Roundup: Remembering David Golumbia

Read to the end for bad news for Sam Bankman-Fried

Roundup: Remembering David Golumbia

A wonderful critic of digital technologies passed away this week, so I wanted to use the roundup to pay homage to him and his work, and hopefully help ensure it won’t soon be forgotten.

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Over on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Yangyang Cheng about how reductive and nationalistic narratives that have become more common in light of the growing US-China geopolitical rivalry leave us less able to truly understand the technologies that surround us and the industry that creates them. We need to remain clear-eyed if we want to be able to challenge the harms of technology.

‎Tech Won’t Save Us: How US-China Rivalry Distracts from Tech Harms w/ Yangyang Cheng on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Tech Won’t Save Us, Ep How US-China Rivalry Distracts from Tech Harms w/ Yangyang Cheng - Sept 14, 2023

So, with that said, please enjoy this tribute to David Golumbia, which is of course open for everyone to read instead of being behind a paywall. I highly recommend checking out David’s work, even if it’s just an article or two that I’ve included.

Have a great week!


David Golumbia (1963-2023)

I was deeply saddened this week to learn that David Golumbia has died of cancer. If you’re not familiar with David’s work, you absolutely should be. He was an incisive critic of the politics behind the rise of digital technologies and the consequences that have arisen from their proliferation.

David was 60 years old. He spent time in financial technology in the 1990s before getting the hell out of there and moving into academia. He’d been developing his critique for a while, with his first book, The Cultural Logic of Computation, published in 2009 to dig into the effects of computation and the logics that accompany their widespread adoption.

But his work gained a lot more attention in recent years as cryptocurrency values soared and his 2016 book The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism received a new wave of interest because of its prescience in identifying and tracing the history of the politics driving the crypto movement. As Bitcoin advocates were talking about the wonderful future they were supposedly trying to build, David had already shown the reality — and as the bubble burst, he was proven right yet again.

As a critic, I think it’s fair to say that David was often ahead of the curve, and while he had an intellectual community that respected him, there were also others in the academy (and beyond) who pushed back against his critiques and tried to stifle his work. But he persisted, and by all accounts was not just unyielding in his attempts to break down the right-wing politics behind the technologies that surround us, but also a generous professor and colleague and more broadly just a very kind person.

I got to know David a little in the past few years, after reading The Politics of Bitcoin and interviewing him about it on my podcast, and now regret not having gotten to know him even better while I had the time. I was always excited to read his new work, and would check in to see how he was progressing on his book Cyberlibertarianism, which he’d been working on for years but was — and is — poised to be the culmination of his decades of critical analysis. His death is a profound loss, and I wanted to write about him today to help ensure his work isn’t forgotten.

If you wanted to engage with some of that work, there are a few pieces that stick out in my mind: “Zealots of the Blockchain” for The Baffler; “Luxury Surveillance,” which he co-wrote with Chris Gilliard (brilliant in his own right); and a preview of his work on cyberlibertarianism that he wrote for Jacobin a decade ago. I’d also be remiss not to point to an issue of b2o that he curated in 2018 on the digital turn.

David’s final book will be completed by his editors and published by the University of Minnesota Press, but last year he gave us a preview of what it will contain at boundary2’s Anniversary Conference. As he explains in the reading,

Cyberlibertarianism may at its core be taken as a commitment to the belief that digital technology is, or should be, beyond the oversight of democratic governments. That is, of democratic political sovereignty. […]

The problem with cyberlibertarianism is most pointed in the way it pulls many who would declare themselves outright opponents of right-wing politics in general and political libertarianism specifically to champion individual rights and economic freedom, advocate for markets as the solution to all social problems, fight government regulation, and defend — too often without realizing it — the rights of companies like Google to do exactly as they wish while causes like public education, civil rights, labor conditions, the social safety net, and especially proper regulation of business get either stalled or pushed aside entirely.

This is how cyberlibertarianism works: not as much by party politics as by reframing the terms of discourse and the conversation itself so that only variations in rightist political formations ever get on the table and all concerns are subsumed under a general faith that digital technologies are making things better.

RIP David Golumbia. He will be laid to rest on September 19, and you can be sure to find coverage of Cyberlibertarianism here when it’s finally released.