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Q & A with Evgeny Morozov and Dan Davies

A little while ago, director Dan Davies of Banyak Films in London materialized in The Baffler’s editorial HQ in Harvard Square with contributing editor Evgeny Morozov in tow, steered him to our admittedly tacky blue sectional couch, and, before a midday audience munching on muffins and artificially sweetened apple juice, switched on his cameras for an episode of “Rebel Geeks,” a technology documentary he was preparing for Al Jazeera TV.

That episode, “Give Us Back Our Data,” debuts today, and you should watch it.

The dazzling colloquy Evgeny delivered to The Baffler staff and friends, however, did not make the final cut. Hey, it’s not the first time such a thing has happened to us! No hard feelings, Dan! Over the weekend, we caught up separately with Dan and Evgeny to reflect on the themes of the documentary and to fight our way back into the picture.

The resulting conversation, below, touches on Evgeny’s enemies in Silicon Valley, the contours of acceptable debate in the United States, and the missing tradition of tech criticism, as measured against global social movements. Listen closely and you’ll hear the conversation’s heart beat fast when the talk turns to the integrity of “strong feelings.” Human persons and their emotional intuitions may yet prevail over knowledge-based “solutions” from Silicon Valley’s cheerless robots.

John Summers: Can you tell us about the origins of the series title, Rebel Geeks

Dan Davies: It all started with Rebel Architecture, which ran on Al Jazeera last year. That came from the dissonance of the mainstream discussion about architecture and the reality of life for most people. The architectural discussion is all about how wacky a folded metal building can look, how high it can be, or in the UK, how amazingly expensive they can make it. (One Hyde Park was being built at the time.) This at a time when you had multiple refugee crises in the world, natural disasters like those in Haiti and New Orleans, homelessness in the United States and Europe caused by the financial crash—all of which architecture, done well, could directly help. So we wondered if there was a countermovement, and when we found it, that became rebel architecture.

It disturbed me that the discussion around IT was so credulous, in almost every arena.

As we were making that series, the Snowden revelations came out, and I realized that a similar process was happening within the “Internet revolution.” As tech companies became the most valuable in the world, it seemed that the geeks had inherited the earth. But which geeks? And what were they planning to do with their power?

I’m old enough to remember the beginning of the personal computer, and when you think back to how early Apple computers used to be advertised in eco magazines (was it Whole Earth?), there was a very different narrative about the technology and how it could be politically liberating. People like Richard Stallman were more mainstream then, and it seemed that could be the future.

And yet what we had now was a market-driven narrative around convenience and faux “innovation.” Forgive me for being picky, but for those who spent their teenage years listening to a Sony Walkman, the iPod wasn’t much of an innovation. Certainly not a qualitative one. Yes, I can have my whole record collection on it . . . but how long do you think my journey to work is? You want to call it innovation, beam me to Hawaii or something.

It also disturbed me that the discussion around IT was so credulous, in almost every arena. For example, to those old enough to have struggled to program in BASIC on a BBC computer, it is apparent that every “freedom” we get from using a computer (email, listening to music, posting on Facebook) comes with the equal and opposite possibility of surveillance of that task, and by extension us. How come this and so many other issues around technology were so easily dismissed?

So we wanted to look at the techies and geeks using their digital powers to challenge existing power structures, further the cause of freedom, and look toward a technological future that differed from the one on offer.

JS: You said one of your purposes was to humanize Evgeny. Did you succeed? 

DD: We didn’t have time to put in much about him personally because his ideas are so strong and I wanted to concentrate on them. I think that through his analysis he comes across as a highly original thinker who is passionate about making technology work for all people, not just the elite. And what could be more humane than that?

JS: You mentioned while filming in the Baffler office in Cambridge that Evgeny’s work fell on the outer edges of acceptable political debate and would be a challenge to represent in the series. I thought of this when I watched “Give Us Back Our Data,” as the examples given of his problematique—self-tracking of personal health, eliminating identity fraud, misclassifying Uber drivers, the “leverage value” of data harvesting—appear to make him out to be a consumer advocate with a cranky dystopian streak, rather than a radical political intellectual informing and learning from global social movements. There’s scant mention of the U.S. government, capitalism, poverty, social class, race, or gender. The systematic thrust of his work seems blunted. To what extent did you feel you had to bowdlerize leftist political ideas to put across a slick TV narrative?

