"The Internet" is not a thing
February 4, 2013 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Evgeny Morozov, writing at The New Republic, has a scathing review of Steven B. Johnson's Future Perfect. Morozov blasts what he calls "Internet-centrism", the idea that the web has an underlying philosophy that offline society should adopt.
posted by downing street memo (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I recall Evgeny popping by the telecomix irc channel some ways back, for being someone who sees himself as smarter than his established contemporaries he is utterly unable to be progressive or for that matter constructive.
What's the point? I mean, really what is it? Did some bully on General Mayhem pee in his cereals one morning and then he decided that the internet, is to blame?
he's got fact after fact after fact stacked against his contrarian reactionary view & lets not forget his blind eye towards systemic and institutionalized values in his writings.

The thing with Evgeny Morozov, is like with any critic, if he didn't come up with it first, it's just going to be one character assassination after the other.
posted by xcasex at 4:40 PM on February 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


scathing review

Isn't that Morozov's default writing style?

And as usual, he zooms directly to Shirky for someone to criticize. Even though the piece he linked show little evidence of putting forward an "Internet-centrist" mode of thought. Shirky gives no guidance in his piece, he merely comments on the situation as he sees it. Hardly demanding we "reshape our political and social institutions in its image."

Morozov wails away at strawmen, or at least mostly strawmen.

As far as he critique of the book after he gets he digs in, it doesn't live up to the title. While it does have shades of The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in that a distributed, non-hierarchical decision making process will invaribly create hidden hierarchies because not all people will have the time and inclination to make these decisions, which he namechecks. The article should really be called "Decentralized decision making collectives aren't all they're cracked up to be". Which is really not as inflammatory as the current title, and it only looks like Johnson's book was hyping up. Hell, even Shirky in his last book was less than sanguine about vast decentralized collectives doing more than signing online petitions and passing the virtual hat around for a collection.

You can have a really effective centralized social media campaign, as the last presidential campaign showed. Open source isn't a really good example either, most are organized in the Linus approved "benevolent dictatorships".

On preview: xcasex, don't even get me started on his Twitter. Twitter seems to boil down people to the most pronouced part of their personality. For Morozov, it's bile.
posted by zabuni at 4:42 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


And I will say that to Morozov's credit, Wikipedia is really good example of "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" in practice, as the decentralized nature of it has given way to all sorts of cabals and secret processes.
posted by zabuni at 4:44 PM on February 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


At the end of the day, Morozov ends up very much resembling the Shirkys (Shirkies?) he hates so much: A purveyor of some good and valuable ideas, which must first be extracted from roiling tar-pits of self-satisfaction.
posted by bicyclefish at 4:55 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


"There are two ways to be wrong about the internet."
Actually, I think there might be three, or even possibly four
posted by selfmedicating at 4:59 PM on February 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


Aw! It's kind of nice to see TNR up to their old, feisty tricks again.

As for the essay --- he lays in a few good licks, I thought, but his concluding aria didn't crack any crystal in my book. I enjoy a good tech-evangelist bashing as much as the next luddite, and possibly more, but aside from pointing out that a lot of the decentralised networks being lauded are in fact very centralised indeed he doesn't really get far in taking down the book. Revealing that a Gladwell-esque pop culture tech fluff book is rather shallow is not exactly earth shattering.
posted by Diablevert at 5:05 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The third way to be wrong about the Internet is to believe that there are only two ways to be wrong about the Internet.
posted by Malor at 5:06 PM on February 4, 2013 [11 favorites]


My issue with Morozov is that he's a one-trick pony. I hear nothing new from him ever. Are the Internet utopians too optimistic? Sure, they are. Is reality more complex? Yes, it is. Is the Internet just a communications platform that can be used for good and for bad by both people and their governments? Yes.

