Morozov’s Three Principles for Seeing Through Internet Mumbo-Jumbo

This week’s best read was US-based Belarusian writer Evgeny Morozov’s deconstruction of the popular internet intellectuals discourse in Die Zeit (which graciously provides the original English version of the copy online). Morozov is a long time favorite thinker of Netopia’s, his first book The Net Delusion is crucial to seeing through the myths of the internet as a force for democracy, a line of thought for which Netopia-contributor Mariam Kirollos is very much a witness from the real world. While the Die Zeit-column may be a little too harsh on internet pundits – Netopia believes they are not cynics, but rather convinced of the merits of their ideas – Morozov in it provides three great tools for analysing the discourse, using French post-structuralist Michel Foucault as a theoretical back drop (and a Hollywood B-movie on sharks and tornados, which adds to the mirth). The first is the “coherence fallacy”, the notion that the internet disrupts all parts of society in the same way. Morozov also challenges both the concept of the internet as a unified entity and the idea of disruption, but the main point here is that just because a person understand about how file-sharing changed the music industry, that doesn’t mean he or she is an authority on robot trade on the stock market or how politics change with online polls. Technology can often have an influence on society, but the consequence are rarely the same in different circumstances.

Evgeny Morozov calls the second point the “objectivity fallacy” and argues that the theories surrounding the internet are not void of ideology, in fact most authorities on digital technology take their departure point in some other theory which may not be as objective as it first looks – neoliberalism, biosociology, or socialism to name just a few examples (do read the original piece for more on this, this blog post is just an intro, not a summary that aims to do justice to the full piece or even to have completely grasped it). Look one step beyond, Morozov seems to say, when reading digital experts.

The third point is the “origins fallacy”. That is the idea that everything started with the internet, as if we did not correspond daily before e-mail or there were no information databases before the digital era (hint: libraries). The internet did not just appear out of nowhere and started to connect the world. It evolved over decades with lots of dead ends on the way and it is not a single unified technology, but a combination of inventions, standards, conventions, policies, infrastructures, and concepts that all built further on prior ideologies and achievements.

Taken together, these three tools make a strong case against techno-determinism, the notion that technology is a force bigger than man and that we can have very little influence over how it develops (the phrase “you can’t stop new technology” says it all). Netopia believes the opposite: technology is developed by individuals and is a function of ideas and agreements that exist among humans. That means we all have a say in what we our online society should be like.