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.
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.
The monitoring and surveillance are just the indirect consequence of the convenience of a smart shoe or trash can. [Like Gmail], people accept the idea that they get something free, and if privacy is the price, they'll pay it.
You now put the word "Internet" in quotes.
A lot of things we take as unique and exceptional about the Internet are not. Silicon Valley is very clever at branding old phenomena [as] new. Silicon Valley would claim crowd-sourcing is unique and revolutionary, but in the 18th century, the British government ran a competition to determine longitude at sea. Toyota announced a competition to design its logo, and people sent submissions by mail.
Hyping the revolutionary nature of activities is good for business. If you claim you're on the verge of discovering the next time machine, it's easier to convince lawmakers to untie your hands.
We took a wrong turn in the mid-1990s, when we embraced the Internet as the organizing and dominant metaphor of digital technology. The idea of "cyberspace" became normalized, this virtual space separate from physical space, with a unique set of laws. Someone decided there is a reality separate from this reality we inhabit. If we defy it, we will be seen as anti-modern.
In [Google chief] Eric Schmidt's book ["The New Digital Age"] the premise is that there are two worlds, one real, one virtual. He takes any phenomenon in the real world and tries to imagine what [it] would mean in the virtual world. To me, "virtual independence" or "virtual sovereignty" makes no sense. A region like Chechnya can proclaim its virtual independence tomorrow, but it's not going to make any difference to the people of Chechnya. A lot of this is just sophistry.
There's almost a religious fervor in the way some people stick up for social media.
It's growing stronger every year. The big protest against [proposed Internet laws] SOPA and PIPA [was] not because they were bad laws but because they threatened the Internet. It was like attacking Nature. I never could understand how people claim the Internet is a great force transforming everything it touches, and at the same time it's so fragile that any tiny manipulation can ruin it.
There are all sorts of good things to be gained from these technologies. It's OK to use those tools so long as we don't have inappropriate expectations and false hopes for what they can achieve.
Do people call you a Luddite?
Here's my iPhone! In my first book I didn't help my cause by saying [technology] was the new opiate of the masses. Now I'm not as comfortable with as many of those remarks…
After I got my BA degree [in Bulgaria], I went to work for an NGO that worked with Western [groups]. I thought technology and new media could push for more democracy and reform. I went around the former Soviet bloc to train activists and bloggers and journalists to use social networks to engage in political action. I discovered the governments were much smarter. They were using the same tools, training their own bloggers. I saw governments buy surveillance equipment, engage in cyber attacks. Our adversaries were much more sophisticated and aggressive than we had thought. [The] noble-minded Westerners who thought they could overthrow authoritarianism by using new media were naive. The governments were getting cleverer.
Before the Arab Spring, the argument I made is a lot of tools we celebrate as emancipatory can, in the wrong hands, be used for suppression of civil liberties and privacy and for spreading propaganda. That was Evgeny 1.0. In the second book, I'm trying to understand why we believe this or that. How the Internet functions as a cultural phenomenon is much more interesting than the impact the Internet has.
Is there a class component to this technology?
Many apps are built to solve the problems of well-off 22-year-olds. How do you hail a cab? How do you get your laundry done? That's fine, but people in Silicon Valley have some kind of false consciousness. They believe they are changing the world by building all of those laundry apps, and they aren't. Silicon Valley itself — it's not as if Google or Facebook have done much there. East Palo Alto is as bad [off] as it was 20 years ago. They say, "Why should we be doing more? We're already changing the world for the better." They're doing something trivial; they're presenting it as revolutionary.
Have you become more sparing in your Internet use?
Last August, I decided to buy a safe with a timer. When I need to work — sometimes for days — I hide my iPhone and my Internet cable [there] with a timer, so I can't open it. I can set it for two hours or two days.
It's not that I can't say no to the computer. I just don't want to say no every minute when I'm tempted to check my Twitter feed or my phone. Silicon Valley is not stupid. They're building tools that are addictive for a reason. They enforce a certain idea of yourself. [The safe] is a way to get an outside perspective, to transcend the Pavlovian dog!
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.