Overweening Generalist

Friday, September 27, 2013

Evgeny Morozov, Thomas Pynchon, and the dot.com Bubble

I had been reading tons of stuff over the past few days on three fascinating cybermedia critics: Sherry Turkle, Jaron Lanier, and Douglas Rushkoff. In, say, 1996, all three were fairly gung-ho about the vast liberating potentialities of the digital era; now all three have quite grave doubts about how things have turned, by 2013. All three are stellar thinkers (I think one of them is just a staggering genius who should be far better known). They all came at cyberculture from different directions. But I got sidetracked, so maybe next month.

The Internet as "we" know it is only about 22 years old. By 1995, only 15 million people were on the Net. I find it jaw-dropping how It has changed everything in such a short span of time. In studying Turkle, Rushkoff and Lanier and how their views have changed, I spun off serendipitously into all sorts of other areas. Among other things, I found I didn't understand the "dot-com" bubble bursting all that well, so I started poking around  for assumptions about commerce and the Net, 1995-99.

                                          Kevin Kelly, one of the uber-cyberutopians

Concomitantly, I've been reading Pynchon's new novel Bleeding Edge - 'cuz it's freakin' Pynchon! - and it turns out to have a lot to say about the bubble. I'm calling it a coincidance, Robert Anton Wilson's word for something between "coincidence" and "synchronicity," that was actuated by his reading of James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. One of RAW's books is titled Coincidance, and reading it will elucidate what he meant by "coincidance" far better than I did here...

Anyway, I found over the past six-seven years that I'd developed an immunity to the approximately 3700 books (and counting) that hype how great this new digital age will be. I've seen plenty of upside; most of us will by now acknowledge there's quite a downside to it, too. The stakes seem not inconsiderable, to put it mildly and doubly negative.

I think I saw downsides before most of my friends and colleagues, but that may be due to the sociology of knowledge: many of them had jobs that were "wired" to the gills; meanwhile, I've struggled. My position as a reader-writer-thinker type has been on the edge of poverty; you simply get different perspectives from that vantage point. And yet, in keeping with the sociology of knowledge as I understand it (largely through Berger, Luckmann, Mannheim, Vico, Werner Stark, early Marx and McLuhan), my perspective is but one, yet possibly incorporates a wider view of the scene: I have no ideological commitments in the sense that I have not had to answer to authorities or bosses or peers in business, academia, or a funded private sector. If I had had a job in any of those places I believe I'd be like anyone else: being in those situations necessarily influences (an unkind word would be "warps") one's perspective on things. A steady, livable income is obviously desirable, but I have not had that. Mutatis mutandis: those in steady, honorable positions know things that I don't. (Obviously!)

So I found myself gravitating toward critics of cyber-utopianism (I miscounted: there are 3956 books that do nothing but encourage us to think It's All Gonna Be Just Great), and found a hero in a young Belarus-born academic named Evgeny Morozov. Perhaps you've read him: he's published two books, and had articles in Foreign Policy, NYT, WSJ, TLS, Economist, Slate, New Scientist, New Prospect, Boston Review, SF Chronicle...and many more. If the info on his Wiki page is right he's not yet 30. He was educated in Bulgaria, moved to Berlin, been at Stanford and Georgetown, and now he's working on a PhD in the History of Science at Harvard.


What an odd egg Morozov is. He already seems to have an encyclopedic grasp of technology and media and how they affect the social sphere. He's perhaps the foremost critic of cyberutopian rhetoric, and for an Eastern European not yet 30, his rapier wit in English at times shines with a Gore Vidal-like gleam. At other times he reveals his age, but I must caution those conditioned to the rosy future of all things digital: Morozov as prolific gadfly may ridicule once too much, albeit, but his voice seems a necessary corrective as we move further into the Snowden Era. Color Morozov non-sanguine. His position as a species of Nay-Sayer seems absolutely legitimate, and his knowledge and rhetoric strikes me as stellar.

Okay, I'm not the biggest fan of hatchet jobs in book-criticism, and have long thought the only people who deserve to be savaged are the powerful, the wealthy, the pompous. If you're paying I'd be happy to savagely review Dick Cheney's latest book about how right he's been his whole life, or anything Donald Trump writes. But Evgeny reminded me that some of the cyberutopians in the second decade of the 21st century are ripe for the hatchet, and just check out this job Evgeny pulled off in The New Republic. He's bilious, abrasive, sarcastic, very smart, and funny. An enfant terrible. 
(I've looked at Khanna's stuff and think he deserves everything that Evgeny dishes.)

