Technology Writer Calls For 'Information Environmentalism'

Jan 6, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:14 pm

Technology writer Evgeny Morozov says we’ve ceded key decisions on public space to technology companies, and he is joining the call for a movement to take the space back.

“We’ve decided by default that more connectivity is a good thing, but maybe it isn’t,” Morozov tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.

For one thing, Morozov argues, we turn to technology to escape boredom, but information overload also leads to profound boredom.

“There is such a thing as being bored with too much information, and I think we need to think of strategies in which we can consciously limit our exposure to information, and actually deliberately practice boredom of a different kind,” Morozov said. “Not over-stimulated boredom, but where we try to deprive ourselves.”

Morozov says at the moment, if you want to do anything about escaping the internet, you have to take personal measures. Morozov himself locks away his internet cable and his smartphone in a safe.

Instead, there should be a public discussion about public policy, Morozov says. He compares it to the movement to reduce noise in urban areas 100 years ago.

Like today, says Morozov, there were many people then who felt that the noise was part of progress and people just had to adjust to it.

But the anti-noise movement successfully argued for different kinds of roads and pavements to reduce traffic noise, and pushed laws limiting the kinds of noises that companies and individuals could make at night.

“We need to think about how we need to redesign our public spaces,” Morozov said. “For example, as our cities are being redesigned to become smarter and more connected, and as we are moving to an age of internet of things, this will be a public and a political problem.”


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Do you ever feel like you are in permanent reception mode, taking in information from smartphones, tweets, texts, the Internet, thinking that flight from information is impossible? Well, then you have more in common with people from the 1920s than you know. An essay written by a German architect in 1924 spoke of over-stimulated urbanites who were developing a blase attitude to protect themselves from the onslaught of sensations.

Evgeny Morozov reached back to that essay for another called "Only Disconnect: Two Cheers for Boredom." The New York Times calls Morozov the Internet's verbal contrarian because of his skepticism about the utopian promises made by the world of technology. He's a contributing editor at the New Republic, the author of "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism," and his essay about boredom appeared in The New Yorker. Evgeny, welcome back to the program.

EVGENY MOROZOV: Good to be here.

YOUNG: Tell us about those people in 1920s. What was over stimulating them?

MOROZOV: It was a couple of things. It was radio. It was all sorts of advertisements that began appearing in the states. The fascinations of modern life also had the cost, so a lot of people were as concerned with those distractions as some of the people are concerned now with Twitter and all of the other stimulations that they have.

YOUNG: Here are some of the other writings from the time. Radio listeners were in a state, as we said, of permanent receptivity. Constantly pregnant with London, the Eiffel Tower and Berlin, their souls badgered by news hounds so that soon no one can tell anymore who's the hunter and who is the hunted.

You know, this feeling that they were really under attack from information, which, of course, a lot of people feel now. And explain how boredom works its way into this, because it seems, if I'm reading this correctly, as if you're saying that people became blase in - sort of in a way to protect themselves from this and looked as if they were bored, but it was just to protect themselves from this assault. On the other hand, you seem to be saying that the people who are hyperconnected with technology today are boring, even though they think that they are the hippest going.

MOROZOV: Well, there are many things going on here. I mean, the essay that I reached for originally by this German critic, Siegfried Kracauer, his argument was that boredom was becoming almost impossible to find. It was getting harder and harder. These people were attacked by these modern distractions. The point I was making is that now we seem to have all sorts of ways and outlets in which you can escape boredom. So you think you can escape it on Twitter. You can escape it on Facebook, on your cellphone.

But, of course, you get bored with those messages as well, right? There is such a thing as being bored with just too much information. And I think we need to think of strategies in which we can maybe consciously limit our exposure to information and actually deliberately practice boredom, but boredom of a different kind, not over-stimulated boredom when we actually try to deprive ourselves.

YOUNG: You point out how hard that is because you sit on the couch and there's an Xbox. It's hard to find boredom. You do something I find fascinating. You lock up some of your technology?

MOROZOV: Yes. Well, so I decided that I'll probably be far more productive if I get myself a safe where I could actually hide my iPhone, where I could hide the cable for my Internet connection. And as long as I can set a timer to tell my safe when I should have it opened and when I should have it closed, to have long stretches of time where I don't have to have this constant dialogue with myself whether I should go online or not go online. I have made the decision once, and I think that level of control we actually no longer have.

