#CBR5 Maneuver #13-14 – Evgeny Morozov Double Feature
Profile: Non-Fiction, Technology, International Studies, Cultural Studies
After Action Report:
This is going to be a very atypical review. In reading The Net Delusion and Click Here, I was attempting to develop a cohesive personal position on the problems of internet advocacy. There is a lot of literature and scholarly articles on the benefits of using the internet in the cause of advocacy, either as a method of raising awareness or as a means to a fundraising end, but there is very little in the way of criticism outside of the shallow critique of ‘Slacktivism.’ Morozov’s books offered a more cutting look at my subject area, but failed, by and large, to dig deeper or offer a cohesive alternative. This is broadly true of both books, but is more apparent in Click Here.
Because both books failed to meet my personal metric for usefulness, it is difficult for me to recommend them. Even ignoring that, both books left me with a bad taste in my mouth, not because Morozov’s ideas are wrong or uninteresting, but because he is such a hostile author. That hostility, directed against politicians, pundits, academics, and above all else the Techno-Literati of Silicon Valley, is an enormous barrier-to-entry for readers who haven’t already bought into Morozov’s aggressive architecture. Again, Click Here is the worst offender, with The Net Delusion appearing relatively calm and reasoned. But let’s go ahead and get into the books.
The Net Delusion is a hard-hitting critique of the United Sates’ infatuation with the idea that the freedom of information can destabilize and eventually destroy authoritarian regimes. The book’s central example is the failure of the 2009 Iranian protests to accomplish anything notable, in spite of significant organizational help from Twitter and other social networking sites. Well, the help is debatable, but Morozov goes on to claim that the internet can be detrimental to democratic revolution, either because of the regime’s control of public opinion, as in China, or because the perceived freedom of information that the internet brings suppresses the desire for more freedom/political involvement, as in many former Soviet states.
Morozov does have other points, and does an excellent job of applying each one to a particular nation or regime. Obviously the use of the internet in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez had built an impressive following on Twitter and had iron control of the cell phone networks, is going to be different from the use of the internet in China. And that’s the real crux of Morozov’s argument: that it is irresponsible for the United States to be basing foreign policy on the ill-defined and overly broad use of internet technology, when the internet situation varies so much from nation to nation. His criticism of Hillary Clinton’s blithe use of internet technology as a substitute for a cohesive foreign policy stance is easily the most compelling argument in either book.
Still, at the end of his attack, Morozov doesn’t have any better ideas. He warns against the dangers of internet-centrism and cyber-utopianism which work to blind us to the failings or shortcomings of new internet technologies, but offers nothing in return but a call for increased vigilance and better situational assessments. It is true that his argument that we cannot apply a single solution to these wildly varied problems negates the need for a single, all-encompassing fix, but at the same time there is something disingenuous about a desire to effect change that has no ideas, good or bad.
The shape of Morozov’s argument also makes it very hard to criticize. Of course increased scrutiny is a good idea, but it was a good idea before Morozov voiced it and it will continue to be a good idea whether you read his books or not. In the meantime, the reality of the world is that sometimes we do not have sufficient time to do the due diligence on these incredibly complicated scenarios and a lack of action can be as dangerous as the wrong action. There’s a larger argument here that I’ll get to at the end, but for the moment let’s shift to Morozov’s other book.
To Save Everything, Click Here shares many themes with The Net Delusion but focuses on the apparent threat of ‘technological solutionism.’ Morozov has borrowed the term from the world of architecture where it refers to the desire to solve all problems regardless of how minor or inconsequential they are. In the context of the appended ‘technological,’ the term targets companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft who endeavor to solve what they perceive as global problems by increasing efficiency; typically in the context of data use or organization.
Morozov comes down hard on this style of technology because he feels that it separates us from our ability to make mistakes, and sometimes solves problems that don’t exist, or worse, creates new problems where there were none. His most compelling arguments revolve around the ideas of political transparency and the notion that when politicians know we’re watching, they tend to value the opinions of the masses over their own judgment, for better or for worse. There is a legitimate concern here. Research has shown that individuals are very likely to engage in self-censoring or modified personal behavior when they are under high degrees of scrutiny AND they are aware of the observers’ desires, as is the case when politicians are observed by their heavily polled constituency. There is already some evidence to show that when the Federal Reserve System made its sessions public, fewer dissenting opinions were heard by the Board.
Unfortunately once you get beyond Morozov’s legitimate political concerns, the rest of his argument looks pretty tenuous. Not because his points are ill-constructed or wrong, but because Morozov becomes increasingly belligerent as he rambles across a wide swath of largely irrelevant technical examples and some obviously stilted historical summations. Morozov writes the book as if it were an extended blog post, with no notion of academic decorum, or even a modicum of respect for those who disagree with him. It should be noted that Morozov is employed as a writer and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine. Morozov’s distain for Silicon Valley, TED Talks and cyber-anything undermines the legitimacy of his arguments by rejecting all other viewpoints as either juvenile or just stupid.
To back up his monomaniacal diatribe, Morozov cherry-picks the worst examples of tech-punditry and holds them up to his version of the best of the best in social criticism, historical analysis and peer review. This one-sided vision of technology Morozov ends up creating is no better than the cyber-utopian or internet-centric visions that he argues against. It’s just bombast and hyperbole mixed with contempt and served as gospel.
One thing that is interesting is that Morozov, who spends much of both books warning us of the dangers of painting things with too broad a brush, offers only the most general of advice on how to deal with the challenges he presents. Whether he is cautioning against treating all authoritarian states the same way or opposing the desire to treat ‘the internet’ as a universal solution to all of our problems, his solution is the same: Don’t. There is no deeper analysis offered to separate out useful mental groupings from those that are close-minded. The human ability to group diverse things into categories and then draw conclusions from their similarities is one of the fundamental aspects of innovation and the basis for scientific progress. While jumping to conclusions is rarely praised, it is the same set of skills that enables logical leaps or the seemingly crazy hypotheses that can end up moving our understanding of the world forward.
These values, values that Morozov argues in defense of, are the same negative aspects that he vilifies when placed in the echo chamber of Silicon Valley. Organizing and sorting information is an incredibly useful ability and our technological progress owes a lot to past technologies that have made it easier to sort and retrieve information. The internet, or rather the collection of technologies that make up the internet, is just another in a long series of advances that does the same thing, admittedly on a much larger scale. While Morozov is correct in his assertion that ‘the internet’ should not be the solution to every problem we face, particularly in the fields of politics and interpersonal communication, he is also too quick to dismiss the ability of individuals to police the emerging facets of our networked society that disturb us. I believe we are uniquely able to look at the growing mass of information that makes up the internet and make use of it, rather than the other way around. No matter how you spin it, the internet is governed by human traits and that, more than anything else, will define the shape of our technology in the years to come.