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Evgeny vs. the internet

Evgeny Morozov wants to convince us that digital technology can't save the world, and he's willing to burn every bridge from Cambridge to Silicon Valley to...
January 2, 2014

(Philip Habib)

Depending on whom you ask, Evgeny Morozov is either the most astute, feared, loathed, or useless writer about digital technology working today. Just 29 years old, from an industrial town in Belarus, he appeared as if out of nowhere in the late aughts, amid the conference-goers and problem solvers working to shape our digital futures, a hostile messenger from a faraway land brashly declaring the age of big ideas and interconnected bliss to be, well, bullshit.

To say that Morozov has gone out of his way to irritate powerful and influential people in the tech world doesn’t quite capture it. Doing so is his primary occupation. In the Morozovian worldview, New York University professor and social-media theorist Clay Shirky is a “consultant-cum-intellectual“; Google’s mission is to “monetize all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable”; and Tim O’Reilly, the Silicon Valley publisher and venture capitalist who coined “Web 2.0,” is an Orwellian “meme hustler” and the main culprit behind “the enduring emptiness of our technology debates.” To millions of viewers, TED talks are inspirational speeches about “ideas worth spreading” in science and technology. To Morozov they are a “sinister” hyping of “ideas no footnotes can support.”

Or try this passage. It’s a takedown of a work of technological triumphalism called Hybrid Reality, but it doubles as a summary of his thinking about the entirety of the tech discourse: “[P]erhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths.”

The entire Morozov aesthetic is in this sentence: the venom, the derision, the reverse jujitsu of his opponents’ sanctimony, the bald accusation that all the talk about a new age of human flourishing is nothing but an attempt to vamp the speaker’s consulting business. Tech enthusiasts channel hope. Tech skeptics channel worry. Morozov channels anger, and this can be a very satisfying emotion to anyone unconvinced that everything is getting better. Leon Wieseltier, who has published some of Morozov’s most acid criticism at The New Republic, compares him to the ferocious jazz musician Charles Mingus, who once responded to an interviewer who accused him of “hollerin’ ” by saying, “I feel like hollerin’.” I asked Morozov if he considers his Twitter feed, which spews a constant stream of invective and absurdist satire, to be performative. This was a bit like asking Mingus if he considers jazz performative. “Absolutely,” he said. “I consider it art.”

At some point, though, the hollerin’ ends, everyone’s feelings are hurt, and it’s time to talk about what we’ve learned. Because Morozov isn’t just an “intellectual hit man,” as one writer put it. He wants to be taken seriously, and he has the output to demand it. He’s written two New York Times Notable Books of the year, and his influence is global and growing. He’s published dozens of essays in some of the world’s most prestigious publications, and his monthly column, besides appearing in Slate, is translated for leading newspapers in Germany, Spain, Italy, China, and several other countries. In Morozov’s estimation, if Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt pays attention to him at all it’s not because he can publish an op-ed in The New York Times, but because he can publish an op-ed across Europe.

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Many of Morozov’s opponents dismiss him as a spoiled child, someone who sits in the corner refusing, as Tim O’Reilly once said, to be “useful,” shouting insults at the adults as they roll up their sleeves and solve the world’s problems. Reviewing Morozov’s second book in The Washington Post, Columbia law professor Tim Wu spoke of Morozov’s “promise” as a thinker before lamenting, “One suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.” Morozov faces similar criticism even among his supporters. He once defended his style by saying, “We’ve got too many priests and not enough jesters,” an explanation Joshua Cohen, the Stanford professor who brought Morozov to Palo Alto on a fellowship and published some of his earliest long-form work in Boston Review, told me is “bullshit. There’s a vast open field between priests and jesters.”

Morozov insists that his refusal to be useful is its own kind of usefulness–and even, as he recently wrote in one of his essays for German newspapers, an intellectual duty. Traditionally, this is an uncontroversial definition of the role of the critic in intellectual life. But not in the relentlessly sunny realm of the tech gurus, where such obstinance must be baffling, even perverse. The current discourse around digital technology is more nuanced than the caricature Morozov often presents, but its defining idea is that we are living through a benevolent revolution, and that we’re all united by good intentions as we search for new models for our economy and our lives. In this culture of mutual validation, Morozov’s targets are the makers, the innovators, and the disruptors–the people doing, as frequent Morozov punching bag Jeff Jarvis put it, “God’s work.”

