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. Evgeny Morozov

    I don’t see it as addiction at all. First of all, I am genuinely happy with how I spend my time online, much of it on Twitter: discovering new links, articles, and other tidbits. If one can be addicted to good and useful information thing, count me in. But i think it is a silly way of puting it. Second, I just don’t see why bad design decisions by people who build our computers – for example, their inability to give me an option to completely disconnect – have to prevent me from disconnecting on my own. For me, it’s a trade off between serendipitous discovery via Twitter with systematic reading of history and theory that I want to pursue off Twitter. In this sense, what I am addicted to is novelty – I don’t find this particularly troubling. But I also don’t think that this is something to worry about: as long as I can delegate the enforcement of serendipity/novelty quota to a machine, I think my autonomy is intact. It’s actually consistent with what I write in my book: I don’t find it worth worrying about people who consciously delegate some such enforcement strategies to tech, be it credit cards with limits or enhanced cars for absent-minded professors.

  2. Nick Post author

    “I don’t see it as addiction at all.” Hmmm.

    No, really, everything you say sounds entirely rational. The screwdriver thing is still hilarious, though. Thanks, Nick

  3. Kelly Roberts

    I have a similar problem. I have to lock up my books in a safe, particularly Gothic novels and everything associated with 18th and 19th century German philosophy, so that I don’t spend all of my time reading. As we know from extensive research, creating content on the internet is far more important and produces a higher order of intelligence.

    There, I’ve just created content. You’re welcome.

  4. Seth Finkelstein

    Wait a minute – aren’t we being “had”? My first reaction on reading that was it had to be a joke, a put-on. The screwdriver part was just so over-the-top that I figured the whole thing was having a little fun at one’s supposed own expense, with an obvious interview question. What we’d call really good “trolling” back in the days when the word meant more harmless pranking than malicious disruption. And this post would be someone having bitten.

  5. Nick Post author

    I hope you’re right, Seth.

    By the way, is it possible to do a virtual intervention via Google+ Hangouts?

  6. Peter

    A serious addict wouldn’t even really consider locking his addiction much less act on it. All joking aside though, I appreciate the distance that his measures afford him. If more people chose to “unplug” and think seriously about the world around them, they might be less inclined to lend credence to futurist charlatans. I think I just outlined the skeleton of a TED talk.

  7. Steve Jones

    Like Seth I thought it was a joke too. Then I read Evgeny’s confirmation. Um, made 16 minutes after Nick’s post.

    I’m sorry, Evgeny, but you have talked yourself into one of those ‘when you did stop beating your donkey/wife?’ logical paradoxes. What you have described is classic OCD behavior, and the more obsessively you deny it, the more it looks like classic OCD. Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky are literally driving you nuts! And they seem to be winning.

    I’d put it down to experience. And find a hobby.

  8. Evgeny Morozov

    Why do people find it so hard to believe? It’s a completely reasonable move. Okay, I can really invest a lot of effort and not bother with my email or Twitter for 4 days in a row. But why invest the effort if I can have the safe do it? This seems like a no-brainer to me.

    (Well, okay, it’s also a nice excuse not to take calls from journalists or anyone else seeking comments — I’m in fact considering an “out-of-office” response that would go like “I’m sorry but my connectivity is in the safe…” )

    Here is the pic of the safe with the screwdrivers


    By the way, I got it on eBay – someone on Twitter tipped me off after I asked back in August.

  9. Seth Finkelstein

    I could believe the safe itself. I understand the cognitive psychology involved, and it’s a fine application of that principle. I wouldn’t support any criticism on that basis, though there’s an aspect of deriding the cognitive psychology in some replies I’ve seen.

    BUT, when it came to this sentence – “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.” THAT’S when my skepticism kicked into high gear. I think for most people, having to open a panel with a screwdriver would be enough of a discouragement barrier that they wouldn’t then hide the screwdrivers. Taking things to that level sounds like a big laugh-line in a comedy routine. (C’mon, it does – “I kept being online too much, so I put my router cable in a safe with a timer lock. Then I was circumventing the timer lock with a screwdriver, so I put all my screwdrivers in the safe too. Isn’t technology wonderful?”).

  10. Nick Post author

    I guess you could think of the setup as the hardware version of Freedom. I’m also pretty sure there’s a big digital dualism angle here — locking “the online” in a safe in order to protect the sanctity of “the offline” — but I’ll let others decipher that.

    What really interests me is the symbolism of putting screwdrivers in a safe along with what might be called umbilical apparatuses. It’s mind blowing.

