This book review was long but a fun read, though it's more of a comprehensive take-down of a person and everything he stands for than a mere review. It's also about a lot more than just one former Hillary Clinton "innovation" adviser who has nothing to say and will go far saying it. Frankly, I'd never heard of this Alec Ross guy, but this piece was enjoyable:
They Made Him a Moron: The strange career of Alec Ross
For Morozov ("a writer and researcher of Belarusian origin who studies political and social implications of technology", see Wikipedia
), the theme he broaches here -- the unbearable lightness of "innovation" and the vacuous, dangerous claims about how the digital era will set us free - are well-worn bugbears. In recent years, he seems to have increasingly expanded his skepticism into a systematic critique of capitalism as a whole, and in this piece he appears to put the hype about innovation down as mere cover for old-fashioned capitalist expansionism. The acidity and flippancy in this piece are also pretty typical for him
Here's my favourite parts, partly because I think they make some good points and partly because I just enjoy the guy's way with words:
Ross uses terms like “globalization” and “innovation” as harmless euphemisms for “capitalism.” Globalization, for him, is something for which the United States government has no responsibility—it’s just happening on its own, autonomously and anonymously, as if trade treaties, military bases, and offshoring zones were all springing up without anyone consciously creating the policies that enable them. Ross’s book is a good example of how this discourse of globalization has been adopted by American policymakers as a way of blaming the effects and consequences of their own policies—aimed primarily at making the whole globe a safe playground for American capital—on historical inevitability.
Ross also subscribes to the view, quite popular in both Washington and Silicon Valley, that thanks to the digital revolution and proliferation of cellphones and social media, the powerful (corporations, governments, traditional media) have lost their clout and newly empowered citizens find ways to outsmart their oppressors. [..] Ross tells us that “everywhere, newly empowered citizens . . . are challenging the established order in ways never before imaginable—from building new business models to challenging old autocracies.”
To see just how ridiculous this idea is, it’s enough to look at what happened in Greece last summer. The angry Greeks and their supporters abroad had a fancy hashtag (#thisisacoup), while their opponents in the European governments, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—well, they had just about everything else. Guess who won. Perhaps the Greeks should have heeded Ross’s advice and attempted to disrupt the Troika with a “new business model.”
Despite incessant proclamations to the contrary, the purse still wields more power than the cellphone. [..] Populism is on the rise across the globe not because citizens feel empowered by new technologies, but because they feel disempowered by everything else.
Ross’s world is not just flat—it’s plastic. Any country, he suggests, can simply abandon an industry that feeds it and move to embrace “the future.” But German car companies are afraid of Google not because they can’t develop an analytics business on top of self-driving cars and operating systems supplied by Google, but because they’ll make far less money from the analytics business than they currently make selling Mercedes and BMWs (while probably having to fire most of their heavily unionized workforce). This is a painful political and economic conflict, but for Ross, it’s simple: all these foreign countries and companies are refusing to look toward the “future,” adjust to the inevitable disruption that it will unleash, and acquire the expertise required to survive.
Ross’s only big idea in this book is that, thanks to the rise of new technologies, we are entering a new era, one in which countries will need to decide just where to be ideologically. “The principal political binary of the last half of the twentieth century,” he writes, “was communism versus capitalism. In the twenty-first century, it is open versus closed.” It doesn’t take long to understand that “open” can mean only one thing—“open for business,” and particularly for business involving American capital. Ross’s “open” vs. “closed” dichotomy does not transcend capitalism—it simply rebrands it.
Ross’s reframing of “capitalism vs. communism” as a contest between open and closed reveals that, on issues of foreign policy, there’s barely any difference between America’s two major parties. In the domestic context, any policy demanding the removal of barriers to the free circulation of capital would traditionally be associated with the neoliberal right, who believe that the government should not limit the further intrusion of market logic into all domains. But while Ross insists that the U.S. government has a role to play in opposing the tide of “neoliberalism” [..] he opposes all such efforts by foreign governments. Here is the duplicity of the Democrats in a nutshell: neoliberalism is bad when practiced in America, but when imposed on other countries, it’s “globalization.”
Ross’s argument, or rather its style, leads to the eventual depoliticization of extremely political and contentious issues by wrapping them up in the empty, futuristic language of technology and innovation. Technology talk furnishes the seemingly innocent vocabulary that allows the U.S. government to bypass any organized resistance to [..] neoliberal measures—more privatization, more austerity, no controls on movements of capital [..]. And while previous efforts to market such policies generated a lot of pushback and even rioting from Bangkok to Buenos Aires, none of that struggle is visible now that Silicon Valley has taken over the job from the World Bank and the IMF. Who could argue that a country shouldn’t adapt itself to the future and build fancy apps? Why would any country want to resist the natural pull of technology?
I wasn't a fan of everything in this piece -- when Morozov switches from critiquing the discourse (and power relations) of new tech to taking on capitalism and US imperialism overall, his arguments become more hammer than knife. But still worth a read.