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To Save Everything, Click Here

The Folly of Technological Solutionism

Evgeny Morozov

(Daily Beast)

Technological solutions for everything is the mantra of our age but Evgeny Morozov is here to say, STOP. He speaks about Google's social responsibility, what next for the internet, and why he avoids Facebook.

Evgeny Morozov has distinguished himself as one of the most thoughtful - and controversial - observers of technological trends. His 2011 book The Net Delusion laid waste to 'the utopian myth of the Internet as a liberator' for those living under authoritarian regimes. In his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism he takes a critical look at our fetish for high-tech fixes. As is his custom, he has harsh words for those on all sides of the debate.

I spoke with him about his new book, his problem with the term 'the Internet,' and why he isn't on Facebook. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

One of the things you have argued is that there is something deeply wrong with the way we talk about the Internet. Or The Internet as you put it. What exactly is so confused about the way we use this term?

I think initially, when we started talking about the Internet the only reference to it was very technical. It was a reference to the actual physical network. But with time, all sorts of other debates and assumptions got merged into this one giant mega-concept of 'the Internet.'

You know, debates about cyberspace for example. If you look at them very closely, in the late 80s they had very little connection to debates about the Internet or the World Wide Web. They were all about putting on glasses and exploring a reality that existed outside of the physical world. Gradually, however, those debates got merged with debates about the online-offline world. Which themselves, to me, are highly cultural historical debates.

You know, it's not a given that there is an online and offline world out there. When you use the telephone, you don't say that I'm entering some "telephono-sphere." You don't say that, and there is no obvious need to say that when you are using a modem.

There is this complete disregard of important social questions like privacy when companies like Google experiment with new services like Google Buzz or, you know, Google Street View.

So there is this very bizarre way in which the abstract categories we are trying to analyze dumb down our debate. Because we no longer pay attention to the things that matter. Which, to me, all boils down to business models, political economy, notions of the self, notions of collective action, notions of public debate that are embedded in these technologies.

And instead we engage in highly abstract debates about Internet culture and the Net, finding coherence where, frankly, there is no coherence whatsoever.

You are also very critical of what you call 'technological solutionism.' You point out that many of the problems that digital technologies have been designed to ameliorate may not be problems necessarily. And I think the hardest case you have to make has to do with instances of government opacity, or political hypocrisy, or the ambiguity of political discourse. These are things that common sense tells us we should use technology to fight against. And you argue that some of these things are actually useful.

So, with regards to solutionism, I see two features to it. One feature is something you just mentioned and it's the fact that we often treat problems as problems, when in fact they're not problems at all. They are actually not bugs they are features, you know, to use computer-speak.

The second feature is that, you know, even for problems that are problems, not all solutions are born alike.

With regards to politics, what I try to show is that there is a very bizarre tendency to embark on these solutionist initiatives simply out of the shear sense of the awesome possibilities that these new technologies allow and not based on some careful thinking about the very limitations of the political project.

Yes, occasionally politicians have to be ambivalent about their promises, in part because they have to appeal to many different constituencies. And they need to negotiate with very different factions and very often they need to say things that have double meanings, which are deliberately phrased in an ambiguous manner to leave them enough space to negotiate.

So, when you have projects that rely on Big Data and technology and soon, perhaps, even facial recognition analysis and emotional analysis that will show that [politicians] are being dishonest or that they say something that contradicts what they said ten or fifteen years ago, that will just shrink the space that they have for negotiation. And again, I just don't think that that will necessarily make politics better.

But it strikes me that you are defending a double standard here. It's alright when political institutions craft solutions to social problems, but not when Silicon Valley types do it.

Yeah. I mean, I don't think it's a double standard. Again, it's - I wouldn't put it that way.

I have no problem with technological solutions to social problems. The key question for me is, who gets to implement them and what kinds of politics of reform do technological solutions smuggle through the backdoor.

So, when a Silicon Valley company tries to solve the problem of obesity by building a smart fork that will tell you that you're eating too quickly, this is a very particular type of solution that basically puts the onus for reform on the individual. You treat the fact that the food industry might be manipulating the advertising, that you might not have access to farmer's markets in your area – all of those questions are kind of bracketed out, and you as a consumer or citizen are basically forced to accept the current system as a given.

