Secularizing the Tech Debate

Secularizing the Tech Debate

Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, themselves lapsed true believers in the Internet gospel, warn that the widespread and quasi-messianic enthusiasm for the Internet underwrites a technocratic agenda inimical to the survival of democracy. But their critiques never fully grapple with larger political and economic questions.

Jaron Lanier (ALA/Flickr Commons)

Who Owns the Future?
by Jaron Lanier
Simon & Schuster, 2013, 396 pp.

To Save Everything, Click Here:
The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by Evgeny Morozov
Public Affairs, 2013, 415 pp.

According to two recent books, many people today believe in the Internet the way that the denizens of the Age of Faith believed in God, or that many on the left once believed in Marxism: as the exclusive source of universal personal and political salvation and the basic organizing principle of history. Varieties of this twenty-first century faith can be found in the most disparate places. While the geek elite of Silicon Valley are its natural constituency, other converts include young Egyptians who took part in the 2011 uprising, free-market libertarians, members of the Obama administration, “hacktivists,” open government activists, and a growing tribe of calorie-counting “self-trackers.”

The celebrated cause of “Internet freedom,” Lanier and Morozov tell us, is about the freedom of data, not people, and strengthens the hand of a small elite positioned to profit from that data.

Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier are themselves lapsed true believers in the Internet gospel, though Morozov tells us he was only “one of those people . . . very briefly,” whereas Silicon Valley insider Lanier was a seminal figure in developing some of the technologies and ideologies he now criticizes. Both assert that the widespread and quasi-messianic enthusiasm for the Internet underwrites a technocratic agenda inimical to the survival of democracy. The celebrated cause of “Internet freedom,” they tell us, is about the freedom of data, not people, and strengthens the hand of a small elite positioned to profit from that data. They also reject the idea that the Internet follows an autonomous, self-directing logic, asserting instead that we must decide the future of network technology and our relation to it through reasoned collective deliberation. Both authors, then, set out to secularize contemporary discussions of technology and dispel the dubious theologies and teleologies peddled by evangelists of the cyber-creed.

The similarities between Morozov and Lanier end there. Indeed, Morozov made clear in a Washington Post review of Who Owns the Future? that he does not regard Lanier as an ally. This stance is consistent with his generally critical angle on other vocal techno-skeptics of recent years. Morozov devotes several pages of To Save Everything, Click Here to delineating his differences with Nicholas Carr, whose much-discussed 2011 book The Shallows argued that the Internet is doing terrible things to our brains. For Morozov, in contrast, “the Internet” cannot do anything in particular to our brains because it does not exist in any clear or unified sense. The physical infrastructure that underpins digital networks is real, but it “bears very little resemblance to the mythical ‘Internet’” celebrated by his main targets. While Carr rejects the fashionable “cyber-whig theory of history” that posits the Internet as a vehicle of inevitable progress, he still imbues the Internet with “predetermined goals and inherent features.” Lanier’s failings, for Morozov, are similar to Carr’s: he may be a heretic in Silicon Valley, but he remains certain that the Internet is “fixed and unified, meaningful and didactic, powerful and unconquerable”—that it is “the future.” Dismantling this cluster of “Internet-centric” assumptions is the principal objective of Morozov’s book.

Morozov describes “the Internet” as a “socially constructed concept” whose “various parts” must “be studied in their own right.” It is unusual to find the phrase “socially constructed” in a trade nonfiction book, and he apologizes for using the “dreadful language of social theory.” Still, he links his project to the efforts of social historians of science and technology to “disassemble” ideologically charged “capital-S Science” into a range of complex and heterogeneous constituent practices, assumptions, and institutions. The key takeaway is that “the Internet” is not a natural, given object but a contingent product conditioned by its context as much as it conditions the world around it. But Morozov’s ambitions are not just academic: he not only wants to discredit the widely accepted notion of “the Internet” but to expose the Internet intellectuals—who include Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Timothy Wu, Eric Schmidt, and Mark Zuckerberg—as dangerous charlatans whose influence on public life needs be curtailed for the health of civil society.

Morozov wants us to become more “thoroughly empirical” about the “complex practices” and “diverse logics” (to use a few of his favorite phrases) that make up not only the Internet but human social and political life as a whole. It isn’t bad advice. But demonstrating that an influential concept is socially constructed is not enough; we should additionally examine the power relations that construct serves to perpetuate and the circumstances under which it comes to be widely viewed as plausible. (Thus, for instance, the feminist critique of socially constructed gender is also by necessity a critique of the patriarchal regimes it supports and the social practices it naturalizes.) Unfortunately, Morozov largely avoids the latter tasks. He documents ad nauseam the wrongheadedness of trendy ideas while giving little consideration to the question of how and why such ideas gain traction.

