Author: Think twice about ‘the Internet’

130719130054-morozov-color-story-topBy Todd Leopold

It’s not the Internet to Evgeny Morozov. It’s “the Internet” — with quotation marks.

Morozov is trying to make a point. Thanks to the Web’s rapid spread and overwhelming influence on 21st-century society, we’ve come to think of cyberlife as something distinct from our everyday interactions. To proponents, it has brought a cornucopia of information that will allow society to fix its most intractable problems.

But in his new book, “To Save Everything, Click Here,” Morozov pushes back against that belief. He is skeptical of such “solutionism,” pointing out that just because smart technology has its benefits doesn’t mean it’s going to lead to utopia. (After all, one man’s utopia is another’s “Brave New World.”)

It’s not like Morozov is a Luddite. He has a website and maintains an active Twitter feed with more than 40,000 followers, and he digs deep into information sites and services. It’s just that he wants the public to stop and think about the consequences of our headlong rush in embracing the latest digital tools.

CNN spoke via e-mail with the noted tech thinker about why he wrote the book, the flaws in being overawed by the latest gadgetry and the costs of data accumulation. The following is an edited version of our interview.

CNN: Why write the book? Do you feel like you’re swimming upstream against popular opinion, and do you care?

Evgeny Morozov: While writing my first book, “The Net Delusion,” I became fascinated by two questions. First, why do we find our current technological situation — of which the Internet is certainly the most attractive and popular example — unique, and what role this uniqueness plays in policy. Second, now that technology companies play such an important role in public life — mostly because they run the digital infrastructure through which much of this life happens — what are the costs and benefits of enlisting them in important social and political projects?

In the new book, I continue with the same two questions but shift my attention from authoritarian states and foreign policy to more mundane, domestic issues. What makes us think that problems like obesity or climate change might be technologically solvable? And what makes us think that technology companies, with their penchant for apps, would make good allies in this fight?

As for the “swimming upstream” part, it doesn’t bother me at all.

CNN: You talk a lot about “the Internet,” putting the term in quotes so it’s not considered its own marvelous entity. But isn’t “the Internet,” even if it’s not all its promoters say it is or want it to be, a huge leap forward in communications?

Morozov: This might be trivially true, but the problem with terms like “the Internet” is that they blind us both to perverse effects of connectivity — connectivity does not equal democratization, just like social capital does not equal a robust civil society — and the fact that digital technologies have very different effects in different contexts.

So while I have no problem acknowledging some changes in scale, what I oppose is the idea that, somehow, the effects of the “Internet” unfold to some trajectory that is visible to digital gurus in Silicon Valley. The reason for putting “the Internet” in quotes is simply to indicate that we have accumulated too many myths to continue without harming our own ability to arrive at wise policy.

CNN: I’m struck by how easily modern technology can be circumvented — not even by cutting wires or jamming transmissions but by sidestepping it entirely. (I recall some post-9/11 war games in which a U.S. officer had success by avoiding electronics in favor of messengers, handwritten letters and the like.) Why are these lessons so hard for solutionists to learn?

Morozov: Let me guess: Because solutionists spend far too much time with venture capitalists and far too little with people who actually use the technologies they build?

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