His two books are The Net Delusion  and To Save Everything, Click Here. But the subtitles are the calling cards for Morozov, he who is fed up with the rhetoric of cyberutopianism: "The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," and "The Folly of Technological Solutionism."

Morozov's history of the Net is one of the better ones I've seen (see The Net Delusion), and he goes way back to Pentagon-funded engineers like Vint Cerf, Norbert Weiner, Vannevar Bush, and David D. Clark. Where he gets really interesting is when he begins to discuss Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow, Howard Rheingold (and yes, Jaron Lanier) and their crowd. There are at least 93 books that go over their story and I'm betting you know these guys well. Morozov seems to admire them, and I definitely do, too.

The problem is: these guys were anarchist-libertarian former hippies with deep roots in the hedonistic 1960s, and they developed a revolutionary rhetoric about how the Internet could change the world and make it a far, far, far better place. With the Net, we could be rid of the Intermediary: free exchange of ideas, different ways of trading, and politics would all transform our social reality. They were preaching a "flat" world at least 10 years before that colossal fraud Thomas Friedman was. But these guys were the real deal, and they seemed to believe their own rhetoric. But all that's not the problem. The problem was: the believed they could deal with The Suits/Wall St/Control, and we now see how that turned out. (I'm consumed by the "Information wants to be free" ideology they came up with. I believed it 98% in 1999. Now? Uhhh...maybe a forthcoming blogspew?)

But back to 1995-99. Who was it that once said that history was the temporary resultant of rival gangs of programmers?

Morozov thinks the lasting achievement of the the early cyberutopians was that they wrested the Net from the Cold War-mentality short-haired engineers. The cyberutopians in turn believed they were smarter and could handle the Big Biz people who would want to use the Net to make money. At some point, the cyberutopians realized they'd need some cash to make their ideas go over big, so they found themselves having dinner with Suits, and seemed to genuinely believe they could do their thing by using private capital without getting, to borrow a term from the guy who invented html, Ted Nelson: "intertwingled."

Here's what I'm still trying to puzzle out: why did Venture Capitalists invest at all in these start-ups that seemed like really neat-o ideas but couldn't seem to deliver real services? This is fascinating to me. I can't help but think the cyberutopians' rhetoric hypnotized them into abandoning all traditional methods of assessing risk and likelihoods of true financial performance. It seems that Bill Gates (who was once "hippie" enough to have possibly joined Stewart Brand, but didn't) and other believers in NeoLiberal economics being done with the Net PLUS the cyberutopians' dazzling pitches clouded the Venture Capitalists' minds. And: at Pets dot.com, probably the most-cited example of the ensuing insanity: at one point - around late 1999 - they were spending $12million on advertising, with only $620,000 in revenue. The bubble exploded soon after. O! The humanity!

I thought of writing about Rushkoff/Turkle/Lanier but ended up typing far too much around Evgeny Morozov. I barely touched on the Bubble stuff, probably because I'm still trying to understand it, with 13 year's hindsight. But I'd like to end with Pynchon talking about this stuff in Bleeding Edge:

It's Spring of 2001 and the heroine of the book, Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator in Manhattan, is doing some detective work:

Silicon Alley  in the nineties provided more than enough work for fraud investigators. The money in play, especially after about 1995, was staggering, and you couldn't expect elements of the fraudster community to not to go after some of it, especially  HR executives, for whom the invention of the computerized payroll was often confused with a license to steal. If this generation of con artists came up short now and then in IT skills, they made up for it in the area of engineering, and many entreprenerds, being trusting souls, got taken. But sometimes distinctions between hustling and being hustled broke down. It didn't escape Maxine's notice that, given stock valuations on some start-ups of interest chiefly to the insane, there might not much difference. How is a business plan that depends on faith in 'network effects' kicking in someday different from the celestial pastry exercise known as a Ponzi scheme? Venture capitalists feared industrywide for their rapacity were observed to surface from pitch sessions with open wallets and leaking eyeballs, having been subjected to nerd-produced videos with subliminal messages and sound tracks featuring oldie mixes that pushed more buttons than a speed freak with a Nintendo 64. Who was less innocent here?

If The Reader has a recommendation for a particularly great book on the Bubble, or books or articles of dissentual data around Morozov, feel free to drop the title or link in the comments. Aun aprendo. Danke!


Rikard Linde said...

