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