Ben Tarnoff is a tech worker, writer, and co-founder of LOGIC Magazine. His most recent book is Voices from the Valley: Tech Workers Talk About What They Do—and How They Do It, co-authored with Moira Weigel. He has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, and Jacobin. He will be discussing Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future in conversation with Wendy Liu in our City Lights LIVE! series on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in person at Kerouac Alley between City Lights and Vesuvio Cafe!
Where are you writing to us from?
I’m sitting in a small room in Cambridge, Massachusetts while wearing a mask because my wife has Covid.
What has been most important for you, personally/artistically/habitually, during the pandemic?
Probably my kids. Parenting during a pandemic is hard and weird in all the ways you might expect. But it also gives you something to live for, and makes you believe in the future, because the future is where your kids will live. James Baldwin has a line about how he can’t be a pessimist because he’s alive. So long as he’s alive, he’s forced to be an optimist. I never really understood that quote until becoming a parent. Though I wouldn’t call myself an optimist exactly. Joseph Weizenbaum once observed that optimism and pessimism have to do with probability—the percentage likelihood of a good or bad outcome—while hope has to do with possibility. Things that aren’t probable are nonetheless possible. So, improbably, hope remains.
Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?
I like to think that the ghost of David Noble haunts this book. Noble was a historian of technology who taught at MIT and York University, among other places. He was a pain in the ass who was constantly getting fired. His best-known book is probably Forces of Production, a history of industrial automation.
What I appreciate most about Noble’s work is how he balances clarity and complexity. When you’re trying to explain how something works, there are two temptations: to zoom in and get lost in the details or to zoom out and take the view from 40,000 feet. Marxists often succumb to the latter temptation, because it’s kind of exhilarating to sit on a cloud and view all of human history through the lens of a magnificent abstraction.
To be clear, we need abstractions. And in my view, Marxists have produced some of the best. But abstraction involves, as the word’s Latin root suggests, a pulling away; and sometimes, when you pull away, you leave important things behind. An abstraction is a bit like a photograph: it’s all about where you put the camera. A bad abstraction, like a bad photograph, is one in which the most interesting things are happening out of frame.
Noble knows where to put the camera. He also manages to stay hopeful about the possibility of creating a better world while remaining ruthlessly honest about the difficulties of doing so. I suspect he would find my book too optimistic.
What books are you reading right now and would you recommend any to others?
To stay with Noble, I would recommend his collection of pieces written for a popular audience, Progress Without People. It made a big impression on me when I first read it. If you’re feeling freaked out by the techno-dystopia, and you’re looking for an escape route, it’s a good start.
If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
In my bookstore, books would be dirt cheap and very well categorized. Also, a lot of children’s books. Nothing costs more than ten bucks, and there’s plenty of chairs for people to read in, or they can lie on the ground with some pillows if that’s more comfortable. I guess I probably wouldn’t make much money. The bestseller would be Presto and Zesto in Limboland by Arthur Yorinks and Maurice Sendak.