Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, April 6, 2015

Morozov on Carr

Evgeny Morozov is probably not really “Evgeny Morozov,” but he plays him on the internet and has been doing so for years. It’s a simple role — you tell everyone else writing about technology that they’re wrong — and I suspect that it gets tiring after a while, though Morozov himself has been remarkably consistent in the vigor he brings to the part. A few years ago he joked on Twitter, “Funding my next book tour entirely via Kickstarter. For $10, I promise not to tweet at you. For $1000, I won’t review your book.” Well, I say “joked,” but ...

In his recent review of Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage — a book I reviewed very positively here — Morozov takes a turn which will enable him to perpetuate and extend his all-critique-all-the-time approach indefinitely. You can see what’s coming when he chastises Carr for being insufficiently inattentive to philosophical traditions other than phenomenology. If, gentle reader, upon hearing this you wonder why a book on automation would be obliged to attend to any philosophical tradition, bear with me as Morozov moves toward his peroration:

Unsurprisingly, if one starts by assuming that every problem stems from the dominance of bad ideas about technology rather than from unjust, flawed, and exploitative modes of social organization, then every proposed solution will feature a heavy dose of better ideas. They might be embodied in better, more humane gadgets and apps, but the mode of intervention is still primarily ideational. The rallying cry of the technology critic — and I confess to shouting it more than once — is: “If only consumers and companies knew better!” One can tinker with consumers and companies, but the market itself is holy and not to be contested. This is the unstated assumption behind most popular technology criticism written today.

And:

Even if Nicholas Carr’s project succeeds — i.e., even if he does convince users that all that growing alienation is the result of their false beliefs in automation and even if users, in turn, convince technology companies to produce new types of products — it’s not obvious why this should be counted as a success. It’s certainly not going to be a victory for progressive politics.

And:

At best, Carr’s project might succeed in producing a different Google. But its lack of ambition is itself a testament to the sad state of politics today. It’s primarily in the marketplace of technology providers — not in the political realm — that we seek solutions to our problems. A more humane Google is not necessarily a good thing — at least, not as long as the project of humanizing it distracts us from the more fundamental political tasks at hand. Technology critics, however, do not care. Their job is to write about Google.

So on this account, if you make the mistake of writing a book about our reliance on technologies of automation and the costs and benefits to human personhood of that reliance, instead of writing about “unjust, flawed, and exploitative modes of social organization”; if your book does not strive to be “a victory for progressive politics”; if your book merely pushes for “a different Google” rather than ... I don't know, probably the dismantling of global capitalism; if your book, in short, is so lamentably without “ambition”; well, then, there’s only one thing to say.

I guess everyone other than Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Thomas Piketty, and maybe David Graeber have been wasting their (and our) time. God help the next person who writes about Bach without railing against the music industry’s role as an ideological state apparatus, or who writes a love story without protesting the commodification of sex under late capitalism. I don't think Morozov will be happy until every writer sounds like a belated member of the Frankfurt School.

But the thing is, Carr’s book could actually be defended on political grounds, should someone choose to do so. The book is primarily concerned with balancing the gains in automated efficiency and safety with the costs to human flourishing, and human flourishing is what politics is all about. People who have become so fully habituated to an automated environment that they simply can’t function without it will scarcely be in a position to offer serious resistance to our political-economic regime. Carr could be said to be laying part of the foundation for such resistance, by getting his readers to begin to think about what a less automated and more active, decisive life could look like.

But is it really necessary that every book be evaluated by these criteria?

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