This is not about the bubble but I suggest you read Steven Johnson's Future Perfect and then the short debate between Morozov and Johnson. I have a very hard time taking Morozov seriously after reading Johnson's book and then Morozov's critique, it's just not objective.

Why Social Movements Should Ignore Social Media

Tilting At Windmills, The Internet Edition

Up for Debate: Can Social Media Solve Real-World Problems?

What Peer Progressives Really Believe

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. Due to Spider Robinson's recommendation, I subscribed to CoEvolution Quarterly (which became The Whole Earth Review) for about a decade starting around 1981. That introduced me to Stewart Brand and that whole cast of characters. I've reached page 220 in Bleeding Edge.

Getting back to watching musicians, I remember seeing Kiss at the State Fair in Arizona in the early 90's before the original quartet reunited. It embarrassed me how much I enjoyed it.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Here is a different point of view on Morozov:


I think it's telling Morozov uses the New Republic review to beat up on an easy target; I notice he didn't attack someone with the capacity to hit back hard.

michael said...

Rikard Linde-

I had followed the Morozov-Steven Johnson stuff, but thanks for linking to those anyway: I re-read them and enjoyed the back-forth even more than I did before.

Steven Johnson is one of those who have clobbered Morozov and I've long admired Johnson's work. He's older, more well-rounded, etc. Johnson has all kidsn of interesting ideas. He's not exactly cyberutopian or, as Morozov wants to paint him: cyber-centrist. Johnson's ideas about "peer progressive" politics and all sorts of media - historically - seem vastly more nuanced than the reading that Morozov gave him.

Here's my point about Morozov: in something like the role that Mencken played: he engenders debate. Sometimes he's not up to it. But he's not boring. And like I said, Johnson sorta clobbers him here. I also think Farhad Manjoo "won" in his debate with Morozov at Slate earlier this year.

What I want is more lively discussion of these topics, and if Morozov at times bites off more than he can chew, we still get exposed to these ideas in a dialectical fashion, and not just

"I read this book and he says X, Q, Z, and Y...have you read it?"

"Not yet. Maybe I'll get around to it."

We need much more active engagement about all of these ideas, and Morozov, coming from devastating Eastern European background, with an eye on all repressive world governments and how they can use the Net to further oppress dissent perhaps...overdoes it a bit? (Understatement: his answer to Johnson in TNR was brutal. If it were a boxing match the referee would have given Johnson a TKO in the first round. That was one instance where Morozov showed his age.)

When I pick up books these days on the digital age and its wonderments, I quickly flip to the index for "wages" "work" "jobs" "automation" "income" "inequality" and a few other terms. All too often they aren't even mentioned, or there are a few lines about somehow it all being worked out. This is what I'm sick of. Steven Johnson - now living in Marin, CA, last I looked - is someone I'd love to see address the
these very real and pressing issues.

I really appreciate your comments and links here, Rikard. Thanks!

michael said...


I had a few ishs of CoEv Q and read as much of Whole Earth Review as I could find. I loved the compendia of it.

Maybe I'm pissed in some way I hadn't come to grips with: slowly, as I watched Google act "evil" and FB rise (Zuckerberg has always creeped me out), then listened to Rushkoff and others explain how they're data mining and selling your info...by around 2007, etc, etc, etc: I'm pissed because the utopian vision I had bought in 1995 has gone so far south.

re: Kiss: like what you like; enjoy what you enjoy...and don't take crap from anybody. Someone said that before me...

michael said...

Tom- I THOUGHT that when Morozov was laying into Lessig, that I had read Lessig saying the very thing...wow. That's lousy. I don't own that Lessig book, but checked it out when it came out. I love Lessig. He and Wu are on some whole other level.

I agree with Wu that Morozov is a terrific prose stylist and entertaining. He's also smart. I like the bomb-throwing - I didn't take the Nazi stuff seriously.

But he does go too far at times. I'm okay with that. But stealing ideas and even lines from a writer and they attacking them is out of bounds.

The thing about Morozov is that he's so fucking angry - which is cool - but he needs an older, more sober mentor-editor so that he doesn't get more out of bounds as he reaches the age of 30.

He's bothered me with arguments, little riffs that insult my intelligence, but I confess his punky bomb-throwing attitude towards the sort of Net Chamber of Commerce writers enticed me. And I think Morozov has seen a lot of authoritarianism in his life and he overshoots a bit, possibly to make a name for himself.