DD: So the film is all about how technology intersects with capitalism, poverty, class, and discrimination, but in making it, we had to grapple with the reality that what may be “scant” for some (Baffler and London Review of Books readers, for example) could well be more than enough for most people.

There was never a pressure to soften the political nature of Evgeny’s work. It’s the political angle that separates him from other technology critics, and it’s why we made the film. But we do have to work with the limitations of the medium and the audience. On an international network like Al Jazeera, you cannot make a fanboy film for those already in awe of someone’s work; you need to make something understandable to the average viewer.

The film script-writing adage says “show, don’t tell,” because the moving image conveys large amounts of information, or verbal analysis, badly. Unless you have enormous budgets, the pictures will get in the way. So having someone talk in artfully chosen locations for twenty-five minutes is, I think, a poor use of the medium. But if instead of lecturing the audience, you show them what you’re talking about, then not only do you widen the appeal, but you’ve got a shot at something which film does very well—emotional impact.

The issue to solve was that Evgeny’s work is really penetrating and original on the current and future implications of technology. But when many people find technology itself a difficult subject—the “oh god, I just don’t understand it” phenomenon—to ask them to consider the future implications of that tech is a huge leap.

That’s why we meet the runner, the doctor, the lawyer, and the Uber driver. Rather than put Evgeny in the position of having to explain the present direction of this tech, the audience sees it for themselves, and hears them in their own words. So when Evgeny gives us his analysis, we know what it’s based on and can, hopefully, engage directly with his ideas.

It was important to me that we take the broad spread of Evgeny’s analysis. We could have concentrated on one area, maybe, and gone further into it, but the danger was that people might think the issues are only in one area and say, “Oh, that’s OK, I don’t use that software,” whereas Evgeny’s analysis ranges across the whole spectrum of technology and society.

And that analysis remains pretty radical for a technology documentary. To take one example, Evgeny describes how the Silicon Valley model of service delivery has the potential to exert serious control over our lives in a way that is so subtle we barely notice it. Similarly, when he meets the CEO of data aggregator Datacoup, they go head to head in a debate about personal responsibility vs. the idea of the public, concepts central to capitalism and any challenge to it. This discussion takes place at a fairly high level of abstraction (for normal mortals) so the challenge was getting people not only to understand it, but to be emotionally impacted by it—and I hope we’ve pulled that off.

It might seem funny to be talking about emotional impact in what many will think is a fairly dry, analytical film, and I’m certainly not trying to pull any heartstrings. But I do think that even the most intellectual among us are more likely to act on things we have strong feelings about, and I think Evgeny’s ideas are important enough that people should act on them, whether they agree with him or not.

John Summers: Evgeny, we see you now and then blowing into Cambridge amid your global peregrinations. How do your travels influence your thinking? Do you ever return to the secret camp for wunderkind technophiles in the uplands of Belarus where you became you?

Evgeny Morozov: Well, I’ve been on the road, in one way or another, for almost ten years. I have periods of a few weeks when I get work done, but there are also times when I have two flights every day—and that goes on for two weeks sometimes. Alas, the first eight of those road years were spent traveling with my eyes closed, whereas now I’m a bit more attuned to where I am and what’s going on. I’m much more of a global citizen than before, when I was mostly the intellectual equivalent of the proverbial American tourist. I’ve also set myself the task to finally master a bunch of foreign languages that I’ve been studying, on and off, for a while, so I must say that travel has been a bliss—all the dead time I have waiting at customs or to board the plane, I’ve spent on studying foreign words!

I have also tried to liberate myself from the American debate on technology and politics, because I’ve seen how badly—and quickly!—it has corrupted my own ability to think critically. Up until very recently—and this might be the price I had to pay for becoming relatively famous on this beat at a relatively young age, partly thanks to the media—my horizon of imagination, my reference point if you will, was shaped, almost exclusively, by what passed for acceptable arguments in the places where I’d traditionally published, be that The New Republic or the New York Times. It’s taken me a lot of effort, over the last two years, to try to think in terms that are not already predefined by the contours of acceptable debate in the United States. Traveling has certainly enriched that process, but I’ve also tried to find other entry points into the long-running debates about technology, politics, sovereignty, neoliberalism, and so on that have been happening in Southern Europe, in Latin America, and elsewhere.

