The God That Failed: Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here”
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To Save Everything, Click Here : The Folly of Technological Solutionism
author: Evgeny Morozov
publisher: Public Affairs
pub date: 03.05.2013
pp: 432
tags: Science & Technology , Cultural Studies , Cultural Criticism

Kevin Driscoll on To Save Everything, Click Here : The Folly of Technological Solutionism

The God That Failed: Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here”

March 17th, 2013 reset - +

Triptych image: Megan Cotts, "ECU"


EVGENY MOROZOV IS DONE WITH THE INTERNET. In his latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Morozov dismantles the myth that the Internet is inherently a force for social change; it can no more fix higher education, save the economy, or topple a dictator than it can make us stupid, lonely, or shallow. “The Internet” (Morozov wraps the term in quotation marks for most of the book) is not a naturally occurring phenomenon or a living thing, but a socially constructed myth that “effortlessly fills minds, pockets, coffers, and even the most glaring narrative gaps.” “The myth of the Internet,” he argues, “tells us nothing about how the world works and even less about how it should.” In fact, at one point, he questions whether the Internet even exists.

Morozov is best known for the colorful hyperbole of his polemical criticism in The New Republic and elsewhere (his book reviews are often described as “devastating”), but the most compelling passages in To Save Everything follow a more measured tack, building bridges among the academic and popular literatures on technology in society. To understand the limitations of technocratic approaches to social problems, he reads in communication studies and political philosophy. To provide a context for his interpretation of the dominant Internet myth, Morozov draws on key works in the history, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology. The bibliography is diverse, ranging from the canonical debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippman on the role of expertise in democracy, to Bruno Latour’s more recent invitation to consider the agency of “non-human” actors. This type of synthetic work is all too rare in cultural criticism, and there is an excellent reading list embedded in the endnotes of To Save Everything, Click Here. If Morozov’s argument rings true — and, for the most part, it does — it is due to the strong philosophical foundation on which he stands. 

To Save Everything is animated by a thoroughgoing critique of two central ideas that Morozov terms “solutionism” and “Internet-centrism.” The first describes an instrumental engagement with public life that regards all social and political issues as problems to be solved. The second refers to a fascination with the Internet as a wholly novel sociotechnical phenomenon (which Morozov first diagnosed in his 2011 book The Net Delusion). Solutionism and Internet-centrism are both worldviews infused with the technocratic values of efficiency, cleanliness, and productivity, values that are poorly suited, in Morozov’s view, to life in a pluralistic liberal democracy.

These terms allow Morozov to take a position outside the usual pro–con debates over digital technology. Rather than participate in the kind of either-or thinking characteristic of questions like “Is Google making us stupid?” (the title of an infamous 2008 Atlantic article by Nicholas G. Carr), Morozov explores the underlying assumptions that make such a question possible in the first place. Across an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — review of the recent technology literature, he traces a persistent, unexamined reiteration of the dominant Internet myth. Not only has a rather narrow conception of the Internet come to dominate the popular discourse, its attendant technocratic values are taken as natural and inevitable. That this myth fails to reflect the messy reality of our everyday lived experience of web use — forgotten passwords, unreliable broadband, copyright takedown notices — leads Morozov to reject any totalizing reference to “the Internet” as a single, stable object. Once the influence of this myth is removed from the conversation, he argues, “highly emotional and polemical discussions over what ‘The Net’ or even ‘social media’ do to our brains, freedom, and dictators” will no longer be possible. Instead of grand, sweeping claims about what technology “wants” or “does,” cultural critics will be pressed to ground their arguments in a specific account of technologies in a particular social context. Rather than reject technological fixes altogether, Morozov comes to the demanding conclusion that would-be techno-utopians will have to “investigate each and every technological system on its own terms and imagine how a different technological system might achieve the same objectives in a manner more conductive to debate, reform, and deliberation.” 

