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Book Review: Evgeny Morozov Doth Protest Too Much

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 9 2013

By Chatham House, via Wikimedia Commons

According to Evgeny Morozov, the world has gone crazy and he's one of the few sane people left. Zynga and Facebook, he writes, in his strange new book, "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism," have "become models to think about civic engagement." Yelp and Amazon have "become models to think about criticism." People who believe the open Internet can be a tool for good and who worry about and try to oppose people who are using it to hurt others, actually treat the Internet like a "religion" and believe "it's the ultimate technology and the ultimate network." Like the proverbial engineer with a hammer, they see all of society's quirks, inefficiencies, waste, inequality, corruption and hypocrisy as nails to be smashed with smart tools and big data.

If it were up to their ilk, he writes, "The odds are that a perfectly efficient seat-distribution system--abetted by ubiquitous technology, sensors, and facial recognition--would have robbed us of one of the proudest moments in American history." That is, "technosolutionists," the villains of Morozov's book, would have engineered such a perfect bus-seating system balancing the seating claims of white and black riders that Rosa Parks could never have committed her history-making act of civil disobedience. Yes, he imagines that, without a word about the underlying problem of racism. I am not making this up.

And it gets worse. Extrapolating from the grandiose statements of people like Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Morozov spins up a world that doesn't exist and then proceeds to inveigh against it as if it must be the end-point of where the technosolutionists are taking society. To wit, by 2020, we will live in a world where:

"Humanity, equipped with powerful self-tracking devices, finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropriately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered too, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do. Car keys, faces, factoids: we will never forget them again…."

"Politics, finally under the constant and far-reaching gaze of the electorate, is freed from all the sleazy corruption, backroom deals and inefficient horse trading. Parties are disaggregated and replaced by Groupon-like political campaigns, where users come together--once--to weigh in on issues of direct and immediate relevance to their lives, only to disband shortly afterward. Now that every word--nay, sound--ever uttered by politicians is recorded and stored for posterity, hypocrisy has become obsolete as well. Lobbyists of all stripes have gone extinct as the wealth of data about politicians--their schedules, lunch menus, travel expenses--are posted online for everyone to review. As digital media make participation easier, more and more citizens ditch bowling alone--only to take up blogging together. Even those who've never bothered to vote in the past are finally provided with the right incentives--naturally, as a part of an online game where they collect points for saving humanity--and so they rush to use their smartphones to 'check in' at the voting booth."

Morozov says he finds much of this future "terrifying," but it's only a nightmare of his own imagining. Sometimes his little jokes--lunch menus?--hint that he himself doesn't quite believe it's going to go down this way. But in his zeal to prop up and demolish the straw man of technosolutionism, he contorts himself into some truly bizarre positions.

Take his book's discussion of politics, and the efforts of American reformers to reduce corruption and political inequality by increasing the availability of information about who is donating to whom, who is lobbying whom, and what they get in return--also known by the short-hand of "transparency."

For someone who grew up in dictatorial Belarus (which he wryly refers to as "an oasis of tolerance in the middle of Europe"), Morozov has a surprising dislike of political transparency. He gives us several pages of handwringing over the anti-gay-rights donors to California's Proposition 8 who found their publicly disclosed campaign contributions helpfully aggregated on a civilian-built website called Eightmaps.com, which led to some embarrassment for them. Justice Antonin Scalia's admonishment, in a related case involving the publishing of the names of petition signers, that "the fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage" is not for Morozov.

No, Morozov is so caught up in his war on "internet-centrism" and technosolutionism that he embraces proposals to make it harder for people to know who is attempting to influence the political process. "Campaign finance records posted online could be 'read-only' so that, while accessible on the FEC website, they would not be easy to download or reproduce elsewhere," he writes, approvingly citing a paper by Deborah Johnson, Priscilla Regan and Kent Wayland essay on "Campaign Disclosure, Privacy and Transparency." Such data should be made "harder to find" and even posted with "self-destruct" code on it to prevent its use, say, five years after an election. So if you wanted to know just how much money Wall Street had invested in some up-and-coming politician at the beginning of his career when a decade or two later he finally enters the national spotlight decades later and runs for President--Morozov apparently thinks you should have a hard, if not impossible, time finding out.

What makes this line of argument even odder is that Morozov says he favors more efforts to tackle hard structural issues that deform society and produce negative personal consequences. Again and again in To Save Everything he rails against technological solutions that atomize consumers and place all the burden on their shoulders for solving their problems--criticizing, for example, people who self-track their way to better health rather than "make it harder for food companies to sell unhealthy food or target children." But while calling for solutions requiring collective political action (he's actually a "solutionist" too!), Morozov opposes uses of technology--like the ability to aggregate vital information about political influence peddlers--that might enhance popular political power against the entrenched interests that currently hold it. It makes no sense. (See John Wonderlich's rebuttal of Morozov's criticisms of the Sunlight Foundation here; and yes, I am proudly a consultant to that institution, which Morozov bashes needlessly.)

