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net.wars: The price

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 29 March 2013


"Geeks with good ideas can do a lot of damage, no matter what their intentions are," Evgeny Morozov said Wednesday morning. He was on a tour promoting his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here (which I'll review separately for ZDNet).

Wendy M Grossman

This is of course obviously true. We can say it in a Yes, Minister irregular verb: I do theoretical physics; you discover nuclear fission; he bombs Hiroshima. Or, updating, I wish I didn't have to push a light switch; you write an app to do it; he gets rid of electrical inspections because there's an app.

In The Net Delusion, Morozov argued that despite the Internet pioneers' best intentions, their inventions can be and are smartly used by authoritarian governments to surveille and repress their populations, who, in turn, are more interested in downloading pictures of cats than engaging in political revolt. Now, Morozov extends that "net delusion" into twin, trending obsessions: "solutionism" and "Internet-centrism".

Internet-centrism values the Internet and its well-being above all other interests. You see it in action when network neutrality advocates or copyright reformers complain that some new proposal is "bad for the Internet", or will "break the Internet". As someone written about the Internet and the battles over its freedoms this is not how I feel: the Internet is not a god to me, but, as I suspect it is to many others, an opportunity to be protected. Once upon a time, the Internet seemed special.

On Wednesday, Morozov defined solutionism this way: "the shallow intellectual tendency emerging in the last decade where we identify problems as problems based solely on the idea that we have the means of perfection or solution". In other words, it's the state of mind in which if you have a hammer you believe it can solve all problems whether or not they look like nails. As Morozov did not say, an example might be the British national ID card, which in the last 50 years has been touted as the solution to football hooliganism, benefit fraud, immigration, health tourism, employment fraud, serious and organized crime, terrorism…

Or, as Morozov did say, the state of mind in which Facebook and Google present themselves as more like humanitarian missions than companies. Google wants "to organize the world's information and make it useful"; Mark Zuckerberg said - in his letter in Facebook's IPO prospectus! - that Facebook's social mission is more important to him than its business. Or Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, Morozov cited, perhaps thinking of this, as seeing getting rid of gatekeepers as an unalloyed good: "His company is the ultimate gatekeeper!"

It's easy to agree when Morozov complains that starting with technology is starting from the wrong end. And yet…what he was saying seems disconnected from the activists I know. Of the familiar authors he cites, most (other than Lessig, who was the inspiring force behind creating Creative Commons and Rootstrikers) are academics light on practical action. When I think of open data, the first to spring to mind are the guys at MySociety, who have sequentially opened up access to local information, Parliamentary records, and the negotiations at the United Nations? Is open data an unalloyed good? Of course not. Is it possible, as Lessig argued in his 2009 essay Against Transparency, that devoid of context people will get the wrong idea? Of course. But isn't that how MPs would have justified refusing to disclose their expenses to Heather Brooke?

In the activist trenches you find the good and bad debated and scrutinized, not ignored. These are not people who revere technology at the expense of "goals and agendas previously held dear"; instead, they are trying to use technology to further those goals - or rein in technology where it threatens them. As Judith Rauhofer memorably said at a conference a few years back, "The world's social norms don't change just because some rich geeks in California say they have." In my neck of the world it's quite hard to find libertarians who think that giving everyone an app so they can check meat products for horsemeat is a better option than a government agency whose job it is to ensure food safety in its many forms. Cue Morozov: "Once there's an app, it's harder to defend institutions."

It is certainly fair to say that those favoring small government - in the UK, the current coalition, in the US the Republications - are eager to deploy technological substitutes such as computer assessment for capability to work. But Morozov went on to draw an interesting but uncertain connection between the self-quantified movement and a longer and larger trend, driven by pharmaceutical companies and doctors: "We are under constant pressure to look for more and more biomarkers, identify more diseases, real and imaginary, and buy more drugs to fix them. If that's the broader logic of how we think about health, self-tracking fills a certain role identifying even more symptoms." It is, he agreed, a grass roots movement - "but partly funded by venture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies". I would argue that funding has only come in because the grass roots movement has become big enough to be of interest to them.

"Solutions come with costs," Morozov said. Doesn't magic always?

Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted throughout the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).