Evgeny Morozov

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Much of American space exploration is being handed over to private enterprise, which I have some qualms about, but even some of the more prosaic elements of our lives have been offloaded from the public sector to technological “innovators.” Certainly that’s not one-hundred percent the case in the U.S., with healthcare, a huge concern, headed in the opposite direction, and the budget, while having grown slower under Obama than under Dubya or Reagan, still formidable. In a new Guardian piece, Evgeny Morozov, that self-designated mourner, looks at the dark side of capitalism and technocracy’s impact on democracy. The opening:

“For seven years, we’ve been held hostage to two kinds of disruption. One courtesy of Wall Street; the other from Silicon Valley. They make for an excellent good cop/bad cop routine: the former preaches scarcity and austerity while the other celebrates abundance and innovation. They might appear distinct, but each feeds off the other.

On the one hand, the global financial crisis – and the ensuing push to bail out the banks – desiccated whatever was left of the welfare state. This has mutilated – occasionally to the point of liquidation – the public sector, the only remaining buffer against the encroachment of the neoliberal ideology, with its unrelenting efforts to create markets out of everything.

The few public services to survive the cuts have either become prohibitively expensive or have been forced to experiment with new and occasionally populist survival mechanisms. The ascent of crowdfunding whereby, instead of relying on lavish and unconditional government funding, cultural institutions were forced to raise money directly from citizens is a case in point: in the absence of other alternatives, the choice has been between market populism – the crowd knows best! – or extinction.

By contrast, the second kind of disruption has been hailed as a mostly positive development. Everything is simply getting digitised and connected – a most natural phenomenon, if venture capitalists are to be believed – and institutions could either innovate or die. Having wired up the world, Silicon Valley assured us that the magic of technology would naturally pervade every corner of our lives. On this logic, to oppose technological innovation is tantamount to defaulting on the ideals of the Enlightenment: Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are simply the new Diderot and Voltaire – reborn as nerdy entrepreneurs.

And then, a rather strange thing happened: somehow we have come to believe that the second kind of disruption had nothing to do with the first.”


In his latest Slate column, “Stunt the Growth,” Evgeny Morozov attempts to apply the “Degrowth Movement” of economics to technology. It seems to me pretty hopeless to suggest that we diminish the collateral damage of Big Data (government surveillance, corporations using our personal information for profit, etc.) by volunteering to accept inferior products and paying more for them (financially or otherwise). That’s not the way of markets nor do I think it’s the way of human nature. That’s not how to tame a giant.

Electric cars and solar power will only become predominant if they offer the same (or better) or better utility and price as their more environmentally wasteful competitors. In much the same way, people didn’t stick to buying newspapers in print because that was better for journalism and therefor better for democracy; they gravitated to the better publishing platform because it was the better publishing platform. If we want to curb technology’s ill effects then we can’t demand that people move backwards but that the products move forward. The answer, if it comes, will be borne of evolution, not devolution. From Morozov:

“Instead of challenging Silicon Valley on the specifics, why not just acknowledge that the benefits it offers are real—but, like an SUV or always-on air conditioning, they might not be worth the costs? Yes, the personalization of search can give us fabulous results, directing us to the nearest pizza joint in two seconds instead of five. But these three seconds in savings require a storage of data somewhere on Google’s servers. After Snowden, no one is really sure what exactly happens to that data and the many ways in which it can be abused.

For most people, Silicon Valley offers a great and convenient product. But if this great product will eventually smother the democratic system, then, perhaps, we should lower our expectations and accept the fact that two extra seconds of search—like a smaller and slower car—might be a reasonable price to pay for preserving the spaces where democratic politics can still flourish.”


Critic Evgeny Morozov rightly thinks we should distrust brands like Google and Facebook, but we should probably also save some skepticism for his brand: the techno town crier, the self-styled cassandra, the one who sees the Google Glass as half empty. He makes his way in the world by telling us that if the sky isn’t falling then it’s at least not as high as we think. And when someone raises money and esteem from a consistent stance, we probably should question the rigidity of the pose. His articles range from the marvelous to the meh, though that isn’t surprising for a 29-year-old writing at a breakneck pace. I like him; I question him.