JS: Your most recent essay for The Baffler was a smackdown of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage that opened up into a broader reflection on the limitations of technology criticism. How and why has your own thinking evolved in the last few years? We toyed with subtitling the essay “In Which Evgeny Attacks Himself.” Are you, in fact, guilty of any of the trends in which you implicate Carr?

EM: The change in my thinking—and it has been a very significant change that I myself don’t fully understand yet—has had more to do with my personal life than anything else.

It’s taken me a lot of effort to try to think in terms that are not already predefined by the contours of acceptable debate in the United States.

For the last two years, I’ve been in a relationship with someone who is attuned to what’s happening in the world—including matters of technology and politics that are central to my work—in a very different manner than me. And that someone has a background in radical politics and has done work with political movements in regions that I barely knew (or that I thought I knew but, in fact, didn’t). My own previous knowledge of those matters has mostly come from either highly theoretical work—I spent far too much time in the library with hefty but mostly irrelevant tomes—or was informed by my work in the NGO sector and in the world of philanthropy. This created some barriers in terms of understanding what’s happening in the world, because the nonprofit sector has a certain ideological perspective on everything—namely, a very American and very liberal perspective. In other words, I knew very little of social movements and of radical activists who were not drinking the liberal Kool-Aid of global philanthropy. I think I’ve addressed that issue now, which might also explain my overall loss of a certain naïveté about politics—hence the more radical turn in my own thought.

JS: One of our better-placed moles once confided, sotto voce, that publishing your work has shrunken our pool of potential supporters in Silicon Valley. What do you think of your enemies there? Do you feel these are creative antagonisms?

EM: I am happy to hear that my work has made it impossible for you to raise money from those arrogant jerks; perhaps you can send me the check for the all the headaches I saved you? On a more serious note, I must confess that Silicon Valley bothers me less than it did before, especially now that I’ve tried to extend my analysis to the more radical political questions, at both the national and geopolitical levels. I’ve come to understand that Silicon Valley is probably the effect, rather than the cause, of the neoliberal capitalism that we are living under today. Of course, it’s still important to keep a close eye on what those companies are doing, how they justify their actions, where their money comes from, and so on—but I no longer seek to have a reasonable argument with the Silicon Valley crowd, in part because I don’t think that such convincing can have any effect. They are not interested in it. I don’t think that they do what they do out of some deep confusion, and that we need to educate the techies about the human condition. The only people who think that way today are the naive technology critics who think they can convince guys like Eric Schmidt to read Heidegger and then incorporate what they find there (if anything) into building the next Uber or whatever. I think that perspective is a waste of time. It doesn’t mean, by the way, losing the focus on technology—it just means broadening the war zone to include Wall Street, Washington, the European Commission, and so on.

JS: To what extent does the expansion of Silicon Valley into life-services remind you of the phenomenon of the “culture industry,” which achieved some kind of monopoly in the twentieth century, and was elucidated and anathematized by the likes of Theodor Adorno and his crew? With apologies for the jargon: will the political economy of Silicon Valley be reflected across every aspect of our cultural psyche?

EM: Well, here much depends on my previous answer—namely, whether one is prepared to see Silicon Valley as an effect (a complicated one) of the underlying political and economic system that we live under. I do firmly believe that this is the case—that Silicon Valley is, in fact, the logical culmination of the fetishization of knowledge and information that goes back to the Austrian School of neoliberalism, with somebody like Hayek, its famous representative, being the first one to emphasize and publicize the role of tacit knowledge (and the role that the price mechanism plays in aggregating it) in making capitalism more efficient. In a sense, while it’s true that various contemporary attitudes toward things like self-tracking or using one’s reputation as currency are clearly amplified by the presence of apps and startups that encourage us to take up such practices, I don’t think we should blame tech companies for creating those practices from scratch—the situation is not that simple. Yes, Uber drivers have ratings—but so do people applying for loans, and this has been the case for a while.

