A Net Skeptic’s Conservative Manifesto

Anti-tech grump Evgeny Morozov overstates his case.

(Page 2 of 3)

But Morozov pushes this semantic critique to absurd lengths. His incessant scare-quoting of “the Internet” on virtually every one of the book’s 350 pages quickly becomes exhausting. If Pollyanna pundits have brainwashed us into thinking too monolithically about the Internet, Morozov aims to deprogram us by relentlessly pounding home its alleged non-existence. The book threatens to devolve into a jeremiad against language itself. One half expects Bill Clinton to make a guest appearance to question the meaning of the word “is.”

But no matter how many ways one seeks to deconstruct the Internet and disassemble it into all its individual components and influences, when those pieces are reassembled it is hard to ignore the significance of the resulting thing before us. One need not drink Marshall McLuhan’s Kool-Aid about the medium being the message to nonetheless believe that medium impacts message, while having a profound impact on modern social, cultural, and economic developments.

This globally interconnected, interactive, always-on, decentralized network of networks is qualitatively different from the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and television. It combines attributes of each of those previous mediums and exacerbates their impact. And it is innately resistant to control in a way that those previous technologies were not. These realities must now be factored into virtually every technology-related business and policy decision, no matter how much Morozov wants to dismiss them.

Morozov’s approach shares much in common with earlier media and technology critics, including the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, the German historian Oswald Spengler, the American historian Lewis Mumford, and the America social critic Neil Postman. These writers were concerned about the subjugation of human beings to “technique” or “technics,” and they worried that, as Henry David Thoreau quipped in Walden, “men have become the tools of their tools.”

A hundred and thirty years after Thoreau, Postman would decry the rise of “technopoly”—“the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”—that would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.” In a similar way, Morozov insists that “We must resist the temptation to accept ‘the Internet’s’ gift, which might be little more than a curse in disguise. We must not fixate on what this new arsenal of digital technologies allows us to do without first inquiring what is worth doing.”

So what does Morozov consider “worth doing”? This is where things get confusing. After spending the first 300 pages of the book debunking “solutionism” of all varieties, he then reverses course and suggests that some techno-solutions might be worth pursuing if they fit into the sort of adversarial culture he hopes to inspire—a culture that calls into question the worth of new technologies while also disrupting the ease with which we integrate them into our daily routines.

Specifically, Morozov wants to inject “adversarial design” principles into modern technologies to counter the “cult of efficiency” that he believes is somehow sapping our humanity. This means adding “friction” to the process of innovation by encouraging the development of “erratic appliances” that are “technological troublemakers,” forcing us through their intentionally inferior design to slow down, contemplate the ramifications, and make hard choices. For instance, a flower-like lamp that constantly dims unless its petals are touched, apparently reminding its owner to conserve energy.

Morozov hopes that this sort of technological sabotage would create “endless antagonism and contestation of social and political norms” to “make people think with their devices” and “turn us into more reflective, caring, and humane creatures.” But this is just another form of “solutionism,” of using technology to produce desired outcomes. The only difference is that Morozov is in the very small minority of people who would prefer that technology worked less well, in order to foster the “endless antagonism” of norms that he desires.

Another bit of Morozovian solutionism was on display in a November 2012 New York Times op-ed in which he decried Silicon Valley’s supposed “new prudishness” and its “dour, one-dimensional algorithms, the mathematical constructs that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.” He even accused Valley engineers of being too “deeply conservative.” To fix this apparently pressing problem, Morozov proposed conducting “regular independent audits of the design, development and modifications of computer systems,” although he offered zero detail about how such algorithmic meddling would work.

Yet in To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov ends with the lament that “The problem with engineers is not that they are conservative; it’s that they are not conservative enough.” So in sum he is revealed as favoring the Goldilocks formula for getting algorithmic engineering just right, without letting us in on the secret of the cooking process.

The absence of details is a recurring feature of Morozov’s tech punditry. He never bothers delimiting the boundaries of his adversarial approach or considering the cost, practicality, or legal issues that might be associated with it. Would product liability law need to be reworked to account for intentionally crippled Morozovian devices?

Nor does he adequately defend the benefits of “friction” and “endless antagonism” relative to the benefits we enjoy daily from enhanced efficiency in product design. People will protest vociferously when their devices and services arrive in an intentionally crippled state simply so that we can satisfy Morozov’s cranky goal of “making people think with their devices.” To the extent that his plot would succeed in getting people to think about their devices, it would likely be along the lines of “How soon can I get my device fixed?”

