To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov
Truthfully, I stayed away from this book. The overwhelming opinion of the popular tech press is that Evgeny Morozov writes like an asshole with an axe to grind. I found his first book The Net Delusion frustrating (but certainly worth it) and thus was unduly influenced by the digerati. If you feel the same way, ignore the pressure: read this book. Morozov’s writing can be “strong”, but imagine it being written with a playful smirk. I thought it rather funny actually.
The fact is that this book is an excellent first attempt (he did say he would return in a tank) at a critical assessment of “The Internet” as a cultural phenomenon. Without using the actual term, Morozov attacks the trend of using the internet as a “machine metaphor” — as a lens for understanding and revolutionizing human society. This is a phenomenon common throughout history: as a new technology begins adoption, it is often used as a metaphor to describe other parts of human understanding. For example, Galen thought of the body as a hydraulic system, reflective of the new technology of the time: plumbing; the brain has been known as a pneumatic device, a calculator, and more recently a computer; companies are vast machines with human cogs as workers, et cetera. With new technologies, come new metaphors, but the thinking is strikingly similar.
This time around it is “the Internet” (those are his purposeful scare quotes) which Morozov points out is a very difficult thing thing to define, and is not a useful category for analysis. It is merely a buzzword that obscures true underlying causes. Furthermore, he thinks it is exclusionary:
Today, “the Internet” is regularly invoked to thwart critical thinking and exclude nongeeks from the discussion.
To Morozov, the concept of a separate and encapsulated “online”, a hard line between “virtual” and “real”, and all the value judgements that entails, is illusory at best, and damaging at worst. The Internet deserves death as a concept for socio-political analysis.
Morozov warns against the temptation to think of technology as a panacea and implores thinkers to consider “deeper” legal and political solutions.
Last time I checked, much of this proverbial “Internet” was built by for-profit companies with the explicit objective of making money, not defending human rights. Why should we be reengineering our political institutions with this model in mind?
He goes even further as in many places he takes the position that when one looks deeper at problems, one may discover that they are not problems at all (sometimes absurdly, but it is a good exercise). He is not adverse to technical solutions, but critical of those that are ahistorical, or are working from a simplistic model. I was particularly sensitive to this since I had recently read Francis Fukuyama’s wonderful The Origins of Political Order, which goes into depth about the importance of institutions as foundations of our society.
The book is basically organized into groups of essays criticizing such topics as:
- obsession with efficiency
- obsession with transparency
- disintermediation of “traditional” media
- online reviews and the role of criticism
- predictive algorithms (eg. crime)
- self-tracking, lifelogging, the quantified self movement and “datasexuals”
- gamification and social coercion
- market fundamentalism
His criticism of “gamification” is particularly good with great one-liners such as:
B. F. Skinner, not Marshall McLuhan, is the real patron saint of “the Internet.”
… feedback loops, badges, and rewards that substitute pleasure for duty.
His personal experience growing up in Belarus (“Soviet planners were also great gamification enthusiasts”) is particularly effective.
Morozov uses a wide swath of resources and tries to base his criticisms on intellectual foundations with lengthy heritages. The volume of footnotes is refreshing for a non-trade book. In fact, most of the snark in the book targets the methodology (or lack thereof) of popular authors in the genre, accusing them of being ignorant of history before the invention of the world wide web. (I wonder what he thinks of Tom Standage’s work?) He certainly shows a bias for historians and takes a few digs at political and social scientists. There is some appreciated bashing of Kevin Kelly, but pretty weak criticism of The Information Diet.
Morozov’s focus on internet-centrism as latter-day scientism could leave him open to criticism as he spends a lot of time preaching about “making good citizens”. Why is that any worthier of a goal? Much like a deconstructionist questions everything he sees, Morozov can see the political in every object. His obsession over the “atomized consumer” — a hyper-individualistic being whose sense of civic duty has been wholly replaced by feel-good market fundamentalism — makes him out to be anti-capitalist, which I don’t think is entirely true. Some of his examples are often exaggerated or implausible scenarios with dystopian “mights” that one could never imagine coming to pass. This weakens what generally is a sound argument: we should not blindly accept new technologies as “progress”, least most the internet.