Evgeny’s little problem


Ian Tucker has a good interview with Evgeny Morozov in the Observer. I was really struck, though, with Morozov’s reply to a question about how he manages his net use:

I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. … To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me.


Seriously, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the application of the term “addiction” to describe compulsive net use. But having read that, particularly the bit about the screwdrivers, I am now officially changing my mind. By all means, add an entry for “internet addiction” to the DSM — and hurry up about it. I mean, reread that passage, but replace “my phone” with “liter of vodka” or “router cable” with “crack pipe.” It’s textbook, right down to Morozov’s immediate attempt to deny what he’s just confessed: “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself.” I’m surprised he didn’t say, “I never do more than a gigabit before breakfast.”

Now, where can I buy one of those safes?

UPDATE: In a subsequent interview, with Gawker, Morozov justifies his obsession: “Believe me, I’ve gone through all the necessary literature in moral philosophy and I still don’t see a problem.”

Photo by David Morris.

76 thoughts on “Evgeny’s little problem

  1. andrew smart

    It’s known that alcoholics get nearly the same dopamine rush from watching other people drink and they do when they drink themselves. It’s the same almost any substance – food – etc. So watching people eat you get the same reward signal was when you eat, and it makes NOT eating extremely difficult because your brain is like “oooooo ooo me too!”. Hanging out in your kitchen will make you eat more. So for net use, while likely not on the same scale, the same mechanisms are probably involved. Is “the Net” a substance? Have you guys covered that already?

    Anyway, one of key ways to break addiction and prevent relapse is to remove yourself from the environments in which you abuse – don’t hang out with your drug friends, don’t go to bars, don’t even be in the same place where you’ve used drugs. All these environmental cues increase the risk of relapse enormously.

    So while I agree that net addiction is probably not the same as cocaine addiction, I think Evgeny’s approach is entirely reasonable and if that’s what he has to do to stay focused it’s actually quite impressive. Not only the self-awareness to realize that he has trouble simply through sheer mental will to do what he needs to do, but the honesty to say “ok I’ve got trick myself into not using the Net.” Personally, I’m in exactly the same boat. I have a terrible time controlling my response to rewarding novel stimuli.

    I have actually worked on technology where we monitor a persons cognitive load through EEG sensors, then if we detect that he/she goes into a state of high-focus or high-workload the system turns off emails etc to allow him/her to focus. But it could easily turn off the router or something too. This is for people recovering from brain cancer mind you, but it might work for anyone. You can read more about it here http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21096515 or here http://www.artandscienceofdoingnothing.com/?page_id=283

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    1) Evgeny, I’m likely going to regret this, but, what is the exact model of router you have? i.e. like Linksys ABCD-1234 ? Almost all modern routers, even small home ones now, have some sort of internal locking facilities (though being that they’re password-based, it might not be enough).

    2) Nick, I think there’s something of the scare-mongering in your phrasing – “we’re still seeing is clear evidence that the net is an unusually tempting and entrancing medium “. That’s like “we’re still seeing clear evidence that chocolate and ice cream and potato chips are unusually tempting and entrancing substances”. One can say that it’s true – those are indeed more attractive than the average foodstuff. But the *connotations* of how you put it are questionable. Many people who are trying to lose weight use similar strategies as the safe but in terms of putting locks on their refrigerator. And it’s true there’s some similar punditry that “junk food” == designed for “addiction”. But that also has the same problem of runaway metaphor.

  3. Evgeny Morozov

    To Seth: But the router doesn’t matter if you have the phone next to you and the phone has a data package. Yes, I can get rid of the phone and yes I can skip the data package (I actually went without a phone for a period of six month in 2011 – it was okay). So the charm of the safe is that allows me to get the kinds of trade-offs I want: I can keep the phone, stay on the data package but ration my connectivity as I want without having to spend any cognitive effort on “compliance.” What people don’t get is that, of course, I can stay away from both my phone and the Internet connection without the safe – it would just take a conscious effort. Why interrupt my reading/writing to exercise self-control if my safe can do it? That’s the point I’m getting at. It’s not like it doesn’t take self-control to read and write: I’d rather spend my time fighting the blank page than fighting connectivity.

