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An interview with Evgeny Morozov. As Silicon Valley envisions a coming cyber-utopia, author Evgeny Morozov sees the opposite: an undemocratic dystopia in which technology is a tool of the powerful and privacy is a commodity. And that’s just the beginning

The Leviathan of Silicon Valley

Evgeny Morozov never followed the typical path of the intellectual Internet mainstream.

He was raised in Belarus and participated in the movement to break with the country’s Soviet past. Around that time he attended online journalism courses and became, in a few months, a media activist who saw the web as a powerful tool to convey demands of freedom and social innovation. He brought this conviction to the the United States, where he quickly became a well-known blogger for his missives on Internet culture.

But years of journalistic work and theory led him to look skeptically upon the network as the “incarnation of freedom” its disciples claimed. His first book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, published in 2011, concentrates his argument against “cyber-utopianism.”

Morozov, now a university professor, continues to challenge those who close their eyes to the power of high-tech companies and to the governments that use the Internet to monitor their citizens. His “radical liberalism” is the basis for his criticism of the monopoly of the Internet and of political decisions.

But the Belarusian scholar isn’t out of surprises. He recently published two pamphlets, one deconstructing the myth of Steve Jobs as a champion of innovation and another proclaiming the Internet will not save the world, dismantling the technocrats of the web.

Morozov has radicalized his position and has begun to use a militant lexicon, in which there are strong echoes of Marx’s critique of capitalism. In an interview for New Left Review and in an article written for Le Monde Diplomatique/il manifesto, he proposed, provocatively, the expropriation of big data and the need for a renewed critique of neoliberal capitalism.

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In your recent article and texts, you wrote that Silicon Valley is a place to hate. A provocative point of view. Why should we hate the firms and the vision of social networks and production of wealth in Silicon Valley?

The main reason it’s OK to hate Silicon Valley is simple: because these guys have established themselves as some kind of untouchable, noble humanitarian enterprise while, in reality, they are probably a more rapacious and inhumane type of enterprise than Wall Street. My view on this has been quite consistent over the last three years: It’s just very hard to make people start asking critical questions about technology companies in Silicon Valley. These companies have managed to discursively construct the field in such a manner that anybody who questions technology and their products is seen as attacking science or enlightenment or modernity itself. So, for example, any time that I attack Google or Facebook, the default assumption is that I must be this technophobe who lives in the forest and hates modern dentistry. Nobody would say anything of the kind if I was attacking, say, Wall Street or the oil companies.

A few years ago, Eric Schmidt of Google had something of a revelation; he said something very interesting. He said that Silicon Valley and startups and Google they all represent capitalism — and how can anybody be against capitalism today? I think that this honest moment of admission is actually very interesting and we have to take this very line of analysis suggested by Eric Schmidt. I think that it’s actually very productive to think about Google that way. We have to understand Silicon Valley as a factor and as an actor that’s emerging at a particular juncture of time in the history of neoliberalism, in the history of privatization, in the history of capitalism itself. It’s only by using that logic that we would be able to help people understand that Google and Facebook, these millions of startups that have emerged in Silicon Valley are not just benevolent actors; they will also shape how we work, they will create new power relationships; they will make us even more dependent on corporations than before. This will result in complete financialization of everyday life — we are looking at a new, much subtler and thus more dangerous, Taylorism. I think that’s actually the only avenue left for critics of technology: By showing and revealing the particular place that technology companies occupy in neoliberal capitalism as it exists today. And I’m not particularly optimistic about our ability to resist it.

For many people, Google is a devil because our data and personal information is now property of the firm of Larry Page and Sergej Brin. For others, this is the price we pay for the use of a search engine. What is your point of view?

My view on this is it is very simple: What has happened is this giant privatization of telecom and other services, the result being that we have never — at least in Europe — put enough thought into creating alternatives to these companies. Take a company like Google: You can clearly see that their entire business model revolves around data. Which means that the more data they can gather, the better for them. OK, they started with email, but it’s obvious that they will soon move into other domains: They will move into data about your car company, they will move into data about your health, they will move into data about your garbage can, they’ll move into data about virtually anything. Soon, they will be able to offer a lot of services for free. And I think you have to be prepared for a moment when they start offering what used to be public services for free as well.