In place of such careful, empirically grounded cultural critique, today we have what Morozov calls “solutionism.” Solutionism, in his view, takes for granted that social issues can be recast in the form of clearly described “problems” with easily computed “solutions.” It assumes that there are always multiple possible solutions to any given problem, that some solutions are better or worse than the others, and that the criteria for evaluating them are self-evident. In reality, of course, the terms of public conflicts are always complex and contested: different stakeholders may have wildly different criteria for evaluating acceptable solutions, and some may deny that a solution is needed at all. The ideal solutionist scenario bulldozes this plurality in favor of a kind of Schumpeterian marketplace in which a progression of novel “fixes” continually disrupts existing solutions. Morozov cautions that this “never-ending quest to ameliorate” favors short-term tweaks over systemic change: “It very well may be that, by optimizing our behavior locally […] we’ll end up with suboptimal behavior globally.” The danger of solutionism lies not its solutions, but in how narrowly it defines its problems.

Morozov pinpoints the mantra of today’s solutionism in the recurring description of entrenched institutions as “broken”: Education is broken; the Postal Service is broken; Wall Street is broken; Congress is broken. This solutionist Mad Lib is especially prevalent in the discourses of Silicon Valley where start-up founders are encouraged to pitch to potential investors in terms of the problems they plan to solve. Indeed, writes Morozov, “Silicon Valley is already awash with plans for improving just about everything under the sun: politics, citizens, publishing, cooking.” But not all organizations can or should be modeled after a Silicon Valley start-up: “Most public institutions should not be held to the same standards as their private counterparts,” since “their mission is to provide goods and services that markets cannot or should not provide.” Such institutions will almost inevitably appear “broken” when judged according to the bottom-line economic measures favored by business-minded solutionists: efficiency, for instance, or productivity. 

The obvious simplifications and reductions of solutionism are afforded undue legitimacy, Morozov thinks, when combined with what he calls “Internet-centrism”: the widespread (and, in his view, mistaken) belief that the diffusion of Internet access has brought about “a unique and unprecedented state in human history.” As Morozov constructs the Internet-centrist position, the Internet is always, implicitly or explicitly, a factor in any contemporary public conflict. It is the context for social action as well as the primary social actor; a structure and an infrastructure; an insurgent, destabilizing force and the only stable architectural form. This ahistorical perspective imagines “the Internet” to be an autonomous revolutionary force engaged in pitched battle with institutions that pre-date its creation. Morozov is bemused by the paradox: “One day we are told that ‘the Internet’ is here to stay, and we should reshape our institutions to match its demands; another day, we are told that it’s so fragile that almost anyone or anything could deal it a lethal blow.” In this circular logic, Internet technologies are positioned as both the cause of social conflict and the preferred solution.

Internet-centrism, then, treats “the Internet” as an object that acts on society from outside, rather than a technological form that emerges from within a particular social and political situation. This conceptual shortcut papers over the dynamism and diversity that characterizes the practical history of Internet use. In To Save Everything, Morozov is primarily concerned with the immediate implications of Internet-centrism. However, the idea invites us to think more deeply about how the respective Internets of 1993, 2003, and 2013 manage to feel continuous with one another. Not only have modems and dial-up services given way to always-on wireless broadband, but the sheer number of global Internet users has ballooned from 495 million in 2001 to 2.3 billion in 2011. Are we really talking about the same entity (assuming, for the moment, that “entity” is even the right word)? The Internet may technically be an open-ended network of computer networks using a shared set of protocols, but the everyday notion of “the Internet” as a single technology is clearly mythological.

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After developing solutionism and Internet-centrism as his conceptual coordinates — thus allowing him to escape the polarization into “utopian” and “dystopian” camps that afflicts so much discourse about the Internet — Morozov spends the remainder of To Save Everything, Click Here tracing the application of these pernicious ideas to a dizzying array of social issues and institutions. Across 250 pages, he leads the reader on a relentless march through the weeds of Internet-centric hype, criss-crossing technologies and contexts as diverse as open government and sea-steading, gamification and crime prediction, the quantified self and serendipity engines. It is a strange sort of quest that feels almost compulsive in its pursuit of the bugbears of technological solutionism and Internet-centrism. The result is a relatively short book that simply feels too long, its comprehensiveness sliding into redundancy as the examples pile up. One wonders if it was necessary to attack every single instance of Internet-centrism? Following a lengthy engagement with the “datasexuals” of the Quantified Self movement in chapter seven, going after Gordon Bell’s “lifelogging” practices felt particularly tedious at the start of chapter eight. Surely some targets are more worthy than others. 

