Evgeny Morozov did not "plagiarize" in the New Yorker, but what he did was almost as bad
Evgeny Morozov is almost certainly smarter than me and he's probably smarter than you.
I know because the Belarus-born academic and author has held all sorts of vague positions like "fellow" and "visiting scholar" at prestigious universities that wouldn't let me anywhere near, except maybe the basketball arena to watch a game. He's written two books and his byline has appeared in dozens of respected newspapers and magazines. And while I don't always agree with his criticisms of modern technology, and often find his ideas to be a few steps behind his eloquent rhetoric, they are undoubtedly well-researched.
But according to a group of computer historians, he's also just failed to do what even the worst viral aggregation sites know to do -- an act of, if not plagiarism, then of astounding and unethical idea theft in one of the most respected magazines on the planet.
This week's issue of The New Yorker features a long-ish piece by Morozov called "The planning machine: Project Cybersyn and the origins of the Big Data nation." It's good. It documents a primitive attempt led by Stafford Beer to use automated computer data analysis to aid in the economic planning of Chile in the 1970s. And as such, it's an instructive story to tell in today's world, where computerized analysis plays a role in practically every decision made by major governments and corporations.
The only problem? Academics in the field of computer history noticed that Morozov's ideas, presented as his own, drew considerably from a book called Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile by Eden Medina, an Indiana University professor of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University.
Lee Vinsel, a science and technology studies professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has a great rundown of the allegations brought against Morozov, as well as Morozov's unsatisfying and, as befits a "public intellectual" as Vinsel calls him, belligerent defense.
In short, many in the computer historian community have accused Morozov of lifting stories and ideas straight out of Medina's book without attribution. Yes, Morozov mentions Medina and her book by name, but only once, nearly 1000 words in, and hardly in a manner that would suggest her writings heavily informed his piece. He writes, "As Eden Medina shows in 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries,' her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced." That's it. And to make matters worse, the New Yorker web editors didn't even bother to add a link to this passing mention of Medina's work.
Morozov's defense, outlined in a Tumblr post, falls along two lines: One, that the piece is a "book review" so of course it draws on ideas in the book itself. And second, that despite any overlap between the ideas, stories, and conclusions found in Medina's book and those found in Morozov's essay, he read lots and lots and lots of other books by Beer himself and Beer's colleagues over the six months he spent writing the piece. The life of a "public intellectual." Must be nice.
First of all, to call Morozov's piece a book review is a joke. I read it before looking over the nature of the unoriginality allegations, and I had no clue it was a review. Neither did many other readers, as Vinsel points out. Yes, "Critic at Large" is a book review section, and even if you were unaware of that, I suppose "Critic at Large" is a little self-explanatory. But not everything published by, say, The New York Review of Books is a book review. Also, this is the Internet -- sometimes I forget what site I'm on when reading an article, let alone what vertical.
As for the second argument, basically what Morozov is saying is, "I didn't just borrow from Medina, look at all these other people I borrowed from!" Look, I understand Morozov's point that you can't add a billion footnotes to a magazine article -- if you ask me, that's another argument in support of killing print journalism, which does not allow for links. But more to the point, Morozov himself describes Medina's book as "the best and most concise" work on the topic. And, considering that Morozov's job was to compress a story that has inspired full-length books into an even more "concise" 4000 words, and considering the computer historian community's widespread rejection of the piece on the grounds it was so similar to Medina's book, this defense too falls flat.
But while this is unfair to Medina, frustrating to academics, and embarrassing to the New Yorker, you might be wondering, "Who cares? The world is falling apart and you're talking about attribution? ATTRIBUTION??" (Feel free to imagine the word "attribution" spoken how Allen Iverson says "PRACTICE??" in the greatest sports press conference video of all time).
The bigger problem, and one of many Vinsel identifies, is the notion that journalism, "highbrow" or otherwise, is often not subject to the same professional standards as academia -- and maybe it should be. In our field, there are basically two rules that are never supposed to be broken: Don't lie and don't steal other people's work word-for-word. But what about other people's ideas? What about other people's ideas, but you attribute it?
I'm about to get meta here for a moment, but is the piece you're reading now a form of theft? Of Vinsel's post? Sure, I was aware of the controversy before reading Vinsel. I read numerous tweets and blog posts from Morozov and his detractors, and of course I read the New Yorker piece. I'm also writing in my own style and from the perspective of the "journalism" side of the equation. And if you're reading my work here at Pando you're probably more interested in media criticism, which I know a little about, than computer history, which I know almost nothing about. This is also, to my knowledge, the first "mainstream" outlet that has covered the allegations, which will hopefully bring the story to the attention of a different audience beyond the academic world. And most importantly, I link to and credit Vinsel repeatedly, whenever an idea or conclusion was informed by his post.
Nevertheless, what I've done could be seen as "excessive aggregation" within the lexicon of near-plagiaristic activities. Maybe in taking the time to examine my own role in the aggregation game at the end of this article, I've added enough originality to avoid that charge. Maybe not.
But it doesn't matter. The New Yorker and Morozov didn't link in the web version of the article and its "attribution" did not satisfy the community of academics who should know. And through this arrogance, one of the most respected magazines in America couldn't even do what the Viralnovas and Distractifys of the world know to do. Link back.