In debates surrounding the internet there tends to be a false polarisation between so-called “optimists” and “pessimists”. Evgeny Morozov’s first book, The Net Delusion, earned him a reputation for being a “techno-pessimist” or “cyber-dystopian”.
His new book takes aim at what he calls “solutionism” and its “will to improve”. The problem with solutionism is that it takes complex social situations and makes them into defined problems with definite solutions. Those problems could be easily solved if only the right algorithms were put in place. He outlines what that dystopian future might look like. There’s an end to obesity, insomnia and global warming — self-tracking devices make sure we all “eat less, sleep better and emit more appropriately”. Losing the car keys is consigned to the dustbin of history, as the fallibility of human memory is conquered too. Childhood memories are either stored on smart phones or “more likely your smart all-recording glasses”. He argues that this drive to get rid of imperfection is the problem, because it blocks off other roads to human progress. But his aim is to take on the cyber-utopians on their own terms, not by casting doubt on their claims.
Morozov attacks the impact of solutionism on politics, arguing that it is not something that can be “perfected”. In particular, the notion that “transparency” will lead to a more vibrant civil society worries him. Publishing records of donations or voting could lead to intimidation, so damaging democracy. But what is the solution? Morozov first tries to analyse more deeply what the internet is, which then informs his arguments about its impact on democracy. This is welcome, as many debates about the internet tend to begin with the organisational conclusions, relegating understanding to an afterthought.
He writes, “There is no good reason why we should accept the totalising philosophy of the ‘internet’.” For Morozov, the main problem lies in conflating the “physical networks with the ideologies that run through them”. Instead we should “engage in narrow, empirically grounded arguments about the individual technologies and platforms that compose the ‘internet’.” While looking at the concrete impact has its virtues, this smacks of a liberal utilitarianism. But activists can take from this the need to thrash out the concrete effects of the internet in particular situations.
Morozov’s last book dispelled many of the myths around Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” and Egypt’s Tahrir Square. He argues that the internet has a weakening effect on movements, with many resorting to “slacktivism” — a feel-good, online activism with no impact. One of Morozov’s important arguments is that the internet hasn’t fundamentally altered the way that knowledge is produced. In doing so, he makes a break with the dominant theories that argue we now live in a “network society”. The internet is not some force of nature and hasn’t led to a “weightless world”.
It is welcome that Morozov introduces materialism to his analysis. But that’s also where the weaknesses in his argument lie. His study rests on two separate things acting upon one another. His critique of the internet, while not without merit, is to break that down further into different technologies acting upon democracy. Despite his useful critique of the “network society”, Morozov still views the “production of knowledge” as being devoid of capitalist class relations. It’s from this error that his “techno-pessimism” flows.