This book is such a refreshing and frustrating read at the same time. In a time where few who criticize the current digital development actually know what they are talking about (most criticism related to “connectivity” are just standard conservative reactions towards anything that is new), this is a breath of fresh air.
Evgeny is well read and have thought about most of the issues he writes about. His “extreme position” is interesting to take a moment to reflect on. I think it is easy to imagine his position (not style) being mainstream in a world where we had a more educated discussion (and had less trust in people discussing a system they are making billions from and helped create).
The book is an interesting example of how a simplistic polarization can deliver some fruitful, and much needed, insights. As someone who does not like polarization as a general rule, this book is a good example why such rules tend to always have exceptions.
The title is telling, as the book is ironic, but also has very few ideas about what needs to be done and no concrete suggestions for action. This lack of a solution perspective is also something that I usually have as a filter when I read books. I especially like to read books with solutions that I don’t agree with, much more so than books with solutions that I agree with, but I tend to ignore books that are not able to take the (difficult) step from conceptual ideas to practical suggestions. While the book itself is lacking in concrete ideas my more than twelve pages of notes after reading the book include quite a few.
It was really hard to decide what I should include in this reflection as there are so many ideas on so many levels. My recommendation to anyone interested in technology is to read it from cover to cover and not skip the more boring parts, as I think those are important as well.
After all the praise, it might be necessary to stress the obvious; the books in far from perfect and it is very sloppy in parts, but even when it is sloppy, and written in anger, it is written in an entertaining way.
Perhaps the best parts of the book are when he discusses those with similar values as himself, such as Larry Lessig. This results in discussions like this:
“As someone who shares many of the ends of Lessig’s agenda, I take little pleasure in criticizing his means, but I do think they are intellectually unsustainable and probably misleading to the technologically unsavvy. Internet-centrism, like all religions, might have its productive uses, but it makes for a truly awful guide to solving complex problems, be they the future of journalism or the unwanted effects of transparency.”
His main point is:
“Instead of answering each and every digital challenge by measuring just how well it responds to the needs of the “network,” we need to learn how to engage in narrow, empirically grounded arguments about the individual technologies and platforms that compose “the Internet.”
If, in some cases, this would mean going after the sacred cows of transparency or openness, so be it. Before the idea of “the Internet” hijacked our imaginations, we made such trade-offs all the time. No serious philosopher would ever proclaim that either transparency or openness is an unquestionable good or absolute value to which human societies should aspire. There is no good reason why we should suddenly accept the totalizing philosophy of “the Internet” and embrace the supremacy of its associated values just because its cheerleaders believe that “the network is not going away.” Digital technologies contain no ready-made answers to the social and political dilemmas they create, even if “the Internet” convinces us otherwise.”
One of the issues that I find particularly lacking in discussions today is the questions related to who has access to data, and what format that is required for different groups to process the data?
It can be tiresome to hear him go on and on about how everyone is simplifying things without providing any examples of how these difficult issues can be discussed without simplifying them. All books, reports, articles, blog posts, etc. are filled with simplifications and assumptions that frames the texts. What key assumptions that we must challenge and how that can be done is an important task in our society, as it is in any society.
Even if Evgeny does not say it himself, I think this paragraph capture much of the essence of the book and his criticism:
“Solutions are not assessed based on their merits but rather on how well they sit with the idea of a free, open, transparent “network” and its “architecture.” This is the other, darker side of epochalism: while new solutions are generated because we think that we are living in unique and exceptional times and anything Internet-incompatible ought to be swept away, we also believe that whatever problems “the Internet” presents ought to be dealt with in a manner that won’t affect “the Internet.”
Another thing that I appreciate is Evgeny’s focus on what happens when different kinds of connectivity and transparency are introduced by taking very concrete examples such as:
“While better crime statistics might help some people avoid buying properties in dodgy neighborhoods, they would also make it harder for other people to sell those properties. As a result, those who already live in these dodgy neighborhoods might be less willing to report crimes in the first place. In fact, in a 2011 survey by an insurance company, 11 percent of respondents claimed to have seen an incident but chose not to report it, worried that higher crime statistics for their neighborhood would significantly reduce the value of their properties. David Hand, a professor of mathematics at Imperial College, notes that “the open data initiative ignores such feedback effects—[that is,] that the very act of publishing the data will influence the quality of future data.” Perhaps we want data to be open—but not too open”
But sometimes he falls for the same simplicity that he criticises, such as:
“The claim that going after Megaupload is an attack on “Internet freedom” makes as much sense as saying that going after people who steal books from libraries is an attack on “literary freedom.” Today, the notion of “Internet freedom” mobilizes Anonymous activists to launch cyberattacks, ensuring good press coverage for their heroes, like Dotcom.”
