Evgeny Morozov’s newest book, Click Here, is best read as marginalia rather than as any systematic contribution to a social theory of technology. It is a book very much of the moment, focused on challenging the mistakes of a narrow field of interlocutors, all of whom publish, like Morozov, on the fashionable topic of technology journalism. The question which they, like Morozov, seek to address is what technology, and specifically the Internet, signify today. Morozov has made a career out of caustic reviews which deconstruct the grand narratives of techno-journalism. Given the chance to offer a counter-narrative in a longer format, however, he disappoints. This is a shame because our society needs to have a broader conversation on the power and limits of technology. The book makes gestures towards such a conversation, but it never seems as important as skewering the next techno-evangelist.
Let’s start with the laudable: Morozov criticizes a way of talking about technology, which he calls “Internet-centrism,” that is conceptually monolythic, treating all developments as a seamless story about the Internet. By relying on notions of rupture instead of socio-historical continuity, they are ahistorical, suggesting that there is a clear division between the pre- and post-Internet worlds. Finally, this talk is teleological, apt to mistake technological ends for human purpose.
Having dispatched the historiographical errors early in the book, much of the rest is devoted to demonstrating how the fetishism of modern technology has trade-offs in politics, criminology, or health. Morozov identifies a dynamic, which he calls “solutionism,” and defines it as the advocacy of practices developed in the technology industry that can and should be applied to solve a wide range of unrelated inefficiencies. Such inefficiencies, he counters, seen from a different perspective, might be virtues. This form of algorithmic administration undermines the exercise of judgment nescessary for a functioning democracy.
Though this is far from a pessimistic book, it is a text that proceeds negatively, moving from one victim to another. Morozov is an oppositional writer; he thrives on his opponents’ mistakes. Too often the vigor of his critique undercuts the relevance of his opponents. For example, he never justifies the thrashings given to Clay Shirky or Jeff Jarvis, who seem unlikely influences on middle America. Rarely do you find a writer spilling so much ink on subjects of so little apparent value.
The book follows a broad rhetorical strategy of attacking the sources and historiography of technology journalists. He raises genuine concerns about how to write rigorous, methodologically supported journalism. Meanwhile, his own claim to authority is grounded in the suggestion that he is a better reader of ideas and history. However, the book is fundamentally weakened by clumsy paraphrasing of complex scholarly debates. Take for example a discussion of a history of the printing press1. This is useful for Morozov to demonstrate how “Internet-centrists” misread their historical evidence and thus weaken their claims. The reader is left with the impression that there is one, methodologically secure way to write history. In another instance, Morozov cites critics of rational choice theory, but this interdisciplinary argument is far more complicated than his recounting suggests.2 Such citations are used instrumentally to dismiss opposing arguments, but in a highly misleading way.
The book has a more general problem citing authority figures. When rebutting putative scientific claims, Morozov is supported by “sociologist X,” “philosopher Y,” and “political scientist Z.” The rhetorical grab for authority is obvious.10 And it is constantly undermined by glancing references to very difficult thinkers and texts—Latour, Horkheimer and Adorno, Nietzsche—who would be difficult to capture honestly in several hundred words much less a sentence. Several times, the book trots out egregious examples of anachronism.11 Morozov is lining up his toy soldiers at the expense of rigorous scholarship.
Other reviewers have treated the book with detached politeness, damning it, as they say, with faint praise. Despite its shortcomings, there is an important point to be excavated from the mess and the book could be an entry into a deeper conversation about the significance of technological change.
The change wrought by the automobile went deeper than offering us a quicker transportation, like a faster horse. From its modest beginnings as a curiosity, the automobile has locked our society into a trajectory with all of the economic and ecological consequences that follow from it. It has taken the threat of irreversible ecological disaster for us to doubt the virtues of the car and, despite the immediate threat, we continue to drive. Today we have an infrastructure devoted to individual car owners with paved roads, highways, and gas stations. The current situation was not inevitable. It took a change in behavior and a series of political choices to arrive at where we are today: a situation where it is nearly impossible to survive without an automobile. Such examples are powerful reminders that social change can be path-dependent; Once the initial path is taken, incentives for behavior are changed to make it unlikely that society will later reconsider its initial choice.
For many, the “Internet,” to borrow Morovoz’s scare quotes, marks another technological watershed.3 Like the automobile, new communication technology lowers costs, changes incentives and behaviors, and alters the social practices of everyday life. It may be that his desire to deconstruct techno-evangelism blinds him to the ways in which we may actually be in the midst of epochal change. By looking at technology as a comprehensive process, rather than as a set of discrete products as Morozov does, we can discern the contours of this new world. He recognizes this potential when he writes of technology as “an intellectual template for how the world itself should be organized,”4 or technology as a new human telos.5 But Morozov avoids the full significance of his argument especially regarding the internalization of technological norms. What is appearing is a new way of thinking about the self, its purpose and meaning, and the world. We risk entering a new practice of subjectivity, a new technology of the self, in which the primary language of subjectification is technics.6
The closest the book gets to addressing these issues is in the final two substantive chapters. There Morozov attacks the self-quantification movement, or the use of tools to amass data about our lives on a microscopic level. Morozov criticizes the trend from several angles, but each converge around the fear that self-quantification impoverishes our sense of what human life means, that our self-understanding might be reduced to a stream of data points. “The movement’s fundamental assumption is that the numbers can reveal a core and stable self…”7 Morovoz does not extend his argument past data collection to the myriad forms we have for sharing data, and what such new forms imply about intersubjectivity. Whether it concerns the loss of privacy inherent in Facebook or self-quantification or the new opportunities to self-brand, the behavior that he connects to data-collection might be a broader trend endemic to many activities. Learning new ways to represent ourselves intra- and inter-subjectively is tantamount to learning new ways of being in the world.
