A Discussion With Evgeny Morozov, Silicon Valley's Fiercest CriticS

Does each mention of "the power of crowdsourcing" fill you with blind rage? Are you sick of geeks foisting the latest Kickstarter-funded self-tracking weight loss gadget upon you as if your main problem is a lack of awareness of just how lazy you are? Think memes are horseshit? You will love Evgeny Morozov.

Morozov is the fiercest and funniest critic of Silicon Valley's insufferableness. His salvos against Silicon Valley hype and the gurus who peddle it are exhilarating because their slick ideas have managed to seep into the highest levels of public discourse without much of a second look. His new book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism diagnoses the potent mix of near-religious fervor and lazy thinking that has made so many look to Silicon Valley to solve all of society's problems, a condition he calls "Solutionism." Morozov will be joining us at 4pm EST to answer reader questions. Please ask them below. Update 5:08 PM: Evgeny is done answering questions. Thanks for asking!

I chatted with Morozov over email about his work:

To Save Everything, Click Here attacks what you call the "solutionism" of the Silicon Valley tech elite. How is solutionism different than the boundless technological optimism that America has demonstrated pretty much since the beginning of the 20th century?

EM: "Solutionism" for me is, above all, an unthinking pursuit of perfection—by means of technology—without coming to grips with the fact that imperfection is an essential feature of liberal democracy. As I point out in the book, there have been many "solutionist" impulses in the past—lots of other authors have addressed it, albeit under different names (like "rationalism" or "high modernism," for example). What makes today different is that the overall excitement about "the Internet"—I find this concept so sickening and suffocating that I use it in scare quotes throughout the book—makes us blind to the pitfalls of solutionism and justifies many silly interventions and reform agendas. Why not do all these things—eliminate hypocrisy or crime—if "the Internet," this revolutionary technology, allows us to?

You can see such solutionist logic that presumes the existence of problems based solely on the availability of nice and quick digital solutions in many walks of life: We have the tools to make government officials more honest and consistent, ergo hypocrisy and inconsistency are problems worth solving. Take crime. We have the means to predict crime—with "big data" and smart algorithms—and prevent it from happening, ergo eliminating crime is a problem worth solving.

But is eliminating crime really a project worth pursuing? Don't we need to be able to break laws in order to revise them? Once crimes are committed, cases reach the courts, generate debate in the media, and so forth—the very fact that crimes are allowed to happen allows us to revise the norms in question. So the inefficiency of the system—the fact that the crime rate is not zero—-is what saves us from the tyranny of conservatism and complacency that might be the outcome if we delegate crime prevention to algorithms and databases.

Your new book was published just after the suicide and very public mourning of the young information activist Aaron Swartz, who seems to me to be the poster boy for solutionism. Swartz's ultimate dream was to literally "save the world" through applying internet logic of openness and hackability to politics. What do you make of the lionization of Aaron Swartz in the months since his death? Is it misguided?

EM: I don't think of Aaron—by the way, I met him a dozen times and we had a few very long and substantial conversations, including one on social constructivism in the work of John Searle and Bruno Latour (!)—as a "poster boy" for solutionism, at least not if we stick to the definition of "solutionism" I use above. To his credit, Aaron was one of the first to see the limitations of the "open government movement"; we had a bit of a debate about this back in early 2009—and I must say that while I initially wasn't receptive to his argument, it got me thinking and I ended up mostly agreeing with him in the end. (Here is that discussion.) I actually think that much of Lessig's much-discussed "Against Transparency" article was inspired by Aaron.

I also found myself sitting next to Aaron at a dinner on Sept 22, 2010—two days before he bought that Acer laptop. [Which he used to download thousands of academic articles from Jstor, sparking a federal hacking case against him. -ed.] (I'm yet to write about that evening in some more detail—now is not the time). We never talked about that dinner since but I have a rough idea of the intellectual/activist context in which he made that decision to go after Jstor.

In retrospect, I think it was a pretty stupid decision and I think he soon came to realize this himself (even though he refused to talk about the case). But a "solutionist" he was not; he was more of what I call an "Internet-centrist." After all, he did believe in the existence of one singular "Internet" out there; it was sacred territory to him and he wanted to protect it—which explains much of his activism around SOPA/PIPA. Studying the role that this myth of a singular "Internet" has played in enabling some of his reform pursuits can be an interesting research project.

