Throughout 2011, he wrote harsh takedowns of every “internet expert” in sight. The most notable was Kevin Kelly, the revered Wired writer who, as someone who helped launch the early online community The WELL, played an important role in shaping the modern internet. Morozov dubbed Kelly the “éminence grise of Silicon Valley,” then dismissed his book, What Technology Wants, as little more than a work of promotional literature for the tech industry. This is typical of Morozov’s writing during this stretch, which emphasized the idea that both the industry and its enthusiasts were motivated more by profits than public service.
I asked Morozov how he managed to be so confident in his criticism of others while going through period after period of self-doubt: “It’s very easy,” he said. “You get your facts and you revise your opinions. I write things. I hear from people. I read more. I figure out that some of my earlier frameworks were probably incoherent and theoretically unsound. I remember those and move somewhere else.”
Cohen, who Morozov says is one of a handful of people who read his work in draft form, has a harsher take on the same concept: “He reads other people’s stuff and thinks on very close inspection it doesn’t add up. And, of course, on very close inspection his stuff doesn’t always add up. I don’t think he has written anything yet that withstands the kind of close critical scrutiny that he gives to other people’s work.”
The cost of bullshit
My first conversation with Morozov took place on a weekday morning in a busy coffee shop near Harvard Square. He enrolled in Harvard’s history of science program after determining, over many 15-hour days spent reading in the Green Library, that the history of science offered him the intellectual grounding he lacked in his effort to find a new framework to talk about technology and its role in society. He moved to Cambridge in August 2012. Anyone thinking this might signal the emergence of a quieter, more tenure track-minded Evgeny would be mistaken. On this morning Morozov was talking about bullshit—specifically the fight against bullshit as an organizing principle in his work.
“Part of my job is to raise the cost of producing bullshit in this area, and to make sure people pay for that with shame, with being ridiculed, with harsh reviews, whatever,” he says.
He finished his second book, To Save Everything, Click Here, just before arriving at Harvard, and it was published in March 2013. Displaying a near-maniacal obsession with bullshit, the book dismantles two -isms Morozov perceives in our technology debate that he considers dangerous. The first is “solutionism,” the idea that we should recast our problems, from political gridlock to weight loss, as things to be solved primarily through technological efficiency. The second is “internet-centrism,” which he describes as the “firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold.”
At bottom, Morozov says his work is an attempt to integrate the debates about technology into the broader debates about politics, economics, history, and culture—areas of study with much richer traditions and far greater intellectual resources for tackling the many challenges that technology presents. Such a shift in discourse, he feels, would limit the influence of those advocating narrow technological solutions to what are essentially non-technological problems—like spreading democracy—and would rob a word like “disruption” of the positive connotation it has acquired as a force for progress, allowing it to be seen instead as a painful example of neoliberal economics. When discussed in purely digital terms, for instance, letting a company like Uber transform a city’s taxi service is a no-brainer. When the digital is integrated into the political, however, this becomes a more complicated debate about regulation and infrastructure and the rights of cab drivers.
Most radically, he’s used the phrase “the internet” exclusively in scare quotes since To Save Everything was published. It’s not that he denies the existence of transformative networked technologies. It’s just that he considers the larger notions of innate goodness and inevitability that “the internet” has been consciously imbued with to be bullshit. “You think about Big Pharma, Big Oil,” he says. “The mere fact that we use the term ‘big’ to talk about them means we’ve figured out that they probably have interests that diverge from those of the public. Nobody uses the term ‘big data’ in that sense.”