I intend to briefly highlight the events that I attended and their relevance to the Digital Humanities, followed by a critical analysis of one panel in particular in an attempt to evaluate the motivations, ideologies, and financial incentives at work beneath its seemingly benign and egalitarian exchanges.

My experience at Unfinished Live began with a panel discussion titled “The End of Tech Feudalism: Rethinking the Internet’s Balance of Power” hosted by founder and editor-in-chief of blockchain news organization Forkast, Angie Lau. Starting with a spurious anecdote by Tomicah Tillemann, Chief Policy Officer at recently founded crypto-investment firm Haun Ventures, detailing his 17th-great-grandfather’s life during the feudal age and the ways in which it mirrors our present era of Tech Feudalism, the discussion soon blossomed into an exposition of the ways in which Web3’s decentralized structure can work to emancipate digital serfs from their tech overlords. Niki Christoff, a former Republican operative and current CEO at Washington-based boutique consultancy Christoff & Co., and Dante Disparte, Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Global Policy at peer-to-peer payments technology company Circle, joined the stage as well, each offering their vision of freedom from the confines of Web2 through political and economic programs that were coincidentally beneficial to their company’s advancement. Though this panel was initially intriguing and appeared to align with that which I had hoped to find at such a conference, the discussion quickly evolved into something else entirely, thus prompting my desire to dissect the underlying dynamic of this event as I make an attempt at doing below.

Following this provoking introduction to the conference, I attended a panel titled “The ‘Trustless” Trap: Why a Responsible Web3 Needs a Bit of Messy Humanities” that worked to counter Web3 enthusiasts’ rallying cries of “just trust the math” and advance the still-existent value of trust in programs of human-centric transparency, inclusion, and governance against the desires of accelerationists and automaton advocates. Though informative to some degree, the loosely moderated discussion quickly turned its focus onto that of NFTs, which, admittedly, I have little interest, before once against turning to the necessity for the proactive trust and safety measures necessary in the emergent technologies of Web3. Perhaps the most interesting element of this discussion was that of the decentralized community’s right in the creation of norms and who has the right to create such norms if not the community. The government? Corporations? Some other entity? The conversation that followed grew into a discussion of the role of regulatory government intervention in the growth of emergent technologies (one panel member advocating the creation of an equal floor, rather than a ceiling) which was countered by arguments regarding the government’s inability to keep regulatory pace with such developing technologies. Executive Director of Internet Without Borders, Julie Owono, concludes the discussion by asking the ever-salient question, how do we design rules that touch everyone equally and create a sense that those touched by them had a hand in their development?

Shortly after, I attended “Building the Web We Want: How to Protect Human Rights on the Internet” featuring Research Manager at The Markup, Angie Waller, and Ben Moskowitz, who acts as Vice President at Innovation Lab. Out of the three “main events” that I attended, I probably retained the least from this panel, as questions such as “How do we protect speech and privacy?”, “How can we create a more equal global society where the disadvantaged are not further marginalized?”, and “How can we ensure that those with power don’t silence the more vulnerable among us?” are much easier to ask than they are to answer. Though associated problems were rightfully and skillfully addressed, I found that some of the “answers” provided were doing little more than semi-tackling behaviorally targeted information, advertisements, and propaganda found on Facebook, something that has long been subject to discussion and is anything but innovative in such a technologically-forward-thinking space. However, I did find Moskowitz’s notion of a “consumer data union” and the collectivization of data-subjects to reposition power into the hands of those who are producing the data to be wildly interesting, and was disappointed that these two speakers exited the stage shortly thereafter with little elaboration. This was followed with a great deal of moseying, a beer drank at the downstairs bar, and a few books purchased at a kiosk displaying works written by figures featured throughout the conference, each of which still sits cozily on my shelf with unbent spines.

So, returning to “The End of Tech Feudalism: Rethinking the Internet’s Balance of Power,” I’d like to first discuss the elements of the panel discussion that left a sour taste in my mouth and why I felt compelled to dig into the lives and professional breadcrumbs of this merry band of technocrats. Since the cast of characters has already been somewhat established above, I’ll briefly give an extended overview of each as to contextualize these figures within the economic and political landscape. Venture capitalist Tomicah Tillemann stood out initially, due in part to his recounting of the night before and his namedropping everyone from Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova to Hilary Clinton. Tillemann’s background is impressive, previously working as the Global Head of Policy for the crypto team at Andreessen Horowitz, once serving as senior advisor to two Secretaries of State, and working in the State Department in 2009 as Hilary Clinton’s speechwriter. On the panel, Tillemann is the first to draw an equivalence between the farming implements of feudalism and the “modern digital equivalence,” gesturing to his phone and suggesting that, similar to his 17th-great-grandfather, we “go to work creating valuable digital data,” sending it up to “manor houses” in Silicon Valley to “cultivate a landscape that we do not own and we will never control.” Tillemann follows this metaphorical framework, suggesting that feudalism ended through a series of systemic, exogenous shocks, such as plague and conflict, and, given the state of the world today, we are offered an unfortunate but potentially hopeful opportunity to develop new ideas that produce novel infrastructure and new mechanisms that uproot the dynamic presently in place and allow for a “new renaissance” that mirrors that which followed the original end of feudalism. Nodding in agreement, moderator Angie Lau turns to the crowd to ask, “How many of you feel that we are digital commodities?” to a small swell of murmurs.

