Evgeny Morozov on big data, artificial intelligence and economic power:

Framing the technological debate in economic justice (II)

Russia and China are the two countries that have shown a certain capacity to resist the US model internally, affirming a degree of sovereignty.

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The first part of this interview with Evgeny Morozov[1] reviewed the context of the development of digital technologies and their social implications, under the project of capitalist renewal driven by the Silicon Valley companies, and discussed implications for sovereignty and democracy, particularly for countries of the global South, including some possible lines of action from Latin America. In this second part, we look at the responses from the Brics and some of the challenges for social resistance worldwide.


In the Brics countries: local replicas of Silicon Valley?


In this context, while Unasur could potentially be a space that could take on some of these issues as a bloc, this seems increasingly unlikely in the present context.  The Brics is another bloc with a certain capacity to act internationally.  We asked Evgeny Morozov to comment on that possibility.  His reply was that at this point he only sees Russia and China fighting on those issues.  “Brazil is taken by its own internal crisis.  In India, with the exception of the opposition to Free Basics, which was mostly driven by activists and its anti-trust commission, the country itself seems quite keen on the neoliberal technology-driven development agenda, which is why (President) Modi has been so accommodating to the needs of foreign technology firms to come to India and start building smart cities.  Partly it has to do with his own strategy of urbanization and economic development, and partly it has to do with the fact that he is the favorite leader of Silicon Valley, he goes and meets with their leaders all the time, so India is also really out of the picture.”


Nonetheless, at the level of global Internet governance, Morozov comments that Russia and China, and maybe India, have realized that they do need to act collectively and pool their forces in order to counterbalance the US.  “I think that has been the only thing that has been achieved at the Brics level.  They came together at a summit in Moscow to try to articulate some kind of a counterhegemonic vision.”


Meanwhile, Russia and China are the two countries that have shown a certain capacity to resist the US model internally, affirming a degree of sovereignty -- for which they receive heavy criticism that it’s to repress their own population.  Morozov, while recognizing the internal contradictions in these countries, considers Russia and China interesting in that they manage to pursue a Silicon Valley model at the domestic level: many of their successful services that generate a lot of income are “copy-cats of the American services.”


He considers that the Silicon Valley model –whose clear alliance with Wall Street could be described as financialisation of everyday life – means developing a kind of capitalism where “everything is hyper commodified and under the banner of the ‘sharing economy’ you’re invited to put all of your assets into global circulation by renting them out on AirBnB or by becoming an Uber driver in your spare time and so forth”.  The Russians and the Chinese do not necessarily question the neoliberal premise of those models: “they just would like to run them on their own terms”, the analyst affirms.


That fact, in turn, he says, opens up a problematic debate about to what extent the BRICS represent a challenge to neoliberal capitalism or are just a kind of localized equivalent.  In terms of the global geopolitical implications, it may still be preferable to unilateral US domination.  But ultimately the Russian and Chinese Internet industries are still primarily local; they do not have the level of globalization of Silicon Valley.  “The young people of the Middle East are all on Facebook, so are many of the young people of South East Asia, and I would gather most of the people in Latin America. So the ability of the Russians and Chinese to offer an alternative to Silicon Valley outside their own backyards is very limited.”


As in Latin America, in these countries there are also conflicting forces at play.  For example, in the former USSR and Russia -- an area Morozov knows well -- he perceives that “on the one hand there are pro-American forces that don’t basically believe in the ability of Russia to develop on its own path; they would like to completely bypass the process of some kind of industrialization and development and simply grow by surrendering the country to foreign capital.  So they would like to have a company like Cisco or Google or Microsoft come to Russia”.  Until recently, he says, there was no real effort to establish any kind of technological sovereignty; but now, “because of the sanctions and the war with Ukraine, they are starting to think about questions of sovereignty; there has also been an effort to think what it would mean on the technological landscape”.


Issues for building social resistance


Faced with this global context, we explored Evgeny Morozov’s ideas on what could be done by social movements and individuals to resist or create alternatives to this techno-neoliberal model: what issues people would be likely to mobilize around and what might start to make a difference.  Recognizing it’s a difficult question, he expressed doubts as to whether movements can be built around technology issues at all, or if it’s even wise to do so.


