Evgeny Morozov is the Michel Foucault of digital modernity: he analyzes the power structures of the internet. He sees the fact that the tech industry wants to solve every problem with an app as the real problem. A dangerous ideology is spreading.
Raffael Schuppisser / ch media
In his book "The Net Delusion", Evgeny Morozov analyzes with razor sharpness why the Internet does not lead to more democracy and freedom, but to more oppression and surveillance. That was in 2011, with the Arab Spring and Facebook IPO still to come. Morozov was only 26 at the time and, as the FAZ writes, had written an "epoch-making" book.
The Belarusian quickly became just as well known among developers in Silicon Valley as among intellectuals at universities. Two years later, he is already following up with “Smart New World”. In his more than 650-page tome, he criticizes the tech companies for their simplified understanding of the world, wanting to solve all problems with a few apps.
For this he established the concept of solutionism (from the English "solution"; solution). The solutionist, Morozov writes, does not analyze the problem he wants to solve, but reinterprets it in such a way that his tools (algorithms and apps) fit it. However, this does not solve the problem, but merely twists it and usually enlarges it.
His essays on the Internet appear in the New York Times, the Guardian and the FAZ. Morozov would probably soon have become a professor at an elite university – he has already done research at Stanford and Harvard – but he didn't want that. In an interview with the FAZ he says: “I learned from Foucault that power can restrict discourse. That's why I'm not aiming for an academic career."
The reference to the French poststructuralists is no coincidence. Morozov's approach is reminiscent of Foucault. He analyzes the discourse of the internet and fathoms its balance of power down to the deepest ramifications of the algorithms. Even if he always looks at a problem from multiple perspectives, he always shows a clear attitude.
Today the 38-year-old lives in Rome and Calabria with his wife, a UN Ambassador for Digital Rights. There we reach the internet theorist via Skype for a conversation.
You criticize the tech industry for the way it solves problems. Why? Evgeny Morozov: Silicon Valley is a solution factory. The tech companies are developing solutions, all of which take the form of an app. In this way, problem solving is shifted to the individuals. It is no longer companies that need to be regulated or governments that need to implement reforms, but us who use the apps to monitor our behavior, work more efficiently or live more environmentally consciously.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. What's dangerous is the blind devotion to the products of these solution factories. The problem is no longer analyzed as such and asked about its origin. Solutionism, as I define it, seeks to bring about social change by shifting all the costs of improving the world onto individuals. That seems just as wrong to me as the Chinese system, which wants to solve problems such as climate change or Corona in a top-down process.
You analyzed this in detail in your book “Smart New World” almost ten years ago. What has happened since then? The ideology has become even more pervasive. For example, Bill Gates, originally a tech entrepreneur, now heads the world's largest foundation dedicated to solving global health problems. He uses the methods of solutionism. Ideology, as I predicted, has become a cheap excuse for many policymakers to avoid taking radical and truly transformative action. They call themselves innovative because they propose something with technology that is supposed to solve the problem.
So the ideology is growing beyond Silicon Valley. It has been for a long time. It is also finding its way into the financial world with what is known as impact investment. Here the ideology promises: you can heal capitalism and solve all its problems by investing money in companies or funds that are sustainable and ethically clean.
In the last ten years, artificial intelligence has become a mega trend. Do you see this as another powerful tool for solutionism? The big tech companies used artificial intelligence to optimize their big data models and deliver results that they couldn't deliver before. But artificial intelligence per se is nothing new, it appeared as a concept as early as the 1950s. Even then, people believed that she would radically change the world. One wondered: What should one do with it? Will she replace humans? Or will you support them in their work? One should not see artificial intelligence as a coherent, monolithic concept. There have been many forks that development has taken in the past, and many more that it could take.
In any case, she has evolved. Many things are possible today that were not possible before. It inspires desire for the future. Most of these are pretty ridiculous. Artificial intelligence should help us avert the climate catastrophe, improve the education of our children and revolutionize the care of the elderly. Artificial intelligence is glorified as a bringer of salvation; a utopian hope is projected into it. It is intended to solve the major problems that the welfare state and democracy should actually solve.
Should we just stay away from it? No, I am absolutely against a moratorium on artificial intelligence. But, we should ask the right questions. What is the opposite of solutionism? How can we take advantage of technologies like artificial intelligence without reducing every problem to an app that everyone has to download onto their smartphone to supposedly make the world a better place.
