by Rob Walker
Evgeny Morozov has surveyed the current state of the grand debate over our technologies and how we use them — and he is completely appalled.
I can understand that broad sentiment, since our tech pundits often seem to come in only two varieties: wild-eyed optimists and alarmist skeptics. Each responds to the ideas of the other with maximum hyperbole: optimists are branded naïve or delusional, skeptics swiftly labeled luddites and enemies of progress. We could use a less hysterical approach. Instead, Morozov belittles both sides, repeatedly and caustically, in his new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Arriving on the scene of a brawl, he breaks it up with a flamethrower.
That’s too bad, because scattered among the sneering potshots and distracting takedowns are a number of potentially useful ideas that never quite get fully explored. Broadly, Morozov finds most public thinkers on matters of technology and the Internet — whether utopian or alarmist — think too narrowly. His wider perspective, grounded in something closer to philosophical inquiry than traditional punditry, leads him to question what we even mean by “technology” and “the Internet.”
That sounds obtuse, but it’s actually important to his most consistent theme, which is that we often ascribe a kind of independent agency to what are in fact tools and systems shaped by human decisions. The Internet is often “believed to possess an inherent nature, a logic, a teleology, and that nature is rapidly unfolding in front of us,” he writes, sketching out the problem with this point of view: “We can just stand back and watch; ‘the Internet’ will take care of itself—and us. If your privacy disappears in the process, this is simply what the Internet gods wanted all along.”
Pushing back against this fatalism is, to me, Morozov’s most crucial message. I happened to pick up his book just as Google was settling a case brought against the company by 38 states, admitting to violating the privacy of computer users by collecting data available over unencrypted WiFi networks via its Street View program. Did this happen simply because technology is what it is, or because of how someone chose to use technology without any prior debate? As The Times observed, this effort (greenlighted by a “midlevel engineer”) exemplified the “better to seek forgiveness than permission” mantra common among tech companies whose profitable pursuits bump up against social norms.
That strategy is certainly better for those companies — particularly, as in this case, when forgiveness can be had for $7 million and a promise to take privacy more seriously — but is it “better” for the rest of us? (And by the way, would we want, say, pharmaceutical companies to operate under this ethos?)
Morozov’s other arguments about the danger of believing in “the Internet” (he always puts it in quotes) as some sort of independent and un-shapeable entity move in many directions — too many to summarize here. In some cases his examples are lucid, as when he addresses the search and “trending topics” algorithms of Google and Twitter: While they produce results that appear to be beyond question, they are in fact merely the byproduct of algorithms shaped by one group of people, gamed by others and (despite their potential public impact) proprietary and non-transparent to everyone else.
He also makes useful points about “solutionism,” a term he borrows from the planning and design world to describe a tendency to identify problems solely through what can be drastically changed by using the latest tools at hand. (So if Wikipedia seems more efficient than government, maybe government should be more like Wikipedia!)
Morozov is effective in undercutting that sort of thinking. But in other cases he raises provocative ideas without really making a persuasive case. This is where his penchant for eviscerating other commentators, as the book grinds on, gets in the way. If you’re going to argue for the “important roles that subjectivity, inefficiency, and ignorance” play in culture, take the time to back it up convincingly, over more than a couple of paragraphs. If you’re going to ask “Why alter our conception of privacy if we can regulate Facebook and Google?,” then work through what that might actually look like. And ease up on the one-liners about Jeff Jarvis.
Morozov is extremely erudite, and when focused on making a sustained argument on a specific subject, he can be brilliant: His assessment of Steve Jobs for The New Republic is probably the best thing I’ve ever read about Apple, and that’s saying something. But I can’t imagine To Save Everything, Click Here changing many minds, let alone the terms of the discussions we ought to be having about technology. See, for example, Morozov’s recent “ debate ” with Farhad Manjoo on Slate: Over the course of four long posts, the two simply talk past each other, agreeing only on a dislike of Jeff Jarvis. Depressing.
There’s nothing wrong with exposing the weaknesses in others’ arguments on the way to making your own. Despite Morozov’s talent as an original thinker, he seems more interested here in his talent as a crafter of zingers, which eventually feel less like a means than an end.
“While we can’t rid the world of people who want to ‘fix’ politics,” he observes at one point in the book, “we can at least ridicule those who want to do so by subjecting politics to ‘lessons learned’ from Wikipedia.” Okay, but framing the choices as “getting rid of” opponents or “ridiculing” them pretty much guarantees that the debate will slog along just as before, as un-grand as ever.
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