A couple of weeks ago Evgeny Morozov and Steven Johnson had a very public spat (writers’ favorite kind), prompted by Evgeny’s review of Johnson’s latest book in the New Republic. The result was predictable: two geeky boys with big egos each hell bent on proving the other wrong. There was a moment when I thought they would resort to “yo momma’s so fat …” jokes. In the end, the big winner was … the New Republic — and the authors’ respective book publishers. Nothing attracts a crowd like a public tussle, and a crowd is precisely what the publishing industry so desperately needs. Notably absent from their nitpicking and clawing, however, was a thoughtful discussion of ideas, specifically the ideas that each one presents in his latest respective book. So, dear reader, I humbly offer my own interpretation of what Evgeny and Steven have each contributed to our understanding about our relationship with the Internet.

Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect and Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here are useful bookends to the widening shelf of optimistic and pessimistic portrayals of how technology can limit and enable human agency. They are both to be read as manifestos that at times dip into the arena of self-help, providing readers with prescriptions of to how to lead the good life.

The Internet as Role Model

Johnson’s Future Perfect is a deeply optimistic book that cheerfully flies the middle finger in the face of mainstream media’s tired narrative that all is bad and getting worse. Not so, argues Johnson. Take just about any indicator of social well being — high school dropout rates; college enrollment; SAT scores; juvenile crime; drunk driving; traffic deaths; infant mortality; life expectancy; per capita gasoline consumption; workplace injuries; air pollution; divorce; male-female wage equality; charitable giving; voter turnout; per capita GDP; teen pregnancy — they are all trending positive.

Americans enjoy a longer, healthier life in more stable families and communities than they did twenty years ago, surrounded by an array of amusing and laborsaving technologies that exceed anything you would have found in a palace a century ago … Even though the world’s population has doubled over the past fifty years, the percentage living in poverty has declined by 50 percent over that period. Infant mortality and life expectancy have improved by more than 40 percent in Latin America since the early 1990s.

But that’s not the story you’ll hear when you tune into the nightly news, and as a result we’re convinced that we’re headed ever closer toward disaster and apocalypse. Johnson readily admits that there are important negative trends that we also must keep in mind, such as rising wealth inequality, household debt, childhood obesity, and climate change. But it is important to place those real challenges alongside the incredible stories of progress so that citizens are aware of our ability to intervene in our individual and collective future well-being.

Johnson’s introductory thesis is tantalizing. I’ve been waiting years for an authoritative, clearly written book that demonstrates with precise data that life is, despite all our cognitive biases for disaster, incrementally improving across a wide range of socio-economic indicators. Sure, there are some notable exceptions, like climate change and inequality, but give just about anyone the choice to live a decade in modern society or 100 years in the past, and you will quickly discover a sensible preference for the benefits of modernity.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s thesis ends with his introduction. Rather than developing his argument with evidence and defending it against counter-arguments, he piles on chapter after chapter of extended-length blog posts that reassemble the arguments of his former books, which praise the benefits of peer production. Taken all together, we are left with a loosely assembled metaphor that offers a deeply optimistic view of the future, but is built on scant evidence that rarely digs deeper than a few TED talks and the occasional academic paper.

That loosely assembled metaphor is the Internet itself, and it is with this metaphor that the book transforms into a manifesto. Like all good manifestos, Johnson dubs a new ism, “peer progressivism,” to define an emergent political ideology that has been adopted by those of us who have internalized some of the defining characteristics of the Internet as values that make up our worldview. Unlike the so-called progressives of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, Johnson observes, today’s so-called “peer progressives” actually believe in progress.

Centralised decentralised distributed

The opening chapter begins with a quote from libertarian Ron Paul: “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” Johnson makes it his mission to add nuance to Paul’s binary view of the world; the peer progressive believes in the individual’s ability to work in networks with both the private and public sectors in order to achieve progress. Top down, centralized approaches, whether in bureaucratic government agencies or multi-national corporations, are no longer meeting the needs of individuals. Increasingly, bottom-up peer production is filling the gaps left behind by the failures of stagnant, elite-led institutions. (An argument that is complemented by Chris Hayes’ critique of elite failure in the US.)

The second half of the book is divided into six anecdotal case studies that seek to illustrate the approach and advantages of Peer Progressivism:

  • The implementation of 311 in New York City to enable residents to easily submit complaints to local government.
  • The advantages of networked, peer-produced journalism over top-down broadcast journalism.
  • The role of distributed networks in Kickstarter, the Occupy Wall Street movement and Al Qaeda recruitment.
  • How prize-based challenges like the X-prize incentivize the acceleration of idea sharing.
  • How participatory budgeting has improved impartial government responsiveness in Porto Alegre, Brazil
  • The implementation of peer-production models within corporations such as Google’s $500 “peer bonuses” where employees reward one another with cash bonuses for innovative ideas and hard work.

