Evgeny Morozov: Well, that would be a very triv­ial— To expect that there will be a king­dom of geeks but every­thing will stay the same would be I think a very— In some sense it will be a good and hap­py end­ing to my sto­ry, because it will just prove that noth­ing noth­ing can ever change.

I actu­al­ly take my own argu­ment seri­ous­ly, and I think that we have to enter­tain the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the geeks will suc­ceed in many of their projects. You know, you look back to say fif­teen years ago, and if I told you that in fif­teen years you’ll have a tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny that will man­age to scan all of the world’s books and they’ll also be work­ing on aster­oid min­ing, you would say that both of those things are insane. And you think about it today, only one of the things is insane. They have dig­i­tized all of the world’s books, and they’re about to start min­ing aster­oids.

So again, if it’s peo­ple like me who tend to be skep­ti­cal of such utopi­an schemes, we tend to attack them for their imprac­ti­cal­i­ty. We say that it’s nev­er going to work. What I tried to do in this book was to actu­al­ly try to take geeks at their word, and try to imag­ine what would hap­pen if they suc­ceed. I mean, because they can suc­ceed in part because there is a larg­er coop­er­at­ing in soci­ety at the polit­i­cal lev­el. The pol­i­cy mak­ers wouldn’t be unhap­py to out­source pol­i­tics to Silicon Valley entire­ly. Because now they run old­er plat­forms through which you can pro­vide the right incen­tives and [?] not just for the peo­ple.

So you car­ry your mobile phone. Why not reward you with points for show­ing up at the vot­ing booth, right? If you can reward peo­ple for vot­ing, why not do it through Facebook, where they can accu­mu­late points for throw­ing out the garbage, for vot­ing, for every­thing that pre­vi­ous­ly they did because they thought it was the right thing to do. Now they will do it because they’re earn­ing points and com­pet­ing with their friends, right. 

And this is what I find so ter­ri­fy­ing, because there is this very bizarre alliance between world-changing geeks on the one hand and pol­i­cy­mak­ers who only care about out­comes. They no longer care about how those out­comes are arrived at. They have stripped pol­i­tics of all mean­ing. All they want is to get peo­ple to do the right thing. They don’t care why they do it. And what I’m try­ing to recov­er in the book and to make a very explic­it case for is that we should do the right thing for the right rea­sons. If you don’t do the right thing for the right rea­sons, you might essen­tial­ly end up with a very impov­er­ished view of soci­ety, of pol­i­tics, and of the human con­di­tion.

Once you start reward­ing peo­ple with points for engag­ing in environmentally-friendly behav­ior, you have to under­stand that you have to reward them with points for any­thing. They will not pick up a piece of paper lying on the ground and throw it into the garbage can unless they earn points for that, right? There is this total­iz­ing log­ic which can eas­i­ly spread every­where, and we can part­ly see it with the spread of the mar­ket log­ic. So in some sense, what I’m talk­ing about here is also an exten­sion of the grow­ing mar­ke­ti­za­tion if you will, of our polit­i­cal and social world.

But again, just to reit­er­ate, I do think that there is a very good chance that the geeks will suc­ceed. I do think that a lot of our polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions will change. I do think that a lot of the deci­sions that essen­tial­ly have to be decid­ed in a polit­i­cal, demo­c­ra­t­ic fash­ion will be out­sourced to unac­count­able pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions in Silicon Valley. It’s not to me a giv­en that the right way to solve cli­mate change is to inform peo­ple about how much elec­tric­i­ty they’re con­sum­ing. It might be one of the many pos­si­ble solu­tions. But I also think we need to do some­thing on a much larg­er scale, and we need to engage in polit­i­cal reform.

What would be tempt­ing for the pol­i­cy­mak­ers to do is to just rely on say, Google, to send a reminder to remind you every day how much elec­tric­i­ty you’re con­sum­ing. How many miles you have walked. To tell you how many miles you have walked in a giv­en day as a way of fight­ing obe­si­ty is not going to work because a lot of peo­ple can’t afford cars; they can’t afford healthy food; they can’t afford access to farmer’s mar­kets; they live in places where there is not pub­lic trans­porta­tion, and they have to dri­ve a car instead of walk­ing.

All of those are big struc­tur­al, macro lev­el prob­lems which we will not be able to solve only if you get indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens to track how many calo­ries they con­sume or how many miles they have walked in an hour or in a day. And it’s this shift from macro lev­el polit­i­cal projects to micro lev­el consumer-driven projects that I find so ter­ri­fy­ing. Because again, it’s just not going to solve the prob­lems we’re cur­rent­ly fac­ing, which many of them exist.

So I’m not say­ing that all of the prob­lems geeks are try­ing to solve are imag­i­nary. Many of the prob­lems are real, exist­ing prob­lems. Climate change would be one. Health would be anoth­er. It’s just that the means by which they go about solv­ing them, they believe that those means are entire­ly unprob­lem­at­ic, and obvi­ous, and unpo­lit­i­cal. And I think that they’re not at all obvi­ous, and they’re polit­i­cal, and they may actu­al­ly be worse than more pro­duc­tive ways.