YOUNG: Well, this is why you're calling for something that one of the books that you review in the article also points out. It's the book "Ambient Commons" by Malcolm McCullough. And he's arguing for something that's akin to information environmentalism, pushing a movement so that people produce environments where you can be away. I mean, there's the quiet car on the train. But you point out that some places are restricting the access to information.

MOROZOV: Well, it's a very interesting trend what we are beginning to see in different cafes, but also in some public parks in Europe, but also in the U.S., is that that our deliberate efforts to actually limit, for example, Wi-Fi connectivity. It's happening in Silicon Valley. Same thing is happening as well in Amsterdam. In Holland, for example, you have a park where some of the benches which actually block all wireless connectivity.

YOUNG: Well, why else should we care about this? As you said - this is what I'm hearing you say - that, you know, there's this false boredom of we're being turned into zombies by all this information as opposed to real boredom where you're freed to actually have real thoughts. And there's - it's almost a loosening as opposed to a zombie state. What else is wrong with being in that zombie state for a while?

MOROZOV: Well, I think it differs from person to person. Everyone will have their own downsides to it. For me, I just find that I think in much sharper and clearer way when I do spend some time away from constant interruption by Twitter messages and so forth. But I think it's really important to emphasize the need for this information environmentalism, as you mentioned, because the solution like the one I found was the safe, essentially, it's a private solution.

And I think a lot of people are saying, and actually I concur with them, that we need to think more broadly. We need to think about how we can redesign our public spaces. For example, now our cities are being redesigned to become smarter and more connected, and we're moving to a major Internet of things. This is will be a public and a political problem. And we can't just hope that by apps or safes to limit our own connectivity. Something else must be done.

YOUNG: Well, this is interesting because for those listening, thinking, oh, this sounds like more government involvement, more Big Brother interfering with my life. What you're pointing out is that, in fact, it's not government. It's government ceding to the Eric Schmidts of the world how our lives are going to be designed.

MOROZOV: Yes. Again, we somehow have decided by default that more connectivity is a good thing, and maybe it isn't because, again, it will make things more distracting. And I think we need to think of spaces and different zones where things work differently. In the library, for example, I think it's perfectly reasonable to have a spot where there is no wireless connectivity so you can actually go and get some reading and writing done. This is what libraries used to before.

YOUNG: Well, speaking of used to, we've gone back over 100 years, you do it again when you point out that there was an anti-noise movement about 100 years ago. And you're calling for the equivalent of that now. What happened then?

MOROZOV: A lot of people at the turn of the 20th century were very unhappy with, again, with how noisy the cities were becoming. And there was also a group of people who thought that they were very much on the right side of progress, and they thought that we just need to adapt, accept all the noises because this is a sign of progress. And, of course, people who didn't like the noises began campaigning, and they start saying things like, well, we need to rebuild our pavements to make them less noisy. We need to pass some laws to make sure that people cannot play the piano at night. We need to do something about the trams. So there was a lot of activism, and that activism has eventually resulted in some of the noises eventually becoming quieter, disappearing altogether.

And that's an achievement that we need to recognize and celebrate, and think about the lessons that we can take from those campaigns and apply them to the problems we are facing now with connectivity, but also the proliferation of screens. I point to the example of Sao Paolo in Brazil, which actually banned much of outdoor advertising, again, because they were concerned which visual pollution. Those were the kind of things that we should be debating and - because they ultimately do shape how we live our lives. And perhaps a good life will not just be surrendering ourselves to screens and connectivity.

YOUNG: That's Evgeny Morozov, author of "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism." We should say it's not like you're a Luddite. You're on Twitter and...

MOROZOV: And I brought my iPhone with me.

YOUNG: And you brought your iPhone with you. But you're just saying just do something about limiting the fire hose of information and social media coming at us. Evgeny, thank you so much.

MOROZOV: Oh, sure. My pleasure.

YOUNG: And, listeners, are you doing something to back off the digital world in the New Year? Meghna, over the holidays, we tried all phones in the center of the table when we went out to eat. And guess who's the first one who needed her phone to look up something to prove something to someone.


I hesitate to guess, Robin.

YOUNG: Yes. Let us know. You can tweet us @hereandnowrobin.


YOUNG: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.