When Iranians rose up and marched against their rulers, people around the world felt they were there. Facebook bristled with video from the streets of Tehran. Revolutionary-green avatars sprouted across the Web. Commentators heralded a coming “Twitter Revolution.”
The euphoria was pervasive — until a radical skeptic punctured the conventional wisdom.
Evgeny Morozov, a virtually unknown writer and sometime technology advocate, launched his counteroffensive three years ago at the annual TED ideas conference.
What Morozov told the crowd at Oxford University amounted to heresy in some circles: Beware of “iPod liberalism … the assumption that every Iranian and Chinese person that happens to love their iPod will also love liberal democracy.”
Don’t forget that the Internet can be used not just to empower freedom fighters but to hunt them down through their online presence.
“The KGB used to torture in order to get this data. Now it’s all available online,” Morozov deadpanned.
He described how autocrats hired their own bloggers to drown out democrats. He shared studies about what young people really did online. They consumed “not reports from Human Rights Watch. It’s going to be pornography,'Sex and the City’ or maybe watching funny videos of cats.”
Morozov left the stage with a thin smile to polite applause. But in the world of Internet intellectuals and writers, the conversation began to change.
“Evgeny was one of the few people making sense at that moment,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia professor of media studies. “There was this naive optimism about how Twitter was going to liberate Iran, and he presented this well-thought-out argument about what wishful thinking that was. It was so refreshing.”
The pasty young man in the rumpled dress shirt was only getting started. With his 2011 book “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” he cemented his reputation as a fierce critical voice — exploding the notion that technology equals liberation. Since then, his slashing critiques have taken on pillars of the Web — Apple, Facebook and Google — as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others.
At 28 and wickedly sarcastic (“There are idiots. Look around,” says his Twitter [@evgenymorozov] billboard), Morozov has emerged from the obscurity of his native Belarus as a leading voice of dissent against “cyber utopians” — the marketers, entrepreneurs and academics he sees as throwing over the lessons of history in a rush to promote the Internet as the solution to most of society’s challenges.
He’s the enfant terrible of a group that includes the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, Berkeley-based techno-humanist Jaron Lanier and former CNN correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon, author of “Consent of the Networked.”
Most recently based at Stanford University, as a fellow in the Liberation Technology Program, he is putting aside his Kindle, iPhone and iPad to finish “Silicon Democracy: How the Geeks Are Stealing Your Freedoms,” due in bookstores next spring. He says it will be “a full-frontal attack” on Web triumphalists and their reflexive “quest for efficiency, transparency, connectedness, quantification and perfection.”
While others gush about unparalleled change, he finds historic antecedents for the Internet revolution. The current giddiness over cyber-life, he thinks, echoes the 17th century’s fascination with the clock.
Critics depict him as more heckler than thinker and suggest he picks easy targets and overstates their naivete about the Web. Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who has written two bestselling books about the Internet’s potential, agrees with Morozov on occasion but finds him a too-ready champion of a pessimistic old guard.
“Anyone who believes what his opponents believe is not to be trusted,” Shirky said. “He does this with a distressingly broad brush.”
On a recent jaunt around New York, Morozov headlined three events — a panel, a debate and an interview at a club on the Upper East Side. If he was impressed by the attention, it did not show.
“I’ve got a couple of books to finish tonight,” he said, before rushing off from the late-night panel.
Morozov grew up in the industrial town of Soligorsk, in a country squeezed between Poland and Russia. Both his parents worked at the local potassium mine, but he proved a precocious student and found his way to the American University in Bulgaria.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in business and economics and was on a path to an investment banking career until a professor got him thinking about geopolitics. He landed at Transitions Online in Prague, which promotes democracy in the former Soviet states. He hopped from Kyrgyzstan to Slovakia, evangelizing about the power of organizing online.
As recently as 2009, he was theorizing that the spread of the Kindle “could easily make censorship obsolete.”
