He’s devoting his time at Harvard, and several years thereafter, to writing a kind of pre-history of the internet that, he thinks, will uncover the origins of the current intellectual framework we use to make sense of all things digital, tracing the roots of the discourse about “discontinuities” and “revolutions” and showing how this discourse limits our thinking. Take the privacy debate, for example. It’s tempting to think of the data-collection abilities of Facebook, Google—and even the NSA—as purely a consequence of our digital age, and therefore as an inevitable feature of progress to which we must adapt. But Morozov notes the many ways of thinking about privacy that are made invisible by this assumption. Privacy, he wrote in a recent essay, is something democracies have always had to grapple with, and even a “means of achieving a certain ideal of democratic politics, where citizens are trusted to be more than just self-contented suppliers of information to all-seeing and all-optimizing technocrats.”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux is scheduled to publish the pre-history book and, if Morozov’s hyping of it is to be believed, it will be the contribution that Joshua Cohen and others expect from him. And that Morozov expects of himself. Soon after To Save Everything was published, he tweeted: “The right way to think about [the book] is that it’s a grenade thrown to test the waters. In 5 years, I am returning in a tank.”
People apparently didn’t read much into this bombast other than to make fun of his rare slip into mixed metaphor. The “tank” is very much a work in progress, and for now is mostly just Morozov’s familiar hollerin’. Still, the tweet is notable for its insecurity about his previous work, its ambition about what’s to come, and its casting of technology debates in the terms of battle—almost, one might say, as a fight against tyranny.
“He really is a kind of political intellectual without a party,” says John Summers, the editor of The Baffler who published Morozov’s 16,000-word destruction of Tim O’Reilly, noting that there isn’t a clear constituency ready to act on any of the ideas posited in Morozov’s writing. “There’s a history of this in the United States, exactly these kinds of figures, and we don’t have them as much anymore. We have public intellectuals, but we don’t have a lot of political intellectuals, because most people make the early calculation that they’re not going to get very far doing that.”
Morozov, in contrast, seems to have made the early calculation that he would get far, and has fought himself into a position of influence in order to advance an argument about the people and ideas and industries he believes we should trust less. Whether you find this useful depends on what you have at stake. But with Morozov, the audience is always left to sort out where the critique ends and the joke begins. “I’m very conscious of what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m destroying the internet-centric world that has produced me. If I’m truly successful, I should become irrelevant.”