Populists, Capitalists, Cyberlibertarianians, oh my!
Nobody in the world today was alive when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book was published in 1900. Even its successor, the film, is over 80 years old at this point. Yet if there's any takeaway from the story's enduring resonance, it's that while society never stops changing, our deepest struggles are timeless.
The Wizard of Oz has quite a fascinating background as it is, and even more so when you consider its parallels with today's age. It's widely-known to be an allegory of the gold standard. But on a broader level, Oz deals with society's valuation of our labor and intrinsic worth - which is where it becomes relevant to social media, advertising, and algorithms. But to understand this, we first need to paint a picture of the world this story emerged from.
The first 20 minutes of the movie reflect exactly what comes to my mind when I think of the American frontier - dusty plains, a washed out beige tinge, bonnets and pioneer dresses. But this is no Little House on the Prairie. It's Kansas during the Great Depression (or the 1890s Long Depression in the book). Times are tough, and the soil is even tougher. And like today, the recession hits hardest those already in precarious financial standing; in this story, it's the farmers.
Amidst this backdrop we're introduced to Dorothy Gale, whose farming family scrapes through the draught in a rushed frenzy. As an antidote to the austerity, Dorothy *dreams* of another world beyond the barren plains, where skies are blue and troubles melt like lemon drops. Little does she know, her fantasies will end up manifesting a central cause of her family's hardship: the gold standard.
The gold standard is a monetary policy linking a currency's value to that of gold, ensuring the amount of money in circulation can't grow too fast. This system, no longer active today, put farmers like the Gales at a severe disadvantage because the shrunken money supply drove down the prices of their crops. And since they borrowed money each fall to plant their annual harvest, farmers were forced to grow cash crops just to repay their debts - only further deteriorating the soil they relied on. This vicious cycle has surprising resemblance to today's internet. We'll get to that - just a little more history first.
Hints of The Wizard of Oz's gold standard allegory are hardly subtle. Take its title for instance: Oz (or ounces) represents the measurement of gold, and by extension, the valuation of the work required to attain it. The Yellow Brick Road, then, can be seen as the gold standard system with the added vector of time - the outcomes of navigating the uneven financial landscape. Leading both to prosperity and destitution, the golden path is laid in bricks of policy.
Recognizing this, the nation's farmers and other "plain people" coalesced into the People's Party, the first populist movement in the US. Fighting vehemently for various financial reforms, the populists scored their first big win with FDR's New Deal, which abandoned the gold standard (for US citizens, at least). Building on this bedrock of progressive policy, the American economy charged forward for a few solid decades.
For a while, everything seemed alright on the American homefront. But the cyclone of instability picked up again after a few decades. In the 1970s, the global economy began to stumble, prompting Nixon to complete what FDR started: halting usage of the gold standard in international trade. This wasn't so much a continuation of populist interests from the New Deal era, but instead reflected a more general confusion regarding the state of the economy. With diminishing need for agricultural and industrial work, nobody was quite sure where the next source of growth would come from. This is where our story finally begins to converge with the internet.
Initially known as ARPANET, a Cold War defense project, the internet materialized in sync with this economic slowdown. Anti-communist sentiments swirling, Washington began to step aside from corporate affairs - loosening its grip on the internet in the same way it had with monetary policy. So in these powerful crosswinds of laissez-faire economics and rapid tech advancement, the internet was swept out of the hands of the government, and the World Wide Web was momentarily up-for-grabs.
Eventually, this cyclone of economic turmoil began to settle. Dorothy's home, a relic of the dwindling agricultural economy, came crashing down into uncharted territory: the digital frontier. Chaos turned to silence, and silence turned to anticipation. Separating past and future was just a shoddy wooden door, and hopes of what lay beyond it sparked rampant imagination.
Distrustful of Washington's handling of past affairs, many internet thinkers envisioned this digital future to be free of political jurisdiction. Instead of petitioning for the government's backing like the People's Party, their vision excluded Washington altogether. At last, the Wicked Witch of the East was defeated!
