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Choosing a New “ism” to Dread

It’s always fun to have a new ism. You can ponder the issues raised by the ism, write a book warning an unaware public about this ism (that you may or may not have made up), shake your fist at those who are so infatuated with the ism that they become ists, and generally feel pleased that you have found the perfect name for a foe against which you are now the de-facto first line of defense.

Such is the case with “Technological Solutionism” as explained by Evgeny Morozov in his NY Times op-ed “The Perils of Perfection” (published on March 2, 2013). In fairness, “solutionism” may not have originated with Morozov, but his op-ed certainly serves to bring this threatening ism to a wider audience, and seeks to direct attention to his upcoming book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism – which will surely seek to point out the, shall we say, “folly of technological solutionism.”

The solutionism that Morozov decries is the way in which new technologies (and new apps for new technologies) aim to provide “solutions” for many of the challenges that are integral parts of the human condition. Morozov discusses human foibles like forgetting and ethical inconsistency and mentions ways in which technology companies are seeking to “perfect” away these problems, he writes:

“All these efforts to ease the torments of existence might sound like paradise to Silicon Valley. But for the rest of us, they will be hell. They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call “solutionism”: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems based on just one criterion: whether they are “solvable” with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become “problems” simply because we have the tools to get rid of them – and not because we’ve weighed all the philosophical pros and cons.”

Many of the “solutions” that Morozov warns against are indeed quite worrisome, such as technological eyewear that might make it so that people no longer see homeless people, or apps that would “friend source” all of our decisions. Much of Morozov’s tone comes from a (very healthy) skepticism towards the motives of these “solutionists” as he notes that “the ideology of solutionism is thus essential to helping Silicon Valley maintain its image.” With that questionable“image” being one of Silicon Valley as providing products that make the world a better place.

While Morozov does not take the position that there are no problems that require solutions (which would be an absurd position) he does note that “not all problems are problems, and that those problems that do prove genuine might require long and protracted institutional responses, not just quick technological fixes produced at “hackathons” or viral videos to belatedly shame Ugandan warlords into submission.”

Though I find the term “solutionism” slightly silly, I do not disagree with Morozov’s op-ed, and likewise I find his conclusions largely correct. And the above quoted bit about “problems” is spot on in my opinion. Truth be told I found myself wondering if Morozov is a Neil Postman fan, I kept waiting for Morozov to reference Postman’s technology questions (I posted on those here) or Postman’s book Technopoly.

After all, in Technopoly Postman wrote:

“the computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable,” (Postman, 119).

Postman didn’t call that “technological solutionism,” but he could have.

Technopoly was first published in 1993, so while Morozov may be making some excellent points, points that are worth being restated as time goes by, this “solutionism” is nothing new. The problem is that we have been living in a society guided by such technological logic for quite awhile now. It is not, therefore, so much a problem of “solutionism” as it is a problem of the world that solutionism has wrought.

Which leads me to a nitpicky point, which I nevertheless feel is the crux of my problem with Morozov’s op-ed (as well as a source of much of my trouble with many other similar pieces about technology). It has to do with choices and personal agency. In poking fun at Seesaw (an app that “friend sources” your decisions) Morozov goes on to write:

“Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who celebrated the anguish of decision as a hallmark of responsibility, has no place in Silicon Valley. Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, Silicon Valley has chosen the latter – perhaps as a result of yet another instant poll.”

My problem with the above statement is that I feel that it actually demonstrates exactly where Sartre is located in Silicon Valley, and furthermore that it puts too much onus on Silicon Valley and not enough on those who make use of the rubbish produced by Silicon Valley (myself included). As Sartre wrote (in Existentialism is a Humanism):

“Choice is possible; what is impossible is not to choose. I can always choose, but I must also realize that, if I decide not to choose, that still constitutes a choice,” (Sartre, 44).

Sartre is there, probably shaking his head at the choices being made, but reminding us that these are still choices.

It may be the case that the gadgets and apps from Silicon Valley may seek to diminish “the anguish of decision” but we must choose this. We are not forced to use Seesaw, we are not forced to use smart phones, or tablets, and we are not forced to purchase wearable technology (at least we aren’t forced to do these things yet).

