Morozov: Tech Journalism Must Be More Than Gadget Reviews

Technology journalism must be more than gadget reviews and business plans.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs speaks during an Apple Special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 2, 2011 in San Francisco, California.

Is what makes Silicon Valley more than Steve Jobs and his peers?

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Dear Farhad:

I suspect the only winner in our debate is Silicon Valley.

A quick thought experiment: Let’s say we were debating finance and Wall Street rather than technology and Silicon Valley. I find it hard to imagine that a financial journalist would get so upset—worked up even—about a label like “Wall Street” being invoked to discuss firms and services that, in reality, are too diverse to fit under one umbrella. Or to complain that no one on Wall Street eats Argentinean steaks and wears French cuffs anymore. (Having visited the Bay Area earlier this week, I can report that everyone is still carrying yoga mats. I can also assure you that the lines at some of the popular yoghurt joints in Berkeley are at least as long as the queue I endured at Lenin’s mausoleum in 1990.) With friends like this, Silicon Valley should not be afraid of any enemies. Wall Street, take note.

So, before we waste the rest of this exchange on discussing the semantics of using a term like “Silicon Valley,” let me remind you what it is that you’ve missed by deciding to pursue a close reading of the book’s first paragraph. Here are just some of the non-Valley projects and initiatives discussed in the book: the “open government” movement, the German Pirate Party, civic startups like aiming to fix politics, projects like Truth Googles aiming to automate fact-checking, the Egyptian youth movement after the Arab Spring, predictive policing software like PredPol, a strand in criminology known as “situational crime prevention,” the Quantified Self movement (along with their life-logging brethren), the “information diet” crowd and various efforts to “engineer serendipity” and break “filter bubbles,” and many, many more. You seem to believe that Silicon Valley is my main dish while I see it as nothing more than a tasty and popular sauce—perhaps mayonnaise?—that ties most of my critiques together.

Now, Farhad, I’m glad to discover that you’ve mastered the search function on your iPad Kindle app—congrats!—but it would be great if, instead of building a groundbreaking digital humanities project around my book, you’d have used some of that precious time to re-read it. Since your initial premise is that my book is all about “Silicon Valley,” you have set up some really weird criteria for evaluating the frequency of quotations.

For example, virtually all my references to Larry Lessig are either in the context of discussing Internet-centrism or government transparency. If Steve Jobs had penned some important memo on “open government,” I must have missed it. That great Marc Andreessen memo on the history of the post office—where is it? In its absence, I’d have to stick with Tim Wu (honestly, not my first choice either). Or take any of the sections where I engage with Shirky—say, on the one on the future of food criticism. Now, where’s that great Larry Page memo on French cuisine? To Internet-centrism, we must now add Valley-centrism: You are essentially arguing that whenever we are talking about the implications of digital technologies, it’s their creators and marketers whom we must hear first. Silicon Valley does have much better spokespeople than Wall Street.

I find it hilarious that in your first posting you complained that I give too much credit to the marketing hyperbole coming from Silicon Valley—and now you complain that I’m not quoting enough CEOs and investors, those two most distinguished passengers of the Valley’s own Straight-Talk Express. Why don’t I quote executives and investors more often? Well, that’s easy: Most of the time, they have nothing to say—and they say it constantly. And anyway, isn’t that why tech blogs were invented—often by the very investors who seek to impart their truths on the rest of us?

Do you really think that one of the problems with our technology debates today is that not enough space is dedicated to quoting Steve Jobs? I suspect not. I think that in claiming that you are no Steve Jobs, you are once again sidestepping the kinds of moral and ethical dimensions that I’m trying to add to the task list of those who report and philosophize about technology. If anything, my book is an attack on the dominant mode of thinking about technology and “the Internet”; engaging so many different thinkers allows me to show that delusions are not individual cases of perversion or conflicts of interest—they stem from shared assumptions and even styles of reasoning.

As I’ve already noted, I hate trend-spotting stenographers and babbling pundits. In their place, I want to install critics and intellectuals. My “disruption” of the current discourse—to use Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzword (“disruption,” not “discourse”!)—is quite deliberate and strategic. The difference between these two groups is that, in addition to reporting and analysis, critics and intellectuals have additional moral obligations. They don’t just regurgitate whatever Silicon Valley press release strikes their fancy, but they actually try to ask a different question: Is this startup good? Is it bad? The only question that our stenographers and pundits ask right now—as confirmed by your responses—is whether this startup is likely to take off.