Surging with countercultural utopianism, the so-called cyberlibertarians rejoiced. John Perry Barlow, a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Grateful Dead lyricist, defined the cyberlibertarian attitude towards the government:
“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us”.
Here's a video of Barlow reciting the full speech (he has sadly passed away since then). With noble intentions, and a healthy dose of countercultural hubris, this triumphant proclamation rang with a vigor akin to that of the Mayor of Munchkinland. Leveraging freedom not only from the government, but also from material constraints, the cyberlibertarian Lollipop Guild laid their own path to prosperity with bricks of code.
Dorothy jovially strolls down the Yellow Brick Algorithm, mirroring the happy-go-lucky attitude of 90s cyberculture. Seemingly transcending the limitations of the physical world, cyberspace appeared to be a cornucopia capable of enriching both the economy and the human condition, FOREVER!
Her first two companions along this road – the Scarecrow and the Tin Man – reflect the definitive character of Silicon Valley's early days: a unique balance between idealism (lacking a brain) and solutionism (lacking a heart). In DREAM, I framed these these characters more simply as the contradictory ambitions of "free information" and the valorization of entrepreneurship. Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier reflects:
“We wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd . . . there’s only one way to merge [socialism and libertarianism], which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads”.
As the trio naïvely rambles on, this hidden dilemma gradually *bubbles* to the surface. Right at the turn of the millennium, the burst of the dot-com bubble shook the tech world to its core - suggesting an inability to fulfill its enormous financial expectations. As a result, Silicon Valley quickly shifted from a boundless honey hole to something of a haunted forest. Dreading lions, tigers, and the bear market, Dorothy and her two friends skittishly trekked through the ominous woods.
Just as this tension reached its peak, out popped the lion! Menacing on the surface, the Cowardly Lion quickly softened up after some interrogation from Dorothy and company. In the cybercultural context, the Cowardly Lion could be seen as the Valley's double-down on the advertising model. Further amplifying its "disruptive" facade, Big Tech concealed its nervous reluctance to charge users directly for their services.
The original inspiration for the Cowardly Lion was likely William Jennings Bryan, a lead figure of the People’s Party (labeled “cowardly” because he had brilliant speaking skills, yet was unable to secure a presidential election). Bryan argued that abolishing the gold standard would spread wealth without having to grow gold reserves. Similarly, the advertising model promised to finance the internet's expansion without charging users. But following the dot-com bubble burst, Big Tech sought additional methods of monetizing its position between users and content. So Silicon Valley, desperately seeking a path out of the dot-com forest, found the Cowardly Lion to be its only way forward.
For a while, this move seemed harmless, and the glorious Emerald City was once again in sight. After all, society had gotten along just fine with advertising since well before The Wizard of Oz was even written. But the internet, unlike previous ad-supported media, lives in a far more intimate, measurable form-factor. The onslaught of available information, paired with increasingly powerful computational tools for pattern recognition, transformed advertising beyond recognition - from Madison Avenue into the incredibly lucrative beast of surveillance capitalism. And with the Wicked Witch of Washington out of the way, her younger sister came of age with almost zero regulatory oversight.
With all the attention towards "privacy" issues, the more subtle affect of this shift is often lost. It's not that platforms are deliberately spying on users; rather, it's the more fundamental shift in technology’s relationship to culture. As some have put it, if you're not paying for a product, you are the product.
Sure, the internet wasn't the first "free" ad-supported media. And entertainment's use value is almost never perfectly aligned with its exchange value. But on the internet, the messages that thrive aren't those with the best ratings or the most stellar reviews. Rather, it’s those that stimulate the most monetizable reactions.