Technological Solutionism only presents a problem insofar as we accept the same solutionist logic that drives Silicon Valley. And if Silicon Valley has discovered that there is tremendous profit to be made in giving people the opportunity to outsource their choices, this is not ultimately something that should surprise us. The companies that Morozov is writing about are capitalist enterprises, and there is money to be made, they’re simply acting logically based on the profit motive.

It seems to me as though Morozov is pulling a bait and switch here, the problem is not the technological solutions, the problem is our willingness to choose technological solutions. And it is too convenient and irresponsible to pass the blame for our own hesitance to make choices onto Silicon Valley. Morozov’s sentence should read [italics are my adjustment]:

“Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, we as consumers have chosen the latter – Silicon Valley has encouraged us to buy their tools for doing this easily – and we have bought them.

Facebook isn’t the problem. The problem is that we choose to have Facebook accounts.

Or, as Sartre put it: “what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself,” (Sartre, 53).

Including technology.

This post references two books:

Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. (Vintage Books, 1993).

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism is a Humanism. (Yale University Press, 2007)

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

33 comments on “Choosing a New “ism” to Dread

  1. rami ungar the writer
    March 6, 2013

    Well, I certainly do agree that technology will not solve all our problems. In fact, I think it could create a few more. However, I worry that people who understand this may start to sound like right-wing conspiracy theorists fearing an evil socialism that’s always out to get them and can be seen most clearly in Clint Eastwood’s chair.

  2. bernasvibe
    March 6, 2013

    Bookmarking this so I can hit your spot again later when time permits..In the meantime very well said/I totally agree,somewhat../2thumbs UP

    • bernasvibe
      March 6, 2013

      @” “Whatever their contribution to our maturity as human beings, decisions also bring out pain and, faced with a choice between maturity and pain-minimization, we as consumers have chosen the latter – Silicon Valley has encouraged us to buy their tools for doing this easily – and we have bought them.”

      Facebook isn’t the problem. The problem is that we choose to have Facebook accounts…”

      This last statement is the very reason I don’t facebook..Other than the account I have for work/business. I’ve seen far too many folks get “addicted” to FB. Can’t seem to go through a day without FBing their activities; including personal accounts of life events. Folks have even broken UP over FB; due to FB activities and whatnot. Wth?!? What I do have though is the same “need” that many on FB appear to be seeking. And that in human interaction/love/communication with other people..only difference is I prefer to do my in real time/with real people I can see up close & personal/face-to-face interactions. I, admit, I also have an addiction for all of the above..Man nor WOman wasn’t meant to exist on an island alone. Can become problematic though when online activities outnumber offline activities; or least that is the way I see it. I honestly believe we’ve now got an entire generation who is lacking interpersonal social skills offline..

  3. matt
    March 6, 2013

    Technology is merely presenting a new way of doing things people are going to do anyway.
    Have problems forgetting appointments? Tablet and stylus becomes pen and post it becomes desktop organizer becomes outlook calendar.
    Agonizing over a decision? Ask your friends for their advice becomes facebook post/poll or twitter.
    The popularity of some of these is merely proof that people were looking for a better way to do what they’d always done.

  4. allthoughtswork
    March 6, 2013

    This is nothing new. Brilliant and effective marketing of state-of-the-art technology yields products we are successfully convinced we cannot live without. Lifestyles shift to accommodate the modern products, values change in response to the contemporary lifestyles, a novel weltanshauung emerges from the din, and another slew of sociologists and philosophers rend their garments while bemoaning the resultant downturn in “civilization.” It begins and ends with commerce, but somehow it gets pronounced “ethics.”

  5. stevewthomas
    March 6, 2013

    I enjoyed this post immensely. . .the difficulty I see with this so-called “solutionism” is the “problems” being solved by technology are not, in fact, problems and the solutions offered do nothing more than take technology “practitioners” one more remove from human interaction.

    • paulbrodie
      March 9, 2013

      @SteveWThomas, I was impressed by the same part of this topic. The “app for that” mentality seems to create problems out of inconveniences and then provide unnecessary, but convenient or entertaining, solutions. I agree, the big issue is that it increases the distance between people. It used to be that if you had a decision to make and were unsure about what to do you would go in person, or at least call on the phone, someone you trust and weigh your options and seek advice. Now you do an instant poll on a web profile or send a Tweet. It makes you wonder about the quality of decisions being made when personal choices are outsourced to public opinion and majority vote.