Morozov is a heretic in this world. Whether he’s a heretic worth listening to is an open question, despite the fact that many of the most influential shapers of our digital lives have already concluded he is not.

Talking nonsense

Engaging with Morozov, in person and on the page, produces a kind of culture shock. The most benignly progressive ideas can, in Morozov’s hands, become gloomy and confounding–for instance, he believes that people trying to lose weight with fitness-tracking apps are setting a dangerous precedent that could foster abusive practices by health insurers. There are many aspects of his biography and personality that don’t add up in a way that an outside observer would find coherent or justifiable, or even meaningful. Neither technophile nor technophobe, he’s frequently described as “Silicon Valley’s fiercest critic.” But like the rest of us, he checks his late-model iPhone during pauses in conversation. He cultivates a strident and confident public persona, but, in August 2012, made the humble decision to subject himself to a history of science PhD program and is now working toward his general examination at Harvard. Both in conversation and in his writing, he shifts freely between serious argument and absurdist jokes; it’s a point of pride that his audience must sort out the difference. When talking about his professional ambitions, for instance, he says: “It might be that in five years I’ll realize that what I need to be doing is running a revolutionary high school somewhere in Denmark. I don’t entirely exclude that possibility.”

He’s decidedly not American, but doesn’t identify as a Belarusian, either. He doesn’t even like visiting Belarus, and of all the reasons he might use to justify that attitude, the one he chooses to relate is that he is far too picky about his diet. (He recently lost nearly 100 pounds by working out on a rowing machine in his apartment while watching European art-house cinema.) He says with a smirk that he likes his coffee made just so, and that he needs to eat sushi at least once a week. He hates Palo Alto (“a horrible place”) but loves Stanford’s Green Library so much that, in an ideal world, he would spend winters in Palo Alto and summers in Berlin. When writing or reading about matters digital, he stashes his phone and router cable in a time-locked safe to prevent distractions. When he was mocked online about this he responded: “Believe me, I’ve gone through all the necessary literature in moral philosophy and I still don’t see a problem.”

Morozov’s friend Leonard Benardo, who directs the fellowship program at the Open Society Foundations, offered this advice when I interviewed him: “If a musician were to apply a time signature to Morozov, it wouldn’t be 4/4, it would be some crazy 11/5 time signature, sort of Steely Dan meets Stockhausen. Imputing rationality to someone who works at that time signature is a bit of a fool’s errand.”

Growing up in the potassium-mining town of Soligorsk, where half the city’s population works for the government-owned mine, Morozov says he made the calculation at age 6 or 7 that he would have to work his way to a life abroad. When he was an adolescent, his parents, who both worked in professional positions at the mine until they retired, hired a friend of the family to tutor Morozov in English. In addition to working with her daily for five years, he practiced several hours a day on his own, essentially devoting the period of his life from ages 12 to 17 to preparing for the SAT. His reward was a full scholarship from the Open Society Foundations to attend American University in Bulgaria, where he joined a collection of strivers from throughout the former Soviet bloc. The default major for that crowd was either business administration or economics, so Morozov double majored just to be safe. “These were hungry students, and Evgeny was certainly one of the more hungry, ” says Aernout van Lynden, who began teaching at the university after 23 years as a war correspondent in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Morozov met van Lynden when he asked the professor for help finding funds to attend a conference, and van Lynden offered to cover the cost himself. After that, Morozov audited several of van Lynden’s journalism courses, hoping to improve his writing, and became fatefully immersed in the world of criticism when, at van Lynden’s suggestion, he started reading The New York Review of Books. One can sense in Morozov’s attraction to van Lynden a desire to model himself on courageous figures, and, in fact, he dedicated his first book to his professor, saying that he “showed me what courage and decency look like.” It also is clear that van Lynden represented a new and important presence in Morozov’s life. In the acknowledgments of that same book, Morozov thanks his family this way: “Despite the fact that they don’t fully grasp what it is that I do, my family back in Belarus have all been very supportive of my intellectual quest.”