So the platforms happily connect ‘content creators’ with hungry audiences, but only on their ground rules. Caught in the crossfire of data brokerage, creative works become “valuable only insofar as they serve as a kind of 'signal generator' from which data can be mined,” according to Astra Taylor. So with the gold standard in the rear-view mirror, the algorithm-fueled 2000s gave rise to an even more insidious system of value exchange.
In the book, anyone who enters the Emerald City must wear green-tinted glasses. In the same fashion, endeavors of all kinds now redesign their practices through the abstractions created by social platforms. News needs to be shareable, food needs to be Instagrammable, and festivals need to be... fyre.
It seems data has become the new gold standard. Much of our economy is now dependent on the growth of its reserves, and its value determines what work is worthwhile. But there's one key difference: because of the nature of digital space, the value of data derives not from its scarcity, but from its abundance.
Yet pseudo-scarcities still drive behavior in lower realms of commerce - in the form of likes, followers, and blue verification marks. Wielding these levers, platforms covertly incentivize cash crops over sustainable ones. Works are not rewarded for originality, integrity, and truthfulness. Rather, shock value and #relatability bring in the numbers, luring sensationalist headlines, clickbait, and even children’s nightmare videos.
Gradually, the signals have become more valuable than what they’re signaling. The explosion of the fake follower market suggests a perceived audience is worth more than an actual one. We run around collecting monopoly money while our "digital topsoil" loses its fertility. Gradually, as healthy crops become harder to grow, societal dysfunction ensues.
I'd like to take a brief intermission from this rant to jump to a quote from Ev Williams, previous CEO of Twitter and current CEO of Medium.
"Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them."
Incentivization isn't the same as causation, but on a certain level this statement rings true. By rewarding certain behaviors, algorithms summon more of the same. But there's an even subtler dimension to this: it doesn't matter whether you're in the crash or not; even if you're just an observer, your eyes aren't on the road.
This is what happens when Dorothy and her friends, totally consumed by their quest for the Wizard, completely forget about the Wicked Witch of the West. Spying on them through her glass ball of Big Data, she chooses an indirect strategy to stop them in their path: “something with poison in it, but attractive to the eye, and soothing to the smell.” She musters a beautiful field of poppies between Dorothy’s crew and the Emerald City, through which they merrily frolic. Signifying the effects of opium (a derivative of poppies), their excitement quickly devolves into paralysis.
This is where the Asleep @ the Wheel chapter title comes from. Like the conked out Tesla driver, we coast along in a high-tech cocoon, completely blind to where we're headed. As Big Tech colonizes new realms of human life, our defenses lie dormant in a content-induced slumber.
The Wicked Witch of the West, also known as Elphaba fromOz’s prequel Wicked, wasn’t evil from the beginning. Her evil nature actually began as a well-intentioned rebellion against Oz’s corruption. Similarly, her army of winged monkeys, who terrorize Dorothy and her friends “are not inherently bad; their actions depend wholly upon the bidding of others. Under the control of an evil influence, they do evil,”says Henry James.
From Alex Jones, to Pepe the Frog, to the Russian bot army, our internet monkeys are products of an algorithmically-mediated society. Simply carrying out the Witch's ideology, this weaponized tech puts the disrupt in disruption. Making matters worse, bad actors like Donald Trump leverage the resulting economic disparity and social alienation to their own benefit - appealing to “over the rainbow”-esque dreams. This is where it goes full circle: these misplaced populist fantasies loop together the powerful and the powerless into a single vicious cycle.
The power of the Wicked Witch, though, proves to be quite fragile. After being doused in water, she shrivels into oblivion until nothing is left but a cape and a pointy hat. Along with her hideous green skin dissolves the hostility of her winged monkeys. Without the tyrannical third-party standing between them, dialogue can initiate between the "good guys" and the "bad guys.”
But even after defeating the Witch, Dorothy’s team soon discovers the Great Oz was not the magnificent wizard they had made him up to be. With Toto’s help, they find that behind the curtain is nothing but a frantic “humbug.” Utterly dismayed, the crew realizes their entire excursion may have been in vain. The Man Behind the Platform’s power didn't come from any fantastic skill, but instead from a different form of sorcery: sustained illusion.
