Blowing up Morozov's "To Save Everything, Click Here"

Tim Wu has written an admirably economical and restrained review of Evgeny Morozov's new book, "To Save Everything, Click Here." I wrote a long critique of Morozov's first book in 2011, and back then, I found myself unable to restrain myself from enumerating the many, many flaws in the book and its fundamental dishonesty, pandering and laziness. Wu has more discipline than I do, and limits himself to a much shorter, sharper and better critique of Morozov's new one. It's a must-read:

"To Save Everything, Click Here" is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov's particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O'Reilly for intellectuals. How else to explain the savaging of thinkers whom you might think of as his natural allies? Consider Nicholas Carr, another critic of Silicon Valley, who wrote a book, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," detailing the malicious effect of Web apps on our minds. He commits the unforgivable sin of discussing "the Internet" and is therefore guilty of what Morozov calls "McLuhanesque medium-centrism." (Morozov is evidently licensed to use concepts, even if his targets are not). Similarly, although most of my work is an effort to put the Internet in historical or legal context, I, too, am an "Internet-centrist" (but at least I'm in good company).

Too much assault and battery creates a more serious problem: wrongful appropriation, as Morozov tends to borrow heavily, without attribution, from those he attacks. His critique of Google and other firms engaged in "algorithmic gatekeeping"is basically taken from Lessig's first book, "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace," in which Lessig argued that technology is necessarily ideological and that choices embodied in code, unlike law, are dangerously insulated from political debate. Morozov presents these ideas as his own and, instead of crediting Lessig, bludgeons him repeatedly. Similarly, Morozov warns readers of the dangers of excessively perfect technologies as if Jonathan Zittrain hadn't been saying the same thing for the past 10 years. His failure to credit his targets gives the misimpression that Morozov figured it all out himself and that everyone else is an idiot.

Does Morozov have an alternative vision of technology's future? Generally, he decries the search for perfect, efficient solutions and admires an inefficient, organic chaos of the kind favored by Jane Jacobs in urban design. Funny, that's exactly what the Internet's protocols brought to communications, as a response to the big TV networks and AT&T's "perfect" network. The ideology behind the Internet's protocols accepts greater inefficiency to allow for the organic life and death of applications and firms. Hence, if you had to name one technology that best serves the principles Morozov believes in, it would be easy: It is called the Internet.

Apart from Morozov's tendency to ad hominem (he likes to call people he disagrees with "morons" and "idiots" in print) and his reliance on straw-men, Wu hits on the two critical flaws with Morozov's work:

1. He never offers a credible vision of what technology should be like in order to promote freedom and justice. Morozov gives the strong impression that activists should just give up on using or attempting to improve the Internet, a counsel of despair that would result in an unchecked march to total surveillance, control and censorship for just about everyone, with no hope of change. In his first book, Morozov asserts that the mass demonstrations following the Iranian elections would have taken place without the net, just through word of mouth — as someone who spent about a decade helping with phone-trees, mass-mailouts and wheatpasted poster campaigns for demonstrations, I was dubious on this score.

2. He is fundamentally pandering to censors, surveillors, and repressors. All of the former are cheerful about their attempts to lock down and spy upon the net, because, they assert, nothing of much importance happens there (I wrote about this at length earlier). Morozov's biggest boosters are the copyright thugs, the spyware vendors, and the data retention snoops who argue that ripping up the Internet's fabric does no particular harm because the Internet isn't even a thing. "There is no such thing as the Internet" is the 21st century version of Maggie Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society" — a dangerous, reductionist self-fulfilling prophecy.

Book review: 'To Save Everything, Click Here' by Evgeny Morozov