In summer 2004, Morozov underwent a quintessentially Morozovian life transition–that is to say, he encountered something he thought was “crap” and made a vigorous effort to escape it. In this case, he spent what he calls “the 10 worst weeks of my life” as an intern for J.P. Morgan in England, something considered the height of achievement by most of his peers at university. To Morozov, though, it was confirmation that he had no future in finance. He finished his degree anyway, then, unsure what new direction his life might take, made his way to a non-degree liberal arts program in Berlin.

Morozov read widely on international affairs, and during this period he encountered the excitement that was growing in America about blogs as a political tool. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, in particular, had brought ideas about online organizing and fundraising into the mainstream. Meanwhile, the role of new media in politics was playing out in a much messier and less well-documented way in pro-democratic uprisings across Eastern Europe–the so-called Color Revolutions. According to news reports, new tools such as text messaging, blogs, and even video games had played an important and poorly understood role in this new strain of democratic movement. Morozov started to connect the dots between the American blogosphere and events on the ground in his home region. “Howard Dean lost, but in Eastern Europe you had regimes overthrown,” Morozov says. “Milosevic was headed to the Hague, Shevardnadze was overthrown in Georgia, Yushchenko was coming to power in Ukraine. You could actually see that things might change.”

He began writing about the political situation in Belarus for Transitions, a Prague-based NGO that encouraged the adoption of new media by independent journalists in the former Soviet bloc. In 2006, Transitions hired Morozov as its first director of new media, a job that had him traveling widely–at age 22–to train journalists and bloggers throughout Eastern Europe.

“Thinking that you are living through a revolution and hold the key to how it will unfold is, I confess, rather intoxicating,” Morozov would later write. Much of his work from this period is preserved, and it’s fascinating to watch a YouTube video from 2007 that shows a chubby kid holding forth in a thick accent about how digital media might transform the sclerotic and indecent politics of his region. Asked by a peppy interviewer what he sees as the “most innovative” development of recent years, the young Evgeny rattles off a list of possibilities that makes him sound a lot like the “cyber-utopians” he would soon make a career out of skewering. “Definitely crowdsourcing,” he says. “Definitely applying the logic of the open-source software movement to broader ideas, to broader processes.” Another video from the same conference shows him giving a buzzword-filled presentation called “Putting Community at the Core of Innovation in New Media.”

Here’s Morozov today, talking about the guy in that video: “I was 23 and in a room with people in their 40s and 50s, all of them editors and journalists, and I was talking some nonsense and they were all buying it. The degree to which both sides were unaware of just how stupid the entire setup was just makes you very scared.”

A critic evolves

Morozov obsessively, compulsively, sees the flaws in everything, including his own work. This trait has led him to burn numerous bridges with former allies, most notably with Ethan Zuckerman, who now directs the Center for Civic Media at MIT. An advocate of the Web’s ability to connect a global citizenry, Zuckerman brought Morozov to the board of the Open Society Foundations’ Information Program in 2008, an important step in Morozov’s rise that eventually helped him land a fellowship in New York. Two years later, Morozov began slamming Zuckerman publicly for, among other things, taking research money from the State Department, and the two haven’t spoken since 2011. Zuckerman declined to be interviewed for this piece. “I’ve alienated so many people that whatever conference invitation I get I look who’s there and say, ‘No, I don’t want to be there,’ ” Morozov says. “It gets awkward for me. It gets awkward for them. So screw it. It saves me a lot of time for reading and writing.”

By mid-2008, Morozov had grown frustrated with his work at Transitions. Many of the projects, he says, “didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to turn out. I also saw that, in places where they worked, the governments were far more sophisticated than we thought. They were engaging in new types of surveillance. They were hiring bloggers. There was nothing about this set of tools that magically made them beneficial only to one side.”

His sense of failure in these high-stakes battles is not enough, by itself, to explain Morozov’s next transformation–into a world-famous technology skeptic. When he started at Transitions, he and his colleagues had to work hard to convince wary funders that new-media training was a prudent investment in countries with low online connectivity and long histories of crushing dissent. Eventually, though, the narrative shifted, and a range of powerful players–from the media to the State Department–were suddenly touting these digital strategies as the world’s best hope for building democracy. Morozov found himself, really for the first time, outside the intellectual mainstream–a place where he would feel increasingly at home.