  4. Nick Post author

    You have read widely but not well, Evgeny. There’s no essentialism in my view of the net as a system — that’s just one of the caricatures you’re so fond of drawing about other people’s work. Since you brought up Thomas Hughes, let me say that my view of the internet as a system closely follows (and has been highly influenced by) his view of the electric grid as a system. This is from Hughes’s Networks of Power:

    “A great network of power lines which will forever order the way in which we live is now superimposed on the industrial world. Inventors, engineers, managers, and entrepreneurs have ordered the man-made world with this energy network. … Creation of the material environment shaped by — and shaping — mankind is not a peripheral subject that can be left to narrow specialists. To direct attention today to technological affairs is to focus on a concern that is as central now as nation building and constitution making were a century ago. Technological affairs contain a rich texture of technical matters, scientific laws, economic principles, political forces, and social concerns. The historian must take the broad perspective to get to the root of things and see patterns.”

    If anything, the systems view is even more important in thinking about the communication and computing system that is the internet. The electric grid, being a local construction, without the requirement of global interconnection, was built in different ways, with very different structures, in different places, as Hughes meticulously describes. The internet, being inherently more of a global system, at least when it comes to its technical protocols for interconnection, has especially strong systemic effects. That doesn’t mean that the system is “set in stone”; it does mean that the system exists.

  5. Evgeny Morozov

    okay, challenge accepted – I’ll give you the close reading you deserve, so that you don’t feel neglected.

    I’m just amazed at how you can claim that your account has Hughes-esque “rich texture of technical matters, scientific laws, economic principles, political forces, and social concerns.” Is it the same man who’s just written “what’s alluring about the net is precisely its capacity for creating endless novelty” quoted above?

    Sorry to break the news: but there’s very little politics, economics, or social concerns in this statement – it’s a lazy generalization that doesn’t even bother engaging with political economy, ideology, or culture beyond just drawing on them to solidify your existing view of “the Net.”

    So I’m afraid your reading of Hughes is just plain wrong.

  6. Kevin D

    Seth’s food analogy might be particularly apt, especially given the political economy leading to the construction of ubiquitous connectivity (i.e. ‘the net’ we have / are getting). For example, consider this NYT Magazine piece on the construction of food addiction: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?ref=magazine&pagewanted=all

    Similar efforts clearly go into inducing usage of digital products.

    The safe is notable because it is perhaps a bit on the margin, but everyone goes about delegating or shaping ‘their net’ in myriad ways, perhaps we could even call it resisting in some cases. My sense is that in addition to the historical construction, this contemporary diversity makes the McLuhan-esque argument difficult. The message of the net here in South Africa is not the same as in the States.

  7. Carlos Cortés

    My modest two cents in: At this point a psychiatrist can tell us more about Mr Morozov’s self-control issues and, moreover, about his control anxiety in this debate, than all the crossfire theory.

  8. Seth Finkelstein

    Evgeny, your phone’s carrier almost certainly has a similar feature for lockouts. Again, it might be password-based, so may not work for you. But I was trying to note that these feature exist, and suggest them for your information, with of course full awareness that you have something which works for you now, and may find those suggestions insufficient for your circumstances in particular. Some of this thread has been surreal for me in terms of this:

    “The problem of “the Net” can be solved with a single design intervention in how my computer works: give me a way to block/time my connectivity right at the level of the port or the Wifi card. Surely, something as ominous and dark as “the Net” can’t be tamed with such a basic design intervention? I suspect it can be.”

    I mean, dealing with that sort of plaint was my now very unhappy sojourn into censorware politics starting around *1995*, especially that “tamed” aspect. (and it actually connects to one of the passages I found emotionally wrenching in your new book, about “break the internet”).