They are compelling arguments, backed up by interesting and well written anecdotes. And there is something alluring about Johnson’s exercise in political branding. I was tempted to sign up myself; you know, maybe list “Peer Progressivism” under the political views section of my Facebook profile. But by the end of the book we are left with a hodgepodge of anecdotes that collectively amount to little more than a case for general optimism.

Johnson concludes his book with yet another anecdote: the “people’s” success in preventing the passage of SOPA and PIPA, which would have curtailed Internet users’ freedom of speech. But nowhere in the conclusion does he tie together the first section of the book — “life is getting better” — with the second and third sections of the book — “distributed networks are good things.” Instead, the reader is left to assume that there must be some correlation, if not causality, between the positive trending of socio-economic indicators and the rise of peer-production. Johnson doesn’t consider other compelling explanations, such as Atul Gawande’s thesis that the introduction of the checklist has been responsible for the dramatic increase in aviation safety and surgery success rates over the past few decades.

The Internet as Non-Existent

While Steven Johnson encourages his readers to consider the Internet as the “dominant role model” for peer progressivism, Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here, sets out to understand just how it is that “the Internet” can become a role model for anything:

I’m interested in why and how “the Internet” excites—and why and how it confuses. I want to understand why and how iTunes or Wikipedia—some of the core mythical components of “the Internet”—have become models to think about the future of politics. How have Zynga and Facebook become models to think about civic engagement? How have Yelp’s and Amazon’s reviews become models to think about criticism? How has Google become a model for thinking about business and social innovation—as if it had a coherent philosophy—so that books with titles like What Would Google Do? can become best sellers?

In fact, Morozov asserts that “the Internet tells us nothing, because it doesn’t actually exist.” It’s a deeply paradoxical way to begin a book that does little more than criticize how we think about the Internet. But with a few examples, we begin to see that the man has a point. What we call “the Internet” can refer to hundreds, if not thousands, of individual attributes: the technical protocols through which information is distributed, the user interfaces through which we consume content, the tone of anonymous comment threads on YouTube, the way in which we search for information, or how social networks collect user data. As a result, when Nicholas Carr argues that “the Internet is making us stupid” we have no idea which of these thousands of characteristics he is referring to, though we can assume that purchasing his book on Amazon.com isn’t one of them. Similarly, Morozov notes, “concepts like ‘Internet freedom’ have become so all-encompassing and devoid of specific meaning that they can easily cover the regulation of 3D printers, the thorny issues of net neutrality, and the rights of dissident bloggers in Azerbaijan.”

This is a useful exercise in semiotics, the study of how words and symbols describe phenomena. However, while Morozov is quick to point out that there is “no such thing as ‘the Internet’,” he doesn’t recognize that nor is there such a thing as “the book” or “the movie,” or for that matter, “capitalism” and “modernity.” These words are useful proxies for the thousands of attributes that they encompass. To ask “is the Internet making us dumb?” is as nonsensical as asking if “the book is making us smart?,” and yet we discuss both questions all the time because they are useful proxies for many underlying phenomena (which is why Morozov later discusses “big data” as if those two words placed together offer meaning).

After insisting that the Internet doesn’t exist, Morozov, like Johnson, goes on to invent another ism, Internet-centrism, and lambasts those he views as Internet-centrists. (As we shall later see, making pro-active suggestions, rather than stinging critiques, isn’t the author’s forte.) The book is at its weakest when it attempts to draw abstract distinctions between, say, “Technoescapists versus Technorationalists.” But if you are willing to wade through the author’s obsession with intellectual labeling, there are gems of insight that add clarity to how we think about our relationship with technology.

Most intriguing of all is Evgeny’s criticism of “Solutionism” (yet another ism!), which he defines by quoting Michael Dobbins: “Solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problem it is trying to solve, reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” As I discussed in a previous post, we can see the prevalence of solutionism in the rise of the hackathon as an alleged way to address complex problems. Morozov is concerned by our modern tendency to celebrate the Steve Jobs-like engineer who develops products rather than, say, the academic who studies social dilemmas. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take the opportunity to celebrate groups like Reboot which first ensure that “all the questions have been fully asked” and then work toward solving the problem.