Two days ago I read an article where he lauds Wikipedia for being what the cyberutopians wanted, then a month later in another article he's ripping the business community for hiring Jimmy Wales because he's an open Rand Objectivist. He even accused Craig Newmark of being a Randian (which makes CL suspect?), although a quick Google and you find that Craig read Rand and liked her at one point but now considers himself a "libertarian pragmatist." One wonders if Morozov would dis RAW for once being an Objectivist, and writing something optimistic about the promise of the Internet...in 1995?

Morozov sees "totalizers" everywhere and yet he's something of one himself: if he could reign that anger in and find that he actually has more friends than he ever thought out there, coupled with his style, he'd be really cool.

Who's a more responsible yet sneering, nay-saying bomb-thrower?

Wu asks what does Morozov want? It's a fair Q and I have something coming up about it, and it ties in with UBI ideas.

Thanks for the link to Wu's review; I had missed that one.

michael said...

ADDENDA: as of a month or so ago, Evgeny appears to be sobering/growing up a bit. From a piece in the NYT:

>“I have more influence than I ought to have,” he said in the train to New York City from Boston, adding that he had a nagging feeling that his criticisms were too shallow. “The idea of the Internet allowed me to cut too many corners, intellectually.”<


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I don't think Eric should apologize for liking Kiss. Is he supposed to trust what other people say, as opposed to what his own ears tell him?

This reminds me of a friend of mine who listened to very "cool" music telling me he'd gone to see AC/DC in concert and discovered that he had a great time.

I listened to a lot of jazz and classical in college, but remember getting abuse for my Paul McCartney and Ted Nugent albums.

Anonymous said...

Musical tastes vary, but I've seen
a lot of good music come from most
genres. It's an easy troll though.
If you diss some icon the rabid
fangroupies are outraged.

In most cases the outrage is false
because it is just frustration over
your unkindness to their egotic

The interNet is a mirror of the
world, you can see anything in it
you wish to see and a lot you do
not want to see.

Once it passed out of the hands
of the tech elites it mutated into
what exists now. The danger lies
in its extension by the clueless
into everything.

That hands far too much control
to the clueful and neophilic.
On the other hand it is fun to watch the espionage boys busy at
buying typewriters for their record

Morozov is fun to read, whether it
makes him profound will only be
apparent 200 years from now.

It's hard to take people who can't
spell googol seriously no matter
how many millions they pile in the
bank. The ridiculous Z of FB is
just another dumbass who found a
cashcow in the gullible masses.

If the gov shuts down at least the
52Billion for NSA will stay in
the restart fund instead of being
wasted by criminal loons who are
sure they are "the good guys".

The sad truth about humans is they
all can rationalize themselves as
the good guys after the most banal
evils imaginable.

Anyway, keep up the interesting
material, always a pleasure to
nose into your treasure.

michael said...


My main model about people and "their" music/tastes: it's semantic territory; they've had intense emotional interactions/transactions with "their" music. On some mammalian level, it has become part of their territory.

And because of cultural perceptions and nominalist reasons (marketing names of "genres" which are then reified), anything NOT part of "my" territory generalizes to "not part of me and my cohorts who love this music." Which - still with the mammalian-territory stuff - further generalizes to "if you don't like my music or you like some other music that I don't like, you are a suspect." Something like that?

As with most of our thinking, it goes on unconsciously.

That's one of the main reasons I find the new neuro/behavioral economics so interesting (ground zero for me: Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow), aside from its potentially world-remaking ability to reveal the astounding shortcomings of "rationalism" in economics and "free markets": we now have new ways to tease out our biases more effectively.

Along these same lines, Wilson's writing about the 8CB model was an earlier way to note and root out biases. The 2nd circ riffs about emotional/territorial games; the 5th circ about hedonistic/pan-bodily pleasure and being "ok" with what turns others on...

But I must say, I really LIKE your line: "Your unkindness to their egotic innerview."

I don't think Morozov will be read in 30 yrs, if we're still around. Researchers into historical minutae might read him (as he stands now). I think he's very much "of the time" and overdoes himself because he's generalizing from 3rd-world and non-US uses of social media by fascists TO the state of things in Unistat, now. (And to his detractors: he had predicted this NSA stuff, and has some warnings about if, say, Ted Cruz or some other fascist comes to power. Hell: anyone even worse than Obama!) I'm fucking PISSED about the state of things and I like smart writers who are PISSED too...even if Evgeny has committed some egregious "scholarly" and "etiquette" errors. In his 29 yrs I don't think he "gets" how seriously the academic community takes fair play here in Unistat. He's gotten away with it so far because of his Menckenesque style.

