Apr/May 2013

Rage Against the Machine

A digital heretic decries the spread of "solutionism"

Siva Vaidhyanathan

To Save Everything, Click Here:

The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by Evgeny Morozov

$28.99 List Price

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There is no such thing as “the Internet.”

That is to say: Thinking, writing, and speaking about “the Internet” as if there were such a thing as a distinct, global, open, distributed “network of networks” that can connect all of humanity as soon as we can all get “online” leads us to ignore many inconvenient facts.

In most of the world, digitized network communication is not so open, not well distributed, and not necessarily run through the sort of computer networks that serve as the foundation of “Internet” communication in the United States. When you send a message via the AT&T mobile 4G network, it’s not really going through “the Internet” of our dreams. It’s going through a highly regulated proprietary system. And if you are using an iPhone, it’s going through a highly regulated proprietary device. And because we increasingly send data to and from these machines that sit on our bodies and travel with us throughout the day, these flows of information are not part of some separate sphere or “cyberspace.”

We misunderstand this tangle of digital technologies and the roles they play in our lives when we assume that “the Internet” has a particular logic, that it must necessarily have distinctive attributes (openness, neutrality, etc.), or that it constitutes a special “place” operating by its own rules and norms, as opposed to amplifying some preexisting rules and norms and undermining others. As with any technological system, we shape these gadgets as much as—if not more than—they shape us.

None of this analysis would strike scholars of the history of technology as controversial. But to the editors and readers of Wired magazine—and to countless other techno-evangelists in the overlapping worlds of commerce and culture—it’s nothing short of dangerous apostasy.

Popular writers about technology, including Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Steven Johnson, and Kevin Kelly, have been riding the wave of what critic Evgeny Morozov calls “Internet Centrism”: the idea that “the Internet” is a distinct historical and technological phenomenon, and that its emergence has marked a revolution in thought and perhaps even human consciousness, one that will allow—no, destine—us to march forward into better lives and better times. To some of these writers, we will all be just fine as long as we maintain faith in the power of “the Internet.” On the other hand, if we surrender to nostalgia, raise concerns a priori, or sneer at grandiose predictions of “creative destruction” or “the Singularity,” we risk waking up from this lovely dream. Deviation or dissent from the Internet-centric consensus is nothing less than a retrograde, elitist, and possibly authoritarian inclination.

In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov—a onetime online activist who now calls himself a “digital heretic”—effectively punctures the shallow myths of Internet centrism. But then he stabs repeatedly, flailing at its shadows and echoes in the works of more responsible and sophisticated writers such as Harvard Law professors Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain.

Morozov, a regular contributor to the New Republic, Foreign Policy, Boston Review, and other publications, is as notorious for his brutal book reviews as he is for his prodigious work ethic. No one writing about technology seems to read more or faster than Morozov. At the age of twenty-six he published his first book, The Net Delusion (2011), which effectively destroyed any lingering utopian fantasies that digital technologies would necessarily liberate people from oppressive regimes—such as the widespread conceit that Twitter helped spark Iran’s “green revolution” uprising in 2009. Now twenty-eight and just starting his graduate work at Harvard, Morozov already grasps wide swaths of several scholarly fields and weaves them together astutely. And when he finds fault with a book, Morozov can eviscerate it mercilessly.

His October 2011 review of Jarvis’s Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live became instantly notorious. “This is a book that should have stayed a tweet,” Morozov wrote. “Stripped of all the inspirational buzzwords, it offers a two-fold, and insipid, argument.” Jarvis was left with no response but to call Morozov out for what he took to be personal attacks in a review of a book built largely on personal anecdotes. Jarvis’s poorly researched and glibly written book was too easy a target for any sharp-eyed reviewer and did not warrant a long review essay in the New Republic in the first place. As it turned out, Morozov’s strutting tone and his subsequent trash-talking tweets generated sympathy for Jarvis rather than any useful engagement over the more substantive issues Morozov sought to raise, such as the misuse of Jürgen Habermas’s work in popular American nonfiction. Still, that review led many technology writers to hope that their publishers’ publicists would leave the New Republic off the review-copy list. (I had no such luck when Morozov reviewed my own book The Googlization of Everything last summer, but I was immensely relieved to find that the review was respectful.)

