Sturm und Drang on the Internet
A fascinating spat has blown up in recent weeks over the role of the Internet in public life. It begins with Evgeny Morozov’s October review in The New Republic of Public Parts, a new book by Jeff Jarvis, a TV personality, blogger, professor, and all-purpose prophet of the benefits of the Internet.
Morozov is author of The Net Delusion, the widely reviewed and much-praised exposé of the role of information technology in tracking and suppressing grassroots movements around the world. Published just before the so-called Arab Spring, Morozov’s closely documented work provides a counterpoint to the blandishments of social media as universal engines of democratic empowerment.
Morozov’s review of Public Parts is long, detailed, and unremittingly hostile. He casts Jarvis as an archetypal “Internet intellectual”—a category of thinkers that “left unchallenged may succeed in convincing us that we do inhabit the digital wonderland of their imagination.” In their world, Morozov notes, the Internet affords a cornucopia-like flow of benefits for public life, including richer public debate, more efficient and responsive public and private institutions, and (of course) economic bounty. Morozov scores Jarvis’s paeans to “publicness” and his skepticism of privacy advocates. He takes Jarvis to task for shallowness, inconsistencies, and simplistic renditions of heavyweight thinkers from Arendt to Habermas. You begin to wonder: If the book is really this bad, why spend more than 6,000 words picking it apart?
Jarvis fires back point-by-point in similar detail and language no less extreme. Morozov’s review amounts to “character assassination,” he holds. Jarvis denies being categorically against privacy, but merely proclaims himself against “self-appointed watchdog groups, legislators, regulators, consultants, companies, and chief privacy officers ” Far from trading in pronouncements that are pompous, ahistorical, and vacuous as Morozov charges, Jarvis protests, “I despise closed worlds—whether in the academe or media or government. I distrust priesthoods who would exclude others from entering their fields ” And on and on, via print and electron, as others join the fray. With example piled against example and charge following counter-charge, you feel that this could go on forever—and given the articulate energies of the principals, you fear that it may.
What are we to make of all this? First, a reading of Public Parts confirms that the work is indeed target-rich. True, Jarvis’s book offers factoids that grab one’s attention—for example, his account of efforts in early-twentieth-century America to outlaw the activities of “fiendish kodakers,” i.e., reporters bent on photographing unwilling subjects with the cutting-edge information technology of the day. But overall, the attention span is short, and the analysis no more than retina-deep. The author’s self-advertisement is pervasive—perhaps in keeping with his proclaimed ethos of “publicness”—and his stance toward Internet magnates (above all Mark Zuckerberg) almost fawning. Most alarming is the “what, me worry?” attitude toward the social world emerging in concert with the Internet. “Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do,” Jarvis writes. “[M]odern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, alone and together. Publicness is a progression to greater freedom.” That will be news to the many who have taken beatings, literal and figurative, from misappropriation of their personal data by unfriendly parties ranging from identity thieves in consumer societies to the victims of political repression in Iran.
But even acknowledging the deficiencies of Jarvis’s book, one senses that Morozov’s relentless assault on its every detail is not the whole story of their disagreement. Like a couple who argue incessantly over every little thing, Morozov and Jarvis are actually warring about something deeper. At work here are deeply antipathetic mind-sets on the role of science and technology in human affairs that go back at least as far as the Enlightenment. At one end of the spectrum are thinkers who see in the elaboration of science—these days especially including information science—the hope of realizing all the best of human potentials. At the other are those who fear the mobilization of science and technology as central to real-life horrors ranging from mechanized death factories like Auschwitz; to unacknowledged, one-sided government and corporate surveillance over “private” life; to the devolution of public discourse into tweets and sound bites. Enlightenment visionaries like Saint Simon imagined that scientific thinking would ultimately transform matters of political conflict into scope for rationally guided administration. By the late twentieth century, science and technology were getting much more skeptical treatment—as in Herbert Marcuse’s portrayal of them as instruments of pervasive repression. Exponents of these contending visions have about as much chance of playing nicely with each other as dogs and cats.
There is no sense in debating whether science and technology are ultimately life-giving forces for a better world or ultimately dangerous and destructive. Both these possibilities (and many intermediate ones) obviously play themselves out in specific settings, at specific moments. It simply doesn’t help to cast discussion in terms that sound very much like “Information technology— Whoopie!” versus “Information technology—Booo!”
But some debates on very big, and closely related, questions do have to be waged. These are debates on how to fashion principles of law and policy to shape the social role of science and technology—in this case, to channel the evolution of the Internet and other information technologies in directions compatible with key public values. For the most pressing of practical reasons, the public must decide what uses of information, and particularly personal information, will be encouraged, permitted, or proscribed.
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