The Net: Key Tool or Creed to Live By?

By Ullman, Ellen | International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Net: Key Tool or Creed to Live By?


Ullman, Ellen, International Herald Tribune


The digital-age transparency we've grown accustomed to may threaten the spirit of democracy , Evgeny Morozov warns.

To Save Everything, Click Here. The Folly of Technological Solutionism. By Evgeny Morozov. 415 pages. PublicAffairs, $28.99; Allen Lane, Pounds 20.

How can you resist a book whose first chapter begins: "Have you ever peeked inside a friend's trash can? I have." Trash is like "one's sex life," the book continues, "the less said about it, the better."

Yet the Internet can convert this private affair into an object of public surveillance, and Evgeny Morozov tells you how. Cameras in your trash bin help determine if you are doing a good job of sorting recyclables. Your score is computed and, via the Net, is compared with the scores of other sorters. If you win, you will be rewarded with praise. Those doing a bad job will be subjected to social scorn. This is no technophobic nightmare. Project BinCam is already being studied in Britain and Germany.

The BinCam example encapsulates what Mr. Morozov, a contributing editor at The New Republic, will go on to discuss in "To Save Everything, Click Here." The book crackles with intellectual energy and is encyclopedic in scope, examining the effects of technology on subjects ranging from politics to criminology to the endless quest to lose weight. One might wish for less breadth and more focus, however; often we barely have time to think about one topic when we are off to the next. Still, Mr. Morozov's overall perspective is vital and important.

He derides an ideology he calls "Internet-centrism," which defines the network not as a tool created by fallible human beings but as a creed to live by. The chief promoters of this ideology have projected upon the Internet certain values they imagine to be intrinsic, among them the imperatives to be open and transparent and efficient and digitally "social"; to believe that knowledge is created through data collection and algorithmic analysis; to believe that the minute quantification of existence is the path to self- awareness.

In this Internet-centric view, the Net stands outside of history. It has brought us to an epochal moment -- the culmination of all human invention. We therefore should live in accordance with its values. The Internet is a human creation; "the Internet" is a god to obey.

The margins of my copy of Mr. Morozov's book are filled with annotations. Check marks for a good thought: "Is there really no space for deception in our dealings with others or ourselves?" Stars for bits I want to read to friends: A Forbes journalist used software that quantified her every move and told her she is "happiest when drinking at bars." Exclamation points for disbelief that anyone would say that, as in this strange idea from a "gamification" promoter: "What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality?"

Reading the book is like arriving late to a dinner party where an erudite guest is holding forth at the head of the table. Mr. Morozov is arguing with people you have never met; quoting from books you may have never read; referring to batteries of sources that may send you to iPhone searches under the tablecloth. He is shaking his fist at vague opponents, including "pundits," "Silicon Valley," anyone with "a Palo Alto ZIP code," and ideas promulgated at TED conferences.

The argument is forceful and passionate, but its polemical tone is wearying. Mr. Morozov seems not to trust the judgment of his audience. He is right, but relentlessly right, as if none but fools could possibly disagree with him.

But just as you are about to tune out -- more wine, please -- you realize that Mr. Morozov is taking up the cause of human values against those of the machine, and you feel compelled to sit up and listen. He dares to see the Internet's fundamental credo of openness as a tyranny. …

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The Net: Key Tool or Creed to Live By?
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