Morozov's previous book, Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, provided a valuable corrective to anyone who thought that the only people who might use connection technologies to their benefit were small-d democrats. While the Net Delusion was often verbose and sometimes took cranky and unnecessary personal potshots at its targets, those weaknesses were outweighed by Morozov's rigorous exposure of the many ways that dictators and despots were capably adapting to the era of widespread connectivity. Even if you disliked Morozov for his tendency to head-butt his political opponents, you had to read The Net Delusion to be reminded that the arc of the net would not necessarily bend toward justice; willful and strategic interventions are still needed.

By contrast, in this new book Morozov tilts at windbags that he himself first has to puff up well beyond their actual size, in order to give himself something meaningful to knock down. Sure, there's a lot of frothing in the air about using tech to address old problems in new ways, but that hardly means we've suddenly been swept by a wave of tech-driven solutions to what ails us. To just stick with the field of political transparency for one more minute: Internet centrism" is not behind the recent push to update the accessibility of political influence data. That fight well predates the rise of the net; my Sunlight colleague Ellen Miller started out 25 years ago by publishing "Open Secrets" as an 800-page printed guide to Congress's campaign financing, well before the web made it easier to disseminate such reports. Nor has it supplanted the older and longstanding push for general "freedom of information" laws that increase citizen's ability to find out what government is doing in their name.

In Morozov's handling, the White House's "We the People" e-petition site is another example of technosolutionism run amok. But as is the pattern in his book, he has to cherry-pick and exaggerate to make that case. Sure, petitions to "Clarify the President's position on Michael Vick" or "Enforce women's equal right to go topless where men have this privilege" are ridiculous. But those are the ones that Morozov delights in highlighting, ignoring evidence of numerous useful petitions or the fact that sometimes the portal has helpfully nudged the Obama administration or Congress into address topics of public concern that might otherwise be neglected. "Should the White House drop everything and start responding to these queries," he taunts? Well, no, but is anyone suggesting that they "drop everything?"

If Morozov were only to turn the volume down from 11 to something more reasonable, the good points in his work would stand out more. (His challenging critique of Tim O'Reilly in the Baffler was marred by similar rhetorical pugilism.) To Save Everything is sharpest when he criticizes Google for its actual missteps on privacy, or when he warns that data-mining of Facebook's vast collection of personal information could lead to "algorithmic surveillance" by the police or by other other private actors, like insurance companies. These are real worries, but Morozov isn't alone in voicing them. The same with his explanation of the expanding dangers of personalized marketing and customized content online, where he draws fruitfully on the work of Joseph Turow.

If you have the patience to get to the concluding chapter of his book, you will also find a fascinating and constructive discussion of how society might use new technology more appropriately. Here, for example, he posits an alternative to "smart" parking meters that automatically reset themselves when a car pulls out of a public spot. Instead of designing the meters to maximize city revenue collection, why not give drivers the choice of letting their spot be taken by someone who could use the extra time on the meter instead? In other words, why assume that the only value to optimize as we design and deploy the coming "Internet of things" is hyper-efficiency? Maybe social solidarity is a value to design for as well, Morozov is suggesting. Amen to that, I say.

I get that Morozov can't stand hype and exaggeration, or foolishness. People who argue that we are at some "epochal" break with the past deserve criticism--though given how rapidly being digitally connected in America has gone from the province of a small minority to the vast majority of the population, that sense of rapid change is understandable. But I don't understand why Morozov so often imputes bad faith to people who make those claims, suggesting that their passion can maybe be explained by how it must increase their speaking or consulting fees. Do I think that Morozov deliberately picks personal fights so he can raise his visibility and sell more books? Some might think that, but I just think he has the passion of a disappointed cyber-utopian.

"I too used to be one of those people--albeit very briefly," he writes, in the book's postscript. He is talking of the time he spent working as director of new media for the Eastern European journal Transitions Online, when he was involved in training bloggers. "I remember perfectly the thrill that comes from thinking that the lessons of Wikipedia or peer-to-peer networking or Friendster or Skype could and should be applied absolutely everywhere." Here he is in 2007, enthusing about such things as crowdsourcing, the open-source software movement, and how the web was supposedly enabling bloggers in China, Iran and Belarus to engage in real, uncensored dialogue. "The countries with less democracy tend to have much better developed and healthier blogospheres," he opines, adding, "if you exclude the U.S. from the picture." (If you have an hour to kill, you can watch a longer lecture on "Innovation in New Media" by Morozov from back then where he sings the praises of the social web. Close your eyes, remove the accent and who do you hear? Jeff Jarvis or Clay Shirky.)

Now Morozov is older, but he writes like someone overcompensating for an idealistic past. The effect, unfortunately, is terribly unbalanced. I doubt that Morozov wanted to write a book called "To Stop Everything, Complain Here: The Pleasures of Political Cynicism," but that is how it reads.

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