I was also fascinated by Morozov’s analysis of “Situational Crime Prevention” (SCP). Viewers of Minority Report, which is based on on a 1956 short story by Philip K Dick, will recall the “PreCrime” police force that apprehends alleged criminals before they commit any crime based on pattern analysis of their behavior. Indeed, much of Morozov’s book reads like a dystopian science fiction novel. We are told of Oakland, California’s installation of thousands of microphones throughout the city to detect and triangulate gun shots. But, Morozov warns us, in the wrong hands those microphones could easily be employed to set up an Orwellian network of omnipresent oversight, snooping in on the conversations of residents that are identified by increasingly savvy voice detection software. We’re also told how law enforcement has teamed up with Facebook to implement algorithms that analyze relationships and chat content to monitor what could be sexual predation. Last year, according to a Reuters article, those algorithms led to the investigation of a 30-something man who planned to meet up with a 13-year-old girl after school. Morozov worries that employing algorithms to surveil potential sexual predators is a dangerous step toward a Minority Report-like future:

It’s difficult to question the application of such methods to catching sexual predators who prey on children. But should Facebook be allowed to predict any other crimes? After all, it can easily engage in many other kinds of similar police work: detecting potential drug dealers, identifying potential copyright violators (Facebook already prevents its users from sharing links to many file-sharing sites), and, especially in the wake of the 2011 riots in Britain, predicting the next generation of troublemakers. And as such data becomes available, the temptation to use it becomes almost irresistible. That temptation was on full display following the rampage in a Colorado movie theater in June 2012, when an isolated gunman went on a killing spree murdering twelve people. A headline that appeared in the Wall Street Journal soon after the shooting says it all: “Can Data Mining Stop the Killing?

Many private companies are hoping that it can. IBM software promises to “notify investigators when a threatening or suspicious message is posted” as well as provide specific information from social networks related to particular individuals. The video on the IBM website is truly concerning. A narrators claims that most social network users aim to build “positive, constructive connections.” Then, taking a cautionary tone, the narrator warns that “some activists use social networks to incite hate or even violence on a local, national or even global scale” while images are shown of young people protesting Wall Street, the White House, and tyrants.”

Most readers — especially parents — will be happy to discover that Facebook is managing social connections and chat content to protect their children from potential sexual predators. But if we don’t draw a firm line between what algorithmic surveillance is permissible and what isn’t, we will all become criminals. If you use Google Maps on your mobile phone, Google knows when you are speeding, when you roll past a stop sign, and when you double-park. In theory, they could easily send this information in real time to the nearest police officer. Or, skipping the police officer, they could simply fine you, deducting the amount straight from the Android or Apple app store.

From a philosopher’s ledge, Morozov is concerned that predictive policing takes away our autonomy to make ethical decisions. It is the first time I have read an argument that advocates for more policing and less prevention. He celebrates the Berlin metro system which requires users to pay for their passage, but only occasionally enforces the requirement. It is up to the user to make the ethical decision to pay for her ride … or not. In theory, I too celebrate our autonomy to make our own ethical decisions. I can’t stand it when my car beeps incessantly at me to fasten my seatbelt. I know much better than my car does when I do and when I don’t need to use my seat belt. (Though perhaps I’ll change my mind if one day I am in a car accident and my car was right while I was wrong.)

In practice, however, I have found crime prevention to be extremely convenient. I used to risk my life every time I crossed the street in front of my house in Mexico City. Then some neighbors installed a speed bump at the intersection, which forces cars to slow down and creates safe passage for pedestrians. Before the speed bumps were installed, ideally each driver would have made the right ethical decision to drive down the street at something resembling the speed limit. Instead, a preventive measure was required. (Morozov never discusses speed bumps nor recognizes that crime prevention has been around much longer than the Internet. For someone adamant about criticizing intellectuals who focus on the Internet, he sure spends a lot of time obsessing over it.)

Morozov’s cautionary analysis of algorithmic surveillance and “solutionism” enrich how we think about our relationship with technology and whether it enables or limits our agency. However, when he offers proactive suggestions as to how we can improve our relationship with technology, it’s difficult to know whether he is serious, sarcastic, or simply senile. He recommends that readers purchase a “Never Hungry Caterpillar,” an extension cord that wrangles in pain if you are using too much energy. Another Morozov suggestion for your holiday shopping list: the Forget Me Not lamp, which after it is turned on, “closes slowly like a flower, obscuring and dimming its light over time.” For Morozov, these Chia Pet-like gadgets inspire their users to think deliberately about their relationship with technology, unlike other products that diminish our agency in their pursuit of time-saving efficiency. Such a perspective makes sense for someone who spends a lot of time alone in his apartment contemplating technology. For the rest of us, we’d probably prefer a smart lighting system that turns on automatically when it detects that the smart phone in our pocket has joined out home network, and turns off automatically when our phone is out of range. Maybe that convenient automation is a “threat to our agency.” Then again, maybe it means that we can spend more time taking walks with our friends and less time taking care of an extension cord that is wrangling in pain. I fully agree with Evgeny that industrial designers should consider morality when they design products, but I won’t be purchasing any of his shopping recommendations anytime soon.

