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. Rurik Bradbury

    BTW from a separate email thread:

    “They are arguing at cross purposes, except only Morozov realizes this. Carr is arguing about the hardware layer of the stack (metaphorically) — where EM is arguing about the software layer: the plastic part on top that could be configured 1000 ways, but is currently configured to give Facebook/Google free reign. What the solutionists do is fudge the hardware and *extant* software layer together as “The Net”, without realizing 1) it’s a peculiarity of history and 2) they are changeable in a democracy.”

  2. Mike

    I think I’ve missed most of the fun, but I’ll throw in my two cents anyway. It seems to me that the question is whether or not “the Net” or “the web” or “the Internet” functions as a useful and meaningful category. Everyone understands, I think, that what we designate by those terms is a multifarious complex of hardware, software, and culturally inflected rhetoric and practices. That said, is it ever helpful to speak of some combination of those entities as “the Net”? I think it’s useful to approach this question by reference to Morozov’s (I, alas, am not on a first name basis with the gentleman) safe solution. What is the problem to which it is a solution? Or, better, what presents the problem to which it is a solution? The precision or specificity of the remedy is telling. Such a specific (and successful) remedy suggests a specific problem. But what presents this problem? Morozov wrote,

    “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.”

    But what is, in fact, the problem? A simple solution is still a solution and a solution assumes a problem. What presents the problem? Is it the router by itself? The wi-fi card (or signal) by itself? Is it the underlying code? The protocols? Or is it some combination thereof (with other elements perhaps) that can meaningfully and usefully be termed, “the Internet”? It seems to me that the Internet (fuzzy as the boundaries of the term may be) can meaninfully be understood as an entity with properties that present the problem to which the safe is a solution.

  3. Catherine Fitzpatrick

    Nick, when you said this:

    “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.”

    I just thought you were saying something like McLuhan said when he called television “the great reducer”.



  4. Nick Post author


    I’ve only heard the first two singles, but I thought they were promising, particularly “Where Are We Now?”

    I can’t speak for Morozov, of course. But I’m pretty sure he was a big Tin Machine fan.

  5. Steve Jones

    Nick, you have summarized Evgeny’s approach very generously. (7:06pm)

    I have a suggestion. Henceforth, all debates about the internet and its consequences shall be called “Morozov Studies”, and all disputes can be escalated up to the one true authority capable of deciding who is correct: Evgeny himself.

    For there is only One True Way, and it’s Evgeny’s.

  6. Evgeny Morozov

    Okay, I’m glad we’ve had this exchange and I agree we’ve probably hit a point where not much else would come out of it. I’m now convinced more than ever that what I call Internet-centrism is not just an oversight but a deliberate rhetorical and epistemological strategy. I’m simply amazed that someone can point to what is clearly a set of constructed phenomena (whatever physical infrastructure they draw upon) brought together under the label of the “Net” – whose boundaries, by the way, are heavily policed by “netizens” and their theorists while still being completely opaque – and deploy a phrase like “a clear and straightforward observation about a phenomenon in the real world.”

    All I’m saying is that a) that observation is anything but “clear and straightforward”; you saying that it’s clear and straightforward doesn’t magically solve its problems b) “the Net,” with a set of attributes and effects you attribute to it, is anything but “a phenomenon in the real world.” You make all sorts of background assumptions that you think everyone else shares and that somehow flow simply from your vision of what *the Net* is. But why include “searchability” in it and not say “shareability”? Or that goes under “the Net” as well? Does “the Net” then encompass all behaviors enabled by start-up services built on top of it? I’m pushing this to the extreme but to claim that you are just stating the obvious is a completely un-obvious move to me.

    “It doesn’t seem like a particularly useful way to look at the world as it exists.” Looking at the world as it exists – this is what McKinsey consultants are for. I thought the task of intellectuals is to engage in – to borrow a phrase from Steve Woolgar – in some “ontological disobedience”?

    So let me summarize this debate: I say that your move to invoke “the Net” in your writings without fully accounting of where “the Net” comes from reduces complexity and the explanatory power of such accounts. You say that you don’t care where “the Net” comes from and that, instead of grappling with alternative explanatory paradigms like, say, standards, you’d prefer to stick to the one and only territory you know best – “the Net” because the “the Net” exists out there in the real world and you have the unique intellectual and sensory power to just completely see it for what it is, mediation be damned. Count me unpersuaded.

