On Snarkiness: Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here

The title of Evgeny Morozov’s new book, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, comes as no surprise to those of us who have read his book reviews, op-eds, and first book. Morozov has cultivated an important position in the grand debate about the place that Internet-based technologies have or, rather, ought to have in our lives today. He has distinguished himself above all as an equal opportunity take-down artist, unafraid to criticize the biggest names in Silicon Valley, punditry, and academia for their overdetermined claims about the meaning of the Internet.

As the title of his recent book suggests, Morozov believes that contemporary “Internet-centric” thinking clouds our judgment and ability to make choices for ourselves.  He argues that the social value of recent technological innovations is far more contingent than the breathless claims of pundits like Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky suggest. Technologists, journalists, scholars, and users, he argues, should treat every new product launch or beta release from Apple or Samsung or Facebook with the same healthy dose of skepticism that they reserve for everything else.

In short, To Save Everything methodically catalogs and then meticulously shoots down the fanfare associated with the marketing, reporting, and scholarship about technological innovation today. This is a formula that has served Morozov well for the past several years, and keeps readers coming back for more. The question is whether the critiques do anything more than temporarily rescue us from the mindless gushing about things like Google Glass, only for us to revert to our old ways after watching another carefully choreographed demonstration. And I’m afraid the answer is: no.

In To Save Everything, Morozov advises technologists and users to be unafraid of critiquing and making moral judgments about new technologies. He is especially critical of technology journalists who, he argues, are nothing more than “trend spotting stenographers” for research and development offices in Silicon Valley. He argues that, while social networking applications like FourSquare or crowdsourced platforms like Wikipedia are powerful, they do not determine outcomes and are not the agents of change. As with everything from smart trash cans that fine you when you don’t recycle to FitBit devices that monitor your body while you exercise or sleep, technologists and users, he argues, must “learn how to engage in narrow, empirically grounded arguments” about individual technologies, and not pretend that these artifacts reveal anything necessarily grand, auspicious, or inevitable about who we are or how we live our lives.

It’s for this reason that I’m grateful for Morozov’s critique. He provides a healthy dose of good old fashioned secular humanism in an area that so eagerly seems to need it.

Yet, I nevertheless left To Save Everything wondering why I kept reading, since most of Morozov’s arguments here are restatements of things he and others (I’m thinking in particular of Jaron Lanier) have said elsewhere. Nor does he propose any substantive reforms. After all, the book purports to be about ideology, not policy or design per se. In this way, Morozov seems to be channeling the Frankfurt School more than Lawrence Lessig or Tim Wu (both of whom he criticizes). And, accordingly, he releases himself from doing anything other than changing your mind.

Of course, Morozov is not obliged to do anything more than that. Changing minds is hard enough. Then again, trade books in this subject area with titles like these are not supposed to do much more than incite us to buy them, never mind think. (Alas, Morozov also does not have to abide by the expectations in legal scholarship to have some normative or substantive policy prescription.)

Finally, the nature of Morozov’s critique is not particularly original. I’m thinking here in particular of Siva Vaidyanathan. (I, too, have argued for more humility in our debates and laws regarding the networked information economy.) Indeed, the printing press, electricity, telephony, and broadcasting all had their uncritical boosters and nearly religious devotees. Just consider the title of Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom (1983) or David Sarnoff’s claim in the 1920s that the Civil War could have been averted if radio broadcasting existed at the time. While Morozov means to hone in on the contemporary tendency towards Internet-centrism, I think it would have been extremely fruitful to analyze the commonalities between triumphalist claims about new technologies through history. Morozov does briefly engage this point, but only in the context of his criticism of Shirky and Jarvis’s very loose analogies to the printing press. We all might gain useful insights from scholarship in science and technology studies on this very point.

While I could never know for sure, and despite his claims to the contrary, I am not convinced that Morozov is mainly out to change hearts and minds, particularly in light of To Save Everything’s snarkiness. Of course, many bloggers these days traffic in the same smug and haughty tone as a matter of course, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the officious “he-said-she-said” balancing that is characteristic of mainstream journalism and academic writing (and blogs like this one). It would be a bonus, I suppose, if, through the book, Morozov could incite his audience to banish Internet-centrism from their minds once and for all. But I’m not sure snarkiness is the most effective way of doing that. Then again, I wouldn’t know.

In the end, these considerations probably matter little to Morozov, particularly if this brand of swag keeps him and his perspective in circulation. The real question, however, is where to go from here.

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