Morozov knocks Jarvis around a bit in his new book. But for the most part he focuses on other “thought leaders” of the Internet age. In general, the purpose of To Save Everything, Click Here is to reveal poor research, ahistorical claims, and sloppy thinking. To a lesser extent, the book promotes some examples of sharp and informed analysis of technology and society. On these counts Morozov succeeds spectacularly. I would challenge anyone to read this book carefully and completely and then still assert that “the Internet” is a useful concept to apply as a model for anything else in life: crime prevention, national security, aesthetic judgment, economic policy, science, or education. All of these areas of life demand serious, informed deliberation and debate so we can work our way through urgent policy conflicts. This book delivers a primer in the best ways to think deeply and responsibly about technology. And along the way, Morozov pummels books that fail to demonstrate sufficient rigor and opt instead for the more marketable big idea or quick fix, such as Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Johnson’s Future Perfect.

So in some ways, To Save Everything, Click Here reads like a series of book reviews strung together. It’s dense with references to classic and recent philosophy, sociology, media studies, and history scholarship. It’s a heavy read. And it covers a vast array of material, from how we think about privacy (poorly) to the dangers of quantifying everything we can. Morozov has a tendency to show off his knowledge, even when, for the sake of narrative flow, he might better convince his skeptics by going lightly over some topics. There are moments when he almost loses thematic cohesion. What saves the book from that fate is Morozov’s disciplined return to two ideas that he sees as dominating the bad stuff written about digital technology over the past decade: the aforementioned Internet centrism and a more interesting and pernicious concept—solutionism.

Solutionism is a term Morozov borrowed from architecture and urban planning. It refers to the ideology that urges us to seek simple and often single solutions to complex problems. Within architecture, the idea refers to the tendency or desire to build grand structures like freeway overpasses or enormous towers in the middle of cities—monuments to what one can build, rather than well-designed approaches to the complexities of urban life.

It’s also intellectual bad faith. Morozov writes that “solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching ‘for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.’” I once drove past a church in Charlottesville, Virginia, that neatly summed up the false logic of solutionism on a sign outside: “God has an app for that.”

Identifying solutionism as the practice of “recasting all complex social situations . . . as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions,” Morozov finds it at work in the specious marketing construct known as “the Quantified Self”—monitoring and measuring every aspect of one’s bodily functions in an effort to optimize health. He also notes that the concept is behind the growth in ubiquitous surveillance technologies intended to help police predict crime. In each case, the fetish for recording what we can record and measuring what we can measure blinds us to alternative explanations and responses.

A more measured approach to the issues too often addressed by solutionism would recognize that friction and inefficiencies can have value as well. We should not “solve the problem” of education, for instance, by narrowly identifying the chief difficulty as nonstandardized curricula, designed by a range of different teachers for the individual needs of their students. But this is exactly what solutionism would do: impose an analysis that declares diversity a problem, squeezes out values that can’t be quantified, and standardizes procedures and measurement instruments—which is, of course, precisely the approach we’ve taken to school reform.

By exposing the steady creep of solutionism into ever-greater swaths of public life, To Save Everything, Click Here serves as a sharp corrective to the complacencies of our latter-day techno-prophets. In a very short time, Morozov has established himself as a writer and thinker of substance, wisdom, and gumption. He is just now learning other important virtues, such as patience with those who don’t know as much as he does. I look forward to the day he handles the human authors of the “folly” he excoriates a bit more decorously. In the meantime, he has given us his second substantial and indispensable book in two years—and has left us good cause to continue wrestling with his bristling, insightful digital apostasies for years to come.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is chair of the media-studies department at the University of Virginia and the author of The Googlization of Everything (University of California Press, 2011).


April 3, 2013
7:03 pm

Morozov's use of the term "solutionism" is a deft distillation that captures the internal logic of marketing organizations chasing customers and revenues armed only with the vision and abilities of an incrementalist. Witness "Cloud" services and pharmaceutical patent reapplication based on trivial tweeks to FDA approved formulas.

My own take on this epiphenomenon of consumer capitalism is to recognize that there really is very little innovative thought or behavior to be found among "information"-centric product purveyors. They are essentially hyperactively re-inventing the wheel in a margin erroding pantomime of true creativity I call "radical incrementalism".


September 2, 2013
11:09 pm

We should not “solve the problem” of education, for instance, by narrowly identifying the chief difficulty as nonstandardized curricula, designed by a range of different teachers for the individual needs of their students.

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