To Blame Everything, Read Here: The Folly of Technological Defeatism

My inner cynic was pleased to discover that the back cover of Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, included a blurb from noted war journalist and scholar David Rieff. The curmudgeonly critic was a professor of mine at Sciences Po in Paris two years ago, and his class was a weekly tour de force of disillusionment with the modern human rights-industrial complex.

In praise of Morozov’s latest effort, Rieff wrote, “Against the reigning consensus — that there is a digital fix for every social and political problem, and that thanks to the technologies that we group together for convenience’s sake as the Internet, the brave new world of the future will be one of endless, limitless improvement in every realm of life — Morozov offers a sophisticated, eloquent, and definitive rebuttal.” This was the Rieff I remembered from my time in grad school, as I heard him wearily repudiate the moralist cri de coeur of peers like Michael Ignatieff and even Bernard Kouchner. It’s the same Rieff I read with great interest in the virtual pages of Foreign Policy, where he took a moment between excoriations of “Kony 2012” and the Singularity movement to dub Morozov “cyber-utopianism’s severest and most eloquent critic.”

That may not be inaccurate. But it is hardly the whole story. A mid-sized hamlet’s worth of straw men make brief cameos in To Save Everything, Click Here, only to be set ablaze by Morozov’s rapid-fire denunciations. Intellectual broadsides are not innately problematic, of course. But like fellow fire-breather Glenn Greenwald — whom Morozov, in his book, dubs “a terrific polemicist…[with] a tendency to overstate his case” — the Belarusian-born author often employs scorched-earth rhetoric against stunning illogic.

That his ideological bêtes noires are as often imagined as real is occasionally lost in the chaos of Morozov’s otherwise enjoyable diatribes. Since he pulls no punches in his impassioned attack on technology “solutionists,” it seems only fair to hold him to an equivalent standard.

In a section entitled “You’ve Been Arrested — by Facebook,” for example, Morozov writes: “In mid-2012 Reuters reported on how Facebook, armed with its predictive algorithms, apprehended a middle-aged man chatting about sex with a thirteen-year-old girl, arranging to meet her the day after.” The moment I read this sentence, I immediately doubted its veracity: Facebook apprehending a sex offender? Something didn’t click.

A quick bibliography check and subsequent Google search led me to the actual Reuters article:

A man in his early thirties was chatting about sex with a 13-year-old South Florida girl and planned to meet her after middle-school classes the next day.

Facebook’s extensive but little-discussed technology for scanning postings and chats for criminal activity automatically flagged the conversation for employees, who read it and quickly called police.

Officers took control of the teenager’s computer and arrested the man the next day, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In short, contrary to Morozov’s sensationalist section title and subsequent narrative, it was police officers, and not Facebook itself, who apprehended the suspect. This episode is stranger still when considered within the context of Morozov’s central thesis, which is that technologists’ collective transformation of “the Internet” into an amorphous, monolithic entity risks oversimplifying all analysis of its effects, whether positive or otherwise. Thus, by attributing to Facebook the entire sequence of events that led to a potential sex offender’s apprehension, Morozov commits the very crime of which he accuses the technorati: synecdochical heresy.

This is far from the only time Morozov steps into his own carelessly-laid traps. In another passage, he writes:

We will only succeed in challenging technological defeatism if we refrain from using big words like “technology” and “the Internet.” Instead, we need to uncover and set aside whatever cultural, intellectual, and political biases — cue Kevin Kelly — they introduce into our debates. We’d be far better off examining individual technologies on their own terms, liberated from the macroscopic fetishes of Silicon Valley.

These critiques are firmly in line with his axiom, expressed in the book’s postscript, that “‘the Internet’ cannot be invoked to explain other things, if only because it itself needs explanation.” And yet it sounds rather odd to castigate the use of big words and generalizations in a paragraph that concludes with a condemnation of the “macroscopic fetishes” of the imagined monolithic community of Silicon Valley.

This is not to say that the Valley is not home to a potpourri of astonishingly facile notions about the incompatibility of technology with democratic governance. Kevin Roose of New York Magazine recently covered the tech hub’s expanding “secessionist movement.” Remarking on the recent comments made by Balaji Srinivasan, the co-founder of a genetics firm, in which he advocated a technological society existing outside the confines of American governance, Roose observes:

Of course, the tech industry still relies on Washington in many ways — whether through environmental tax credits or simply selling lots of products through government contracts. But don’t tell that to Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian clique. In their mind, true technological progress can only happen once the “paper belt” is destroyed, and government interference becomes a non-factor. And after every other industry has been changed by the tech sector’s influence, the only thing left to be disrupted will be democracy itself.