From a new profile of Morozov by Michael Meyer in the Columbia Journalism Review:

“As Morozov watched the cyber-utopian fad grow, his distrust of it began to harden into a cyber-pessimism that could at times be just as dogmatic. After leaving Transitions, Morozov eventually ended up as a fellow at OSF (a funder of Transitions), which brought him to New York in August 2008. The following year Morozov gave—wait for it—a TED talk in Oxford called, ‘How the Net Aids Dictatorships.’ This was sort of a coming-out party for Evgeny the skeptic, and an important step in turning that skepticism into a brand. It’s another video worth watching and quite a contrast to his enthusing about crowdsourcing just two years before. In the video, he stands in the middle of the stage wearing a wrinkled blue shirt open at the neck. There is a humble, self-effacing air about him, as if he barely expects to be listened to. His only gesture is to move his hands up and down, often in unison, as he emphasizes his points about how all the digital tools and ideas the audience is so excited about are enabling surveillance and targeting of dissidents by thugs and autocrats worldwide.

“Evgeny becomes attached to particular ideas that he believes, for the good of the thinking public, need to be debunked,” says OSF’s Benardo. He compares Morozov to social critics like Karl Kraus and Dwight MacDonald, professional buzzkills who “felt almost divinely anointed” in their efforts to tear down false hopes and received wisdom.”

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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Big Data as applied to terrorism (and more banal matters) is useful because it provides predictive behavior patterns without spending time and resources on locating the cause of the behavior. But should we abandon cause and just be concerned with potential effect? From Evgeny Morozov at Slate:

The end of theory, which Chris Anderson predicted in Wired a few years ago, has reached the intelligence community: Just like Google doesn’t need to know why some sites get more links from other sites—securing a better place on its search results as a result—the spies do not need to know why some people behave like terrorists. Acting like a terrorist is good enough.

As the media academic Mark Andrejevic points out in Infoglut, his new book on the political implications of information overload, there is an immense—but mostly invisible—cost to the embrace of Big Data by the intelligence community (and by just about everyone else in both the public and private sectors). That cost is the devaluation of individual and institutional comprehension, epitomized by our reluctance to investigate the causes of actions and jump straight to dealing with their consequences. But, argues Andrejevic, while Google can afford to be ignorant, public institutions cannot. 

‘If the imperative of data mining is to continue to gather more data about everything,’ he writes, ‘its promise is to put this data to work, not necessarily to make sense of it. Indeed, the goal of both data mining and predictive analytics is to generate useful patterns that are far beyond the ability of the human mind to detect or even explain.’ In other words, we don’t need to inquire why things are the way they are as long as we can affect them to be the way we want them to be. This is rather unfortunate. The abandonment of comprehension as a useful public policy goal would make serious political reforms impossible.

Forget terrorism for a moment. Take more mundane crime. Why does crime happen? Well, you might say that it’s because youths don’t have jobs. Or you might say that’s because the doors of our buildings are not fortified enough. Given some limited funds to spend, you can either create yet another national employment program or you can equip houses with even better cameras, sensors, and locks. What should you do?

If you’re a technocratic manager, the answer is easy: Embrace the cheapest option.”


From “Slaves to the Algorithm,” Steven Poole’s new Aeon essay about handing over function, and by extension, moral judgement, to math:

“At first thought, it seems like a pure futuristic boon — the idea of a car that drives itself, currently under development by Google. Already legal in Nevada, Florida and California, computerized cars will be able to drive faster and closer together, reducing congestion while also being safer. They’ll drop you at your office then go and park themselves. What’s not to like? Well, for a start, as the mordant critic of computer-aided ‘solutionism’ Evgeny Morozov points out, the consequences for urban planning might be undesirable to some. ‘Would self-driving cars result in inferior public transportation as more people took up driving?’ he wonders in his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here (2013).

