Evgeny Morozov is Silly…

Packet of nuts containing nuts but he's in today's New York Times anyway, with an op-ed headlined "You Can't Say That on the Internet", wherein he preaches the doom-and-gloom cyber-dystopianism that has become his shtick. His thesis: Silicon Valley corporatism "often masks deeply conservative, outdated norms that digital culture discreetly imposes on billions of technology users worldwide."

Eek! A bold claim! What's Evgeny's Exhibit One?

In early September, The New Yorker found its Facebook page blocked for violating the site's nudity and sex standards. Its offense: a cartoon of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve's bared nipples failed Facebook's decency test.

Gosh. That's sad. Because if you can't see naked cartoon nipples on Facebook, I'm unsure where on the Internet you could look instead. I'm stumped about how to even begin.

Evgeny's remaining examples are:

  • A company is developing real-time filtering software to detect "all kinds of harmful content";

  • Apple renders the word "vagina" as "v****a" on iTunes, which risked perhaps hundreds of milliseconds of confusion for dozens of its customers as they viewed the entry for Naomi Wolf's latest stupid book;

  • Autocomplete features in the search boxes on a lot of Internet sites fail to work on many of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television";

    (No I am not making this up. Evgeny considers this to be a real problem.)

    [Update: so here I am reading an article at the New York Times website that gripes how awful those other sites are for failing to autocomplete the Carlin Seven in their autocomplete-search function.

    A couple hours after the initial posting it occurred to me to ask: So how many of those words does the New York Times search function autocomplete?

    You almost certainly guessed correctly: zero point zero.]

  • The website that live-streamed the Hugo Awards thought it auto-detected a copyright violation in the streaming content and shut down the broadcast;

  • And one more thing about Google's variety of autocomplete: it can be gamed by crafty activist clickers, and some people don't like the results. (Evgeny mentions Bettina Wulff, but not Rick Santorum.)

The upshot, according to Evgeny:

Quaint prudishness, excessive enforcement of copyright, unneeded damage to our reputations: algorithmic gatekeeping is exacting a high toll on our public life.

Yeah, if those are your strongest examples, probably not.

But the point of the exercise is:

Instead of treating algorithms as a natural, objective reflection of reality, we must take them apart and closely examine each line of code.

Or: "Let's take a look at that code, geek."

Basically, Evgeny doesn't like the judgment calls that companies make to govern the content they provide. Would he simply do away with "prudishness", and eliminate (say) Facebook's Community Standards" completely? Nah, Evgeny would simply like the power to replace those judgments with his own.


… we must ensure that, in pursuing greater profits, our new algorithmic gatekeepers are forced to accept the idea that their culture-defining function comes with great responsibility.

Why bother making a strong argument? What Evgeny really wants is to force people into seeing and doing things his way.

Last Modified 2012-11-18 1:49 PM EDT