Morozov is correct that the answers to life’s questions are never as tidy as a TED talk. But I wonder if he’s being honest about who the enemy is here. Can he possibly sustain 358 pages of rancor against the very idea of technology-based problem solving? Or is this really just about all the people who won’t shut up about it? He’s got quite the hit list: Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Jonathan Zittrain, obviously; Steven Johnson, Steven Levy, Kevin Kelly, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu, Peter Diamandis, Parag Khanna, Daniel Boorstin, Wael Ghonim, both McGonigal sisters, Khan University, The Sunlight Foundation, and most tech reporters. All are repeatedly called out; none are spared from his contempt. Also note Morozov’s Twitter bio: “There are idiots. Look around.” Scorched-earth tactics tend to destroy the good wood with the bad; in the end, all that remains are those intellectual parasites who wear their bad ideas like a hard shell, impervious to criticism.
He’s right, of course, that there are hucksters and gurus everywhere. Many of them, in fact, are fond of writing Internet books and launching subsequent speaking tours. Some of them can’t seem to debate their positions without shutting down the conversation by declaring that their interlocutors “just don’t understand how the Internet works.” Morozov vents:
The Internet, thus, is believed to possess an inherent nature, a logic, a teleology, and that nature is rapidly unfolding in front of us. We can just stand back and watch; ‘The Internet’ will take care of itself—and us. If your privacy disappears in the process, this is simply what the Internet gods wanted all along.
Agreed. If anyone tries to sell you this version of the Internet, then you shouldn’t buy what they’re selling, whether they’re selling a product or selling themselves. The Internet is not an autonomous force; it is run by people, according to business practices and policies that we can change if we want to. To make these changes, though, we all have to understand what’s at stake, and what our options are. All options are still open—all except slowing down, or turning back.
Of all the people imagining what could come next, perhaps the most radical thinker is Jaron Lanier, who now follows up 2010’s You Are Not a Gadget with Who Owns the Future? In it, he proposes a new way to think about our personal data: as currency. He doesn’t mean this figuratively. Lanier thinks that it’s time for us finally be compensated, in real dollars and cents, for all of the data we contribute to make services like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook function. The data-rich elite at the top make money off of us on the bottom; why shouldn’t the transaction go both ways?
Lanier got his start as a Silicon Valley wunderkind himself, pioneering research in video games and Virtual Reality from the 1980s on. So he comes at his tech-skepticism honestly. In this book, Lanier describes his bafflement at seeing what his colleagues from the old days have done with their unique skillsets. “Hacker culture” was obsessed with personal liberty, he writes, but some of his old friends “eventually became very rich building giant cross-referenced dossiers on masses of people, which were put to use by financiers, advertisers, insurers, or other concerns nurturing fantasies of operating the world by remote control.”
Lanier coins the term “Siren Servers” to describe networks that lure us in with free services or low prices while siphoning off valuable personal information. Everything we do on Facebook becomes fodder for advertisers. Every time someone sells a book online, anywhere in the world, Amazon finds that price and undersells it. Siren servers collect and analyze all of our information, and whatever conclusions or connections are made as a result are declared “proprietary.” Lanier argues that this imbalance of power has repercussions both economic (by disempowering the middle class) and political (by handing elections to whichever side has the most data and the fastest computers).