"a cyber-pessimism that could at times be just as dogmatic"
January 13, 2014 3:33 PM   Subscribe

The Columbia Journalism Review interviews Evgeny Morozov: Evgeny vs. the internet
The entire Morozov aesthetic is in this sentence: the venom, the derision, the reverse jujitsu of his opponents’ sanctimony, the bald accusation that all the talk about a new age of human flourishing is nothing but an attempt to vamp the speaker’s consulting business. Tech enthusiasts channel hope. Tech skeptics channel worry. Morozov channels anger, and this can be a very satisfying emotion to anyone unconvinced that everything is getting better. Leon Wieseltier, who has published some of Morozov’s most acid criticism at The New Republic, compares him to the ferocious jazz musician Charles Mingus, who once responded to an interviewer who accused him of “hollerin’ ” by saying, “I feel like hollerin’.” I asked Morozov if he considers his Twitter feed, which spews a constant stream of invective and absurdist satire, to be performative. This was a bit like asking Mingus if he considers jazz performative. “Absolutely,” he said. “I consider it art.”

via Technoccult, which has more.

A short profile of Morozov, at The Boston Review. BR published an interview with Morozov last summer, What's Wrong With Technological Fixes?
Morozov characterizes this impulse to fix everything as “solutionism,” and offers two broad challenges to the solutionist sensibility. First, solutionists often turn public problems into more bite-sized private ones. Instead of addressing obesity by regulating the content of food, for example, they offer apps that will ‘nudge’ people into better personal choices. Second, solutionists overlook the positive value in the ‘vices’ they seek to ‘cure.’ According to Morozov, some of life’s good things come from ignorance rather than knowledge; opacity rather than transparency; ambivalence rather than certainty; vagueness rather than precision; hypocrisy rather than sincerity; messy pondering of imponderables rather than crisp efficiency. As these challenges reveal, Morozov’s critique is, in the end, animated by a sensible picture of human life that suggests a more modest view of technology than solutionists have proposed.
Morozov, previously: The Meme Hustler, "The Internet" is not a thing, An insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering
posted by the man of twists and turns (34 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I love Morozov. He, really and truly, reminds me of Shteyngart. I think one of the two might find the comparison as amusing as I do. I remember reading Stoll's "Cuckoo's Egg" and becoming irritated with his pessimism about these things. I still don't care for Stoll's take, but somehow, Morozov's profound pessimism and reductiveness feels liberating to read. This certainly reflects both intervening events and my own natively expansionist cynicism.
posted by mwhybark at 3:39 PM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

A person who is a performative asshole is still an asshole, and he doesn't have the comedic talent of Andy Kaufman.

I actually thought the last article from him, in the New Yorker, was thankfully clean of most of the bile. I also found that fact strange, as Stewart Brand seemed an easier target, as his technological solutionism made him gleefully get in bed with all sort of corporate partners in his post Whole Earth catalog days.
posted by zabuni at 3:52 PM on January 13, 2014

I agree with sentiments like "fitness-tracking apps [set] a dangerous precedent that could foster abusive practices by health insurers", basically that's one special case of RMS's observation that "every [close source program] has its feudal lord that bullies and mistreats its users." Is there real hope for justice in our ever increasingly digitized world so long as closed source software remains legal?

I'm annoyed by him saying technology when he means only "consumer level information technology" though. There are many technologies like epidemiology, harm reduction methodology, etc. that address human social, legal, etc. problems amazingly effectively.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:01 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

“You think about Big Pharma, Big Oil,” he says. “The mere fact that we use the term ‘big’ to talk about them means we’ve figured out that they probably have interests that diverge from those of the public. Nobody uses the term ‘big data’ in that sense.”

This has not been my experience.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:05 PM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Have people stopped bleating "don't be evil" like a fucking jack-in-the-box anytime anything that could be vaguely construed as bad about Google is in the news then?
posted by Artw at 4:16 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Artw: No.
posted by GuyZero at 4:24 PM on January 13, 2014

Have people stopped bleating "don't be evil" like a fucking jack-in-the-box anytime anything that could be vaguely construed as bad about Google is in the news then?

That will probably happen around the same time that people stop reflexively accusing anyone who questions or criticizes the way technology is implemented or conceived of as being Luddites who hate all progress.

Morozov may be a jerk and his presentation inflammatory but he makes good points about a certain worldview that has been wedded to technological development, at least in the US. They're points worth examining and discussing because I agree with him that it can be a problem and cause us to miss some serious issues.
posted by Sangermaine at 4:27 PM on January 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

His critique of solutionism reminds me a lot of Voltaire's Bastards, which makes me feel very warmly towards his writing, but good god he's prickly.
posted by mittens at 4:27 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have people stopped bleating "don't be evil" like a fucking jack-in-the-box anytime anything that could be vaguely construed as bad about Google is in the news then?

