[SIGCIS-Members] Evgeny Morozov: Author of the Quixote?

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Sun Oct 12 13:45:21 PDT 2014

Evgeny Morozov: Author of the Quixote?

Dear Cabalists,

I have called you this evening to this secret cavern deep underground to
address an important matter. I’ve been looking closely at the explanation
Evgeny Morozov posted on Tumblr to describe the creation of his
controversial New Yorker piece “The Planning Machine.” And you know what? We
misunderestimated the guy. In fact he is even more brilliant than he says he
is. Also more modest. Hard to believe, but I think I can convince you on
this one.

Now I know that, when the article first appeared, some in the SIGCIS
community were concerned that Morozov might not have given quite enough
credit to Eden Medina’s award winning 2011 book Cybernetic Revolutionaries:
Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Pedants noted that the article
spent about twenty paragraphs on the story of the Chilean Cybersyn network
project of the 1970s, closely recapping Medina’s argument and evidence. They
observed that he mentioned her book only once, as the source of one specific
insight. Ugly words like “erasure” were bandied around. Morozov was even
accused of committing some kind of obscure academic misdemeanor. Plagism,
maybe. Being a Phalangist? I forget the exact word. Some jealous cynics
unfairly tarred the prolific and famous critic turned Harvard Ph.D. student
as the James Franco of the history of science.

If you look closely enough at
-socialism-essay you will see that everything is resolved. Here’s what
happened. Morozov set out to write a review essay focused on Medina’s book.
So far, so humdrum. Any mediocrity can write a review essay. Then the magic
happened. Morozov went to the library and pulled a bunch of the books Medina
had cited. Some of them were very hard to read, but that didn’t faze him. He
read even more books. He “pushed in many directions at once.” He followed in
Medina’s footsteps to read Beer’s papers in Liverpool, to correspond with
Beer’s former colleagues, and to interview Fernando Flores who initiated
Project Cybersyn with an invitation to British cyberneticist Stafford Beer.
He even found out some things about Beer and Cybersyn that Medina hadn’t
mentioned in the book.

At the end of “six months of very hard work” Morozov had produced his own
comprehensive history of managerial cybernetics, with Beer and Project
Cybersyn as its main focus. A lot of review essays say more about an
imaginary book that the critic would write than about the actual text under
discussion. Morozov did something unique and different: he actually spent
the time to recreate and transcend Medina’s entire research from the same
original sources. So his final New Yorker piece didn’t deny anything due to
Medina. She was properly credited in the one paragraph that still relied on
her work. In the rest of the article Morozov was summarizing his own
groundbreaking research. Unfortunately the space requirements of the New
Yorker prevented him from ever writing down the longer, footnoted version of
this seminal contribution, let along publishing it in a peer reviewed
journal or with an academic press. It exists in his head and that’s good
enough for me.

With just 4,000 words at his disposal in the New Yorker Morozov was generous
to spend two of them evaluating Medina’s work in passing as an “entertaining
history.” Two words might not sound like much, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to
the Galaxy (revised edition) summed up Earth and everyone on it as “mostly
harmless.” Heck, I’ve seen posters for really bad movies that blew up
fainter and shorter praise in huge letters (“Energetic!” Some guy you’ve
never heard of – Huffington Post). Despite this clear signposting in the
tenth paragraph some dimwits did not grasp that the piece was a book review.
With what little respect might be due to them, this is clear their fault,
not his. He simply did not have enough space “to repeat what was already
obvious.” Let me observe in passing that Morozov is wasting his new piece on
Tumblr. With a little editing it too could be published in the New Yorker. I
suggest the “Shouts & Murmurs” section.

I have particular sympathy for Morozov as a glance at his Twitter feed over
the past month shows that he is beset with idiots on all sides. People with
paralyzed brains in startups. Events “about bullshit.” The silliness of
Marshal McLuhan. The “stupidity” of Checky. The dullards who retweet him
without recognizing his sarcasm. Bravest of all, a tweet observing “Got
nothing to say? Add the word ‘ontology’ to it – at least, it will get
published.” Perhaps he had, at that very moment in his research, come across
Peter Galison’s classic paper “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Weiner and
the Cybernetic Vision.” His books tell a similarly moving story. As the only
person in the world who is both intelligent and principled he puts a
succession of idiots, hacks, and corporate shills to shame. It’s the lot of
the genius to be unappreciated in his own lifetime.

