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Evgeny Morozov curbs Web enthusiasm

Evgeny Morozov, in warning of 'iPod liberalism' at a TED conference and taking on tech giants in the New Republic and elsewhere, is a leading cyberskeptic.

June 21, 2012|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Evgeny Morozov is an outspoken critic of “iPod liberalism” who has written about the downsides of Google’s Street View, Steve Jobs’ Apple work and more.
Evgeny Morozov is an outspoken critic of “iPod liberalism”… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

When Iranians rose up and marched against their rulers, people around the world felt they were there. Facebook bristled with video from the streets of Tehran. Revolutionary-green avatars sprouted across the Web. Commentators heralded a coming "Twitter Revolution."

The euphoria was pervasive — until a radical skeptic punctured the conventional wisdom.

Evgeny Morozov, a virtually unknown writer and sometime technology advocate, launched his counteroffensive three years ago at the annual TED ideas conference.

What Morozov told the crowd at Oxford University amounted to heresy in some circles: Beware of "iPod liberalism … the assumption that every Iranian and Chinese person that happens to love their iPod will also love liberal democracy."

Don't forget that the Internet can be used not just to empower freedom fighters but to hunt them down through their online presence.

"The KGB used to torture in order to get this data. Now it's all available online," Morozov deadpanned.

He described how autocrats hired their own bloggers to drown out democrats. He shared studies about what young people really did online. They consumed "not reports from Human Rights Watch. It's going to be pornography,'Sex and the City' or maybe watching funny videos of cats."

Morozov left the stage with a thin smile to polite applause. But in the world of Internet intellectuals and writers, the conversation began to change.

"Evgeny was one of the few people making sense at that moment," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia professor of media studies. "There was this naive optimism about how Twitter was going to liberate Iran, and he presented this well-thought-out argument about what wishful thinking that was. It was so refreshing."

The pasty young man in the rumpled dress shirt was only getting started. With his 2011 book "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," he cemented his reputation as a fierce critical voice — exploding the notion that technology equals liberation. Since then, his slashing critiques have taken on pillars of the Web — Apple, Facebook and Google — as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others.

At 28 and wickedly sarcastic ("There are idiots. Look around," says his Twitter [@evgenymorozov] billboard), Morozov has emerged from the obscurity of his native Belarus as a leading voice of dissent against "cyber utopians" — the marketers, entrepreneurs and academics he sees as throwing over the lessons of history in a rush to promote the Internet as the solution to most of society's challenges.

He's the enfant terrible of a group that includes the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, Berkeley-based techno-humanist Jaron Lanier and former CNN correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon, author of "Consent of the Networked."

Most recently based at Stanford University, as a fellow in the Liberation Technology Program, he is putting aside his Kindle, iPhone and iPad to finish "Silicon Democracy: How the Geeks Are Stealing Your Freedoms," due in bookstores next spring. He says it will be "a full-frontal attack" on Web triumphalists and their reflexive "quest for efficiency, transparency, connectedness, quantification and perfection."

While others gush about unparalleled change, he finds historic antecedents for the Internet revolution. The current giddiness over cyber-life, he thinks, echoes the 17th century's fascination with the clock.

Critics depict him as more heckler than thinker and suggest he picks easy targets and overstates their naivete about the Web. Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who has written two bestselling books about the Internet's potential, agrees with Morozov on occasion but finds him a too-ready champion of a pessimistic old guard.

"Anyone who believes what his opponents believe is not to be trusted," Shirky said. "He does this with a distressingly broad brush."

*

On a recent jaunt around New York, Morozov headlined three events — a panel, a debate and an interview at a club on the Upper East Side. If he was impressed by the attention, it did not show.

"I've got a couple of books to finish tonight," he said, before rushing off from the late-night panel.

Morozov grew up in the industrial town of Soligorsk, in a country squeezed between Poland and Russia. Both his parents worked at the local potassium mine, but he proved a precocious student and found his way to the American University in Bulgaria.

He earned a bachelor's degree in business and economics and was on a path to an investment banking career until a professor got him thinking about geopolitics. He landed at Transitions Online in Prague, which promotes democracy in the former Soviet states. He hopped from Kyrgyzstan to Slovakia, evangelizing about the power of organizing online.

As recently as 2009, he was theorizing that the spread of the Kindle "could easily make censorship obsolete."

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