Interrogating net delusions
The works that have been considered thus far have each tackled aspects of the IT revolution in fairly straightforward ways. They amount to what I am going to call a ‘first wave’ of critique in that they deal with fairly obvious topics and employ quite straightforward thinking and analysis. Few or none have related IT and its many extensions to other existing frameworks of knowledge and meaning making in any depth. Nor have they accessed wider and deeper narratives that bring into focus the wider threats to our over-extended and over-heated civilisation outlined above. Morozov is a relatively new voice in the conversation and qualifies as perhaps the beginning of a ‘second wave’ contribution. His two books The Net Delusion (Morozov, 2011) and To Save Everything Click Here (Morozov, 2013) set new critical standards, break new ground and bring into play an impressive range of cultural and linguistic resources. In this brief overview we concentrate on the second and most recent of these. It goes without saying that there’s a great deal more in the original works that repay careful attention.
What immediately sets Morozov apart from most other observers is that, rather than pick off this or that particular target, he ‘interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cybertheorists.’ Thus, according to a Guardian review he finds that ‘often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields’ (Poole, 2013). Morozov is critical not only of the means employed by the Internet oligarchs and Silicon Valley but also of their ends. The premise of To Save Everything… is that:
Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection – and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity and imperfection – will be prohibitively expensive in the long run. (Moreover) this high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of “the internet.”’
‘Radical questioning’ is the method employed and the author has a formidable grasp of what it takes to do so methodically and authoritatively. It’s not helpful to reproduce his arguments in detail as they need to be read in the original. But I suggest that it’s useful to summarise some of the language and specific conceptualisations employed as these are powerfully enabling resources in their own right.
The main themes of Morozov’s work address a number of long neglected topics including:
- Questioning the means and the ends (or purposes) of Silicon Valley’s quest.
- Rejecting what he calls ‘Internet centricism’ along with the ‘modern day Talorism’ that it promotes.
- Opposing the rise of pervasive ‘information reductionism’ in many areas of life, culture, economic activity and so on.
- Questioning the fact that many apparently innovative procedures that are being promoted provide pseudo ‘solutions’ to problems that may not exist.
- Questioning the tendency of IT to reduce the viability of many socially grounded functions and activities – for example, making entire professions and types of work (both repetitive and creative) redundant.
- Asserting the value of some of the human and social capacities that are undermined by IT. These include ambivalence, the capacity to make mistakes, the need for deliberative spaces and so on.
Morozov supports Taylor in reminding us that the dynamic that has shaped and is continuing to drive the Internet’s rapid growth and over-reach derives from the never-ending search for profit rather than any concern for human rights. In this view such rights are everywhere being extinguished by profit. The underlying dynamic appears in many different guises. It shows up in the supposed ‘neutrality’ of algorithms that, while ubiquitous, are hidden and inaccessible so far as most people and organisations are concerned. It also shows up in the vastly expanding realm of ‘apps,’ many of which have hidden costs in terms of privacy, dependency and the promotion of questionable notions such as that of the ‘quantifiable self.’ (That is, a ‘self’ that can be tracked, measured, located, directed and ‘enhanced’ in real time.) Also involved here is a ‘quantification fetish’ – the idea that more data is always better, always ‘objective’. This is not a new problem but it is taking on quite new dimensions now.
What this amounts to is a vast collective set of pressures on how people understand their world and how they operate within it. Already there’s a costly ‘narrowing of vision’ and the a decline in the ‘narrative imagination.’ Morozov quotes Clay Johnson that ‘much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance’ (p. 282). Having done so he also critiques this view for portraying citizens as being too passive and hence unable to ‘dabble in complex matters of media reform and government policy’ (p. 284). Instead Morozov prefers Lippmann’s formulation of ‘multiple publics.’ These are seen as being ‘fluid, dynamic, and potentially fragile entities that don’t just discover issues of concern out ‘in nature’ but negotiate how such issues are to be defined and articulated; issues create publics as much as publics create issues’ (p. 287).
Morozov’s work confirms what some have suspected for some time – namely that that the apparent ‘success’ of Silicon Valley, its entrepreneurs and, of course, the Internet oligarchs, has arisen out of a deeply flawed – and we can now say with confidence, highly dangerous – foundation. That ‘success’ for example depends on:
- Profoundly inadequate understandings of human identity and life;
- Thin and unhelpful notions of how private and public realms arise, exist and remain viable;
- Equally thin and unhelpful views of core concepts such as ‘communication’ and ‘progress.’
- An overwhelming tendency to elevate ‘technology’ to a far higher ontological status than it deserves or can support.
