Evgeny Morozov: Hello everybody, and thank you very much for coming. I’m very happy to back to Stockholm. To be honest, I’ve been somewhat surprised to have been invited to this conference, mostly for two reasons. First of all I’ve seen on the web site that you’ve been promised inspirational keynotes. And the very last thing that I’ve ever been accused of is providing inspiration. Usually it’s bouts of depression that follow my talks. So I have warned you in advance.
And second, it’s also a bit odd for me to be talking at an event that has “Internet” in its title, in part because I’ve become somewhat notorious over the last few years for actually challenging the idea that talking about the Internet in abstraction from the corporate and government forces that have so far defined its existence is a good way to start the conversation.
So the reason why I am often accused of being a skeptic or a critic or some kind of a technophobe is not because I reject technology or reject mobiles or reject anything that has digital components in it. It’s because I am deeply skeptical over where the balance of power between corporations, the states, and the citizens lies at this point in history. And I think that what we are seeing with the further advancement of digitization is an even further shift of power from citizens to corporations and partly governments, mostly in its national security and surveillance components. While citizens actually do not see their own disempowerment, believing that that technology empowers them in ways that they have never seen before.
So this is sort of the ideological and political background from which I come. So I don’t think of myself as a technology skeptic. So, I do think that we have to formulate a response to the challenge and to the offer, which is very tempting, that Silicon Valley—and at this point I think it’s the cutting edge of what technology can accomplish today—we have to make an offer and a counteroffer to the program that Silicon Valley has put in front of us.
So let me say a few words about how I see that offer. Why I think a lot of governments are actually quite on board with it. Why they’re so eager to get in bed with a lot of technology companies. And what we as citizens and as social movements and as people who do not entirely want to see the transformation of our world into a world run entirely by American corporations can still do to prevent that.
So, if you look at the appeal that Silicon Valley has to a lot of us, and to a lot of public institutions especially, I think you can understand that the reason for that appeal is very simple. They can offer services that work, that work in a very effective manner, and that are offered more or less either very cheap or are mostly offered for free, right. And we know where that technical, nominal freedom comes from. It comes from the fact that they have found a way to convert that data that is generated in the context of using those platforms and services into something valuable that can then be sold on the advertising market.
That explains how a lot of the services of the information sector, whether it’s search, whether it’s email, whether it’s anything that involves some kind of exchange of data, can be offered either below their cost or actually for free. That’s at the heart of the business model of Facebook. That’s at the heart of the business model of Google and so forth.
That means that if you try to think about what would an alternative non-corporate model for the provision of those services look like, or what it looked like before, you’d probably arrive at a very different model, right. And we knew it from other institutions that we had before. Libraries, the post office, and so forth—previous institutions that sought to provide some kind of an alternative functioned on a very different logic. When it came to communication their model was very different. It’s either that we paid for those with our taxes—and you’ll know the story relatively well in Sweden. Or we paid for them with some kind of other contributions like stamps in the case of the post office, and so forth.
It was a direct exchange of money and cash. Data was not involved. Advertising was not involved. There was no way to basically link our consumption of information at a local level with the global financial and advertising market. It was impossible to link what was happening at the level of your local post office with the interests of giant corporations other than by the means of exchanging money.
Right now, that problem has been solved. Virtually every single act, virtually every single transaction that we engage in can be linked to the global financial markets, global advertising markets, and so forth. And companies like Google and Facebook are exploiting it quite well. So basically if Google was asked to serve as an alternative to the post office sixty or eighty years ago, their model of service provision would be very different and might scare some of us and some of us might embrace it. They would just come and say, “Well, if you want to send a letter, great. You don’t need to buy the stamps. We’ll just open the letter, have a robot read it, insert the relevant advertising into it, put your letter back into the envelope, and forward it to its recipient.”
That’s more or less the model on which many of the services work today. And for various reasons— And the main reason I would argue is that the state or other alternative public social communal institutions have withdrawn from the sector altogether. Silicon Valley at this point is the only player capable of offering these services. So we are more or less stuck with this new model which engages and involve 24⁄7 surveillance and the ability to convert the data generated in the context of the use of those platforms into something that can then pay for their provision.
I would argue that as we move on and digitization of society advances, so that sensors appear in virtually all other parts of our existence— Whether its our homes, whether it’s our cities, whether it’s our cars, whether it’s our thermostats, you name it. Virtually every single aspect of our existence sooner or later will be captured, digitized, analyzed, and so forth. As those processes happen, what we are going to see is that the same model that currently underwrites our email and our search will also start underwriting (from a financial perspective) the provision of those other services.
