Evgeny Morozov’s Bitter Experience of getting it Right

‘The internet’ doesn’t exist and doesn’t offer remedies for countless big and small problems. In ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, Morozov expresses his disapproval of technological reflections that don’t take historical facts and the human condition into account.

The beautiful summer of 2014 was spent on a Dutch beach. Lying in the warm sand after having played in the water with my kids, my feelings of well-being were even further intensified by the unrivalled polemic, even pamphlettistic style of Evgeny Morozov.

Don’t expect me to be an objective critic. I share the same outlook as this sceptic, both in regard to his historical views and time spent in Eastern Europe. Like Morozov, for many years I have been annoyed by the Internet theories of Skirky, Jarvis, Pariser, and Kelly, and various Dutch techno-preachers with very little insight into human nature.

I have never read a book before that gave me so much pleasure musing on the pros and cons of the many facets of the Internet. You don’t necessarily need to agree with all the, often harsh, criticism in ‘Click Here’, but this work oozes intelligence and erudition. This last comment is directed at all those who really hate Evgeny’s guts by now.

Murder and Mayhem by Guillotine

Like (too) many other American books, this book mainly focuses on the American debate. The hapless authors and theorists who have been beheaded by Morozov are, among others: Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Kevin Kelly, Richard Thaler, Eric Schmidt, Andrew Keen, Nicholas Carr, Elisabeth Eisenstein, David Weinberger, Rebecca McKinnon, Paul Graham, David Post, Steven Johnson, Jonathan Zittrain, Yochai Benkler, Peter Thiel, Don Tapscott, Anthony William, Daniel Boorstin, Clay Johnson, Jane and Kelly McGonigal, Farhad Manjoo, Matthew Yglesias, and Lawrence Lessig.

And let’s not forget, also from this book, Tim Wu, Peter Diamandis, Peter Thiel, Esther Dyson, Wael Ghonim, Alec Ross, Reid Hoffmann, Bill Maris, Steven Johnson, Ray Kurzweil, Steven Levy, Andrew Sullivan, Marissa Mayer, Beth Noveck, John Naughton, Eli Pariser, Gordon Bell, Gabe Zichermann, Katie Stanton, Gordon Bell, Nathan Daschle, Glenn Greenwald, Cass Sunstein, Gary Wolf, Jeff Bezos, Gabe Zichermann, Ethan Zuckerman, and of course Mark Zuckerberg.

On the other hand, the theories and observations of Walter Lippmann, Michael Schudson, John Durham Peters, Christopher Kelty, Barry Schwartz, Chris Otter, Carl DiSalvo, Ruth Grant, David Edgerton, David Health, Jean Meynaud, Bernard Crick, Majid Theranian, Lionel Trilling, David Garland, Albert Hirschman, Ian Kerr, John Dewey, Svetlana Boym, Bruce Schneier, Avishai Margalit, Tarleton Gillespie, Ryan Holiday, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Joseph Turow, Steven Shapiro, Steven Kotkin, Judith Shklar, Martin Jay, Jan Gross, Anthony Grafton, Harlan Yu, and David Robinson have met with the approval of Morozov.

Most of the names on the second list are unknown to the internet world, since these people are mainly historians and philosophers. They didn’t necessarily choose ‘the internet’ as their subject, but focused on the influence and history of the media instead, or even on entirely different subjects.

This was very appealing to Morozov and supported his attacks on the authors named in the first list. His definition of ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’ is based upon the distinction between those who view the digital trends and tendencies in a historical perspective, and those who don’t. Those who don’t, that is to say, those who don’t view the time-related influence of the internet in its historical perspective, find themselves in real trouble.  Morozov fights against ‘internet-centrism’ and ‘era-thinking’, both disastrous if you want to conduct a healthy debate.

(Evgeny during a debate about 'Click Here' in De Balie, Amsterdam, June, 2014)

Exit the Doom and Gloom Merchants

Those who find themselves with their heads cut off are mostly those who sing the praise of digital joys. Although Morozov despises the prophets on the other side of the spectrum as well; internet critics such as Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr, for example. “internet sceptics and optimists have a lot in common: both groups base their theories on a conception of ‘the internet’ as a stable force, in order to back up their arguments …”

The author blooms in this battle of ideas, and I love to read how he debunks Jarvis, Shirky, and Pariser by portraying them as one-sided thinkers who base their assumptions on technology and lack all knowledge of human nature. In this respect, the title of his last chapter, “Smart devices, stupid people” says it all.

