Morozov Redux

A kindred spirit in a 29-year-old?  Well, maybe, though Evgeny Morozov gets far more traction than I ever will. Still, the immediate sense of camaraderie was obvious.  From the latest cover story at the Columbia Journalism Review:

To say that Morozov has gone out of his way to irritate powerful and influential people in the tech world doesn’t quite capture it. Doing so is his primary occupation. In the Morozovian worldview, New York University professor and social-media theorist Clay Shirky is a “consultant-cum-intellectual”; Google’s mission is to “monetize all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable”; and Tim O’Reilly, the Silicon Valley publisher and venture capitalist who coined “Web 2.0,” is an Orwellian “meme hustler” and the main culprit behind “the enduring emptiness of our technology debates.” To millions of viewers, TED talks are inspirational speeches about “ideas worth spreading” in science and technology. To Morozov they are a “sinister” hyping of “ideas no footnotes can support.”

And,

Or try this passage. It’s a takedown of a work of technological triumphalism called Hybrid Reality, but it doubles as a summary of his thinking about the entirety of the tech discourse: “[P]erhaps this is what the Hybrid Age is all about: marketing masquerading as theory, charlatans masquerading as philosophers, a New Age cult masquerading as a university, business masquerading as redemption, slogans masquerading as truths.”

Therefore,

At some point, though, the hollerin’ ends, everyone’s feelings are hurt, and it’s time to talk about what we’ve learned.

The complaint about Morozov, aside from all the people who just hate him because he’s so mean, is that his efforts to tear down the edifice of technological adoration built on a foundation of bullshit don’t “solve” the problem of those who live there.

Many of Morozov’s opponents dismiss him as a spoiled child, someone who sits in the corner refusing, as Tim O’Reilly once said, to be “useful,” shouting insults at the adults as they roll up their sleeves and solve the world’s problems.

The working assumption is that criticism is purely destructive, when we should all join hands and work toward the perfect future, solving all of society’s problems, and ignoring that one side’s solution is the other side’s problem since we all suffer the myopia of believing that we’re right and anyone who disagrees is a disingenuous moron.  But as I’ve argued before, this assumption is guided by a child-like misapprehension of problem solving.

Morozov insists that his refusal to be useful is its own kind of usefulness—and even, as he recently wrote in one of his essays for German newspapers, an intellectual duty. Traditionally, this is an uncontroversial definition of the role of the critic in intellectual life. But not in the relentlessly sunny realm of the tech gurus, where such obstinance must be baffling, even perverse.

When everyone around you is lauding the fabulous future just over the next ledge, someone has to caution people to look before they leap.  It’s not appreciated. We harsh the glow of positivity. We sing a sour note in the four-part harmony of Kumbaya.

And maybe we’re completely wrong, but at least we make you think before you hop on the train that takes you off the cliff to certain ruin.  Every religion needs heretics.

H/T Mark Bennett

13 comments on “Morozov Redux

  1. John Barleycorn

    Hey now.

    This theme had been irritating your practical and deliberate for some time.

    Paint by the numbers your cynical needs more exposure. I see the monster but she only has parts.

    I think it is opposite of chess and more trump than readily imagined in the sense of deal with the bauer jacks created after the bid.

    I predict more cooperation and masturbatory reinforcement.

    Ironic the generational slip. Bauer Jack.

    Jack is your hero…

      1. John Barleycorn

        GET OVER IT. Gold in your potential and very deliberate folding of Franklins Tower and Estimated Prophet . . .

        Chances are and all.

        I won’t even burden you with that potential set.

        You should consider the clerks though.

        Just a seed and not an angst for 2014.

        Time.

    1. SHG Post author

      The Kool-Aid tastes so much better, and there are a ton of cool kids who will yell “you’re the ginchiest” when you take a sip.

  2. pj_cryptostorm

    For those outside the “tech world,” it is apparently possible to infer/assume that everyone “inside” that assumptive world is positive, sunny, optimistic… downright cherubic, at an intellectual level. Likely, that’s because the slivers of “tech world” discourse publicized on TeeVee or non-tech, general-interest business newsweeklies is aggressively pruned to include only such views.

    Generalizing those tiny slivers as representative of that world is not really accurate – it might be rhetorically useful (or not), but it’s not really congruent with reality.

    In the trenches of the actual tech world, with people who actually do tech-stuff on a daily basis, pessimism is the coin of the realm. Mostly, it’s because… we work with tech. That’s the punchline. We work with tech. And, anyone who works with tech – actual, messy, imperfect, maddening tech – knows that tech’s a disaster. Sometimes more, sometimes less… but never what we want it to be, and always later and more expensive than we planned/promised.

    Welcome to tech.

    Solve the world’s problems? Ha. We’re just hoping the next build compiles without any (major) errors. Please. That’s all.

    The PR hypesters and blowhards that make their living talking _about_ tech are not, in fact, the tech world. It’s often more illuminating to follow the writing of actual technologists who do actual tech work, if one seeks to learn about what the tech world, collectively, thinks. And in that world, optimism is a rare and delicate bird. We know too much – we know the spaghetti code that underlies the pretty GUI interface people use everyday. We know how rickety it all is – and how it’s getting worse over time, not better.

    Evgeny is great. His critiques keep people on their toes, and skewer lazy thinkers/shills – consistently. He generally picks ripe targets. His obstinancy is not only accepted by technologists, but routinely celebrated. It’s spawned some awesome twitter parody accounts, where we poke fun at each other, “Evgeny-style.” I know of not a single sleeves-rolled-up technologist who rejects him outright – many don’t have time to read his heavier essays: this is the world of tl;dr and systems-debugging deathmarches. Not many of us take the time out to read outside the space of whitepapers, howto manuals, and stackoverflow. Sadly.

