David Blackburn

Interview with a writer: Evgeny Morozov

Interview with a writer: Evgeny Morozov
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Evgeny Morozov is an iconoclast. He believes that technology, if abused or misused, has the potential to make society less free. His latest book, To Save Everything , Click Here, builds on his acclaimed polemic The Net Delusion (about which he spoke to the Spectator last year) to challenge those who suggest that technology is the solution to all of life’s problems.

Morozov describes how the technology of perfection is not necessarily compatible with democratic institutions and processes that are imperfect by definition. He reveals how ‘technological fixes’, particularly when coupled with market forces, threaten to close public debate and curtail personal choice; thereby moulding individuals into an efficient, homogenised society. Morozov grew up under the Soviet Union, and he knows a thing or two about the limitations of those devoted to efficiency and modernity. He applies a close reading of political philosophy and history to remind ‘Silicon Valley’ of the virtues of difference and imperfection.

Morozov’s polemic may not to be everyone’s taste (I think it distracts from his argument); but the range of his analysis is impressive, and his scepticism compelling. Morozov spoke to the Spectator about the marginalisation of ethics and aesthetics in modern society, Silicon Valley’s place in the history of utilitarianism, present threats to civic society, and the future of public space in an age of drones, 3D printers and self-driving cars.

Towards the end of the book, you write that the world is in an ‘aesthetic and ethical slumber’. What do you mean by that?

What I meant by that is with Silicon Valley at the helm, a lot of decisions that are essentially decisions that ought to be about political, moral and social considerations are reduced to decisions about efficiency and functionality. This is a trend that predates Silicon Valley’s takeover of the infrastructure, if you will. A lot of it has to do with the proliferation of the language of economics, and I try to draw connections between what’s happening now, with technology and things like gamification, and what we’ve been hearing about the proliferation of the language of economics and markets into places where economics and markets shouldn’t be present, where we should be guided by a different set of criteria that are political, moral and social and are not concerned with maximising efficiency and utility.

Where do aesthetics come in?

I have a chapter on design, and my own take on design is that it has been dominated for far too long by functionalism – and functionalism is like economics in that the idea is that things deliver what you expect them to deliver and nothing else. They’re supposed to hide the consequences of their use; they’re not supposed to make you think about anything other than their use. And I’m not sure that this is a good paradigm for design.

And, looking at the Quantified Self Movement and tracking, when you think about food you use a whole new language of terms like biomarkers, calories or fat. We put far less stress on taste and the sensual experience that we get. And this is where the aesthetics comes. Now, you look at a painting not to see what thoughts and feelings it triggers in you; you look at the painting because a key indicator in your life is running low and your Google Glass is telling you to look at a painting. It’s a slightly different outlook on the world than the one we’ve had before. And this is where the aesthetic slumber, I guess, comes in.

Were you aware that your critique of efficiency might apply to older debates about utilitarianism?

I’m not trying to do anything new. It’s obviously not a new argument that efficiency can be good. But it’s a more burning argument now that it ever was in the sense that you never had the technology of perfection that was as available and as cheap and as ubiquitous. You never had Google Glasses before, you never had self-driving cars, you never had doors that recognise who you are and let you in. The task for us as a society is to figure out how to live with perfection. And this is where we need to articulate a philosophy of imperfection.

You say that democratic institutions have to be defended and renewed. Is this not what ‘Silicon Valley’ is trying to do?

Of course institutions need to be defended. But here you need to understand what Silicon Valley is a proxy for. You know the argument now is about perfection. ‘Institutions are imperfect: they are partisan; they are inefficient; too much noise, too much talking. We don’t want talkers we want hackers.’ This is the sort of logic you hear in Silicon Valley. They think that the fact we talk so much is bad because they think that it’s obvious what the problem is and it’s obvious what the solution is: we need to get some hackers into a room for a hackathon and overnight they’ll build a solution. I think this is ridiculous and it’s not democratic.

People in Silicon Valley, I’m not sure they grasp that because they are very technocratic and they’re very managerial. It’s a private sector perspective where they think that the CEO decides what the problems are; he is accountable to shareholders so he should have the reins, so therefore he goes and hires the hackers. That is why they are so frustrated with policy-makers because they think that policy-makers are inefficient because their hands are tied by their constituents or by the media or whoever. I think it’s a very naïve view.