Morozov is especially withering in his critique of “frictionless” design — that is, technology that works without user intervention. Frictionlessness corresponds to efficiency and ease of use, and is exemplified by the assured interoperability among Apple’s phones, tablets, and laptops; frictionless technologies are meant to “just work.” In the context of social media use, the term also suggests ubiquity. Facebook executives have used the phrase “frictionless sharing” to describe applications that automatically post updates to a user’s timeline as they go about their day: which foods they ate, how long they spent at the gym, what TV show they watched, how many hours they worked. Morozov condemns such technologies for hiding the unpleasant consequences of everyday computing: power hungry data centers, toxic waste dumps, and exploitative data mining schemes. “We are suckers for various technologies,” he writes, “but we rarely recognize that their use is only made possible by vast sociotechnological systems [that] have consequences much more significant than our own use of the technologies these systems make possible.”

And yet, in spite of these generally gloomy observations, there is a surprising sunniness to Morozov’s conclusions. Instead of accepting the blissful ignorance of the Internet myth and frictionless design, Morozov believes that designers may soon take a turn toward the “messy,” reintroducing friction to promote critical thinking and civic engagement. Indeed, To Save Everything is not nearly as cynical about technology as its title suggests. In the final chapter are we afforded a glimpse of an alternative future with a visit to the digital media scholar Carl DiSalvo’s “adversarial design” studio. DiSalvo’s experimental consumer technologies gesture to a kind of “frictionful” design. Crime maps visualize the effects of mass incarceration; browser plugins subtly transform prices from US dollars into barrels of oil; an umbrella defeats facial recognition algorithms. In each project, Morozov writes, “DiSalvo articulates a new way of designing things that, instead of promoting consensus and efficiency, is instead inspired by the idea of endless antagonism and contestation of social and political norms and arrangements.” 

The value of inefficiency is a provocative motif that recurs around the perimeter of Morozov’s more forceful critiques of solutionism. Throughout his grand tour of Internet-centrism, Morozov points out the limited utility of technocratic measures for representing values that resist easy quantification, such as faith or civic pride: “Quantifiable information,” he says, “might be nothing but low-hanging fruit that is easy to pick but often thwarts more ambitious, more sustained efforts at understanding.” In his final chapter, Morozov examines the implementation of “smart” parking meters in the City of Santa Monica that reset themselves automatically each time a car leaves the spot. Although the meters will increase the efficiency of the current parking system and raise revenue for the city, they nonetheless drew criticism from citizens, who lamented the end of finding extra time on a meter. Morozov responds to this intriguing story by suggesting alternative parking meter designs and playing out their social implications. What if the meters gave drivers the option to leave the balance on the meter? Would users favor macroscale investment in the city budget by dutifully resetting their meters, or would they opt for the microscale altruism of leaving a few cents to the next driver? How would this calculation change if the meter displayed statistics about the city transportation budget on its screen? With each of these hypothetical modifications, Morozov builds a strong case for the value of inefficiency and for designing friction into sociotechnical systems. 

The critique of efficiency and productivity in the foreground of To Save Everything builds on a commitment to deliberative democracy that undergirds much of the book. Deliberation, Morozov points out, is quintessentially inefficient. Bringing people with different backgrounds and commitments together for the purpose of reaching a mutually satisfying agreement is a slow and messy and often frustrating process. Whereas solutionism assumes the possibility of consensus and unanimity, Morozov champions compromise. “Perfection shouldn’t be pursued for its own ends; democracy is a complex affair in which, in the absence of disappointments, there would never be any accomplishments.” Given this enthusiasm for deliberation, it is surprising to find “big data” absent among Morozov’s many targets. The juxtaposition of canonical problems in public deliberation with the technocratic values of Internet-centrism suggests a number of challenges to the trend toward “data-driven decision making” in management and policy-making. How are the statistics that make up “big data” produced? What sorts of arguments may be supported by these data? Which institutions have the specialized skills and technologies necessary to manipulate digital information on a mass scale? And is probability an appropriate measure for resolving public conflict? 