Taken as a whole, Morozov is building a body of work that is deeply small-c conservative in character. He blends traditional social skepticism about the promise of emerging technologies with a strict rejection of determinism as applied to tech. He then attaches these values to an insistence that people be required to think and make affirmative decisions about their choices, rather than just letting machines or algorithms make those decisions easier for them. He stands as a guardian over existing institutions and norms, trying to beat back the onrushing technologies that threaten to disrupt them.

In this sense, Morozov’s approach is reminiscent of “a certain attitude towards change and innovation” that British philosopher Michael Oakeshott eloquently articulated in his famous 1956 essay “On Being Conservative.” “The man of conservative temperament,” Oakeshott wrote, “prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite” and “favors a slow rather than a rapid pace.” He is “cool and critical in respect of change and innovation” and understands that “a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.” 

Morozov’s disposition isn’t quite as grim as Oakeshott’s (“Changes, then, have to be suffered,” Oakeshott lamented), and no one should mistake Morozov for a political conservative in the contemporary sense. But what Morozov shares with Oakeshott is the belief that, as Oakeshott insisted, “not all innovation is, in fact, improvement,” and that “rational prudence” is the wise disposition when considering the worth of new technologies, especially those that come wrapped in the promise of achieving utopia.

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  • Warrren||

    Die Luddite!

  • Paul.||

    The cotton gin?

  • Hyperion||

    Tractors?

  • GILMORE||

    I officially think the Guy Fawkes thing should be renamed The "Hi! I'm a Douchebag!"-Mask

  • Paul.||

    Not sure why Reason gives space to these screeds. Not Adam Thierer, but Evgeny Morozov by way of Adam Thierer.

    These guys are always wrong... wrong on a Paul Ehrlich scale of wrong and the only reason (I suspect) they get any airtime is because their positions are so off the wall, that they are interesting by the fact that someone is actually willing to say it with a straight face.

    Mostly, Morozov doesn’t approve of the way these debates are framed because he doesn’t believe that “the Internet” even exists: It’s just a meaningless abstraction pushed on us by those utopian Net enthusiasts, he insists. The book is filled with scare quotes around concepts the author finds nonsensical: “Internet freedom,” “Internet values,” “online,” “marketplace,” “ideas,” “crowds,” “networks,” “social media,” “architecture,” “problems,” “solve problems,” “open,” “openness,” “open government,” “transparency,” and many others.

    Morozov is kind of right here, but for all the wrong reasons. The internet is a kind of abstraction that we apply meaning to. It's no different than "The Phone System" was to Victorian society (yeah yeah, "The Telephone merely represents the further erosion of the written word...") so nothing new there.

    "Internet freedom" is freedom. Just like the Journalist Shield law is the First Amendment.

  • ChrisO||

    He gets paid to write bullshit like that? Clearly, I went into the wrong line of work.

  • Hyperion||

    I keep thinking the same thing. I can just make up a bunch of bullshit and if it has an ideological slant that someone likes, or if it's just pure undocumented bullshittery, I can sell lots of books.

    Maybe I can write about how the Mayan calendar was actually upside down when they read it, and it was actually predicting the year of apocalypse as 2102! Fuck, I can sell that baby for the next 80 years!

  • Not a Libertarian||

    I thought Morozov was on the left of the political spectrum

    Also, was this book review not already posted weeks and weeks ago?

  • JWatts||

    Morozov is an editor for The New Republic and writes a column for Slate. He's definitely on the Left.

  • Hyperion||

    Well that explains a lot towards the luddite views.

  • rxc||

    "Progressives" are astoundingly conservative about changes that they do not agree with.

    And enviros are trying to accomplish the same goals as Morozov- to make it more expensive and inefficient to produce stuff. It is a fundamental postulate of progressivism that organized mass production by corporations is evil. The best sort of production is done by individuals, preferably sitting aroung an open fire, singing songs about oppression and liberation.

  • Hyperion||

    Morozov rejects the idea that “technology can make us better

    I didn't read any further than that.

    Well then, exactly what is it that can make us better? Scratching out a bigger hole to shit in after eating our fill of wild berries?

    Praying to the invisible sky gods?

  • JWatts||

    Well then, exactly what is it that can make us better? Scratching out a bigger hole to shit in after eating our fill of wild berries?

    No, but telling others where they can scratch out a hole to shit in and that it can't be bigger, definitely makes Statists feel better.

  • Mark22||

    That's not "conservative", it's just political FUD. That's as popular on the left as it is on the right, because it's the first step for justifying more useless regulation and restrictions. It's an extension of b.s. like "the middle class is getting poorer", "automation is going to make us all poor", and "killer drones are going to kill us all".

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