A Tale of Two Cynics

Years ago, in 2013, I went to see the internet and technology critic Evgeny Morozov give a talk at MoMA PS1 with a guy named David Auerbach, who describes himself as a writer and software engineer, but in practice amounted to something like a Silicon Valley mouthpiece. At the time, Morozov had just published his second book, To Save Everything, Click Here, a takedown of what he called "solutionism," the Valley's basic organizational ethos that identifies problems as problems on the basis of whether or not they can be "solved" (and which has trickled down into the cultural vulgate as "there's an app for that").

The dynamic was instantly recognizable: good cop, bad cop. As the obvious bad cop, Morozov laid out the talking points of his polemic against the technocracy with his usual combination of Slavic deadpan and lashing wit. In the face of such opposition, Auerbach was left with little recourse but to feebly (and somewhat passive-aggressively) retread the now-discredited chants of techno-utopianism: Can the internet be a liberating force? Who says forking over the control of public services to private solutioneers is inherently bad? Still, after the evening was over, I had the vague impression that audience opinion was on Auerbach’s side.

I don’t remember now if it was Auerbach himself who floated the theory or someone else in attendance, but during the Q&A session, it emerged that Auerbach was the idealist and Morozov, the cynic (good cop, bad cop again). Probably, this had something to do with the intangible “preverbal” nature of the force of personality; Morozov is Belorussian, and like many of us from the Soviet bloc, can seem aloof and intimidating to garrulous Westerners. (On the flipside, personality is what turned garden-variety technocrats like Booker, Trudeau and, of course, Obama, into beloved “reformers” in the public consciousness.)

But the assertion that Morozov is a “cynic” while someone like Auerbach is an “idealist” has always struck me as hopelessly wrongheaded, an injustice not only to the parties involved but to the defense of truth. On Twitter, Morozov himself has recently come out against his reputation as an internet and technology critic, rightfully arguing that his targets are political and economic. As an intellectual free agent, it makes no sense that Morozov’s critique of neoliberalism would be motivated by cynicism. More to the point, to exercise intelligence, particularly in this day and age, is to be a pessimist, however begrudging, and to willfully deny this reality as centrist types often do (“America is already great”) is the highest form of cynicism.

Back then, I made a shitty joke to my friends that Russians are idealists passing for cynics while Americans are cynics masquerading as idealists. Now, it’s become clear that the format holds for the broad categories of the left, the people we call socialists and liberals. After all, true reform can only come from critique and dissent, which must be as relentless about one’s own standing in the cosmos as it is about the state of the world.