Is our contemporary reality one of the free global citizen or the ‘smart’ engineered cyborg?
Evgeny Morozov on the revolution of our hassle-free lifestyle.
Do you remember that Google search for a hummus bar five months ago? Or the Facebook credentials you exchanged in return for city WiFi last week? Or those photos of last year’s trip to Le Louvre in the depths of your iPhone?
While Viktor Mayer-Schonberger asserts that our natural ability to forget is itself a process forgotten by the everlasting digital memory of monolithic corporations such as Apple, Google and Facebook, Evgeny Morozov goes one step further and argues that such daily trivialities are in fact the most efficient methods for training the artificial intelligence of said mega corporations. According to Morozov’s lecture ‘Smart city’ as the transition point for the private city, the conglomeration of individual data extracted by these companies is used to assess the collective needs of the consumer, so the corporations can find a gap in the market for the next hassle-free app.
At both the individual and administrative levels, this data is then used to arrange a functional society, and proposed to governments who need ‘smart’ i.e. cheap and efficient solutions to their city’s social and economic problems. These apps or ‘freedoms of service’ as they are now referred to, are developed indefinitely so that there are no boundaries to the hassle-free way of life presented to us by these corporations. Morozov’s nihilism almost serves as a disclaimer to the audience; in exchange for our right to own the data of our daily life, we get a service. In recent years, the notion of freedom has transgressed its boundaries as a human right to a service made accessible to those who behave accordingly. ‘Freedom of Service’ is not the title of a 1970’s sci-fi novel ruminating about a future systematic dystopia, but sounds rather as a marketing strategy currently being used by the company Cisco. As citizens of this digitally inclined universe are we realizing the technological apocalyptic dreams of Aldous Huxley, Philip K Dick and John Brunner, one Google search at a time?
More recently, satirical and near-future dystopias such as The Circle by Dave Eggers (soon to be a Hollywood release) and Jarret Kobek’s I hate the Internet (2016) are reflecting on the impotence and helplessness of our contemporary society. As members of that society we are, according to Morozov, facing an annihilation of the democratic system by technological firms in Western Europe and North America. Kobek deems that hundreds of years of debate on human existentialism have been answered by the rudimentary questions Facebook requires us to answer about ourselves, so that the reason we have a hometown, gender and relationship is to continue to increase the lucrative assets of the Zuckerberg’s. While in Dave Eggers’ novel, a semi-fictional conglomerate of multi-mega corporations replaces the Western democratic system with the totalitarian reach of modern-day technology.
The legacy of constructed freedoms
As the term dystopia is a constant reference in the turbulent political climate of our Trump-infected contemporary society, we must remember to value etymological understanding, where dystopia originates from its antonym: utopia. The roots of utopia lay with Thomas More’s 16th century fantasy Utopia, a fictional world where no town within the fifty-four cities on the island possess the desire to extend boundaries, where the island’s inhabitants identify themselves as tenants without landlords. To More Utopia is a place immune to progress and corruption, as it holds no other concern but to maintain its state of perfection. In this sense More’s Utopia was not political in nature as it did not offer a solution for chaos, but acted as an outlet for escapism. More’s Utopia is also regarded as the text which indicates the founding moment of European modernity, as it serves as a contextualization of the early voyages of conquest made by Spain and Portugal during the same era, voyages which were made to conquer the undiscovered utopia.
In this way, More’s Utopia was an early-modern contextualization for the European colonizer’s identity. As the colonizing power identified the self through the othering of the colonies, the distinction emerged between metropole and periphery. This political structure defined European political discourse for centuries to come, and the differentiation between metropole and periphery seems to live on in the digital landscape of modern-day society. For example, from Morozov’s lecture we can see a shift in political power structures, as multi-corporations identify themselves more frequently with the metropole while state and municipal levels of government are being pushed to the margins of contemporary society.
Morozov’s prediction for an inevitable end to democracy was based on a re-framing of the binary structure between metropole and periphery so that the state-run government systems of the West would become colonized in entirety by private corporations. Morozov predicts that once technological firms have taken over and are at the centre these privatized mini-states would function by scraping all taxes and have a single property tax as a way to reconcile the incentives of state and bureaucrats and what global capital expects of them.
Home as an ATM
To Morozov the home has even become an opportunity to provide freedom as a service by huge technology firms such as AirBnB who present the middle-class with the opportunity to use the home as an ATM. Morozov’s thesis here leaves us to face a number of contractions and unanswered questions about contemporary living and the significance utopia has as a historical perspective. Is AirBnB’s system really solving the demands for cheap, affordable accommodation which could not be solved by democratic governments? Or is it simply feeding gentrification, over-crowding of the metropolis and the rise of the middle-class so that the precariat is forced further toward the periphery?
Perhaps AirBnB’s system of sharing space by guest and host is a materialization of More’s Utopia where tenants are not bound by any hierarchical power structures. If so, does this mean we are currently residing in the beginning stages of democratic redundancy? Is it possible to realize More’s fantasy of escapism and egalitarianism at the foundations of these apps and freedoms of service? Or is technological acceleration a mere illusion of these autonomous freedoms forced upon the global citizen, as Morozov so inclines?
Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The virtue of forgetting in the digital age. Princeton University Press, 2011.
More, Thomas, and Ralph Robinson. Utopia. No. 14. A. Murray & son, 1869.
Morozov, Evgeny, ‘Smart City’ as the transition point for the private city.’ Studium Generale, Erasmus University, Rotterdam. 16th March 2017. Guest lecture.