Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny
Morozov
1984

Belarus-born American, Fellow at the New America Foundation, Editor and Blogger for Foreign Policy Magazine, Writer and Researcher who studies Political and Social Implications of Technology

Author Quotes

Technologies that are "bad smart," by contrast, make certain choices and behaviors impossible. Smart gadgets in the latest generation of cars—breathalyzers that can check if we are sober, steering sensors that verify if we are drowsy, facial recognition technologies that confirm we are who we say we are—seek to limit, not to expand, what we can do. This may be an acceptable price to pay in situations where lives are at stake, such as driving, but we must resist any attempt to universalize this logic. The "smart bench"—an art project by designers JooYoun Paek and David Jimison that aims to illustrate the dangers of living in a city that is too smart—cleverly makes this point. Equipped with a timer and sensors, the bench starts tilting after a set time, creating an incline that eventually dumps its occupant. This might appeal to some American mayors, but it is the kind of smart technology that degrades the culture of urbanism—and our dignity.

Because our personal identities are now so firmly pegged to our profiles on social networks such as Facebook and Google GOOG +0.57% +, our every interaction with such objects can be made "social"—that is, visible to our friends. This visibility, in turn, allows designers to tap into peer pressure: Recycle and impress your friends, or don't recycle and risk incurring their wrath.

These two features are the essential ingredients of a new breed of so-called smart technologies, which are taking aim at their dumber alternatives. Some of these technologies are already catching on and seem relatively harmless, even if not particularly revolutionary: smart watches that pulsate when you get a new Facebook poke; smart scales that share your weight with your Twitter followers, helping you to stick to a diet; or smart pill bottles that ping you and your doctor to say how much of your prescribed medication remains.

But many smart technologies are heading in another, more disturbing direction. A number of thinkers in Silicon Valley see these technologies as a way not just to give consumers new products that they want but to push them to behave better. Sometimes this will be a nudge; sometimes it will be a shove. But the central idea is clear: social engineering disguised as product engineering.

Is Smart Making Us Dumb?
A revolution in technology is allowing previously inanimate objects—from cars to trash cans to teapots—to talk back to us and even guide our behavior. But how much control are we willing to give up?

The first prerequisite to getting Internet freedom policy right is to convincing its greatest advocates that the Internet is more important and disruptive than they have previously theorized.

All the recent chatter about how the Internet is breaking down institutions, barriers and intermediaries can make us oblivious to the fact that strong and well-functioning institutions, especially governments, are essential to the preservation of freedom.

Getting people onto the streets, which may indeed become easier with modern communication tools, is usually the last state of a protest movement, in both democracies and autocracies.

It's political and economic factors, rather than the ease of forming associations, that primarily set the tone and vector in which social networks contribute to democratization; one would be naive to believe that such factors would always favor democracy.

Since technology, like gas, will fill any conceptual space provided, Leo Marx, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes it as a “hazardous concept” that may “stifle and obfuscate analytic thinking”. He notes, “Because of its peculiar susceptibility to reification, to being endowed with the magical power of an autonomous entity, technology is a major contributant to that gathering sense… of political impotence. The popularity of the belief that technology is the primary force shaping the postmodern world is a measure of our.. neglect of moral and political standards, in making decisive choices about the direction of society.”

One gloomy day in 2009, the young Belarusian activist Pavel Lyashkovich learned the dangers of excessive social networking the hard way. A freshman at a public university in Minsk, he was unexpectedly called to the dean’s office, where he was met by two suspicious-looking men who told him they worked for the KGB, one public organization that the Belarusian authorities decided not to rename even after the fall of communism (they’re a brand-conscious bunch).
The KGB officers asked Pavel all sorts of detailed questions about his trips to Poland and Ukraine as well as his membership in various antigovernment movements.
Their extensive knowledge of the internal affairs of the Belarusian opposition – and particularly of Pavel’s own involvement in them, something he didn’t believe to be common knowledge – greatly surprised him. But then it all became clear, when the KGB duo loaded his page on vkontakte.ru, a popular Russian social networking site, pointing out that he was listed as a “friend” by a number of well-known oppositional activists. Shortly thereafter, the visitors offered Lyashkovich to sign an informal “cooperation agreement” with their organization. He declined – which may eventually cost him dearly, as many students sympathetic to the opposition and unwilling to cooperate with authorities have been expelled from universities in the past. We will never know how many other new suspects the KGB added to its list by browsing Lyashkovich’s profile.

The Chinese government keeps installing video cameras in its most troubling cities. Not only do such cameras remind passersby about the panopticon they inhabit, they also supply the secret police with useful clues[...]. Such revolution in video surveillance did not happen without some involvement from Western partners.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, funded in part by the Chinese government, have managed to build surveillance software that can automatically annotate and comment on what it sees, generating text files that can later be searched by humans, obviating the need to watch hours of video footage in search of one particular frame. (To make that possible, the researchers had to recruit twenty graduates of local art colleges in China to annotate and classify a library of more than two million images.) Such automation systems help surveillance to achieve the much needed scale, for as long as the content produced by surveillance cameras can be indexed and searched, one can continue installing new surveillance cameras.
[...]
The face-recognition industry is so lucrative that even giants like Google can’t resist getting into the game, feeling the growing pressure from saller players like Face.com, a popular tool that allows users to find and automatically annotate unique faces that apepar throughout their photo collections. In 2009 Face.com launched a Facebook application that first asks users to identify a Facebook friend of theirs ina photo and then proceeds to search the social networking site for other pictures in which that friend appears. By early 2010, the company boasted of scanning 9 billion pictures and identifying 52 million individuals. This is the kind of productivity that would make the KGB envious.