Thus, I think we should be prepared to see Google offering you some kind of free diagnostic health care, as long as you’re willing to share your data with them. This is where things get really tricky. Since Europe never bothered (like, for example, Russia, China and some countries in Latin America) to think of what an alternative strategy for lessening its dependence on Silicon Valley would be, Europeans just have no alternative strategy. This is not just Europe’s naivete about technology — it is mostly Europe’s naivete about America, and its inability to actually develop an alternative that does not presuppose being a backyard of the giant American Empire. So the only way to make sense, for example, off the TTIP — where one of its key provisions is a desire to promote the free flow of data — is by analyzing it at some kind of a nexus between geopolitics, imperialism and technology. There is no way to understand it only as a technological a process, when clearly it is not.

The net is also a technology of control. It is used by states, police agencies (FBI, NSA) to spy and to control citizens. But is used by firms to process and sell personal and collective information. Nations and firms have formed a military-digital complex. What do you think about that? Is a danger for democracy?

What we have to realize is that the National Security Agency and the U.S. military intelligence complex are actually very happy with the role that Google and other technology companies are playing. If you read the newspapers in America you would think that their people are constantly at war with each other, with these brave technology guys always detesting the spies and the spies always complaining that technologists are hiding data because of encryption. In reality, the situation is much simpler. The deep state or what we used to call the military-industrial complex, they are actually quite happy with where things stand right now, because they understand that it’s only by privatization of infrastructure and knowledge itself they can actually take full advantage of monopolists like Google, who are more than happy to centralize and collect all that knowledge in one place.
A lot of people don’t understand how it works, but ultimately Google is helping the NSA to organize quite a lot of data that would otherwise be in a state of entropy and it would take forever for agencies to be able to connect various services and various datasets to each other. In other words, imagine that if we didn’t have one company providing search, providing self-driving cars, providing email, providing smart thermostats like Nest. Imagine that all of the services were actually provided in a fully competitive manner as the good neoliberals in America would like us to do. If that were the case, then of course the life of the NSA would be much harder. But of course, this is not how things are.

Which makes me think that we have to spend more time analyzing the relationship between the national security state, privatization and monopolies. Ultimately all of those are connected to each other. If some of the infrastructure we use for communication were in public hands, then you would actually be able to run it in a way that would make our communications perfectly secure and encrypted — thus, again, making the life of the NSA much harder. But that’s not how it is, in part because this infrastructure was privatized and we are relying on advertising as a way to pay for it, which means that it will never be. So privatization — just like monopolies — is a very big factor in the growth of the national security state.

Is privacy the new frontier of business on the Internet? The rich can to buy software to protect their privacy; the poor cannot. Thus, privacy isn’t a universal right, but a good to buy. What do you think?

The inner logic of contemporary high-tech neoliberal capitalism is to turn everything into a commodity. This is why I think that the traditional discourse around privacy — and this is a discourse that is very much rooted in legalistic discourse and is not grounded in the geopolitical and economic discourse — I don’t find it particularly helpful. This is why I think even the Snowden revelations haven’t really done much, in part because Snowden himself has been quite unwilling — unlike, for example, Julian Assange — to speak critically of capitalism and neoliberalism and imperialism. Which means that the aftermath of the Snowden debate has been this tame legalistic discussion on how we can legally tie the hands of the national security agency — as if everything that I’ve said about monopolies, geopolitics and about privatization was not happening in the background.

For Snowden, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter who owns and operates and runs this communication infrastructure. Being a libertarian, he might actually like the fact that it’s mostly private companies rather than the government. These people, of course, have missed the movement that has been brewing in Europe around the idea of the common as a sort of hybrid mode of ownership that goes beyond the private and the public. Thus, for them the only option is either the NSA on steroids, whereby everything will be owned by the government, or Google on steroids, where everything will be only just the one giant monopolistic company. That things can actually be owned by the people doesn’t really occur to most analysts of the subject in America.

