I come from Belarus. This is where I grew up. I spent the first seventeen years of my life living there. I come also not from the capital, but from a very small city of miners. My entire family is in mining and spends a lot of time underground, and I was the one who managed to have escaped. So, with regards to authoritarianism, of course, Belarus is known for having one leader in place since 1995. The political situation there is not entirely enviable and if you listen to some of the pundits in America, they often describe it as the last outpost of tyranny in Europe.
I started working on technology very indirectly. I started working for a non-profit organization called Transitions Online, which was one of those western NGOs that was primarily interested in promoting freedom of expression, professional journalism but also, one might say, democracy and human rights in the former Soviet Union. And my contribution to their work was to figure out how to build their new media strategy. And of course, coming from Belarus, at the very beginning I was very excited about the potential of these new tools because the way I would put it is that everything else has been tried.
We have tried NGOs, we have tried political parties, we have tried building nationalist movements, everything in the case of Belarus has been tried and failed, and here comes this new technology: you can use text messages to mobilize people, you can use blogs to discuss things you cannot discuss in the traditional media, you can rely on the power of cell phones to capture police brutality. I mean, there was a lot of excitement around 2005 and 2006, which partly, again, derives from the political climate in Eastern Europe at the time. You had the revolution in Serbia, then you had a few years later the revolution in Ukraine, then you had the revolution before that in Georgia. Something was brewing in Eastern Europe, and we had a lot of hope, and I invested a lot of hope in technology.
And then, I think, my other cynical Eastern European part took over. I have to add that I also spent four years in Bulgaria. This is where I was educated. And Bulgaria is known, as the rest of the Balkans, for its cynicism. And my cynical Bulgarian side, I think, took over at some point in 2006 and 2007 and I became skeptical of the very tools and platforms we were using, in part because I saw that they were actually making very little difference to the situation on the ground, to the people who were on the ground using those tools. But I also noticed that certain governments themselves were actually actively deploying those tools to spy on the population, to engage in propaganda by paying and training bloggers to spread the kind of truth that the government wanted to spread by engaging in new forms of censorships or cyber attacks. I basically saw the other side of this digitalization. And I saw that if you leave things as they are, and we engage in this very happy, cheerful celebration of the power of the Internet, we would miss the real story, and the real story, unfortunately, was that certain governments were getting empowered as well.
On the one hand a utopian project, hoping that this might change the world for the better, and at the same time this dystopian cynical side, trying to show how well-meaning schemes all end up in disaster, somehow came together and produced my first book, which I think is entirely dependant on my professional experience as someone who worked for an NGO, but also as someone who saw many of those early intervention schemes on the ground, as someone who lived in Belarus and then in the Balkans.
So my next book is called To Save Everything, Click Here: The folly of technological solutionism,, and this book is in some sense a continuation of The Net Delusion in that I’m shifting my attention away from authoritarian countries, authoritarian governments, and I’m looking much closer at liberal democracies. I’m trying to understand what makes liberal democracies work and why they work as they do politically, socially. And my hunch when I was beginning to write that book was that there is a new player in town, and this player is Silicon Valley. Its geeks, engineers, technologists, innovators who, because our world became so mediated through technology, suddenly acquired power: they are the new elite, but they are an unacknowledged elite, in some sense.
And I also sensed when I began writing that book that they are very different from typical commercial players. They are not like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, that just wants to go and to sell you another hamburger or another Coke, they actually want to change the world, and they want to change the world for the better. All the engineers have their own ideas about how to do that. And they have the means, they have the tools. And they are lucky in that we tend to view any initiative that involves technology and information as being beneficial, because somehow it reduces bias in society. As long as you have more information, things automatically get better, because you have more knowledge. Its a bias that goes all the way back to the Enlightenment, it is an old bias about technology, that technology is great for liberating us from nature and we should invest more power and energy into harnessing it to liberate ourselves from the burdens of the world, so in a sense we tend to be far less critical of them as players, because we already have existing biases about technology and information.
So what I discovered is that there is a sustained effort in Silicon Valley to make the world a better place, and this is more or less what I call “solutionism”. But to really understand its nature you have to see how they go about defining their problems. Part of my argument is that Silicon Valley is now empowered to solve problems that may not actually exist. They think that politics is bad because there is hypocrisy in politics, or politics is bad because there is partisanship in politics, so if only we can make everything open and transparent, if only we can make people more honest and replace political parties with direct democracy–which you can now do, because you can now vote on anything through our mobile phones, right, and we can read about anything through our mobile phones–democracy will automatically improve. That is one of the assumptions that geeks make. And one of the justifications for that assumption is not just how they think about democracy, it is also how they think about our unique historical situation. They think that because Wikipedia, and open source software, and Google, and Facebook have succeeded, we are on the edge of a new society, with entirely new rules, entirely new practices, entirely new institutions. So many of the schemes which would look outright kooky to us you know, ten or fifteen years ago, or twenty years ago, suddenly look normal because we are prepared for the next rupture.
We have seen that rupture in the world of education, in the world of knowledge production and we expect that that rupture will now happen elsewhere, be it politics, be it the world of fighting crime, be it the world of healthcare where now we can actually have consumers monitor their health and self-diagnose, instead of having them go to the doctor. I mean, this is wonderful for many people in Silicon Valley, because you destroy intermediaries, and because the idea is that intermediaries are bad. The flatter the world, the more easy it is for people to live in it. That is the template of Silicon Valley.