In To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism Evgeny Morozov rails against two ideologies he labels “Internet-centrisim” and “solutionism” which he defines, respectively, as the belief that the Internet should be used to explain the world and the belief that the world needs fixing. His opposition to Internet-centrism makes him a critic of not only technology advocates like Jeff Jarvis but also detractors like Nicholas Carr. His opposition to solutionism makes him a critic of everyone else.
In particular, Morozov’s directs his disgust at those who he thinks combine these two ideologies to blindly use the Internet as a model for solving societal problems. This makes popular books like Wikinomics, What Would Google Do? and Here Comes Everybody primary targets. To use an analogy, if the Internet is a hammer, he thinks people are obsessively debating which issue should be the next nail, rather than asking the more important questions of “should we be using this hammer?” and “why are we even hammering?”
To be sure, hype over technology can be taken too far: the Internet will not single-handedly cure cancer, eliminate poverty, and end global warming. Those who say it will are probably either delusional or trying to sell something. But while hyperbole may at times outpace reality, this does not mean that technological solutions to social problems should not be pursued. In fact, ITIF’s recommendations in reports like Digital Quality of Life are about how policymakers can maximize the benefits of technology, because without smart policies, the potential will not be realized.
But Morozov doesn’t just argue that the Internet has been overhyped (and here he is an unabashed critic of authors like Tim Wu, Lawrence Lessig, and Don Tapscott whose writings he describes as “shallow and historically illiterate”), he argues that the Internet, and its many consequences, are fundamentally not revolutionary because most of them are not entirely original. For example, he argues that crowdsourcing is not new since the British government solicited ideas for better oceanic navigation in 1714. For Morozov, changes of magnitude, no matter how large, do not count. But under his absurd definition of revolution, it is hard to see how anything might be considered revolutionary.
Morozov also does not provide a convincing argument for why social problems should not be solved, other than to weakly note that solutions to problems often have implications outside the initial scope of the problem. There’s nothing wrong with calling for more critical engagement on the underlying values of particular technologies and the impact this has on society—that is a worthy objective—but Morozov is basically arguing that this doesn’t exist at all today. Instead, he thinks the only value considered by technologists is economic efficiency (which, by the way, is how humans get more while working less). However, this claim ignores an important movement within computing of using value-centered design or user-centered design to incorporate individual and community values into technology. His claim also ignores the fact that technologists have been very publicly debating how values are incorporated in technology in areas like intellectual property, security, privacy, and energy efficiency. While it might be tempting to give him a pass and say mistakes happen, as Morozov himself writes authors “need to be cognizant of what has happened and been said before” and “ought to master the contemporary landscape in its entirety.”
Moreover, after spending many chapters decrying solutionism, Morozov actually endorses a form of solutionism when he describes a radio designed so that the audio quality decreases as the amount of energy used in a home increases. He claims this example of an “erratic technology” is not solutionism since it is not fixing a problem but rather creating a new problem (i.e. poor audio). However, the purpose of the proposed radio (and similar appliances) would be to let individuals be cognizant of the impact of energy use from their homes. That sounds like solutionism to me (and not that different than other uses of data and quantification to create positive feedback loops to change consumer behavior).
It’s unfortunate that these major shortcomings overshadow some good points. For example, I agree that some digital activists have been allowed to shield their policy recommendations behind the claim that not heeding their advice will “break the Internet” while at the same time defending critiques of the social impact of the Internet by citing its inevitability. Technology interventions, like any other policy proposals, should be based on their merits and not pursued because of ideological obsession with “openness” or “transparency” (although some of these principles may be useful rules of thumb).
Ultimately Morozov’s dismal of the revolutionary impact of the Internet is a big pill to swallow, and I suspect most readers will not find him convincing on this point, if for no other reason than the technology of the past decade has had a profound personal impact on how many people work, live and play. But even without personal experience, Morozov’s argument is undone by his own fixation on technology. Like a celibate priest with an unholy obsession with sex, Morozov can’t go two sentences without talking about the Internet. My advice to Morozov: If you want to pretend that the Internet doesn’t matter, don’t write two books about it.
Photo: re:publica 2013