So I think it’s not entirely unreasonable to expect that these companies will become the key intermediaries when it comes to the provision of other services. Healthcare, education, transportation, you name it. Anything that involves some kind of data-intensive service provision (And at this point it’s hard to think of key sectors like education, health, transportation, energy consumption as being anything other than a data-intensive service.), we will see these new corporate, American, digital intermediaries grabbing a big chunk of the pie and offering a lot of services which technically look free, right? And which offer to us some basic diagnostics, but they offer it on a very different model than the previous model of healthcare, education, and energy that we knew in Europe before.
And again I don’t want to get into a very long discussion about the benefits and the downsides of the welfare state, which in the case of Sweden would be a very complicated discussion. But let me just say that in the case of Silicon Valley, the model on which the entire system operates is very simple. It’s very individualistic in its character in that the only data that more or less is being gathered, analyzed, and traded (for financial reasons) is data about individuals. So your own personal lifestyle behavior is being analyzed.
If you think for example about all these healthcare apps which seek to analyze how [much] exercise you do every day, how many steps you take, what food do you eat, how much physical energy you burn and so forth. The only actor that’s present in this analytical framework is the individual citizen. And it’s our behavior that’s being analyzed, and then tinkered with, through all sorts of complex nudges and other types of behavioral modifications that are served to us by those apps, while other actors, in other parts of the sociopolitical milieu, if you will, are being slowly kind of faded out and discarded from the analysis altogether.
So we’re no longer talking about the problem of big pharmaceutical companies in shaping the health agenda. We’re no longer talking about the power of big food corporations in actually shaping what we eat and what you don’t eat. We’re no longer talking about how our cities are designed to facilitate or not facilitate walking, public transportation, and so forth. All of those issues suddenly are losing in importance as virtually all of the importance and all of the efforts are attached to governing just one part of the system, which is the individual.
I would argue that this kind of offer is very amenable and very pleasant for a lot of governments to receive, in part because they are facing very tough problems when it comes to actually financing the provision of many of these services. You’ll know the situation very well in Northern Europe and in Europe as a whole. It’s no longer affordable to keep the kind of health, education, and other social welfare systems that we had before without doing some major alterations in it. In part because its societies are aging, there’s an influx of new people coming in, partly because of the humanitarian crises that we are having. There are a lot of other costs that suddenly could not be covered because the public money has gone elsewhere because of the austerity agendas, budget cuts, and so forth.
So suddenly, we find ourselves in a situation where we have a lot of governments who are keen to make deals and alliances with a lot of these technology companies for the sole reason that it will allow them to basically provide some kind of resemblance to the same health and education and transportation services that they offered in the past, while continuing with the project of privatization that they themselves are very keen on to advance for other ideological reasons.
So we end up in this high-tech, innovative capitalism whereby more and more of the services are pulled into the hands of private corporations. Individuals are being told that they’re being empowered because suddenly they can monitor their health, they can monitor every single aspect of their lifestyle—energy consumption and so forth—while at the same time players who might actually be responsible for the problems that currently exist and surround us get away scot free. All of the lobbyists, corporations, politicians, and so forth that I mentioned.
And for me this is a very troubling development which I think needs to be countered. And it needs to be countered very strategically and systematically. And the only way to do that is by actually analyzing how come all of these companies in Silicon Valley (and we see a few of them emerging in Europe as well, but at somewhat slower pace when it comes to the provision of those services) how come all of those services enjoy such giant valuations on the financial markets without actually owning or producing anything by way of physical assets?
You look at a company like Uber, it’s worth, on whatever day you look at it, somewhere between sixty and seventy billion dollars US, without owning any cars, without actually employing any drivers, and without owning much by way physical assets. And we have to understand where does value in these companies come from. And in a lot of them, a huge chunk of the value I would argue comes from the fact that they’re sitting on tons of data that they have accumulated from our use of their services. And I would argue that unless we manage to politically and theoretically understand what role does user data that have already been accumulated by the likes of Google play in the provision of their services and in the high valuations that they enjoy, we would never be able to understand where would new forms of exploitation in this new hypercapitalist economy come from.
And for me it’s clear that if future movements that would like to contest this new model— And that is very little to like about it, by the way. If you look at a company like Uber— And I know that it’s something that Europe still thinks they can sort of push away— And I think that will be a very tough fight because in Europe there are two almost schizophrenic parts fighting for dominance. You have a lot of politicians who would actually be very happy with the American model of deregulated financial, informational capitalism, where you have free flow of data between different governments, between different nations-states, between different localities and so forth on infrastructure that is run by a handful of private corporations, and people who can only conceive of themselves as individual entrepreneurs— I mean there are such politicians in Europe and in Sweden, and you probably know who they are.