Responding to Tillemann, Niki Christoff states that she “doesn’t believe Silicon Valley” intended to be malicious in their development of the present economic situation in which our “information, data, attention, privacy” is exploitatively and elusively extracted, proceeding to lament to her feeling of being held hostage by her phone and suggesting that through blockchain technology, there exists the possibility of a “new internet” that “moves power from consolidated multinational companies” back into the hands of the masses. Somewhat similar to Tillemann, Christoff has had a prosperous career in Silicon Valley prior to her appearance at Unfinished Live, including a spokesperson role at Google and Head of Federal Affairs at Uber, during the latter of which she is quoted in countless articles for her praising of Trump appointed Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao due to her alignment with labor regulations that benefit the gig economy. Marking the beginning of a pattern that will exist throughout the duration of the panel, Christoff, notably named by Fortune in 2019 as one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Politics, is the first to introduce leftist language into the dialogue, stating, “To have a revolution, you can’t a small group of elites talking about a concept… You need to have masses that are demanding an end to the system.” Ironically, this statement is voiced by a small group of elites, offering an answer to the masses that bears both the potential to concomitantly “end digital feudalism” and line their pockets and those of their company’s shareholders. Rather convenient, no?

Dante Disparte responds in kind, suggesting “…to end feudalism, [people need to be empowered.] I believe there is no greater representation of empowerment than financial empowerment. The biggest revolt that the emergence of cryptocurrencies has caused is a revolt against some deeply entrenched interests… Cryptocurrency is a response to failures within the traditional economy.” More than anyone, Disparte’s involvement in the conversation illuminates what might be said to be its truest intention; to encourage the public to view financial investment in their crypto-programs as emancipatory, revolutionary, and politically empowering. In a similar vein, Tillemann positions this technology as an escape from the entrapment of tech as binarily existing in either an authoritarian or commercial framework while Christoff suggests that through such tools, people can “govern themselves” and subsequently “save democracy.”

As I sat in the dimly lit room, gazing on a beautifully arranged stage featuring some of the “top minds” supposedly at forefront of the next era of technological advancement, such calls for the end of tech feudalism that I would otherwise recognize as urgent and fundamentally agree with started to appear more and more as an advertisement for the ideologies and technological programs inherent in the organizations that these three individuals represent. During Tillemann’s Time at Andreessen Horowitz, the aim was always “how to win the future,” not how to benefit the masses that are being swept along with the technological blitz being orchestrated in order to achieve this “victory.” At Andreessen Horowitz, a company that is as well known for its early investments in companies such as Facebook and Twitter as they are for being uncooperative and opaque with the media and the public, Tillemann’s career started when he was brought on by crypto-investor Katie Haun, who was at the time tasked with spearheading Andreessen Horowitz’s lobbying effort in Washington. Now, Haun and Tillemann are reunited at Haun Ventures, an investment firm focused on crypto start-ups, with Tillemann simultaneously taking speaking gigs touting their power as political solutions to the malaise and exploitation of hyper-industrial society. Similarly, Disparte’s role at Circle is explicitly dedicated to eliminating friction in the flow of value globally. In other words, Disparte is advocating greasing the wheels of unregulated, unfettered capitalism, under the guise of guaranteeing “instant, permissionless” financial freedom should one invest in the future that blockchain technologies promise. And lastly, Christoff, describing herself at the tail end of the panel as “a radical and an institutionalist,” suggests that this is all aimed toward building “access to the global economy” and works to ultimately ensure that no one is left outside of such financial infrastructures. Who would not want to be touched by the loving hand of global technocapitalism?

Each of these figures, in some way, has built and benefited from the exact systems that they now describe as tech feudalism. Each of these figures, in their own way, now offers a “solution” to the exploitation that is inherent in the structures they worked to produce. Each of these figures has untold capital invested in these “solutions” and is scrambling to be at the forefront of Big Tech’s next set of elite organizations as Web3 technologies emerge and develop. Though I’ve gone on for far too long at this point, the takeaway from this analysis should be evident. And perhaps it already was and this post is wholly unnecessary. However, as Digital Humanists, the tech optimism of Silicon Valley or its defectors should always be approached with a healthy degree of skepticism and analysis. I suppose this, in some way, operated as a workshop for this critical approach, and a reminder of the ways in which the technological landscape differs from that of the Digital Humanities and what our role as Digital Humanities is within this landscape to counter and critique that evolving faces of new technologies of power.