Yip Harburg, writer of The Wizard of Oz’s unforgettable soundtrack, echoed this idea – that our desires too often lie “in the images of things rather than the things themselves." No character embodies this more than the one singing most of his music – Dorothy. What began as a longing to return home became an arbitrary quest to find the Wizard who would grant her wish.
In DREAM, this dramatic moment of reckoning comes to an abrupt halt, cutting to Adobe Premiere's "Media Offline" screen. I'm sure many of you thought this was a mistake for a few seconds. This was a last-minute decision, but in retrospect, one of my favorite moments. I needed to transition into a silver-lining somehow, but certainly didn't want to suggest there was a clear-cut solution to the whole situation. As is often the case, I let the narrative guide me out of this roadblock.
The land over the rainbow was a fantasy to begin with. Populated by people from her actual life in Kansas, Dorothy’s dreamscape was a method of processing her real world struggles. Her friends along the way extend the scope of this. Seeking a brain, a heart, and courage, the crew trekked all the way down the Yellow Brick Road, only to discover they each already had what they were seeking; they had just been conditioned out of seeing it. Dorothy’s two tickets back home were on her feet all along; she just hadn’t realized their power.
In book version, the iconic ruby slippers were actually silver. Extending the gold standard allegory, many agree the silver slippers represent bimetallism - the populists' alternative to the gold standard in which a currency is tied to both gold and silver. Whether or not this is true, pop cultural understanding of the slippers is dominated by the quote associated with them: "there's no place like home." This recitation signals the moment Dorothy is finally ready to confront reality directly.
So what do the slippers represent in DREAM? I'm still not sure myself. But my favorite answer right now is imagination. The Land of Oz itself is a brilliant exhibit of imagination's liberating potential, but also the slipperiness of its slope. What Dorothy's adventure demonstrates most is how economic injustice often devolves into rampant fantasy - something that's truer today than ever.
We've entered the New Gilded Age, and the parallels to Oz's time are everywhere. Supplanting Rockefeller and the Carnegie, we have a new cast of barons: Bezos, Zuck, and the rest. A few corporations dominate most of our economy, eliciting uproar and disillusionment from everyone else.
Just as the Progressive Era ushered out the gold standard, we need to channel populist tendencies into productive outlets. Keeping in mind the gold standard’s subjugation of laborers in Dorothy’s time, we must be vigilant of how today’s data brokerage system is doing the same. It's a privileged issue to be complaining about, but important nonetheless.
If our goal is to cultivate healthier harvests of dialogue and policy, we first need to nourish the soil underneath our feet. This starts by reframing the incentives driving our "digital land" usage. This is one of my aims with VU JA DE - practicing a form of digital localism. While I'm currently still relying partially on the platforms, I hope to soon reduce that reliance to zero.
Swept along by the perpetual cyclone of innovation, we’re constantly navigating the uncharted territory of media and markets. Like Dorothy, we have no choice but to journey onward (or so we're told). And now, so much of our lives revolve around a more abstract form of production – harvests not from dirt and soil, but from zeroes and ones. This digitization of our lives muddles our grasp on value and worth.
As we wander through the internet's dark forests and alluring poppy fields, we can't forget to take a hard look down at the Yellow Brick Algorithm guiding our way. And even when we return home, we may be reminded the odyssey was all just a dream. But like Dorothy, we must keep believing that beautiful land over the rainbow can indeed exist.
Well, we just blew through 100+ years of history and some pretty beefy topics... I hope that didn't sound too much like an APUSH class. If you're still with me, give yourself a pat on the back. Maybe you’ll want to check out DREAM again with all this in mind. And if you're somehow still hungry for more, here's some further reading/viewing:
Adam Curtis' documentary series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture
The Twilight Zone S2E29 “The Obsolete Man”