My problem with your approach, Farhad, is that, if I were to ask you a simple question—“How should a smart trash bin be designed?”—I’m afraid that your answer would be: “Just as the market wants it.” But I see technology criticism as a far more ambitious exercise, one that is so much more than just market ventriloquism. So the reason why I go after so many reporters, writers, and thinkers in the book is precisely because I want to force that extra moral dimension on them.

Judging by your refusal to engage with this project—in both of your postings—I suspect you don’t find this prospect terribly appealing. And I can see why. But read carefully, my book has arguments that are only peripherally related to technology companies in Silicon Valley. I also discuss how those of us influencing public debate should think about and report on those companies. There is a good reason why my initial takedown of Jeff Jarvis is titled “The Internet Intellectual.”

If you think that the likes of Jarvis and Shirky have no influence on public debate, it’s only because you are too obsessed with the gadget and startup trivia that distract the rest of Silicon Valley. Jarvis wields enormous influence—especially in places like Germany, where some publishers pay attention to him—on debates about the future of journalism (for example, on the issue of paywalls). Shirky, with his essay in Foreign Affairs and various advisory interventions and talks, has had more influence on U.S. foreign policy during the first Obama administration than Marc Andreessen. Do I even need to make a case for Larry Lessig?

For a very long time, it was popular to write history through the Great Man approach. You are essentially urging me to do a variation of that—Great Startups of History. You seem to believe that the entirety of our public debate about technology can be explained just by looking at Amazon, Google, Facebook—and their business plans. This is the same approach that gives us endless (pointless?) “Apple vs. Google” debates and actually ends up erasing much of the corporate and intellectual idiosyncrasies that propel these companies.

In thinking that companies have coherent strategies, goals, and ideologies, you, Farhad, miss much of the incoherence in their behavior—as well as much of the subtlety in my arguments. So you say that Google has now revealed that it employs humans to do things that we thought were done by algorithms. You somehow think it undercuts my argument—but it does nothing of the kind! In fact, one of my critiques of Google is that it frequently claims that algorithms have objectivity and thus can be left alone. But if some of the work it justifies through algorithms is indeed done by humans, then there’s a big problem: How do we know those humans are not subject to biases?

Starting with the erroneous assumption that I’m a techophobe, you seem to think that all I want is to replace machines with humans. But I want no such thing: I want Google to accept moral responsibility for some of its products—like Autocomplete—and then act appropriately. This might involve, among other things, delegating even more of its decision-making to algorithms—but also building the appropriate ethical infrastructure to supervise this delegation.

Or take Amazon. Now, if you’ve used that wonderful search function on your iPad Kindle app to look up “Amazon” rather than “Jeff Jarvis,” you’d discover that I actually do discuss Amazon in the context of solutionism. In particular, I focus on Jeff Bezos’ promise that Amazon can finally rid us of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Note that this is a very typical solutionist argument: Now that we have the means to rid the world of gatekeepers and intermediaries—bookstores, publishers, professional book reviewers—we just absolutely must do it. So the presence of all these mediating institutions is suddenly seen as a problem just because we have the means of solving it. This fits the exact definition of solutionism that I provide in the book.

You think I’m unfair to Silicon Valley because I paint with too broad of a brush. If that’s your main problem with my argument, I’ll easily accept this criticism: Yes, even though my natural inclination is splitting—I prefer to draw out differences rather than erase them—in this particular case, I tend to lump.

But you yourself seem to be moving in that direction with your attempts to broach the subject of “Internet-centrism” that does occupy a major chunk of the book. You say that most people know what is meant by “the Internet” if you press them. Fine—but this is a boring argument that even I accept. Alas, it does nothing to make us aware of the many terms and technologies that are now added to “the Internet”—it’s a label too cool to discriminate. Once you start tracing how the idea of “the Internet” enters public discourse—you know, outside all those proverbial yoghurt parlors of Silicon Valley—you’ll discover that it has given rise to all sorts of ambiguous ideas like “Internet freedom,” the bugbear of my first book, The Net Delusion.

