Lanier’s central argument would have been strengthened, though, if he had spent more time and attention on financial institutions and intelligence agencies, which he really only briefly mentions. When those behemoths track our preferences and purchases, we really don’t get anything in exchange. At least Google and Facebook give us free services while they’re manipulating us.
Another slight weakness is that almost all of Lanier’s argument consists of why this new “humanistic online economy” is such a good idea, rather than how it would actually work. Lanier focuses more on philosophy than pragmatics, which may frustrate some readers. Still, it is refreshing to have a brilliant technological mind working on the users’ behalf for once. And it’s good to see a tech innovator thinking seriously and creatively about what technology can do—and what it can’t.
Lanier, unlike Morozov, is more excited about building up new ways of thinking about technology than categorically tearing down other peoples’ ideas and arguments. But one area of common ground between the two is their shared disgust with what they both see as Silicon Valley’s self-obsessed, small-minded utopians too drunk on the power of “disruption” (previously: “transformation”) to acknowledge the inherent limitations of technology.
Some of the most insightful passages in Lanier’s book explain how themes of “self-actualization” borrowed from eastern religions have combined with Silicon Valley’s tech bubble to build a faith in technology as the means to ultimate self-expression and self-perfection: “Going about my day,” he writes, “there is nothing unusual at all about running into a friend at the coffee shop who is a for-real, serious scientist working on making people immortal.”
“Cyber-Panglossian fallacies rule Silicon Valley conversations,” writes Lanier. “Dreamlands of abstractions are a dime a dozen these days; what works in Palo Alto is assumed to work in Penang,” writes Morozov. Not having spent much time in Palo Alto myself, I may have been inclined to believe these generalizations, had I not just read Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.
When Cohen was a young staffer at the State Department, he was criticized by Morozov and others for displaying a naiveté about the role of Twitter in revolutions in the Middle East. For his part, Schmidt’s frequent soundbites, as they are scornfully quoted throughout Morozov’s book, make him sound like kind of a Google-eyed goof. So, full disclosure, I did not expect to like this book. Just as Gavin Newsom’s book was a commercial for Gavin Newsom, I suspected this would be a commercial for Google—where Eric Schmidt is now executive chairman and Cohen now directs Google Ideas. Instead, it is a rigorously researched, neutral, and clear-headed exercise in political science, one in which Google is rarely mentioned.
The book grew out of an essay Schmidt and Cohen wrote together for Foreign Affairs in late 2010. The context in which their collaboration began is rather telling: They met in 2009, in Baghdad, “engaging with Iraqis around the critical question of how technology can be used to help rebuild a society.” (Schmidt also raised eyebrows with visits to North Korea and Myanmar earlier this year.) They say they were surprised to see mobile devices everywhere in Baghdad, even while most people had limited access to electricity, food, and drinking water.
Fittingly, their project here focuses less on the two billion of us who are already online, and more on anticipating the other five billion people across the world who will be coming online in the near future. For those newcomers, both the promise and perils of technology are much greater than they are for us—which in turn makes it all the more vital that companies, governments, and everyone else stop and think now about how to help mitigate the negative effects of that transition. Of the five billion newcomers, Schmidt and Cohen write:
They’ll receive the greatest benefits from connectivity but also face the worst drawbacks of the digital age. It is this population that will drive the revolutions and challenge the police states, and they’ll also be the people tracked by their governments, harassed by online hate mobs and disoriented by marketing wars.
What makes this book so thorough is the authors’ insistence on showing the negative aspects of every technological innovation alongside the positive ones. “Technology is an equal-opportunity enabler,” they write: It empowers diplomats and terrorists alike. Stuxnet was the first major cyberattack to do real damage in the physical world, but not the last. Political revolutions will be easier to start, but riskier, and harder to finish successfully. “To summarize,” Schmidt and Cohen write, “States will long for the days when they only had to think about foreign and domestic policies in the physical world.”