  11. Evgeny Morozov

    Guys, you are missing the point: I need the safe NOT to think about connectivity. If I know that the safe can be opened with a screwdriver, I start thinking about the screwdriver. It’s that simple. By cutting off all (or almost all) escape routes, I can simply focus on things that matter to me: i.e. books. I don’t see a difference in kind between using the safe and hiding the screwdriver; if the screwdriver is not hidden, the safe-as-an-emancipatory-device is *not* complete, for I can still get to it. Gee, I thought it’s pretty basic stuff…

  12. Nick Post author

    Wait until you have a 3D printer and can print out as many screwdrivers as you want. Then you’re hosed.

  13. Seth Finkelstein

    I believe I understand the point about the safe – as I keep saying, there’s a well-known cognitive psychology strategy involved. That’s missed by some of the reaction. The concept is that if you want to limit X voluntarily, “willpower” is not necessarily the best way to do it. Rather, “increasing the effort to do X” is often a better idea.

    But, the level you are taking it to, is very high – to wit:

    “If I know that the safe can be opened with a screwdriver, I start thinking about the screwdriver.”

    When you say:

    “I don’t see a difference in kind between using the safe and hiding the screwdriver; if the screwdriver is not hidden, the safe-as-an-emancipatory-device is *not* complete, for I can still get to it.”

    Let’s put it this way – do you put your money and credit cards in the safe too, because otherwise, you might be tempted to leave your house and buy a screwdriver? Do you find you otherwise start thinking about going to buy a screwdriver? (I’m worried this might become a problem now that I mention it :-))

    That is, in the safe, you “can still get to it”, but only with some significant effort. It’s the *amount* of effort involved which is the key variable.

    I get myself into all sorts of trouble by saying things like the following, it’s been the bane of my net existence, and I hate to have this be my initial extended interaction with you as I admire your debunking efforts so much – but don’t you see something somewhere between funny and eyebrow-raising in that fiddling with the safe control panel with a screwdriver isn’t enough of a barrier, you need to prevent yourself from even having any screwdrivers around too?

    [Maybe we all have our crossed to bear, and mine is writing something like that. Don’t flame me, please.]

  14. shagggz

    It’s not so much a question of addiction as one of consciously mitigating a weakness of the will, like when a student goes to the library to study as opposed to staying at home with the TV on. An easy, undesirable behavior is identified, and thus barriers to it are consciously erected so a more desirable behavior is likelier. I’m sure this strategy is often deployed to mitigate addictions, but its use doesn’t necessarily imply addiction.

  15. Hugo

    But Evgeny, don’t you need an internet connection for writing? Or do you download/print every single source in advance? That would force you to ignore the hyper-accessibility of online information and keep an entire parallel universe of documents for your writing.

  16. Chris Julien

    The first step of AA is:

    “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

    That’s what addiction means: the inability to control one’s self when an opportunity for the addiction presents itself. Locking your screwdrivers in a safe in order to prevent your opening of that safe in order to access the internet is a minute step away from “unmanageable.”

  17. Chris

    “Second, I just don’t see why bad design decisions by people who build our computers – for example, their inability to give me an option to completely disconnect – have to prevent me from disconnecting on my own.”

    You mean like a power button?

    I take no issue with erecting barriers, nor is it really that surprising that one would use things to help maintain focus, productivity, etc., but blaming computer makers for designing a system that doesn’t help with self control *from a guy takes decries technological solutionism & self-tracking* is…rich. It’s little wonder why people think this is a troll.

  18. Nick Post author

    To be mildly serious for a moment:

    shagggz writes, “like when a student goes to the library to study as opposed to staying at home with the TV on”

    I think that’s actually a different case. 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. Locking something that represents a temptation to you into a safe is motivated by a desire to protect yourself against a failure of personal will. Whether the motivation springs from, on the one hand, addiction or obsession or, on the other hand, a wise “thought management” strategy doesn’t change the fact that the intention is to avoid a failure of will. And, as Seth points out, the more extreme the barriers you feel compelled to set up, the stronger the temptation you’re experiencing.

    So, even if Morozov is pursuing an entirely rational and practical strategy, what we’re still seeing is clear evidence that the net is an unusually tempting and entrancing medium — to a degree, I would suggest, that goes well beyond anything we’ve seen before. Morozov argues that what he’s “addicted to” is not the net (or particular online services like Twitter) but “novelty.” But that’s a spurious distinction. What’s alluring about the net is precisely its capacity for creating endless novelty. If the net weren’t a firehose of novelty, Morozov would never have purchased the safe. For some people, moreover, the strength of the temptation could well create a real problem in their life. Not everyone will display the ingenuity and determination that Morozov shows in locking his phone, router cable, and screwdrivers into a safe. I’m not trying to be alarmist here. I’m just pointing out that we’re dealing with a very strong temptation that can mess with your life.

