Evgeny Morozov is author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, which deals with the sometimes troubling intersections of politics and pixels. He’s also a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Liberation Technology program and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation.
Though Morozov has plenty of reservations about Google, Facebook, et al, at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on April 17, he’ll join Jacob Weisberg in arguing that the Internet is not hemming us into ideological ghettoes, especially where politics is concerned. Morozov wants to redirect the conversation from illusory “filter bubbles” to the greed—and potentially fallible algorithms—coming out of Silicon Valley. I recently emailed with the Belarusian émigré about Jay-Z, cats, online serendipity, and how apps are changing Web surfing.
Excerpts of our conversation:.
Slate: You’ll argue that the Internet doesn’t constrict our political field of vision.
Evgeny Morozov: The objective of our debate, as I understand it, is to assess to what extent the Internet is making it harder for citizens to find information that contradicts their existing viewpoints, primarily because Google now personalizes its search results and Facebook filters what news updates from our online friends we get to see. My response here is threefold. First, we don't conclusive evidence that any such "closing of the American mind" is happening. Second, even if it were happening, we don't have good evidence that it's Internet-driven. Third, I think that “filtering” is a normal response to a complex problem; libraries are filters, so are newspapers. I find it hard to accept the premise that citizens ought to read every single Facebook message posted by their friends—or they risk being politically uninformed. Now, of course, there are ways to get it wrong—and Google and Facebook have a mixed record here—but I think we should think twice before we attack the very idea of "filtering."
Slate: What does “getting it wrong” mean? What did Facebook and Google do? And where do they get it right?
Morozov: I primarily meant the lack of transparency and user control. Facebook has deviated between offering no control and insight into how it customizes news flow to offering more and more of it. The same goes for Google: Turning off personalization used to be harder than it is now. There is a clearly visible button now on every search page that allows you to turn off all personalization.
Slate: There’s a sense with Google personalization that we no longer have to work as hard to access our ideal results. Has Web browsing become a more passive experience, and is that a bad thing?
Morozov: The Web may have certainly become a more passive experience—and it's probably far less private than it used to be—but this is not the consequence of personalization or filtering. It's OK to hate Google and Facebook but we should do it for the right reasons.
Slate: What are the right reasons to hate Google and Facebook?
Morozov: I’ll pass on this question. I don’t see this debate as some kind of macro-evaluation of the Internet's goodness.
Slate: What is the new passivity a consequence of, then?
Morozov: Well, the rise of apps is definitely a factor. The growing use of geo-location—as we use the Web from our mobile devices—is another. The collection of information about what we like and what we are is yet a third. All of these reduce the effort needed to do things both offline and online.
Slate: In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser writes, “Google is great at helping us find what we know we want, but not at finding what we don’t know we want.” Do you agree?
Morozov: Well, I find that statement a bit utopian because it's usually followed by the demand that Google starts telling us things we don't already know, so that whenever we search for Jay-Z, we are also prompted to do something about Joseph Kony. There may be occasions where a more interventionist attitude from Google is required—I made a provocative case in Slate a while ago that public health (and especially vaccination-related) decisions may be one such occasion—but to assume that this needs to happen on a universal scale, with Google taking on the role of a global enforcer of cosmopolitanism and "caring," well, that I find very naive.