Morozov insists that his refusal to be useful is its own kind of usefulness—and even, as he recently wrote in one of his essays for German newspapers, an intellectual duty. Traditionally, this is an uncontroversial definition of the role of the critic in intellectual life. But not in the relentlessly sunny realm of the tech gurus, where such obstinance must be baffling, even perverse. The current discourse around digital technology is more nuanced than the caricature Morozov often presents, but its defining idea is that we are living through a benevolent revolution, and that we’re all united by good intentions as we search for new models for our economy and our lives. In this culture of mutual validation, Morozov’s targets are the makers, the innovators, and the disruptors—the people doing, as frequent Morozov punching bag Jeff Jarvis put it, “God’s work.”
Morozov is a heretic in this world. Whether he’s a heretic worth listening to is an open question, despite the fact that many of the most influential shapers of our digital lives have already concluded he is not.
Engaging with Morozov, in person and on the page, produces a kind of culture shock. The most benignly progressive ideas can, in Morozov’s hands, become gloomy and confounding—for instance, he believes that people trying to lose weight with fitness-tracking apps are setting a dangerous precedent that could foster abusive practices by health insurers. There are many aspects of his biography and personality that don’t add up in a way that an outside observer would find coherent or justifiable, or even meaningful. Neither technophile nor technophobe, he’s frequently described as “Silicon Valley’s fiercest critic.” But like the rest of us, he checks his late-model iPhone during pauses in conversation. He cultivates a strident and confident public persona, but, in August 2012, made the humble decision to subject himself to a history of science PhD program and is now working toward his general examination at Harvard. Both in conversation and in his writing, he shifts freely between serious argument and absurdist jokes; it’s a point of pride that his audience must sort out the difference. When talking about his professional ambitions, for instance, he says: “It might be that in five years I’ll realize that what I need to be doing is running a revolutionary high school somewhere in Denmark. I don’t entirely exclude that possibility.”
He’s decidedly not American, but doesn’t identify as a Belarusian, either. He doesn’t even like visiting Belarus, and of all the reasons he might use to justify that attitude, the one he chooses to relate is that he is far too picky about his diet. (He recently lost nearly 100 pounds by working out on a rowing machine in his apartment while watching European art-house cinema.) He says with a smirk that he likes his coffee made just so, and that he needs to eat sushi at least once a week. He hates Palo Alto (“a horrible place”) but loves Stanford’s Green Library so much that, in an ideal world, he would spend winters in Palo Alto and summers in Berlin. When writing or reading about matters digital, he stashes his phone and router cable in a time-locked safe to prevent distractions. When he was mocked online about this he responded: “Believe me, I’ve gone through all the necessary literature in moral philosophy and I still don’t see a problem.”
Morozov’s friend Leonard Benardo, who directs the fellowship program at the Open Society Foundations, offered this advice when I interviewed him: “If a musician were to apply a time signature to Morozov, it wouldn’t be 4/4, it would be some crazy 11/5 time signature, sort of Steely Dan meets Stockhausen. Imputing rationality to someone who works at that time signature is a bit of a fool’s errand.”