    Regarding “What people don’t get is that, of course, I can stay away from both my phone and the Internet connection without the safe – it would just take a conscious effort.”

    Right, I agree, some people don’t get it. I keep saying, it’s a “barrier” cognitive psychology strategy. The concept is very well known and widely recommended, as a technique to help people keep resolutions. I think the way to explain it is something like “When you’re dieting, do you do anything in terms of not keeping fattening foods around easily available? Do you ask people “Why don’t you just eat very healthy all the time, what’s the problem with doing that?” (though, as any frequent dieter will tell you, sometimes there *are* remarks like that, especially from people who don’t need to diet).

    But also, you are taking that to a very high level, as I said, somewhere between funny and eyebrow-raising.

    Computer use is still a “geek”-marked thing. But I really could see this in a comedy routine:

    “I’m trying to lose weight. So to avoid between-meals snacking, I bought a special time lock for my refrigerator. But the lock could be circumvented with a screwdriver. So I put all my screwdrivers in the refrigerator too. Isn’t technology wonderful?”

  9. Nick Post author

    Evgeny, You’re absolutely right that my observation “what’s alluring about the net is precisely its capacity for creating endless novelty,” which was made in response to your statement “what I am addicted to is novelty,” includes “very little politics, economics, or social concerns.” I can also see, in retrospect, that it is a little light on hermeneutics, zoology, and aquatics. I apologize for the lapse. I will try in the future to include politics, economics, and social concerns in every remark I make. I will also make sure I include a reference to Latour. Nick

  10. Evgeny Morozov

    well, I think you are evading a serious methodological critique. If one does a close reading of “The Shallows,” much of your argument does advance with references to “the Net” as if it were a static object with inherent qualities — which explains my comment about “essentialism.”

    All I’m doing is pointing out that the way in which you decide to slice reality – what socio-technological systems you decide to imagine as existing in the world and their mutual entanglement – is not a natural and obvious move that can proceed without defense; it itself needs to be justified. Which, by the way, gets to the heart of the “digital dualism” critique – as you have probably noticed by now, it does pose an existential challenge to your rhetoric/approach, as it forces people to reopen the blackbox of “the net” in a way that might make “the net is” and the “net does” kind of statements untenable.

    So you can make fun of my criticism – and of Latour – all you like but there’s a great amount of implicit work that “the Net” does for your thought and argument – and it’s time to make it explicit. You can’t just do it by invoking Hughes, in part because he investigates well-formed systems where the stakes of articulating “alternative paradigms” are almost nil.

    It’s anything but with regards to “the Net” — in part because the *construction* process is contemporary, plasticity is still an option, and the stakes are much higher. There are many other ways to talk about these technologies and there’s no obvious need to prioritize a medium-centric approach that presumes the existence of a system with stable and coherent qualities. Those qualities are in formation and how we identify them partly depends on how we talk/think about them (which links it to economics, ideology, culture, etc).

    That you have little space for such a constructivist approach and start with some preconceived notion of “the Net” and only draw on culture, economics, and ideology to find justifications for “the Net” is a radical departure from Hughes, especially when applied to systems-in-formation.

  11. SAA

    It takes a certain amount of openness and candor to share such an elaborate “get off the net” scheme as Evgeny has created and I admire his courage in both sharing it and his creativity and imagination in deciding upon its perimeters.

    Whether or not the scheme stacks up against his other philosophies or not remains unclear in this discussion (it’s a bit too challenging for me to follow), but many people say and do things that seem not quite congruent from the outside, but follow an internal logic.

    What we’re fascinated with in our research on PolySocial Reality is the multiplexing of synchronous and asychronous messages that are being created by so much connectivity. Evgeny’s strategy for dealing with PoSR may seem extreme on the outside, but are working as effective (for him) adaptation.

    What he is doing is removing himself from us. Rejecting our attempts to connect, contact and join with him — and his to us. He’s setting controls for communications. This is what I would call an extreme version of asynchronous control as an adaptation.

