A critique of Morozov’s intellectual methodology

Morozov’s criticism seems to me to be neither complex, nor realistic, nor moral. He is anything but a dialectician. He has little respect for anyone whose opinion deviates from his own—surely the first quality required of a real scholar. He maintains a pyrotechnically unfortunate Twitter feed, wherein he will totally yell at and abuse anybody who contradicts him: to my mind that reflects very badly on Morozov, and not at all on his targets. For a person who seemingly wants to be congratulated on his scholarship, you’d think he would adhere to the most basic obligations of scholarship, like paying close attention to the arguments you are attacking, giving your opponent his due, representing his ideas fairly and accurately, listening to his responses and attending to them respectfully, and so on. Ha! Well. This book!—basically, it’s a glorious victory over an army of straw men.

I recently had a discussion with Dale Carrico, who defended Evgeny Morozov, while I personally can`t see the value of these type of straw men polemics, which exaggerate the arguments of opponents in order to bring them more easily down.

This point of view is expressed well, in this piece of Morozov critique by Maria Bustillos :

The book she discusses is: To Save Everything, Click Here.

“Morozov writes:

“… Silicon Valley innovators […] are the same people who are planning to scan all the world’s books and mine asteroids. Ten years ago, both ideas would have seemed completely crazy; today, only one of them does.”

“Ten years ago” would mean 2003. In fact this vision, and the practical work of digitizing the world’s books, began more than thirty years before that: in 1971, with the late Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg (who was in no way a “Silicon Valley innovator,” then or ever): he observed that “the greatest value created by computers would not be computing, but would be the storage, retrieval, and searching of what was stored in our libraries.” By 2003, Project Gutenberg, a free resource for public domain texts, had already digitized and made available over 10,000 books; only a very blinkered observer wouldn’t already have known—for a decade at least—where the project of scanning all the world’s books was headed.

This brought home to me that Morozov does not describe the Internet I know at all. My Internet is not only the Mark Zuckerberg Internet, or the Kleiner Perkins Internet; it’s the Internet of Michael Hart and Brewster Kahle, Aaron Swartz and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Public Library of Science and the new Digital Public Library of America, JSTOR and countless public archives and library and museum sites all over the world. It’s the Internet of preservationists and digital humanitarians, of scholars and intellectuals of all kinds.

So it makes no sense to me at all to hear nihilist talk of how “solutionism” is particularly rooted in the Internet. If the Internet were a world, Morozov blithely ignores whole continents, whole oceans, to make his criticisms of certain aspects of one small province—Silicon Valley—and then extrapolate from them to encompass the rest.

Whatever may be wrong with Silicon Valley startup culture (and I am the first to agree that there is plenty) is not wrong with the whole of the Internet. Nor is there anything stopping anyone with a better idea of how to manage online political activism or recycling or restaurant reviews from trying it out this very minute. That’s the beauty part of the Internet (which, yes, is a thing that exists, despite Morozov’s ludicrous claims to the contrary).

Morozov fails to make a meaningful distinction between the particular frailties of technologists and the regular human kind. Human beings have always had problems; have always attempted to solve them using available means; have sometimes, to some degree, fallen prey to irrational optimism about their chances of success (and prey, as well, to Eeyore-like melancholy and pessimism regarding those same chances).

His reputation as a pugnacious enemy of techno-utopianism nevertheless obliges Morozov to gang all the Internet theorists up and bash them en masse, whether the underlying premise of his assault makes sense or not. The big trouble here is that Morozov often has to distort and/or misread the work of these authors in order to buttress his points. Anyone crazy enough to call attention to favorable aspects of the Internet’s role in our lives can and will be subjected to beatings with the same stick he hauls out for authors of the most far-out views, such as those of Singularity University co-founder Peter Diamandis—who apparently believes that all of humanity’s major problems will be solved via technology within the next twenty-five years or so.

There are a lot of examples of Morozov’s misreading in To Save Everything, but I’ll illustrate with just one from Clay Shirky, the tech critic with whom Morozov seems to have the most particular beef. (Shirky is mentioned sixty-eight times in the book.)

