Morozov begins by stating he chose this specific title for his talk as a result of having been repeatedly pigeonholed as a cyber-critic. In fact, Morozov has become critical of the way technology is presented to us as a discourse as if it stands aside from politics, culture and the rest of the world.
There is a strong vein of essentialism running through technological discourses, perpetuated by sceptics and enthusiasts alike. Morozov identifies neither with the sceptics nor the enthusiasts. He has no problem using technology to get things done, but thinks we over-focus on the gadgets we use.
To Morozov, many commentators forget that emancipation is not in the tool, but is rather about the context in which tools are used. Politics is always a hybrid between technology and social systems, and it is not possible to change the world solely through technology. Rather, emancipation is the property of the social system in which a tool is developed.
Taking this position means it is essential to understand how various platforms are pitched byorganisations and governments. Criticising these platforms is not the same as criticising technology in general. It is simply a way to find out how apps relate to the political, social and economic context from which they stem. Often, this relates to the fact we live in an environment of deep Neoliberalism, bringing with it a form of individualism which is destroying the public infrastructure within society. In the face of these complex social and political realities, tools alone cannot allow individuals to emancipate themselves.
It is true that some technology today may understand this politics, but in order to change things we need to engage further with the wider social and political context. Indeed, in many cases technology is helping the dominant system to continue functioning, even as it goes through structural changes. A specific example of this can be found in the way we fight terrorism. We monitor the activity of youth in Yemen online to identify dangerous individuals and prevent them from boarding planes.
This sort of surveillance is all about prevention and not at all about challenging why terrorism exists in the first place. If we asked, we would know this has to do with drones. It is pre-emptive problem solving which sidesteps the real issues rather than aiming for actual social reform.
Another example would be the way obesity is handled today, particularly in the US. There are all sorts of efforts to make citizens more concerned, which are to do with individualism and making the individual responsible. You have to be nudged to be healthier and the system does this, often using technology such as Google Glass and Smartphones as a mechanism to this end. To Morozov, this is a very narrow way of doing politics, which suggests reform is only possible on the individual level. We are not asking questions about infrastructure: whether there is actually more space available to walk more – which in the US is seldom possible. Equally, there is no sense in asking people to eat more vegetables if they do not have enough money to afford them. But because technology appears to be a quick fix, it appeals to policy makers.
To really understand the potential to do better, we need to understand the business logic of the technology itself, and the evolution of political models which surround it – which put most of the blame and responsibility on the shoulders of the citizens. The frustrating thing for Morozov is that in putting this point of view forward, the push back is often a response that he is anti-technology in general, which is a misreading of his whole argument, and does not productively address the issues within it. The accusation of being anti-technology also points to a wider issue, that discourse around technology has developed to pose any critique as being both anti-science and anti-enlightenment.
This makes it even more essential to be extremely particular and specific about the terms upon which we conduct the debate. We need to be far more political and far more interested in politics and economics; we need to read up on financialisation and the markets and get interested in ideas and concepts. Without this knowledge, we cannot have a robust conversation about the potential of technology today, and will continue the de-politicisation of the debate as it has been perpetuating itself over the last 2 decades.
Morozov questions whether it is possible to have a robust philosophy of tech at all, as it is always about the relationship of the tool to the context. There is no such thing as a critique of technology without a critique of politics and economics. And there is no point in operating without understanding how these terms have been shaped and compromised by certain movements.
One example given to explain this is the concept of hacking. The revolutionary idea of hacking as put forward in publications such as Mackenzie Wark’s Hacker Manifesto is not the same concept as the hacking described in recent publications such as Hacking Happiness, or Hacking Education.
These latter publications actually refer to a very conservative type of hacking – which says the system is in place and you need to use hacking to accommodate yourself to this system. You live in an unsatisfactory system, so just bring your tools to work and work harder. It has nothing to do with thinking about how to get outside the 9-5 framework or reforming the education system. Hacking Education in particular is about crashing classes for free at Stanford, meeting investors, making an app and getting out with a huge profit. Morozov is not convinced this is not the sort of hacking he wants to associate himself with. Many once revolutionary terms have been appropriated by people who do not actually want to see any change to the system. What these sorts of projects do is to empower everyone with tools to make the system bearable, rather than trying to change it itself. It is therapeutic hacking, which is not to do with revolution, but rather about the restructuring of capitalism. Morozov does not think this is the best we can do.
The kind of liberation and emancipation promised is false because people fail to understand that while the means of physical production have been fully liberated, the means of cognitive production are not at all liberated. You still need to find a way to make your toothbrush the most funded toothbrush on Kickstarter. The information infrastructure has not been liberated – rather it has become more and more centralised. As long as we do not do something to liberate the informational and cognitive layer, there will be no change, because making will be used to continue the logic of the current system.
During the 60s and 70s there was a lot of talk about offering everyone access to tools, because there were no related institutions to model ideas on at this time. Now we all have access to personal computers, so in some sense we have become liberated and emancipated. But the data layer is still controlled by massive organisations. During the 80s it was thought that emancipation was purely the product of the tool, and that it needed no institutional framework to be built up around it, but now we know this is not the case. We need an alternative institutional structure and infrastructures to the centralised model we now have. It is essential to have the right political and social support to deliver on this agenda. This is the way to make sure the emancipatory potential of technology is reached.
