Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian thinker educated in the U.S., is a vocal critic of the politics of the Internet. He argues that the power of the Internet is often overstated, taking a critical, if not cynical, stance vis-a-vis the hype surrounding the smart technologies that can seemingly make our lives so much easier today. He is skeptical of the cyber-utopianism – the inability to see the Internet’s potential for information control and manipulation of the new media space, and Internet-centrism – the increasing belief that political and social change can be brought about by the Internet, of our age.
In his first book, The Net Delusion, The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011), Morozov criticizes the popular held view that the Internet helps to democratize authoritarian regimes. He argues that it could also be used for mass surveillance and political repression as well as for nationalist propaganda.
Morozov’s most recent book, To Save Everything, Click Here. The Folly of Technological Solutionism (2013), is an attack on “Silicon Valley’s quest of fitting us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection”. The author believes that not all problems that could be fixed should be fixed, and that sometimes the imperfect is better than perfect, even though nowadays it may be hard to resist the quick and easy technological fixes at hand. Morozov sees technological solutionism even as a threat to human freedom. He argues that technological perfection limits our imagination and should be faced with resistance, as its value system does not reflect the complexity of the human condition. Morozov is wary of the fact that more and more of our life is now mediated through smart sensor-powered technologies and that our friends and acquaintances can follow us anywhere, as this makes it possible to create new incentives. He warns that engineers, policy-makers, and other do-gooders will all be tempted to exploit the power of these new techniques to solve a particular problem, from obesity or climate change to congestion.
According to Morozov, today the most passionate solutionists are to be found not in governments, but in Silicon Valley. They are trying to take the lessons they have learned from what he calls “the Internet” (in its mythical meaning as opposed to its physical infrastructure) and put them into practice in various civic initiatives and plans to fix the bugs of humanity.
Morozov’s thinking could in many ways be regarded as cynical conservatism, but he does have a point in that we do seem to treat Google and Facebook as some sort of untouchable cult rather than big corporate businesses with a vested interest in profit-making. Information has become a commodity in our democratic, capitalist societies, and with the rise of new media we seem all too willingly to give up our right to privacy. It is an offense to the intellect to believe that smartphone apps could solve complex social problems, whose origins are more likely to be found in the political and economic structures that dominate our societies, and which Facebook and Google and the likes are inherently part of. However, it is up to each individual whether to make use of smart apps that track our behaviour of binning garbage, remind us of eating more healthily, or tell us to save energy.
Morozov may seem radical in his approach of condemning Silicon Valley and its internal logic, nonetheless he reminds us that we have endowed them with immense power and that our trust in their benevolence may be naive. He adopts a deliberately provocative standpoint and eloquently bashes Silicon Valley’s solutionists for their simplistic approach, in their attempt to fool us into believing that we could save the world by clicking on an app.
Evidently, the problems as identified by the solutionists are problems of the First World that make the so-called Third World seem even more distant and disconnected, if not inexistent. It seems that the digital divide between North and South is actually growing rather than shrinking. How great would it be if an app could solve problems such as poverty, HIV/Aids and civil conflict…
Perhaps the glossing over of the political and economic agenda that lies behind Silicon Valley’s technological solutionism (which Morozov defines as an ideology) serves to make us blind to the real causes of the perceived problems and their wider political, social and economic context. Social change towards greater justice and equality certainly requires more than a simple click on an app. It involves collective action and reforming political and economic institutions. The question is whether this is truly in the interest of Silicon Valley and those that profit from it. However, I am not quite sure as to how much harm really can be done by technological solutionism, as I believe that it is an individual consumer choice to what extent one wants to participate in the hype, or not. The problem is not the technology per se, it lies much deeper in that technology alone cannot replace substantial political and economic reform to achieve social change or greater democracy.
According to Morozov, technological solutionism serves as a scapegoat for politicians to delegate responsibility to the citizen instead of taking collective action. Technology might be able alleviate the symptoms of imminent problems in Western societies such as obesity or environmental pollution, but it distracts us from the core issue – a political and economic system that sustains and enhances social problems, such as youth unemployment, lack of public healthcare, social inequality etc. As long as we are aware of the potential benefits of new media as well as their limitations, I don’t see why they should necessarily constitute a threat to humanity. But I do acknowledge, to give credit to Morozov, that they could potentially cause more harm than good if the information collected about us were used for commercial purposes, or even worse, to control and manipulate. This surely is no longer the future, but the present. As much as Google and Facebook have revolutionized the way we communicate and exchange information nowadays, they don’t come for free.
Morozov, Evgeney (2013), To Save Everything, Click Here. The Folly of Technological Solutionism. New York, NY: Public Affairs
BBC documentary on the issue of surveillance and control of the Internet: