Reasons to hate Silicon Valley

by Toby Manhire / 20 November, 2013
The digital evangelists' bete noire, Evgeny Morozov, says "cyberspace" and "the digital debate" is a load of malicious nonsense.
It’s not just that Evgeny Morozov refuses to drink the Kool-Aid of the internet revolution. He bottles it, sets it alight and lobs it at the accursed digital evangelists.

The Belarussian academic’s latest broadside is aimed at the world capital of the internet, with the Morozov cocktail taking the form of a long essay for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung headlined “Why we are allowed to hate Silicon Valley”.

Unlike “Big Pharma” or “Big Food”, the “Big Data” beloved of the internet industry has become somehow untouchable.

While we understand that the interests of pharmaceutical, food and oil companies naturally diverge from our own, we rarely approach Silicon Valley with the requisite suspicion. Instead, we continue to treat data as if it were a special, magical commodity that could single-handedly defend itself against any evil genius who dares to exploit it.

There may be “bubbling discontent” about the breadth and power of Google and Facebook, but the valley “still holds a firm grip on the mechanics of the public debate”, and “as long as our critique remains tied to the plane of technology and information ... Silicon Valley will continue to be seean an exceptional and unique industry”.

To oppose the march of the internet giants “almost immediately brings accusations of technophobia and Luddism”, but it’s in truth, he argues, about a mode of capitalism.

Google declares that its mission is “to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful”, but Morozov suggests that, untangled, the “true meaning” of that statement can be read like this: “to monetise all of the world’s information and make it universally inaccessible and profitable”.

With this act of subversive interpretation, we might eventually hit upon the greatest emancipatory insight of all: Letting Google organize all of the world’s information makes as much sense as letting Halliburton organize all of the world’s oil.

Morozov identifies three reasons (there are more) why it’s OK to hate Silicon Valley.

One: It is delivering fake emancipation, while building “invisible barbed wire” around our lives, and converting everything in our lives “into a productive asset”.

Two: it refuses to entertain non-private models of running things.

Three: their way of running things, and mode of thinking, “has become a model that other institutions are beginning to emulate”. Real and structural problems, which require state solutions, are being lost in the cult of the app.

And he arrives at this characteristically uncompromising conclusion:

In the last two decades, our ability to make such connections between machines and “collective arrangements” has all but atrophied. This happened, I suspect, because we’ve presumed that these machines come from “cyberspace,” that they are of the “online” and “digital” world – in other words, that they were bestowed upon us by the gods of “the Internet.” And “the Internet,” as Silicon Valley keeps reminding us, is the future. So to oppose these machines was to oppose the future itself.

Well, this is all bunk: there’s no “cyberspace” and “the digital debate” is just a bunch of sophistries concocted by Silicon Valley that allow its executives to sleep well at night. (It pays well too!) Haven’t we had enough? Our first step should be to rob them of their banal but highly effective language. Our second step should be to rob them of their flawed history. Our third step should be to re-inject politics and economics into this debate. Let’s bury the “digital debate” for good – along with an oversupply of intellectual mediocrity it has produced in the meantime.


See also: Morozov on the death of the cyberflâneur and the rise of the sharing fetish

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