Evgeny Morozov has written a long and entertaining critique of my book Future Perfect in last week’s issue of The New Republic. It’s mostly an attack on the “quasi-religion” of “internet-centrism” that he sees in my work. I’ve written a longer response that TNR is apparently going to publish momentarily, but I thought it would be illuminating to do a purely cut-and-paste response here: quoting Morozov’s cartoon version of my argument, and then actual passages from Future Perfect. I think that gives the best sense of how much Morozov has to ignore or distort in the book to make his argument stick. Everything attributed to me below is a direct quote from the book that Morozov was allegedly reviewing:
Morozov paraphrasing me: Projects such as Wikipedia are just another reminder that Internet logic is the correct way to run the world
Me in Future Perfect: This is one crucial way in which peer-progressive values are distinct from the stereotype of cyber-utopianism. There is nothing intrinsic to the peer-progressive worldview that says social problems can be wished away with some kind of magical Internet spell.
Morozov paraphrasing me: Now that the costs have fallen, there are no good reasons for hierarchies to exist.
Me: No doubt there will be places where the [non-hierarchical] approach turns out to be less effective. It may well be turn out that certain pressing problems—climate change, or military defense—require older approaches or institutions. The peer-progressive framework is in its infancy, after all. We don’t yet know its limits.
Morozov: For all his talk about political philosophy, Johnson makes no effort to ask even basic philosophical questions. What if some limits to democratic participation in the pre-Wikipedia era were not just a consequence of high communication costs but stemmed from a deliberate effort to root out populism, prevent cooptation, or protect expert decision making?
Me: The American Founders had endless debates about the right balance between federal and state authority, but they were united in the belief that direct democracy would be a mistake. For the most part, that assumption has remained in place for more than two centuries. The few instances in which direct democracy has erupted—most notoriously in California’s proposition system—are generally considered to be disasters. [Then after a long quote from the Federalist papers]: The Founders took the threat of tyrannical majorities very seriously. In the system proposed in the U.S. Constitution, the people are sovereign, but the sovereign has to be protected from its own excesses: the herd mentalities and the subtle (or not so subtle) repressions of minority opinions that inevitably arise when the intermediaries are taken out of the mix. So voters don’t propose or vote on legislation directly—unless you count the ballot initiatives that have drawn so much criticism over the past decade or two. The voters choose the lawmakers, but the lawmakers make the laws. [The discussion goes on for about 5-6 pages.]
Morozov: But Johnson is completely blind to the virtues of centralization. In discussing 311, he lauds the fact that tipsters calling the hotline help to create a better macro-level view of city problems. But this is a trivial insight compared with the main reason why 311 works: Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to centralize—not decentralize—previous models of reporting tips... Johnson’s internet-centric worldview is so biased toward all things decentralized, horizontal, and emancipatory that he completely misses the highly centralized nature of 311.
Me: It should be said that 311 is not a purely decentralized system. There are both literal and figurative headquarters, where the call center is located. In this sense, it is a hybrid form, somewhere between the pure peer network and the older state model. The 311 service vastly increases the number of participants in the system, and gives them the opportunity to set priorities for the city’s interventions. But those interventions are still triggered via a top-down mechanism. To a certain extent, that top-down element may be inevitable.
Morozov: The same criticism applies to his treatment of the Internet. Had Johnson chosen to look closer at any of the projects he is celebrating, he would find plenty of centralization efforts at work.
Me: Facebook is a private corporation; the social graph that Zuckerberg celebrates is a proprietary technology, an asset owned by the shareholders of Facebook itself. And as far as corporations go, Facebook is astonishingly top-heavy: the S-1 revealed that Zuckerberg personally controls 57 percent of Facebook’s voting stock, giving him control over the company’s destiny that far exceeds anything Bill Gates or Steve Jobs ever had. The cognitive dissonance could drown out a Sonic Youth concert: Facebook believes in peer-to-peer networks for the world, but within its own walls, the company prefers top-down control centralized in a charismatic leader.
Morozov: But even assuming that Johnson is right and the idea of the Internet does indeed inform how social movements form and operate these days, it is not immediately obvious why this is a model worth pursuing. Not everyone believes that Occupy Wall Street was a runaway success.
Me: But [Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring] have all proved to be somewhat disappointing at actually proposing new solutions and making those solutions reality. They are brilliant at swarming, building feedback loops of energy and attention. They are less adept at steering. The grand spectacles of Occupy or Arab Spring have turned out to be something of a distraction, averting our eyes from the more concrete and practical successes of peer networks.
Morozov: The totalizers would happily follow Johnson in seeking answers to questions such as “So what does the Internet want?”—as if the Internet were a living thing with its own agenda and its own rights
Me actually quoting Morozov of all people: “Perhaps it was a mistake to treat the Internet as a deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression, for cosmopolitanism or xenophobia. The reality is that the Internet will enable all of these forces—as well as many others—simultaneously. But as far as laws of the Internet go, this is all we know. Which of the numerous forces unleashed by the Web will prevail in a particular social and political context is impossible to tell without first getting a thorough theoretical understanding of that context.”
Morozov: This anti-institutional bias is most visible in Johnson’s discussion of American politics. He sincerely believes that one way to improve it is to get rid of the hassle that comes with political parties, leaders, and other mediating institutions... Johnson believes that the old party system is bad simply because it is Internet-incompatible.
I don’t actually have a quote for this one, because nowhere in the book do I propose eliminating political parties. Morozov seems to have just conjured this one out of thin air. I think the current parties do not share enough values with the peer progressive worldview, but if someone wanted to start a peer progressive party -- or reform an existing party to make it more compatible with the peer network approach -- I would be delighted.