Who’s Afraid of Cyberoptimism?

Why David Rieff's cynical attack on "cyberutopians" misses the point.

LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

As one of the fools pilloried in David Rieff’s scathing attack on "cyberutopianism," I’m of two minds about responding. I’ve urged other authors unfairly characterized as cyberutopians to resist the temptation to respond to critics who misrepresent their arguments in the hopes of creating controversy. Rieff praises the most notorious of those critics, Evgeny Morozov, and deploys similar tactics, engaging less with my arguments than with a chimera that features my head alongside Ray Kurzweil’s and others with a far more optimistic view of technology and change than I hold.

It would be hard to recognize my positions and views from Rieff’s misrepresentation. In my book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, I am critical of a strain of optimism that has long been associated with the Internet, which hopes that digital technologies will expose us to opinions and perspectives from around the world and inexorably lead to increased cooperation and understanding. I argue that many of the tools we’ve built in the past two decades reflect a long-standing human tendency to pay close attention to our families, friends, and countrymen and to ignore voices that are linguistically and culturally distant. If we want to improve communication and cooperation between people in different parts of the world, we cannot naively hope that the Internet will solve our problems. Instead we need to make conscious efforts to shape our tools and systems to increase intercultural communication.

In other words, it requires a good deal of effort to read my book as breathless cyberutopianism. But Rieff has little interest in my arguments, as is clear from his decision to pair me with Kurzweil, who extrapolates from Moore’s law to predict that humans will soon upload their minds into computers, a future I find neither plausible nor desirable. The common ground Kurzweil and I have is, apparently, a shared aspiration to build tools that help address individual and collective problems.

It’s this last point that puts me in Rieff’s sights. Rieff, Morozov, and others propose a debate about technology in which anyone who argues for a relationship between technology and social change is a Panglossian technodeterminist who sees the progress of technology as an unalloyed good that heals all political and social ills. Their proposed alternative is to avoid all conversations that connect the technological and the political and, in Rieff’s formulation, any conversation that presumes "the invention of progress."

There’s an alternative to these extremes. We can acknowledge that many promises for technology are overblown and that technology alone is unlikely to bring an end to disease, ignorance, and poverty. We can recognize that these visions of technology are influenced by ideas about politics and economics that often go unconsidered. And we can use these reflections not to belittle those who build tools and those who celebrate them, but to develop new tools that better address inequities and imbalances.

The core argument of my book is that many of the tools and techniques we’ve built in the past 20 years embody an uncomfortable assumption: The interests of our friends and family are more important than those of people across the globe. If we are uncomfortable with this assumption, we can examine it and build tools with different aims, perhaps to amplify the voices of people typically excluded from the media. We need a practice of examining and questioning the politics of our technologies, because technological progress is changing how we communicate and how we know about the lives of others. Rieff terms my hope that we can "take control of our technologies and use them to build the world we want rather than the world we fear" as swooning over an unrealistic goal. To assume that we have no control over our tools and to conclude that we can’t examine our broken assumptions and change our designs seems sadly defeatist and limited.

We need a debate that’s more nuanced than cyberutopian versus cyberrejectionist. We need people who study and who build technologies to question our most hopeful assumptions, and we also need critics who are willing to iterate toward solutions rather than condemn "solutionism." The duality of our current conversation is limiting and disappointing, and Rieff’s missive is little help in opening a broader conversation.

Note: David Rieff’s reply below originally ran in the July/August 2013 print issue of Foreign Policy in response to the print version of Zuckerman’s letter.

David Rieff replies:

Had Ethan Zuckerman replied to the actual critique I made of his work, rather than fixating on my associating him with Ray Kurzweil and letting loose, more in sorrow than in anger, with banalities about the need for constructive dialogue, I might have been able to take his attempt at a rebuttal more seriously. In reality, if any straw man has been created here, it is not my account of Zuckerman’s views, but rather his evasions of my critique of them.

To be clear, nowhere in my essay did I claim that Zuckerman’s views were identical to those of Kurzweil. What I argued was simply that there’s more that unites than divides them. That unifying feature is a cyberoptimism based on the conviction that, as Zuckerman himself puts it, we can "take control of our technologies and use them to build the world we want rather than the world we fear." Reduced to its essence, this argument holds that, thanks to new technologies, it is no longer rank utopianism to believe that, for the first time in history, we can re-engineer the world to fit our moral and political ambitions. If Zuckerman cannot see how hubristic it is to make such a claim, then so be it.

As far as I can see, the disagreements between Kurzweil and Zuckerman are a family quarrel rather than a fundamental one (see: Freud on the narcissism of small differences). But Zuckerman’s pious call for a "broader conversation" to "engage possible solutions" actually obscures more than it clarifies; it is not a debate — it’s brainstorming. But then, cyberoptimists do not accept as legitimate any criticism that is not "constructive." This is why, in the online version of Zuckerman’s response, he refers to writer Evgeny Morozov as "notorious" — a word appropriate for a criminal, not a critic. In this, Zuckerman’s strictures remind me of Fidel Castro’s insistence that "within the Revolution, everything; outside it, nothing." No thanks.

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