    Asynchronicity as an adaptive strategy is a topic of a forthcoming paper and was part of our (Applin and Fischer) talks at the ICA/SfAA/TtW2012 and AAA last year.

    More at http://www.posr.org

  12. Catherine Fitzpatrick

    I don’t think it *is* merely the addiction to “novelty” like Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Seduction”. I think in fact Zhenya is telling us here that he is in facted addicted to *connectivity*. After all, the biggest dopamine rush for him on Twitter isn’t just getting somebody’s interesting little link, but his ability to think up little bon mot tweets and put-downs of other people and respond ascerbically to them. He does a lot of that. THAT is the addiction — that sort of negative connectivity where he can reaffirm his power and superiority as many times an hour as he has the patience to tweet.

    Like in this interchange, where I call him out for his appalling endorsement of the communist and supporter of Black Panther violence, Angela Davis, as “the most talented organizer”.


    I don’t get all this safe and screwdrivers stuff. If I ever think I’m going to be too tempted to media snacking in other windows when I’m working — checking Twitter or Facebook or looking at the news — I just right click on the Internet connection and turn it off. Sure, I could right-click and turn it on, but then, it will take awhile to boot up, and I will have then made a conscious act to override my higher executive order which was to work in the other windows before snacking.

  13. Rurik Bradbury

    Surely Nick Carr can see the difference between the plasticity of “the Net” and how this makes discussion political, versus the rigidity of the power grid, which is relatively apolitical?

    Maybe it’s a mean jab by Evgeny to say “it sells well”, but… to not see the implicit politics of discourse around “the Net” seems either dimwitted or disingenuous.

  14. Seth Finkelstein

    FYI (my emphasis):


    Make it Hard

    … if you remove the temptation then this is a quick way to make yourself safer from midnight snacking. There are a few ways you can do this – such as locking the doors to the kitchen and giving someone else the key, or such as setting up CCTV so that people can check it for you in the morning (shame is one of the best motivators to stop). You can also get devices designed specifically to prevent you from raiding the fridge – for instance that attach to the door and set off an alarm when you try to open it. Others lock the fridge on a timer so that you literally cannot open it unless it’s time.

  15. Nick Post author


    I agree with pretty much everything you say in your last comment (other than the bullshit parts, of course). But let me quote some of Hughes’s actual words again:

    “Power systems reflect and influence the context, but they also develop an internal dynamic. Therefore, the history of evolving power systems requires attention not only to the forces at work within a given context but to the internal dynamics of a developing technological system as well. … Although the public senses the strong organizing forces that originated in these systems and that today influence their lives, they only dimly perceive the nature of these forces.”

    I assume you would agree that similar things might be said about information systems. We need to pay close attention to “the internal dynamics of a developing technological system” just as we need to pay close attention to the broader context in which that system and its components operate. The web has been around for 20 years now, the internet for about 45 years, and computer networks for even longer than that. So by now these systems are real things in the world, they do have “stable and coherent qualities” (some of which we may be able to change, and some of which we may not be able to change), and we can, and should, analyze both their internal dynamics and the way those dynamics exert “organizing forces” on the world. In fact, if we’re to have any chance of altering the internal dynamics, and qualities, of these systems, we first need to understand those dynamics, and qualities — not just in isolation, as technological givens, but also in the context of social, economic, and other concerns. To claim that “the net” is a myth simply because some people think of it in mythological terms is silly and counterproductive.

