Evegeny Morozov is the best example of this approach in action. The New Republic contributor and technology and society scholar accuses people like the best-selling public intellectual Clay Shirky of Internet-utopianism, an overly optimistic and uncritical promotion of the Internet as a necessary force for good. Morozov’s other recent targets include the writer Steven Johnson for the sin of Internet-centrism (“we need to reshape our political and social institutions in [the Internet’s] image”), former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom for laziness and incuriosity (“he simply throws a Silicon Valley buzzword at a political issue and waits to see if it sticks”), and the entire TED franchise for “being an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books.” And his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Internet Solutionism, takes the argument one step further by attacking the popular idea that all of society’s ills can be solved by applying lessons from technology and the Internet.
One could go on listing Morozov’s attacks on cyber-Utopians, Internet-solutionists, and their fellow travelers. Some are fair, most are snarky and entertaining, but all provide a valuable service by challenging the mainstream, optimistic thinking about the role of the Internet and technology in society and politics.
Despite his success as the anti-Clay Shirky of technology, Morozov has few counterparts in other fields. Though Malcolm Gladwell has had plenty of detractors, no journalist has made an equivalent impact by calling “shenanigans” on Gladwell’s entire body of work. This may be because his range of topics is so broad that only experts in the relevant subjects are best equipped to make the effort. But Gladwell is not an expert in network theory, neuroscience, or any of the other issues he writes about and that did not stop him from becoming a household name by writing on those topics.
Gladwell may be too difficult to pin down, but there is no shortage of other targets for enterprising journalists. Before he was outed as a serial fabulist, Jonah Lehrer would have made the perfect foil for a science writer with an eye for a story and a good BS detector. Lehrer was the darling of the counter-intuitive industrial complex; both Malcolm Gladwell and Jad Abumrad, co-host of the popular NPR science show Radiolab, provided glowing blurbs for Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Imagine was later withdrawn by its publisher after Lehrer’s journalistic misdeeds came to light.) In fact, National Public Radio produces a number of “turns out” themed shows and podcasts. In addition to Abumrad’s Radiolab, the Four Horsemen of Counter-Intuition include This American Life, PlanetMoney, and Freakonomics Radio. All four programs are entertaining, informative and wildly popular. Their very success has created an opening for writers with a talent for confrontation to apply skepticism to the claims made on those shows. And even if everything on those shows turned out to be 100% accurate, the public would still benefit from the challenging of assumptions and back-and-forth discussions that such scrutiny would provide.Explaining his “special animus for self-proclaimed visionaries” in a recent interview, Morozov said that “[i]t’s a structural problem in how we think… I do go after certain people more than others, in part because I think they are much more influential and have more impact on how we think and talk. There is something profoundly troubling with so many people being so wrong and getting away with it.”
It is likely that Morozov and other writers will go too far in their attacks on the prevailing counter-intuitive consensus. But we have reached a tipping point in popular culture.
It turns out that novelty is still the best way to gain attention and prominence; the difference is that novelty is now defined by challenging the last decades’s worth of exuberant claims made by journalists, Internet gurus, and others. Evgeny Morozov is leading the way, but others are sure to follow.