It's a very particular type of micro-level solution to a problem that, I personally think, should probably be solved through a macro-level solution. And that solution might involve something that might be solved through technology. But it will also involve reforms of the food industry, investments in infrastructure.

And what also troubles me a lot is that, increasingly, as technology companies in Silicon Valley accumulate too much data about us, and they more or less mediate our every interaction with the world, a lot of policymakers will say "why should we bother with this macro-level reform to begin with, if we can just outsource all of these reforms to Google and Facebook."

You have often mentioned this pervasive idea of the Internet as eternal and sacrosanct. As someone who rejects that view, play futurist for a second: What kind of technologies could displace the Internet?

I think that definitely the underlying network will probably stay for a while until we find other ways to interconnect our gadgets.

What I expect to see in the next five to seven years is the migration of Big Data and the algorithms that have been developed in the context of Facebook and in the context of Google, into the world at large - into the physical reality. I want to do my next book on the future of public space in the era of smart technologies. Because I think that, ultimately, all of that will break from the purely virtual connections into mediating how we interact with houses and buildings and public squares and shops.

What I do on Facebook will be integrated with what I do when I go to the store. It will be integrated with what I do when I drive my self-driving car. It will be integrated with what I print on my 3D printer, and so forth.

You are concerned that technology companies rarely give enough thought to the social implications of their products. What are some of the responsibilities that maybe Google or Facebook or companies such as this have been shirking?

So one critique that I advance in the book is that there is this complete disregard of important social questions like privacy when companies like Google experiment with new services like Google Buzz or, you know, Google Street View. As Mark Zuckerberg once put it, their mission is to break things and then think about consequences later.

And I think, clearly, we need to become a little more cautious about our celebration of innovation. And also think through - you know - sometimes innovation is disruptive but it's also disruptive in a very political sense that disrupts a lot of things that we actually value and hold dear and that we need to think about them before we unleash our innovations onto the world and not afterwards. Because what happens afterwards is that we are told that, "hey, technology is here to stay, and we just need to adapt our norms."

Some might argue that it isn't really feasible for technology companies to anticipate all of the implications of a new product. Is that asking too much of them?

This is the usual defense that these companies make and I just find it completely shallow and unconvincing. Again, if you look at Google, it doesn't take a lot of brainpower to understand that if you list everyone I've been emailing with publicly, it will probably have some negative effects on my sense of privacy. Which is what they did when they released Google Buzz.

I mean, it has very little to do with the unanticipated uses. It has to do with complete disregard for issues that may not matter in Silicon Valley, where everyone is very happy. And apparently no one has any marital problems.

But you do believe that there is a role for technology in changing social norms. You are talking here about this idea of 'adversarial design.'

I'm talking about adversarial design and this notion of products as troublemakers as opposed as problem solvers. I think that there is something Big Data and sensors can introduce into how we interact with technology. They can present us with more choices. They might actually turn us into more moral human beings.

A good example of this is the caterpillar extension cord that you write about in the book.

Yes. It doesn't rely on Big Data, but this example of a caterpillar-shaped extension cord which, if you leave devices in standby mode, it will start twitching as if the caterpillar was in pain. To me, it's a nice way of alerting you, as someone who is a user of electricity, that there are many more issues involved that designers have tried to hide from you. They would rather you not think of devices in standby mode and would rather make that extension cord as invisible as possible.

And it's this very paradigm that has brought us to a point where we think about energy - and even think that cloud computing - as being provided by some invisible infrastructure we no longer have to care about. I'm not sure how far we will be able to go with that paradigm in the future. If we will be replacing that paradigm, then I think that making technologies into these triggers for deliberation and reflection is not a bad place to start.

Are there any technologies you have chosen to avoid for philosophical reasons. For instance, are you on Facebook?

I'm not on Facebook. I have a sort of anonymous account that I check like once every six months every time Facebook rolls out a new feature. I decided not to get on Facebook because, in addition to the obvious benefit of me being a public figure and promoting my stuff, I just couldn't find a good reason to use it. And I could find many reasons not to use it. The fact that they would collect all of my personal data is one reason. But the fact that I would be wasting so much time checking what my friends are doing is another one.