- A profound ignorance of how the drivers of this process are heading down pathways that have already proved dangerous and diminishing of the human enterprise.
One of the ‘strands’ of this multi-themed critique is the tendency of Internet promoters to forget that the kind of ‘theory-free’ approaches to knowledge and action that they’ve unconsciously adopted has a long and chequered history. It also reflects the tendency so powerfully inscribed in American culture of setting theory and reflection aside in favour of action and innovation. This is certainly one of the most credible drivers of the ‘GFC’ meltdown. The fact is that many of those driving the ‘Internet explosion’ appear to be ‘venerating a God of their own creation and living in denial’ of that fact (p. 357).
What Morozov seeks supports some of the suggestions put forward by observers such as Taylor and Glenny but also goes a good way beyond them. He seeks a broad-based oppositional movement that calls into question both the methods and the purposes of Silicon Valley. Part of this is the conscious design and use of products that he calls ‘transformational.’ That is, products that, instead of hiding and obscuring relationships, dependencies, costs and the like, reveal them as a condition of use. An example would be an electronic device that provides tangible feedback about the sources, types and costs of the energy being used. Some of these examples are reminiscent of Tony Fry’s attempts to counter what he calls ‘de-futuring’ by re-directing the evolution of the design professions (Fry, 2009). Such ‘post-Internet’ initiatives will encourage people to ‘trace how these technologies are produced, what voices and ideologies are silenced in their production and dissemination, and how the marketing literature surrounding these technologies taps into the zeitgeist to make them look inevitable’ (p. 356).
A further characteristic of this approach, it is suggested, is that ‘it deflates the shallow and historically illiterate accounts that dominate so much of our technology debate and opens them to much more varied, rich and historically important experiences’ (p. 357). Finally, Morozov is at pains to remind us that ‘technology is not the enemy,’ rather, ‘our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who lives within’ (p. 358). This neatly turns the discussion back onto the broader underlying question of the constitution of human needs, wants etc. This ‘take away’ message is strikingly similar to that set out by others who have reflected on the character of our present and the diminished futures it implies. We are walking en masse into a world that is being created (or, more accurately, undermined) by remote individuals and organisations that have, by and large, lost any authentic connection with, or concern for, our shared humanity and the world that sustains us.
Substituting profit for rights is not smart. Chewing up natural capital and transforming it into abstract and unstable human currencies is not much better since it can only continue for a limited time. Failing to acknowledge the need to integrate history and foresight in credible and useful ways is, in fact, quite stupid. Much as Lewis Mumford saw several decades ago, a set of technical arrangements is being assembled that inscribes ever more deeply a worldview and set of values that exacerbates our existential and historical situation. Far from preparing to change course and support humanity’s fledgling efforts to strike out in constructive and sustaining new directions, we are being sold illusion over reality, convenience over truth, toys and trifles over compassion, instant gratification over far-sighted vision.
In order to protect the wellsprings of life, culture and meaning we need to get serious about limiting the power and reach of Silicon Valley and the Internet oligarchs. We need strategies that allow us to free the ubiquitous algorithm from their grasp and, in so doing, gather collective courage to re-design ‘the Internet’ and re-frame its multiple uses. It needs to be ‘liberated’ for more respectful and constructive uses. This is quite obviously not a case of rejecting ‘technology’ wholesale but of locating it within a broader frame of understanding and value. The latter will include ‘the market’ but not be dominated by its current reductive and out-dated framework. These are all topics that cannot be pursued further here. But they do, however, bring to mind worlds in which these very concerns figure large.
One of the best of these alternative worlds concerns the culture of the Kesh, richly evoked by Ursula le Guin in Always Coming Home (le Guin, 1986). Here the uses of high technology are certainly acknowledged but they are also known to be dangerous. The solution adopted by the Kesh is that they are partitioned off into specific locations where they can be used as needed but their influence is kept in check. Rather than pursue technical power wherever its owners and inherent tendencies may lead, the Kesh decided to bring ritual and meaning into the heart of their culture. We would do well to remember examples of this kind and to draw inspiration from them. Although embodied in fiction they carry vital messages to our own time and culture. The question is – are we listening?
This concludes the three-part feature on the IT revolution as originally envisaged. The following post will, however consider a closely related topic: the so-called ‘Internet of things.’
Glenny, M. (2009), McMafia, Vintage, London.
Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.
Le Guin, U. (1986), Always Coming Home, Gollancz, London.
Morozov, E. (2011), The Net Delusion, Penguin, London.
Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London.
Mumford, L (1971), The Pentagon of Power, Secker & Warburg, London.
Poole, S. (2013) Review of To Save Everything Click Here, Guardian, 20th March.
Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.