The Internet’s Verbal Contrarian; writer Evgeny Morozov has quickly become the most prominent critic of the utopian promises coming from Silicon Valley

August 14, 2013

The Internet’s Verbal Contrarian

By NOAM COHEN

For every revolution, there is a counterrevolutionary. And so the digital one has brought us Evgeny Morozov.

A 29-year-old émigré from Belarus, Mr. Morozov has quickly become the most prominent, most multiplatformed critic of the utopian promises coming from Silicon Valley. His first book, “The Net Delusion,” looked skeptically at the belief that social networks were responsible for fomenting political change across the globe, and in the new “To Save Everything, Click Here” he has expanded that critique to question whether the Internet has improved anything.With the recent revelations about National Security Agency surveillance, Mr. Morozov is taking a victory lap of sorts. In an essay last month, he finds vindication for his pessimistic views about the Internet, as the world turns on the United States over its spying on overseas digital communications and as oppressive governments are emboldened to crack down: “This is the real tragedy of America’s ‘Internet freedom agenda’: It’s going to be the dissidents in China and Iran who will pay for the hypocrisy that drove it from the very beginning.”

Mr. Morozov has written for a long list of publications, including London Review of Books, The New York Times and The New Republic. In addition to the sheer volume of Mr. Morozov’s writings, there is his sheer volume. His style is aggressive and frequently accusatory, with a litany of digital idealists and organizations that he uses as punching bags. These include Facebook, Google, the publisher and writer Tim O’Reilly and the City University of New York professor and new-media guru Jeff Jarvis, whose book “Public Parts” Mr. Morozov savaged in a 6,000-word review in The New Republic, which included the memorable line, “This is a book that should’ve stayed a tweet.”

The aggressive, barroom quality of his writing has earned him plenty of admirers, as well as detractors who consider him a childish contrarian. But after becoming such a public, public intellectual by his mid-20s, Mr. Morozov has made a curious decision: to further his education. During the semester you could find him finishing his coffee upstairs at a Starbucks before making the walk across Harvard Yard for his seat at a seminar on the history of psychoanalysis as a first-year Harvard doctoral candidate in the history of science.

“I have more influence than I ought to have,” he said in the train to New York City from Boston, adding that he had a nagging feeling that his criticisms were too shallow. “The idea of the Internet allowed me to cut too many corners, intellectually.”

His new thinking is evident in “To Save Everything,” released in March. In the book Mr. Morozov puts quotation marks around every reference to “the Internet,” and with that tic he makes a larger point: readers should stop and question everything they have been taught about technology, including that the Internet exists.

Without such skepticism, Mr. Morozov and his supporters say, the public easily succumbs to the slick promises and catchwords of online entrepreneurs or TED talks — “open” or “generative” or “transparent” or “participatory.” And those words lead to real beliefs, with real consequences, he argues — for example, that privacy is just an archaic notion, or that information “wants to be free.”

Critics have generally welcomed “To Save Everything” for its contrary take, if not always how that take is expressed. Writing in The Times’s Book Review, Ellen Ullman, a novelist and former computer programmer, says Mr. Morozov “is taking up the cause of human values against those of the machine,” though she adds that his “polemical tone is wearying.”

Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor and frequent Morozov target, writes that the book was more of the same and that his attacks appear to be “mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.”

In person, too, Mr. Morozov can quickly turn adversarial, and not only when he threatens to stop talking because his interlocutor’s knowledge “is too limited.” He is as likely to spot a contradiction in his own thinking, saying something like, “You are going to catch me here, but who cares?”

Beyond his gnawing arguments and the way he delivers them, Mr. Morozov has benefited from growing public doubts in the prevailing belief in a “high-tech, techno-libertarian utopia,” said Ian Bogost, a professor of digital media at Georgia Tech and among the few writers in the field Mr. Morozov counts as a friend and ally. “This anxiety is one that needs voices who can identify it and find other paths. The reason why it is him is that he has been willing to pull no punches and be as brazen and direct as his targets.”

Mr. Morozov was born in Soligorsk, a small mining city whose name means “mountains of salt.” His quick answer to the question of why he wanted to come to the United States: “Do you know anything about Belarus?”

He said he had his epiphany about technology while working for Transitions, an organization that promotes the development of independent journalism in Europe and Central Asia. “I would show up in Tajikistan with this PowerPoint and tell them about Wikipedia and Flickr and YouTube, they were like: ‘Dude, we have no electricity. What are you talking about?’ ”

The lesson was clear: These ideas had a logic that was divorced from the people being asked to live with them.

After leaving Transitions, he got the first of an annual fellowship from the Open Society Institute (now Open Society Foundations) to live in New York and work on what would become “Net Delusion.” After time as a visiting scholar at Georgetown and Stanford, he is back to being a student.

“If my idea was just to maintain a certain lifestyle, there would be no need to get a Ph.D.,” he said. “But I do care very deeply about the idea side as well.”

At Harvard Mr. Morozov is branching out and letting down his guard, he said. He has followed a regimen of diet and exercise — “read, write and row,” as his friend, Mr. Bogost, put it — that has transformed his appearance.

By studying the history of science, Mr. Morozov said, “I acknowledge my ignorance from the very beginning.” But he hasn’t abandoned the skepticism of technology.

For all his rage against the servers and their handlers, Mr. Morozov has been masterly in exploiting the Internet. He has more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, where he promotes his latest print pieces with devilish glee — “TNR will publish one of those Jarvis-esque critical reviews I love to write.”

He has already planned his dissertation, which is set to be a book published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux — what he calls a history of the Internet intellectual movements like cybernetics that laid the groundwork for current approaches.

“It is easy to be seen as either a genius or a crank,” he said. “If you have a Ph.D., at least you somewhat lower the chances that you will be seen as a crank.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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