    But, Evgeny’s not himself a technologist and has no firsthand expertise with any of this stuff. He’s an excellent social theorist: well-read, au courant, quick-witted, and courageous. We could use a dozen more of him. That doesn’t make him a technology-world member, for good or ill. It makes him an excellent outside observer.

    By far, the most cynical people I’ve ever met (even counting burned-out, overworked public defenders) have been found in the trenches of the tech world. Being thought of, from the outside, as some sort of optimistic bunch of lotus-eaters is… well, funny. Ironic, in that dark way of things.

    1. SHG Post author

      We need to come up with some different language, because your point is correct and the words being used are too vague. We aren’t talking about geeks here, but the camp followers who pitch and cheerlead tech to the public. The ones who write slogans rather than code.

      1. pj_cryptostorm

        Well, “cheerleaders” has a certain… je ne sais quoi.

        Plus in a formal categorical sense, the term overlaps neither in functional nor metaphorical space with us neck-bearded ones. So it gets my vote, fwiw :-P

        1. SHG Post author

          Well, “cheerleaders” has a certain… je ne sais quoi.

          I bet. You sure you want to sully the dream?

        2. Rick Horowitz

          As someone who, though now a lawyer, “worked in the trenches” of tech, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to say that there is no overlap. Within the world of tech, just as without, there are all kinds of people who might be placed into various overlapping groupings. (And didn’t you implicitly agree with that, pj, when you talked about the slivers?)

          When I worked in tech — helping to build, and later run, the first two ISPs in my geographical neck of the woods, then later designing and building the network for a multi-million-dollar corporation before going into “management” as the Director of Information Systems there — I had problems fighting the cheerleaders on multiple fronts.

          It wasn’t just the managers (including one above me, the VP of Operations) who weren’t “trench workers” and didn’t understand, it was also cheerleading children within my tech staff who believed that “newer” tech was going to solve all our problems, and pushed — sometimes trying to go over my head — for upgrades to tech systems that were working just fine from a business perspective. They just weren’t “cool enough” in the eyes of those particular techs.

          I like the word “cheerleaders” here, but we actually called them “evangelists” at the time. And some evangelists — particularly in a then-small company named “Apple” — were, like the kids I managed, trench workers.

          However, I do think that the problem with tech cheerleaders that Scott normally writes about (am I wrong that they inspired this post, too?) isn’t just that they don’t have a clue what it’s like to work in the trenches, isn’t just that they don’t have the healthy cynicism of techs like pj (and like me, when I was resisting upgrades for the sake of upgrades during my time in IT), but, more importantly, that they aren’t considering the profession of law or those it serves when they clamor for every lawyer to adopt the practice of running their practice as a virtual practice on an iPad.

    2. Ultraviolet admin

      It seems to me the biggest cheerleaders are either those who’ve never seen a failed project, or people whose job it is to get money from others. The most cynical woman I ever met in tech did business formation work with VC’s and saw lots of people who were either naive or too obsessed with a project’s potential to think about failure. In my own experience, these peopled tending to be in marketing and legal usually needed to keep a leash on them about 2 inches long to keep us out of constant lawsuits.

      The funny thing is the most successful folks I’ve met in tech all tended to be very cynical because they’ve lasted a few cycles of disappointment. I know one CEO who said he didn’t know if he did a good job, because the market liked his typeof products and he happened to be in the marketplace ‘putting out a dish when it’s raining money’. Or on my first day of being an intern years ago when I was shown some awesome revolutionary technology that was kept in a sideroom to show folks to wow em and told it was all impractical beyond demo devices and its sole purpose was to make us look good for a consulting business.

      The biggest danger seems to be if you’re a critic in tech, being wrong and missing a boat on a future invention is something people laugh about later. That and the sort of people who buy many of the magazines and read popular blogs in tech like to believe. So being a critic doesn’t generate money in popular forums.

      1. pj_cryptostorm

        A funny thing about real tech (which is likely echoed in other technical fields, from medicine to law) is that knowing what NOT to do ends up being the really, really valuable skill. Often learned from tragic failures in the past, or perhaps picked up from the wisdom of colleagues… it’s the secret sauce that gets projects into production and running without crashes.

        I personally am most proud, in my own tech ops trajectory, of decisions I made not to run with a newly-popular toolset/framework/language/whatever… even when, in quantitative terms, I couldn’t necessarily articulate why it was best to avoid. It’s the “horse sense” from decades in the field: it just “smells wrong.” I trace it back to a trainwreck of a project involving smalltalk, back in the tech Pleistocene era. I still think smalltalk’s cool, and OO has taken over the entire world – but using smalltalk for that project at that time was a $100 million+ error. Seeing it firsthand, at an early career stage, left a big impression.

        It’s what you don’t do that marks you as valuable… but that hardly makes for scintillating magazine copy or TeeVee interviews.

        Missing the Next Big Thing isn’t so much of a worry in the trenches, to be honest. If it’s big, we’ll hear about it from all directions long enough that we’ll end up getting involved one way or another. There’s a rumble, in the deep geek world, you get when something’s “on” – not just in terms of cool, but in terms of really doing something functionally clever. MongoDB has that right now. So does Haskell. Bitcoin had it, in our world, a few years back. One benefit of being fingernails-dirty in the trenches of code is that it’s nearly impossible to _miss_ interesting new stuff as it arises from the foetid morass of potentially interesting stuff constantly bubbling up from the community. One downside is, there’s basically zero hours in the day to do much about it save keep current enough to at least not be left in the dust.

        I suspect medical doctors, amoungst others, face quite the same challenges in staying current on a rapidly-evolving research literature. An all but impossible task, really, when interfacing with a field in which the guts of the real, physical universe are what determines the bounded set of possible interesting things that might arise…

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