More recently, Gary Marcus, professor of psychology at New York University, offered a vivid thought experiment in The New Yorker. Suppose you are in a self-driving car going across a narrow bridge, and a school bus full of children hurtles out of control towards you. There is no room for the vehicles to pass each other. Should the self-driving car take the decision to drive off the bridge and kill you in order to save the children?

What Marcus’s example demonstrates is the fact that driving a car is not simply a technical operation, of the sort that machines can do more efficiently. It is also a moral operation. (His example is effectively a kind of ‘trolley problem’, of the sort that has lately been fashionable in moral philosophy.) If we let cars do the driving, we are outsourcing not only our motor control but also our moral judgment.”

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Two seemingly unrelated things about contemporary American life that are related: 1) We’ve outsourced slavery–or some form of it. People in factories toil in ungodly conditions around the clock to make our cheap tech products. Undocumented workers are allowed to do our least appealing jobs–the things we “outsource” domestically–and are forgotten, except when they’re used as political pawns, made to seem like they’re “stealing” from us. 2) Digital sound has reduced us, demeaned our culture. We remove the rattle and hum to try to get closer to meaning, but much of the meaning was in the discord. The connection: The friction is missing, the dissonance buried. We forget the discomfort and that means the discomfort of others increases.

From Evgeny Morozov’s New York Times piece about life in a time when lo-fi has been tuned out:

“‘Civilization,’ wrote the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in 1911, ‘advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.’ Whitehead was writing about mathematics, but technology, with its reliance on formula and algorithms, easily fits his dictum as well.

On this account, technology can save us a lot of cognitive effort, for ‘thinking’ needs to happen only once, at the design stage. We’ll surround ourselves with gadgets and artifacts that will do exactly what they are meant to do — and they’ll do it in a frictionless, invisible way. ‘The ideal system so buries the technology that the user is not even aware of its presence,’ announced the design guru Donald Norman in his landmark 1998 book, The Invisible Computer. But is that what we really want?

The hidden truth about many attempts to ‘bury’ technology is that they embody an amoral and unsustainable vision. Pick any electrical appliance in your kitchen. The odds are that you have no idea how much electricity it consumes, let alone how it compares to other appliances and households. This ignorance is neither natural nor inevitable; it stems from a conscious decision by the designer of that kitchen appliance to free up your ‘cognitive resources’ so that you can unleash your inner Oscar Wilde on ‘contemplating’ other things. Multiply such ignorance by a few billion, and global warming no longer looks like a mystery.”


From Adrian Chen’s smart Gawker interview with technology skeptic supreme Evgeny Morozov, a passage about why “solving” crime might not be such a good idea, though you may disagree if you’ve recently been mugged:

“You can see such solutionist logic that presumes the existence of problems based solely on the availability of nice and quick digital solutions in many walks of life: We have the tools to make government officials more honest and consistent, ergo hypocrisy and inconsistency are problems worth solving. Take crime. We have the means to predict crime—with ‘big data’ and smart algorithms—and prevent it from happening, ergo eliminating crime is a problem worth solving.

But is eliminating crime really a project worth pursuing? Don’t we need to be able to break laws in order to revise them? Once crimes are committed, cases reach the courts, generate debate in the media, and so forth—the very fact that crimes are allowed to happen allows us to revise the norms in question. So the inefficiency of the system—the fact that the crime rate is not zero—-is what saves us from the tyranny of conservatism and complacency that might be the outcome if we delegate crime prevention to algorithms and databases..”

