Monday, April 15, 2013

To Save Everything, Click Here

If you follow this blog you would have heard me talk about the urgent need for strong, popular and accessible critiques of internet ideology, even as I documented attempts that either misfired or proved far worse than the target. Now I’m almost entirely certain that he wouldn’t be flattered by the comparison, but I think that in Evgeny Morozov we may have finally found the Neil Postman for these troubled times of ours.

To Save Everything, Click Here is ambitious in its design: to expose the twin, intertwining ideologies of ‘Internet-centrism’ and ‘solutionism’ in the full range of their contemporary manifestations, and show not only how they’re neither natural nor necessary, but also that they're pernicious and dangerous. Simply put, 'Internet-centrism' (capitalised as per Morozov) is the idea that the broad array of technologies that are commonly grouped under the name of ‘the Internet’ (scare-quoted throughout the book) constitutes the defining feature of the epoch and that every issue – be it political, social or technical – should be put in a subservient relation to it. If one considers for instance the legal and social constructs of privacy and copyright, Internet-centrism holds it that they must be redesigned to suit the mythical preference of the internet (along the lines of: information wants to be free, everything about you must be shared and so forth). These are obvious enough examples, but as Morozov shows one could make many others, such as urban transportation or climate change. If ‘the internet’ is to be defining of our epoch then it must also be transformational and invest all aspects of life.

‘Solutionism’ is simply the corollary of Internet-centrism. In fact it may not even be necessary to distinguish between the two, except insofar as doing so makes it easier to (correctly) think of solutionism as pre-dating the latest epochal technology, making it the product of any x-centrism. Thus, solutionism is the belief that every human activity is potentially a problem crying out for the application of the dominant contemporary techne. An Internet-centrist would therefore seek to redesign every such activity in a way that makes the internet central to it, and regard everything that doesn’t have enough internet in it (say, the voting system or how people go about dieting) as ‘a problem’ whose self-evident solution is: more internet.

There are subtleties in Morozov’s deployment of the term that call for an extended quotation:
Solutionism […] is not just a fancy way of saying that for someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; it’s not just another riff on the inapplicability of “technological fixes” to “wicked problems” […]. It’s not only that many problems are not suited to the quick-and-easy solutionist tool kit. It’s also that what many solutionists presume to be “problems” in need of solving are not problems at all; a deeper investigation into the very nature of these “problems” would reveal that the inefficiency, ambiguity, and opacity—whether in politics or everyday life—that the newly empowered geeks and solutionists are rallying against are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite: these vices are often virtues in disguise. (6)

Morozov’s own approach is anti-epochal, possibly to a fault. He simply doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as the internet, or at least that the ‘real’ (and very narrowly defined) internet bears little resemblance to the ‘mythical’ internet dreamed up by its sales force. To help understand this point he makes the comparison with Pasteur and ‘Pasteur’: the former is the historical Louis Pasteur as he lived and breathed and worked; the latter is the mythical ‘Pasteur’ that became the index of an era and of an entire system of thought concerning hygiene and human progress. Morozov proposes that any serious history of science and society at the times of Pasteur would have to reject the mythical ‘Pasteur’ or at least heavily problematicise the use of the name for the purposes of metonymy. So too, he proposes, we should refrain from using the word ‘internet’, but talk instead of its constitutive technologies (each with their own particular genealogy) as a way of countering the arguments of the Internet-centrists.

I’m not sure this is in fact an entirely workable strategy. It’s a bit like saying we should reject dualism, which is certainly true but also very difficult in that dualism – and not since yesterday – has very effectively colonised the discourse about technology. Exposing its contradictions as they emerge may be the best one can do. I’m also not entirely convinced by Morozov’s contention that narratives concerning, for instance, surveillance and capitalism ‘have little to do with the [internet] infrastructure per se’. Having written about the internet as a technology of control I may in fact be one of Morozov’s villains, but I believe it’s important not to lose sight of the ways in which internet technologies sometimes do in fact operate in concert and exhibit common patterns. For instance, when one examines the use of sensors in different consumer devices and in particular those applications in which the output is shared on social media – as Morozov does in several chapters – well, that’s the internet. Trying to break it down or find other words for it may do nothing but blunt one’s critique. Besides, Morozov’s generous use of the ‘Wired we’ proves how difficult and occasionally self-defeating it can be not to use the language of the enemy.

But these – much as they speak to one of the book’s central concerns – are quibbles. What’s most impressive about To Save Everything is the breadth of the argumentation coupled with the patient recovery of the history of each of the solutionist projects. Gordon Bell’s lifelog project isn’t new. Neither are ideas about how to substitute technocracy for democracy, or ‘gamify’ chores or work processes to make them more efficient. Each chapter of the book is an object lesson on how to frame these projects critically and counter the arguments of the Shirkies and the Lessigs, the Kevin Kellys and the Steven Johnsons of this world. And while the polemical pages are undeniably the most lively and satisfying, what sets the book apart is the manner of that framing and the depth of the underlying research. These allow Morozov to steer a successful course between ‘the binary poles of Internet pessimism and Internet optimism’ through which Internet-centrism manages to ‘present (and eventually consume) any critique of itself as yet another manifestation of these two extremes’ (42).  Those, remember, were the rocks against which Carr and Lanier had perished.

The book’s final chapter is dedicated to some intriguing technologies – or are they art installations? – that seek to disrupt the myths of technological solutionism by foregrounding aspects, in particular around energy consumption, that are typically downplayed in consumer electronics. Household plants that are euthanised via the administration of vinegar if you exceed a certain energy use; lamps that dim by themselves over time and must be revived in order to keep working; an extension cord that writhes on the floor as if in pain when it’s attached to gadgets on stand-by: these aren’t energy-saving technologies that put modernity out of our minds by automatising the most virtuous behaviours, but rather technologies that dramatise the relationship between the user, the infrastructure and the resources that sustain both. Not just our best technologies but our most useful critiques, concludes Morozov, will have to do something of the sort.

Evgeny Morozov. To Save Everything, Click Here. New York: PublicAffairs, 2013.