If so many people in otherwise dissimilar contexts are receptive to the new cyber-religion, perhaps that is because it helps situate the very real social and economic dislocations of recent decades within a coherent, politically potent, and optimistic narrative. The apostles of online salvation are intellectually misguided but more politically astute than Morozov claims. Their resounding success at finding converts among powerful policymakers suggests as much. Their prophecy becomes self-fulfilling: insisting that the Internet is “the future” helps ensure that it will be. Morozov implies that legal scholar Lawrence Lessig is pursuing just such a strategy: “Lessig’s academic self knows that there’s nothing fixed about ‘the Internet,’ but his activist self knows that claiming it’s here to stay will make his advocacy much easier.” If so, Lessig is cognizant of something that Morozov sometimes loses sight of: ideology is both prescriptive and descriptive. Correcting the descriptive errors of a given ideology may be a necessary part of the effort of discrediting it, but you cannot counteract its influence without considering the factors that lend appeal to its prescriptions.

The problem is not merely the technocrats’ indifference or contempt for democratic values and institutions; it is also that they are for the most part de facto apologists the interests of the wealthiest few.

Morozov may be correct that network technologies have not changed everything, as the Internet-centrists are prone to assert. But even if we remain agnostic as to their precise causal role, burgeoning digital networks have undoubtedly helped enable some of the most consequential economic developments of the past three decades, including the reconfiguration of supply chains, the expansion of the financial services industry, the dramatic weakening of labor unions, the concentration of wealth at the top of the income scale, and the stagnation or depression of wages for most workers. In such circumstances, the cyber-whig message that technological “disruption” is progressive and unavoidable has served to stifle or limit debate about the social, economic, and political effects of such developments. The Internet gospel has also managed to subsume an otherwise bewildering array of overlapping changes in the private, public, political, and commercial spheres into a cohesive, and redemptive, framework.

Because of his neglect of the conditions in which the cult of the Internet has emerged, Morozov’s exhaustive demolition of Internet-centric thinking ultimately proves inadequate to his task of preserving liberal democracy from the schemes of myopic would-be technocrats. The problem is not merely their indifference or contempt for democratic values and institutions; it is also that they are for the most part de facto apologists for an economic and political order whose priorities are increasingly set by the interests of the wealthiest few. Moreover, the values and institutions Morozov most desperately wants to rescue from the “solutionists”—the long list includes restaurant criticism, autonomous moral decision-making, newspapers, privacy, the National Endowment for the Arts, and deliberative politics—are being eroded as much by technologically facilitated economic imperatives as by the intellectual agendas that legitimize those imperatives. The forms of Internet populism promoted by Morozov’s antagonists emerge alongside and as a justification for what we might call Internet capitalism.

Jaron Lanier’s idiosyncratic manifesto moves unevenly in this direction and may therefore be read as a valuable supplement to To Save Everything. If Morozov’s target is the intellectual effort to sacralize the fixity, autonomy, and wisdom of network technologies, Lanier’s concern is with the processes that concentrate wealth accumulation around the monopolistic, algorithmically powered computational nodes that increasingly dominate the global economy. He calls these nodes “Siren Servers,” and in his account they are emblematic of contemporary network capitalism, much as textile mills were for industrial capitalism. The most obvious enterprises of this era are companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, but an array of entities from Wal-Mart to Goldman Sachs also conform to the model Lanier delineates; moreover, a wide range of fields, from education to medicine to government itself, are increasingly remaking themselves along Siren Server lines. Looking at these trends, we can see that the techno-dogmas Morozov loathes (the wisdom of crowds, technological determinism, “Internet freedom”) disguise and naturalize the immense and expanding power exercised by Siren Servers.

Lanier roots the dominance of Siren Servers in a massive “accounting fraud” by which the ever-increasing power of computation entails a parasitic devaluation of human labor. Siren Servers tempt users into their orbit by offering some upfront benefit, usually free or cheap goods or services or enhanced efficiency. Users then surrender their data to powerful processing systems that monetize personal information. The most obvious examples are search and social network sites, which monitor your every activity, with your full permission, in order to micromanage the placement of ads. The machines empowered by user data may also become competent in a wide array of human activities: Google, for instance, has plugged millions of human translations into its software to build up the Google Translate algorithms, which finally deskill and render unemployable the very human translators it initially relied on. Lanier imagines a number of future iterations of the same scenario. In one, a cloud-based robotic nurse perfects its caring algorithms by monitoring effective human nurses, whose jobs it proceeds to usurp. The same people who enable the latest AI triumph are promptly left unacknowledged and without a livelihood.