  7. Chris

    I think many readers were simply surprised at the degree to which Mr. Morozov goes to manage his thoughts with regard to a timed safe complete with the inclusion of all the household screwdrivers to sequester away any possible access to what is “clearly a constructed set of phenomena.”

    I haven’t read his book, but the thing I ask myself upon reading excerpts and other selected writings of his is, what is the practical application of these insights? Is it just a heightened awareness? (I think many people were already aware that some of his targets were a little full-of-it and therefore largely low-hanging fruit) Is it “ontological disobedience?” Some of his targets are genuinely well-intentioned people simply trying to increase happiness and well being in peoples lives through the use of novel means. I think the timed safe revelation, if nothing else, gives more insight into how he approaches things and what, by his own standard, is reasonable and pretty basic stuff in terms of the application to living in an era of ubiquitous access to “sets of constructed phenomena.”

  8. Nick Post author

    “You say that you don’t care where ‘the Net’ comes from”

    This is a good note to end on. It perfectly exemplifies the Morozovian method, which Steven Johnson described so memorably and succinctly: “He’s like a vampire slayer that has to keep planting capes and plastic fangs on his victims to stay in business.”

  9. Evgeny Morozov

    This is your exact quote: “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.”

  10. Seth Finkelstein

    Chris, I think you’re basically asking the old question “What Are Intellectuals Good For?”. Some people say it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing. The opposite view is it shapes our world. Pragmatically, if one holds that this matters to any extent, I’d say there is an immense value when someone with a relatively prominent punditry position forcefully articulates a skeptical view. Even if, even if, it’s “low-hanging fruit”, obvious to those down on the ground etc. My observations of the social system is that if there’s no A-lister pounding that platform, the skepticism stays down in depths, never making it into the big megaphones of those in the high areas of the “power-law” curve. It may not be rational, but there’s extensive utility for everyone lower down to be able to say “As so forcefully articulated by () in () …”. That makes the view legitimate within the system (again, I’m presuming this matters, I know there’s an obvious reply that it doesn’t).

    In “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, what was the child doing but pointing out what people already knew but could not say?

    And regarding “Some of his targets are genuinely well-intentioned people simply trying to increase happiness and well being in peoples lives through the use of novel means.”. Maybe. The problem is that every con-man, grifter, scam-artist, claims that too. Arguably the sincere people (if they exist) are providing a social cover for the hardcore hustlers. That is the very essence of the term “useful idiot”.

  11. Nick Post author

    Evgeny, Readers are free to go back and look at what I said, compare it with what you said I said, and make their own judgment.

    Shall we leave it at that?

  12. nospamplz

    This futile effort at illustrating that critics also live in glass houses is a waste of your time. Your own pride harms your reputations.

  13. Carlos Cortés

    For much as I respect and admire Morozov’s work, his arguments here remind me of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories. Morozov won’t admit any account on the ‘Net’ until there is a complete account –which we will never find and doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, he will draw the maps or the instructions to build such a body of theory (books, reviews, critiques). The Book of Sand of the Net; its Babel Library.

  14. SocraticGadfly

    Several comments.
    1. I think Morozov is addicted, and not just to “novelty” but the Net as a delivery medium.
    2. Dopamine does more than what Mr. Williams said. That’s so “1990s Big Pharma.” Add in that dopamine can be converted into norepinephrine and the “one neurotramsmitter = one narrow set of brain changes” is passé.
    3. Evgeny, per other comments, there’s many things to do short of a safe with screwdrivers. Have your Net connection password “expire” after an hour. Work off a one-quarter charged battery. Buy a “dumbphone” next time. (It’s a good idea for many other reasons; I’m actually surprised someone with your angle on the Net has a smartphone. Shouldn’t you lock it up, too?
    4. I agree with Nick’s take on Lanier. Now, since “the Net” has already been so monetized, if you will, CAN WE overhaul it? I also agree, per point No. 1, that there is such a thing as “the Net” and that it, per Nick, uniquely commodifies things. (That’s why Jarvis/Shirky/Rosen et al are wrong in trying to tie fairly close analogies between the Internet and the printing press.)