Interviewer: My final ques­tion. You were on a pan­el with the politi­cian Rory Stewart, who was talk­ing about a big gap between the indi­vid­ual and the big ideas. And he thought that some­where in the mid­dle was pol­i­tics with a sort of local root. Do you agree with that, and how could tech­nol­o­gy be used in a pos­i­tive sense to rein­force this sort of mid­dle ground?

Morozov: There is cer­tain­ly a cer­tain dis­con­nect between the lan­guage, the grand big ambi­tious macro lev­el lan­guage of pol­i­tics, that a lot of our think­ing and pol­i­cy debates and news­pa­per debates and pub­lic debates oper­ate in, and the real expe­ri­ence of democ­ra­cy, or lack there­of, by ordi­nary cit­i­zens. It’s very hard for peo­ple who go about in their dai­ly life to relate to a prob­lem such as cli­mate change. Because in part, they don’t see the con­se­quences until they’re hit by a hur­ri­cane like Sandy. So now America, sud­den­ly, that is back on the agen­da and peo­ple start dis­cussing it. But that only hap­pened because of nat­ur­al dis­as­ter.

For me, a very big and impor­tant ques­tion is how can you make—again in the con­text tech­nol­o­gy but I’d also bring this to polit­i­cal ques­tions. How can you make the con­se­quences of tech­nol­o­gy use more vis­i­ble dur­ing the use itself? So, how is it that our design­ers, con­sumer design­ers, indus­tri­al design­ers, have built our smart homes in a way to hide the con­se­quences of all the devices we are using? Why is it that we dis­cov­er how much elec­tric­i­ty we’re con­sum­ing at the end of the month, and we still have no idea how the elec­tric­i­ty sys­tem in our coun­try oper­ates? Why as a mod­ern soci­ety, we have cho­sen to hide away from the con­se­quences of our actions? 

So in a sense… I mean, you can part­ly maybe make a sim­i­lar argu­ment about pol­i­tics, but here I think there is also a dan­ger of try­ing to make pol­i­tics so trans­par­ent. I do think that politi­cians need some space in which to breathe. I think politi­cians need some space to think about issues and to poten­tial­ly reject the pop­ulist pres­sure that is often exert­ed on them. And that pres­sure is even eas­i­er to exert now because every­one has some kind of a tool or plat­form to lob­by. And very often, con­ven­tion­al lob­by­ing has rein­vent­ed itself as grass­roots ini­tia­tives. So you have the Tea Party pre­sent­ing itself as a grass­roots ini­tia­tive in America, while in fact you have the Koch Brothers, one of the rich­est peo­ple in America, fund­ing its caus­es and pro­mot­ing their agen­da that the Koch Brothers have been pro­mot­ing for thir­ty years. When we talk about the Tea Party, we sud­den­ly see there’s a grass­roots [essen­tial­ist?] ini­tia­tive. Well, in fact it isn’t.

So for me the big ques­tion is, on a polit­i­cal lev­el— I mean, in a sense every­thing is polit­i­cal, so our use of ener­gy is polit­i­cal. And in that sense, we need to fig­ure out a way in which to dis­rupt things that we take for grant­ed in our life, and in that sense you can actu­al­ly del­e­gate some of the polit­i­cal deci­sions. Not just del­e­gate, because cur­rent­ly those deci­sions are not made at all, but you can politi­cize many of the things that we take for grant­ed, through design.

For me, it’s how I actu­al­ly end the book I’ve just fin­ished. It’s try­ing to find a way to build what I call adver­sar­i­al design.” How can you build device that, when they’re plugged into your wall in stand­by mode will not just sit there idly wait­ing until you recon­nect them, but they’ll start twist­ing as if they were in pain. Why is it not an obvi­ous design deci­sion to sen­si­tize you to how much ener­gy you’re con­sum­ing? Why can’t you build a radio which sud­den­ly starts mis­func­tion­ing if you enter part of your house where you have the most elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion?

Again, there are all sorts of dis­rup­tions you could intro­duce into your built envi­ron­ment to make things that you take for grant­ed sud­den­ly look polit­i­cal and force you to think about com­plex sociotech­ni­cal sys­tems that sur­round you in your dai­ly life. And we have, I think, hid­den our­selves from those con­se­quences because we have thought that what is polit­i­cal is to be defined by politi­cians whom we elect to rep­re­sent us, and they will set the para­me­ters of what counts as impor­tant, what doesn’t count as impor­tant. And I think we see that mod­el no longer works. And this is where I think design­ers and engi­neers take on an out­sized role. Because instead of build­ing things that are high­ly func­tion­al and that allow us to con­tin­ue the unsus­tain­able project we are cur­rent­ly on, they can actu­al­ly sen­si­tize us to the con­se­quences of those projects and to make us think and reflect on the big sociotech­ni­cal sys­tems that we’re all part of. And unless that hap­pens I don’t think it’s real­is­tic to expect that pol­i­tics as such, as a for­mal process, will help us uncov­er the prob­lems that need to be solved. 

Further Reference

How to Change the World?, the 2012 Nexus Conference event page


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