It appears that in 2000, an attorney and food writer named Steven Shaw took to the pages of Commentary to rail at the then-ubiquitous Zagat restaurant guides (which had been compiled, beginning in 1979, through the earlier, mail-order form of crowdsourcing). Shaw detailed the shortcomings of the Zagat system, and scoffed at the very idea that the “top restaurant” chosen by Zagat reviewers in New York for four years running should have been the unpretentious Union Square Cafe, when you could have been going to Lespinasse, Jean Georges or Daniel instead.

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Shirky cited Shaw in order to illustrate the effects of crowdsourced opinion on the professional kind.

Shaw is unwilling to condemn Union Square as a bad restaurant; it’s just not the kind of restaurant people like him prefer, which is to say people who eat in restaurants professionally and are happy to have a little intimidation with their appetizers. […] [But] when we can all now find an aggregate answer to the question “What is your favorite restaurant?” we want that information, and we may even prefer it to judgments produced by professional critics.

Inexplicably, Morozov’s interpretation of this is that Shirky “brims with populist, antiestablishment rage against professional critics and promises that, thanks to ‘the Internet,’ the masses can finally dispense with their highbrow pretensions.” For Morozov, Shirky’s message is that “pre-Internet meant expertise, post-Internet means populism; we are post-Internet, hence, populism.”

Except that I got no such thing from reading Shirky’s original remarks. He poked a little fun at the pretentiousness of fancy restaurant critics, it’s true, but his main point was that if we want to know places where lots of people like to go, well, now we can find out, and the availability of this knowledge necessarily alters the role of professional critics.

So I contacted Shirky directly and asked him: were you saying that Yelp is superior to professional restaurant criticism, or that professional restaurant critics should be done away with? He replied:

Obviously not true. The point is that the conditions in which a professional has to exist have to be relevant to what the public they’re serving is interested in. […] The argument for the professional should be: We can add a kind of value that the aggregate mass of opinion can’t.

Shirky’s message for professional food critics was simply: add value. (And it seems to me that they really have, too, since 2000; to a far greater degree, restaurant critics have become leaders and allies rather than authorities, addressing not a distant public, but a dynamic, engaged group of fellow-travelers.)

All these nuances are lost on Morozov: all he seems to see is, Shirky thinks the Internet always knows best, and he’s always wrong. Neither of those premises is correct.

A number of Morozov’s recent targets have responded with similar attempts at disentanglement; many have added that at bottom, there really isn’t so much disagreement between themselves and their attacker. Farhad Manjoo, addressing Morozov as a colleague, in Slate: “I and pretty much everyone else who thinks or writes about the digital world—both skeptics and boosters—rely on broad terms like “technology,” “the Internet” […] You may be right that such generalizations sometimes obscure rather than illuminate our conversations.” Tim Wu, in The Washington Post: “[…] tech thinkers do have a bad tendency to believe a little magic dust can fix any problem. […] And I tend to agree with Morozov that writers such as Jeff Jarvis […] are entirely too forgiving of firms such as Facebook.”

In a separate (and wearying) 16,000-word piece in The Baffler’s 22nd issue, Morozov took aim at open source software advocate Tim O’Reilly, whom he accuses of being a “meme hustler.” O’Reilly responded in a Google+ post that the piece “[is] well researched and captures many of my ideas, but then twists each of them in order to serve Morozov’s own ends. Truth and untruth are so cleverly mixed […] I suspect Morozov and I agree on many things about the Internet and its effect on society, though you’d never think so from what he’s written.”

(Also: how is Morozov’s peddling of the idea of “solutionism” not itself “meme hustling”?)

Shirky added: “What Evgeny wants is to make certain kinds of conversations harder to have; he doesn’t want to add to the debate so much as to stop it from happening. His MO is essentially to say, there are a bunch of people thinking about the Internet, and here is one of them who is visibly crazy, right? […] and therefore, all of them believe this. That strategy will [be effective] to the degree that he can convince people not to read our work. You wouldn’t know from reading him that I’d put a critique of slacktivism in a book in 2008; you would not know that he and I agree about WikiLeaks. It’s this kind of burning down the house.”

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