technology isn’t spelled with a capital “T”

I recently read the most thorough, thoughtful, and cogent treatise on technology that I’ve ever encountered: To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov.

My attraction to this book is not without bias. Morozov seems to view technology—its potential for both good and ill—much as I do, but the technologies that reside within his purview, the depths to which he’s studied them, and the disciplines on which he draws to understand them, exceed my own. His approach and grasp is that of a philosopher.

Morozov decries technological solutionism.

Alas, all too often, this never-ending quest to ameliorate—or what the Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li, writing in a very different context, has called “the will to improve”—is shortsighted and only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought. Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized—if only the right algorithms are in place!—this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.

I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning, where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions—the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences—to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious…Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved. (pp. 5 and 6)

This book exposes the threat of solutionism and proposes healthier ways to embrace and benefit from technologies.

The ultimate goal of this book…is to uncover the attitudes, dispositions, and urges that comprise the solutionist mind-set, to show how they manifest themselves in specific projects to ameliorate the human condition, and to hint at how and why some of these attitudes, dispositions, and urges can and should be resisted, circumvented, and unlearned. For only by unlearning solutionism—that is, be transcending the limits it imposes on our imaginations and by rebelling against its value system—will we understand why attaining technological perfection, without attending to the intricacies of the human condition and accounting for the complex world of practices and traditions, might not be worth the price. (p. xv)

If you’ve spent much time listening to or reading the words of Silicon Valley’s prominent spokespersons (Kevin Kelly of IDEO, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Eric Schmidt of Google, to name a few) you might have noticed that they tend to speak of technology as if it were spelled with a capital “T.” For them, Technology is a sentient being with purpose that, much like the God of evangelicals, has a wonderful plan for our lives. It is our job as believers to embrace Technology and let it lead us to the promised land, for it exceeds us in wisdom and power, and is unquestionably good. I’ve provided training and consulting services for many of the technology companies that preach this gospel. During these engagements, I do my best to moderate their techno-enthusiasm and point out that technologies are just tools that provide benefit only when they are well designed, capable of helping us solve real problems, and ethically used. We have choices when we approach technologies, and we should make them thoughtfully.

Morozov addresses information technologies of all types and critiques them incisively from the perspective of history and a breadth of disciplines. Even such givens as Moore’s Law, which technologists often cite as the basis of their position, is revealed as a failed hypothesis—hardly a law.

Morozov seems to share my concerns about Big Data. Regarding the popular new trend of capturing and storing everything he writes, “Where there is no reflection about what ought to be preserved, the records—no matter how comprehensive—might trigger fewer challenging questions about the relative significance of recorded events; the enormity of the archive might actually conceal that significance.” (p. 278) In opposition to those who fail to see the connection between the technologies of today with the past, he writes:

Contrary to his [David Weinberger of Harvard's Berkman Center] claim that “knowledge is now property of the network,” knowledge has always been property of the network, as even a cursory look at the first universities of the twelfth century would reveal. Once again, our digital enthusiasts mistake impressive and—yes!—interesting shifts in magnitude and order with the arrival of a new era in which the old rules no longer apply. Or, as one perceptive critic of Weinberger’s oeuvre has noted, he confuses “a shift in network architecture with the onset of networked knowledge per se.” “The Internet” is not a cause of networked knowledge; it is its consequence—an insight lost on most Internet theorists. (p. 38)

Technologists (especially technology vendors) use the term “revolution” much too loosely. What qualifies as revolutionary? Morozov argues that, “In order to be valid, any declaration of yet another technological revolution must meet two criteria: first, it needs to be cognizant of what has happened and been said before, so that the trend it’s claiming as unique is in fact unique; second, it ought to master the contemporary landscape in its entirety—it can’t just cherry-pick facts to suit its thesis.” No recent so-called revolution in technology fails to meet these criteria more severely than Big Data.

I don’t agree entirely with everything that Morozov presents in this book, but at no point did I find his reasoning unsound or uninformed. He has opened my eyes to a few issues that fall outside of my primary spheres of interest, some of which have caused me to lose a little sleep, especially ways in which technological solutionism is influencing politics. While it is true that our political systems can be improved, the notion that we can “ditch politics altogether and hope that technology—especially ‘the Internet’—can rid us of problems that politics can no longer solve or, in a milder version, that we can replace politicians and politics with technocrats and administration” is frightening. (p. 128 and 129) “Fixing politics without first getting a thorough understanding of what it is and what it is for is still a very dangerous undertaking…Political thinking, as well as political morality, needs to be cultivated; it doesn’t occur naturally—not even to geniuses in Silicon Valley.” (p. 139)

Technologies are important. They give us opportunities to extend our reach and improve our world, but they also give us opportunities to do the opposite. Morozov understands this. He is not a Luddite, he’s a responsible technologist. I recommend that you consider what he has to say.

