But the book is far from a rant. Morozov has an interesting viewpoint, since he grew up in Belarus as the Soviet Union was unraveling, and has gone from a born-again believer in the power of the Internet to being a critic. His understanding of the internet is obvious, as are his hopes that it will better aid the cause of liberal democracy.
The book is beautifully written and argued, and in my mind overdue. His last book, entitled “The Net Delusion”, concerned the use of the Internet initially as a tool to overthrow dictators and support democracy, but later as a tool by these various dictators to strengthen their grip by such things as enhancing their propaganda ability and identifying and destroying opposition. This, of course, was an unwelcome message to those who believe that the internet will cause all seven billion of us to understand each other, agree on important issues, and, to borrow a word that is losing its very meaning because of the Internet, be friends.
In this new book, he first of all takes a swing at what he calls Solutionism — the belief that everything can (and should) be made “better” (often defined by the solutionist). He singles out engineers as being staunch believers in this, and being one, I think we are guilty. He does an excellent job of demonstrating that some things. such as politics, have been criticized for as long as recorded history, but they don’t seem to have been replaced by any of the communication “miracles” or other technological “breakthroughs” of the past. In fact, he argues in favor of the very human and messy character of much large-scale human interaction, and although he believes that the Internet is an important tool in aiding these interactions, he obviously does not believe in its ability to replace such things.
His next argument is against changing our societies to match the present structure and goals of the Internet . It is, after all, a work in progress, and our activities should not be structured and simplified to fit its present abilities. I very much resonate to his argument. At one point in my Stanford career I became chair of the then struggling program in Science, Technology, and Society. I learned, to my surprise and pleasure, that even though I had practiced and taught engineering for 30 years, I knew very little about the history and character of technology, or about the unsuccessful history of movements often described as technocracy.
One rule of thumb often used by historians of technology is that it takes at least 50 years for a new technology to mature. I am a believer. My first brush with computers was about 50 years ago, and it consisted of giving structures problems to a programmer who in turn would feed my problems to a large mainframe, which resulted in an answer after several days. Look at where we are now. But yet we are just scratching the surface of how to use them in a way that is more consistent with society. The internet has been under construction for over 50 years, but the World Wide Web, which made the Internet accessible to most of us, dates from 1989. That was only 25 years ago. Such things as social networking and attempting to combine unbiased information with marketing are in their infancy. The internet will continue to develop, and must do so in a direction that better serves humans, or it will become a more complex version of network TV.
The majority of the book is full of cases, stories, and predictions of problems that have and will result from too much belief in what Morozov calls cyber-utopianism. I am going to talk more about this book and the internet in my next post, but anyone making use of the Internet, and especially people designing and manufacturing the software and hardware involved in it, should read the book, not rely on me to interpret it. I found it a very impressive work, whether one agrees with the author or not (many in Silicon Valley will not), and am jealous that I cannot write books like it.