What does it take? We need a more democratic approach. Instead of propagating solutions for everyone, we need to take a closer look. It is often said that people use too much electricity and leave their lights on at night. With the right data you can show that this is not a problem in my neighborhood. In others maybe. And on a global level, completely different factors come into play. In a democratic process, we should do what a democracy has to do: include the points of view of as many citizens as possible, instead of relying on a set of standard solutions and packing them into an app with algorithms. In this world of post-solutionism, artificial intelligence can play an important role.
Are you optimistic that we'll make it into this post-solutionism stadium? Sure. If I weren't, I'd give up the beg. The problem, however, is that the problem is currently not recognized correctly by very few. Unfortunately, the public debate has developed in such a way that an outside view of the ideology of Solutionism is becoming more difficult. In the last three or four decades, a dichotomy has become established between the market that develops things and states that develop things. We now believe: It's good when companies produce things, because otherwise the state does it – and not so well. And we don't want just any gadgets, we want the greatest iPhones. But this dichotomy is wrong, it is a legacy of the Cold War. You have to break them up.
What do you mean? The state can be a vehicle for innovation. But true innovation comes from below, from citizens, from communities, from neighborhoods. All the ideas that are developed here to master everyday life help. Many would be scalable, but they are not being scaled accordingly. In today's carnival of innovation, people are encouraged to call themselves entrepreneurs, seek venture capital investors, and build an app to put on the App Store. In one case in 100 such a company thrives. The rest of the innovations die.
Maybe the other 99 just weren't good. Not good in terms of profitability. But that says little about how innovative they are. We need an infrastructure for innovation that is based on the values of solidarity and cooperation and not just on profitability. Digital technologies enable us all to become innovators without being entrepreneurs. For this, the right structures in terms of capital, laws and technical facilities must be created. These structures don't just develop that way. You need politics for that. The market as we know it today wasn't just there either. Politicians have created a system of copyrights, antitrust laws and other regulations so that the fruits that are in demand can ripen on the market. These new structures must therefore be actively built.
Sounds abstract. A simple example: Today it is hardly possible to create and scale digital innovations without being part of Apple's or Google's ecosystem. If you want to be innovative, you have to take off this straitjacket. That is not understandable. One can be even more innovative when one frees oneself from this straitjacket. But this requires a different set of laws and institutions. One that is not conveyed from Silicon Valley. It would be a mistake to think that at least as much economic value could not be created with it.
A new infrastructure is in the making. The so-called Web3. It is based on the blockchain and, thanks to decentralization, is intended to prevent the pool of data – and thus power – from accumulating on the central servers of large companies. With this "tokenization" (a specific digital symbol, a value, for example a Bitcoin , awarded; editor's note) will result in a shortage of digital goods. In this way, an attempt is made to generate social behavior from users around the tokens – and promises that this will solve major problems. An attempt is made to reduce every problem to a "token activity" in order to be able to solve it. The tech industry has by no means left solutionism behind.
Another development is the Metaverse, which many envision as an Internet without borders. Are you ready to put on virtual reality goggles and dive in? I've already taken them off (laughs). The Metaverse hype will end next year. There was already «Second Life», which was promised something similar, but nobody is interested anymore today. For me, the Metaverse is primarily a marketing gimmick used by Mark Zuckerberg to distract attention from his company's problems with a new discussion. At least in the next five to ten years, I don't see anything exciting coming our way.
Your first book The Net Delusion is about propaganda and manipulation. Who will win the information war in Ukraine. After writing this book, I never took up the topic again. I was bored. It was now clear to me how the mechanisms work. I don't learn anything new anymore. It is obvious that every war is also an information war. Both sides try to influence opinions with false reports. The Ukrainian president wants to gain sympathy in the West with his daily speeches on social media. Presidents used to do it on TV.
What is irritating is that so many Russians believe the propaganda that they can find out about VPN in all Internet media. This is not just a technical problem. It's about how the story is told over many years and decades. It's not about withholding information, it's about interpreting it in a completely different way. This is the real power of propaganda.
Evgeny Morozov will appear as a speaker at the GDI in Rüschlikon on July 5th. (bzbasel.ch)