And then there are others, who under the pressure of trade unions and all sorts of other institutions, including by the way a lot of European companies who are not happy with Silicon Valley, are trying to push back. Not necessarily to create some kind of alternatives in the interest of citizens or the people, but solely to kick the American giants away from Europe and to make sure that they cannot operate in places which are currently dominated by other kinds of companies, be that car manufacturers, banks, media companies, and so forth. All of whom have finally discovered and understood that unless they take drastic action they stand to be disrupted much in the same way that publishers had been disrupted thirty years ago. If you talk to car manufacturers, if you talk to manufactures of many other products, if you talk to energy companies and others, all of them are extremely sensitive, all of them are extremely concerned about smart thermostats, smart cars, and products like that.
So we end up in a situation where we have this somewhat schizophrenic response in Europe where one part wants to continue this integration with Silicon Valley, Washington, and trade agreements and whatnot. And the other part would like to somewhat modify them to preserve the power of incumbent corporations. What I think we need to do is to try to articulate what a third way would look like that would actually be in the interest of citizens and interest of the general public. And the only way to do that, as I’ve said, is to problematize the status of data. And we have to understand that if data really is the source of both competitive advantage and of value to a lot of these companies…
And by the way, I do not think that right now you can disrupt a company like Google with better algorithms. To me it’s clear that much of the value that Google generates to individual users comes from the data on individual users that they have already accumulated. You can be building an algorithm a day in your garage on a daily basis, and you will never outcompete Google because it sits on ten years of user data which allows them to personalize search results and provide them in a way that no innovator could potentially even compete with.
So I mean, there are also competitive aspects here which I think we need to consider. But the basic point again I would like to emphasize is that we have to understand that if that data has a lot of value, and if that data currently generates a lot of money to those companies partly because of various alliances between governments and corporations that have produced this rather anti-competitive field, we have to start movements and we have to start parties and we have to start at least thinking if we cannot do it on an institutional level, about how we can erect some kind of barriers, enclosures, however you want to call it, to prevent that data from being sucked in and being treated as a commodity in these giant databases.
Because this is the data that we are producing in a rather communal manner very often. If you think about how data’s produced by computers using public transportation systems. I’m sure that within a couple of years, Uber, Google, whatever company you would like to pick, will find a way to take that data from the sensors and integrate it into their product that they will then go and pitch to whatever city is looking for a smart city solution to their transportation service. But I’m not sure that that data should belong to them.
And unless we as citizens manage to articulate an alternative vision for data that would not reduce data to the status of commodity to be sold and bought in the markets, we’ll end up in a situation where our data enslavement and our data dependence on these companies will only continue even further. Which would also mean that any contestation of their power will be extremely difficult and impossible. Not just because they will strike lock-in deals with city governments, administrations and so forth—a fight that we have known ever since the fights around open source and free software. Data at this point becomes as much a field of struggle and contestation and perhaps even moreso.
And my fear is that we will end up with just two options here. The first option will be companies like Google and Facebook telling us that, “You can basically leave your data with us and we’ll provide superb services based on artificial intelligence, based on some unique analysis of your everyday information flows, that will make your life easier by saving you the time.”
If you look at a service like Google Now, which is Google’s flagship service in autonomous search, what does Google Now do? Google now integrates all the streams of data and information that you’re producing in your everyday life—in you email, in your use of other services whether it’s Airbnb, Spotify, you name it; a lot of them are Google services. Google News, YouTube, and so forth. And it seeks to feed your data before you have even realized that you have an information need for it. It’s a way to basically constantly preempt your wants and desires for more information with information that’s coming from analysis of your lifestyle, calendar, situation, and so forth. So Google Now will provide you with your travel itineraries, weather at the destination where you want to go. It will do certain little tasks for you, sparing you from hassle in your everyday life and so forth. Which basically means that Google at this point has a very useful proposition to make to many of us and it’s that, “Let us monitor you 24⁄7, and what you’re going to get an exchange is free time.”
This is the proposition. And the proposition is that surveillance, you can convert it [into] free time, which means that a lot of people find it very appealing. Because previously where did you used to get free time? Well, you used to get the time if you worked in a factory by basically forming a trade union and negotiating with your factory employer to basically give you some more free time. Social struggle for free time used to take many other diverse forms which also involved many other diverse politics.
