“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads….That sucks”
“We’re there. The future that visionaries imagined in the late 1990s of phones in our pockets and high-speed Internet in the air: Well, we’re living in it… The question is, as its always been: now what?”
Alexis Madrigal ; The Jig is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future
Evgeny Morozov is a strange man. A man who admits to storing “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”, according to an article published by The Telegraph recently. In an age of ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous connectivity, Morozov is a man who wants to challenge the prevailing wisdom that the Internet, or “The Internet” as he calls it, will save us all. His recently published book, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist, is dedicated to the subject.
In lieu of a better analogy, if Mark Zuckerberg was Jesus – responsible for spreading the good word of God, then Morozov is Richard Dawkins. A cynic, and a skeptic keen to set about bringing down the empty rhetoric and doctrine that surrounds the “Internet” and much of the digital technology that surrounds it. A comparison to Dawkins is perhaps a little un fair. Morozov doesn’t suggest ‘the internet’ is bad, so much as points to it’s proponents, or Internet-centrics, and tries to reclaim some realism and indeed, modesty, around the era we are living in, and the forces we are seeing at play.
Central to his argument are the words and phrases we see so often in discourse relating to digital technology – “participation”, “open-ness”, “platforms”, “revolution”, “empowered” etc – and the fact that they may not be being used correctly, or indeed, that things arent quite as they seem. Reading his account it becomes clear that in the face of enough hyperbole, all words eventually become meaningless.
The ‘solutionists’ – i.e. people who believe this technology can be used to solve all of societies woes are attacked viciously. People such as Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky, two men who have become poster boys for the power of “The Internet”, who nearly always suggest that the problems we face – whether that is education, politics, welfare or healthcare – can be vitally improved for the better through the gifts we have been given by online tech. Morozov carefully pulls apart some of these statements and beliefs and shows that most innovation to be derived in this form will not be in the form of glorious revolution, but instead a sort of optimisation, a careful improvement in efficiency. That much of the changes happening have been seen before (crowd sourcing for instance).
It’s a compelling read, and certainly gives a reason to pause for thought, to examine and assess some of the truths that exist around our lives online and our use of technology. However, it does come with a warning of its own, implicit in the pages you read. To swallow Morozov’s cynicism whole would be foolish – simply exchanging one doctrine for another leaves the reader in no better a position.
Although not entirely like Dawkins in his position to the ‘solutionists’ he derides – some parallels do exist; on occasion it feels like Morozov is not championing a criticism of ‘techno utopianism’ so much as championing himself. That perhaps the safe containing his smartphone and restricted use of technology is a publicity stunt, he may be being contrary as a means of promoting his own personal brand, rather than firmly held beliefs.
Long piece on me in Das Magazin (in German) dasmagazin.ch/dasMagazin/vie…
— Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) March 29, 2013
F Scott Fitzgerald once suggested that “intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind and still function”, and if we’re to survive in an age when so much is changing it would be wise to bear these words in mind. “The Internet”, or digital technology, or the web, or whatever you want to call it is certainly changing the world in which we live, and not always for the best – as Morozov suggests. We must take advantage of everything we are offered, yet similarly constantly question the changes we see about us, as areas such as Freedom of Speech of Data Protection are called into question the behaviour we exhibit on and even offline may yet come back to haunt us.