Saturday, May 03, 2014

Evgeny Morozov: To Save Everything, Click Here

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Evgeny Morozov is one of those guys who has a lot of great ideas but doesn't know when to stop preaching and start teaching. I made it through about 50 pages and had to stop. Where Rebecca MacKinnon convincingly argues that the Internet is a vital part of activism that, while not the impetus for changing the world, is a Very Important Tool, Morozov could convincingly argue we put too much faith in what he calls "the Internet." I agree with him that we do: just like MacKinnon, I don't think a computer or the wires between two (bajillion) computers are really going to fix everything, and I think that some people have fallen into the tech trap. (In Oakland right now, there's a mayoral candidate who has argued that Bitcoin will help Oaklanders out of poverty...) Here's what Morozov says about why he calls it "the Internet":
The physical infrastructure we know as "the Internet" bears very little resemblance to the mythical "Internet"- the one that reportedly brought down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt and is supposedly destroying our brains- that lies at the center of our public debates. The infrastructure and design of this network of networks do play a certain role in sanctioning many of these myths- for example, the idea that "the Internet" is resistant to censorship comes from the unique qualities of its packet-switching communication mechanism- but "the Internet" that is the bane of public debates also contains many other stories and narratives- about innovation, surveillance, capitalism- that have little to do with the infrastructure per se.

He compares "the Internet" to Louis Pasteur, the historical figure, to "Pasteur" who we all think of as the guy who invented hygiene. Pasture didn't invent hygiene. The Internet didn't invent activism and isn't going to fix the world. Morozov isn't just railing against "the Internet," he's railing against technological solutionism: a philosophy where every problem has a solution. The problem is bigger than that, though, as Morozov sees it. Not all of the problems that techies want to solve are actually problems. And some problems that DO need solving are overlooked because they don't have quick technological fixes. Some of his examples are cooking- there's some really technologies out there to "help" people cook in a clean, neat way that allow people to make things exactly right. But is that really what cooking is about? And what are the hidden side effects? Well, the technologies are tracking everything. I'm guilty of things like this: I've been having groceries delivered (not one of Morozov's examples). A solution for lazy ass people like me who hate grocery shopping- have people do it for you, for a fee! Well, was shopping really a problem? It was, a first world problem. And now the company knows what I'm eating and a whole class of contract laborers are doing something I consider as "dirty work." And a whole bunch of smart people have put a lot of time and labor into solving this "problem" instead of real food related problems. And I'm having food shoppers go to Safeway instead of picking up the same things at a farmer's market. You get the point, right? This is part of Morozov's point.

The problem is, I couldn't read it. Because after the first 50 pages I was *really tired of being told this from a soapbox. I wanted to hear it in a measured, academic tone, or maybe with some proof, or maybe just like I wasn't defensive. Good food for thought, bad book.