But Morozov is more concerned with the ideological content of the books and blog posts he discusses than he is with the cultural circumstances in which they have come to prominence. As a result, although he convincingly argues that a narrow set of ideas about the Internet have become dominant in the technology industry, it is not clear why they should have taken hold now. What is so compelling about the notion that the mythical Internet represents a rupture with the past? Why does the sense that we are living in revolutionary times seem to resonate with so many people? In his initial discussion of Internet-centrism, Morozov writes that he is “interested in why and how ‘the Internet’ excites — and why and how it confuses.” To Save Everything, Click Here convincingly destabilizes the myth of the single, coherent Internet and documents the many ways that it confuses. But by the end of the book, we still do not know why it excites.

These unanswered questions point to a larger weakness with Morozov’s project. From the start, he dives into his examples and presents the reader with a clear sense that there is a widespread bias toward solutionism and Internet-centrism in the popular literature on the Internet and society. What is missing, however, is a clear articulation of what is at stake or threatened by this bias. Why should we care about the literature that Morozov critiques? Who is buying — and buying into — these books, and for what purpose? Are they required reading among Google engineers, Stanford Business School students, or congressional aides? Are they being used to justify the allocation of public school funding or to support particular telecommunications policy decisions? We never learn; all we know for sure is that Morozov thinks they’re stupid. Furthermore, how do we understand Morozov’s ambiguous position among them? Are these books his objects of study — symptoms of a cultural tendency — or do they represent his peers and interlocutors?

Knowing the answers to these questions matters because the primary goal of To Save Everything, Click Here is to present a revised agenda for Internet criticism. Morozov argues that today’s critics treat the Internet with an undeserved reverence. “It’s here to stay,” he writes in a parody of the Internet-centrist position, “and we’d better work around it, discover its real nature, accept its features as given, learn its lessons, and refurbish our world accordingly.” In the face of this near-religious zeal, Morozov, borrowing from the philosopher Philippe Breton, calls for a “secularization of our Internet debate.” His new research program would abandon the myth of a singular, stable Internet in favor of closer examination of particular technologies in their social and political contexts. In a sense, this seemingly forceful proposal is really just one more example of Morozov building bridges between the academic and popular literatures on technology. This myth-busting approach has been dominant in academia for over 30 years. Take, for example, the work of sociologists Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker who, beginning in the 1990s, advocated for the value of studying all the “boring things” that make up the unexamined infrastructure of everyday life.

For how long will it be necessary to set “the Internet” off in quotation marks? Morozov is right to challenge the  Internet-centric sense of our current era as wholly unprecedented, but he may be overenthusiastic in his dismissal of its novelty. In the long view, it is tempting to imagine the Internet as merely speeding up communication over long distances — nothing more than a high-bandwidth telegraph, in other words — but the distortions of time and space afforded by widespread mobile Internet access remain poorly understood. Perhaps the myth of the Internet serves a critical social or cognitive function? Perhaps the full scope of the Internet with all its messy complexity is too overwhelming without a pragmatic shortcut? If so, we should expect that the preferred myth among Silicon Valley adherents to be just one of many mythologies in circulation — and, in spite of its influence, it is surely not the most widespread. Morozov’s future research agenda will need to accommodate a comparative criticism of these competing mythologies.

As a reactionary polemic, To Save Everything effectively dismantles the ideological status quo, but does little to present an alluring alternative vision. Morozov’s critique skillfully exposes the solutionist conception of the future as radically inhumane in spite of its claims to the contrary. (“The problem with engineers is not that they are conservative,” he suggests, “it’s that they are not conservative enough. For them, everything is negotiable — dignity and autonomy included.”) He is rightfully suspicious of Internet-centric utopias, but now might be a time to go beyond suspicion, and to engage in what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls a “critical utopianism.” In the void left by the defeated solutionist vision, we need new stories to tell about the future of technology in society. What remains to be seen is who will step up to tell them.

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