Bobby Campbell said...

OG continues to delight and surprise!

I find the Cyber-Utopia Vs. Cyber-Oblivion game totally valid and well worth playing. (Rushkoff is my fav player of course, a virtuoso who can play both sides equally well, as the Present Shock audio book plays in my background…)

Though I also think that it would be fun to see a value neutral evaluation of the changes emerging from the advance of internet technology.

Evaluating the medium as message there is SOMETHING that the internet is doing to the total synergetic organism just as much when it is providing information about the world to us (Example of "GOOD" function) as it is when it is providing information about us to the world. (Example of "BAD" function)

Whatever that SOMETHING does is where the real story is I think.

but rather: "THE INTERNET IS CHANGING HOW WE ______"


(I think what that SOMETHING does is create interconnection, which could result in any number of outcomes, and most likely a double edged sword, as per usual!)

michael said...

Bobby -

I see Rushkoff as one of the best at pointing out the upsides and downsides. It's why one recent study ranked him in the Top 10 in world thinkers.

Rushkoff's writings about money and the present clusterfuck we're in now...seems a mixed bag to me. I WANT him to be right, but much of it feels far too optimistic: making and sharing "value" peer-to-peer is beautiful, but how do we pay our RENT?

Jaron Lanier's version of about-face and problems with Info Wanting To Be Free is something I find to be more hardcore and dramatic, but it may end up as unworkable as anything else out there right now.

RE: "THE INTERNET IS CHANGING HOW WE_____": aye! There's the rub! Because it seems to me that most of the more interesting changes involved unforeseeable consequences.

A few years ago some little group made a short, slick little film "Do You Have a Facebook?" It was all over YT and probably is still there. Anyway, after a number of dinner parties and conversations with friends who loved their FB (and some were admittedly addicted - we're talking people in their 40s, with graduate degrees, too), I'd bring up how FB was selling them to their friends. There was not outright denial, but a universal change of the subject. It was as if they couldn't "get" what I was saying. So I sent that video to about 40 people i knew who talked animately about FB to ask what they thought: is it alarmist? conspiracy theory stuff? maybe true but who cares? Negligible? Etc. I really wanted to read what my friends thought.

No one responded. And no one has brought it up with me, post-Snowden.

Bobby Campbell said...

I don't know if Rushkoff's monetary ideas very realistic, but I absolutely love that someone is saying something other than how fucked we all supposedly are.

And I'll say this about his ideas of creating peer-to-peer value... I knew Doug from a class he taught at the Maybe Logic Academy, met him in person a couple years later (at a comic con), 3 minutes after shaking his hand he's got me behind the scenes at DC comics, introducing me to people, recommending me for work, etc

Those kind of optimistic ideas aren't necessarily true, but it doesn't mean we can't make them true.

The "Do You Have a Facebook?" video seems like a valid interpretation of the situation to me, and really post-Snowden all of that applies to internet usage in general I would assume.

For me, the exchange of what I get from the system and what the system gets from me seems like a fair transaction, but I understand that this is not true for everyone. (Joseph Campbell might call this "Joyous participation in the sorrows of the world")

michael said...

Rushkoff seems more intelligent than me, so I'm cheered by his optimistic there's-a-way-out vision of peer-to-peer stuff. It's just that maybe I have what the humorist Robert Benchley called "mind's eye trouble." I have trouble seeing how it will all work. I'm happy to hear about anecdotes that indicate it will work.

I'm not sure how I can fit into all this. You're a tremendously talented artist. I am not. In the new parlance, you seem to be a "maker" while I am not.

Your ideas about exchange and transactions hint at value that has to do with non-money. That's all I've ever envisioned since I was about 14. It's a vision to be worked toward...if only some of knew how.

Bobby Campbell said...

I think that you severely underestimate your intelligence, talent, and the applicability of your skill sets, but that may just be a symptom of the greater good of being humble!

I've managed to condense my intuition about value down to a bumper sticker: FEEDBACK = CURRENCY

Which I just now noticed is very similar to RAW's: INFORMATION = SURPRISE

I don't subscribe to any particular outcome, I have no idea how any of this is going to work out, but I think maybe that's okay!

Anonymous said...

The trouble with thinking you know
how it will work out is you start
jerking on the reins to guide it in
that direction which is the best way
to have it go off on another direction you didn't want.

Like McKenna said "no one is in
charge". We're all just along for
the ride.

Assessing your own value is a bad
idea, that's what your friends are