I don’t have much positive to say about Megaupload, or Kim Dotcom, but the way this situation (and many other so-called pirate cases) have been dealt with leaves a lot of room for improvements. Evgeny could have chosen Aaron Swartz instead of Kim and it would have been a much more interesting discussion.
It is a simplification, but many of those in power seem to do almost everything they can to create a divide between those who don’t see any need or potential in free information and those who see an opportunity to use the new connectivity in a way where most of the data can and should be free.
I don’t understand why Evgeny write in ways that makes him look like he is living under a stone (or in an ivory tower) to anyone who has been involved in copyright discussions:
“There’s a good chance that today’s copyright laws are unjust and inadequate—but this needs to be empirically demonstrated, not simply assumed from their supposed incompatibility with the spirit of “the Internet.”
He writes this as if there is a lack of empiric evidence that the copyright laws of today are outdated. Everyone (well almost everyone) agrees that this is the case, the question is if we should totally rethink these laws, or slightly update the old, but still based on a pre-digital logic.
Sometimes he is also so frustrated that I think he misses the point that creative people are trying to address important challenges with new tools:
“Solutionists do not understand that politicians are not like inflatable mattresses or hair dryers that can be easily ranked on a five-star scale, as we are wont to do with our Amazon purchases. It’s not that we do not evaluate them at all—we do—but such evaluations boil down to a binary choice, which we express, every few years, at the voting booth.”
1. I don't know of anyone who do not understand that politicians are not like inflatable mattresses.
2. Few things can be easily ranked on a five-star scale.
3. Few evaluate politicians
4. There are seldom binary choices. Only a Sith (or simplistic academics or other pundits) think in absolutes.
5. That political choice is something that is exercised every few years at the voting booth is a sad perspective. Most people working with these issues want to see something more.
“Adam Michnik was onto something when he defined democracy as “eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.” Try marketing a hair dryer with that slogan.”
I’m not sure if he is just in love with his own words, or is just plain ignorant when it comes to how most people engaged in politics think. Why keep discussing as if hair dryers and democracy belong to the same category. There are stupid PR people in politics, but perhaps even more of them among journalists, pundits and special interests. Almost all of the policy makers I know and have met acknowledges that there are significant problems with the current media situation, but very few leading editors/journalists/experts (perhaps not surprising as many of these are part of the problem) admits this.
I think he could have contributed to a more interesting discussion if he spent some more time actually assessing the people and ideas behind different tools. Then I think he would not say things like:
“Politwoops, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, collects and highlights tweets deleted by politicians, as if they should never be granted an opportunity to regret what they say. Perhaps the Sunlight Foundation would prefer that politicians say nothing at all.”
Instead he could also discuss "Ad hawk" from the same organization. I don’t think their tools are without problems, but I think it is not very honest to simplify initiatives from people who have spent a long time thinking about the challenges in politics/media. There are important challenges, but they are more complex that Evgeny’s soundbites indicates.
It would also have been interesting if Evgeny discussed people like Wael Ghonim from the Egyptian revolution who went from a very simplistic perspective on how internet could save everything, to a more nuanced perspective.
I often quote his TED introduction (ironic as I often criticize TED for its simplicity, but as a bridge from extreme simplicity to some reflection I think TEDT can play a role):
Five years ago, I said, "If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet." Today, I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.
I want to end with one very important, but simplified, observation by Evgeny.
“We must stop thinking of the new filters and algorithmic practices promoted by the new digital intermediaries (and their digerati cheerleaders) as unproblematic, objective, and naturally superior to the filters and practices that preceded them. These new filters might be faster, cheaper, and more efficient, but speed, cost, and efficiency are only peripherally related to the civic roles that these filters and algorithms will be playing in our lives.”
“The main problem here is that the hidden initial manipulations of the PR industry are only made worse by the business incentives of platforms like YouTube and Facebook, which have their own reasons to promote memes: they create some shared culture and, more importantly, lead to more page views, more user interaction (i.e., users reveal more about their interests to the company), and, eventually, more and better advertising. Memes, then, are what happens when one greedy industry meets another.”
After reading this book, or at the same time, I would recommend also reading Eric Schmidt’s book “The New Digital Age” https://www.pamlin.net/reflections/2097?rq=The%20New%20Digital%20Age
I was very surprised to see how unintelligent that book was, and many of the simplistic assumptions made by Eric in that book are discussed by Evgeny. But where there are 1000’s books like “the new digital age”, and magnitudes more articles and blog posts and are very few “Click here to save everything”.
I just realized that if I use “the new digital age” as an example I should mention “When google met wikileaks”, by Assange. This is an interesting book that I think everyone that read the “The New Digital Age” should read. However, where Assanges books provides a well needed perspective on Schmidt’s book in particular, Evgeny provides a critique of one of the most dominate ideas in the current tech zeitgeist, the idea that any problem can be solved (and should be solved) with more technology.