    Otherwise, maybe the Net is like Thomas Nagel’s bat?

  15. Evgeny Morozov

    With all due respect, Nick, I think you keep evading my criticisms. When you proclaim that “the Net” is “a phenomenon in the real world” that is suitable for immediate intellectual analysis, this is precisely what I mean when I write that “you don’t care where ‘the Net’ comes from.” I’m not saying that you are not interested in code or protocols or whatever; I’m only saying that you don’t seem to be very interested in analyzing how a label like “the Net” gains its cultural and intellectual currency, let alone investigating the costs of using it for further analysis. For you, it just *is*; with that assumption out of the way, you can study how it affects society and how society affects *the Net*. Alas, this bifurcation – into *the Net* and *society* – is something I cannot accept.

    So when you write of your “desire to understand the technology in the form in which it actually exists in the world” I simply refuse to accept the premise that “the Net” is a “technology which actually exists in the world.” I don’t I’m misrepresenting what you’ve written: you don’t care where *the Net* (the concept, the keyword, the intellectual category) comes from – for you, “it actually exists in the world.”

    So, I’m just summarizing your position with regards to a constructivist account of “the Net”: you find it boring and unnecessary. There’s no need to accuse me of being unfair to your position: I think I’ve captured it quite accurately. If you think I’ve misrepresented it, do let me know how and why.

  16. Boaz

    Evgeny wrote:
    “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.”
    This also reminds me of the post on the Cybogology site by N. Jurgensen called “Refusing the Refusenik’s Paradigm”
    He argues that addiction, asceticism and aesthetics are bad frameworks to talk about not using various internet based communication tools. This seemed particularly egregious to me, as I don’t think he proposed anything nearly powerful enough to cover the phenomena that these frameworks already cover.

    When we say that the internet has addictive qualities to it, or that Facebook has addictive qualities to it, it seems pretty clear that these are meaningful things to say. Someone may have another theoretical approach that covers the same phenomena, but that shouldn’t be used to say that a standard way of understanding something is completely wrong, and the language associated should be banned. To be a public intellectual should not involve telling the public that they simply shouldn’t use certain words anymore. One has to engage the standard approach and show that a different way of talking about something is more powerful and covers the same phenomena adequately.

  17. Chris

    Seth, that is not what I am asking, but were I to frame it that way, I would ask, “what are hecklers good for?” Lanier approaches many of the same themes more constructively and without the straw men.

  18. Seth Finkelstein

    Chris, this is about “debunkers”. Someone could hypothetically ask “Why do we need debunking? [i.e. does it matter?] And much of the material is low-hanging fruit anyway – pyramid schemes are apparently as old as civilization. Plus some of the writers are very rude. etc. etc.” See the problem?

    Also, I’d say Lanier is reaching a somewhat different if of course overlapping audience. Another key aspect is that the “idiom” and social position an author is highly determinative of what readers take him or her seriously, so multiple phrasings of the same general concept are often complementary.

  19. Chris

    Seth, one could ask “why do we need debunking?” Although, that is not what I am asking either. When a “debunker” mischaracterizes the target of his attacks, he is being misleading and diminishing the substance of his arguments, and I would imagine, eventually the “social position” you seem to confer great weight to. Nick linked to good piece by Steven Johnson with an excellent quote that exemplifies my feelings on this nicely.

  20. Seth Finkelstein

    Chris, the logical problem is that no con man ever says “I am a con man.”. So one gets into a logical paradox.

    I don’t have the standing to effectively go deeply into what I think happened in this thread (meaning, I don’t care to possibly be flamed by either of the primary disputants), but I think there’s an important issue of what assumptions need push-back, versus when that push-back is a distraction from the point.

  21. Rakesh

    I think the reason why we use net so much is that there’s no feedback asking us to stop. Can this be gotten over by having a system where one can be connected to the net only through certain apps(browser not being one of them) and one pays a subscription fee to each such app. Thus, one can reduce information overload.

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