When he denounces a “class division between full economic participants and partial economic participants,” Lanier sounds a bit like a Marxist talking about the antagonism between capital and labor. When he argues that Siren Servers are “blind to where value comes from,” he might as well be describing commodity fetishism. But in fact, Lanier presents his proposals as the only way capitalism can survive the “socialist backlash” that will result from the new concentration of wealth. Somewhat like the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century, he thinks that the digital plutocrats will ultimately adopt his plan, because the alternative would be a violent uprising by the pauperized masses. Perhaps in order to reassure these potential allies, Lanier reminds us repeatedly that his plan is “not socialist” and not even “redistributionist.” Rather, he insists, it is the full realization of the Internet-capitalist regime of production, rewarding the originators of value defrauded by the current system.

Lanier’s system depends on restructuring network architecture around “two-way linking,” such that anytime anyone consumes, cites, or makes use of data on the network, the originator of that data can automatically claim royalties.

It is easy to see how Lanier’s scheme for digital property rights, even if realizable, would end up exacerbating the all too familiar inequalities of the present.

With improved surveillance, there is no end to what can be monetized in this way. In one of his futuristic reveries, Lanier imagines someone sitting on the beach while images of a sandcastle are automatically uploaded; the builder instantly earns enough royalties for the architectural design to go out to dinner. If your entire life happens online, as Lanier assures us it will, you will be able to earn income just by going about your daily life and sharing as much of it as possible. In the panoptic future, every sigh, gesture, or turn of phrase might be calculated to achieve maximum virality and maximum payoff. Lanier describes this “monetized version of a many-to-many network” as a “humanistic information economy.” He contends that instating “inalienable commercial rights to data that wouldn’t exist without you” is fairer to all concerned than the traditional protections of the regulatory welfare state, because it places everyone on equal standing as a property owner, creating the basis for a digital Jeffersonian democracy.

It is easy to see how Lanier’s scheme for digital property rights, even if realizable, would end up exacerbating the all too familiar inequalities of the present. Receiving “nanopayments” in perpetuity for every informational tidbit I provide to Google might seem nice, but wouldn’t I have to spend much of that income on paying royalties every time I whistle a copyrighted tune or drop a movie quote in conversation? Lanier concedes that his reforms would lead to a “world filled with litigation” in which accountants would “expand the kind of value that can be documented.” Two-way linking theoretically allows us all to become small-scale rentiers, yet surely the already well-established rentiers—the ones with access to armies of the best lawyers and accountants and with huge dossiers of copyrights already to their names—would have an overwhelming advantage. Lanier does not offer any compelling reasons why the digital 1 percent of the future will be any less inclined to rig the rules in their favor than their counterparts today.

Lanier advocates obliterating the remainder of non-monetized existence in order to save the “free market” from the worsening inequality it has brought about. As he presents it, the only way to avoid widespread destitution and the self-immolation of capitalism is to enclose the vast commons of quotidian activity and experience into a limitless intellectual property regime enforced by a universal panoptic apparatus. I imagine that not a few of Lanier’s readers might be inclined to give “socialist backlash” a second look.

In the concluding paragraphs of his book, Morozov states that “[s]ecularizing the technology debate . . . is by far the most important task that technology intellectuals face today.” Whatever their shortcomings, his and Lanier’s books make vital contributions to this enterprise. Morozov argues convincingly that “the Internet” alternately celebrated and lamented in most contemporary discussions of technology is a false god enshrined by tendentious ideologues. Lanier shows how new data-driven centers of power have persuaded users to surrender both their agency and their labor to the corporatized digital cloud. Many of the Internet-centrists targeted by Morozov have made it their mission to spread reverence for the omniscience, inevitability, and beneficence of Siren Servers, shielding from view the increasing economic and political gains accruing to the small cadre that wields and manipulates the vast amounts of data we users hand over to them. Future techno-secularists would be well advised to fuse Morozov’s focus on ideas with Lanier’s attention to labor and property. Such a synthesis could bring into clearer view how Internet evangelists help consolidate the technocratic capture of democratic institutions and legitimize the expansion of corporate and state surveillance.

Geoff Shullenberger is a teacher and writer based in Monterey, California.