Every new technology has multiple cycles of hype and backlash. The hyperbole surrounding the advent of the internet was particularly extreme, for example, with some pundits claiming it was the most important invention since the discovery of fire. Some of the backlash has been just as extreme: the internet makes us stupid, trivial, alienated, addicted.
That technology is what users make of it was the point of Evgeny Morozov's first book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. In it, he argued that despite the many claims for the internet as a democratising force, in reality oppressive governments are plenty smart enough to use it and related technologies to impose censorship, surveillance and other anti-democratic nasties on people they don't like — and even some they do. As for the oppressed citizens of those countries, they'd rather look at cute kittens than use the internet to engage in substantive political agitation.
In To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Utopianism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don't Exist, Morozov studies the twin trends 'solutionism' and 'internet-centrism' — the underlying styles of thinking that make the 'Net delusion' possible. Internet-centrism sees the internet as special and something to be protected — something with a 'grain', a nature, or even a soul. Solutionism is a kind of technological determinism: I create an app to count the steps I take each day; my phone nudges me to exercise and put down the doughnuts; my government stops funding public health services in this area because we can eat apps. In other words, the technological solutions available for minor problems (the itches that geeks want to scratch) lead us to shallow thinking, and our goals divert from understanding large, complex social problems into writing yet more apps. Worse, we start seeing only problems that can be solved by apps as problems worth solving. The result is suggestions that, for example, governments should work more like Wikipedia.
Arguing with Morozov is hard: he quotes all these books and authors, and you haven't read half of them. Among the more familiar names he picks on, however, are Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet - and How to Stop It), Steven Johnson, Don Tapscott (inventor of 'digital natives') and Clay Shirky. If you want to see Morozov arguing in action, try his recent back-and-forth with Steven Johnson at New Republic.
Now, Morozov thinks it's more important to unbundle the internet's technologies and understand what each one is good for. We need, he says, to think and ask questions.
All of these people are well-known commentators arguing for values such as free culture, open hardware standards, network neutrality, open data and so on. It's not clear to me that it's fair to pick any of them as representative of the views of Silicon Valley: Zittrain is a Harvard professor, for example, Shirky is based in New York and Tapscott is Canadian. To be sure, Google's Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg also come in for their fare share of criticism, but Morozov seems more interested in theorists than CEOs and activists. Even Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and Rootstrikers, sees himself as a scholar rather than an activist.
In part, this seems to be Morozov's own internal backlash. In concluding, he writes that briefly, between 2005 and 2007, he, too, was intoxicated by the thought of applying the lessons of flourishing internet phenomena like Wikipedia, peer-to-peer networking and Friendster (!) to everything else. Now, Morozov thinks it's more important to unbundle the internet's technologies and understand what each one is good for. We need, he says, to think and ask questions. Which is all fine, but asking questions is exactly what geeks do. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the rich history of internet politics and activism — every one of today's debates began with pioneers inventing the protocols. Morozov needs to get out more.
To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Utopianism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don't Exist
By Evgeny Morozov