As I ask early on the new book, what on earth is a TechCrunch headline like “The Next Battle for Internet Freedom Could Be Over 3D Printers” supposed to mean? As everything becomes interconnected—via these other horrible buzzwords (the Industrial Internet, the Internet of Things)—the category of “the Internet” will get diluted even further. As I point out in the book, the very idea of “Internet freedom” generates almost religious feelings in some circles—just look at the Anonymous crowds. But if “Internet freedom” also means “being able to print out guns,” well, perhaps, it’s time to retire the label; if what causes confusion is the idea of “the Internet,” let’s ditch the idea.

Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to show that “the Internet” is much more than a set of networks, protocols, and cables—it’s also an ideology that helps to justify certain interventions and prevent others. In Nicholas Carr’s case, his inability to articulate a prescriptive agenda—“My interest is description, not prescription,” he told the New York Observer in 2010—might have to do with the level of analysis that he operates at. If he believes that “the Net” does have a certain logic and inherent features, then it’s no wonder that the proposed interventions aren’t many.

Likewise, we have some folks—I quote Larry Lessig’s dictum “the network is not going away”—who think that even some basic tinkering with the components of the network (say, having newspapers embrace paywalls) might threaten the validity of the network itself. I think that this is nonsense—in part because it treats “the Internet” as sacred and inviolable but in part because it doesn’t want to tinker with individual technologies.

Thus, your discussion of Facebook combines the worst of the “Great Startups of History” approach with a bad misreading of the “Internet-centrism” argument. The fact that Facebook doesn’t practice what it preaches is not an argument against “Internet-centrism”—it’s an argument for it, as the great intellectual confusion triggered by “the Internet” allows Facebook to get away with all sorts of ridiculous claims that should be subject to deeper analysis.

If only you had read the book more carefully, you’d notice that I make the very same argument about Google: Google claims that, in the Internet era, “open wins” and it itself is pursuing “openness” everywhere. I write, however, that this is dubious—in part because it’s not at all obvious that “open wins” and in part because Google doesn’t actually practice “openness.” This is an argument that I make myself—but you are so fixated on seeking consistency in decisions of the Great Startups of History that you actually miss it.

One of the larger claims I make with regards to Internet-centrism is that all these terms that seem unproblematic to you—“the Internet,” “technology,” “the digital world”—actually lead to profound confusion; we lose sight of the roles they play in framing our public debates. Even in your response you write about “everyone else who thinks or writes about the digital world”—yet, what does the word “digital” in “digital world” actually mean? Does it mean that there is a digital world separate from the analog world? Well, it sounds like it. That’s an assumption I do not buy—along with many critics of “digital dualism.” When you make such statements about “the digital,” you need to justify them—not just invoke them as if were obvious to everyone.

For you, the “digital” as a separate realm is now a habit of thought that is entirely natural—but it has a long and convoluted history that has gradually become invisible to us, as we got accustomed to the term. This way of thinking—the one that splits the world into some kind of digital and analog varieties—has a very long pedigree; it especially affects debates about cyborgs and hybridity and has vast implications for bioethics, biology, and medicine. Thinkers like Donna Haraway– and yes, my favorite Bruno Latour—have spent entire careers exploring it.

What I want to do by putting “the Internet” in quotation marks is to denaturalize some of the assumptions we make for granted—for those assumptions have consequences. You probably don’t find such efforts productive. You just want to write about startups, gadgets, and new services, and if you have to constantly doubt the validity of a term like “digital,” it would exercise you too much, perhaps even paralyze your writing. I accept that position—hey, not everybody can be a philosopher, and questioning too many categories has not done much to improve Donna Haraway’s writing style— but I refuse to subscribe to it myself.

Under the pernicious influence of Internet-centrism, our cognitive channels have become so clogged with bullshit—of which so many of our unexamined assumptions are made—that we are no longer capable of having a reasonable debate about “technology” or “the Internet” without stumbling into some banal generalization (of the “sharing economy” variety). In the long term, going with the flow and accepting this vocabulary as normal is not a very sensible strategy—even if, in the short term, it allows you and a bunch of fellow technology reporters to write yet another great product review. (I did like your recent piece on batteries, though!)

So, as much as I want, I can’t really accept your invitation to accept that all of the arguments made are on the same plane as a “1942 issue of Popular Mechanics that tries to imagine life in 2013.” You’ve missed the forest for the trees—or, in this case, startups.