    To bring this out of the abstract, let me give a very simple example. In developing computer networks, engineers generally strive to increase their speed and capacity. These are obvious and entirely rational goals because the value of computer networks generally increases as their speed and capacity go up. You don’t hear engineers say, “Ten years from now, if our efforts succeed, our networks will be much slower and will be able to handle much less data.” So ever greater speed and capacity are inherent characteristics of the net as a system. (By “inherent,” I don’t mean they’re imposed by God; I mean that for practical intents and purposes, they are inherent to the system.) Now what’s optimal technologically may not be optimal socially. And yet this internal technical dynamic has had very broad and strong effects, influencing our financial system, our interpersonal communications, our sense of the news, the way we entertain ourselves, and so on. I agree with you that we should be very wary of seeing technical qualities as social solutions, but the idea that the net is a “myth,” as you argue, is not helpful to your cause. You can’t disaggregate all the net’s effects from the technological system. You have to, as Hughes said, assess both the internal dynamics of the system and the context in which it is operating.

    This is why, by the way, Jaron Lanier’s new book provides a far more radical challenge to web orthodoxy than does your own (and I very much like most of your book). Lanier looks very closely at the net as a system—as a real thing—and says that if we want to alter the economic and social effects, we need to overhaul the system, the technology, basically from the ground up. He essentially says that we need to throw out the Berners-Lee conception of the Web and start over. The difficulty of reworking the technology so radically at this point—and I don’t really think it’s possible, on the scale Lanier proposes—underscores the technical stability and coherency of the current system. It just may not be possible to change—not purely for technological reasons but also because at this point the structure of the net and the digital media system in general represents a huge amount of private capital. (And this does not even get into the fact that the net is, in some important ways, a continuation of a mass-media system that has been around for more than a century, and that has a lot of what Hughes termed “momentum” behind it.)

    So, yes, I am interested in how systems shape society (and vice versa). Part of that requires looking at the system as it actually exists, not as an amorphous blob of future possibilities. Your putting “the Net” in quotes may be a cute rhetorical trope (up until the 50th recurrence; after that, I can assure you, it becomes tedious and annoying), but it’s not a serious idea. It just gives you more ammunition to fire at all your perceived enemies. Your gun makes such a loud noise that you don’t even realize you’re shooting blanks.

  16. shagggz

    “Typically when a student goes to a library, the main motivation is not to protect herself against a failure of will, or to avoid temptation, but rather to move from a setting with lots of environmental distractions (other people watching TV or talking on phones or having conversations or eating or whatever) to a setting that’s designed to reduce environmental distractions. ”

    I don’t think the distinction is as easy as you think. It’s both a decrease of temptation to succumb to lack of will, and to reduce an environment of distraction, for the temptation is to succumb to the distractions. The expression of these efforts looks very different because it’s the physical relocation to a new environment (going to the library) vs. a virtual enabling of access to a virtual environment (hiding tools), with the added ingenuity of physical relocation (going to the store) acting to put a real physical hurdle to what is typically an easily surmounted virtual action.

  17. Nick Post author

    Rurik, I hope it goes without saying that in discussing large-scale network systems — net, electric grid, highway, railway, etc — I am not saying that they are the same systems. Of course they’re not. I am saying that in order to fully understand their social, political, and economic effects, you have to see them as technological systems with particular characteristics (in addition to seeing those effects contextually). Nick

  18. Rurik Bradbury

    Nick — I’m pretty sure that Evgeny is not denying the existence of HTTP or the LAMP stack. It’s the sly bolt-ons that are bundled as “the Net” alongside HTTP and LAMP that are problematic: notions that it can’t be regulated, that it can “break”, that it should exist beyond the power of the government. “The Net” goes in quotation marks as a reminder that it is a loaded term that needs unpacking.

    The technical makeup of the internet is not relevant and it is hard to see how these “technical characteristics” relate to the socio-political discourse at all. Yet, the solutionists fudge them all the time (Jarvis re: paywalls, Shirky re: cognitive surplus)

  19. Nick Post author

    “notions that it can’t be regulated, that it can ‘break’, that it should exist beyond the power of the government.”

    Surely you know that I don’t subscribe to those notions.

  20. Evgeny Morozov


    I think you keep evading the main issue: what counts as part of a “system” – in other words, how you slice reality – is not a self-evident move that needs no justification. So to say that you are “interested in how systems shape society (and vice versa)” is, on my reading, not to say very much, as you are not engaging with the question of how systems get to be composed.

