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In conversation with Evgeny Morozov on big data, identity and the Silicon Valley hegemony

Historian of technology, author and editorialist at journals such as the Guardian, Le Monde diplomatique and the Financial Times, and of books such as The Net Delusion: the dark side of Internet freedom, To Save Everything, Click Here, and Le mirage numerique soon out in France. Evgeny Morozov talks about why it is important to go beyond the concept of the Internet in order to understand what Identity means in the current digital world; by politicizing the debate over the future of technology and infrastructures Morozov starts shedding a political and ethical dimension to data use and data sharing. 

Read the complete interview with Morozov and other leading experts and intellectuals in the latest D-CENT report on identity ecosystems curated by Francesca Bria and Federico Primosig.

The importance of the immaterial assets of companies like Google and Facebook just prove that a crucial point of no return has been reached in the way user data is valued in the financial market. Do you think the rise of data-driven economy transforms the labour market and the relation between market, workers and consumers?

Well, there are a number of things going on. On the one hand, companies like Uber, Airbnb and many others that are traditionally lumped under the label of “the sharing economy” have figured out that user data, properly organised, can significantly lower their costs of doing business – mostly, simply by turning that data into “reputational assets” of customers and then filtering out those who might prove to be expensive in the long run (and by “expensive” I mean “likely to incur additional costs” in damages or just normal operational expenses). This has also allowed these companies to present themselves as entirely new, platform-driven businesses that shouldn’t be regulated based on the conventional model applied to industries like taxis and hotels. One of the rationales that Uber et al rely on to justify is precisely their ability to use user data in a way that other industries could not.

So, even without taking any normative stance on whether this is good or bad, we can see that both the workers and customers of these companies are affected. On the other hand, we also have companies like Google and Facebook, which have a somewhat different business model than the “sharing economy” but who nonetheless greatly improve their services by tapping into data generated by users. Treating this data generation as labour risks forcing us into a social democratic corner, where the only thing we can do about these companies is to tax them so that at least that labour is properly compensated. Tax them we must but it surely cannot and should not be the only option at our disposal.

Do you think the issue of the ownership of infrastructures and data should move away from the ethic of ultra liberalism? What's the role of data in the  production model of the new industrial economy?

If we are talking about the many contemporary discussions that seek to relocate the ownership of data from a giant corporate provider to an individual user without questioning the commodity status of that data, then, yes, I can see how this is rooted in the liberal paradigm of property rights and how, left to its own devices, this can actually give us neoliberal financialisation on steroids. Take all these proposals by the likes of Jaron Lanier where we would be able to collect and sell our own data. It’s a very American solution: you solve a market problem with more markets. But I’m not sure that this is the right way to resolve the problem; do I really want to be constantly thinking about what kinds of data I want to generate in order to get the highest payment? I fear this would turn people into neurotic speculators, who are turning their entire life into a giant derivative.

I do think that linking the question of data ownership to the question of production is a promising avenue of advocacy and investigation though: clearly, if nothing is done, we’ll end up with just one giant company – Google – taking an industry after industry and knocking them out simply because they have access to superior data, both about customers but also about changing trends in the economy, possible fluctuations in demand, risk of major turbulence and so on. Data lends itself to natural monopoly and when every industry becomes data-intensive, we might end up with just one company in charge of everything. There’s another scenario, where that one company will simply be the state.

Or you can think of a third – and the most appealing option – where the state does enforce a strong non-commodity regime for public ownership of data (and the associated infrastructure) but then encourages more common-oriented welfare services around that data.

The debate after Snowden seemed to point to the state as the enemy of the people, risking loosing "digital sovereignity" and leaving big private companies as the only alternative to provide 21st century infrastructures. How should identity infrastructures be managed? Who should be paying for it?