His plight is captured eloquently by his twitter tagline, “There are useful
idiots. Look around.” Let’s do that right now. All of you line up. Look
left. Look right. One of you is an idiot. Probably that guy on your left. I
think he’s drooling, but it’s hard to tell with the light down here. The
woman on the right doesn’t look too sharp either. Chances are that they’re
both idiots. Hell, I wouldn’t be shocked if all three of you are idiots.
Some of you don’t even go to Harvard.

So, implausible as this might seem, here’s why I think Morozov is being
unduly modest about his own immense potential. Over the past six months I’ve
been conducting my own unpublished, unwritten, research project on a little
known figure of the early twentieth century: Pierre Menard. Menard is
remembered a prolific yet minor scholar, author of five monographs and a
number of articles on a range of topics. Like Morozov he spread his talent

Yet Menard’s true, and little acknowledged, genius lay in an entirely
separate project. He was attempting a supremely audacious literary feat:
reproducing Don Quixote without, and here comes the hard part, having read
it since early childhood. He did not want to compose another Quixote —which
is easy— but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a
mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His
admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for
word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes. By the time of his
death years of meticulous research had allowed Menard to independently
reproduce significant portions of the text. He was one of the forgotten
greats of world literature. 

Menard’s challenge was more formidable that Cervantes’, just as Morozov
faced a more difficult task than Medina. As Menard wrote, “To compose the
Quixote at the beginning of the seventeenth century was a reasonable
undertaking, necessary and perhaps even unavoidable; at the beginning of the
twentieth, it is almost impossible. It is not in vain that three hundred
years have gone by, filled with exceedingly complex events. Amongst them, to
mention only one, is the Quixote itself.”

Looking side by side at identical passages from Menard and Cervantes it is
clear that Menard’s was the greater accomplishment. To write in an alien
tongue, three centuries later and still produce the same words was a
remarkable and subtle triumph. Since Menard’s death none have dared to take
up this challenge, but given his remarkable talent as a replicator of
research I think Morozov might be able to finish the job. There are other
parallels. Menard was drawn to Don Quixote as “an entertaining book.”
Morozov’s research began with Medina’s “entertaining history.” Both authors
transcended their sources by reproducing them.

They also share working methods. Menard spent sleepless nights scribbling
thousands of draft pages, which he meticulously destroyed. As he noted, “the
philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant
volumes and I have resolved to do away with those stages.” Only the
brilliant end product remains. Morozov tweeted to an admirer that his method
was “old school: most of is (sic) in my head and occasional notes in Open
Office. I am blessed with good memory.”

Morozov’s ability to repeat interviews with Medina’s oral history subjects
to reproduce the same quotes she used in her book is the surest sign of his
readiness for this awesome challenge. Morozov mentions interviewing Flores
and Brian Eno, but again his modesty is deceptive. I’m sure that he also
interviewed Ángel Parra (quote p. 133) and Tomas Kohn (quote p. 132) to
independently reproduce the remarks from their 2008 interviews with Medina
that appear both in her book and in his article. He showed particular
ingenuity in discovering that a quote Medina incorrectly attributed to a
2006 interview she conducted with Raul Espejo (quote p. 186 fn. 53, p. 288)
was actually something that “one of Cybersyn’s directors remarked at the
time.” Contemporary remarks are more historically reliable that those given
decades later, so this is another way in which Morozov’s is a more profound
historical contribution than Medina’s.

As Jorge Luis Borges noted in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” an
entertaining history article, Menard believed that “Every man should be
capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the
case.” We live in that future, and Morosov is our champion. It would be a
crime for him to spend years working on a Ph.D. thesis with footnotes and
the other accoutrements of mediocrity. Let him instead do what only he can
do: take up the project of Menard and complete the Quixote.

There must be no more grumbling against this great and humble scholar. Cabal


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