We should not fall into that favorite intellectual trap set up by Silicon Valley, and think that everything that the Internet has given us is brand-new. The “culture industry” presentation of Silicon Valley seems to me to dovetail quite nicely with the overall story of exceptionalism that these guys like to tell about themselves. My interest, now, is also in what role such storytelling plays in the maintenance of their cultural hegemony. That long essay I wrote for The Baffler about Tim O’Reilly was an attempt to get at some of those issues around the storytelling industrial complex that has now emerged in Silicon Valley, with publishing houses, conferences, platforms like Medium, etc. all competing to coin memes that give the impression of a “vibrant” and competitive marketplace for ideas, which, at the end of the day, still defaults to just one overarching grand narrative: that of the Internet itself.

This story works by positing that it’s only a metanarrative about technology that’s alive today—in this sense, it functions similarly to the metanarrative of the End of History, the foundation of the liberal consensus in America and much of Europe today. And this Internet narrative challenges any alternative conceptualizations of historical change—remember all those stories and debates we had about the transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism? Who is having that debate now? Instead, we have this meta-story of something called “the Internet” coming around and disrupting everything, and then its smaller, bullshit-oriented mini-narratives—Big Data, the sharing economy, smart cities, the Internet of Things—which are meant to fill in the intellectual and conceptual void created by the Internet narrative itself. So we have this big story about the Internet being the harbinger of innovation and disruption on the one hand and, on the other hand, we have these rapidly proliferating mini-narratives. What I don’t want to do is to further contribute to this circus by advancing a story that will further solidify the exceptionalism of Silicon Valley. The main intellectual challenge for me today is to fit this fake exceptionalism into a different narrative that will have much deeper political, geopolitical, and economic dimensions.

JS: So what, beyond hypocrisy, can explain why some of the leading cyber-libertarians there are in cahoots with the most repressive and political aspects of the government on surveillance products like facial recognition and data mining?

EM: Well, the libertarianism of Silicon Valley was never analytically rigorous. There is clearly a celebration of individual entrepreneurship and of the individual, Steve Jobs–like inventor—the architect/engineer type that was so close to Ayn Rand’s heart. The embrace of libertarian ideas by this crowd does not necessarily entail any sophisticated ideas about coercion through redistribution and so forth; they just don’t want governments preventing creative genius types from building stuff in their basements and then becoming billionaire philanthropists. So it’s quite easy to see why so many of these individual geniuses could find themselves in bed with the Department or Defense or the NSA. First of all, it’s still extremely profitable—and what better way to secure years of undisturbed creative work in your garage? The government is nice enough to leave you alone to pursue your genius: great, they’ll take the money, whatever the cause. There are, of course, libertarians in other sectors, not just defense—look at the CEO of Uber. But even there, pragmatism rules: it’s not like Uber wants to stay away from governments. Quite the opposite, it wants to capture them. Because ultimately these guys know that if they don’t capture the governments, somebody else will capture them—and that somebody will probably be their competitors in the taxi industry. So whatever the CEO of Uber might say about Ayn Rand, it’s quite clear that the company itself is interested only in producing—not destroying!—government regulation that works in its favor. I don’t find this very remarkable; CEOs are not academic philosophers, concerned with contradictions.

JS: What do you think of “Give Us Back Our Data”?

EM: It’s a well-done, accessible survey of some of the work that I have done. It serves as a nice, snack-size intro to one of my central arguments—that data today is one of the layers through which power is exercised. That power can be exercised by the insurance industry, it can be exercised by police forces collecting data about protesters in the streets of Baltimore, and it can be exercised by Uber over its drivers. Granted, the mere fact that data is now a contentious issue, and that it’s turning into something around which political questions could and should be asked, does not really tell much about the way forward. And I do have quite a few things to say about how to resolve this question of data—or the free flow of data, as neoliberals like to put it—but the film was just too short for us to be able to cram all of that in. So the film highlights the descriptive side of my work, saying very little about the prescriptive part. I will probably need to make another, much longer film to explain the origins, the future, and the potential ways to combat this problem. But that would hardly reach the wide audience we’ll get with Al Jazeera. So it is a tradeoff we had to make.