Evgeny Morozov: How to control new digital intermediaries?

Notes from the Breakfast with Evgeny Morozov, organized by the Consulate General of the United States Barcelona and held at the Consulate in Barcelona, Spain, in December 5, 2012.

Evgeny Morozov is visiting Barcelona to promote the Spanish translation of The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and to introduce his upcoming book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. The US Consulate in Barcelona offered a breakfast with the press and scholars which I happily attended.

The event began with a short keynote by Evgeny Morozov followed by a brief discussion with the attendants.

Evgeny Morozov: How to control new digital intermediaries?

The story that is pictured in The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom begins in 2006 and the use that advocacy organizations do of social networking sites. Despite some minor effects, it is due acknowledging that online work had not much of an impact. The power was using the same tools of activists to counter-fight protests and protesters. And, indeed, social networking sites (SNS) were being used to haunt, find and punish activists in a sort of a cat & mouse game.

With this side-effect in mind, it is quite surprising that so many people in the “West” are so enthusiastic about ICTs and SNS in particular for advocacy or dissidence if it does not seem to be working. Maybe, people are too confident on the power of media. But he Internet works differently from the Fourth Estate. More access to information, more tools to diffuse a message should work, as it did in the past. But it does not.

Besides, people on the Internet are not engaging, but increasingly getting distracted. How can the online be linked with the offline? How can the online be linked to the on-the-ground activism and protesting? Because the thing is that online protests or demonstrations are not harmful, while offline are. Non-representative or extra-institutional politics simply do not work.

With the Internet one can circumvent political parties, but who cares? How can one translate that into impact? It is just escaping politics. People should move into politics, now being smarter, more resilient, instead of escaping from them.

All the aforementioned especially applies to Eastern regions. What would happen if the Internet could be applied to solving problems in western liberal democracies?

The problem is that new intermediaries know too much about someone that they can affect or tamper one’s process of getting informed, of deliberating, engaging, etc. (e.g. Google Now). Google builds the present almost anywhere (e.g. Google Glass). What Silicon Valley is trying to fix that is actually a feature and not a bug. Silicon Valley is fixing a problem or is developing a solution looking for a problem?


Albert Montagut: Isn’t there a need for new intermediaries? Evgeny Morozov: Predictive policing can work with big data and the appropriate algorithm. But how is this algorithm working or being designed? We do not know. Thus, we need access to code. We need to democratize the process, introducing accountability in the design without hampering private interests. And with the Internet of Things, it will not any more be about the Internet, but about the real world. Offline and online does not apply any more.

Jorge Salcedo: What about the economies of network? What about the change of values (e.g. privacy) that is taking place? Evgeny Morozov: Let us take the example of self-tracking and the quantified-self. There are reasons to use these technologies for personal usage but, at the same time, there can be interests in e.g. car or health insurance companies to access the collected data and be able to calculate probabilities on accidents or diseases. Then, we find there are incentives so that people forget about privacy. Indeed, there are times where the user cannot avoid doing “bad” things, e.g. eating junk food because you cannot afford better food. Should these people be penalized twice, for being poor and for eating what they can afford to eat? The problem with most these things is that one is not free to opt out, so people end up into adverse decisions or moral hazard.

Josep Ibáñez: The lack of awareness of people, can we include that in education? On the other hand, Silicon Valley goes faster than governments, boosted by the smell of profit. How can we gain that power back? Evgeny Morozov: To educate we need a coherent position on some topics, which we do not have. We need to make aware the consequences of technology use during use itself. We must not hide the consequences of the use of technology.

Luis Ángel Fernández Hermana: The Internet is not one single thing, but several things together, and still evolving. We have to learn to operate in a new and evolving territory that is the Internet. Can this be done or the sequences of transitions are impossible to track/learn? Can we create “knowledge networks” that allow people to act online and offline too? Evgeny Morozov: The “Internet” as an entity I believe it not. One thing is the physical network, and another one is the different “Internets” that we use as concepts to explain different things. Many things are beyond the mere “Internet” (e.g. 3D printing) but are systematically attached to this catch-all concept. We have to go beyond this stage of believing that “everything” is the “Internet” and that there is an online world in opposition to the offline world.

Ismael Peña-López: I think there is great consensus that the Internet has brought empowerment to the citizenry. But maybe we forgot a little bit about governance. Indeed, what the 15M Spanish Indignados movement seemed to show was that we were really behind in terms of governance, that the globalization and ICTs had put it up and away from the common citizen. In a sense, we could speak of a trade-off between empowerment and governance the more digital is a society. How can we balance this? How can we regain access to governance with the tools of empowerment? Evgeny Morozov: this is “the” question: how to improve governance with ICTs. But it is different to overarch technology from an improved government because technology works very different and one cannot regulate everything. We have to get empirical, not “macro-theoretical”.