Evgeny Morozov, the author and critic battling ‘the internet’ itself, talks to Christopher Williams.
As an author known for his viciously mocking criticism of web culture, Evgeny Morozov recently found himself the unaccustomed target of ridicule for his own technological habits.
Promoting his challenging new book, To Save Everything Click Here, the Belarusian journalist-turned-academic revealed he stores his smartphone and broadband router in a time-locked safe to limit his access to the internet. He even stores his screwdrivers in the safe to prevent him circumventing the time lock.
The American Nick Carr, himself part of the cottage industry of writers asking questions about our relationship with and dependence on the web, diagnosed “textbook” internet addiction. “I mean… replace ‘my phone’ with ‘litre of vodka’ or ‘router cable’ with ‘crack pipe’,” he teased.
Meeting Morozov at the tail end of a tour of delivering his message against technology “solutionism” – his term for the tendency among Silicon Valley-enamoured policy makers to delegate responsibility to gadgets, software and an all-seeing internet – it seems the mockery stung at least a bit.
“I have no problem with the safe, frankly. It fits very well with my vision for technology. It’s OK to delegate certain things to technology,” he insists, albeit with good humour.
“The only thing Nick Carr can accuse me is that my character is being corroded or I have weak willpower. [But] I tried to analyse what’s wrong with me delegating the decision of whether or not to check my email on an hourly basis to technology and I couldn’t find anything wrong with it, ethically and morally.”
It’s a relatively minor intellectual skirmish for a man who has quickly made a career as the fiercest critic of Facebook, Google and other Silicon Valley powers, and their acolytes in the press, academia and, increasingly, government. Until last August, he waged his campaign as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, the birthplace of Google and a stronghold for “the Internet” as an entity in and of itself that humanity is bound to protect and shape the world around.
“I was at Stanford for two years. It wasn’t fun,” he recalls. “There are clearly a lot of people inside computer science and business studies promoting Silicon Valley ideas that I find very suspicious.”
“I mean it was great from the perspective of getting a lot of intellectual work done and I spent a lot of time in the library, but I wasn’t very much plugged into existing debates. I didn’t spend much time with Google and Facebook.
“For Google they do think there is a broader logic to ‘the Internet’. They are more internet-centrists, which is a term I use a lot in the book, and have this tendency to see a dominant spirit tying internet services together and trying to form political and social institutions based on the lessons we learn from ‘the Internet’.
“Larry and Sergey [Page and Brin, Google’s founders and current leaders] have weird ideas about the world out there and those ideas they developed in the mid-90s when they were at Stanford.
“I do think they genuinely believe their own rhetoric on things like having search implanted in our brain, like Sergey Brin mentioned a while ago.”
One characteristic of the “solutionism” favoured by Google, Morozov says, it that it attempts to solve problems that don’t exist. He contrasts the approach with that of Google’s rival Apple, which has plenty of critics of its own, but does not attract suspicion on the same scale and “presents itself as a mature company that is not run by adolescents, unlike Facebook or Google”.
“Apple has an opening to say the tools we are selling to you will enable you to do things rather than do things for you,” he says. “Google’s vision is tools that will do things for you.”
“Look at Siri [the iPhone’s voice-controlled assistant software]. What Siri tries to do is answer your questions.
“The way Google’s equivalent, Google Now, works is very different. It tries to pre-empt your desires before you have even recognised them as desires. It will check you into your flight without you asking, check the weather for you at your destination and all of that happens without you asking for it.”
But what is the solution to solutionism? What can an ordinary citizen without the time or inclination to embark on an ethical and moral analysis of the impact their use of technology is having on their life do to avoid a dystopian nightmare?
“I want to prevent us rarefying ‘the Internet’ as something to be preserved like some people want to preserve the American Constitution as it was written,” says Morozov.
“We need to act not only as consumers, refusing or accepting services. We need to push policy makers to get involved. If that means creating a digital library that is publicly funded for instance, rather than rely on Google Books, then we roll up our sleeves, invest money and do it.”
He sees his own role as part purveyor o common sense, part ruthless destroyer of “Internet studies” as a discipline. His next project, scheduled to take up to six years, is a full intellectual history of the internet from the 1950s onwards.
“It’s me versus ‘the Internet’.”
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