According to Evgeny, we are in an advanced state of ‘confusion’ due to the digitization of the world around us, which we cannot view in its right perspective, since we don’t distance ourselves sufficiently from these developments, in time nor in space. This centrism “has turned our most promising analysts into Martians who have just landed and don’t have a clue as to what’s happening on Earth.”

All too often, the world is explained by analyzing the role of ‘The internet’, and subsequently projecting all sorts of life-improving measures based on influential technology. Morozov states that analyses quickly and unjustly degenerate and turn into ‘trend breaks’ and ‘revolution’.

Fitter, Happier, More Productive

This type of thinking leads to solutionism, the tendency to solve all problems, big or small, by using the new technologies; currently the magic words are digitization, big data, and apps. More often than not, these were problems we didn’t even know we had until the solution was presented.

Solutions are also sought for processes that are a result of human vices, which can’t be eradicated by any form of technology whatsoever. “Perfection is the enemy of everything good, which sometimes is just good enough, no matter what powerful tools we think we have at our disposal.”

Morozov professionally picks apart the urge to save or uplift society, healthcare, education, politics, the constitutional state, and personal well-being. He denounces the ‘improvement orgy’. According to him, the song Fitter, Happier, More Productive by Radiohead perfectly describes Silicon Valley. The business plans, the ‘crowd’, the ‘innovation’, the ‘transparency’, the ‘open internet’, and all those other knock-out arguments of the techno-optimists are mercilessly dismissed by Morozov. All this comes to us in easily digested chunks and glorious metaphors, such as the one regarding the TED conferences: “The Woodstock festival of those who are intellectually worn down.”

He isn’t opposed to finding solutions for the climate change, obesity, or the declining faith in politics, but he only demonstrates that the way these problems and their solutions are formulated, often leads to digital straightjackets. Which won’t help us one bit, at its worst.

Morozov investigates how ‘the internet’ has become the driving force behind the current solutionist initiatives, and how ‘the internet’ blinds us with regard to its shortcomings.

Temporarily Lost Himself

He isn’t afraid of exaggerating things. He does this very consciously, since he calls it ‘anti-solutionist ranting’. An example: “Before you know it, all kinds of information on how we prepare our meals has ended up on a server somewhere in California, and insurance companies start analyzing the amount of unsaturated fatty acids we digest, and subsequently adapt our insurance premiums. Cooking can be a Trojan horse when provoked by smart technology, and open the way for much more sinister projects.”

Although ‘Click Here’ is often hilarious and highly intelligent it sometimes is downright stupid as well. For instance, take Morozov’s view that thinking based on ‘the internet’ is completely impeding any serious, realistic debate. As if his own derogatory tone invites others to debate with him, give me a break.

Nevertheless, Morozov is much more subtle and even more optimistic than people often think, and this book is no exception. For example, he writes he can’t explain the success of Wikipedia (“It works in practice, but not in theory.”)

In the last chapter he readily admits that he too, has once used revolutionary rhetoric based on this same Wikipedia, peer-to-peer networks, and Friendster, ‘somewhere between 2005 and 2007’. “So, I can relate to those internet thinkers that are completely comfortable with the way the current debate is conducted …”. Followed by this magnificent line: “…although I’m probably incapable of forgiving them.”

This is really great. Morozov hopes that people will come to understand that “the internet” as a whole isn’t as revolutionary to society as everybody once thought, and that his book will reduce both technophobic pessimism and ahistorical optimism.

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I think the weakest point of this book is its repetitions, prompted by point-scoring urges. In chapter six, the book suffers most from Morozov’s testosterone levels, where he rages against the view that the constitutional state will benefit from leaning on data, algorithms, and far-reaching prevention and control: “What do we gain and loose, if it becomes impossible to exhibit criminal behavior.”

The reasoning is rock-solid, but Morozov keeps repeating himself in all sorts of, very similar, ways. And he refers to lots of thinkers that state more or less the same things, often regarding criminal behavior as an inevitable characteristic of our society.

Here too, we can clearly see that Morozov heavily relies on theoretical thinking. Lots of books and theories are discussed in this wonderful book, but it lacks story-telling. For example, a description of the situation in Singapore would have been a great addition to the chapter regarding the benefits of the constitutional state.

In all probability, ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’ is the best book on the internet that has ever been written, at least until now. Stylistically speaking, it certainly is the best.


19 okt 2014
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