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Why the Internet isn’t the solution to everything

Evgeny Morozov sees a troubling trend towards explaining away the limits of technology as part of ‘the essence’ of the Internet. ‘There is no essence,’ he says.

Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris

Evgeny Morozov is a skeptic's skeptic. The young academic, author and contributor to The New Republic has built a career on skewering Internet visionaries and the ideas they peddle. But with his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, he doesn't take aim just at the pantheon of Internet boosters and skeptics, but at the whole premise for their debate: Do trendy ideas such as facial recognition, "gamification," and open government address problems that actually need solving? And does any singular thing called the Internet exist in the first place, even if entire industries thrive on pontificating about it?

Your word for this problem-solving fetish is "solutionism." What do you mean by that?

What I mean by solutionism is this growing tendency to identify problems based purely on the availability of digital fixes and solutions. For example, it's possible to make forgetting impossible, because we can all wear our Google Glasses that will store everything we see. Whereas if you actually thought deeply about the role of forgetting in enabling us to become who we are, perhaps you would actually find some redeeming features to that process. In the context of politics, the idea now is that we can get rid of parties and partisanship with the help of platforms that help people organize by bypassing institutions. In the context of crime-fighting: if it's possible to make crime impossible with the help of facial-recognition technologies.

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We've never thought too deeply about the roles things like forgetting or partisanship or inefficiency or ambiguity or hypocrisy play in our political or social life. It's been impossible to get rid of them, so we took them for granted, and we kind of thought, naively, that they're always the enemy. Now that technology allows us to root them out, to get rid of them, we need to find a way to think back and start to appreciate some of those imperfections.

What's to like about hypocrisy and crime?

In small doses, hypocrisy and inconsistency might be good. All reform schemes are traditionally criticized along three dimensions: Some of these projects are stupid because they're not going to work. Some are going to work but will actually undermine the very goals they're trying to promote. Some are going to do what they claim to do, but also have a lot of negative unintended consequences that may actually be worse. When we can commit a crime, we can also trigger debate. Cases go to courts. Media start covering the cases. But once you build smart environments where, if you meet a certain probabilistic profile, you won't even be allowed to board a bus, let alone commit a crime, we're perpetuating existing laws so they face no challenges or revision. And in a system that permits no crimes because it has been designed that way, it's very hard to engage in acts of civil disobedience. I'm actually trying to point out that there are hidden conservative motives in a lot of this seemingly progressive techno-boosting rhetoric. The way it uses technology to regulate might end up cementing norms that exist today, and make them impossible to revise.

You spend an entire book putting "the Internet" in quotes. Why is that?

"The Internet" plays this justifying, legitimizing role for solutionists. Our pundits want deliberately to take all of these technologies that make up "the Internet," whether it's Wikipedia, or open-source software, or blogs or social networks, and present them as essentially having a unified logic and spirit.

They talk as if "the Internet" has its own natural laws.

We've invested so much hope and dreams and frustrations into this project, that now you can just invoke it and say, "The Internet demands that we abandon privacy, or it demands that we learn to live in a world where there are no paywalls, or where we cannot regulate peer-to-peer networking because it will threaten the livelihood of the Internet as a network." You cannot make a point simply by saying, "You know, that's not how the Internet works." Or "This will break the Internet."I think we should have long and sophisticated conversations about paywalls and peer-to-peer networking and everything else, but I don't want these conversations to suddenly end with someone saying it just doesn't match the essence of "the Internet." Because there is no essence! People who make such claims are either naive or very dishonest. Or they just happen to be working for some lobbyist.

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Or are lazy. As a journalist, I've used that same shorthand a lot.

It's a great code word. You can just invoke it to explain anything: The death of journalism. The death of film. The death of music. The death of thinking. And then the opposite: the flourishing of learning. The flourishing of music. The flourishing of criticism. The flourishing of news. You can pick any single modern phenomenon and, in one or two steps, you can pin it to "the Internet." I just think it impoverishes our debate about what's happening. It's worse than blaming everything on liberals or capitalists. And it sells!

You seem to have a special animus for self-proclaimed visionaries.

What I tried to do in the book is show that it's not just that one or two people have gone rogue. It's not that you have one or two rogue analysts who suddenly turned utopian and who are just going around making money. It's a structural problem in how we think. It doesn't just happen with the utopians and optimists. If you study Nicholas Carr and Andrew Keen, they also rely on the notion of "the Internet" to make their essentially pessimistic points. I do go after certain people more than others, in part because I think they are much more influential and have more impact on how we think and talk. There is something profoundly troubling with so many people being so wrong and getting away with it.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More


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