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van Rensburg, Barbrook, Morozov (L to R)

Summary of Evgeny Morozov – Xmas Lecture

What Does it Mean to be Critical of Technology Today? 

 Evgeny Morozov

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.

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  1. Evgeny’s critiques of techno-progression are very welcome, and his emphasis on a political understanding of technology in its economic and social context is important. His examples and analyses are helpful, as far as they go. His criticism of the technofix tendencies in the American alternative technology movement of the 1960s is well taken. But he is wrong to dismiss the entire appropriate/alternative technology movement because of the liberal politics of its American representatives. Writers like Illich and Schumacher, and those who set up the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action) were well aware of the need for democratic participation in technology design and for technology to serve real social needs. And their critique of industrial gigantism is just as valid today. Sadly, over the last 30 years much of the alternative technology movement has succumbed to co-option and the technofix mentality. In fact, our Luddites group (www.luddites200.org.uk) is organising a cafe discussion event on these issues on January 13th (see http://www.breakingtheframe.org.uk).

    However, where this critique fails is that there seems to lack an understanding of technology as a power system and ideology. Although he emphasises that we need to look at the interaction of technology and its social and political context, in fact the entire focus of his critique is on the latter, and in his efforts to avoid being labelled anti-technology, in several places he very crudely denies that artefacts can have any inherent politics.

    As a result, his critique seems to fall into a classic left apologia for technology – it’s not technology that’s the problem, but the capitalist politics that distort it. The flaw in that is that it’s little different from the liberal claim that technology itself is inherently ‘neutral’, which is always favoured by scientists and technologists. It is because he comes from the left, which has (mostly) seen technology as the engine of progress, that he is so excessively dismayed by the technologists’ criticism that he is a techno-sceptic: I am your friend, he wants to tell them, you can’t accuse ME of that. He thinks that they’re missing his point – he agrees with them about the liberatory potential of technology, it’s the social institutions that are wrong. But, really, he shouldn’t waste his time: the Silicon Valley ideologues and their friends in the US media won’t be able to respond any more intelligently to his critique of neoliberalism than they can to what they perceive as his attack on technology.

    Evgeny’s desire not to critique technology is revealed very clearly in his reaction to Richard’s discussion of the history of IT and the shaping of its development by neoliberal and technocratic ideologies. He wants to keep technology in its supposedly nonpolitical bubble, and wants us to believe that technology develops with its own internal dynamic, and only when it comes to the market is its use shaped by social forces. In fact, as Richard’s research has demonstrated, those ideologies are there at stages before technologies are even technically feasible; in fact, the notion of information as central, the ‘Information Revolution’ arose far earlier than the 1960s, in the Taylorist/Fordist revolution of the early 20th century. Because Evgeny, by the logic of his position, must resist histories of the intertwining of technology and ideology, he is reduced to simply denying the factual correctness of Richard’s research and claiming that Steve Jobs never promised a global village (as if that mattered).

    In reality, any amount of STS research and analysis by technology politics activists shows that the idea that technology has no inherent politics is simply not true: capitalist (and patriarchal) values and interests are embedded deep in technologies, so that they absolutely cannot ‘be used for good, just as much as bad purposes’. And those values and interests go far beyond the emphasis on individual solutions that comes from neoliberal culture, although that is certainly a crucial part of technofix culture.

    But the problem with technology in our society is worse than that. Technology springs from a technocratic culture and worldview that began with the Scientific Revolution: the view of nature as dead mechanism and the legitimacy of absolute control and domination of nature through science and technology. A nuclear power station, or the idea of geoengineering, the supposed technofixes for climate change is a perfect expression of that philosophy of domination; it is inherent in those technologies. That worldview and system of knowledge/power initiated by Francis Bacon is distinct from the economic and social domination of capitalism, but because it shares so much of its philosophical basis with capitalism, it meshes almost (but not completely) perfectly with it. So technofixes can’t just be blamed on nasty neoliberal capitalists who want to use technology to make money. They spring from the technocratic mindset, which is not confined to scientists and engineers but pervades the managerial and professional classes, and because their worldview is dominant, in bourgeois society, popular culture. That worldview actually genuinely wants to help people, which is why it is so good at selling itself as progress, through ideologies like the Californian. The problem is that it always misconstructs ‘the problem’ in a way that technology provides the solution. Because the only tool that the technologists have is a hammer, every problem looks to them like a nail. In particular, these days, because their tool is information technology, it looks to them that the world is just another complex system, and what is needed is a more sophisticated management system (sensors, big data etc), to iron out particular ‘bugs’. And those solutions make sense within a technocratic culture. Technofixes spring primarily from the technocratic mindset, not from capitalism, but of course in a capitalist society and when the engineers concerned are mainly working for corporations, or as entrepreneurs, it’s no surprise that they fit perfectly with the corporate business plan.

    So what I think Evgeny Morozov’s analysis lacks is the understanding that it’s not just capitalism that we need to consider when assessing technology, but a critique of the technocratic ways of thinking and forms of power that both shape the techno-fix solutions and make them seem sensible to enlightened progressive middle class people. With an understanding of technocracy, I think you CAN have a ‘robust philosophy of technology’, which critiques the consistent shaping of technology by technocratic thinking, but does not need to condemn all technology. In my own technological area, genetics, the existence of a political critique of the technology itself, developed by radical scientists like myself, has been absolutely critical to the success of the movement. We have been able to show how the defects of GM technology spring from a reductionist biology, which in turn arises from, on the one hand a mechanistic, technocratic model of nature and on the other from capitalist tendencies towards reification/commodity fetishism. It has been the linking of this critique of the technology with critiques of industrial agriculture and capitalist corporations that has made the anti-GM movement so successful. I would argue that every technology politics movement, including those focusing on information technology need both types of critique.

    Finally, Richard’s comments on the Luddites need some refinement. Jacquard Looms were not introduced into England until after the Luddite period (although one famous image of the Luddites shows them anachronistically attacking a Jacquard loom), so we can’t know how they would have reacted to them. Although deskilling was part of their concern, more central to them was simply technological unemployment. In Notts, the issues were to do with wage cutting, ‘colting’ (use of unapprenticed labour) and the use of a particular type of new machine to produce low quality goods that spoiled the reputation of the stocking trade, as expressed in the line from their song General Ludd’s Triumph, ‘full fashioned work at the old-fashioned price [wage]’. So their critique of technology is quite broad politically, not a simple matter of how skilled the work is. They were rebelling against the Industrial Revolution, that paradigmatic act of technocracy that was destroying their way of life and communities by means of machines. Their slogan was to ‘put down machinery hurtful to Commonality’, i.e. to the common people, common good, and to the whole worldview based on cooperation and sharing the commons. Contrary to Evgeny’s use of the word, they were not anti-technology: they broke specific machines that were destroying their livelihoods, and left other machines alone. What for me is important about Luddism is that it was not just a working class anti-capitalist movement, but also an anti-technocracy (not anti-technology) movement. It is a middle way between liberal/Marxist technoprogressivism and the romantic/primitivist reaction to it, not an example of the latter.

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