    Here is a quote from The Shallows that really bothers me:

    “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed.”

    For me, this is the kind of language that should not be admitted into how we talk and think about digital technologies or, for that matter, technological change. Assuming that everything does get “hyperlinked,” why is this attributed to “the Net” and, not say, “info-capitalism,” to take another bogeyman? Or are you just saying that there are certain technological standards that need to be met in order for “content” to travel across Internet protocols?

    If you do, that’s fine but it sounds far less ambitious that saying that “the Net re-creates” something in “its image.” But then what to do with those parts of the “medium” that are not being “re-created”? How is their longevity to be explained? I suspect that if you replaced “the Net” with “standards” – a topic on which there’s a huge theoretical literature – you’d end up with a very different set of conclusions that would surely sound less catchy but would probably be more illuminating.

    Instead, you go with “the Net” – thus, infusing your account with the kind of novelty that, perhaps, shouldn’t be there to begin with, especially given that we DO KNOW a lot about the sociology of standards. So when I say that “the Net sells better,” I mean it honestly and without any personal motives: as a story, it does work better than the boring stuff I’m asking for. But the glibness of the Net-centric account doesn’t magically improve its explanatory power.

    And to push back on the grid analogy: Does it really help in explaining toasters or how I should live with my safe (it’s plugged in, by the way)? I’m dead serious about it. At times, your work reads as if “the Net” does explain things like Twitter and Facebook because the latter are just manifestations of its inherent qualities or are built on its infrastructure. My point is that, even assuming that we don’t want to question the composition of the “network,” such accounts don’t go far as your claim: the *real* action is at the intersection of different socio-technical systems (along with ideologies that either derivative of those systems or something else). This is why knowing that my safe is plugged into the grid tells us so little about both its normative side and its meaning.

    As for your critique of my critique of “the Net”: I see no harm in de-naturalizing how we think about “the Net.” Most people confuse its technological properties – which, as I wrote above, don’t do much explanatory work for me anyway – with the ideologies and discourses that are built around them. This is the kind of talk that allows Clay Shirky to christen every trend under the sun as “the next Napster.”

    My move – of denaturalizing the debate – doesn’t deny the existence of Internet protocols. It just seeks to a) express some skepticism as to whether “the Net” actually explains what many people (including you) think it explains b) clearly establish that our discourse around the “Net” is not just an objective and unproblematic enumeration of its natural properties but rather a debate that is situated in particular economic, cultural and social conditions c) make people think of ways in which to discuss/describe technological change without invoking an idea like “the Net,” thus trying to articulate an alternative set of tools and methods.

    My critique of “the Net” here is thus not unique; it’s very much in line with how someone like John Law and, yes, Latour would approach the difficulty of explaining socio-technological change without invoking macro-level phenomena as just independent variables that need to scrutiny. So you might think this idea is unserious or whatever – it’s your right – but I’m afraid you just don’t grasp where it’s coming from theoretically. Which is fine by me actually. Just keep in mind that it’s part of a much broader critique of Durkheimian sociology (and, if you count Graham Harman here, of much else).

  21. Seth Finkelstein

    Well, let me say I do think “the Net” *can* “break” – in a sense of “the country” *can* descend into “civil war”. Sure, not every political hyperventilator talking about “this-and-that will tear the country apart, leading to a civil war” is reasonable, and it’s likely an overblown rhetorical tactic. But, it can happen, and people are sometimes legitimately worried about the possibility.