Certainly not, especially now that Google is going to know when I'm home and how I like to set my thermostat.
posted by Slothrup at 4:33 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: maybe don't pre-doom the thread? Maybe discuss the links? Maybe?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:47 PM on January 13, 2014

To say that Morozov has gone out of his way to irritate powerful and influential people in the tech world doesn’t quite capture it. Doing so is his primary occupation.

This is such a creepy way to frame things, as if the writer were unable to empathize with anyone besides the powerful (which would not exactly be an atypical attitude from what I know of the CJR). It's like he thinks the most important thing about a social critique is how it makes its ruling-class targets feel, rather than what it might help the rest of us to understand or to change.

The whole piece is so focused on this kind of silly enfant-terrible psychodrama and unilluminating biography that it really doesn't even get started on the important problems with Morozov's writing. Far less can be learned from reading a sketch of his childhood than from thinking about how simplistic his pose of intellectuality often is — Morozov seems often to quote (e.g.) Adorno because it sends the right signals about his cultural affiliations, while not really seeming to have learned much of substance from reading his work. His individual salvos can still be very useful, but they don't nearly add up to the kind of systematic critical analysis he keeps claiming to deliver.
posted by RogerB at 5:10 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are a ton of things wrong with the way the Internet has settled out over the last few decades, but it can all be made better. Computers can be secured, mesh networks can be made, and people can host their own resources, instead of having the 'cloud" do it.

Does having a list in my head of things that are wrong, and how to fix them, make me a "solutionist"? I like to think I'm just someone willing to hack things and make them better.
posted by MikeWarot at 5:32 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does having a list in my head of things that are wrong, and how to fix them, make me a "solutionist"? I like to think I'm just someone willing to hack things and make them better.

I think it's more the idea that the problems of a technological society can all be solved by yet more (or newer, or shinier) technology, without ever really interrogating who's defining what a problem is, or whether there were already some low-tech less shiny/interesting solutions that would have worked as well, or realizing that new technology always brings in new (and mostly unforeseen) problems of its own.
posted by mittens at 5:44 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I was assigned To Save Everything Click Here for a class. It was really dense and kind of unfocused but I liked it. I thought he did a really good job at undermining the current rhetoric surrounding innovation, technology and the internet.
posted by Pseudology at 6:46 PM on January 13, 2014

Like mittens said: sometimes the solution isn't hacking, it's just to stop doing it, and that's proven to be quite a blind spot for the techno-libertarian crowd.
posted by fatbird at 7:17 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Check out this interview on ostensible "smart cities." *

Why did IBM and Cisco and Siemens start flooding television with ads about "smart cities."

What solutions did they actually offer? Whose life does it enhance? What did the ads push aside from vague language about future cities? Well it turns out that they just had this technology and wanted to sell it, and targeted municipal governments as entities who may have had the money to perennially buy into their technologies. And what does the technology actually offer besides city level mini-NSA tracking?

This is solutionism.

* Note that Atlantic Cities is a prime purveyor of solutionist thinking.
posted by stratastar at 7:31 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

The best thing about being a pessimist is that you're always satisfied:

Things go well? Yay!

Things go poorly? I TOLD YOU SO!
posted by lalochezia at 8:32 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

And you're usually right.
posted by carping demon at 10:34 PM on January 13, 2014

I particularly liked the comment on the CJR piece suggesting that Morozov, apparently an infant-recruit of the KGB, is on a mission funded by George Soros, Vladimir Putin, and the ancien Soviet regime to discredit Western neoliberalism.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:18 AM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

“Hyper-inclusion” is exactly what plagues America’s military-industrial complex today. And they don’t even hide this: thus, Gus Hunt, the chief technology officer of the CIA, confesses that “since you can’t connect dots you don’t have …we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” Such hyper-inclusion, according to Bodei, is the prerogative of the deluded. For them, he writes, “the accidental, which most certainly exists in the external world, has no right of citizenship in the psychic one, where it is ‘curved’ to a certain explanation.“ For example, “a madman might find it significant that three people in a larger group are wearing a red tie, and might believe that this implies some form of persecution.” Likewise, the delirious person believes that “the concept of St. Joseph includes not only the individual person but also a wooden table since St. Joseph was a carpenter.” Well, it might be “delusion’ for Bodei but as far as Silicon Valley and Washington are concerned, we are talking bout “the semantic Web” and “Big Data”!

Thanks for bringing this thinker to my attention.

