Evgeny Morozov would have been a great blogger in 1998

After reading the New York Times profile of Evgeny Morozov yesterday, I decided to write down a few criticisms of his work that came up when I was researching what he calls "cyber-utopianism."

Debating Morozov and his insistence that "the internet" doesn't exist

As far as critiques of Morozov go, I'm kind of late to the party. As the NYT article notes, his reviews and exposés often cross the line into vitriol, and this has been a turn-off for many who would otherwise be inclined to agree with him. It's not just social boundaries being crossed, since sometimes it seems Morozov's level of intensity is out of whack: when his famous 6,000 word takedown of Jeff Jarvis's book Private Parts appeared, I thought it was like hitting a home run out of a little league ballpark.

I think soon after that, Morozov did realize that the Jeff Jarvises of the world aren't worth the kind of in-depth analysis he's obviously very good at. He turned his attention to more formidable proponents of "net-centrism" like Clay Shirky and Tim O'Reilly. A true contrarian, he also began debating and criticizing commentators that one would presume were on "his side," like Eli Pariser and Nicholas Carr.

In doing so, Morozov has increasingly become a target of criticism from respected internet scholars who, beyond the obligatory hand-wringing over his tone, look for flaws in his message. The gist of Tim Wu's critique, for example, is that anything Morozov adds by deconstructing the idea of "the internet" simply repeats what Wu and Larry Lessig argued in the 1990s, and does not push internet criticism forward like Nicholas Carr does. Here, though, Wu is simply wrong: what distinguishes Morozov's theoretical starting points from those of Wu, Lessig, Carr and others is that he is adamantly against any kind of media formalism - that is, against assuming or attempting to find any connection between a medium's formal properties and its effects (it should be noted that for Wu, such formalism is mostly strategic, a kind of "let's act one way even if we know it's not really true," although the same can't be said about other targets like Carr). The problem, of course, is to go beyond revealing the flaws in such formalism and essentialism and offer a useful alternative.

To turn Morozov's constructivist critique into something more, I would suggest drawing inspiration from the writings of Phil Agre, an early internet critic who argued against terms like "cyberspace" or anything else that suggests wholesale effects, and instead approached new media as a way of encoding social institutions (one that ideally would afford improvements we might hope to make). Agre practiced what he preached, running the popular Red Rock Eater's Digest, which I think was an embodiment of his vision of intellectual community and is remembered as an incredibly useful service.

Morozov's style as web cultural object of study

I am not sure whether I think Morozov's contributions so far are really valuable (although I definitely look forward to reading his dissertation on the pre-history of internet centrism). I do know I disagree with Ian Bogost and others who say Morozov's ability to get the message out there excuses his caustic style. In my experience in Europe, at least, very smart critics get exposure without resorting to the same level of polemics. More importantly - and this brings me to the points I would add to the debate - I don't think Morozov's style should be considered so instrumentally, as it is very much tied to to his historiography (the kind of historical argument or narrative Morozov tends towards) as well as his object of study (web or internet-centric culture).

First, although Morozov's quest to "unthink the internet" is influenced by Latour's Actor-Network Theory, and he is a great admirer of Fred Turner's ANT-like history of digital utopianism, his arguments about the utopian promises attached to the web are more in line with those of Marxist critics like Richard Barbrook (most well known for The Californian Ideology). The central move Morozov makes is to debunk: to consistently reveal the distance between rhetorical gloss and the actual forms and uses that characterize the web. Much of the humor in his writing, for example, comes from the contrasts he draws between the high-minded rhetoric of freedom that surrounds social media and their actual LOLcat banality. His arguments are also anchored in a similar observation, that cyber-utopianism in policy circles is driven by the false belief that the free circulation of information (by which people tend to mean Western media) took down the Soviet Union.

It's not exactly shocking to point out that Morozov's technology criticism is an exercise in exposing the false consciousness at play in filling Silicon Valley pockets (his first book is called The Net Delusion, after all), but I think it's important in order to consider alternative approaches. To borrow from Gabrielle Hecht, one may also seek to account for the productive capacity of so-called "rupture-talk" - that is, how hyperbolic discourses surrounding new technologies are inscribed in socio-technical practice, often in ways that produce (rather than obscure) historical continuity. For example, the utopian notion of the web as a a virtual cyberspace was in one sense a "misunderstanding" or "mystification," but it also informed the early design and use of the medium, connecting it materially to a range of cultural and historical transformations discussed by scholars like N. Katherine Hayles (in How We Became Posthuman) and Turner. I would argue that tracing such contact points between 'cyber-utopianism' and the media practices, forms and technologies emerging on the web is a more worthwhile pursuit than documenting all the inherent contradictions and biased assumptions contained in the former.

Why I think that has to do with my second point, which is that I can't shake the feeling that Morozov's writings are ultimately an extension of a well-developed tradition within web culture. Web culture has always brandished a reflexive, self-critical component. My favorite example of this is the HotWired / Suck.com combo of the mid-1990s - the hype represented by Wired magazine and its online publication was consistently debunked by Suck's super-intelligent, theory-loving parodists --- who also happened to be employed by Suck's parent company HotWired. Something similar went on before the web came into view, in Mondo 2000's ambivalent celebrations of tech culture, as well as during the early blogging period, where the levels of hyperbole in descriptions of blogs as a solution to the problems of mass media were matched only by the number of deadpan demystifications of the form. (At times, the hype and debunking came from the same blogger.) On a related note, Morozov, similar to earlier internet critics Paulina Borsook, Jaron Lanier and Andrew Keen, often reminds us that he used to be a cyber-utopian insider - although that move is clearly about credentializing, it may also simply point to a more lively and informed debate within these circles than Morozov acknowledges.

The title of my post, by the way, isn't meant to be dismissive of Morozov so much as to recognize the quality of critique and commentary within web culture - from, say, early bloggers like Anil Dash and others who Morozov would undoubtedly qualify as unwitting net-centrists and cyber-utopians. On his Twitter page, Morozov writes "There are idiots. Look around." But having researched and interviewed some of the people he thinks we should ignore, I would say he needs to look harder.