  6. stevenkopp
    March 6, 2013

    Very nice post. I agree the issue has more to do with our personal choices than technology per se. Technology does make some decisions easier and more tempting so you could say that some “moral responsibility” lies in the purveyors of such technology. Still, the question isn’t whether such technology exists, but whether we buy (into) it.

  7. petermasonbooks
    March 6, 2013

    Yes, of course it was as a matter speaking; however, we must always keep in mind they were only Irish.

  8. melanielynngriffin
    March 6, 2013

    Great post – very thoughtful. I totally agree with your point about consumer choice, although the fact that corporations spend millions to shape children’s minds is troublesome. It’s like the Stockholm syndrome and hostages. At some point in the “brainwashing,” one submits.
    So we now have young adults growing up who have never known anything different than these apps as “solutions.” The media creates the problem in our heads, and Silicon Valley sells a solution and brainwashed people buy them. I know this is huge generalization and stereotyping, but this is how I see things going.
    I became more and more aware of how TV was bringing me down and all my techno-stuff was causing me to be stressed and overwhelmed. As an adult, I was able to make the decision to get rid of my TV five years ago and not to purchase any of the other stuff. My flip-up cell phone doesn’t take pictures and it doesn’t talk to me. Facebook and blogging already take more time than I like – I need to make some new choices about that. I want to be outside, listening to live music with friends, meeting new people, and — yes — reading books made of paper. Such a luddite!
    Congrats on your Freshly Pressed!

  9. fortheloveofautismandwriting
    March 6, 2013

    There are definitely a number of good points to this. A new solution is only going to lead to more problems. Even the internet has its issues. Internet addiction is something that has been thrown around in the media. And there are people who actually act like their internet lives are just as real as the lives they live when they’re not on the internet. Cyberstalking and cyberbullying are also just as real as the kind that existed before the internet existed. And the law can barely keep up with the interet and the rapidly changing technology we have today.

  10. Matt Johnston
    March 6, 2013

    I won’t lie, I don’t see the rest problem with new technology or applications. I have an Android phone and tablet, a good computer, a car that has voice activated blue tooth, and several apps that streamline my personal life and business. I find they do make much of life easier, and afford me the time for other pleasures in life, like my passion for nature and animals, playing sports, and most importantly my wife and kids. I imagine pagers and fax machines were discussed in much the same way. I think if there’s a problem, it lies more with the user and their application of such devices.
    I do see the point here, though, and it’s very well written. I enjoyed the read, and congrats on your Freshly Pressed!

  11. Mickey Revolver
    March 6, 2013

    Reblogged this on WashedUpDonuts.com and commented:
    Getting back into the community. New “isms”, a super interesting perspective on something that is so well masked from it’s obvious existence in day-to-day life. Raises a healthy question of whether we should see the imperatives of “innovating” and “solutioning” as synonymous. Is an -ism more of a sell than an actual direction which industries, and cross-paradigm practices adopt? Go with you gut on this one after processing it. I say there are some dollars involved at the high level.

  12. getmorebob
    March 6, 2013

    A thoroughly enjoyable read; thanks for posting!

  13. Jnana Hodson
    March 6, 2013

    So what’s his solutionism to the Zombie Apocalypse?
    Or the proliferation of all these (explicative) passwords?
    Or even this dreaded Windows 8?

  14. Lunar Euphoria
    March 6, 2013

    Well written, logical, and heady — a combination that does not often find its way to Freshly Pressed. Kudos.

    I’ve never really viewed my apps as solutions….they’re more along the lines of fun and frivolous. Even the practical ones.

  15. thelawguysa
    March 7, 2013

    there is no such thing as solutionism, only those that intrinscally beleive that they have a problem or impasse?
    thus their own search for a solution is encapusalted in fallacy, they are thus creating a “culture” of problems begging for solutions.
    what next? bottled air?

  16. Dirk Porsche
    March 7, 2013

    Very nice post! And I totally agree.

