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Evgeny Morozov: note to a grumpy pundit

It’s a pity to let the naysayer role obscure valid insights into Internet-savvy authoritarian regimes


 
re:publica 2011/Flickr

Evgeny Morozov is a smart young guy. At just 27, he is an editor for Foreign Policy magazine, a paid brain at the New America Foundation think tank, a TED fellow, and a published author. His bailiwick is the Internet, a topic he has important things to say about. Unfortunately, Morozov has marketed himself (or allowed himself to be marketed) as a professional naysayer. A grumpy pundit. A debunker.

You see, publishers of “Big Idea” tech books want to make life easy on our frantic little brains. They want book titles to quickly tell us what we’re getting into. They want talk show producers and conference programmers to be able to quickly cast debates with ready-to-rumble pundits, clearly labeled pro and con, like good guy/bad guy wrestlers. So they cleave thinkers into two categories: Utopians and Debunkers.

Utopians write keynote speech-ready books with big happy titles. A partial list includes:

  • Free! The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson
  • The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki
  • Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live by Jeff Jarvis

These people really like the Internet, and would be glad to tell your organization all about it at your next conference, for a ridiculous fee. (If you can’t afford them, I’m available.)

In the other corner we have the Debunkers, who’ve written these gloomy tomes:

  • The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
  • The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future by Mark Bauerlein
  • The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom by Evgeny Morozov

These people don’t like the Internet, and would be glad to come on cable television and scare old people about it.

All of us who opine for our suppers are guilty of the occasional polarizing title or overstated headline, and few of us have total control over how our work is presented. But Morozov has made a career out of bullying forth with pessimistic bombast that he seems forever uncomfortable defending. A couple of years back he challenged the idea that the Internet itself has been a force for good. “They told us it would usher in a new era of freedom and perpetual peace,” he wrote. “They were wrong.”

“Who are they?” I asked him in an interview.

“Oh, I think a lot of people,” he told me. He went on to name Nicholas Negroponte’s 1996 book Being Digital, and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus And The Olive Tree, which was published twelve years ago. I haven’t read these overly-sunny books in years, but I don’t recall either of them promising me perpetual peace through my web browser.

Morozov’s recent straw men are just as moldy, but far more obscure. In this week’s New York Times editorial, he digs up a 1998 blog post from something called Ceramics Today (seriously), which predicted a coming golden age of curiosity where we would casually roam the Internet in search of knowledge and intrigue like digital versions of that 19th century cosmopolitan ideal, the flâneur. His piece, The Death of the CyberFlâneur, is a bit of hand-wringing over just how short we’ve all fallen. Instead of seeking information, all Morozov sees us doing online is seeking bargains. The Internet, he writes, is sadly now all about apps and shopping—”a place for getting things done.” Amazingly, he asserts that “hardly anyone ‘surfs’ the Web anymore.”

If that’s true, then I’m not sure where my last 2000 mornings went (time I was supposed to be spending “getting things done”). Really, it hardly seems worth refuting such a silly claim. The real argument I have with Morozov’s reactionary schtick is that it obscures the valid points he makes in between the bombshells—insights into the ways in which oppressive governments are proving to be just as skillful as bloggers and hackers at using social media to their own ends. We needn’t exhume decades-old Big Idea books to find the relevance there.

By donning the black tights each time he gets into the ring, Morozov does his own ideas, and us, a disservice. Here’s how he began a TED talk:

“As a grumpy Eastern European, I was brought in to play the pessimist this morning, so bear with me.”

I’m trying, Evgeny, but it’s getting harder.

Jesse Brown is the host of TVO.org’s Search Engine podcast. He is on Twitter @jessebrown


 

Evgeny Morozov: note to a grumpy pundit

  1. Bang on. Both the utopian/debunker dichotomy and Morozov’s discomfort with the role he’s chosen/been cast in. He’s picking and choosing anecdotes and data points to fit his conclusions, as do the utopians (and the rest of us, I suppose, since his position as the overly pessimistic slav meshes so easily into my own reasons for disagreeing with his conclusions).

  2. Oh no, one of my Internet heroes is finding fault with another would-be Internet hero. What to do…

    One thing I’m not quite clear on from your piece above is if you’ve actually read The Net Delusion; I’m making my way through it now, and while it’s perhaps a bit repetitive on the same arguments I think Morozov makes some really good points early on, particularly about the overstated importance of Twitter in the Arab Spring.

  3. It’s been a long time since I read Being Digital as well, but I recall Negroponte lambasting society for not using new technologies properly, not suggesting they were our salvation from all evils. 

    Two arguments that still resonate with me were: 1) the fax machine, while possibly making sense for the Japanese and other cultures with pictographic languages, represented a step backwards for Western cultures, because two dozen or so Roman letters are more efficiently transmitted via ASCII than an image of a page of text, and 2) the mouse is unintuitive as an input device, and we should embrace touchscreens. A decade and a half later, he was dead on about both of those. 

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