Take care,

12 Comments on “technology isn’t spelled with a capital “T””


By Bill H. June 27th, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I found the comment about technocratic solutions especially interesting. I keep thinking that the government is becoming responsible for more activities that used to be fulfilled by citizens and local groups. Even if a legitimate argument can be made that the government is better at providing many services, how do you build up responsible citizens and political morality if you remove all opportunity to exercise those skills.

By David Leppik. June 28th, 2013 at 10:36 am

Sure, technology is not the solution. Except when it is. For every working technological solution there’s a social context that mediates whether or not it’s appropriate. In the case of Big Data, the mediating social context would be experts in statistics and particular problem domains who can separate real information from important-sounding Big Noise.

This book sounds like a one-sided take on the situation described by Bruce Schneier’s book “Liars and Outliers.” Every system (technological, social, or bureaucratic) needs workarounds for emergencies and unforeseen circumstances. It takes time to figure out the workarounds. And even longer to put the workarounds into law or common practice.

And for some systems, the workaround is to ditch the system entirely.

By Stephen Few. June 28th, 2013 at 10:52 am

David,

I suggest that you read the book before forming assumptions about it. The assumptions that you’ve formed so far are mistaken.

Morozov and I are both technologists. We believe in the potential of technologies. Well informed technologists, as opposed to those who are in the business of marketing technology, maintain a love-hate relationship with it. Morozov’s book is not one-sided; certainly not in the sense that you assume. He has a perspective that is perhaps better informed than anyone that you’ve read on the topic.

The failures of technologies and our uses of them are not primarily due to the fact that they don’t address every situation and sometimes require workarounds. If only that were true. Technologies, when developed and used without proper vigilance, can be costly and harmful in ways that aren’t obvious. Both Morozov and I advocate a level of thoughtfulness about technologies and their use that provides a necessary counterpoint to the naive cheer leading that is common among Silicon Valley’s elite. Others do this as well. For example, Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, provides another thoughtful counterpoint to the norm.

I believe that you would derive great benefit from this book and encourage you to read it.

By Neil Barrett. July 1st, 2013 at 6:08 am

Interesting article!

This seems to be something of a ’systems thinking’ approach. Does the thing you’re doing actually help to directly or indirectly ’cause’ the goal. Certainly the proliferation of BI tools seem to have encouraged people to collect, maintain and report on huge amounts of pointless transactional data, whilst simultaneously taking people’s eye off what is actually important to the business *and* making people think they’re more informed than they ever were — they just need some analytics to polish it off.

By Jordan Goldmeier. July 1st, 2013 at 6:34 am

I *knew* you’d really like his book. There moments where I forget if I’ve read something by you in Perceptual Edge or by Morozov in one of his articles.

By Chance Coble. July 6th, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Really interesting post, I’ll definitely check out the book. I work in big data and predictive analytics, and it is refreshing to find writers (and thinkers) who aren’t always trying to get to the crest of the zeitgeist.

By Andrew. July 15th, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Stephen,

I saw a link to the Morozov article below last week and it made me think of your last two blog articles - the article about Big Data and the NSA, and the one above. I wasn’t sure which to post it under, but I thought you’d be interested in reading it, if you haven’t seen it already:

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/06/with_big_data_surveillance_the_government_doesn_t_need_to_know_why_anymore.single.html

In the article, Morozov talks about big data surveillance and how it focuses on simple correlations rather than real causes (because understanding the “why” is too expensive). As a result, we just implement quick fixes instead of dealing with the actual problems. Apparently sense-making isn’t a goal in “big data”. Who knew, right?

By Stephen Few. July 15th, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Andrew,

Yes, what we have here is Big Data but Little Information.

By Stephen Few. July 16th, 2013 at 9:45 am

Andrew,

The article by Morozov that you shared with us above is excellent. I recommend it highly. As a teaser, here are the article’s final words:

“As Band-Aids go, Big Data is excellent. But Band-Aids are useless when the patient needs surgery. In that case, trying to use a Band-Aid may result in amputation. This, at least, is the hunch I drew from Big Data.”

By Bill Halpern. August 2nd, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Seems to me I heard once how many millions are being made in Data Warehousing/Mining/Analytics aka BIG DATA, and I can’t remember the amount exactly, but I do remember it was staggering! Does that not answer the question?

By Brian. August 23rd, 2013 at 1:47 am

Morozov, Andrew Keen and Nicholas Carr are the essentials in my view.

John Cornwell’s ‘Hitler’s Scientists’ is also a great historical perspective to link C19/20 European modern tech/positivist/determinists with our mostly American C21 postmodern versions.

By Jonathan Friesen. August 28th, 2013 at 11:56 am

Interesting book–thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been meaning to read Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society for a while but I’ve been looking for something for a little bit more nuanced. Ellul recognizes the limitations of technology but his solution seems too much of a throw-back for me. Being a technologist myself, I see that there are benefits to technology, so I’ll be curious to hear Marazov’s thoughts.