"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The modern day evangelicals of technology rarely miss an opportunity to proclaim the ways in which a new device or app will solve all of our problems. Such people stand behind the master controls for many a major corporation and disseminate their views to the public through talks, articles, books, as well as through the devices and apps themselves. From the pulpit it is preached that technology shall save humanity and the people reply with a tweeted “Hallelujah!”
Fawning and uncritical praise results in a yawning void, a space primed for a response, and it is into this vacancy that Evgeny Morozov has stepped with his book To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. As the very title of the book makes clear Morozov is not convinced by the “good news” trumpeted by the techno-priests.
[A Quick Aside]
Attempting to critique To Save Everything poses a challenge, primarily because half way through the book Morozov delivers a pre-emptive slap against those who would rate his book on a simplistic “one to five star scale,” as he writes:
“In most cases, ordinary people don’t write reviews for the same reasons as professional critics; they are mostly interested in reviewing their own experience, not in making sense of a given work.” (179)
With such a statement Morozov has purchased a sort of protection from criticism; however, the intent here shall not be to be part of the “most cases” of which Morozov writes but instead to attempt to make “sense of a given work.” Which in this case is Morozov’s To Save Everything.
In Morozov’s view the proponents of technology are imposing a new value system upon contemporary society one in which every problem that we face—from political disengagement to what stories are chosen as important to obesity—can and must be addressed with a technological solution. Such scions of Silicon Valley care little for larger philosophical questions about the human condition and instead focus on the notion of a digitally enriched humanity. From staring too long at computer screens these minds have forgotten history and been baptized in the binary stream and they have now gone out with missionary zeal in a quest to convert the masses. Lest we erect levies of mindful critique this stream may turn into a rampaging river that shall wash away those willing to call into question whether this is actually “good” or indeed even “news.”
At the outset of the book, Morozov provides the reader with a definition of solutionism—a term that he admits to borrowing from the realm of architecture, as:
“Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized—if only the right algorithms are in place!” (5)
However, solutionism is only half of Morozov’s target as he also aims much of his critique at “Internet-centrism,” which he defines as:
“the firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold, everything is undergoing profound change, and the need to “fix things” runs as high as ever. “The Internet,” in short has supplied solutionists with ample ammunition to ratchet up their war on inefficiency, ambiguity, and disorder, while also providing some new justification for doing so.” (15/16)
Throughout the book Morozov treats solutionism and Internet-centrism as serious foes even as he makes problematic the prevailing notions of “the Internet” and “Technology” (both of which he consistently puts in quotation marks to demonstrate the multiple ways in which these terms are generally used). While Morozov writes of his concerns he shares most of his sharpest invective not for specific devices or apps but for those who push the “solutionist” ideology, thus the likes of: Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Jarvis, Jane McGonigal, Steven Johnson, Ray Kurzweil, Eric Schmidt, Gordon Bell, (and their ilk) all come in for a thorough lashing by Morozov as do some of Morozov’s fellow skeptics, like Nicholas Carr.
Yet Morozov, for all of his skepticism, is clear that he is not a technophobe or a warrior in the vanguard of General Ludd. Morozov peppers his book with recognition for various pieces of “Technology” and is quite able to concede areas where “the Internet” can be of assistance. Indeed what Morozov seems to want to avoid is oversimplification of the debate, as he writes:
“Once we leave the confines of the grandiose debates about “Technology” and “the Internet,” another way of talking and thinking becomes possible, one that is technologically literate, attentive to details, mindful of legal and economic circumstances, and historically informed. It doesn’t reject technological solutions per se; it just wants to question their appropriateness in each and every situation and perhaps to design a way for the community to continue debating such appropriateness even once a seemingly tiny and inconsequential technology engenders a giant sociotechnological system to support itself.” (225)
Morozov has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, has had fellowships at the New America Foundation, at Georgetown University, and at the Open Society Foundation. His previous book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom received the 2012 Goldsmith Book Prize from Harvard’s Kennedy School. In addition to being a contributing editor to The New Republic, Morozov’s writings have appeared in numerous periodicals (the Economist, the Wall Street Journal) and over the last months he has been a guest columnist at the New York Times.
As Morozov’s book flap credentials demonstrate, he moves across the same firmament as the solutionists that he seeks to do intellectual combat with, and his book is well positioned as a sort of pre-approved counter argument. These platforms have given Morozov his own pulpit from which to offer a different gospel to those who have not been fully swayed by the propagandists of technology. Indeed those who have been reading Morozov’s columns in the New York Times and found his criticisms refreshing may be grateful to be directed to a book like To Save Everything.
To Save Everything is an interesting book, Morozov is an engaging writer, and many of the criticisms developed and laid out in the book are quite apt and convincing. The borderline glee that Morozov exhibits in eviscerating the arguments of his foes invites readers who share Morozov’s technological skepticism to bask in his barbs; whilst Morozov’s invocations of the history of technology and serious philosophers fortifies the book with a degree of intellectual strength. Morozov seems to genuinely want to advance a serious alternative view about technology, and thus he can write that if his book succeeds:
“its greatest contribution to the public debate might lie in redrawing the front lines of the intellectual battles about digital technologies.” (355)
and it hopes to present:
“another way of talking and thinking becomes possible, one that is technologically literate, attentive to details, mindful of legal and economic circumstances, and historically informed. “ (225)
Does the book do this?
No. Sadly it does not.
This is a shame as Morozov’s placement in the realm of acceptable discourse will mean that many technological skeptics read his book. Many of Morozov’s critiques are quite good and he has some solid insight, but ultimately To Save Everything is simply the parallel to the technophile’s books that he criticizes: it is a piece of pop-cultural criticism that does nothing to redraw “the front lines” or actually encourage “intellectual battles.” To Save Everything keeps the battle lines exactly where they were before the book, indeed the book seems to function as the sort of permitted criticism that provides the illusion of a critique so that the “solutionists,” as Morozov calls them, can keep going; however, now they can say that they allow criticism.
To make sense of To Save Everything is to place it in the context of other histories of technology and of other skeptical analyses of technology. While Morozov demonstrates some valid insight into the history of technology (most notably in describing how technological advances throughout history are frequently presented as revolutionary) his larger criticisms are staked out from a rather bizarre almost apolitical space. While Morozov is eager to lambast solutionists and decry the current state of technological affairs his book remains unwilling to challenge the larger socio-political status quo that has resulted in our current solutionist situation. This makes Morozov’s book something of a novelty in the world of technological criticism (where many of the writers couch their critiques in expressly political views), he may quote Adorno (sparingly) but Morozov’s analysis is not based out of critical theory (he quotes Adorno, but if he was going to use Frankfurt School theorists to critique technology why not—at least mention—Marcuse and Habermas?). Indeed Morozov seems so committed to staking out a position that will not offend politically as to make his arguments lack political edge: he proposes little that could be called bold.
While solutionism is an interesting enemy, it is also a rather frail foe, a sort of straw avatar, if you will (I critiqued this in a previous post regarding an op-ed by Morozov). The problem is that it is not odd to think of technology in terms of solutions. This is not to say that technology is always a solution, but it is to say that one approach to technology is to look at a piece of technology and ask what problem it solves. It is fair to say that technology cannot solve every problem, it is fair to say that some of the problems technologies aim to solve may not actually be problems, and it is fair to say that technological solutions may cause other problems to arise. Indeed that is much the case that is laid out by Neil Postman with his six questions to ask of technology (I wrote about this here), though Morozov does not seem to be a Postman fan (more on that in a moment). But one does not need to describe this as solutionism. Indeed this bias towards seeing the world in the binary form of problems and technological solutions can also be seen as the overriding simplistic logic inherent in technology. Cloaking such logic in a new “ism” like solutionism just shifts the problem from one inherent to technology into a linguistics debate.
The particular humor of Morozov’s critique of solutionism is that he ends his book by—can you guess—becoming something of a solutionist himself. Indeed the book ends with Morozov praising technological devices and apps that are deliberately disruptive, as he writes:
“We need more erratic appliances that can disrupt our information-consumption habits and jolt us out of our well-established and habitual practices.” (336)
Fair enough. But how is that not just a solutionist response to solutionism? Is this not solutionism aiming to present a technological solution to a problem created by technological solutionism? Morozov does not say, but he also does not have much to say about the potential merits of simply trying to spend more time away from technology. If technology is a problem, will new technologies really be a solution, or will the solution be fewer pieces of technology? Such a critique could occur in a larger investigation of technological society, but this is not found in To Save Everything.
Modern society has no lack of problems and it is certainly foolish to imagine that all of them have technological solutions, but in lumping together far too broad an array of problems and their technological “solutions” Morozov spreads his arguments experiences bit rot. Politics and crime are lumped alongside the gamification of activities and the cult of self-tracking (albeit in separate chapters) and this gives To Save Everything a sort of disorienting quality. Morozov’s is not a broad criticism of a technological society, and thus his chapters on different problems feel disconnected from one another and from the broader society, indeed his own work feels only slightly “technologically literate, attentive to details, mindful of legal a/nd economic circumstances, and historically informed” (225). So “the Internet” is not an adequate solution to political disconnectedness and gamification is not an adequate response to obesity…got it.
Different problems can be approached in different ways and in some cases a technological solution may be more valid than others, but Morozov—in each section—seems more interested in scoring points against his perceived sparring partners than in presenting a full critique. Thus, Morozov criticizes Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman by claiming in regards to their broader societal critiques:
“such grand rhetoric, for all the quasi-religious fervor it used to generate, is long past its expiration date. It’s time to give up this talk of “Technology” with a big T and instead figure out how different technologies can boost or compromise the human condition…once we move to a lower—that is, more detailed, empirical, and analytically precise—level of analysis, we are likely to notice things that may have escape the attention of French theologians.” (323)
The first response to this quotation is to note that the French theologian he is writing of (that would be Ellul) noticed many things because he was able to develop a broad societal critique. If “Technology” through “solutionism” and “Internet-centrism” presents a grand narrative, perhaps a counter couched in “grand rhetoric” is useful? Moving to a “more detailed, empirical, and analytically precise—level of analysis” allows for ample opportunities to aim snarky witticisms at a few well known technophiles but it is to surrender the attempt at a broader societal critique and a larger description of society. Morozov focuses on solutionism, but the problem is not solutionism, it is the society that gives rise to solutionism, a society that Morozov gives something of a pass in his book. Refusing to engage the debate on the level of “Technology” with a bit T” is to cede too much ground to the technophiles.
The other response to the quotation regarding Ellul is that it reveals another highly problematic streak in To Save Everything: namely Morozov’s rather disrespectful tone. Thus Morozov consistently (constantly) refers to technophiles not as technophiles but as “geeks.” What does this term accomplish except to present those that Morozov has a disagreement with as Star Wars fans? Or is that the point? Are these people not meant to be taken seriously because they are “geeks?” If so, why does Morozov spend so much time writing about them? When Morozov writes “what geeks like Bell and Kelly don’t get” (277) he does damage to his own argument, not theirs.
Alas this problem is more widespread than merely disparaging “geeks” (which is a constant refrain). Consider the “ordinary people” that Morozov scoffs off in his mention of reviewers, or the fact that his last chapter is titled “Smart Gadgets, Dumb Humans.” Furthermore the delight that Morozov seems to take in going after solutionists sidesteps dismantling their arguments in favor of cheap insults, hence he can write of Jane McGonigal “the more of McGonigal one reads, the harder it is to avoid the impression that she has never worked a day in her life.” One does not need to agree with McGonigal (I generally do not) or with the other targets of Morozov’s invective (I generally do not) but Morozov’s insulting tone is no substitute for well constructed and reasoned arguments. Why refer to Slavoj Žižek as “philosopher-cum-entertainer” (299) when he can just be referred to as a “philosopher” (as the “entertainer” addition serves no purpose but as a jab)? Perhaps, in the case of Žižek, Morozov is just trying to distance himself from a man of non-centrist political convictions.
In this, my “ordinary” person’s, attempt to “make sense of” Morozov’s “book,” I would argue that Morozov’s book is a politically centrist technological critique that is meant to give the impression of a discussion without actually challenging the society that gives rise to solutionism or presenting a larger framework from which an alternative can really be launched. Attacking technological solutionism is fine—and worthwhile—but it requires a better societal critique than Morozov seems willing to present. Morozov’s is a critique from the status quo, for the status quo, that seeks only to better stabilize the status quo as too much solutionism threatens to have a destabilizing effect. Thus Morozov’s book does not redraw the front lines of debate or even the terms of the debate, it simply stands on the already false front (such as the editorial page of the New York Times or in the pages of the Economist) and hurls epithets at others. While To Save Everything may quote from historians and philosophers while pining for a more nuanced debate, the arguments in To Save Everything are not the ones that the book itself seems to be hoping to find. Morozov’s book would have been immensely more valuable as an updating of that “French theologian” than as an attack on Eric Schmidt.
One can pick up Morozov’s book agreeing with many of his arguments and find the actual presentation of these ideas so repellant as to think that he must be misrepresenting the views of those he is writing about. That is what happens when an argument moves from the occasional bit of witty repartee to an all out position of attacking the advocate: sometimes a rapier is better than a mace. One can finish Morozov’s critique only to come away without having one’s ideas or notions challenged in the slightest: technology cannot solve all of our problems…got it. Thus, I may agree with many of Morozov’s points, but I must admit that the book does not contribute to the debate, re-draw any lines, or accomplish terribly much.
One need not agree with the likes of Adorno, Ellul, Postman or Langdon Winner (who is also disparaged) but reading such authors on technology is to have ones notions of technology and its role in society challenged. These authors (as well as Marshall McLuhan, who Morozov also seems to highly dislike) presented deep, complex criticisms that challenged not just technology but the prevailing system that created and used that technology. Works such as those are what is needed to counter the technophiles arguments; their works really did redraw the battle lines.
Morozov may thumb his nose at the “French theologian” Jacques Ellul but those who are seriously interested in a critique of technology in society would be far better served reading Ellul’s critiques—dated as they may be—rather than by reading To Save Everything.
Technological solutionism may be a problem, but Morozov’s book is not the answer.
The Book Being Reviewed is:
To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
By Evgeny Morozov
Public Affairs, 2013.
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