You talk about examining Silicon Valley’s solutionist claims in the political arena, and the need to ensure that we recognise and scrutinise market incentives. Could you elaborate on that?

Politics is a collective enterprise and it necessitates some sacrifice. The thing about markets in the book is that we’re introducing market incentives and processes without realising that they are market incentives. So with gamification, where we’re being awarded points for showing up at the voting booth to vote during election time, I think it should be seen as an extension of the market logic. You could say that it is perfectly ok to have market logic to get people to vote because it will increase turnout. If that is the argument you want to make, fine – go out and engage in debate. But, you see, people who promote gamification they don’t make that argument, they just say that they are appealing to the inherent human propensity to play. And it’s just bullshit.

Are you surprised that Silicon Valley hasn’t been politicised? That a political party hasn’t tried to assume the values that it espouses? There’s a natural fit with pro-market party; equally, there is a natural fit with a more technocratic style of politics, or a radical libertarian agenda.

It’s a hard question. You can look at the Pirate Party and argue that they are looking at some of the same talking points as Silicon Valley. It’s all about keeping “the internet” intact; preserving internet freedom, which is kind of a defeatist move because you don’t want to do anything with the technologies. So in a way they are representative of Silicon Valley.

But then again, these people are young. Check with Peter Thiel when he is 50. I’m sure they’ll become more engaged in politics and causes than they are already. I mean Cheryl Sandberg (Chief Operating Officer Facebook), you don’t publish a book about feminism without having political ambitions. I’m sure you’ll see very interesting moves by people who are all a bit young to join politics. Sergey Brin (Co-founder Google), Larry Page (Co-founder Google), Eric Schmidt (Executive Chairman Google)? I can see Eric Schmidt as VP in America. I don’t see him as President but easily as VP. Whether he would act in Silicon Valley’s best interests is, of course, another thing.

They are active on some issues; for example, they are very active on gun control in the US. But I do expect them to be more active, not necessarily in politics I find appealing.

Is that something that you would be interested in writing about?

It depends what it is. If they join the Democrats or the Republicans, then it would be very boring. If some of them decide to go and resurrect the democracy movement, then that would be very exciting to write about. Whether any of them are crazy enough to do it, I don’t know. But you look at their rhetoric and their frustration with the current political system and it feels like someone might do that.

You touch on the future of urban space in your book, and you’re writing a new book about it. What about it interests you?

I want to look at writings about the city, both ethical and aesthetical, because obviously you have a lot of writing on the Just City: what it is, what it means, how citizens are involved in the planning process. There is a lot of stuff there. But there is also a large aesthetics dimension: what it feels like to live in a city, what it means to be urban. There is a culture of urbanism; there is a lot of literature about it. And I want to do that because I think the more of this new normative terrain that is opened up, the richer at least my thinking gets about algorithms and new technologies in Silicon Valley.

What role do these technologies have in suburban and rural communities?

What I’m going to say is deeply provisional because I haven’t even thought about urban space let alone suburban spaces. You know, for me, the implications are that with self-driving cars, potentially, you can spend even more time commuting, which means that you could end up with even more suburban sprawl, which would also mean that some of the current problems, if you do think that suburban sprawl is a problem, would only get worse. I mean you could sleep in the car; it’s driving itself, you could go for 8 hours, why bother.

And obviously further developments in connectivity and information networks will, it is hoped, reinvigorate the rural economy.

I mean in some contexts that would be great. But in America? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. In America, you need to drive and you need to drive more and more, and what does that mean for climate change? We don’t know. And you wouldn’t need to visit stores anymore because you have drones doing same day delivery of products; and the only reason some stores are still alive is because Amazon cannot do same day delivery. As drones get cheaper and 3D printers get cheaper, all that can be done in a very different manner. And there will be huge implications for mobility from 3D printers, which again some people don’t expect. So I just want to spend some time thinking about it and see where it takes me. And I don’t really have a strong argument for or against; but I have the feeling if you just let Silicon Valley do this thing, it’s not going to end well. But that’s just a feeling and it comes from experience. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov is published by Allen Lane (£11.99)