So given this historical background, it’s not really that surprising that our discussion about the surveillance has a hard time registering — let alone analyzing — processes and phenomena like financialization and commodification. There are hundreds of startups in Berlin — some of them are nonprofit groups — that are trying to fight surveillance with cool apps. To me, fighting what I perceive to be the cutting edge of neoliberal capitalism with an app is probably as stupid as fighting the European Central Bank and austerity measures with an app; it requires a very different approach. It requires a political campaign, it requires a political force on the ground, it requires social movements and proper analytical and economic analysis of the forces that have produced the problem that you’re trying to solve — in this case the problem of privacy.

Unfortunately, we in Europe, for the most part, have been completely caught up in this simplistic mindset, whereby we either opt for new legal solutions, or we encourage entrepreneurs to build apps that will deliver privacy. That will either involve a fee app that will be so hard to use that essentially anybody who wants to use those apps will need to pay a fee to learn how to use them.

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In your book, you wrote that the vision of the Internet as a reign of freedom is actually a nightmare. How we can reverse this situation?

Well to be honest, I never wrote that the net is a nightmare. What I have written about very critically in my book was what I call Internet freedom. Internet freedom was a very specific geopolitical agenda run out of Washington, run out of the State Department, which aimed to promote regime change or at least some kind of neoliberal democratization and liberalization by means of social media. The people I wrote about in that book have eventually led the government and went to work for companies like Google for example.

You can look at the career of a guy who was one of the central characters in one of the chapters of my book, Jared Cohen. He went on to actually be one of the founders, together with Eric Schmidt, of Google Ideas — this political think-tank that Google built. In that sense, for me, the debate was not really so much a debate about freedom — I would find it actually very hard to define what freedom in these fully privatized platforms actually means. For me, the debate was much more about the geopolitics of the web and a geopolitics of all these digital technologies. And I have probably become much more radical in my own views, shifting quite significantly to the left since I wrote that book. But ultimately, I think many of my core arguments still hold.

Just an example: There is a tendency in the Western media to overstate the impact of this technologies on protest. There is a tendency to read all of these services coming out of Silicon Valley as essentially proving that capitalism works and delivers — and if only we let companies like Google and Facebook to act independently and remain unregulated long enough, they will bring democracy and freedom and development everywhere. Or they will install connectivity everywhere and turn everybody into an entrepreneur. All those pitfalls in how we think about digital technologies are still with us; they haven’t disappeared since I wrote the book.

In a recent article and interview in the New Left Review you affirmed that big data should be expropriated — taken into state ownership. A socialistic solution for the net. Is this a new specter of communism for the world?

Well, again when it comes to the question of data and who should own it, it does not have to be the state. What I said in my interview is that the state will need to pass certainly a legal regime for the data not to be treated as a commodity. Then, it’s a matter for citizens to decide how exactly they would want that data to be run and administered — whether there is a common, or, for example, as some kind of a state owned asset or infrastructure. I don’t think this is actually going to happen in Europe any time soon. It might happen at the local level in certain European cities but only with particular kinds of data. For example, I can envision data about our movements in the city in public spaces to be somehow harnessed by the city in order to provide a better public transportation service rather than just to give all the data to Uber. Of course, there are limits to how much you can accomplish with just this particular type kinds of data.

But on a national level, the program I’m proposing here would diverge quite radically from the kind of neoliberal dogma that Europe is currently subsisting on. This probably means that the only actors who will be prepared to take on this issue will be governments in Latin America, where there is a strong commitment to opposing neoliberalism, and where state-led capitalism that we’re seeing in Russia and China has not yet taken root. So, I don’t think we will be seeing the specter of communism appearing anytime soon. I think whatever leftist movements we have left in Europe, they would be far better off to actually take on Silicon Valley and the question of data and the question of infrastructure. It should be as important to their strategizing as their activism against the European Central Bank. We do need a left that can grapple with the future of data-driven public (or neoliberal, which, I’m afraid, is more likely) services. And my fear is that unless something is done today, we will have the worst kind of privatization of services, on Silicon Valley’s terms — with dire consequences for our lives that we cannot even imagine, let alone stop.

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Morozov’s last book:

To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist (kindle version)