I've also tried to be very strategic about how I use technology. Last year, I bought myself a safe which has a timer in it. So you can actually lock it and set a time, and it will not open [until that time] even though you have the code and have the key to the safe.

So I use the safe to hide the cable for my Internet router and my iPhone when I need to be working. So, for example, throughout most of January, I would only check my email at about 11pm.

That's a very low-tech solution.

It's a very low-tech solution, but it works.

More books on Computers

London Times review of this + Who Owns The Future?

(and London Times review just of this)

Evgeny Morozov, the writer and journalist, inhabits the real world. His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don't Exist, is an intellectual joyride in which he is opposed to every leading thinker on the internet, finding them all horribly lacking.

Instead of joining their ranks by producing another book about One Big Idea, he criticises "two middle-sized ideas". The first is 'solutionism', the belief that technology can solve any problem. One example is the move to analyse professional chefs in their kitchens, using cameras and other tracking methods. The results might tell you how to cut a fish perfectly or create robots that cook perfect dishes. But it leaves little room for experimentation. "Celebrating innovation for its own sake is in bad taste," he says.

The second idea he criticises is "internet-centrism". Morozov eviscerates those who believe that "the internet" (he puts it in rather scornful quotation marks) has defined norms and is something more than a human construct. He criticises those who accept without question that the internet must be free or that the internet must be open. Even worse is the belief that the internet can inform society about how it can be better run.

Morozov says that this is dangerous thinking, which could lead to unintended consequences. Look at the rising popularity of crime maps. Using data obtained from the police, computer programmers have created city maps that show crime hotspots. It has been claimed that these projects are for the public good. But once an area is identified as a bad neighbourhood, homeowners will find it hard to sell. Residents have now stopped reporting incidents in an attempt to change the crime maps that drive down house prices.

To Save Everything, Click Here is a corrective to all those who assume that the internet age is revolutionary, or believe that all that occurs on the web has valuable lessons for the rest of us. Morozov cautions us to think about what we do with machines, rather than be sucked into believing that machines have a mind of their own.

(London Times Lit Supp)

If the origins of Western civilization are linked to ancient Greece, the future of human existence is pegged to Silicon Valley. The 'Valley' is not merely a byword for technological innovation and economic growth: it is the lush seedbed for a new ideology of the twenty-first century, one that fills the void left by the Cold War. This ideology revolves around the internet. Its fundamentalist narrative has been spun over several decades from such diverse strands as free-market economics, techno-mysticism, anarchist leanings and utopian longings, and has now assumed a prominent place in everyday conversation alongside the technologies that inspired it. The internet ideology provides a quasi-religious vision of how human relationships will be transformed, material abundance created, and transcendence attained through human-machine interactions. Its prophets cite its decentralized and open structure as the model for a free, egalitarian and transparent world order. Their holy writ is Moore's Law, which suggests that computers will 'evolve' exponentially, doubling their prowess every two years or so. Their eschatology is the Singularity, which predicts that machines will outstrip humans in the near future, and benevolently uplift (or simply upload) mere mortals to nerd Nirvana. In the interim, the messy stuff of ordinary existence will be tamed by quantifying it into the bits and bytes of Information Theory, and transformed into profitable 'Big Data' for the Information Economy.

The internet ideology is easy to mock but difficult to reject. It doesn't really matter if some dismiss it as 'cyber-utopian', or ignore it while enjoying the internet's practical benefits, or find aspects of it, such as the Singularity, ridiculous. The internet ideology is difficult to dislodge because it is not simply an immaterial ideal; it is materially embedded in a global infrastructure made up of machines, software, private businesses and public institutions. This infrastructure influences how we think and behave, and once locked in may be difficult to change. Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier fear that the internet ideology has insidious consequences, despite its utopian intentions: as Lanier remarks, "It's not a result of some evil scheme, but a side effect of an idiotic elevation of the fantasy that technology is getting smart and standing on its own, without people". Both propose alternative visions, insisting that they are 'cyber-realists' rather than 'cyber-pessimists'. Their problem is not with the new technology, but with the way it is currently being deployed in narrowly instrumental and commercial ways.

