From Squatter to Judicial Expert : A Paradoxical Entrepreneur's Path

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
597 Evans (Evans Hall)
Matei Gheorghiu, Irisso Paris Dauphine (PSL), Paris, France; Orythie, Paris, France
The gradual opening of the Internet to profit companies marked the beginning of a great transformation of the global economy. It is impossible to figure out in a single glance all the affected areas, and the diverse ways they have been affected, but one thing is sure: the consequences are not uniform, nor follow a single dynamic. One only needs to name a few of the affected domains to admit it: the effects of computerization on the stock exchange markets, on the music industry, on the intellectual property, or on intimate relationships, present an extreme diversity. 

This process depends on a physical network and expert human labor, i.e. the entire value chain of communication industry, starting from the infrastructure (machines, wiring, satellites) up to the end user, through a myriad of institutions that support the network, whose heterogeneity again is too vast to be embraced in a few lines (from ICANN to service companies through access providers, site managers, producers of software and content, etc.).

This complex ecosystem emerged in a few decades. If the material development required heavy investments and a strong political will, as in a planned economy, content production largely escapes centralization and the rules in this field are not yet defined. Today, they are subject of intense debates beyond the scope of the small number of precursors who developed its basic architecture. This inevitable - and democratic – appeal to the public arena introduces new issues and new challenges.

Among these issues, one of the most fundamental is embodied by the ability to record diverse elements of our behavior, that were previously most of the time unconscious. The recording of personal digital data opens up promising perspectives for researchers, but generates also many threats, since its process of collection and use is not yet fully controlled. This topic is central in policy debates over the internet infrastructure, and for the laws supposed to regulate people's behavior. For instance, when an individual uses Airbnb, he is taking advantage of some primitive accumulation of capital in terms of personal data and the associated algorithm and in return he is increasing its potency, without necessarily being aware of it.

Because of this asymmetry of information, I have chosen to address this topic by analyzing the moral career of actors who have contributed and continue to contribute to the construction of this new economy, and that we can consider as economic entrepreneurs, but also as moral entrepreneurs (Becker 1963). This population is very heterogeneous, and I will attach myself to describe one specific group: the individuals considered here are characterized by a paradoxical career path, which begins with some alternative ideological commitments and continues through an institutional conversion (the integration in a more “traditional” structure).

The starting point of this study is almost fortuitous: initially studying philosophy and having very little contact with IT industry at the turn of the 2000s, I participated, with friends who had more skills in these areas, in the making of a "3D printer". This machine was made in a "squat", occupied by a collective claiming the propaganda of the deed (Maitron 1955) and proposing an alternative model of social organization. The professed ethics included community life, the rejection of the consumer society, and the coupling of work and leisure, teaching and learning, etc. (Bouillon 2009).

This group has not survived in its original form, nor managed to achieve - at least apparently - his claims. Yet, some of these claims were paradoxically achieved. Indeed, a few years after completing our machine, the group split into several small companies that pursued some of the original claims. For myself, I contributed to the founding and development of a consulting company operating in the world of innovative SMEs while pursuing a sociology research on the forms of secondary socialization, construction of collective action standards in emerging collectives and their impact on the institutional environment (Gheorghiu 2010 – unpublished). It is this work, characterized by a longitudinal observant participation approach that continues here.

I have noticed in the investigated environment the presence of a strong minority of entrepreneurs which experienced a previous significant episode of volunteering, and more precisely the kind of commitment towards alternative ideology, a phenomenon which seems to be shared on the both sides of the Atlantic (Turner 2006). One can be surprised how easily the members of these collectives converted to the digital economy. Several explanations have already been given to this phenomenon: some assert that the earlier claims had no ideological identity and were not based on a firm ground, that they were mostly produced by circumstances. The conversion of these actors to the market economy resembles to the return of the prodigal son, a Y Generation finally reaching the age of reason.

Other subtler explanations argue that the unstable nature of Internet blurs the boundaries enough to make the conversion less painful. Its indetermination figures a territory where the individual liberty could bloom. But is it then a simple conversion? Will the beliefs and hopes invested by this new generation of entrepreneurs come up against harsh economic realities? Will these realities transform the outline, selecting the most reasonable, eliminating the awkward, and those with the least resources suited to maintaining their commitment?

Perhaps, but the selection process is not a timeless mechanism assessing the quality of resources, their degree of adaptation to the context; this process is precisely determined by the relationships between the various investments that constitute it (Bourdieu 1979, 1980, Henry 2012). It is therefore appropriate not to disqualify the original claims of these entrepreneurs but rather to scrutinize closely the various stages of processing to interpret "what particular type of man" and mental dispositions are emerging in this new context. To contribute to the exploration of the effects of the commodification of everyday life, I propose to analyze and interpret the moral adaptations and existential DIY that made possible the conversion of a group of squatters to company founders and judicial experts.