Morozov is a communitarian, though he may not self-identify as such. However, his predominant concern with ethical judgments and his passing references to Sandel, Nussbaum, and Oakeshott are telling. The first two thinkers, Morozov informs us, are the good sort of liberal theorist, who do not place the individual over virtue or the good life.9 He takes for granted that the Aristotelian Good is preferable to liberal pluralism and it’s respect for individual ends.8 Politically, then, it seems obvious to him that self-quantification yields impoverished human lives, since it interrupts self-cultivation demanded of fully-engaged citizens. The essential facts of political life and citizenship are not affected by technological change. He has no need to develop a deeper theory of the subject, of society, or of history since his assumptions about the human condition, borrowed from communitarians, provide the justification for assuming that technology yields malformed lives. If, however, one is suspicious of the conservative overtones, Morozov’s rejection of political consequences and changing paradigms of identity is less convincing.
This brings us to the final and most telling lacuna of Click Here: in a book about technology, consumerism, and the megalomaniacal ambition of Silicon Valley, Morozov makes no mention of Capitalism, or to economics as a systemic force at all. To someone following a different political conversation in America today, questions of economic justice are central to our narrative about the last decade. The conversation around the uses of technology is largely a problem of the wealthy who can afford to indulge their time and money in the gadgets necessary for self-quantification. Privacy is a luxury; the burden of our surveillance security state falls largely on the poor. I doubt a book concerned with such iniquities would bother with Jeff Jarvis.
Morozov, Click Here 52. ↩
Ibid 41. Political Scientists Green and Shapiro wrote a strong critique of Rational Choice scholarship, accusing it of, among other things, stripping the richness of the human experience out of political science. However convincing one finds Green and Shapiro’s argument, it is clear that many scholars continue to produce studies that rely heavily on rational choice models. From this, we might reasonably conclude that many smart people do not find Green and Shapiro convincing. At the same time, Morozov, glossing his hobbyhorse Clay Shirky, caricatures rational choice scholars. They already know that they are relying on over-simplified models of human decision-making. That is the point. By critiquing a weak version of his target, and over-estimating the strength of his support, he confuses whatever point he is trying to make about Internet-centrism. ↩
“[H]istory itself is deemed irrelevant, for ‘the Internet” is seen as representing a distinct rupture with everything that has come before—a previously unreachable high point of civilization” (ibid 44). ↩
Ibid 25. ↩
“’The Internet,’ thus, is believed to possess an inherent nature, a logic, a teleology, and that nature is rapidly unfolding in front of us” (ibid 24). ↩
I am borrowing this language from the late Foucault. See Michael Foucault “The Subject and Power” in The Essential Foucault (The New Press, 2003) and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction (Vintage, 1990). These citations are meant to indicate where an engagement on this point might be fruitful. Foucault’s last decade is an eagerly awaited book length topic. ↩
Ibid 232. ↩
Ibid 343. ↩
Ibid 343. This one of the strangest passages in the book. ↩
In a section critiquing a variety of ways in which technology fetishists misunderstand the electoral process—a crucial point—Morozov cites cites the venerable Hanna Pitkin to distinguish agency and delegate models of political representation (Morozov 105). All of this in a handful of sentences, which strongly implies that Pitkin is the last word on the subject. For anyone who has studied the voluminous literature in political theory on representation, Pitkin is respected but hardly conversation-stopping. ↩
A case in point is the discussion of Condorcet, a French political theorist who, reacting to the French Revolution, wrote about tyranny and representation in republican governments. But in Morozov’s telling, Condorcet advocated the “quantified self” avant la lettre. Nietzsche, meanwhile, was the first to rebel against “the quantification fetish” (p. 243-5). This is an anachronistic oversimplification of the worst kind. He asks “[w]hat would Nietzsche make of Google’s Eric Schmidt…?” This is a bad way to use history. For a more careful discussion of Condorcet’s contributions to democratic theory, see Pierre Rosanvallon, Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust (Cambridge, 2008) and Nadia Urbinati, Representative Democracy: Principles and Geneology (Chicago, 2008). For a discussion of anachronism and the use of history, Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and understanding in the history of ideas” in Visions of Politics, vol. 1: Regarding Method (Cambridge, 2002). ↩