"The world of Internet theory still awaits its Woody Allen", writes Morozov, who at least qualifies as its H. L. Mencken. Whereas Mencken skewered the banal platitudes of the 'Booboisie', Morozov punctures the messianic pretentions of the Geeks of Silicon Valley and beyond. Books on technology are not known for their humour, but Morozov is enjoyably sardonic: To Save Everything, Click Here is perhaps the funniest and most savage critique of cyber-culture yet written. It is also frequently persuasive. Morozov's bark is accompanied by bitingly revealing studies and statistics to support his observations. His previous book, The Net Delusion (2011), questioned the popular assumption that the internet will inevitably promote a more democratic and participatory world. His new book lambasts the internet as a modern icon, querying whether it is meaningful to speak of an Internet at all.

Morozov has established a niche for himself as an internetoclast, who aims to replace the millenarian hype surrounding information technology with more sober and humane alternatives. His targets are the entangled outlooks he calls 'solutionism' and 'Internet-centrism'. Solutionism is the belief that all problems can be fixed through reason and quantification. It is reductionist, worships efficiency and utility, and abhors ambiguity and complexity. Solutionism has had a lengthy pedigree in Western culture and destructive consequences in human history, including the Soviet planners' dream of engineering human souls to produce a workers' paradise. Morozov was raised in Belarus during the waning years of the Soviet Union and is understandably sensitive to the solutionist outlook. He readily spots authoritarian analogues to seemingly innocent internet initiatives. Thus the current vogue for 'Gamification', which turns everyday activities into computer games that reward successful performance with points and badges, has for him an unpleasantly familiar ring:

"I remember the penchant that Soviet managers had for gamification: students were shipped to the fields to harvest wheat or potatoes, and since the motivation was lacking, they too were assigned points and badges."

In its zeal to create a 'frictionless future' by erasing nuance and imperfection, says Morozov, solutionism usually makes matters worse.

Solutionism in today's world has been vastly enabled by 'Internet-centrism', which envisions the internet as far more than a network of networks governed by common protocols. The internet becomes an autonomous entity with its own inherent logic and development, extolled as the template to emulate:

It is this propensity to view the Internet as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a fairly uninteresting set of cables and network routers into a seductive and exciting ideology - perhaps today's uber-ideology.

In fact, if this ideology sounds like a religion, it's because it is. Its proselytizers declare that the internet's distributed, non-hierarchical design naturally favours transparency, sharing, freedom, egalitarianism and populism. They seek to reconfigure life by eliminating its bugs with the shiny tools they have developed, all in the name of an Internet Revolution that blesses radical schemes. Shifting from the mode of Mencken to that of Edmund Burke, Morozov responds that "not all bugs are bugs; some bugs are features". He defends the imperfections and compromises essential to human flourishing, which are threatened by a perfectionist creed embedded in, and enforced by, ubiquitous technology.

Those who question the internet ideology are typically denounced as Luddites who will soon be left behind in the dustbin of history. Aside from collecting trash, however, history is rarely found in the millenarian conception of the internet: "Technological amnesia and complete indifference to history remain the defining conditions of contemporary Internet debate". (Morozov is generally unimpressed with the few histories that have been written.) He concedes that ours is a profoundly transformative moment, but notes that all revolutions contain important elements of continuity as well. If we want technologies to be more responsive to our needs, we need to understand their origins and presuppositions, which are historical. Rather than being unique, let alone autonomous, the internet harbours long-standing technocratic predilections that must be exposed and challenged.

Morozov would replace the essentialist understanding of the internet with more limited, contextual and empirical evaluations of individual technologies. He uses quotation marks when referring to "the Internet" to highlight its constructed rather than ontological nature. Even critics of the internet, he finds, have been entranced by internet-centrism into making thinly supported generalizations that divert us from more constructive engagement. Has "the Internet" really made us stupid, as Nicholas Carr famously argued in The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains (2010)? Elements of it, such as Twitter, can certainly distract us with ideas reduced to soundbites - but what of other elements, such as Instapaper, which allow us to save lengthy writings to read without distraction later?