Nor does he see privacy as the main issue to tackle:  “My own view is that for the most part the language of privacy and the debate about privacy has been captured by this rather toothless liberal American-British framework of giving people control over their data, which under normal conditions would suffice.


“The problem is that the transformation of other sectors and industries enacted by data have led to a society where clearly citizens every day face incentives to abandon that very control that the right to privacy guarantees them, in search for benefits, savings, coupons and so forth.  The way in which the insurance industry now works indicates to you exactly how impossible it would be to continue defending privacy with that language.  Insurance companies tell you that if you’re willing to monitor yourself, put a sensor in your car, in your kitchen, put a sensor even on yourself when you walk, and if you manage to show that you’re far less risky than they assume you are, then you’ll get a major benefit.  Which means that if we don’t account for the structural economic and social conditions which make privacy unlikely, we’re never going to get very far”.  Given the crisis, stagnating wages, unemployment, “you cannot expect that people will continue campaigning to demand privacy when sacrificing privacy is what produces savings and gives them cash.”


Morozov thinks the key to mobilizing people is rather in the debate and struggles around data and intelligent systems.  He gives as an example the fact that Google was only able to develop its self-driving car because of the capacity to collect data; and that is possible “because somebody is willing to pick up the bill for collecting that data, and that somebody are the advertisers.”  However, once Google has built its self-driving vehicles, drivers could be automated out of existence, including the professional ones, (truck drivers make up the largest profession in the US – 3.5 million people).  So, he says, “if you start reframing the debates about data and the extraction of data along those lines, if you manage to show that we’re careening towards a jobless future, where it’s not as if the losses in jobs will be compensated with basic income, but we’ll actually be without income and will be subsisting on handouts in compensation for our data, then I think that can open up a very different debate.”


It would mean – once again – building movements around things that affect people directly and hit their wallets, “whether it’s inequality, then you need to appeal to a sense of injustice, or whether it’s uncertainty and precarity”… such as the present struggles against the labour law in France; in fact the only instance in the last few years when people in France did fight in the streets over a technological issue were the French taxi drivers protesting about Uber, “and that was because it was framed as a purely economic issue, and not just as a technological or privacy issue.”


So, he concludes, to achieve progress on technological issues we first need to insert them into those debates.  And that means broadening the discussion beyond just the privacy issue, on the one hand, but also beyond just the net neutrality issue, as a regulatory intervention that needs to be put into law.  “Even with net neutrality[2], it will be really hard to understand where the new type of monopolization and exclusion happens at the higher levels of the stack because Google and Facebook now are essentially building new levels of exclusion around data and machine learning, and not about access to connectivity.  So from net neutrality we’d need to move to platform neutrality and then we’d need to move to data neutrality and I just don’t think the legal system will catch up with that, even if there are advocacy efforts.” 


The analyst believes this would call for a more emotional appeal, for example bringing up issues such as neo-feudalism, plutocracy or monopolization of everything. “I think we need some kind of techno-populism, to be honest; the kind of populism that has had a very productive existence in Latin America needs to grapple with the question of technology.  Because we have very strong right-wing free-market populism also coming from Silicon Valley, with companies like AirBnB and Uber – but also Google and others – telling us that the only reason why citizens are not deriving more benefits from technology is because all these regulators step in and defend incumbent industries; and once we remove them and we let Uber and AirBnB and Google and Facebook essentially run the show, we’ll actually derive all those benefits and pass them on to consumers.  To me that’s populism pure and simple, it’s just that it’s a populism that is built around markets, even though it’s presented as populism around technology.  So unless there’s a matching counterpart on the left, I think that discursive field will be completely abandoned.”


- Sally Burch is a journalist with ALAI




[1] Evgeny Morozov: Journalist and essayist, born in Belarus, resident in the US and Europe for some years. He is best known for his polemical critique of Silicon Valley as an extension of US power.

[2] Net neutrality refers to the obligation of Internet service providers to treat data equally and not discriminate or favor the transmission of certain content or information providers with respect to others, which would mean creating a two-tier Internet.

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