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Why wouldn’t the new budget proposed by Paul Ryan, who seems to forget that he lost the election, not drive Americans out into the streets screaming? It calls for austerity for people who can least afford it, in this time of ever-increasing income disparity, when only few have felt the effects of the recovery. Maybe it’s partly because our pockets hold those shiny smartphones, amulets equally for the rich and poor, which make it seem like anything is possible, that things will change. But what if that change is not for the better? From “Upgrade or Die,” George Packer’s commentary on the New Yorker site:

“My unprovable hypothesis is that obsessive upgrading and chronic stagnation are intimately related, in the same way that erotic fantasies are related to sexual repression. The fetish that surrounds Google Glass or the Dow average grows ever more hysterical as the economic status of the majority of Americans remains flat. When things don’t work in the realm of stuff, people turn to the realm of bits. If the physical world becomes intransigent, you can take refuge in the virtual world, where you can solve problems–how do I make a video of my skydiving adventure while keeping my hands free?—that most of your countrymen didn’t know existed. [Evgeny] Morozov puts it this way: ‘Last year the futurist Ayesha Khanna even described smart contact lenses that could make homeless people disappear from view, ‘enhancing our basic sense’ and, undoubtedly, making our lives so much more enjoyable. In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness—unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person.’

The strange thing is that technological romanticism doesn’t divide Americans. In an age when class and wealth determine everything from your food and beverage to your TV shows, news sources, mode of air travel, education, spouse, children’s prospects, longevity, and cause of death, it’s the one thing that still unites us. I know a man in Tampa who was out of work for nine months after losing his job at Walmart, and more than once almost ended up on the street with his wife and two children. Last week, he was finally hired by a food conglomerate to drive from one convenience store to another, checking the condition of snack bags on the shelves. Like the unemployed Italian man in The Bicycle Thief who gets hired to put up movie posters and has to pawn his wedding sheets to buy the bike required for the job, the Tampa family had to sell some of their DVDs so the father could buy decent clothes and shoes and pay for gas.

But he didn’t need to purchase a smart phone. He already had one. And in the future, when the price drops below its current fifteen hundred dollars, the unemployed might wear Google Glass, too. Perhaps it will allow them to disappear from their own field of vision.”

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Evgeny Morozov, that contrarian philosopher of the Digital Age, was just interviewed by Robert Herritt at the Daily Beast. An excerpt about what Morozov believes is the near-term future of the Internet:

The Daily Beast:

You have often mentioned this pervasive idea of the Internet as eternal and sacrosanct. As someone who rejects that view, play futurist for a second: What kind of technologies could displace the Internet?

Evgeny Morozov:

I think that definitely the underlying network will probably stay for a while until we find other ways to interconnect our gadgets.

What I expect to see in the next five to seven years is the migration of Big Data and the algorithms that have been developed in the context of Facebook and in the context of Google, into the world at large — into the physical reality. I want to do my next book on the future of public space in the era of smart technologies. Because I think that, ultimately, all of that will break from the purely virtual connections into mediating how we interact with houses and buildings and public squares and shops.

What I do on Facebook will be integrated with what I do when I go to the store. It will be integrated with what I do when I drive my self-driving car. It will be integrated with what I print on my 3D printer, and so forth.”

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I don’t always agree with Evgeny Morozov, but I always find him to be thought-provoking. In his new Financial Times piece, “Google Should Not Choose Right and Wrong” (free registration required), the technologist suggests that the search giant should be forced to accept checks and balances. A passage about the intrusiveness of Google Now:

“At the end of each month, Google happily reports – without you ever asking for it! – how many miles you’ve walked or cycled. This intervention is no simple weather trivia. Here Google assumes that walking is more important – perhaps, even more moral – than, say, driving. It explicitly ‘bakes’ morality into its app, engaging in what one might term ‘algorithmic nudging.’

Had governments advocated such surveillance-powered interventions, many would find them intrusive, not least because their terms must be subject to public debate. Are we measuring the right things? Are we unfairly blaming individuals for failures of institutions? Walking is undoubtedly easier in Manhattan than in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

With Google at the helm, however, resistance is minimal. We don’t mind our phones spying on us – at least not when Google needs this data to tell us about flight delays. Likewise, we have been persuaded by Google’s efforts to recast the information it collects as objective and simply existing “out there” – in nature – unaffected by their recording devices or systems of measurement.

