Evgeny Morozov: Well, I come from Belarus. This is where I grew up. I spent the first sev­en­teen years of my life liv­ing there. I also come not from the cap­i­tal but from a very small city of min­ers. My entire fam­i­ly’s in min­ing, spends a lot of time under­ground, and I was the one who man­aged to have escaped. 

So, with regards to author­i­tar­i­an­ism, of course, Belarus is known for hav­ing one leader in place since 1995, and the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion there is not entire­ly envi­able. And if you lis­ten to some of the pun­dits in America, they would often describe it as the last out­post of tyran­ny in Europe.

I start­ed work­ing on tech­nol­o­gy very indi­rect­ly. I start­ed work­ing for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion called Transitions Online, which was one of those west­ern NGOs that was pri­mar­i­ly inter­est­ed in pro­mot­ing free­dom of expres­sion, pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ism, but also you can say democ­ra­cy and human rights in the for­mer Soviet Union. And my con­tri­bu­tion to their work was to fig­ure out how to build a new media strategy.

And of course, com­ing from Belarus, at the very begin­ning I was very excit­ed about the poten­tial of these new tools because the way I looked at is was that every­thing else has been tried. You know, we’ve tried NGOs, we’ve tried polit­i­cal par­ties, we’ve tried build­ing nation­al­ist move­ments. Everything in the case of Belarus has been tried and failed. And here comes this new tech­nol­o­gy. You can use text mes­sages to mobi­lize peo­ple. You can use blogs to dis­cuss things you can­not dis­cuss in the tra­di­tion­al media. You can rely on the pow­er of cell­phones to cap­ture police brutality.

I mean, there was a lot of excite­ment around 2005, 2006, which part­ly again derives from the polit­i­cal cli­mate in Eastern Europe at the time. You had the rev­o­lu­tion in Serbia. Then you had a few years lat­er rev­o­lu­tion in Ukraine. You had rev­o­lu­tion before that in Georgia. Something was brew­ing in Eastern Europe and we had a lot of hope. And I invest­ed a lot of hope in technology.

But then I think my oth­er, cyn­i­cal, Eastern European part took over. And I have to add that I also spent four years in Bulgaria. This is where I got edu­cat­ed. And Bulgaria’s known [in] the rest of the Balkans for its cyn­i­cism. And my cyn­i­cal Bulgarian side I think took over at some point in 2006, 2007, and I became very skep­ti­cal of the very tools and plat­forms we were using, in part because I saw that they were actu­al­ly mak­ing very lit­tle dif­fer­ence to the sit­u­a­tion on the ground, to peo­ple who were on the ground using those tools. But I also noticed that author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments them­selves were actu­al­ly active­ly deploy­ing those tools to spy on their pop­u­la­tion; to engage in pro­pa­gan­da by pay­ing and train­ing blog­gers to spread the kind of truth that the gov­ern­ment want­ed to spread; by engag­ing in new forms of cen­sor­ship through cyber attacks. And I basi­cal­ly saw the oth­er side of this dig­i­ti­za­tion. And I saw that if you leave things as they are and we engage in this very hap­py, cheer­ful cel­e­bra­tion of the pow­er of the Internet, you would miss the real sto­ry. And the real sto­ry unfor­tu­nate­ly was that author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments were get­ting empow­ered as well. 

So in my own case, those two, utopi­an projects on the one hand com­ing from me hop­ing that this might change the world for the bet­ter; and at the same time a dystopi­an, cyn­i­cal side try­ing to show how well-meaning schemes all end up in dis­as­ter, some­how came togeth­er and pro­duced my first book, which I think is entire­ly depen­dent upon my pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ence as some­one who worked for an NGO but also some­one who saw many of those ear­ly inter­ven­tion schemes on the ground as some­one who lived in Belarus and then in the Balkans.

Interviewer: Wow.

Morozov: You know how many times I’ve been asked that ques­tion on the radio or television?

Interviewer: You men­tioned a first book. I think Rob’s talked about a sec­ond book. But he has­n’t shared that with me. What is it about?