I am more troubled by Bruce Schneier's recent thoughts on "Power and the Internet"
Reality turned out to be much more complicated. What we forgot is that technology magnifies power in both directions. When the powerless found the Internet, suddenly they had power. But while the unorganized and nimble were the first to make use of the new technologies, eventually the powerful behemoths woke up to the potential -- and they have more power to magnify. And not only does the Internet change power balances, but the powerful can also change the Internet.
posted by gen at 5:49 PM on February 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


Evgeny Morozov is the Internet equivalent of the racist uncle that insists on showing up to every holiday, and no one says anything out of pity. He has no ideas. Just invective.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 5:59 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Morozov's review of those risible TED books was good. Frankly I find the intemperate reactions to him (racist uncle, seriously?) bizarre, and have never understood the criticism that someone was merely critical.

There are plenty of people who ought to be criticized.
posted by kenko at 6:25 PM on February 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Revealing that a Gladwell-esque pop culture tech fluff book is rather shallow is not exactly earth shattering.

No, but I think it's still worthwhile as long as there are plenty of people who don't seem to know or care that it's shallow. Among many, as I'm sure you're aware, "Gladwell-esque" is not exactly a byword for "shallow".
posted by kenko at 6:26 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK but what does he think of Guy's American Kitchen?
posted by brain_drain at 6:27 PM on February 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


Morozov is getting lazy from fighting below his weight so consistently, that's all. It's getting a little tiresome seeing him condemn each and every new pop-sociological take on Internet politics for being simplistic — not because the books he condemns aren't simplistic, but because the points he scores are so obvious, and because his own profound rejoinders are pretty shallow as well, more often than not. He's not wrong, he's just right in an uninteresting way, without producing any further insight. It'd be more interesting even to try to diagnose why there continues to be a market for this kind of thing (e.g. how Johnson reportedly conceived this latest book by talking to his agent about how to "take it to the next level" and package himself for the lecture circuit).
posted by RogerB at 6:30 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


A few months back I watched a video of a panel discussion with Steven Johnson, Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler and others, and I was completely appalled at the way they were all furrowing their brows and nodding sagely at the total nonsense I was hearing. As long as books like this are published and their authors go on speaking tours and get attention from the mass media, I'll need Evgeny Morozov to review them so that I can believe that maybe the world has not gone completely mad.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:48 PM on February 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


This reminded me a lot of the "onramps for the information superhighway" argument in Cryptonomicon.

That said, the only Steven Johnson I've read was Everything Bad is Good For You, which I enjoyed a great deal in that pop-sociological way. I'm sure he's as breathlessly excited about decentralization in this book as Thomas Friedman is about globalization in, well, everything, but I respect Johnson more than Friedman (which is a low bar, but still) and I find the argument of "but you didn't talk about this!" to be facile and petty and the mark of someone not trying to make a point so much as just prove that he's the smartest guy in the room.

Also he comes across as deliberately obtuse in his complaining about people discussing what the internet "means" by acting as though they are fallaciously anthropomorphizing the internet rather than studying sociological trends present in it.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:52 PM on February 4, 2013


I was reading the article, had to do something, came back and it wouldn't load. And the review link now goes to an error page. Am I alone in this, or did the review get taken down?
posted by hank_14 at 8:37 PM on February 4, 2013


The web absolutely has a number of underlying philosophies. This is a matter of fact. Whether offline society should adopt those mores is another story entirely, particularly since there's no one consistent more (any more than Reddit, Metafilter. the Free Republic, Twitter, or Facebook comments reflect identical environments).
posted by effugas at 9:02 PM on February 4, 2013


Yep, 404'd here, too.

Bummer. I always appreciate a good Steven Johnson takedown.

According to Morozov's Twitter account, Mr Johnson has responded to his review.

Maybe I'll just read that when it's available.

