Evgeny Morozov, Internet Cassandra

Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov, 27, originally from Belarus, is the author of a new book called "To Save Everything, Click Here." Above: Morozov recently participated in a debate at NYU. (Los Angeles Times / March 17, 2012)

In less than a human lifetime, we've come to regard the Internet as an end unto itself, bigger than any of us, even its creators. This makes Evgeny Morozov uneasy, worried that we've opened the gates to a techno-Trojan horse. The Belarus-born cage-rattler just wrapped up two years as a visiting scholar at Stanford, in the belly of the beast, and his new book, "To Save Everything, Click Here," asks us to question the Internet's authority to challenge authority, and our willingness to endow it with virtues and powers beyond our own.

What do you make of the NSA tracking phone calls?

The most important aspect is the paralyzing role that government secrecy has come to play in America's political life. I am not surprised that NSA is using digital tools and platforms for surveillance — far less technologically advanced governments were already doing that a few years ago. I do think America must engage in a more open debate about the topic. Pervasive secrecy, alas, makes such a debate impossible.

You challenge the widespread faith in "solutionism," the idea that digital technology by its nature can fix our problems.

There are different ways to solve problems. One way is to rely on technological fixes. One is to pass laws, to push for new standards, to engage in politics, where outcomes are ill-defined, where it's messy by default and design.

As policymakers get excited about the promise of technology and databases and apps and algorithms and sensors, it becomes increasingly tempting to go for technological fixes rather than the more messy political solutions. The technological approach doesn't address the root causes of a problem.

Because of the austerity crisis and because political solutions require a lot of effort, a lot of politicians go for these technology fixes rather than the political ones.As an example, we figure out how to lose weight by having an app to monitor how much we walk, rather than by stricter laws on how the food industry advertises to children. But because the technology is there, it's hard to say no to it.

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Technology has solved problems before, like feeding a larger population than Malthus thought possible.

I'm not rejecting technology as a whole. But the criteria Silicon Valley has put on the table have been mostly about efficiency and innovation. We need to understand there's always a political dimension, and teach how technologies affect morality and citizenship.

Recycling, for example. We can recycle more efficiently because an [app] will remind you that you need to recycle. It can award you points; you can compete with your friends and that will result in more efficient behavior. But this app might actually be suppressing a greater understanding of what recycling is meant to do. If you want to solve a complex problem like climate change, it's not enough to get people to do the right thing [as a game] — they need to understand why, and that understanding is something you cannot grasp only by getting points for recycling.

Are Americans more uncritically accepting of "solutionism" than, say, Europeans?

The reason why there is more pessimism about technology in Europe has to do with history, the use of databases to keep track of people in the camps, ecological disasters. It might not be that Americans are excessively optimistic; it might just be that the others have many more good historical reasons for being pessimistic.

Especially in the last decade, there's more optimism in what technology can deliver set against the pessimism about what government can deliver. A lot of the geeks in Silicon Valley will tell you they no longer believe in the ability of policymakers in Washington to accomplish anything. They don't understand why people end up in politics; they would do much more good for the world if they worked at Google or Facebook.

Does Silicon Valley have the kind of impact it thinks it has? I doubt it. They get things done in a way politicians can't, but it's a false comparison. Private enterprise [and] government agencies have very different objectives.

Americans like convenience, never mind the trade-off.

People don't understand what's at stake. [The stakes] might become known in four or five years, as all Tweets are integrated with Google Glass and your self-driving car and your [smart] refrigerator, and all that gets incorporated into one big network.

There's a reason why national security can get access, supposedly, to email servers, because we have volunteered to use cloud-based services. Cloud computing is a great euphemism for centralization of computer services under one server.

If you use your smart toothbrush, the data can be immediately sent to your dentist and your insurance company, but it also allows someone from the NSA to know what was in your mouth three weeks ago.

No one is talking about the implications of sensors. Apple has been marketing smart shoes that monitor when they are getting worn out. But that may also mean they can track wherever you go.





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