At this point, you generate free time by continuing with the neoliberal project of privatization and surveillance. This is where free time comes from. Let yourself be monitored as much as you can, and these companies will provide services which will do certain things for you and monitor everything in your life, and thus basically preempt many of the things that you will need to do on your own. Which for a lot of people is a very appealing vision given that other potential movements and actors who could have done some of that, whether it’s trade unions or political parties, are no longer capable of those fights. So this is option number 1 that comes from Silicon Valley, and I’m not very happy with it.
Option number 2 are other smaller startups that are not like Google and are not like Facebook. And they basically tell you data is a commodity, but you can own it. So why don’t you start monitoring yourself anyhow on a 24⁄7 basis, and we will then hook you up with advertisers and other people who’d like to buy your data, and they will pay you directly.
So their goal is to turn all of us into entrepreneurs who can make a living—again through surveillance and monitoring ourselves, but essentially we will cut Google, Facebook, and some other intermediaries out of the equation. That vision of the world I also do not like for political reasons. Because by assuming that the entirety of our lifetime should be subject to market relations and the intrusion of market logic into our communications, to me it’s again the very frontier and the cutting edge of the neoliberal ideology today. The idea that when I go to the shower and sing a song I should be thinking about which advertiser for shampoo would like to purchase that song for me is not necessarily a healthy trend or healthy development in modern capitalism. And yet I fear that this is where we’re going, not through the intrusion of sensors into our everyday life but through the intrusion of financial capitalism in our everyday life.
And this is what I think a lot of people misunderstand. What they think that today we need to be criticizing is just a bunch of technology companies who are acting on their own because they don’t understand the complexity of human condition or something like that. This is not at all the case. The only way to make sense of Silicon Valley today… And of the technology sector more broadly because the technology in Europe at this point does not really differ all that much from the logic that’s driving Silicon Valley… But the only way to make sense of them is by trying to understand where it is that they fit into the broader scheme of things.
When it comes to things like history, when it comes to things like the post-Cold War environment in Europe, when it comes to things like the financialization of our economies, when it comes to things like the austerity agenda that forces a lot of governments to basically search for technology-based solutions because that’s the only way for them to continue providing the services that they used to provide in an environment where they no longer have the budgets… The only way for us to make sense of the technological narratives of today is by reinscribing them into these more complicated political and economic and historical frameworks.
The problem is that the very term “the Internet” (by attacking which I began my intervention today) precludes us from that. Because instead of these deeply historical, economic, and political narratives, we end up with a rather simplistic one which basically tells us that history begins thirty years ago when the World Wide Web was invented, or TCP/IP is invented, and that operates somehow outside of the logic of government, outside of the logic of the corporations, outside of the history of capitalism, outside of the Cold War. And this is just not the case. Anything from submarine cables to surveillance to commodification of data can be easily explained by reference points in the history of capitalism or history of the Cold War, without having to imagine that we have entered some kind of new world where the logics of capitalism or Cold War have been suspended.
So the only message I can send in concluding my talk is that we have to be able to treat the Internet not just as a bunch of infrastructure or not just as a bunch of services. We also have to understand what kind of function, what kind of role does it serve to promote and sustain certain ideological formations, ideological movements today. And I’m afraid that at this point we have come to a point where the very term “the Internet” precludes us from thinking bigger thoughts in opposing some of the bigger socioeconomic transformations that are on the way. Thank you very much.
Moderator 1: Thank you.
Evgeny Morozov: Sure.
Moderator 2: Thank you, Evgeny Morozov. I was trying to think of a new name for my ad-by-mail service. Do you think it’s a problem that we as users see these services as something that’s simply free, and we don’t care about the implications? Because when you said that if Google open my mail and they could send it for free if they inserted ads I thought, “That’s a great business idea.” A lot of users would probably love that.
Morozov: Sure. So I mean look, I come from a school of thought that tries to historicize everything. So for me, there is no use in trying to turn this problem into an ethical or moral dimension where I would say, “Users, stop using this infrastructure.” What you should be doing instead as a user is to be asking questions why alternative infrastructures don’t exist. Why there is no public money to build those infrastructures. Why the money that exists at the European level through various lobbies goes to fund corporations but not the users.
I mean, for me those are the questions. I do not want to moralize and tell people stop using Google and stop using browsers and don’t use your credit card and live like Richard Stallman in his office and pay [with] cash for everything that you buy. Because ultimately that’s a way to be defeated. Because ultimately this is not just a question of ethics. We have to understand why certain historical forces have created the situation, then we need to oppose them. You’re going to just be opposing the manifestations of those systems rather than the systems themselves.
Moderator 2: Thank you very much.
Moderator 1: Great finish. Thank you.