I’m rather pessimistic about the odds that North America and Europe – barring any radical political rupture coming from, say, Greece or Spain – would be able to rid themselves off their dependency on Silicon Valley. In Europe this might happen due to the pressure of local (mostly German) businesses but even that I find unlikely: Europe loves America too much to do anything about such dependencies (and I don’t think it can actually do it anyway). And then there are domestic developments, which also do not encourage a switch to alternative decentralised infrastructures – just look at the new surveillance law in France and related debates in the UK and Canada. In the US itself there’s the additional complication that virtually everyone now is convinced that, with the Cold War out of the way, there would be no more big picture innovation coming out of DARPA and the like; it will come, instead, from giant monopolies like Google and Facebook. And they will be kept so giant precisely because this is the only way to ensure that some wild things are still funded (also given the political deadlock in the US, it’s hard to imagine any government agency getting the crazy amounts of money Google spends on most trivial projects – the Republicans would kill it unless it’s directly related to drones and killer robots). So America is lost and Europe is sort of half lost; every now and then, there are these encouraging signals in the rhetoric of some member states and European officials – all these promises of “digital sovereignty” and what not. Well, I don’t think that right now the main impediment – to answer your question more directly – is either uncertainty about who/how would manage it or who would pay for it. The main obstacle is the absence of political will to experiment with a non-neoliberal path of political and economic development; the tight embraces of Silicon Valley that we see at present are just a natural consequence of that absence.

What are the most interesting empirical examples of mixed ownership between Private and Public institutions?

Who would have thought that Google would ever get into the health business or that Facebook would be providing connectivity to the poor in Brazil? We thought that neoliberalism would be this cruel beast that would leave everybody hungry, uneducated, and sick. Well, no: even neoliberals are not stupid to destroy their own workforce. But, apparently, with Silicon Valley at the helm, we can have some welfare provision – on extremely neoliberal terms, I must add, where all the responsibility is on the shoulders of the patient/student/worker – and, what’s so appealing to our neoliberal governments about it, this stuff will come for free. So essentially you can prolong the life of the neoliberal system even after you have privatised everything.

These companies are the neoliberal answer to the welfare state, which, in its original British version at least, was established precisely so that capitalism will have a predictable, healthy, and well-educated labour pool to draw upon. Silicon Valley helps to lend some continuity to this original neoliberal impetus to the welfare project, even if the most appealing aspects of the welfare state model are being destroyed via cuts, austerity, and privatisation. So we get some functional welfare provision – your iPhone will tell you what to do not to get sick – but it’s all very degrading and rather ugly compared to a more robust and humane vision for healthcare.

Do you think the idea of the common raised in recent years from many grassroots movements could be useful in this field and if so how?

Reorienting the welfare state towards a common-based, cybernetic future sounds like the only plausible (and likeable) alternative to the Silicon Valley one.

The immediate temptation here might be to fall into technofobia and to start imagining alternatives to the hegemony of Silicon Valley that will be technology or sensors-free but I think it’s the wrong impulse. Whatever common-based alternatives are to emerge in Europe or Latin America, they will have to be technologically advanced. The only way to beat the market, as Oskar Lange, Hayek’s main contender in the socialist calculation debate, posited long time ago, is by relying on cybernetics (i.e. feedback generated by ubiquitous sensors) and advanced computing machinery. Let’s hope that these lessons won’t be lost on those building the new common-based solutions.

On the subject of remunicipilisation, I very much share the sentiment. For better or worse, cities are one of the few places in Europe where some democracy is still possible and where important and consequential decisions can be taken without being suffocated by the lobbyists. This, of course, is also changing for the worse but, fortunately, there are also counter movements – like the ones we are now seeing in Spain. It’s also not surprising that cities – both through the activities of companies like Uber but also through the smart city push – are also at the very front line of the neoliberal offensive. How well they will hold up will determine just how much resistance to neoliberalism will remain; if the public loses out in this battle, we might as well call it quits, at least in Europe.

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Francesca Bria

Francesca Bria

Francesca Bria

Senior Project Lead

Francesca Bria was a Senior Project Lead in the Innovation Lab. She was EU Coordinator of the D-CENT project on direct democracy and social digital currencies and principle investiga...

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