And... Morozov tweets an updated url: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112189/social-media-doesnt-always-help-social-movements
posted by notyou at 9:19 PM on February 4, 2013


I was completely appalled at the way they were all furrowing their brows and nodding sagely at the total nonsense I was hearing

Look, all other considerations aside, if Larry Lessig is nodding sagely at something that you think is total nonsense, the correct reaction is not to think that Lessig is the ignorant one in the situation.
posted by Malor at 9:45 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


I, for one, mostly worry that all the Godwinned threads will self-organize and bring Hitler back to life.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:59 PM on February 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Godwinned threads will self-organize and bring Hitler back to life.
posted by Skygazer at 11:15 PM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Part of the problem is that both "sides" of this argument can be wrong. I mean, this tweet is pretty funny:
Complete this real Clay Shirky phrase - no Googling! "Just as water is wet in a way that individual water molecules aren’t, big data can..."
This guy seems pretty reactionary, a fan of traditional government who thinks that the lack of transparency may be the "tissue" that makes "liberal democracy work". Which sounds a lot like saying a little corruption is nessisary for things to work.

But on the other hand there have always been these annoying Wired Magazine who think "OMG THE NEXT BIG THING WILL REVOLUTIONIZE EVERYTHING". And sure, the internet was revolutionary, but they're still going on and on just the same even though things are mostly pretty boring at this point. I mean stuff like twitter and instagram aren't really advances over what we had previously at all, it's just recycling users from one service to a new and shiny one. Who cares?

I think there will be interesting advances in the future, but salivating over twitter or a slightly thinner iPhone like it's the technological equivalent of the modem is a bit ridiculous.

I think, in terms of governance, more transparency and accessibility can be good things - on other hand you can't dispense with some centralization and command and control when it comes to actually getting things done.
I was completely appalled at the way they were all furrowing their brows and nodding sagely at the total nonsense I was hearing -- AlsoMike
Look, all other considerations aside, if Larry Lessig is nodding sagely at something that you think is total nonsense, the correct reaction is not to think that Lessig is the ignorant one in the situation.
Yeah... I don't know who Yochai Benkler is, but if you're not going to provide any details about what you think it's nonsensical, AlsoMike, then that comment mostly just seems like you inadvertently insulting yourself, like you weren't smart enough to understand what they were talking about or something. I suppose it's possible they were off on some crazy tangent, but really - without any details it just sounds like a really ignorant thing to say.
posted by delmoi at 11:37 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


if Larry Lessig is nodding sagely at something that you think is total nonsense, the correct reaction is not to think that Lessig is the ignorant one in the situation…

OK, so he's infallible? Well here is Pope Larry expounding with great pseudo-profundity on how free culture is an issue that transcends left and right, as if we in the audience have never heard of Clinton-era third-wayism and what it is really all about. The video is a bit long, but that should not trouble you, since by your standards you don't even need to watch it or hold it up to any kind of critical scrutiny before calling it brilliant.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:01 AM on February 5, 2013


delmoi, here is a blog post called Sixty-Two Things Wrong with "Future Perfect" that goes into some of the problems in the book. For me, the most painful part was hearing SBJ talk about how asking people to call into a city hotline to report potholes is a form of radical decentralization, or Linux and open source software for that matter, which is, as we know, are mostly organized as benevolent dictatorships.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:13 AM on February 5, 2013


Thankfully his new book will be published by next month on Amazon and we'll hear all about it via the same social sharing solutionization backscatter he, allegedly, laments.
posted by qthrul at 2:41 AM on February 5, 2013


Or maybe, AlsoMike, you're just missing something.
posted by Malor at 3:47 AM on February 5, 2013


This guy seems pretty reactionary, a fan of traditional government who thinks that the lack of transparency may be the "tissue" that makes "liberal democracy work". Which sounds a lot like saying a little corruption is nessisary for things to work.

He only mentions "transparency" off-hand; he spends a lot more time arguing that clear hierarchys function better than decentralised "leaderless" movements, because the embracing leaderlessness often means not actually not having leaders but having leaders who won't admit they are such, and take no responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.

