I am no stranger to digital disappointments so I can easily relate to Sascha Lobo’s cri de coeur. Much like Sasha, I also began my exploration of digital technology with a heavy dose of unabashed enthusiasm and hope for its great democratizing potential. Perhaps, I was even more naïve than Sascha, for I always saw those technologies in the political context of the region I come from – i.e. the post-Soviet world and Belarus in particular. What a failure it has turned out to be. (Link to the German article)
My own disillusionment began around 2007. As I discovered, the act of renouncing one’s cyber-optimism has two stages. Alas, not everyone completes them both. The first stage is quite banal: you embrace the latest empirical evidence and revise the content of your beliefs in what is otherwise a stable intellectual universe. You arrive at different conclusions but the objects of your analysis are never put into question. That’s how some people become vegetarians or come to oppose nuclear power; as new evidence comes in, they might go back to their once-abandoned beliefs or become even more extreme in their current ones. They don’t rethink the concepts of “meat” or “nuclear energy” every time a new study is published: they take different sides in a well-established debate.
But it’s only at the second stage where the true rethinking of the digital dialectic can happen. Here one doesn’t just switch sides – one discovers new dimensions of reality, abandoning older ones as nothing more but irrelevant phantoms. A paradigm change is under way; it radically alters one’s worldview, destroying whatever certainty one has previously held in relations, objects, and topics of analysis. To discover that the earth revolves around the sun – rather than the other way around – or that we don’t need concepts like “phlogiston” or “ether” to explain the physical phenomena that they describe: these are paradigm-altering changes.
Cyber-agnosticism instead of cyber-pessimism
For simplicity’s sake, let’s call the first stage the empirical correction and the second stage the ontological correction. Why ontological? Well, it’s much more than just one’s position on a given issue that has to be revised – one also has to ascertain that the object of analysis is real and that one has sliced reality in the best possible way to illuminate it. “Does meat exist?” is not a very helpful question whereas “does ether exist?” was once very much so.
Much of own intellectual work in the last few years has been dedicated to arguing that “the Internet” that Sascha claims is “kaputt” is more like “ether” than like “meat” – in that, while there’s no shortage of contemporary debates over whether the “Internet” is good or bad for democracy, we should do our best to ascertain that there is no better, more illuminating way to slice the technological reality that we inhabit. I, for one, remain unconvinced that we have arrived at the best conceptual foundation to describe the technological underpinning of the contemporary situation.
To take just one unproblematic assumption from Sascha’s essay: Why assume that “the Internet” is a stable and coherent medium with well-defined properties that lend themselves to comparison with other media? Are those properties defined by physical laws or are they just the result of some corporate compromises and lobbying fights over technological standards? And if they are the result of battles that had very contingent and open-ended outcomes – and which might have been lost simply because, let’s face it, corporations today are more powerful than citizens – aren’t we simply hiding the failures of public policy under the supposedly innocent cover of medium-talk? Aren’t we explaining away the failure to invest in critical information infrastructure as just natural features of some medium called “the Internet”? Who exactly are we kidding with these rhetorical evasions?
Evgeny Morozov, born 1984 in Salihorsk (Belarus), is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University, pursuing his Ph.D.. His research topics … © ullstein bild Bilderstrecke
Sascha’s essay reveals that he has traveled only half the road; his change of heart is empirical rather than ontological in nature. He has traded his earlier cyber-optimism for cyber-pessimism, rejecting the deterministic view that, on balance, anything that involves digital technology is going to promote causes favorable to democracy, intellectual debate, empowerment. However, what many of his critics don’t seem to understand is that to embrace this view is not the same as to believe that everything that involves digital technology is automatically bad.
Perhaps, cyber-pessimism is not the best term here. A better name for this outlook is cyber-agnosticism. As an ideology, it distinguishes itself by refusing to accept that there must be one firm view on the political consequences of digital technologies. And the reason for this refusal is simple: tools do not have politics; rather, ti’s the systems – made up of tools, ideologies, market incentives and laws – that do. On this reading, it’s not technology that upsets Sascha – no, it’s the fact that this technology is put to some abhorrent uses by the unholy alliance between spooks in Washington and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.
The internet – an autonomous entity?
Had Sasha formulated his critique this way, I would have gladly applauded it. But, in embracing cyber-agnosticism – and the gloomy view to which the analysis of the contemporary situation has led him – Sascha reveals that he is beholden to another intellectual handicap: what I call Internet-centrism. It’s only by abandoning the latter that we might arrive at the kind of paradigm change that might shake our ontological foundations. Briefly stated, Internet-centrism is the idea that there’s some coherent logic to everything that’s happening in the digital realm – and the very existence of that realm (also known as “online” and “cyberspace”) is one of the core beliefs driving this mindset – and that we must accept that logic, for, just like the logic of the market, it’s too complex for us, humans, to understand and make sense of.
