As Morozov watched the cyber-utopian fad grow, his distrust of it began to harden into a cyber-pessimism that could at times be just as dogmatic. After leaving Transitions, Morozov eventually ended up as a fellow at OSF (a funder of Transitions), which brought him to New York in August 2008. The following year Morozov gave—wait for it—a TED talk in Oxford called, “How the Net Aids Dictatorships.” This was sort of a coming-out party for Evgeny the skeptic, and an important step in turning that skepticism into a brand. It’s another video worth watching and quite a contrast to his enthusing about crowdsourcing just two years before. In the video, he stands in the middle of the stage wearing a wrinkled blue shirt open at the neck. There is a humble, self-effacing air about him, as if he barely expects to be listened to. His only gesture is to move his hands up and down, often in unison, as he emphasizes his points about how all the digital tools and ideas the audience is so excited about are enabling surveillance and targeting of dissidents by thugs and autocrats worldwide.
“Evgeny becomes attached to particular ideas that he believes, for the good of the thinking public, need to be debunked,” says OSF’s Benardo. He compares Morozov to social critics like Karl Kraus and Dwight MacDonald, professional buzzkills who “felt almost divinely anointed” in their efforts to tear down false hopes and received wisdom.
When his OSF fellowship ended in 2009, Morozov began another one at Georgetown University, where his innate critical temperament once again homed in on his own work. He says at Georgetown he was frequently the “internet guy” in a room full of foreign-policy experts. “People didn’t want my take on the future of the Middle East; they wanted my take on the future of the internet in the Middle East,” he says. “It’s a bizarre way to compartmentalize the issues.”
Morozov wasn’t an expert on the Middle East. And he now realized that his usefulness as an “internet expert” (or, as the business-administration major was dubbed in his TED bio, an “internet scientist”) depended entirely on the largely unexamined assumption that new media had a coherent and predictable effect on each country (or industry) it touched—and that he and the rest of the “internet scientists” understood these effects and the internal logic that produced them. It was an assumption he had begun to seriously doubt. Without this assumed coherence, neither he nor any other internet expert could be much use to the Middle East analysts or anyone else.
It’s worth noting that the assumption of a coherent and benevolent internet is much more pervasive than just a conviction among policy and tech elites who stand to benefit from the idea. The belief that technology can solve some of our thorniest problems taps into deep-rooted American notions about the nature of progress and national destiny—notions that Morozov himself had helped to export during the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. Morozov’s anxiety about his role as an “internet expert” made him less interested in arguing about whether Twitter benefits autocrats more than revolutionaries, and more interested in parsing the cultural zeitgeist that, for instance, led Ronald Reagan to say in 1989 that, “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Morozov’s work as a skeptic attacked the surface of this phenomenon, but he wanted to attack the core—the way we think and talk about technology. He wasn’t immediately sure how to do it.
When his fellowship at Georgetown ended, Joshua Cohen offered Morozov a fellowship at Stanford. He spent his time in Palo Alto trying to find a new intellectual footing. “Throughout most of 2011 and possibly early 2012, I had no idea what to do intellectually,” Morozov says. “It was becoming clear to me that I could no longer just go on making proclamations about the internet. But it wasn’t clear to me what other possible framework could take its place. I didn’t have enough theoretical background to figure out what to do.”
Published simultaneously with the onset of the Arab Spring, Net Delusion pushed an intellectually confused 26-year-old into the international spotlight. Yet this is when Morozov wrote some of his most pungent work. Rather than give rise to ambivalence, as one might expect, the doubts Morozov had about his own qualifications made him more determined to question the expertise of others.