Google’s power and temptation to do good are only poised to increase. As its services are integrated under one umbrella – maps, emails, calendars, videos, books – it knows even more about our moral failings. And as Google begins to mediate our interactions with the built environment – through its self-driving cars, smart glasses, smartphones – the scope for ‘algorithmic nudging’ also expands.”


“All that information is ready at the exact moment you actually need it”:


In Evgeny Morozov’s new article at Slate, he explains why cyber warfare may not be attractive to terrorist groups. Of course, if there was a critical mass of driverless cars or robotic surgeons to tamper with, things might be different. There would definitely by a scary wow factor in that scenario. An excerpt:

“Terrorists may be more keen on anonymity, but the reality is that in the decade since 9/11, no terrorist group has had much success causing serious disruption of the civilian or military infrastructure. For a group like al-Qaida, the costs of getting it right are too high, particularly because it’s not guaranteed that such a cyber-terror campaign would be as spectacular as detonating a bomb in a busy public square.”


From Evgeny Morozov on the Browser, a passage about Lewis Mumford’s feelings about technology, especially the invention of clocks:

“Technology became something of a subject, I guess, in the late 1860s/70s but it only really emerged as a field for academic study in the late 1930s. The most influential early book aimed at a popular audience was Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford, published in 1934. It touched the worlds of history and economics and, to an extent, political philosophy. Mumford tried to look back as far as he could and study how human societies incorporated various technologies, but also how they made choices about which technologies to take on, how to regulate them, and how those decisions ended up shaping societies themselves.

The most famous example he evoked was the invention and wide acceptance of the clock. Mumford thought that the clock was one of the technologies that allowed capitalism to emerge because it provided for synchronisation and for people to cooperate. But I think this was also one of the first texts that critically engaged with the potentially negative side effects of technology. Mumford actually looked at how some technologies were authoritarian – that was his term – how some led to centralisation and establishment of control over human subjects and how some of them were driven by a completely different ethos.

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Evgeny Morozov opines at Slate on computer-driven automatic journalism. An excerpt:

“Narrative Science is one of several companies developing automated journalism software. These startups work primarily in niche fields—sports, finance, real estate—in which news stories tend to follow the same pattern and revolve around statistics. Now they are entering the political reporting arena, too. A new service from Narrative Service generates articles about how the U.S. electoral race is reflected in social media, what issues and candidates are most and least discussed in a particular state or region, and similar topics. It can even incorporate quotes from the most popular and interesting tweets into the final article. Nothing covers Twitter better than the robots.

It’s easy to see why Narrative Science’s clients—the company says it has 30—find it useful. First of all, it’s much cheaper than paying full-time journalists who tend to get sick and demand respect. As reported in the New York Times last September, one of Narrative Science’s clients in the construction industry pays less than $10 per 500-word article—and there is no one to fret about the terrible working conditions. And that article takes only a second to compose. Not even Christopher Hitchens could beat that deadline. Second, Narrative Science promises to be more comprehensive—and objective—than any human reporter. Few journalists have the time to find, process, and analyze millions of tweets, but Narrative Science can do so easily and, more importantly, instantaneously. It doesn’t just aim to report fancy statistics—it attempts to understand what those numbers mean and communicate this significance to the reader. Would Narrative Science have unmasked the Watergate? Probably not. But then most news stories are easier to report and decipher.

Narrative Science’s founders claim that they simply want to help—not exterminate!—journalism, and they may very well be sincere. Reporters are likely to hate their guts, but some publishers, ever concerned with paying the bills, would surely embrace them with open arms. In the long run, however, the civic impact of such technologies—which are only in their infancy today—may be more problematic.” (Thanks Browser.)


