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Evgeny Morozov keeps you on your toes as you swing from agreeing to disagreeing and back again
on 8 March 2015
Reading Evgeny Morozov's book is rather a rollercoaster ride as it swings from well-made criticisms of internet zealots through to arguments with large holes and contentious assumptions.
Given part of Mozorov's argument is that people are too ready to accept at face value self-confident statements about how the internet is and the world must adjust to it, this rollercoaster does at least achieve his aim of keeping readers on their toes.
If you read more than a handful of pages and don't find yourself swinging between agreeing, disagreeing and back again then the chances are you've not read those pages closely enough.
Mozorov is at his best when attacking how some "internet" values, such as transparency, are idolised - as if a technological context somehow magics away all those occasions when transparency runs up against other factors, such as discretion or forgetting, which also have value.
He is also good on how 'understanding the internet' is often used as a misleading synonym for 'you must apply these different, contentious values' such as when people demanding that politics adapts to the internet slip in a definition of 'adapting to the internet' which means 'adopting direct democracy'. Direct democracy has both its pros and cons, but it's not an absolute, unquestioned and inevitable good in the way many internet democracy enthusiasts present it when dressed up in demands that politicians embrace technology. You don't have to be a luddite to doubt that direct democracy is the right model to adopt - and as Mozorov points out, a true understanding of how the internet is impacting politics means understanding that it can support a multitude of different political models.
When he's less good is in taking examples of dilemmas and opportunities existing prior to the internet and then arguing not only that the internet doesn't remake everything anew (true) but also that it hasn't really changed things at all in many cases (not so true). So whilst it is true that the British government's 18th century Longitude Prize was an early example of crowdsourcing solutions, Mozorov goes too far in then arguing that the internet hasn't really made things different when in fact it has made crowdsourcing much easier and more widespread. Something doesn't have to be completely new to be significant.
Then there are also the quite poor sections, such as when Mozorov argues that using technology to harness reviews and votes, which then in turn determine which content gets produced and prominence - such as songs being promoted on a website in response to prior people's reviews - will lead to a homogenisation and dumbing down of artistic endeavour and human variety. You can just as well - in fact better - argue that by reducing production, storage and distribution costs, the internet makes variety easier and enables it to flourish.
After all, the sort of books I write are niche and will never get much in the way of bookshelf space in the high street, either now or in the past. Courtesy of the internet, however, they can find an audience without those bookshelf spaces.
These are just a few of the many points I could have covered in this piece, which in the end makes Mozorov's book definitely one to read; not so much for the extent to which you'll agree with it but for the extent to which it makes you think.