Critique of a Critique of a Critique of Tech Utopia

Despite the pile of books on the corner of the table behind my desk, all waiting to be read and, perhaps, reviewed, a few that sound fascinating never make it to the pile.  At Concurring Opinions, Olivier Silvain reviews on that I’m now dying to read,  Evgeny Morozov’s   To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism.

He has distinguished himself above all as an equal opportunity take-down artist, unafraid to criticize the biggest names in Silicon Valley, punditry, and academia for their overdetermined claims about the meaning of the Internet.
As the title of his recent book suggests, Morozov believes that contemporary “Internet-centric” thinking clouds our judgment and ability to make choices for ourselves.  He argues that the social value of recent technological innovations is far more contingent than the breathless claims of pundits like Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky suggest. Technologists, journalists, scholars, and users, he argues, should treat every new product launch or beta release from Apple or Samsung or Facebook with the same healthy dose of skepticism that they reserve for everything else.

Sound familiar? It’s one thing for those who pray to Susskind and genuflect at the feet of Shirky to ignore a curmudgeon like me, but Morozov was born in 1984. I’ve got socks older than him. He’s part of the digital native crowd, the ones who breathed technology under their bedcovers when their father yelled at them to go to sleep.

He is especially critical of technology journalists who, he argues, are nothing more than “trend spotting stenographers” for research and development offices in Silicon Valley. He argues that, while social networking applications like FourSquare or crowdsourced platforms like Wikipedia are powerful, they do not determine outcomes and are not the agents of change.

Is it possible? Am I not the only one who thinks the digital utopians have grossly overstated their case?

But as much as Silvain says he appreciates that Morosov “provides a healthy dose of good old fashioned secular humanism in an area that so eagerly seems to need it,” he has reservations.

After all, the book purports to be about ideology, not policy or design per se. In this way, Morozov seems to be channeling the Frankfurt School more than Lawrence Lessig or Tim Wu (both of whom he criticizes). And, accordingly, he releases himself from doing anything other than changing your mind.
Of course, Morozov is not obliged to do anything more than that. Changing minds is hard enough. Then again, trade books in this subject area with titles like these are not supposed to do much more than incite us to buy them, never mind think. (Alas, Morozov also does not have to abide by the expectations in legal scholarship to have some normative or substantive policy prescription.)

Where Silvain may be troubled that the book doesn’t fit the law review formula of promoting a particular solution, I see that as a feature rather than a flaw. The problem isn’t so much about a problem, as about a perspective, a view of technology, whether it be the cloud, the web or the latest app mislabeled a “solution” to a problem you never had, but how so many have come to blindly adore these computer thingies without appreciating what they do for us, add to our lives and work.  Or not.

How often do you see anyone question why a lawyer would possibly need a new cloud-based “solution” to perform something we’ve been doing extremely well forever?  It may only cost $129 a month, but there is nothing that can’t be done for free with a BIC pen and a yPad.

But Silvain saves his most cutting criticism of Morosov to the end:

While I could never know for sure, and despite his claims to the contrary, I am not convinced that Morozov is mainly out to change hearts and minds, particularly in light of To Save Everything’s snarkiness. Of course, many bloggers these days traffic in the same smug and haughty tone as a matter of course, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the officious “he-said-she-said” balancing that is characteristic of mainstream journalism and academic writing (and blogs like this one). It would be a bonus, I suppose, if, through the book, Morozov could incite his audience to banish Internet-centrism from their minds once and for all. But I’m not sure snarkiness is the most effective way of doing that.

As has long been chronicled here, there are few things that lawprofs despise more than snarkiness, the “toxic tone” that makes their eyes burn.  As Silvain notes, there are “many bloggers” who “traffic in the same smug and haughty tone,” a pejorative description that scholars use to distinguish them from the “thoughtful and balanced” tone they adore.

Of course, “snark,” itself a word invented for the digital age, is the antithesis of the labored, prolix and overly-nuanced use of arcane language that so obscures a point that if you stay awake long enough to get to the end of a sentence, you still have no clue what the point is.  Then again, there are always footnotes. Is there a virtue to following the legal academy’s style book when trying to make a point?  Only if the readers are professors.  If the point is to write for anyone outside of academia, then it behooves a writer to both have a point and to have the capacity to make it so that the reader knows what it is, clearly and concisely.

A second book that has  hit the street this week is Steven Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble. castigating the way greed has overtaken the profession, from law schools to Biglaw.  It’s also not on my pile to review, but it brings hope, together with Morozov’s, that maybe there is hope for the law and lawyers, and from this, for the people we exist to serve.

2 comments on “Critique of a Critique of a Critique of Tech Utopia

  1. Mark W. Bennett

    Of course, many bloggers these days traffic in the same smug and haughty tone as a matter of course, perhaps to distinguish themselves from the officious “he-said-she-said” balancing that is characteristic of mainstream journalism and academic writing (and blogs like this one).


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