Newsflash: the Internet doesn’t exist. If you think there is just one thing called “the Internet” with a single logic and set of values — rather than a variety of different networked technologies, each with its own character and challenges — and that the rest of the world must be reshaped around it, then you are an “Internet-centrist.” If you think the messiness and inefficiency of political and cultural life are problems that should be fixed using technology, then you are a “solutionist.” And if you think that the age of Twitter and online videos of sneezing cats is so unlike anything that has gone before that we must tear up the rule book of civilization, then you are an “epochalist.” Such coinages are one of the drive by amusements of reading Evgeny Morozov, who, since his first book, The Net Delusion, has become one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism.
He certainly has some colorful adversaries. One is Jeff Jarvis, a new-media cyberhustler and consultant who is serially wrong about the near future, and seemingly cannot bear to hear any criticism of his adored Silicon Valley corporations. Appearing on the BBC earlier this year after Facebook had been hacked, he accused his interviewer of spreading “technopanic,” insisted the whole story was “crap,” and said: “This interview shouldn’t exist.” Afterwards, he tweeted: “The BBC can kiss my ass,” and “Fuck you, BBC.”
Among Morozov’s other targets are Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, with his “populist rage against institutions” (except his own); LinkedIn supremo Reid Hoffman, who has perpetrated a book-shaped product entitled The Start-Up of You; Google’s Eric Schmidt, who believes that an algorithm could one day tell you what is the “Best music from Lady Gaga;” Microsoft engineer Gordon Bell, lifelogger extraordinaire and exemplary lunatic of the mindset that holds that Truth, in the form of perfect data recall, is the absolute social value; and the games-will-save-the-world theorist Jane McGonigal, whose work Morozov likens to “a bad parody of Mitt Romney.”
By Evgeny Morozov
But Morozov’s attacks go deeper than a righteous ridicule — he also interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cybertheorists, and finds that, often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields. His readings in this vein of Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, David Weinberger and numerous other cyberintellectuals are suavely devastating.
We must, Morozov argues forcefully, place today’s arguments in a broader context. “To talk about gamification” — the management-theory fad that seeks to apply videogame-style motivations and rewards to real-world practices — “without also discussing BF Skinner’s behaviorism,” he writes, is “misguided.” Here the Belarus-born author also justifiably plays an autobiographical trump card: “As someone who grew up in the final years of the Soviet Union, even I remember the penchant that Soviet managers had for gamification: students were shipped to the fields to harvest wheat or potatoes, and since the motivation was lacking, they too were assigned points and badges.”
The cyberhustlers are constantly declaring Year Zero and demanding that society be reformed according to the demands of “the Internet.” But their understanding of the institutions they dream of seeing torn down — politics, the media and now even university education — is superficial, as is their understanding of “the Internet” itself, whose secretive, privately-owned corporations are nothing like as “open” as their cheerleaders insist everything else must henceforth be. (Another of today’s serious digital critics, Jaron Lanier, emphasizes this point in his latest book, Who Owns the Future? ) The important and admirably fulfilled purpose of Morozov’s book, then, is to argue, as he finally sums up: “that there are good reasons not to run our politics as a startup … that there are good reasons to value subjective but high-quality criticism, even if it doesn’t stem from the ‘wisdom of crowds’ [… and] that numbers often tell us less than we think and quantification as such might actually thwart reforms.”