Jeremy Druker, Morozov’s boss at Transitions, describes it this way: “I think in many ways what Evgeny has become is a response, not to those early wonder years when we were all confused but enthusiastic about figuring out what could be done, but to everyone getting on the bandwagon and it becoming a real fad.”

This “fad” is extensively documented (and derided) in Morozov’s first book, The Net Delusion, which was published in January 2011. In it he calls the idea that technology is the key ingredient to the promotion of democracy “cyber-utopianism,” and shows just how thoroughly this idea has pervaded both the public and political consciousness.

As Morozov watched the cyber-utopian fad grow, his distrust of it began to harden into a cyber-pessimism that could at times be just as dogmatic. After leaving Transitions, Morozov eventually ended up as a fellow at OSF (a funder of Transitions), which brought him to New York in August 2008. The following year Morozov gave–wait for it–a TED talk in Oxford called, “How the Net Aids Dictatorships.” This was sort of a coming-out party for Evgeny the skeptic, and an important step in turning that skepticism into a brand. It’s another video worth watching and quite a contrast to his enthusing about crowdsourcing just two years before. In the video, he stands in the middle of the stage wearing a wrinkled blue shirt open at the neck. There is a humble, self-effacing air about him, as if he barely expects to be listened to. His only gesture is to move his hands up and down, often in unison, as he emphasizes his points about how all the digital tools and ideas the audience is so excited about are enabling surveillance and targeting of dissidents by thugs and autocrats worldwide.

“Evgeny becomes attached to particular ideas that he believes, for the good of the thinking public, need to be debunked,” says OSF’s Benardo. He compares Morozov to social critics like Karl Kraus and Dwight MacDonald, professional buzzkills who “felt almost divinely anointed” in their efforts to tear down false hopes and received wisdom.

When his OSF fellowship ended in 2009, Morozov began another one at Georgetown University, where his innate critical temperament once again homed in on his own work. He says at Georgetown he was frequently the “internet guy” in a room full of foreign-policy experts. “People didn’t want my take on the future of the Middle East; they wanted my take on the future of the internet in the Middle East,” he says. “It’s a bizarre way to compartmentalize the issues.”

Morozov wasn’t an expert on the Middle East. And he now realized that his usefulness as an “internet expert” (or, as the business-administration major was dubbed in his TED bio, an “internet scientist”) depended entirely on the largely unexamined assumption that new media had a coherent and predictable effect on each country (or industry) it touched–and that he and the rest of the “internet scientists” understood these effects and the internal logic that produced them. It was an assumption he had begun to seriously doubt. Without this assumed coherence, neither he nor any other internet expert could be much use to the Middle East analysts or anyone else.

It’s worth noting that the assumption of a coherent and benevolent internet is much more pervasive than just a conviction among policy and tech elites who stand to benefit from the idea. The belief that technology can solve some of our thorniest problems taps into deep-rooted American notions about the nature of progress and national destiny–notions that Morozov himself had helped to export during the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. Morozov’s anxiety about his role as an “internet expert” made him less interested in arguing about whether Twitter benefits autocrats more than revolutionaries, and more interested in parsing the cultural zeitgeist that, for instance, led Ronald Reagan to say in 1989 that, “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Morozov’s work as a skeptic attacked the surface of this phenomenon, but he wanted to attack the core–the way we think and talk about technology. He wasn’t immediately sure how to do it.

When his fellowship at Georgetown ended, Joshua Cohen offered Morozov a fellowship at Stanford. He spent his time in Palo Alto trying to find a new intellectual footing. “Throughout most of 2011 and possibly early 2012, I had no idea what to do intellectually,” Morozov says. “It was becoming clear to me that I could no longer just go on making proclamations about the internet. But it wasn’t clear to me what other possible framework could take its place. I didn’t have enough theoretical background to figure out what to do.”

Published simultaneously with the onset of the Arab Spring, Net Delusion pushed an intellectually confused 26-year-old into the international spotlight. Yet this is when Morozov wrote some of his most pungent work. Rather than give rise to ambivalence, as one might expect, the doubts Morozov had about his own qualifications made him more determined to question the expertise of others.

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.”

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.” 

Michael Canyon Meyer is a freelance journalist and former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.