Speaking of timing, we're talking now right during the heart of the solutionist orgy that is South By Southwest Interactive. Have you been? And have you been following the developments from this year's SXSW?

EM: I went to SXSWi in 2011. God that was awful. I mean, I only went because my publisher wanted me to promote the book and the organizers invited me and it seemed silly not to go, especially for a relatively unknown first-time author. This is just not my cup of tea; the fewer such events I do on an annual basis, the happier I feel.

The other big aspect to solutionism is refusing to evaluate solutions to problems based on criteria other than efficiency. So we get lots of people at SXSWi preaching self-tracking and gamification as if all that mattered about those two techniques was just how effective they are about letting you know your consumption stats, or getting people to do the right thing (where right is defined as "whatever the designer wants them to do.") Well, I think this is plain silly: not all solutions are alike.

Some problems need to be tackled at macro-, not micro-level—with reforms and regulation—and not just by arming everyone with a pedometer and a smartphone. Likewise, with gamification, getting people to do the right thing is not enough - we need to get them to do the right thing for the right reason. If we can get everyone to recycle properly or to participate in their local town hall meeting by giving them virtual rewards, should we? My answer is "probably not": the current system might be inefficient but it operates in the moral/political language—with appeals to civic duty, etc—which might disappear once we start talking about rewards, badges and market incentives.

So what I don't like about SXSWi crowd—and TED crowd is even worse here—is the unwillingness to deeply engage with such political/ethical dimensions of their favorite toys. They are "solutionists" in a sense that, once armed with their favorite tool, they spend no time whatsoever thinking about just how deep and complex their chosen problem is.

So some challenges need to be tackled at the level of policy. Well, at SXSW this year, Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit and a vocal champion of a "free and open internet" declared that "we need more nerds in congress." That sounds like your worst nightmare. Could a congress filled with geeks actually be worse than the businesspeople and career politicians we have now?

EM: Here much depends on what actually is meant by "nerds." If by "nerds," we mean "experts about technology or engineering," then the question really is: Do we need more elected representatives who are not lawyers but actual field experts in, say, medicine or engineering or neuroscience for that matter? I'm sure someone has done studies on it. I'm not sure computer engineers are less of automatons than US-trained lawyers at this point.

But "nerds in Congress" can also mean something else: a bunch of amateurs who think they can fix politics with spreadsheets or, worse, instant messaging. Those guys I don't trust. Look at the Pirate Party in Germany: the moment they got into parliament (or, more precisely, local parliaments), the German public figured out that having "nerds in parliament" might not be such a great idea: not only do they wear shorts to legislative sessions but they also don't have a very good political program beyond just "defending the Internet." In that latter case, I'm far less excited by the prospect of sending more nerds to Congress. Let's better send them to Burning Man.

Have you received pushback from the fans and owners of the tech companies you criticize? "The internet" might not actually exist, but I know from experience that nerd rage does. I imagine you're not invited to many start-up parties.

Indeed, I'm rarely invited to start-up parties but who cares about their trinkets and apps anyway? I can't even bother to update the iOS on my iPhone for what must be eternity now. I spent two years in Palo Alto—what an awful, suffocating place for those of us who don't care about yoga, yogurts and start-ups—and now I have moved to Cambridge, MA—which, in many respects, is like Palo Alto but a bit snarkier. At this point, my work triggers several kinds of reactions: a) some people try to co-opt me and prevent me from writing something bad about them (I believe that this is how I found my name under "friends & colleagues" in Eric Schmidt's new book—or at least its galleys) b) some people engage in debates with me, often to complain that I've mispresented their views (they are funny, those people) c) some people ignore me because they think that they are beyond criticisms or that what they are doing is too important to tolerate criticism or they think I want to steal their lunch money or bankrupt their donors/funders.

As for "nerd rage," I believe I've been spared the pain so far. Or perhaps the most vicious trolls find my ruminations on Latour and Habermas too obtuse to read to the end and leave a comment. I'm perfectly fine with that—makes my life easy.