  22. Nick Post author

    OK. After this, I’m putting my router cable in the safe and taking a nap — to dream, no doubt, about screwdrivers. Evgeny, your technique here is one of complexification — a word I may have just coined. When someone makes a clear and straightforward observation about a phenomenon in the real world, like:

    “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium’s physical form; it injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed.”

    you try to dismiss it not by actually grappling with its sense, not by actually doing the work necessary to prove it wrong (what exactly do you think happens to content when it goes from a physical form onto the web? does it not lose its physical form? does it not tend to become enmeshed in hypermedia? does it not become searchable?), which would require a concrete and specific argument, but by claiming that the observation doesn’t meet some theoretical test that you’re fond of — that it’s not, somehow, intellectually capacious or semantically meticulous enough. Fine. Even though I find that approach arid, I understand its attraction. I spent some time in graduate school, and I’m very familiar with how seductive that approach is to certain intellectuals (like the ones who lock shit into safes as a means of “thought management”).

    But I honestly don’t care. It seems like a shadow game to me. It doesn’t seem like a particularly useful way to look at the world as it exists. I just want to look as closely as possible at how people live and at how their lives are influenced, for better or worse, by the technologies they use. And that requires, as well, looking closely at how technologies actually work — not how they might work if Evgeny Morozov ruled the world but how they actually work. The fact that, in order to get things done that are valuable to you, you feel compelled to lock your means of access to the web into a safe, tells me that the technology does have real effects on real people — effects that can be observed and analyzed. I can’t predict the future, so I try to focus my limited intellect on the present. And knowing that a new technology, if fairly successful and broadly adopted, tends to continue down the path it’s on — that, for better or worse, most of us are still driving cars with internal combustion engines and typing on QWERTY keyboards — it seems fairly reasonable to take seriously the form in which a complex technology has established itself. Because that form tends to persist — and, yes, that form, whether we like it or not, can have broad and important effects. And then I try to express what I’ve discovered as clearly and engagingly as possible. So, yes, at a literal level, the net doesn’t “absorb” anything. But I think readers are entirely able to deal with figurative language in a sophisticated way. They’re smart. And maybe they don’t suffer from the same epistemological anxiety that besets you. When they talk about the net, they don’t feel any need to put it in quotes. They know it’s an enormously complex system with many components, both hardware and software, and many uses and effects, but they also know that the overall system is real and as such deserves to have a name. To refuse to see the whole is as big an error as to refuse to see the parts.

    My desire to understand the technology in the form in which it actually exists in the world in no way diminishes the efforts of those who would like to improve the form, who would like to reshape the technology in ways that they think will lead to better, more humane effects. Who knows? Maybe my criticism will even provide a little inspiration to them. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong, which would be terrific.

    I’m entirely on board with your critique of solutionism. I applaud you for it. But your contention that the internet “doesn’t actually exist” (direct quote) reveals that you are as susceptible to mythologizing as anyone else.

  23. andrew smart

    Is the Net some kind of massive collective effervescence? (That’s supposed to be a joke).

    There are very similar debates in philosophy of mind, physics, and science. I think for explanatory purposes you have arrive at a level of description that is at once powerful but still tractable (and also convenient).

    There is a famous example that I can’t remember the source for, but it goes something like: of course the arrow trajectories at the battle of Hastings can *in principle* be described using quantum equations but it would be insane and of little use in explaining what happened at the battle of Hastings. At the quantum level one does not find things like arrows, battles or places called Hastings.

    So by analogy there is some level of description that includes things like the Net. Even if it’s not a purely ontologically objective thing, the fact that billions of people have in their brains a concept called the Net, which they can talk and reason about (if only poorly according to Evgeny (everyone’s on a first basis with you)) requires explanation.

    There are an infinity of ways to explain the Net, at different levels of description. There are also an infinity of theories that would explain a given phenomenon equally well. In Western epistemology we like to choose “simple” and “elegant” theories, but there is no reason for this other than we assume that the universe follows simple and elegant rules.

    So what is the proper level of description for the Net? And what is its ontological mode of existence? Is it like mountains, which exist whether or not we believe in them? Or is it like money, which would not exist without our belief in it (I’m stealing that from John Searle: http://ant.sagepub.com/content/6/1/12.abstract).

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