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December 25, 2015
Evgeny Morozov

This book, unfortunately, annoyed me. It presents some reasonably good points — but unfortunately buries them under a mountain of fallacies and academic name-dropping, all presented in the most condescending way possible. The book is a long diatribe against two ideological positions that Morozov places at the heart of contemporary technology debate: Solutionism, the belief that a neat technological fix can solve all human problems (including several non-problems), and Internet-centrism, the tendency to view all political and cultural matters in Internet terms. He posits that the Internet as it is discussed by technology writers and developers is a mythological construct with only a passing resemblance to the TCP/IP packet switching network in the material world. In this, he has a point. I cringe whenever anybody talks about what the Internet "wants", as though it was an entity with agency and motivations of its own. Unfortunately, after 350 pages of "The Internet" consistently put in scare quotes and everybody from Lawrence Lessig to Mark Zuckerberg derided as "the geeks" and treated as a singular political bloc, I now have ample opportunity to cringe about the other side, too.

Don't get me wrong. I agree that technology doesn't exist in a political and ideological vacuum. Back when people were calling the early-2010s Middle Eastern uprisings "Twitter Revolutions", as though a single American technology company and Internet medium got to claim credit for Arab and North African revolutionary sentiment, I found the whole thing ridiculous. I don't think that Internet social media constitute a "democratizing force" (I'm on record likening them to a privately owned surveillance state), and I think the idea that they provide a "level playing field of ideas" is an ahistorical, politically ignorant fairytale. I was prepared for a critique of precisely the idea of a One Weird Trick to Save The World.

That, largely, got exhausted within the first two chapters. The rest largely reduces to a more pretentious and long-winded version of "every single person involved in computer technology is a politically illiterate idiot". Later chapters focus less on social critique, more on ridiculing some of the weirder personal habits of certain Silicon Valley denizens. Rather than critiquing the tech industry, the book degenerates to "point and laugh at the weird nerds". These are the worst parts of the book. The best parts are when Morozov criticizes concrete and actual tech follies, such as Google and Facebook playing fast and loose with user privacy, rather than when he merely gossips about tech celebrities or rails against misguided utopianism (or, worse, his own quixotic projections about said tech utopianism).

The last chapter gives a few of Morozov's thoughts on how technology could be used to create a better society — devices that deliberately malfunction to get people to ponder the nature of society; essentially a vision of turning everyday life into a 24/7 po-mo art installation. I shudder at the thought of how we're supposed to get everyone to go along with this. I completely agree that technology design can have other values than brute efficiency (and have spent considerable time pondering how programming language design can reflect a value of empowering programmers rather than making them more amenable to central management), but the examples of deliberate malfunctions seem bizarre to me. And, in an odd twist, they seem to be an example of solutionism: To save the environment, make gadgets that are designed to mess with people.

I get the distinct feeling — particularly because of Morozov's consistent and derisive use of "geeks" as the villains of the piece, and because he populates that category with people as diverse as Nicholas Carr, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Kelly and Lawrence Lessig — that I'm not the target audience here, just the target. It reads like a volley in the ongoing "postmodern academic left vs. nerds" culture war.

Not entirely useless; parts of it were thought-provoking, but most of it read like being preached at while being called names.

 
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