I want to respond briefly to this really aggressive book review by Evgeny Morozov on Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress. The ideas are pretty interesting but my thinking about it concerns its rhetoric, and about why there’s so little room for nuance and qualification and subtlety in a lot of the journalism I read and watch. Here’s Morozov’s summary of Johnson’s book:
Johnson is grappling with the thorny question of what the Internet means. His conclusion, alas, is not very original: the history of the Internet tells us that decentralization is preferable to centralization. And, to quote Steve Jobs, “It just works!” Thus, early Internet protocols were built on the principle of packet switching, whereby the content to be transmitted is broken into packets, which are sent separately from each other and reassembled upon receipt. No centralized authority was needed: the packets could travel through a myriad of different routes independently of each other. The likes of Google and Wikipedia also thrive on decentralization; Google, for example, ranks sites for relevance by studying how sites link to each other. Google’s relevance index, then, emerges out of individual decisions by millions of site-owners; it is not centrally planned.
So for Johnson, the internal logic of the Internet is decentralization, and given the success of things like Google search and Wikipedia, this logic ought to be applied to social, political, and institutional problems: “When a need arises in society that goes unmet our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.”
The obvious objection from someone like Morozov, writing for the center-left New Republic, is that Johnson is advocating for a kind of libertarianism, a flattening of institutional hierarchies. But Johnson happens to be on Morozov’s side politically. Johnson wants to preserve big government but have them think in “in newer, Internet-friendlier ways—to have them acknowledge that crowds and networks can be smarter than individuals.”
So what’s Morozov’s angle? It’s that Johnson is blind to the powers of hierarchy, central planning, and expert decision-making. Once he’s formed this axe he begins grinding it against example after example. Johnson cites NYC’s 3-1-1 hotline as a model of decentralization. Morozov replies, 3-1-1 was actually a move to centralize all the 400 different city hotlines. Etc. Etc.
It’s not that Morozov doesn’t have fair objections. It’s that he doesn’t really allow a fair showing of Johnson’s ideas. They’re smothered out by Morozov’s ideological objections. (Turns out Morozov has a book with the subtitle “The Folly of Technological Solutionism,” which makes me wonder about the New Republic’s editorial staff and the point of bringing together two diametrically opposed views such as Morozov-Johnson, other than to be sensationalistic and provocative and sell magazines. OK, so that’s probably it.) The idea of reforming the NEA based on a model like Kickstarter might find many objections. But its implications are at least new (new to me) and worth considering in detail. Wouldn’t a more just and sympathetic review say something nuanced like, Yes, there are good examples of institutions that might benefit from the decentralized logic of the Internet, but there are also examples of institutions that should continue to be hierarchical, and that the important debate is around which institutions could benefit from being structured like the Internet and which would not?
But who would want to read such a nuanced, sympathetic, basically reasonable and decent review? Is the reason that more often than not a lot of the journalism I read and watch tends toward the scathing, toward the “take-down” (a) because it sells? (b) because in a media-glutted context only the most rhetorically barbaric will be read/watched? (c) because if you want your piece to be picked up by the aggregating sites and reach a mass audience it can’t be “soft” but must be fiercely opinionated? (d) because of the general drift of media culture away from “objectivity” and toward “opinion” as evidenced by the rise of MSNBC and FOX News? (e) because essentially reasonable, non-rabid shows like The News Hour are extremely boring in themselves, but become bone-crushingly boring when placed in the context of our entertainment culture? (f) because writing broadsides and absenting from your thought nuance and subtlety is essential to the culture of journalism, has been since its origins and will continue to be?