Morozov: So, my next book is called To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. And this book is in some sense a con­tin­u­a­tion of The Net Delusion in that I’m shift­ing my atten­tion away from author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries, from author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments, and I’m look­ing much clos­er to lib­er­al democ­ra­cies. I’m try­ing to under­stand what makes lib­er­al democ­ra­cies work, why they work as they do polit­i­cal­ly, why they work as they do socially. 

And my hunch when I was begin­ning to write that book was that there is a new play­er in town, and this play­er is Silicon Valley. It’s geeks, engi­neers, tech­nol­o­gists, inno­va­tors, who, because our world became so medi­at­ed through tech­nol­o­gy, sud­den­ly acquired pow­er. They are the new elite, but they are an unac­knowl­edged elite in some sense. And I also sensed when I began writ­ing the book was that they’re very dif­fer­ent from typ­i­cal com­mer­cial play­ers. They’re not like Coca-Cola or McDonalds, that just wants to go and sell you anoth­er ham­burg­er or anoth­er Coke. They actu­al­ly want to change the world. And they want to change the world for the bet­ter. And all being engi­neers, they have their own ideas about how to do that. And they have the means, they have the tools.

And they are lucky in that we tend to view any ini­tia­tive that involves tech­nol­o­gy and infor­ma­tion as being ben­e­fi­cial. Because some­how, there is this bias in soci­ety that as long as you have more infor­ma­tion things are auto­mat­i­cal­ly bet­ter because you have more knowl­edge. It’s a bias that goes all the way back to the Enlightenment. It is an [?] bias about tech­nol­o­gy that tech­nol­o­gy’s great for lib­er­at­ing us from nature and we should­n’t invest more pow­er and ener­gy into har­vest­ing it to lib­er­ate our­selves from the bur­dens of the world. So in a sense we tend to be far less crit­i­cal of them as play­ers because we already have exist­ing bias­es about tech­nol­o­gy and infor­ma­tion. So what I dis­cov­ered is that there is a sus­tained effort in Silicon Valley to make the world a bet­ter place. And this is more or less what I call solutionism.

But to under­stand its nature, you have to see how they go about defin­ing their prob­lems. So part of my argu­ment is that Silicon Valley is now empow­ered to solve prob­lems that may not actu­al­ly exist. They think that pol­i­tics is bad because there is hypocrisy in pol­i­tics. Or pol­i­tics is bad because there is par­ti­san­ship in pol­i­tics. So if only we can make every­thing open and trans­par­ent, if only we can make peo­ple more hon­est and replace polit­i­cal par­ties with direct democ­ra­cy (Which you can now do because we can now vote on any­thing through our mobile phones, right. And we can read about any­thing on our mobile phones.), democ­ra­cy will auto­mat­i­cal­ly improve. 

That’s one of the assump­tions that geeks make. And one of the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for that assump­tion is not just how they think about democ­ra­cy, it’s also how they think about our unique his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. They think that because Wikipedia and open source soft­ware and Google and Facebook have suc­ceed­ed, we are on the edge of a new soci­ety with entire­ly new rules, with entire­ly new prac­tices, entire­ly new insti­tu­tions. So, many of the schemes which would look out right kooky to us ten or fif­teen years ago, or twen­ty years ago, sud­den­ly look nor­mal because we are pre­pared for the next Rapture. We have seen that Rapture in the world of edu­ca­tion, in the world of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. And we expect that that Rapture will now hap­pen else­where, be it pol­i­tics, be it the world of fight­ing crime, be it the world of health­care, where now we can actu­al­ly have con­sumers mon­i­tor their health and self-diagnose instead of hav­ing them go to the doc­tor. I mean, this is won­der­ful for many peo­ple in Silicon Valley because you destroy inter­me­di­aries. Because the idea is that inter­me­di­aries are bad. The flat­ter the world, the more easy it is for peo­ple to live in it. That’s the tem­plate of Silicon Valley, and I’m try­ing to chal­lenge it because I think hier­ar­chy is often good. Verticality is often good. Networks are often far less effec­tive than hier­ar­chies. And inef­fi­cien­cy, ambi­gu­i­ty, opac­i­ty, hypocrisy, all of those in small dos­es are pos­i­tive val­ues. They’re not vices, they’re virtues. And we need to learn how to rec­og­nize them as virtues and we need to cel­e­brate them.

Further Reference

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