Morozov: Digital Disempowerment of Citizens

Evgeny Morozov is one of the fiercest and most articulate critics of internet-centrism and the freenomics of Silicon Valley. Talking about the ”internet” stands in the way of understanding the context and suggests that technology in itself is the driver of social change, said the American-Belarusian writer at the Internet Days conference in Stockholm on Monday.

Free digital services disempower citizens but give the illusion of empowerment, says Evgeny Morozov. In a similar fashion, the internet giants’ digital offerings are tempting for governments under pressure from the financials of aging demographics, humanitarian crises and austerity measures. Traditional domains of public service, such as education, healthcare and public transportation can and will be replaced or complemented by big data services, which gives a relief to the government budgets, but at the same time ties them to the global financial and advertising markets. In existing systems, transactions happened through tax payments or such things as stamps and tickets, none with any connection to global advertising and finance. Another dimension is that all solutions are based on individual rather than collective measures. Health becomes an issue of carrying a step counter that nudges the user to walk more, rather than for example looking at urban design to develop a city with more public spaces, walkways, bike paths and other costly public investments. It is the privatisation of the commons. Morozov also makes the point that all data that is traded is data about individuals. It is our data that has value in the ad markets.

Traditional domains of public service, such as education, healthcare and public transportation can and will be replaced or complemented by big data services

Evgeny Morozov’s work includes two influential books which easily could be used as basic textbooks for internet sceptics. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs 2010) points to the irony of Western technology companies thinking their products can liberate the oppressed, where in fact real people risked (and lost) their lives in the Arab Spring and technology was used just as much to monitor dissidents as for liberation (Netopia contributor Mariam Kirollos is an eye-witness of this in her column and speech). In his next book To Save Evertyhing Click Here – The Folly of Technological Solutionism (Public Affairs 2013), Morozov launched the concept ”solutionism” – a solution looking for a problem which he says is a pattern of digital offers (my own favorite example is ”destination lifts” with no buttons inside) – solutionism is the sister of internet centrism. Read Ralf Grötker’s review here.

Morozov’s talk in Stockholm gives some hints to his upcoming book project. His analysis of the powers at play looks at three nodes: corporations, governments and citizens. The current trends of freenomics and big data tends to shift power away from citizens to governments (through the introduction of digital surveillance for anti-terrorism for example) and from citizens and governments to corporations as described above. A possible objection is that at least in theory, in democracies the interests of the citizens and the government ought to be aligned. The idea that the government has a completely different agenda than the public sounds more like something from survivalists or Tea Party-libertarians than a modern society with functioning institutions. This is where Netopia may differ from Morozov, democracy can be expanded to the digital domain and public institutions protect our rights and interests more than threaten them.

Morozov’s answer is to not look at our data as a commodity that can be traded and to erect some barriers around it, making it more difficult to harvest. One could add that this may bring a shift from freenomics to paid services, which is incidentally what Google chief economist Hal Varian predicted in a comment to Netopia earlier this autumn.

Video from Morozov’s speech here.