    By the way I deleted my Facebook account, now almost two years ago. I have no smart phone, either.

    You really have the choice.

  17. northernmalewhite
    March 7, 2013

    “thus their own search for a solution is encapusalted in fallacy, they are thus creating a “culture” of problems begging for solutions.
    what next? bottled air”

    That is the job of marketing people and the media and why they are of satan.

  18. northernmalewhite
    March 7, 2013

    choosing a new “ism” to ignore. Like all the other ones.
    Thanks

  19. tsixbey
    March 7, 2013

    Reblogged this on thomassixdotcom and commented:
    Great stuff!

  20. tsixbey
    March 7, 2013

    Very provocative! Sartre is truly a genius existentialist. Einstein said: ““I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.”

  21. fireandair
    March 7, 2013

    One quote that jumped out at me in the article was his “Whenever technology companies complain that our broken world must be fixed, our initial impulse should be to ask:” followed by something that was NOT what came ot my mind.

    What came to my mind was “Whenever technology companies complain that our broken world must be fixed, our initial impulse should be to ask: How do we know that your solution won’t break things worse?

    This is to me another HUGE reason why STEM education and employment — yes, I’m going to be That One That Goes There — cannot be left only to middle and upper-middle class white straight boys. Many of the more frightening misuses of these sorts of solve-everything! technological “marvels” are the sorts of things that these pampered, privileged idiots wouldn’t even guess at. But a gay person, lesbian, woman, or black person would see it and go, “Hoooold on here, this can cause way more problems than it solves.”

  22. T E Stazyk
    March 8, 2013

    Interesting. Personally I think that techno-addiction is being treated with way too much respect by journalists (someone last year wrong about “fetishization of the real,” where we supposedly are making a point of pointing out when we are not using technology and being real). The bottom line as far as I’m concerned is that most of these solutions create the problem they solve (i.e., we were perfectly happy before they came along).

  23. greatneworld
    March 8, 2013

    different words with all your heart read. I also deleted all and now neworld.ru

  24. jrlookingbill
    March 8, 2013

    Words themselves are technological — though perhaps not advanced. Often enough the things we make to help ourselves have unintended consequences — shortcuts tend to coincide with weak legs while over sterilization can weaken our immune systems.

    The question remains — why would anyone develop a technology without an intended solution. Even ‘technological solutionism’ is engineered, I think poorly, to solve a problem in communicating the author’s idea.

  25. Matthew Wright
    March 8, 2013

    I think technology usually creates as many problems as it solves, largely because we don’t think through how it will actually work in a social sense. Social networking is a case in point – in the twentieth century, nobody knew how the computer revolution would play out, socially, with the sole exception of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Now we do, and it has a whole range of issues attached ot it. All of them are predictable with hindsight and a good knowledge of the human condition, but nobody thought about it ahead of time…except Arthur…

    Apropos ‘-isms’ – it always seems to me that these are words of exclusion, for various reasons. A twentieth century phenomenon. Interesting.

  26. Pingback: Head in a Cloud « What's up at Ravens March.

  27. isaacbilyk
    March 12, 2013

    Technology does a lot of good things, but I would agree that there is a problem when “social networking” refers to web-sites and not personal connections which people make. I think an easy solution to solutionism is to maintain a proper perspective on the importance of human interaction, community, and compassion. Technology in support of these three goals can be highly beneficial, but as a supplement can be disastrous.

  28. traciegila
    March 13, 2013

    It’s funny, when students study history at school, each topic ends in an ism. Terrorism. Colonialism. Racism. Totalitarianism. Just a few examples. What happened to the optimism?

  29. supajohnny
    March 15, 2013

    The de-facto, ism maker will kill his/her own method of attack by making the “spikey end”, blunt by overuse; Racism etc..

  30. Pingback: Choosing a New “ism” to Dread | Your Dog Wouldn't Like It

  31. lsurrett2
    March 22, 2013

    Great point. We should also consider the stereotyping Gen X & Y are making to those who choose not to participate in techno-anything. On encountering people (especially older ones) who lack email, cell phones, and the like, we condemn them for not “keeping up with the times”. Whereas, I am beginning to see the freedom of such choices, as I see my own children hooked on using their mp3s and cell phones.

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