March 24, 2015

Morozov goes a bridge too far vs. Nicholas Carr

I don't put Carr on a pedestal, whether because of "speak no ill of the (recently) dead" (oops, was thinking of David Carr) or other reasons, and it's possible indeed that he is not much more than a left-neoliberal in his critique of creeping salvific technologism.

That said, Evgeny Morozov's Baffler critique of Carr's final latest book, "The Glass Cage," seems indeed to be a bridge too far. (Or a branch sawn off under oneself.)

I do agree with much of the first half of the essay, whose thought probably culminates here:

For Carr, the true Stakhanovite, work is a much better drug than the soma of Huxley’s Brave New World.
It does seem that Carr, to a degree, more bemoans how automation is eliminating jobs, rather than the larger issues of management, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, disempowering employees in general, and larger structural issues.

That said, at about this point:
Take our supposed overreliance on apps, the favorite subject of many contemporary critics, Carr included. How, the critics ask, could we be so blind to the deeply alienating effects of modern technology? Their tentative answer—that we are simply lazy suckers for technologically mediated convenience—reveals many of them to be insufferable, pompous moralizers. The more plausible thesis—that the growing demands on our time probably have something to do with the uptake of apps and the substitution of the real (say, parenting) with the virtual (say, the many apps that allow us to monitor kids remotely)—is not even broached.
Morozov starts to lose me.

First, he portrays this as a zero sum game, then he dismisses the first sum. Frankly, I think there's some truth to the "sucker" argument. Plus, Morozov's second sum gives more credit to the worthiness of apps than the earlier part of the screed would indicate.

(Update, Nov. 12, 2017: It was already starting to become evident at that time, but seems even more clear now, that, much of this technology is addictive. Morozov simply missed that, it seems, and surprisingly for the man who, in the past at least, has said he unhooks his internet cables and puts them in a time-lock safe.)

He doubles down on undercutting himself with this:
Suppose consumers and companies did know better.
If they do, and I think they do, then yes, Silicon Valley is playing us for lazy suckers. It may also be in part due to time issues, but, c'mon, Evgeny, how much time does a typical app actually save a person? Again, your half of the sum, if you really want to make this a zero-sum issue, is giving more credit to the utility of apps than they warrant.

Related to that, as a non-Marxist, but one who is some sort of left-liberal or social Democrat in terms of today's America, I think Morozov is portraying the broader political concerns in too black and white terms, or too zero-sum of terms, again. I can have some degree of rage against the machine of Silicon Valley without being either a Marxist or an anarchist.

Related to that, Morozov has not yet started to wear thin. But, he's getting closer to that point. (That said, I agree with him about Jaron Lanier, as I noted two years ago. Almost four years ago, even, Lanier seemed to be looking at tech usage rather than the big picture.)

In other words, Morozov's right about his "solutionism." But, when tied with a zero-sum, and polarities, approach to the big picture, he's wrong. Even though Robert Wright is a one-trick pony himself, Morozov may need to read "Nonzero."

Update, March 28: Carr has responded to Morozov. He rightly notes that Morozov is using his book as a stalking horse for a larger critique of tech critics. Beyond that, he notes how Morozov can create straw men, which I kind of touch on, and even more, but indirectly from his POV, the zero-sum and polarities angles of Morozov's thought.

The writer Steven Johnson has summed up Morozov’s modus operandi with precision: “He’s like a vampire slayer that has to keep planting capes and plastic fangs on his victims to stay in business.” With Morozov, a fierce intellect and a childish combativeness would seem to be two sides of the same personality, so it’s probably best to ignore the latter and concentrate on the former.
It's worth a read back.

And, since Carr analyzed Johnson's quote about Morozov, I will do the same with his. Maybe the childish combativeness is part of growing up in the former USSR?

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