As for transparency, I can think of at least one common governance problem where complete transparency is probably a mistake --- formulating regulations. Almost every time a law gets passed, some body is charged with overseeing how it is implemented, with drawing the actual ticky-tack boundaries that say you can do a, but you can't do b. Every interest group affected by the law is going to lobby, hard, to get an interpretation of the rules most favourable to them. If the actual deliberations within the agency were completely transparent, it would seriously undermine the ability of the agency to enforce the rules --- because it's necessary to have debates about what the laws should be, but if the people affected by those debates knew for certainty who was "on their side" or what aspects of the rules barely squeaked in vs. which ones were fundamental, it would give them a road map to divide and conquer the agency's staff and to stretch the rules in their desired direction.

As is now, what we have instead is that you're allowed to see what advice everybody had to give to the agency (the public comment period) but how the agency came to a decision is still opaque (though tea leaves can certainly be read in reviewing whose public comments most resemble the actual regs). Moreover, the industry being governed is left in a position of needful uncertainty as to whether it can get away with breaking any particular rule, which helps enforce compliance.
posted by Diablevert at 4:15 AM on February 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thankfully his new book will be published by next month on Amazon and we'll hear all about it via the same social sharing solutionization backscatter he, allegedly, laments.

Which, it should be noted, he doesn't.
posted by notyou at 8:47 AM on February 5, 2013


He only mentions "transparency" off-hand; he spends a lot more time arguing that clear hierarchys function better than decentralised "leaderless" movements, because the embracing leaderlessness often means not actually not having leaders but having leaders who won't admit they are such, and take no responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.
I read Morozov's thing this morning, enjoyed it (SBJ has been peddling a load of breezily digestible bollocks since at least the risible Everything Bad in 2006), and was reminded strongly (and favorably) of Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites, not least by his discussion of Occupy. He keeps coming back to the poisonous idea that the way to fix what's wrong with human institutions is to make them more like $tech_thingie_du_jour, which is a ready-for-TED 'insight' that never gets old (because there's always a new doodad to use as a metaphor).

Guys like Tom Frank get pilloried by Internet complainers for not thinking the Internet (or 'horizontalist' get-togethers designed to emulate its 'social' contours) is a panacea. But much of the crotchety moaners' value for readers who actually give a fuck is that they decouple the hard work of making the world better from the intoxicating fun of Playing with Shiny New Tools. Think of Charles Pierce, David Simon, Christopher Hitchens: actual thinkers, arguing that our sense of the inevitability of triumph is exactly what the motherfuckers in the high castles want us to hold on to, instead of principles or pitchforks.

Being 'utterly convinced' by someone like SBJ -- of anything, really -- is fun in itself; but that fun is dangerous. Morozov sounds like a dreadful party companion (I won't read his Twitter account), but he's asking good questions.
posted by waxbanks at 9:01 AM on February 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Which sounds a lot like saying a little corruption is nessisary for things to work.

Given his reaction to the TED books alluded to above, I doubt this is really what he thinks.

AlsoMike, thanks for linking to that Slee piece. Tom Slee is really great.
posted by kenko at 2:40 PM on February 5, 2013


if Larry Lessig is nodding sagely at something that you think is total nonsense, the correct reaction is not to think that Lessig is the ignorant one in the situation

The correct reaction is also not necessarily to assume that you are the ignorant one.

Maybe you are! But you know what? Lessig might also be. Smarter people than him have nodded sagely at total nonsense.
posted by kenko at 2:42 PM on February 5, 2013


Other good Slee pieces linked in the "Favorites" section of this post.

Persons interested in Shirky may wish to note the progression from Slee's 2008 review of Here Comes Everybody to his 2010 piece "Wikibollocks: The Shirky Rules". Or, for that matter, this essay by Aaron Bady.
posted by kenko at 2:46 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


[make your comments without dredging up arguments from other threads.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:26 AM on February 7, 2013


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