Our dire techno-political situation is a direct consequence of our dire intellectual situation. Internet-centrism is to blame for the abandonment, in much of the Western world, of an active industrial policy, especially with regards to critical information infrastructure, for too many of us have bought into the assumption that everything will be accomplished by the „Internet“ - much like the market - as it continues to interconnect the world. But such interconnection is not happening on neutral terms: there are different ways to wire the world and the way in which we are wiring it now might, in the long term, prove detrimental to the well-being of democracy.
„The Internet,“ seen from the perspective of industrial policy is just an extension of the same free-market sloganeering that we see in „there’s no alternative” slogans of neoliberals in the US and the UK. But, of course, there are alternatives - and the reason we don’t see them is precisely because „the Internet,“ much like „the market“ is presented as an autonomous entity, with its own laws and regularities, that we cannot predict or fathom but we can only accommodate ourselves to.
In some sense, a decision to have a two-decade long conversation about “the Internet” has also been a decision not to talk about other important things, from the need to develop public infrastructure for information management to devising digital identity systems that are not tied to social networking sites. These conversations were deemed unnecessary because “the Internet” was presumed to be too complex too manage; it was a complex, autonomous system – a system “out of control,” to quote the title of Keivn Kelly’s popular book from the early 1990s – that had to be left alone and let to be developed on its own. It could always sort out its problems on its own.
There might, indeed, be a fourth sickness of humanity but it’s not the one that Sasha identifies. The sickness in question has to do with the way in which the technological-epistemic apparatus that, out of bad habit, we continue calling “the Internet” obliterates everything in its wake; it rewrites the history of individual technologies and protocols as part of the grand and unfolding history of the “greatest invention in history”; it pretends that there’s only one right way to run our technological infrastructure – codified in programmatic terms like “net neutrality” – while presenting technology companies that have agendas as ruthless as those of Wall Street as benevolent angels bent on improving the world one click at a time. As a result, our infrastructural imagination gets atrophied to a point where we can no longer imagine how to organize our technological affairs – let alone how to do so in order to promote a political agenda that is conducive to justice, deliberation, and privacy.
New trust in politics
What Sasha seems to grasp but doesn’t develop in full is the idea that, as everything becomes interconnected – with tiny sensors and modems – “the Internet” will literally be everywhere. But if one accepts the thesis that the “Internet” is just a never-ending exercise in purification, whereby domains that were previously contentious and political are converted into uncontroversial technological domains that are supposed to behave in accordance with the out-of-control logic of the “Internet”-- it’s not so hard to see what awaits us: the end of politics altogether, as the only remaining reason for regulating this newly “interconnected world” would be to promote “innovation” (a nice euphemism for the business interests of Silicon Valley) rather than an ambitious social and political agenda. When “the Internet” is everywhere, politics is nowhere.
To be against “the Internet” – if by “the Internet” we mean nothing but the practices of searching, networking, accessing ebooks – is retrograde and unnecessary. That much Sascha gets right, especially at the end of his essay.
It’s a pity that Sascha doesn’t say what must be said: the only way to promote alternative uses of ebooks or search engines or social networks in ways that would not depend too heavily on the seemingly free services offered by Silicon Valley is by developing a new industrial policy that would inject billions of dollars into public information infrastructure. And we don't want that infrastructure to be managed by the same oligopolies only with European names; it has to be run in a decentralized and civic manner, with citizens owning their own data from the start. It’s not digital optimism that we must cultivate – rather, it’s optimism in public institutions and a renewed faith in politics. Not exactly a very popular messages during the times of austerity.
But while to be against “the Internet” is unhelpful, it’s perfectly okay – even laudable – to be “against “because the Internet” – a mode of argumentation, mastered by Sascha’s comrades in arms who self-identify as “Internet experts,” that seeks to replace political argumentation – about the future of education or publishing or healthcare – with just one reductionist argument: “Because … the Internet.” Thus, we are invited to accept MOOCs, the disappearance of high-quality journalism, the threat to serious literary publishing, the constant push to get citizens more anxious about their health based on the same argument: all these sacrifices must be made because the “Internet” is here and it’s taking no hostages. This is an argument that might boost the public importance of “Internet experts” but it’s weak tea as far as public deliberation is concerned.
So my advice for Sasha is simple: instead of picking sides in a debate that treats the “Internet” as a fixed and coherent medium, why not go much further and treat “the Internet” as an ideology that seeks to depoliticize debates about industrial policy? Our highly technological world would not suffer from him taking this position – not any more than the world of economics suffers when critics of neoliberalism point out that the idea of an autonomous, self-organizing and efficient market is an ideology. Our most burning task today is not to come up with a definitive assessment of goodness or badness of the “Internet” – this exercise is absurd. Rather, our task is to figure out how to think about our technological infrastructure – and lack thereof – in a post-Internet world. It would be great to see Sascha move in that direction.