Did Tim O'Reilly Run Over Evgeny Morozov’s Dog?

My first thought on reading Evgeny Morozov’s dense, brilliant, and ultimately unfair takedown of Tim O'Reilly was: When did O'Reilly run over Morozov’s dog? Morozov’s Baffler piece is the academic equivalent of a flaming bag of shit on the tech publisher’s doorstep, a pie-in-the-face as O'Reilly strolls down the red carpet.

Plenty of others have summarized Morozov’s novella-length (over 16,100 words!) piece; i09’s Annalee Newitz does a decent job:

Morozov is worried that the memes of Silicon Valley will reshape our government’s future in a way that sounds democratic and progressive on paper – but will turn out, in practice, to create a nation whose citizens are impoverished and disempowered. Government will abdicate responsibility for providing its citizens with basics like roads, schools, scientific research, and health care. Instead, it will create an “open platform” that allows private industries to plug their private schools into the government system…

More importantly, Morozov believes this future will fragment our citizenry, eroding group solidarity and turning us into little monads who can’t organize a protest or social movement…

It’s a dystopian vision of the open future, and one that’s worth paying attention to.

I have two problems with Morozov’s argument.

The first, and relatively minor, critique of Morozov is that he’s an asshole. Most people would agree that O'Reilly is a pro-market technologist with a knack for marketing himself and his company; to Morozov he is a “Randian” who “manipulates” through “propaganda.” Sorry, Morozov. Alan Greenspan is a Randian. The Nazis were propagandists. O'Reilly is neither. I’m not going to cry for a publishing magnate, and I’m sure O'Reilly can handle a few knocks on the chin. But it’s a spineless move to turn down an offer to meet face-to-face with O'Reilly before publishing a hit piece, as Morozov did, arguing that “I don’t believe in interviewing spin doctors: the interviewer learns nothing new while the interviewee gets an extraordinary opportunity to spin the story even before it’s published.”

More substantively, I was struck time and again by Morozov’s implication that technologists like O'Reilly, by foisting their open-source ethos on government, are despoiling some extant democratic process that yields better results. The thrust of Morozov’s argument is that “government as a platform” and “open government” will create a passive citizenry. We’ll be willing to make 311 calls to fix potholes, sure, just as we click the “Report Spam” button in Gmail. But we won’t protest or write to our Senators. We’ll tune out the news and become as disenfranchised and dissociated from the political process as we are from the secret-sauce algorithms that make Google work.

As a result, once-lively debates about the content and meaning of specific reforms and institutions are replaced by governments calling on their citizens to help find spelling mistakes in patent applications or use their phones to report potholes.

I’m sorry, but which “once-lively debates” is Morozov referring to here? The ones on Fox News and MSNBC? Or the camera-friendly “debates” on C-SPAN given to an audience of none? Or perhaps the Super-PAC-financed commercials played over and over in the handful of battleground states that determine our president while the rest of the country acts as little more than a gusher of campaign cash?

O'Reilly and “open government” aren’t endangering our democracy. That honor goes to money, cognitive capture, revolving door politics, gerrymandering, income inequality, media partisanship, and any number of other factors far more insidious than the guy who publishes geeky how-to manuals with animal sketches on their covers.

I’m particularly biased against Morozov’s argument at the moment because I just finished listening to This American Life’s episode on disability benefits. If you haven’t heard it yet, go listen - it’s far more fascinating than the topic would suggest. The gist is that the number of disabled people claiming benefits in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the last few decades. And it’s not really because more people are disabled. It’s because people with poor education and no decent job prospects in the information economy have found a loophole that pays them a meager, taxpayer-provided salary as other types of benefits disappear. Moreover, after the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, state governments have a financial incentive to move welfare recipients off the dole. The idea is that beneficiaries get jobs instead of welfare, but many states are shunting them onto the disability rolls, which are paid for by the federal government.

Morozov thinks that politics may look ugly, but it’s a more or less fair way to negotiate between competing visions of how our society should work and how to morally tackle problems like inequality or privacy. But when Morozov writes that “openness as a happenstance of market conditions is a very different beast from openness as a guaranteed product of laws,” I cringe. Laws have unintended consequences because smart people find ways around them, and the laws and the people who create them don’t adapt nearly as quickly (if at all). When Congress reduced welfare benefits, states (and the lawyers and corporations that enable them) found ways to twist the disability program into something it wasn’t intended to be. Similarly, when financial regulators required certain institutions to hold only high-quality assets, Wall Street found a way to turn subprime mortgages into AAA-rated debt. We all know how that turned out.

Morozov is an eloquent and much-needed critic of techno-centric thinking, and has done more than anyone else to remind us that innovations can create dystopias. He should remind himself, though, that the current world isn’t exactly utopian.


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