On Evgeny Morozov
Jan 3, 2014
5 Min read time
Evgeny Morozov, a contributing editor at Boston Review, is a compulsive problematizer. I hate that word “problematizer,” but it leaps to mind when I think about Evgeny, who is the focus of a new profile by Michael Meyer in the Columbia Journalism Review. (In the name of the overrated value of transparency, I should say that Evgeny is a friend, though as you will see from the profile, I am not a cheerleader. I think he is curmudgeonly to a fault, and think that the criticism he practices is easier than the construction he should.)
Maybe a better way to say it is that Evgeny is a question-man, not an answer-man. He asks lots of very important questions in service of skepticism: not exactly skepticism about technology, but a sharply critical skepticism about some—as he sees it—widespread, unthinking, and humanly damaging ways of writing and talking about technology, especially information and communication technology.
Boston Review published many of Evgeny’s early long-form essays, beginning with “Texting Toward Utopia,” which took on the then-popular assumption that the Internet is a powerful force for spreading democracy. He also wrote, more than two years ago, about the “backdoor” surveillance infrastructure being built as part of the war on terror. In “Passing Through, Why the Open Internet is Worth Saving,” he wrote in support of “net neutrality,” while trying to rescue it from some of its friends.
Evgeny is also the author of two important books: The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs, 2011) and, most recently, To Save Everything, Click Here (PublicAffairs, 2013).
The Net Delusion (building on the arguments in “Texting Toward Utopia”) provided a sustained critique of some extravagant claims about the Internet’s political promise. The Internet, you may recall, was going to be the great solvent of authoritarian rule: the technology of freedom that would enable people to escape from the controlled communication, thus controlled thought and conduct, associated with authoritarianism. In 1999, George Bush said: “imagine if the Internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread.” In 2009, Andrew Sullivan said—in reference to Iran’s Green Revolution—“the revolution will be twittered.” And not just that: Wikipedia provided a model for decentralized, team collaboration. Why not Wiki-government? The Internet would not only unmake authoritarianism: it would remake democracy.
Evgeny’s first book was a powerful dissent from this cyber-utopian outlook: described by The Economist as “a provocative, enlightening and welcome riposte to the cyber-utopian worldview.” I think it is fair to say that that worldview has fewer proponents now. Many more people realize that authoritarians are not all-thumbs when it comes to information technology; that communication is not the same as concerted action; and that most people go online for less elevated purposes than overthrowing authoritarian rule or fostering more participatory governance. There may be a delta, but it is not obvious how big it is.
To Save Everything, Click Here is also critical: not exclusively, but principally. The target of Evgeny’s criticism is an “amelioration orgy” that he associates with Silicon Valley. “In the past few years,” Evgeny says, “Silicon Valley’s favorite slogan has quietly changed from ‘Innovate or Die’ to ‘Ameliorate or Die.’” The book describes, powerfully and in insightful detail, a series of projects of amelioration: self-tracking devices that provide remedies for obesity, insomnia, heavy carbon footprints, and the limitations of memory. Information and communication strategies for remedying political corruption, hypocrisy, opacity, and all the hurdles to informed civic engagement. Algorithms that help us figure out what to read and where to eat. Information technology solutions for preempting crime, keeping the jerks out of the clubs, helping the needy while having fun, connecting with distant strangers while distancing from connected neighbors. You get the idea—though to really get it you need to read the book. (That said, the book is not really about Silicon Valley: it has more references to Jane McGonigal than to Steve Jobs. It is really about the assumptions of some intellectuals who write about information technology.)
The Net Delusion criticized the idea that new communication technologies would serve the emancipatory goal that proponents said they would serve. It focused on the effectiveness of the means in achieving the ends. To Save Everything is about ends, not means. Assume for the sake of argument, he says, that the ameliorative orgy ends in boundless success: obesity conquered; jerks out of the good clubs; bad guys incapacitated; politics cleansed of hypocrisy and opacity; forgetfulness solved; carbon footprints reduced; assistance to the needy turned into a fun game.
What could be wrong with that? Two things. Evgeny challenges the orgy of amelioration, first, by arguing that the ameliorative solutions often turn public problems into private ones: don’t regulate the content of food; give people enough information to nudge them to better personal choices. They promise success by first diminishing the magnitude of the problem. Second, he celebrates the virtues of our vices. Some of life’s good things come from ignorance rather than knowledge; opacity rather than transparency; ambivalence rather than certainty; vagueness rather than precision; hypocrisy rather than sincerity; messy inefficiency rather than tidiness; good enough rather than perfect; time-consuming, indecisive, head-holding pondering rather than algorithmic offloading or gamified nudges.
Evgeny is not alone in these ideas. La Rochefoucauld famously celebrated hypocrisy as the homage that vice pays to virtue. But Evgeny does not think he has much company in Silicon Valley (at least as he imagines it). The problem is that his Silicon-Valley-of-the-mind suffers from (and spreads to others) the ideological blinder of solutionism, aided and abetted by its companion blinder of Internet-centrism. Those blinders fuel the ameliorative orgy—an orgy of fixing, in which the tools for fixing help to define (often by diminishing) what needs to be fixed in the first place. So we need to “unlearn solutionism” and the limits it imposes on our thinking in order even to ask whether all the technological amelioration is “worth the price.”
If you are wondering what “solutionism” amounts to, and want to start down your own path of unlearning, you would do well to begin with Terry Winograd’s interview with Evgeny, “What’s Wrong with Technological Fixes?”
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January 03, 2014
5 Min read time