Widening Morozov’s Information Consumerism critique

Lets mainstream the debate about being and sharing online

In one of his best essays to date, Evgeny Morozov sets forth a critique of what he calls our Information Consumerism: Our willingness to trade our data for free access to net services is leading inexorably to an “information apocalypse”. It will not only enable surveillance, but loss of autonomy, mangle our sense of self and threaten democracy itself. And what’s more says Morozov, laws won’t remedy this situation.

Morozov makes a couple of excellent points — and refreshingly without his penchant for trolling cheap shots: Iran and China might be wicked, but they were also smart when they opted for information sovereignty by way of national network restrictions and tools; Realpolitik exists online, it’s not a separate place where governments of flesh and steel hold no sway or, in other words — Snowden could not find asylum on the Internet as some naively said; The Internet users of the most authoritarian states will suffer most as the United States’ “Freedom Agenda” is shown up for the hypocrisy it is; And US officials have failed to grasp that on matters of digital infrastructure, domestic policy is also foreign policy.

Finally his call for the mainstreaming of digital issues is spot on. We need a public that is aware of what is at stake.

So far so good.

As is the case in his latest book To save everything click here, when Morozov operates on the level of the philosophical, he has a lot to offer. But as soon as he gets into detailing examples, messy reality and his writing part ways.

For example:Morozov points out our weakness for things free and how our data is commodified and sold in a Faustian exchange. To back this assertion he tell us how Google’s Gmail — which categorises our communication to serve ads — prevents Google from offering a truly secure solution. Google does not provide end-to-end encryption, which if used will make our data gibberish not only to snoopers, but also to Google, and as such impossible to serve dynamic ads against. Broadly that’s a valid point to make and one lefties will love. The wages of surveillance follow our cheap acquiescence to commodification: It’s trope-tastic. BUT there are several devils in the detail that escape his sweeping analysis.

Google Apps — the Gmail service for business users is also cloud based. But it’s paid for service, yet it’s highly unlikely it is not also sullied by the same NSA surveillance Gmail suffers from. Why is Google not providing end-to-end encryption for that service? There is no commercial reason as it is an advertising free service. And why — even when it is self-hosted and not in the cloud — are most Microsoft Outlook Mail Servers not encrypted end-to-end? Indeed why are most mail servers you can rent from your local ISP not end-to-end encrypted by default? Why are Skype, Yammer and Sharepoint (to name a few) — which don’t serve ads either — not encrypted end to end?

Because as many cryptography expert will tell you, one of the chief obstacles to the adoption of end-to-end encryption technologies is the poor usability of generating, safely keeping (and to an extent) using the private cryptographic ‘key’ needed for it, and making sure your communication partner does as well. Would you like to use a secure email service on more than one device? Then it gets even more tricky. The problem for the polemicist like Morozov chalking up such an important issue to usability and user experience? It does not quite resonate as well in our ideologically tuned echo chambers. To be fair to him, there are many very important social issues bound up in the design choices — the affordances and interfaces — our digital tools have, and we have barely developed the language to talk about these.

But I digress. What Morozov further fails to tell his readers is how would end-to-end encryption work on and impact a social network? Communicating in this most secure way would require users to set up prior secure communications channels with all trusted users. Each time they post a status update they would have to authenticate with their private keys and each potential recipient will have to do similar on their side. To see ten updates from ten different people could quickly become a massive chore.

It would also hem us into a world of cliques: people we know and trust. Social Network scientists will tell you that quite often the most useful information in the network comes from individuals on the edge of your network, so-called bridging and weak ties. Since you and they do not have shared keys (you might not even know them), how would they see your updates and you theirs’? Information cascades, the viral spread of information, will die a unspectacular death.

Serendipity and secure encrypted environments are not bedfellows, much like you can’t expect to bump into an interesting stranger in your bedroom. For that, there’s the public square… or to be more correct, the shopping mall, a far more apt metaphor in the age of Facebook*.

This brings me to admit my prejudice against Morozov, reinforced by the choice of his words ‘Information consumerism’. Does the man like humanity? Surely if this is “consumerism” then never in its short history has it been such a life-affirming, creative and active deed! Stop for a moment to think about what’s really different about this moment.

Yes, everybody can not only now read what they like, publish their thoughts and creative output for anybody to see, buy stuff, or set up shop. What the Internet enables is even much more than that. What Legal philosopher Julie Cohen calls The Play of Everyday Practise is much more than the liberal rational concept of freedom to participate in politics and in the market. It is our networked selves we are constructing.Yes, our networked selves, including joining in popular or intellectual culture, developing morality, learning innovation and understanding. It’s open-ended by its very nature, and full of the complexity of what it means to be human, including delightful things like desire and pleasure. And quite often a lot of crap too.What Zeynep Tufekci says is just normal social grooming.

Here I agree with Clay Shirky that actively posting pictures of things even as banal as LOLcats is preferable to consuming most of what is on TV. Not only are we actually not only consuming when posting cats, we are also constructing who we are. Sure, we are also increasingly entrepreneurs of the self, Morozov is right to sound a warning on that score. But when Morozov asserts that information sharing might have a vibrant market around it, but no ethical framework to back it up, I worry about the apparent limited scope of what he has in mind.

Earlier this year David Lyon, a foremost intellectual on surveillance, warned that when talking about social media, we should not only be thinking about what damage using it could do, but what human flourishing it can enable. Referencing Emmanuel Lévinas he pointed out that our human selfhood is also discovered in taking responsibility for, in caring for others when we encounter them online. Yes, looking out for the other using social media could transform our thinking about surveillance said Lyon.

Daily we see examples of people looking out for others on social media. Morozov himself now seems to acknowledge the power of social platforms for activists in Russia. Is this not an example of looking out and being seen for the others par excellence? Yes! This is the flipside of the same information sharing, which we should bear in mind when having this debate about it and its ethics — less we chuck out the baby with the bathwater.

* It is a long overdue debate — which Morozov never raises — whether some of these digital services like Facebook should not be publicly owned, run for the public good and not subject to market pressures. Enough with malls, we want some digital public squares! But such an option only makes sense if you believe in the efficacy of laws — which Morozov apparently does not. Else — following his logic — you will be giving states carte blanche to snoop.

    Wessel van Rensburg

    Written by

    My mind is digital but my heart in the southern bit of Africa, RAAK founder, media voyeur, blogger http://mhambi.com, tech fetishist, documentary maker.