The Lives of Others, a 2006 Oscar-winning German drama, with its sharp portrayal of pervasive surveillance activities of the Stasi, GDR’s secret police, helps to put things into perspective. Focusing on the meticulous work of a dedicated Stasi officer who has been assigned to snoop on the bugged apartment of a brave East German dissident, the film reveals just how costly surveillance used to be. Recording tape had to be bought, stored and processed; bugs had to be installed one by one; Stasi officers had to spend days and nights on end glued to their headphones, waiting for their subjects to launch into an antigovernment tirade or inadvertently disclose other members of their network. And this line of work also took a heavy psychological toll on its practitioners: the Stasi anti-hero of the film, living alone and given to bouts of depression, patronizes prostitutes – apparently at the expense of his understanding employer.
As the Soviet Union began crumbling, a high-ranking KGB officer came forward with a detailed description of how much effort it took to bug an apartment:

“Three teams are usually required for that purpose: One team monitors the place where that citizen works; a second team monitors the place where the spouse works. Meanwhile, a third team enters the apartment and establishes observation posts one floor above and one floor below the apartment. About six people enter the apartment wearing soft shoes; they move aside a bookcase, for example, cut a square opening in the wallpaper, drill a hole in the wall, place the bug inside, and glue the wallpaper back. The artist on the team airbrushes the spot so carefully that one cannot notice any tampering. The furniture is replaced, the door is closed, and the wiretappers leave.”

Given such elaborate preparations, the secret police had to discriminate and go only for well-known high-priority targets. The KGB may have been the most important institution of the Soviet regime, but its resources were still finite; they simply could not afford to bug everyone who looked suspicious. Despite such tremendous efforts, surveillance did not always work as planned. Even the toughest security offices – like the protagonist of the German film – had their soft spots and often developed feelings of empathy for those under surveillance, sometimes going so far as to tip them off about upcoming searches and arrests. The human factor could thus ruin months of diligent surveillance work.
The shift of communications into the digital realm solves many of the problems that plagued surveillance in the analog age. Digital surveillance is much cheaper: Storage space is infinite, equipment retails for next to nothing, and digital technology allows doing more with less. Moreover, there is no need to read every single word in an email to identify its most interesting parts; one can simply search for certain keywords – “democracy”, “opposition”, “human rights”, or simply the names of the country’s opposition leaders – and focus only on particular segments of the conversation. Digital bugs are also easier to conceal. While seasoned dissidents knew they constantly had to search their own apartments looking for the bug or, failing that, at least tighten their lips, knowing that the secret police was listening, this is rarely an option with digital surveillance. How do you know that someone else is reading your email?

The use of text messaging for propaganda purposes – known as “red-texting” – reveals another creative streak among China’s propaganda virtuosos. The practice may have grown out of a competition organized by one of China’s mobile phone operators to compose the most eloquent Party-admiring text message. Fast forward a few years, and senior telecom officials in Beijing are already busily attending “red-texting” symposia.
“I really like these words of Chairman Mao: ‘The world is ours, we should unite for achievements. Responsibility and seriousness can conquer the world and the Chinese Communist Party members represent these qualities.’ These words are incisive and inspirational.” This is a text message that thirteen million mobile phone users in the Chinese city of Chongqing received one day in April 2009. Sent by Bo Xilai, the aggressive secretary of the city’s Communist Party who is speculated to have strong ambitions for a future in national politics, the messages were then forwarded another sixteen millions times. Not so bad for an odd quote from a long-dead Communist dictator.

Most citizens of modern-day Russia or China do not go to bed reading Darkness at Noon only to wake up to the jingle of Voice of America or Radio Free Europe; chances are that much like their Western counterparts, they, too, wake up to the same annoying Lady Gaga song blasting from their iPhones. While they might have a strong preference for democracy, many of them take it to mean orderly justice rather than the presence of free elections and other institutions that are commonly associated with the Western model of liberal democracy. For many of them, being able to vote is not as valuable as being able to receive education or medical care without having to bribe a dozen greedy officials. Furthermore, citizens of authoritarian do not necessarily perceive their undemocratically installed governments to be illegitimate, for legitimacy can be derived from things other than elections; jingoist nationalism (China), fear of a foreign invasion (Iran), fast rates of economic development (Russia), low corruption (Belarus), and efficiency of government services (Singapore) have all been successfully co-opted for these purposes.

It seems fairly noncontroversial that most modern dictators would prefer a Huxleyan world to an Orwellian one, if only because controlling people through entertainment is cheaper and doesn’t involve as much brutality. When the extremely restrictive Burmese government permits – and sometimes even funds – hip-hop performances around the country, it’s not 1984 that inspires them.

As the writer Naomi Klein puts it, “China is becoming more like [the West] in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones that are cooler than ours), and [the West is] becoming more like China in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale)

To reject solutionism is to transcend the narrow-minded rationalistic mindset that recasts every instance of an efficiency deficit... as an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Smart technologies are not just disruptive; they can also preserve the status quo. Revolutionary in theory, they are often reactionary in practice.

Author Picture
First Name
Evgeny
Last Name
Morozov
Birth Date
1984
Bio

Belarus-born American, Fellow at the New America Foundation, Editor and Blogger for Foreign Policy Magazine, Writer and Researcher who studies Political and Social Implications of Technology