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Evgeny Morozov attacks internet consensus single-handed

Instead of polemical cowboy columns, a systematic approach around key concepts and underlying traditions (such as libertarianism) could have a more devastating effect on the study of the internet and its political and social potential.

Activists protest against internet censorship in St Petersburg, Russia. Demotix/Roma Yandolin.

"Will I need bodyguards in San Francisco tomorrow? Is there an app for that? Perhaps, some kind of peer-to-peer bodyguards?" - Evgeny Morozov

In March 2013 the Belarusian-American wunderkind Evgeny Morozov published his second book, not long after his bestselling The Net Delusion from 2011. In To Save Everything, Click Here he describes the internet as a “grown-up” political and social phenomenon in which, as with other controversial issues, opinions may differ. The success of the  28-year old net critic stems from his disregard for the hype over business opportunities and the latest technology. Instead he dares to question the current "Internet Religion” as a self-proclaimed “realist” intellectual. His widely appreciated criticisms appear in a range of American liberal news-magazines from New Republic and Slate to the New York Times. You can also follow him on Twitter if you prefer his aphoristic Sturm und Drang streamed in realtime.

While The Net Delusion specifically addressed the naive assumption that authoritarian regimes might collapse through the use of the internet and mobile phones, To Save Everything addreses a much wider range of technological issues, not confined to the democracy question addressed recently on openDemocracy by Guy Aitchison. The background of this move is evident: the internet penetrates more and more domains of society (not just ICT, media and telecoms) and is becoming increasingly omnipresent. Internet prophets welcome this and you can rely on the Mighty Morozov to question this tendency. His message this time: the Internet is not the solution to all our problems.

For him, the creep of engineers into the world of politics is worrying. Whereas this might be obvious for the nettime mailing-list community, which has been exercising “net criticism” since 1995, the Morozov phenomena kick off at a time when the internet has become fully integrated and mainstream. His dark energy, which questions today's managerial cult of rational (digital) solutions appeals to millions of (liberal) readers who have so far only been exposed to the narrow scope of internet evangelists.

Examples in his book range from an analysis of IT tools installed in actual waste bins (with the aim of reducing the waste), interventions in the world of cooking and online reviews of restaurants, to software for crime prevention, and what to make of 3D printers. He also outlines popular historical discourses on Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press and what he sees as the mistaken expectations of “open government” and the “pseudo-democracy” of the European Pirates Parties with their internal decision-making software, Liquid Democracy. As an internet realist Morozov sends his criticisms out in all directions - and thus threatens to lose the force of his argument by its diffuseness.

Indeed, faster and smaller computers no longer surprise us. Nowadays, the challenge is to find applications that will do the job – any job - as quickly as possible and because of this we are perhaps entering a danger zone. The internet is now about tapping into huge markets such as healthcare, logistics, fashion, education, mobility and the control of public spaces. This fervour is what Morozov calls “solutionism.” But technology cannot solve social problems, Morozov warns us: we must do that for ourselves. But like his motley collection of self-proclaimed predecessors (from anarchist Ivan Illich to conservative libertarian Ayn Rand) Morozov is skeptical about human nature. His message is that programmers should take the complexity of human customs and traditions into account and hold back from making bold claims.

Morozov complains about the overly general and unproblematic use of the term “internet,” as if it is a fixed and known entity that is capable of agency. This “internet centrism” he argues is rampant. As someone with a hammer sees nails everywhere, he argues that the internet centrist sees apps everywhere – with climate problems, for example, they state: we have an app for that. But gathering and measuring more data, summarized in pretty pictures, won't solve anything, Morozov argues. Indeed he warns us that we should not blindly accept technocracy from below, that is, from geeks in distributed networks with confused political agendas – the internet prophets argue that society needs to adapt to “the internet.” This Morozov sees as the common denominator that runs from Nicolas Carr (The Shallows) to Google’s Jeff Jarvis. We must beware of people who argue for efficiency, says Morozov, building on the late Tony Judt.

Evgeny Morozov is a prolific writer. His is a classic case of what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book Anti-Oedipus describe as someone on the schizophrenic-productive pole, whose compulsive need to attack others borders on troll-like behaviour. His personal byline on Twitter for example states, "there are idiots out there." Of course, it is enjoyable to see a creative machine running at full speed and Morozov, with 36,000 followers on Twitter, demonstrates this. The books, articles, topics and startup ideas he feels a need to respond to just keep on coming in. Recent internet literature can indeed easily be perceived as a deluge, with the large number of uncritical and megalomaniac IT crazes, from MOOCs to M-PESA, begging for criticism east-European style. The problem is that, with his Soviet background, Morozov believes that he is alone in the world. Incapable of making basic friend-enemy distinctions, there are paranoid tendencies in his recent behaviour. For a critic it is not unusual to only make enemies - this provides entertaining polemics against American pundits, hippies and IT gurus that are amusing to readers. But how long will Morozov be able to maintain such an impossible position? Will he kick-start a career in academia or perhaps disappear into a D.C. think-tank once media no longer need him as an enfant terrible, and once they have sorted out their digital business models?