  19. Evgeny Morozov

    I’m really enjoying this conversation – mostly for revealing the implicit assumptions that underpin Nick’s thinking about “the Net.”

    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.

    Sure, there are reasons why computer designers might want to get me connected – there are good reasons to scrutinize the ideology of “ubiquitous connectivity” – but nothing here is inherent in “the Net.”

    I’m really amazed by your willingness to continue with this net-centric thinking. I’m sure it sells well but, I’m sorry, it just looks cheap – shallow? – to me.

  20. Nick Post author


    If “the Net” doesn’t actually exist, as you argue in your book, then wouldn’t the taking of extreme steps to avoid it be a symptom of a paranoid psychosis?

    But as to creative “design interventions” to help us use the Net (the real Net, not your imaginary one) in ways better suited to our needs and preferences, I am entirely on your side. I believe the Net, like any network of computers, has certain inherent characteristics, but those characteristics can be tempered or even overridden by design choices. That doesn’t mean that putting those design choices into effect is easy or even (practically) possible.

    As to putting a timed network shutoff feature into a computer, a shutoff that can’t be overridden, that seems entirely possible and could certainly be done with a piece of software (in fact, I would guess that such software exists). But I don’t think the absence of such a shutoff necessarily reflects a “design failure.” My guess is that engineers assumed it would be sufficient to simply allow a person to turn off their wi-fi connection (or unplug their ethernet cable). The fact that, in your case, which I’m sure is not an isolated case, the ability to shut off wi-fi or unplug a cable is insufficient to counter the strength of the temptation is itself revealing.

  21. Evgeny Morozov

    That the phenomena and behaviors you describe add up to “the Net” is an epistemological and ultimately political move that I simply refuse to make without due process. One can easily mitigate the consequences of some of those phenomena – as I do with the ‘safe’ – without having to buy into your “composition” of them as “the Net.” That’s what a constructivist account of “digital technologies” would be like: scrutinize behaviors/phenomena enabled by said technologies while also scrutinizing how “talk” about them is produced and keeping an eye on what discursive interventions/moves certain ways of “talking” — and “composition” — make possible.

    I was actually serious with the “sales” part; for reasons that I’m still exploring, medium-centrism – going back all the way to McLuhan and later Eisenstein and now you and Shirky – gets a very good reception. Now that might simply have to do with the accessibility of the explanatory accounts that it offers – I totally buy that. I just think that this accessibility comes at a high analytical – and ultimately policy – price that I’d rather not pay. That’s all.

  22. Nick Post author

    Systems have qualities, as do their components. You’re right to criticize people for being blind to the latter. You’re wrong to become so infatuated with your idea that you blind yourself to the former.

  23. jon williams

    We’re all “addicted to novelty”. Novelty triggers the brain’s dopamine response. Addiction is merely what we call having an obsession with anything other than food, clothing, shelter, etc that polite society finds acceptable. One person’s unhealthy obsession is another’s magnum opus. The distinctions is dubious. If you need to lock your XYZ in a safe to be healthy, by all means lock it in a safe.

  24. Evgeny Morozov

    No, I’m afraid you are the one being blinded. Look at any decent study of science and technology – in STS, in history of science, in history of technology a la Hughes, in history of classification/knowledge – they all offer highly constructivist accounts of what you call “systems.” These “socio-technical” systems are not set in stone and their boundaries are the result of very heavy discursive boundary work; one cannot possibly claim to study the “qualities” of these “systems” without relaxing one’s essentialism about what a “system” *is* – in fact, such a move is a prerequisite to understanding how a given “system” became what it is, both technologically and discursively. That’s an insight that has been present in various strands of technology scholarship since the late 1960s and, via Latour and Luhmann, it has thankfully traveled to other fields.

    If all goes right, this constructivism will eventually travel to “Internet studies” as well. In that case, a lot of “net-talk” will simply become impossible the way much talk of “technology” has become impossible – thank god for that – “philosophy of technology.” The latter is a discipline without any meaningful subject matter that exists – if it still does – only by exploiting linguistic vacuity of concepts like “technology.” That’s not a good model for “Internet debate” whatever one makes of it.

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