Evgeny Morozov has written, in The Baffler, a critique of technology criticism in the guise of a review of my book The Glass Cage. He makes many important points, as he always does — Morozov’s intellect is admirably fierce and hungry — but his conclusions about the nature and value of technology criticism are wrong-headed, their implications pernicious. Morozov wants to narrow the sights of such criticism, to declare as invalid any critical approach that isn’t consistent with his own. He wants to establish an ideological litmus test for technology critics. As someone who approaches the question of technology, of tool-making and tool use, from a very different angle than the one Morozov takes, I’d like to respond with a word or two in defense of an open and pluralistic approach to technology criticism, rather than the closed and doctrinaire approach that Morozov advocates.
First, let me deal quickly with the personal barbs that are one of the hallmarks of Morozov’s brand of criticism. At one point in his review, he writes, “Carr doesn’t try very hard to engage his opponents.” This odd remark — there are plenty of people who disagree with me, but I hardly see them as “opponents” — says much about Morozov’s psychology as a critic. He is always trying hard — very, very hard — to “engage his opponents.” You sense, in reading his work, that there is a hot, sweaty wrestling match forever playing out in his mind, and that he can’t stop glancing up at the scoreboard to see where things stand. No opportunity to score a point goes unexploited. It’s this wrestling-match mentality that explains Morozov’s tactic of willfully distorting the ideas of other writers — his “opponents” — in order to make it easier for him to add to his score. The writer Steven Johnson has summed up Morozov’s modus operandi with precision: “He’s like a vampire slayer that has to keep planting capes and plastic fangs on his victims to stay in business.” With Morozov, a fierce intellect and a childish combativeness would seem to be two sides of the same personality, so it’s probably best to ignore the latter and concentrate on the former.
Morozov is disappointed that a “radical” political viewpoint is not more prominent in discussions of the role of technology in American culture. Technology criticism, at least in its popular form, concerns itself mainly, he says, with “what an ethos of permanent disruption means for the configuration of the liberal self or the survival of its landmark institutions, from universities to newspapers.” Radical political approaches to technology criticism, particularly those that place “technology, media, and communications within Marxist analytical frameworks,” go largely unnoticed. That certainly seems an accurate assessment. I think the same could be said about any popular discussion about any aspect of American culture. Marxist analytical frameworks, though prized in academia, cut no ice in the mainstream. Maybe that reflects a flaw in American culture. Maybe it reflects a flaw in the frameworks. Maybe it reflects a bit of both. It is in any case one symptom of the general narrowing of our public debates. In an earlier critique of technology criticism, published in Democracy, Henry Farrell argued that our intellectual life has in general been constrained by a highly competitive “attention economy” that pushes popular debates into a safe middle ground. To be radical, whether from the left or the right (or any other angle), is to be peripheral. The public intellectual has turned into an intellectual entrepreneur, selling a basket of bland ideas to a market of easily distracted consumers.
It’s easy, then, to agree with Morozov that there’s something lacking in contemporary American technology criticism. A broader discussion of technology, one that makes room for and indeed welcomes strongly political points of view, including all manner of radical ones that question the status quo, would enrich the conversation and perhaps give it a greater practical force. Except that that’s not really what Morozov wants. Morozov has come to believe that the only valid technology criticism is political criticism. In fact, he believes that the only valid technology criticism is political criticism that shares his own particular ideology. “Today,” he writes at a crucial juncture in his review, “it’s obvious to me that technology criticism, uncoupled from any radical project of social transformation, simply doesn’t have the goods.” The only critics fit to answer the hard questions about technology are those “who haven’t yet lost the ability to think in non-market and non-statist terms.” Only those with a “progressive agenda,” indeed an “emancipatory political vision,” can pass the litmus test; every one else is ideologically suspect. Morozov, always eager to point out any definitional fuzziness in other people’s vocabularies, doesn’t bother to define precisely what he means by radicalism or progressivism or social transformation or an emancipatory political vision. One assumes, though, that he will be the judge of what is legitimate and what is not. Anyone who doesn’t toe the Morozov line will be branded either a “romantic” or a “conservative” and hence deemed unfit to have a voice in the conversation. “Carr is extremely murky on his own [politics],” Morozov declares at one point, casting aspersion in the form of suspicion.
What particularly galls Morozov is any phenomenological critique of technology, any critical approach that begins by examining the way that the tools people use shape their actual experience of life — their behavior, their perceptions, their thoughts, their relations with others and with the world. The entire tradition of such criticism, a rich and vital tradition that I’m proud to be a part of, is anathema to him, a mere distraction from the political. Just as Morozov ignores my discussion of the politics of progress in The Glass Cage (to acknowledge it might complicate his argument), he blinds himself to the political implications of the work of the phenomenological philosophers. To explore the personal effects of tool use is, he contends, just an elitist waste of time, a frivolous bourgeois pursuit that he reduces to “poring over the texts of some ponderous French or German philosopher.” What we don’t understand we hold in contempt. Because he has no interest in the individual except as an elemental political particle, not a being but an abstraction, Morozov concludes that technology criticism is a zero-sum game. Any time spent on the personal is time not spent on the political. And so, in place of pluralistic inquiry, we get dogmatism. An argument that might have been expansive and welcoming becomes a sneering and self-aggrandizing exercise in exclusion.
“Goodbye to all that,” Morozov writes, grandly dismissing all of his own earlier work that does not fit neatly into his new analytical frameworks. Apparently, he has recently experienced a political awakening. It’s a shame, though not a surprise, that it has come at the cost of an open mind.
Photo: Juan Ramon Martos.