x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Book review: Evgeny Morozov's compelling book on the power, the freedom and the dangers of the internet

In his new book, Evgeny Morozov says the internet can be a powerful, independent voice, but it's also subject to the same imperatives of power as other media, writes Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

The Cyber Cafe in New York City circa 1995. Jonathan Elderfield / Liaison
The Cyber Cafe in New York City circa 1995. Jonathan Elderfield / Liaison

To Save Everything, Click Here
Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane

In her celebrated January 2010 statement on "internet freedom", Hillary Clinton chided countries such as China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Egypt for placing restrictions on internet access. The then-US secretary of state affirmed her government's conviction that "the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become", because "access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship".

Not long after, the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks obtained a trove of information revealing US military and diplomatic conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Information flowed freely. But the US government appeared somewhat less convinced of its capacity for strengthening society. Access to WikiLeaks was restricted in many government agencies; Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal were persuaded to withdraw their services; and students and government employees were discouraged from sharing Wikileaks information on pain of jeopardising career prospects.

Internet freedom, it turned out, was not a sacrosanct principle. It failed to resist the intrusion of profane political concerns. As an analytical category independent of political and social constraints, the internet produced stirring rhetoric, but shorn of its obfuscating theology, it proved subject to the imperatives of power as much in the United States as in Uzbekistan.

This disconnect between the reality of the internet - the physical infrastructure, with its platforms, protocols and utilities; its promises, perils and limitations - and the idea of "the internet" - as a fixed, coherent and unproblematic phenomenon that is open, public and collaborative - enables two dangerous tendencies that are the subject of Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don't Exist.

The first he calls "solutionism" - a preoccupation with spectacular and narrow solutions to complex social and political problems. The second is "internet-centrism" - a conviction that "the internet" heralds a revolutionary era, a time of profound change in which old truths have become obsolete.

Solutionism, Morozov argues, is not new. The impulse has manifested itself in the various post-Enlightenment attempts at social engineering. Its dehumanising narratives have been challenged by thinkers such as Jane Jacobs writing on urban planning, Ivan Illich on professional schooling, Michael Oakeshott on rationalism, Karl Popper on historicism, even Friedrich Hayek on central planning.

But dangers arise when the easy availability and low costs of new technologies are taken as licence to intervene in society, to fix problems of politics, public health, climate change, education, law enforcement, even art. The "friction, opacity, ambiguity and imperfection" of social relations are replaced by economistic notions of "efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection". Political issues are turned into administrative problems with technological fixes. The rhetoric of empowerment is used to defer responsibility onto citizens while leaving structural problems unaddressed. Citizens are provided with the means to optimise their behaviour to the existing system, which is presumed fixed, unchangeable; and codes and algorithms are introduced to eliminate uncertainty from their lives, be it in health, security, or human relations. It's a Brave New World.

The evangelists for digital utopia - that includes both Silicon Valley companies and proselytising intellectuals - never question if such solutions are needed in the first place. Nor do they ask if efficiency is an unambiguous good. Indeed, many of the problems that digital technologies help address have only been recognised as such because the digital means have emerged to "fix" them.

The recent movement for openness and transparency in government exemplifies this tendency. The notion of openness is a laudable one, but in most cases it has been decoupled from the idea of accountability. Instead, the disclosure of data has become an end in itself. Governments have in turn adjusted to the new expectations by disclosing heaps of data that are of trivial value. Likewise the zealous quest for transparency has shown that politicians can be hypocritical, inconsistent and ambiguous. But politics is necessarily a messy business; friction and compromise are sometimes necessary for progress. In some situations even lying may be justified if it forestalls a larger evil. Truth-telling by contrast is easy if it entails no consequences. Every populist knows this. Transparency in government is a useful thing, but turned into an end in itself, it weakens trust in public institutions, engenders cynicism and diminishes political participation.

In many cases, such developments are the unforeseen consequences of well-meaning initiatives. But there are also cases where libertarian entrepreneurs steeped in Ayn Rand's anti-statist philosophies have benefited from such disillusionment. Public institutions that are seen as inherently corrupt can hardly be called on to exercise regulatory authority over private entities - especially if they are paying lip service to social consciousness. Power, as a consequence, has increasingly shifted into private hands.

Consider Peter Thiel. The PayPal co-founder was also one of the early investors in Facebook. He is an advocate for "open government"; he contributes money to the libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul; he funds the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation. But Thiel also sits on the board of Palantir, a private intelligence-gathering and data-mining company that serves the US intelligence agencies. "Note the irony here," writes Morozov, "the 'open-government' crusade is feeding the intelligence industry with better data, which, in turn, bolsters the main enemies of government openness."

Technological thinking has created a fetish for data, treating them as an objective, mechanical category. But data have a human provenance. The algorithms that process them are inflected with the biases of prevailing ideology; they reflect the conditions under which they are produced. But unlike the human processes that create them, algorithms are fixed. Their rigidity becomes an alibi and forecloses deliberation and revision.

Where laws are subject to deliberation and adjustment, codes are insulated in the guise of neutrality. Ideas such as predictive crime prevention rely on seemingly impersonal algorithms, but they use existing crime data for their projections and reproduce its vulnerabilities. If this codifies racial discrimination into the algorithms, then the police's licence to profile based on race or ethnicity is given a veneer of objectivity.

The ideology of the internet insists that the neutrality of algorithms be accepted prima facie. But the financial collapse of 2007-8 demonstrated that even the most sophisticated models are not immune to defection. As more and more of our lives are subjected to the whims of blind algorithms, the need for independent auditors has never been greater.

But as long as the internet is mythologised as an exceptional phenomenon outside of history and politics, it is possible that its myopic enlistment to the cause of human amelioration will do more harm than good. Technological fixes are sometimes unavoidable, but they are not always necessary. Sometimes politics and law achieve more - and they leave the door open for redress and refinement. The chorus of intellectuals singing paeans to technology's revolutionary potential does little to bring perspective or proportion to the debate.

Morozov is unsparing in dismantling their "cybernaivete" and a historical "epochalism" - a belief that we are living in revolutionary times that justify radical solutions. Beyond highlighting the absurdity of their claims, he also picks apart the philosophical foundations of their arguments, showing that in many instances they are based on a selective use of theories that have failed to establish their validity in the first place. He attacks their "obscure and unproductive McLuhanism", which projects intrinsic characteristics onto the medium and takes it to a level of abstraction beyond empirical scrutiny.

As a realist, Morozov has no illusions about eradicating the solutionist impulse; it is too deeply rooted in human nature. Internet-centrism, on the other hand, is a contingent phenomenon that rests on fragile myths. Morozov's avowed motivation is to undermine it by demolishing its epochalist conceits and flawed epistemology. For all its pugnacity, the book brims with many subtle insights. Morozov is a fine prose-stylist; but his acerbic wit is really whetted by the weight of his erudition. He has the ability to navigate with confidence the realms of political philosophy, sociology, international relations, law and ethics. He is compulsively readable without being a mere entertainer in the Slavoj Zizek mold. In To Save Everything, Click Here he has produced a compelling antidote to the irrational exuberance of the tech evangelists. If its criticisms are heeded, it can only encourage a more rational, sociologically rooted understanding of technology's potential.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad has a doctorate in sociology and edits Pulsemedia.org.