Evgeny Morozov has a litmus test for technology critics


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.

14 thoughts on “Evgeny Morozov has a litmus test for technology critics

  1. Daniel C.

    This is the same impression I’ve been getting for some time now from his increasingly obnoxious hit pieces, and you’re right, it is pernicious. He’s perfected his diss song approach to brand building, but I for one cringe at the thought of all “technology critics” ignoring neuroscience, psychology, and the lion’s share of philosophy simply out of pure ideology.

    The disappointing thing is that he does have a lot to bring to the table. But when he presents his insights as categorically incompatible with those of thinkers who don’t share his exact political persuasion, he is handicapping both his own understandings and the public dialogue about technology. Has this silly phobia of being affiliated with anything that might in some way be construed as conservative has metastasized to the point where we can’t even talk about individuals at all? Ugh. The smug, self satisfied tone pervading every piece I’ve ever read in The Baffler disgusts me even when I agree with the message. Perhaps the progressive move in our current situation might be to reexamine how well our old political categories still serve us.

  2. Callum

    The worrying thing for me is that never before has a group of people been so confused about its political orientation. Morozov wants others to be aligned with a ‘transformative’, ‘progressive’ agenda because he *thinks* he is aligned with the same – yet he is not. Disruption is the new non-conformism – the new means of standing out by staying the same – because to disrupt, today, is to reinforce a new hegemony. It is to concentrate wealth in an elite and put ordinary folk out of work, often for no tangible benefit except for employers who want to pay fewer wages.

    He thinks that this is progressive because it is based on innovation and change, but he needs to push his radicalism a little further and consider that the most disruptive aspect of technology may be that it has turned perpetual change into a type of conservatism. Like the momentous switch in the earth’s magnetic poles when north becomes south, progression has become regression as it is simply ratifying existing power structures. Morozov is a reactionary and the frightening thing is that he has no idea.

  3. Brian

    Technology critics unconstructively criticizing each other via internet technology itself prompts criticism of technology as a platform for criticism.

    Nick’s phenomenal approach at least attempts to overlay the real with the virtual. That said, I am not personally well-up on Morozov’s writings.

  4. Rosco B.

    The debate between Carr and Morozov conjures up the image of two heavyweights slugging it out in the middle of a railway track. There’s a train a-coming, folks, that makes the debate rather moot.
    What if Moore’s Law also applies to robotics? Moore’s Law states that computer processing power doubles every 18 months. Apply this to the rate of disemployment brought on by robotics. Assume that robots will replace 100,000 human jobs in the next year, a not unreasonable conjecture. According to Moore’s Law, it would then take a mere 24 years to replace 6.5 billion jobs. In other words, it would take 24 years to put every human being out of work. It won’t matter how much fun you have during your free time when you’ve lost ability to acquire the necessities of life. Without some fundamental change, our political/economic system will eventually collapse if people are no longer required to produce the goods and services people need for survival.
    While Carr and Morozov argue about politics and culture (and each other), the train is picking up speed as it heads for the cliff.

  5. Brutus

    Callum, I had basically the same thought: who is defending which status quo? Considering how normative the myth of progress is within neoliberal politics, it seems to me that Morozov is defending a status quo reconfigured as constant technological flux amid hierarchical entrenchment. Or to put it in terms more compatible with the phenomenal philosophers Morozov dismisses out of hand, he’s hitched his wagon to a project of always becoming but never actually being. The future beckons; damn the present.

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Agreed with others that Morozov is getting worse with each piece. I don’t totally disagree with him wanting a political angle to these conversations, I will say. I do disagree with him seeing it in polarities of either neoliberalism or Marxism, excluding, say, democratic socialism or other halfway houses.

    That said, beyond polarities, I think what you’re getting at, David, is that he is a zero-sum person.

    Maybe both that, and his childish combativeness, come in part from growing up in the former USSR?


  7. gregorylent

    careerist, is how i long ago categorized morozov, and stopped paying attention to him

    i can guess at his background to explain his emotional makeup, but that is not important, it is simply enough to dismiss his thinking as being important to me

    your post just strengthens his career by legitimizing him, worthy of your criticism

    it’s ok .. but diminishing all around

  8. Jerry

    Morozov attacks Carr; Carr attacks Morozov. These are probably two fairly “smart” people (if the complexity of their ideas and their command of language is any indication), who are now engaged in some kind of a pissing context. The real issue seems to be (or should be) whether in this day and age it is justifiable to engage in the criticism of technology. So, to “cut to the chase,” are we now at a point where we are willing to sacrifice free speech on the altar of some “technology god”? To be sure, politics and society are also perfectly valid and deserving targets of criticism (as are the justice system, the economic system, education, theoretical science, and many other fields of human activity or pursuit) but certainly “technology,” particularly in the 21st century, deserves to be at or near the top of that list. The impact of recent technological inventions, particularly in the area of data (and information) processing and automation is so enormous and so pervasive, with ramifications for privacy, inter-personal relationships, even “thought and consciousness” (whatever that means) and indeed for the very fabric of society (subsuming politics, education, the economy, religion, the military, u.s.w.) that possibly nothing in human history, not even electrification, or the invention of the proverbial wheel comes close. It may shake “humanity” (what it means to be human) to its core. Maybe we should drop all other forms of critical pursuit (for the time being) and focus on what threatens our future, as human beings, first.

  9. Scott H.

    I do have to agree, Nick, that your politics are “murky” to me. But I don’t read your writings for politics. I read them to gain greater understanding of the effect that I have felt of technology on my mind and daily life. Politics means nothing to me when I am concerned about the effect of something on my mind. I don’t have these opinions because I am trying to change the world or even gain followers.

  10. Emil Isanov

    Technology should always be critiqued. People should always ask questions. Perhaps the first and foremost goal of information technology should be to spread just that: information. The more educated we all are as to technology’s role in our daily existence, both philosophically and literally, the less ignorant we, as an IT-integrated society, become.

  11. Treadmill

    The Tennis Test
    Futurists had not reckoned with the perversity of ordinary objects and systems. — Edward Tenner
    “Once again, though, technology failed to save tennis. Instead of continuing to rebound, the sport was foundering by the mid-1990s, despite but also partly because of its success in innovation. The number of players continued its slow recovery from the trough of 1985, reaching 25 million by 1993, yet the sale of tennis balls–a measure of activity–dropped significantly between 1990 and 1993. Manufacturers and retailers were quick to blame inadequate marketing, but the game’s explosion in the 1970s appeared to owe little to marketing campaigns, and even companies as adept as Nike have not been consistently successful.”

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