“Thinking that you are living through a revolution and hold the key to how it will unfold is, I confess, rather intoxicating,” Morozov would later write. Much of his work from this period is preserved, and it’s fascinating to watch a YouTube video from 2007 that shows a chubby kid holding forth in a thick accent about how digital media might transform the sclerotic and indecent politics of his region. Asked by a peppy interviewer what he sees as the “most innovative” development of recent years, the young Evgeny rattles off a list of possibilities that makes him sound a lot like the “cyber-utopians” he would soon make a career out of skewering. “Definitely crowdsourcing,” he says. “Definitely applying the logic of the open-source software movement to broader ideas, to broader processes.” Another video from the same conference shows him giving a buzzword-filled presentation called “Putting Community at the Core of Innovation in New Media.”
Here’s Morozov today, talking about the guy in that video: “I was 23 and in a room with people in their 40s and 50s, all of them editors and journalists, and I was talking some nonsense and they were all buying it. The degree to which both sides were unaware of just how stupid the entire setup was just makes you very scared.”
A critic evolves
Morozov obsessively, compulsively, sees the flaws in everything, including his own work. This trait has led him to burn numerous bridges with former allies, most notably with Ethan Zuckerman, who now directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT. An advocate of the Web’s ability to connect a global citizenry, Zuckerman brought Morozov to the board of the Open Society Foundations’ Information Program in 2008, an important step in Morozov’s rise that eventually helped him land a fellowship in New York. Two years later, Morozov began slamming Zuckerman publicly for, among other things, taking research money from the State Department, and the two haven’t spoken since 2011. Zuckerman declined to be interviewed for this piece. “I’ve alienated so many people that whatever conference invitation I get I look who’s there and say, ‘No, I don’t want to be there,’ ” Morozov says. “It gets awkward for me. It gets awkward for them. So screw it. It saves me a lot of time for reading and writing.”
By mid-2008, Morozov had grown frustrated with his work at Transitions. Many of the projects, he says, “didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. I also saw that, in places where they worked, the governments were far more sophisticated than we thought. They were engaging in new types of surveillance. They were hiring bloggers. There was nothing about this set of tools that magically made them beneficial only to one side.”
His sense of failure in these high-stakes battles is not enough, by itself, to explain Morozov’s next transformation—into a world-famous technology skeptic. When he started at Transitions, he and his colleagues had to work hard to convince wary funders that new-media training was a prudent investment in countries with low online connectivity and long histories of crushing dissent. Eventually, though, the narrative shifted, and a range of powerful players—from the media to the State Department—were suddenly touting these digital strategies as the world’s best hope for building democracy. Morozov found himself, really for the first time, outside the intellectual mainstream—a place where he would feel increasingly at home.
Jeremy Druker, Morozov’s boss at Transitions, describes it this way: “I think in many ways what Evgeny has become is a response, not to those early wonder years when we were all confused but enthusiastic about figuring out what could be done, but to everyone getting on the bandwagon and it becoming a real fad.”
This “fad” is extensively documented (and derided) in Morozov’s first book, The Net Delusion, which was published in January 2011. In it he calls the idea that technology is the key ingredient to the promotion of democracy “cyber-utopianism,” and shows just how thoroughly this idea has pervaded both the public and political consciousness.