Have people stopped bleating "don't be evil" like a fucking jack-in-the-box anytime anything that could be vaguely construed as bad about Google is in the news then?

Yes. These days they tend to bleat "do no evil" instead, because proper journalism is mostly dead and the useless fucking hacks that Murdoch employs instead can't even get a three word quote right.
posted by flabdablet at 4:34 AM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wish this guy were around in person every time a startup founder announces "We're fixing _____ — with an API!"
posted by ignignokt at 5:11 AM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the categorisation of Morozov as a "pessimist" is unfair. In my mind he's a sceptic: his opponent's breathless cyber-utopianism makes strong claims without much evidence.

Pointing this out doesn't make you a pessimist.
posted by axon at 5:16 AM on January 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree we must start using ‘big data’ in exactly the same sense as ‘Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Oil’, like yesterday. In fact, the big prefix should always mean “we’ve figured out that they probably have interests that diverge from those of the public.”
posted by jeffburdges at 6:08 AM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

His individual salvos can still be very useful, but they don't nearly add up to the kind of systematic critical analysis he keeps claiming to deliver.

The salvos that I've read also rely heavily on arguing against caricatures of his opponents.

That's true of Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly in the current New Yorker piece. Both have been ahead-of-their-time, blindly enthusiastic about technology, insightful and infuriating in their 40+ year careers - but all of that gets boiled down to glib jabs about the fact that they've been making catalogs.

Andrew Kirk's Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism gives a more nuanced look at the thread of the counterculture that the Catalog represented and its legacy.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:53 AM on January 14, 2014

Maybe it's just that I can't get past his vitriol, bile, and straw-manning to see if he has any ideas more compelling than the fairly obvious "cyberutopianism is unrealistic", but I have a hard time taking someone seriously as an intellectual whose main modus operandi seems to be to literally go trolling for attention:

Morozov attacks prominent public intellectuals of technology, denigrating their motivations and distorting their arguments (sometimes to the point of intimating that these people are saying the opposite of what they do say). He then purports to refute the caricatures that he himself has created, and waits for the outraged reaction and ensuing controversy to attract attention. [...examples...] By criticizing prominent intellectuals in ways that are both offensive and extravagantly wrong, Morozov tempts these intellectuals to respond in public. Their response (and Morozov’s further responses to the response) attracts still more controversy and attention, fueling the next phase of a repeating cycle

If he ever gets around to writing a book that's about what he thinks, instead of being about poking holes in blatant mischaracterizations of what other people think, somebody let me know, I'll read it.
posted by ook at 9:00 AM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a tech guy with a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism about the industry. I'm always curious to read meaningful critiques. I've never learned anything from any Morozov essay. Even after struggling past the obtuse language his arguments seem flaccid and unfocussed and all I'm left with is his intensely visible hatred of the people and ideals of the industry.

Are there better critics I should be reading?
posted by Nelson at 9:40 AM on January 14, 2014

I would suggest "that guy in that Slashdot thread who complains about everything" over Morozov, TBH.
posted by Artw at 10:37 AM on January 14, 2014

Thanks god it's not just me who finds this guy's writing impenetrable.
posted by GuyZero at 11:22 AM on January 14, 2014

Be that as it may, I would so watch a Morozov/Yudkowski cage fight.
posted by flabdablet at 2:56 PM on January 14, 2014

So, this stuff is not new. And criticisms of technology and techno-utopianism is also not new. Look up the "California ideology" for an idea of how the mix of libertarianism and utopian-capitalism have mixed. It's generally a good search word. (although here's Kevin Kelly completely misunderstanding it's nature.

Adam Curtis' All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (
full vimeo ) is also really fun. But I don't know how much to trust him.

Here's George Packer's take on Silicon Valley, I guess he's better than

Aaaand I just listened to Peter Singer on Fresh Air while shilling a new book on cyber-warfare, dive into straight Californian Ideology parroting ideas about distributed solutionism.
posted by stratastar at 2:07 AM on January 16, 2014

I've read most of Evgeny's English essays from evgenymorozov.com/writings.html and most of his criticisms seem in line with a society that is realizing technology isn't the only way to solve problems.

Love the thread here, excellent discussion.
posted by josephratliff at 2:34 PM on January 19, 2014

Evgeny Morozov’s response to Sascha Lobo: More political interference!

15.01.2014 · The NSA-disclosures have destroyed the utopia of the internet as a medium of freedom and democracy. Instead it more and more becomes apparent that the internet is ruled by big companies and secret services. According to the publicist Evgeny Morozov a reevaluation of the medium is necessary.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:24 AM on February 3, 2014

« Older On Being Ugly: An Argument for the Total...   |   Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another…... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments