Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
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).
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)