Toward a Complex, Realistic, and Moral Tech Criticism

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Evgeny Morozov's second book is a brilliant, confounding work of creative destruction.

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Evgeny Morozov delivering a lecture sponsored by Stanford's Program on Liberation Technology (Alexis Madrigal) in January, 2013.

What critics of literature do not both love and hate the subject of their scholarship? The very strength of a critic's love is what inspires such dogged meaning- and fault-finding in the reality of any work.

This is also true for writer and thinker Evgeny Morozov, though it is not literature but technology that must bear the privilege of his evisceration. His books read like letters from a jilted lover, full of accusations of unmet promises, lost potential, and occasionally, a glimmer of that initial spark of attraction.

And he is a truly great critic. Morozov's work reveals new things about how technology works in our society at this particular moment in time. His analysis may be cutting, but he doesn't hate technology. On the contrary, Morozov's ultimate goal is to destroy the ideology of technology, so that particular technologies can be used in specific situations without the baggage of other people's nonsense.

Morozov's second book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, is the most wide-ranging and generative critique of digital technology I've ever read. There's so much substance to argue about between its covers. At the center of it all, there's a brilliant, idiosyncratic mind at work.

Describing and destroying two concepts -- "Internet-centrism" and "solutionism" -- form the core of his book, and both are fascinating frames for the discourse surrounding our network technologies.

Internet-centrism is the idea that our society, and particularly its public intellectuals, have become fascinated by the notion that the Internet is a stable and coherent force in our lives. He rails against the idea that this force shapes things autonomously, or that it has any inherent qualities, or that we have to listen to what "the Internet" wants on a topic like openness, for example. Morozov's goal is to force everyone to write the Internet with quotes -- like this: "the Internet." This, he feels, better implies the complexities of the Internet's social creation and casts doubt on its power as an independent force with its own ahistorical rules.

His analysis here is a full-frontal attack on the shorthand thinking that's come to dominate many discussions about the role of digital technologies in the world. It's a valuable contribution in many ways; he demands that we think seriously about the Internet, I mean, "the Internet." I do think that Morozov has succeeded in doing a lot of damage to the idea that "'the Internet' is a useful analytical category." And to perform a deconstruction in public and for a general reader is a feat of magic that borders on necromancy. Who knew people still wanted to read books like this?

Morozov's "solutionism" is something else altogether. In it, he's identified a key strain of modern political and social thought, synthesizing a wide variety of domains, technologies, and types of arguments into something we can ponder and argue about. I find myself coming back to this idea time and again while listening to advocates and opponents of particular technologies. I would not be surprised if describing the contours, origins, and failings of this way of thought are what Morozov is remembered for. I think it will become the concept that generates its own set of literature. He writes:

Recasting all complex social situations either as neat 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. These are the kinds of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that "solutionists" have defined them; what's contentious, then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. 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.

This analysis, which runs throughout the entire book, is really, really interesting. I'm going to get into the details soon, but my main worry is that solutionism, even accepting Morozov's framing, contains some elements worth preserving. Indeed, there is a reading of this book (an unkind one, for sure) that finds it deeply anti-progressive and almost frighteningly supportive of the status quo in politics and elsewhere.

All of which makes the book a delight: It's a high-wire performance, a feat of intellectual daring. He goes to war with almost everybody else who thinks about the Internet's people, institutions, and technologies in the public eye: Nicholas Carr, Clay Shirky, David Weinberger, Tim Wu, Kevin Kelly, Farhad Manjoo, Steven Johnson, Gary Wolf, among others. Sometimes, he wins easily. Sometimes, he tangles himself into knots trying to defeat every possible enemy and defend against every possible counterargument. In all cases, he is worth reading, even if you vehemently disagree.

The only comparable experience I've ever had was reading Vaclav Smil on energy: Frustrating, enlightening, and counterintuitive in the best meaning of the word. Of course, if you're interested in the Internet, you should read it. And I think historians in 2030 or 2050 will use this book to highlight the anxieties and debates of our time, pretty much all of which it attempts to tackle at once.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that they'll read it as a fair or grounded representation of the state of technology. Morozov's mode, while learned and theoretically grounded, is not as deeply authoritative as it appears. There is little actual evidence that many of the phenomena he highlights are actually occurring in the way he says they are. Granted, that's not his focus. I recognize fully that Morozov's project is in the realm of ideas, ideology, and the sociology of knowledge.

But there's often not even an attempt to line up reality with his anecdotes and projections. He relies time and again on scenarios, little flights of fancy, that are neither thought experiment nor forecast, but something more opaque. Even within the logic of the book itself, it's difficult to compare his scenarios to one another. There's little consistency among them in terms of plausibility or time-scale. If you look closely, you're left wondering: is this something that is already happening, might happen in a year, could happen in 10 years, or is a logical possibility in a century? Quite-close-to-real scenarios are delivered with the same rhetorical weight as truly wild Morozovian nightmares.

Let me give just a few examples.

Here's one section from Morozov's chapter on predictive policing in which he introduces a real product, ShotSpotter, a microphone sensor system that lets police (in Oakland, say) identify where gunshots are fired. Watch how he slides from there to a much stranger idea without blinking:

These systems are not cheap--ShotSpotter reportedly charges $40,000 to $60,000 a year per square mile--but they are hardly the latest word in crime detection. Why bother with expensive microphones if smartphones can do the job just fine? It all boils down to designing an appealing and nonintrusive app and creating the right incentives--perhaps by appealing to the moral conscience of citizens or by turning crime reports into a game--so that citizens can take on some of the tasks of faulty sensors and easily distracted human.

From an actual, deployed system to a nightmarish sousveillance scenario in one sentence. Could such a system work? Would this be appealing to institutional players or people? Why even bother, if you're the cops? Is anyone even thinking about doing this in one, five, or even 20 years? What gives him the idea this might happen? I don't know. There's certainly nothing in the quite extensive (and welcome) footnotes to explain this leap.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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