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Morozov, Lanier, and others consider the future of the Internet

At a tech conference in Lake Tahoe three years ago, Eric Schmidt gave a talk that included a startling statistic. Schmidt—who was then CEO of Google, so we took his word for it—announced that every two days, we create as much digital content as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. By “we,” of course, he meant those of us who are connected to the Internet: about two billion of the world’s seven billion people. And by “create content,” he meant “upload data.” Lots and lots of data. Five billion gigabytes of data, every two days.

A not insignificant amount of that “content” is created by debates about what this constant hyper-connectivity is doing to our brains, our bodies, our children, our relationships, and our sense of ourselves in the natural world. These debates are led by an increasingly entrenched class of cyberpundits eager to help clarify and contextualize our everyday digital acts. Technology advances so rapidly, and then gets folded into our daily lives so effortlessly, that it can feel like a force of nature, or a political movement—one that we can join, or avoid, but not one that we could control. The pundits want to convince us that we are indeed in the driver’s seat—and then steer us toward their own particular visions for the digital future.

Lately, the discussion has focused more directly on the data itself—those five billion gigabytes of “likes” and retweets being created every single day. Every time we search on Google or Amazon, or talk on Twitter or Facebook, that information is recorded somewhere: where does it go, and to whom does it belong? Could we use it for a higher good? Could it mean the end of privacy? Could it mean the end of death? What’s coming next? What should come next? A veritable data-dump of new books, by a representative sample of cyberpundits, attempt to answer these questions and more.

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One of the breeziest reads among the books is California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, written with the help of Lisa Dickey. In it, Newsom laments that, at a time when people are more engaged with each other (online) than ever before, voter turnout has never been lower. Trust in government is down, and, while elected leaders say they know what their constituents want, they’re only guessing. No surprise there, says Newsom. Most politicians only use online tools to connect with the little guy when they’re campaigning for his vote. Web 2.0 is exponentially improving Americans’ daily lives, Newsom writes, but government is stuck in 1.0 mode: “Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge—of 1973.” Burn!

Newsom’s solution, in a few keywords: transparency, data, creativity, innovation, and gamification. Clay Shirky’s term “cognitive surplus” is evoked a lot in this book. So are a pastiche of insights on Web 2.0 from the likes of Web publishing magnate Arianna Huffington, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, and apparent paparazzi expert George Clooney. So are frequent reminders of how Newsom himself has already encouraged innovation, first as mayor of San Francisco and now as lieutenant governor of California. (“And whatever might come next” is left unsaid.)

In general, Newsom frames his technological solutions as easy, fun, and unreservedly benign, which makes him a very likable but lightweight cyberpundit indeed. But of course, Newsom is likely not vying for expert status, or a lucrative consulting gig—he merely wants to borrow some ideas from the tech industry and overlay them onto the civil-service world, and give his public image a tech-savvy sheen in the process.

He takes the title Citizenville from the inane and addictive online game “Farmville”—Newsom hopes that people will participate more if they are given gamelike incentives to do so. (One of the book’s chapters is titled “Angry Birds for Democracy.”) Maybe civic-minded developers would build crime-mapping apps for free as part of a programming contest. Maybe citizens would report potholes if they were given online currency to be traded in at local businesses. Maybe government staffers could participate in some kind of Yelp-like scoreboard. “If the Bronx’s DMV comes from behind to overtake Brooklyn for the highest ratings, do you think that will get Brooklyn’s competitive juices flowing?” Newsom asks, answering, “I certainly do.” Anyone who has been to the Brooklyn DMV might disagree.

Citizenville illuminates some of the problems with big-idea Internet books as a genre. It can sometimes take up to three years from start to finish to publish a book, but digital technology moves at the speed of fiber optics. So books about the Internet have to try to be broad and idea-based enough to remain relevant, while using enough specific examples to remain true. Newsom’s book fails to strike the proper balance, as many of his examples of innovation—Farmville among them—are old news by now.

What’s more, Newsom’s lessons about transparency and gamification may make sense in a city like San Francisco, but it’s unclear how well they scale to other towns, where there are presumably fewer Foursquare-addicts and underemployed programmers. Newsom, like many cyberoptimists, seems to believe that if an idea is successful in one place at one time, it will succeed in all places at all times. I’m not sure whether this is a function of disingenuousness, or of naïveté. But I wish he’d consider that the best of all possible digital worlds isn’t as inevitable as he tends to think.