Much like Johnson’s Future Perfect, Morozov’s initial thesis ends with his introduction. He criticizes the leading technology intellectuals for using “the Internet” as a metaphor rather than discussing specific features of online applications and activities. Not everything has to be seen through the lens of the net, he warns us, and then goes on to see danger everywhere through the lens of the Internet. His discussion of eroding privacy, for example, focuses entirely on “the Internet,” without taking into consideration fundamental developments like the invention of the hallway, which permitted family members to reach a particular room of the house without passing through all the others. Similarly, he pokes fun at the “datasexual” who is obsessed with monitoring personal wellbeing indicators, but makes no mention of the fact that humans have been monitoring their weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels for decades if not centuries — and living longer, healthier lives as a result.

There is another word for internet-centricism that is less internet-centric: it’s called generalization, our tendency to extend a concept to less specific criteria. But Morozov is too obsessed with the Internet to resist bestowing upon it yet another ism. As Johnson writes in his response to Evgeny’s review, “if Morozov were only a little less obsessed with the Internet himself, he might have some very interesting things to say about … history.”

As Good as it Gets

Ultimately, both Morozov’s and Johnson’s books are projects of liberation. Morozov wants to liberate us from the opiates of gamification, algorithmic surveillance, and technological determinism in order to remind us that we are still free to live life as we want. He is wary of Foursquare points, behavioral economics, and gamification schemes that depend on extrinsic motivation via vibrating notifications that inform us we are allegedly worth 50 points today, but only 45 tomorrow. (I have seen friends become visibly upset when they discover that their Klout score has fallen.) Morozov wants to liberate us from such algorithmic-generated nonsense. We are more than how many likes our last Facebook status update received. We must cultivate our own, autonomous desire to grow, rather than stumbling through life in search of extrinsic motivations developed by Silicon Valley geeks. (Predictably, Morozov doesn’t discuss extrinsic motivation programs that aren’t related to technology, such as conditional cash transfers, which have been celebrated by development experts for their efficacy in reducing poverty.)

It’s a useful project, but the tone of the book assumes that we are already incarcerated. Choosing how we each use and do not use technology is personal, subjective, and something that we all struggle with. Sean Bonner might be glad that he abandoned Facebook a year ago, but thousands of others have found the loves of their lives on the social network. We all must figure it out for ourselves. The question isn’t whether technology catalyzes or restrains human agency; the question is, How do we use technology ethically to catalyze our human agency? This is a subjective question. What works for Jeff Jarvis doesn’t work for Andrew Keen. We must stop pretending that there is some objective declaration of how each individual should use technology.

Johnson’s Future Perfect is also a project of liberation. We shouldn’t become depressed and cynical every time we read a newspaper. Take just about any indicator of social wellbeing and the world is, in fact, improving. Furthermore, those indicators are trending positive because of our interventions. This should give us hope and optimism as we consider major challenges facing us like rising wealth inequality and global warming. We don’t have to decide between the individual and the state; rather, we can learn from networked applications to address complex problems by building resilient communities that collaborate through peer production.

Though Johnson’s optimism is more forthcoming, the careful reader will note that both men want readers to re-consider our relationship with technology to focus on how we grow as individuals and in our communities.

Me? I frequently return to the same, slightly pessimistic conclusion: throughout the long, intertwined development of humanity and technology, we have reached the ideal point. This is as good as it gets. I love the technology in my life: my foldable bicycle, my laptop, my phone, my Kindle. As I’ve written previously:

We can exploit the enthralling freedoms of air travel, road trips, Skype calls and instant access to nearly all books and music ever created. But we’re not yet enslaved to boutique genetic makeup, the facial recognition lenses of Google Glasses and the mechanized monotony of driverless cars.

Maybe every generation feels this way: grateful for the technology we have, but fearful and anxious about the technology that is yet to come. What I do know for sure is that, increasingly, we must make difficult philosophical choices about how we use technology and what effect it has on our lives. Both Johnson and Morozov offer insights that empower us to make those decisions as individuals and as collective societies.