But he started to have misgivings, he said in a recent interview, when evidence accumulated that autocrats were abusing the Internet.
“I saw governments becoming extremely sophisticated in censorship, surveillance and propaganda online,” he recalled.
In 2010, he became suspicious of a much-hyped software program called Haystack — promoted as a tool to help Iranian freedom fighters circumvent censorship — and took the program to Jacob Appelbaum. The cybersecurity whiz needed just six hours to detect vulnerabilities in the code.
Morozov, writing in Slate and Foreign Policy, then excoriated Hillary Clinton and media outlets for eagerly embracing a software that could have exposed the activists to government reprisals.
His cautionary words in the New Republic about the intrusiveness of Google Street View, the search giant’s project to create a photographic tableau of streetscapes worldwide, were also ahead of the curve. Recent revelations showed that Google’s mobile picture cars sucked passwords and other data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks.
But he can overreach. On a panel show hosted by the television network Al Jazeera last year, Morozov said that although Facebook helped organize Syrian dissidents, it failed to spur “real-world protests.” Within weeks, the country exploded in marches and demonstrations, triggering a violent government crackdown.
“He has overestimated the strength of autocrats and underestimated the strength of insurgents,” Shirky said, pointing to the toppling of dictators in last year’s Arab Spring rebellions.
Morozov responds that his book acknowledged the mobilizing power of Twitter and Facebook. It cautioned only against forgetting about the cultural, social and political factors required for those digital seeds to land in fertile soil. As recent events in Egypt show, the resilience of insurgent movements will depend less on a blizzard of tweets, he notes, than on the realpolitik of voting and coalition building.
Morozov’s writing has impressed editors worldwide. Spain’s El Pais andItaly’sCorriere della Sera are among the newspapers that carry his monthly column. His writing about the Iranian rebellion also caught the eye of Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, who saw him as “singularly immune to the dizziness” surrounding the Internet and capable of reanimating debate about the impact of technology.
The magazine, which publishes his exhaustive book reviews, has become Morozov’s critical redoubt. He spanked Google for being cavalier about the pitfalls inherent in imperfect algorithms. He cited the case of an Italian man to whose name the search engine’s “auto complete” function added two inaccurate descriptors — “conman” and “fraud.”
Morozov’s savage review of Jeff Jarvis’ “Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live” accused Jarvis of falling “under the spell of geek religion” — viewing the Internet as “the glue that holds our globalized world together and the divine numen that fills it with meaning.”
The self-made scholar from Europe worries about America’s “quasi-religious feelings about technology.” Perhaps his hardest shot at this orthodoxy came in March, with a New Republic cover story titled “The iGod: A Semi-Heretical Look at the Religion of Apple.”
Nominally a review of a Steve Jobs biography, it quickly dismissed Walter Isaacson’s bestseller as “pedestrian.” Morozov suggested an alternative view of Jobs, not as the “visionary” of recent obituaries but as a “marketing genius who turned an ordinary company into a mythical cult, while he himself was busy settling old scores and serving the demands of his titanic ego.”
Jobs’ frothy sermonizing, Morozov wrote, hid a bottom-line imperative — herd as many customers as possible away from the freewheeling Web and into an Apple-application garden, creating “nothing more than an efficient shopping mall.”
His next book will include an attack on the “open data” movement. In one cautionary example, the Indian state of Karnataka put millions of property records online in the name of convenience and transparency.
“The wealthy and the powerful used this new data to evict the poor, find the right people to bribe and so forth,” Morozov said. “The moral of the story here is that transparency and efficiency should not be pursued for their own sake. They should serve as enabling factors to other goods and values.”
He believes that self-interested capitalists and “charlatans who claim to be futurists and visionaries” have dominated talk about the Internet. When he enrolls at Harvard in the fall to pursue a PhD in the history of science, it will be with an eye toward shifting the debate to a “richer approach,” one that is more historically and culturally literate.
When anyone steps out of line, he will pound away, one withering essay at a time.