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Then again, unchecked pessimism about technology’s potential can prove just as problematic as blind optimism. Evgeny Morozov derides gamification, as he derides many, many other ideas and their cheerleaders, in his ruthless new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. He defines solutionism as “an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions…to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.”

For Morozov, the gamification of civic engagement is a prime example of what he sees as a dangerous pattern in tech, because it emphasizes “fun” while forgoing serious consideration of long-term consequences. He asserts that, if governments encourage citizens to focus more on their self-interest than their sense of duty, it will eventually narrow people’s conception of the common good, and can even make them less likely to do other societally necessary things in the absence of incentives.

The “Quantified Self” movement also takes a beating here; Morozov calls its adherents “datasexuals” and says they are promoting a narcissistic trend that will ultimately undermine the privacy of everyone—even those of us who don’t yet tweet our sleep cycles. Technology shapes character, Morozov argues, and before it hurts us all, we must collectively unlearn the habit of solutionism—“by transcending the limits it imposes on our imaginations and by rebelling against its value system.”

Morozov seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011 with his widely discussed debut The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. The book introduced the mainstream to the term “cyberutopians”—those Silicon Valley enthusiasts who synonymize technology with progress, and the Web with democracy. Morozov showed how Internet tools are used by authoritarian regimes to actually impinge on civil liberties just as often as they are used by freedom-seeking revolutionaries. The Net Delusion was a welcome response to the months of punditry and intellectual oversimplification surrounding the Arab Spring of the year before.

This time around, his adversaries are much more abstract. “I don’t have the luxury of tackling a clear-cut issue in the current book…gone is the moral simplicity of fighting authoritarianism,” Morozov writes in his postscript. “In this book, what’s truly wicked are not the problems—those may not even exist—but the solutions proposed to address them.”

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.

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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).

Why not just opt out? Lanier’s argument, like Morozov’s, is that you just can’t. Take Facebook, for example: there is a certain “social immobility” to the whole experience, in that, once you’re in, you’re all in. Lanier writes:

Once a critical mass of conversation is on Facebook, then it’s hard to get a conversation going elsewhere…. It’s no longer commerce, but soft blackmail. And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be demonetized online, which meant that services about information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers.

So what’s the alternative? Lanier proposes an entirely new online economy, one that has its roots in pre-World-Wide-Web thinking about the Internet. The Web now works on a single-link language, HTML: any website can link to any other, in one direction. But before Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML, Ted Nelson conceived of Project Xanadu, a hypothetical digital network with two-way linking: in this system, every node contains information about both what it links out to, and what other nodes link to it.

This, says Lanier, would be the key to a better online economy. “If the system remembers where information originally came from, then the people who are the sources of information can be paid for it.” So, for instance, every time your YouTube video was cut up into a political ad, or every time your Facebook activity was somehow used in an ad scheme that made someone money, or every time Google analyzed a translation you wrote in order to improve its Google Translate tool, you’d know about it, and you’d get a micropayment.

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.”

Unlike Morozov or Lanier, Schmidt and Cohen deal with the details of how digital technology will likely alter political and economic relationships, rather than presenting abstract philosophies about it. Both types of books are exciting to read, but because Schmidt and Cohen focus so much on the potential problems ahead, theirs feels more grounded in reality. And unlike Newsom, it doesn’t feel like Schmidt and Cohen are trying to use their book to present themselves as thought leaders or to burnish their public image.

Then again, because of their positions at Google, they already are de facto leaders in the industry. They don’t need to sell themselves or their ideas—the world has already bought in. So why did they write this book, and why is it so good? While this book isn’t a commercial for Google, it is true that many of the ideas they discuss in this book—namely the importance of more powerful encryption tools overseas, especially to news organizations, and the incredible role that real-time translation software will play in reshaping how people do business across the world—will most likely be ideas that Google will lead the way on, and therefore profit from.

It could be that the book itself—like Gmail, like YouTube—is yet another “Siren Server,” an exciting consumer product that eventually benefits Google, the friendly behemoth that will one day own all of our personal information and get rich off of every part of our daily lives. I can no longer enjoy anything related to digital technology without being suspicious of ulterior motives and considering all of the long-term implications. I can blame, and thank, the cyberpundits for that.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner