Evgeny Morozov’s intellectual assaults on “cyber utopianism” and “internet centrism” are well known — if often dismissed by the tech elite. I have been reading his new book To Save Everything, Click Here which so far is a pretty good exercise in skepticism and contrarianism. Yet it is in his most recent New Yorker essay on the maker movement that you see his core position. Some pertinent quotes:
Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.
Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”
Our 21st century civilation is “standing on the shoulders of giants” in terms of the foundational layers of both institutions (eg. centralized government, rule of law, transparency) and infrastructure (eg. electrical and shipping grids, lines of communication, engineering standards etc.). Politics is based on institutions while “the Internet” (to use EM’s scare quotes) is infrastructure — yet many of the internet-centrists treat it like an institution. I think this disconnect lies at the core of Morozov’s criticism, and thus he argues that we look past the technology when advocating for political change.
The issue then becomes when technological advances impact political institutions. For example: centralized “Web 2.0” services enable bulk surveillance and threaten personal privacy. Is the solution technical or political? I think EM’s approach would be to ignore the technology and focus on the underlying problem. For example: strengthening privacy protections to account for the case of “bulk”, without tying it to any specific technology. This “politics first” approach frames social problems in a manner that technologists are unused to. We tend towards technological solutions to every problem.
(NOTE: Personally I think we should not solely depend on political solutions and should complement them with technological protections, with the goal of maximizing liberty. But I am not a libertarian.)