Much of Morozov's book refutes the cliches of internet-centrism, using an impressive array of evidence drawn from the social sciences, history, philosophy and literature. (On the other hand, rational-choice theory and other approaches based on models "very much like those that failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union" are lampooned throughout.) Morozov argues that the internet ideology - "influenced by the deep coffers of Silicon Valley" - prevents informed deliberation about the appropriate means to attain particular ends. There are no intrinsic properties of the internet that preclude others; control and centralization, no less than the current shibboleths of freedom and dispersion, can be legitimate means for pursuing democratic ends, depending on the circumstances.

Morozov also insists that the internet's reliance on quantification distorts social and political processes. Data is assumed to reflect reality, yet the algorithms employed by Google, Twitter and other sites are selective rather than objective measures, and can be manipulated to game the system. Algorithms have also become increasingly common in police work, journalism, education and other domains, but because many are proprietary, they are not subject to public scrutiny. (He suggests that third parties be allowed to audit them for biases.) They are also used to tailor media content to specific audiences. The filter bubbles that ensue can produce a fragmentation of political discourse, transforming the public sphere into a honeycomb of blooming, buzzing confusion.

None of this is conducive to moral deliberation and ethical behaviour, which internet technologies are said to undermine further through social engineering. The prevalence of cameras and sensors in our wired environment, alongside social networks such as Facebook, result in unprecedented monitoring of our lives. We not only lose privacy, but the information that we provide online could yield feedback that limits our freedom. For example, new self-tracking devices enable individuals to monitor their vital measurements; might health insurers reward those who share this data, and penalize those who don't? Gamification, in Morozov's view, is a form of behaviourism that undermines moral agency. Through realistic games, individuals might reduce their energy consumption, lose weight, or perform other commendable actions - but many do so for external rewards rather than from intrinsic physical or ethical considerations. Most, he suspects, are unaware of broader arguments for energy efficiency or the multiple causes of obesity, and would cease their behaviour should rewards be withdrawn. B. F. Skinner, not Marshall McLuhan, is the real patron saint of the Internet.

Solutionism will never go away, Morozov asserts - an odd conclusion given his attention to historical contingency. After all, the modern faith in instrumental reason is influenced by culture and education, and has not always been as pervasive as it is now. He believes that solutionism's power to shape contemporary thinking will be reduced if we curtail its principle abetter, internet-centrism. And technology itself could be designed to encourage critical deliberation rather than curtail it.

Engineers are trained to make technology function invisibly, but Morozov argues that they ought, instead, to provoke thinking about the systematic relations between society and technology. Drawing on the theory of adversarial design, he would have them create products that behave unpredictably, challenging users to consider the underlying origins, purposes and costs of technology. Perhaps visuals could appear on browsers illustrating what Google does with personal information, or a percentage of online newspaper articles could go black when a newspaper's stock declines. If solutionism is unavoidable, the best course is to develop a self-reflexive solutionism that stimulates thought and offers other possibilities.

But would consumers really relish erratic appliances that can disrupt our information consumption habits? And what of the resources already available to combat the ideologies Morozov exposes? Informed deliberation online certainly hasn't disappeared, and there's no reason to assume it cannot coexist with, and temper, the behaviourist features and simplistic attitudes he decries. By providing information as well as venues to practise critical expression, the web encourages ruminators no less than solutionists. Morozov doesn't give enough credit to ordinary users' abilities to challenge reductionist agendas, or to think for themselves. Thus he has a low opinion of amateur reviewing on the web, fearing that the populist platform of internet-centrism will result in amateurs replacing professionals: "ordinary people . . . are mostly interested in reviewing their own experience, not in making sense of a given work". But Amazon reviewers, to take one example from a panoply, can be remarkably discerning. Morozov's concerns might also be allayed by the ironic and sceptical attitudes that are pervasive in mass culture and the internet. While they are not unmixed blessings, these attitudes do undercut the pious certainties of solutionism and internet-centrism. Morozov's nominalist approach to the internet is one of his most original contributions, but sometimes his arguments would benefit from the nuance he demands from others.

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