Since 2008, the demand for internet criticism has noticeably increased and Morozov can clearly be seen as a product of this trend that is primarily fuelled by the traditional printing industry, itself under threat of digitalization and the internet. Let's face it: it is hard for each author with a world debut success to surpass himself. For those unfamiliar with existing critiques of the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley, Morozov’s book is impressive as it contains so many examples and insights. For those who have been around longer, it lacks depth. The Sturm und Drang of Morozov is in a hurry, running from paper to paper, jumping from one topic to the next. A rushed summary with a twist and the point is scored. But the accusation that Morozov (as a former Stanford Fellow) is not scientific is beside the point, as this is not his aim in the first place. A “Man with a Mission”, he is first and foremost a gifted rhetorician, an essayist and critic who we hope will grow and stay with us for a long time to come.

Let's hope this nascent genius does not go mad – or more likely in our times, become depressed. Internet criticism needs powerful voices such as Morozov’s, especially as the genre is still in its infancy compared to the much older genre of film criticism and the science-technology-and-society approach (from Mumford to Latour). But to my mind Morozov’s cultural-studies-infused arguments are not the way to go. Instead of polemical cowboy columns, a systematic approach around key concepts and underlying traditions (such as libertarianism) could have an even more devastating effect. Internet centrism and solutionism are interesting concepts, but one has to struggle to find the key passages in the books that deal with them (in fact, a New York Times article by Morozov in the week of the book launch was much clearer in defining his central terms, suggesting that the book manuscript  was rushed).

There is no doubt that the venture capitalist internet consensus against regulation is still alive and kicking amongst the millions of young geek-enterpreneurs around the globe. Morozov alone will not be enough to fight against it. We need a multitude of what I call “Denial of Positivism (DoP)” attacks from various directions. As I write, internet technology is in the phase of deep integration, entering all areas of personal and social life. Most internet gurus, as Morozov writes, are not aware of the historicity of their own modernism. His conclusion that the new smart technologies breed stupidity will certainly not surprise those familiar with the problems. But arguing loudly and in a few years saying, “I told you so,” is no better either. What we need are public campaigns and coalitions to both fight against the internet gurus and to build alternatives. Better education means extra budgets for more teachers with higher salaries, not MOOCs or more precarious teaching staff.  Critique is not about winning debates but is about establishing a widespread habitus of questioning the power of the self-evident and the doxa of everyday life.

Despite the widespread interest in Morozov’s fiery spectacles we need to ask ourselves if there is really room for dissidents. To remain positive is still the first commandment in IT journalism (this also applies here in the Netherlands where no criticism of large IT corporations is tolerated). We need to break down this positivist wall, the culture of forced optimism that does not allow any reflection and questioning. The notion that Google should not be criticized because it wants to do good is the perfect contemporary Orwellian statement. But between the lines we can see that Morozov finds it difficult to accept that his criticism will be quickly forgotten, which of course it will. Once the hype that surrounds IT and the internet decreases it will quickly become part of an invisible everyday life and Morozov will have little to write about. Recently, he has discovered French techno-sociologist Bruno Latour and German media theorist Friedrich Kittler, both of whom are, ironically, on the conservative side. Perhaps such intellectual role models will help him to find a way beyond responding to the media madness of the day, and learn (via Marx or Deleuze, or perhaps of his own accord) that concepts and problems are co-emergent. We will have to wait to see which way he turns.

Because of the recent history of totalitarianism in his background, Morozov has a natural resistance against “Ideas” and, in my opinion, this skeptical approach obstructs his own development. This is Morozov's problem: if every “Grand Idea” can and will lead to its own Auschwitz, Gulag and Hiroshima, it can easily make you stop thinking altogether. On the other hand, Morozov refuses to make nuanced statements, he does not want to be yet another careful and balanced thinker – and this causes him to become the fiery negative of the internet prophets. But the challenge is how to think through the very real creative-productive side of the conceptual thinking that propels technological development without just dismissing it. Software, business plans and marketing are simply speculative constructions that stand or fall with each new idea and how it was converted into code, images and money.

Morozov knows about the dark side of his radical cynicism. There is the danger that he either alienates everyone around him (a recent tweet: "I just say that the Internet doesn't exist and all questions suddenly stop!") or maneuvers himself into an unpleasant “thought ban”. If there is one thing we ought to learn from the Wikileaks saga it is the need to be alert to the destructive side of paranoia. This also counts for critics. What is missing in Morozov's work right now is conceptual freedom. It is not enough to bulldoze the Silicon Valley consensus, we also need alternative ideas, concepts, protocols and architectures. There are parallels between Morozov and his teacher and former promoter George Soros, the implausible financial speculation critic who cannot get to the point as he hesitates to critique capitalism. Far too knowledgeable to pose as would-be reformers, what can they both do? What we are left with is brilliant criticism without consequence. Annoying noise that fades away as the caravan moves on. Internet criticism can achieve so much more.

About the author

Geert Lovink is a media theorist, internet critic and author of Zero Comments (2007) and Networks Without a Cause (2012). Since 2004 he is research professor at the School for Communication and Media Design (CMDA) at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA) where he is the founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures. He teaches in the new media masters program at Mediastudies, University of Amsterdam, and is media theory professor at the European Graduate School (Saas-Fee).

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