Read more Evgeny Morozov posts:


Thanks to the Browser for pointing me in the direction of Evgeny Morozov’s long New Republic consideration of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio. The article, largely critical of Isaacson’s work, also devotes space to how much Jobs was influenced by Bauhaus and Braun designs. An excerpt:

“I DO NOT MEAN to be pedantic. The question of essence and form, of purity and design, may seem abstract and obscure, but it lies at the heart of the Apple ethos. Apple’s metaphysics, as it might be called, did not originate in religion, but rather in architecture and design. It’s these two disciplines that supplied Jobs with his intellectual ambition. John Sculley, Apple’s former CEO, who ousted Jobs from his own company in the mid-1980s, maintained that ‘everything at Apple can be best understood through the lens of designing.’ You cannot grasp how Apple thinks about the world—and about its own role in the world—without engaging with its design philosophy.

Isaacson gets closer to the heart of the matter when he discusses Jobs’s interest in the Bauhaus, as well as his and Ive’s obsession with Braun, but he does not push this line of inquiry far enough. Nor does he ask an obvious philosophical question: since essences do not drop from the sky, where do they come from? How can a non-existent product—say, the iPad—have an essence that can be discovered and then implemented in form? Is the iPad’s essence something that was dreamed up by Jobs and Ive, or does it exist independently of them in some kind of empyrean that they—by training or by visionary intuition—uniquely inhabit?

The idea that the form of a product should correspond to its essence does not simply mean that products should be designed with their intended use in mind. That a knife needs to be sharp so as to cut things is a non-controversial point accepted by most designers. The notion of essence as invoked by Jobs and Ive is more interesting and significant—more intellectually ambitious—because it is linked to the ideal of purity. No matter how trivial the object, there is nothing trivial about the pursuit of perfection. On closer analysis, the testimonies of both Jobs and Ive suggest that they did see essences existing independently of the designer—a position that is hard for a modern secular mind to accept, because it is, if not religious, then, as I say, startlingly Platonic.

This is where Apple’s intellectual patrimony—which spans the Bauhaus, its postwar successor in the Ulm School of Design, and Braun (Ulm’s closest collaborator in the corporate world)—comes into play. Those modernist institutions proclaimed and practiced an aesthetic of minimalism, and tried to strip their products of superfluous content and ornament (though not without internal disagreements over how to define the superfluous). All of them sought to marry technology to the arts. Jobs’s rhetorical attempt to present Apple as a company that bridges the worlds of technology and liberal arts was a Californian reiteration of the Bauhaus’s call to unite technology and the arts. As Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, declared, ‘Art and technology—a new unity.'”

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"They viewed humans as essentially good, influenced by rational deliberation, and tending towards co-operation."

From Evgeny Morozov’s concise history of the Internet at Prospect: 

“But studying the history of the internet is impossible without studying the ideas, biases, and desires of its early cheerleaders, a group distinct from the engineers. This included Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow, and the crowd that coalesced around Wired magazine after its launch in 1993. They were male, California-based, and had fond memories of the tumultuous hedonism of the 1960s.

These men emphasised the importance of community and shared experiences; they viewed humans as essentially good, influenced by rational deliberation, and tending towards co-operation. Anti-Hobbesian at heart, they viewed the state and its institutions as an obstacle to be overcome—and what better way to transcend them than via cyberspace? Their values had profound effects on the mechanics of the internet, not all of them positive. The proliferation of spam and cybercrime is, in part, the consequence of their failure to predict what might happen as a result of the internet’s open infrastructure. The first spam message dates back to 1978; now, 85 per cent of all email traffic in the world is spam.

Perhaps the cheerleaders’ greatest achievement was in wresting dominance of the internet from the founding engineers, whose mentality was that of the Cold War. These researchers greatly depended on the largesse of the US department of defence and its nervous anticipation of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The idea of the ‘virtual community’—the antithesis of Cold War paranoia—was popularised by the writer and thinker Howard Rheingold. The term arose from his experiences with Well.com, an early precursor to Facebook.”


Evgeny Morozov argues that the Internet strenghtens dictatorial regimes, in his contrarian TED Talk: