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.