Response from Richard Barbrook
Barbrook begins by stating that we are talking about the fetishisation of the net. For 50 years people have been saying the next phase of human development will be characterised by the net. Here we are in 2013 and the future is now – this utopia which has been predicted many years ago has come true, and most people have the internet, mobile phones and computers. What we are worried about is that the promises which came with that have not taken place. To Barbrook, there were several imaginary futures put forward surrounding the internet, variously concerning Fordist, big business and communist models. The future which has been realised surrounds a Jeffersonian democracy realised under a system of Neoliberalism and globalisation. A corollary of this prophecy was that the problems of capitalist individualism – loneliness, selfishness and alienation – would be cured by connecting us via the internet. The problem is that this has not happened.
Barbrook feels we have got to the utopia, but the utopia has proved to be false. The imaginary future we are inhabiting was an attempt to build the perfect form of capitalism which has failed.
He picks up on the notion in Morozov’s work that we are moving from a disciplinary to a controlled society where Foucault’s panopticon has become the NSA. To Barbrook, this is a negative version of the same imaginary future predicted in the 1960s, which involved a shift from industrial to post-industrial society, with computers at the centre of it.
Barbrook states that it is when predictions do not happen that we experience a crisis of the system, and that now one crisis is that we do not know what the future is. Technology has embodied neoliberalism, and we are now talking after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers. When writing the Californian Ideology, Barbrook and Cameron attacked Neoliberalism but it was working in a fundamental way. We now live under Neoliberalism and it does not work, so we are thrown into a crisis. People are becoming increasingly sceptical about a solution from within the system.
The crisis is not caused by the technology, but the fact the come with this belief that technology can solve societal problems. Technology, and the US as the progenitor of this technology are currently in question. Therefore, to Barbrook, we need to imagine a new future. Not just another technological utopia, but thinking about the social, political and economic consequences of the field. Often this means going back 100 or 200 years to understand how technology is dealt with in the capitalist system. It is an old debate, going back to Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and other thinkers who critique it. Although Barbrook feels Morozov uses the word Luddite in a negative sense, he would suggest we take up this term specifically. The Luddites did not hate new technology, they hated technology such as the spinning Jenny which deskilled them or rendered them unemployed. The Jacquard Loom – considered the ancestor of the computer – reskilled the workforce of weavers, so Luddites were in favour of this sort of technology. To Barbrook, the question is not about being for or against technology, but asking: what sort of technology? Does it reskill or deskill us? We need to be 21st century Luddites, against the technology of the enemy, but for technology capable of making a truly human civilisation.
Response by Evgeny Morozov
Morozov is suspicious of the way we talk about these things. He has a concern about the internet as a valid reference point which can be traced historically. Morozov does not think literature in the 60s and 70s puts forward a utopian internet future. The internet to Morozov is the product of the 90s, and is changing dynamically all the time.
Further, Morozov does not really care if the internet survives – he cares if democracy survives, and is sceptical of terms such as Internet Freedom in relation to this, as he feels the chances are it is in favour of Silicon Valley and large corporations than activists think it is.
To Morozov, we have to be very careful about the kind of genealogy we do: all Steve Jobs promised was small computers, not a Global Village. This promise has been fulfilled for many people, and they do not care about the questions surrounding emancipation. This means many people are difficult to mobilise to emancipatory ends – they feel Silicon Valley has actually over delivered.
Response by Richard Barbrook
Barbrook is certain that the fantasy of technology came first, as an ideological project after the
Cold War which promised a new civilisation. During the 1960s, technological developments were foregrounded rather than other medical or scientific achievements. This is because it was the bearer of this Utopian promise, and is one of the few US industries which are successful. Now we are at the stage where we have reached the utopia, and we have realised it was a false promise. People have realised it is not the end of capitalism, actually it often makes things worse. Barbrook therefore reiterates that we need a new future which does involve being liberated by a machine –this is commodity fetishism gone mad.
Summary by Alex Reynolds.
About the Event
For our annual year end lecture Cybersalon invited Evgeny Morozov, perhaps the digital network’s most strident critic.
Dr Richard Barbrook delivered a response to the lecture.
Event was chaired by: Wessel van Rensburg (RAAK/Cybersalon)
Dr Richard Barbrook is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Westminster and a co-founder of Cybersalon. He’s the author of ‘The Californian Ideology‘, ‘Media Freedom’, ‘Imaginary Futures‘ and ‘Class War Games’.
Evgeny Morozov Bio
Originally from Belarus, Evgeny Morozov is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. In 2010-2012 he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. In 2009-2010 he was a fellow at Georgetown University and in 2008-2009 he was a fellow at the Open Society Foundations (where he also sat on the board of the Information Program between 2008 and 2012). Between 2006 and 2008 he was Director of New Media at Transitions Online and was in Berlin. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. His monthly Slate column is syndicated in El Pais, Corriere della Sera, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Folha de S.Paulo and several other newspapers.