But it is not simply the overtly anti-state rhetoric of several tech giants that so exercises Morozov. In an extended and head-scratching sequence that commences with the distinctly Morozovian section title “Gamify or Die,” the cantankerous author argues that gamification reduces tasks that were once associated with personal duty or civic responsibility to a crass, transactional medium. In one particularly lucid passage, Morozov explains: “To lump schemes that rely on exhortation with those that rely on various fun and game incentives is to overlook the fact that, because they are based on two different kinds of motivation, they might end up giving us two very different sets of citizens…The problem is that the laws of economics are not always good at accounting for the complexities of human behavior.”

Worse yet, gamification can create vicious cycles in which previously altruistic humans succumb to their baser instincts, creating citizens who will no longer do good without commensurate compensation to show for it. And this scenario, perversely enough, only reinforces the rationale for further gamification.

But it is here that Evgeny Morozov falters. Attempting to distinguish the online game FreeRice — which incentivizes language-learning with food donations to the global poor, thus marking a grave exception to his rule — from the rest of the gamification universe, Morozov declares: “Gamifiers don’t create novel ways of doing things or simply add a humanitarian layer onto the old ways. Instead, they get you to do what you ought to do by using a combination of feedback loops, badges, and rewards that substitute pleasure for duty.”

This is, of course, an entirely subjective characterization of gamification — and a substantively narrower one, I would add, than Morozov’s own definition just 14 pages earlier: “[the introduction of] so-called game mechanics — the use of badges, points, levels, rewards, and virtual currencies — into diverse social practices.” (No word on how FreeRice’s “Top Players” ranking was disqualified on these grounds.) But he exacerbates this discrepancy with snark best reserved for a college debate round. In opposition to tech author Jane McGonigal’s advocacy of games as global change agents, Morozov growls: “Arm UN diplomats with Wii consoles, and all of the world’s problems will go away.”

This was not the end of his grudge match with McGonigal. Later, he excoriates her claim that, “compared with games, reality is too easy,” a sentiment upon which she bases gamification’s perceived inherent qualities. Morozov counters:

Reality might be too easy for a designated fellow of the Institute for the Future, but one just needs to leave University Avenue in Palo Alto and drive a few miles to East Palo Alto or Oakland, and a different picture of an all-too-easy reality will emerge. Tetris and golf do have built-in obstacles that make these games more fun, but to complain that reality is missing such challenges is ridiculous. From discriminatory laws to structural income inequality to deeply entrenched racist and sexist attitudes, our lives are full of obstacles, even if these may not be visible in Silicon Valley.

This is polemicism as fine art, with a tinge of progressive populism thrown in for good measure. So it comes as a surprise when, in the following chapter, Morozov proffers — without a trace of irony — a series of increasingly impractical solutions to nonexistent problems.

It is, of course, a paradox that Morozov freely commits the one unpardonable sin to which his entire book is devoted — its subtitle is “The Folly of Technological Solutionism” — but the irony appears to completely elude him. He cheerily floats the idea of replacing automatically resetting parking meters with a manual decisioning process for every driver who leaves his spot before the designated time runs out: should he leave the remainder of his fare to the city, thus filling the municipal treasury’s coffers, or subsidize the cost of the next parked car in that spot?

This time-consuming process, Morozov inexeplicably argues, “scales beautifully: citizens who are prodded to think critically about the hidden costs of the invisible infrastructure that surrounds them are likely to approach many other aspects of life with the same critical mind-set.” In short: merry Christmas, harried single mothers.

From there, the solutionism only grows more bizarre. There’s the Swedish-designed energy consumption meter that causes home electronics to act erratically during high energy use periods: “It seeks to introduce aspects of risk and indeterminacy into the use of such devices.” Another invention causes a radio to change stations automatically when it detects excessive electricity consumption. The Caterpillar is an extension cord that writhes and twists when electric appliances are thoughtlessly left on in standby mode. The Forget Me Not reading lamp is a flower-shaped device whose petals close gradually, dimming the light over time until someone touches the petals. And the Spore 1.1 is a rubber tree plant whose auto-watering schedule varies based on Home Depot’s stock price.

These and other systems ostensibly designed to inject moments of introspection into otherwise mundane facets of life are ripe for mockery. Alas, it was Morozov himself who had earlier ridiculed the allegedly classist notion of gaming as the equivalent of erecting artificial challenges into an otherwise effortless existence. So how did he get from there to celebrating the self-writhing extension cord in the span of one chapter?

Of these faux-solutions, Morozov explains: “The goal of design is not just to build an artifact to fulfill some genuine social need ‘out there’ but also to make us reflect on how that need has emerged, how it has become a project worth pursuing, and how, all things considered, it may actually not be worth pursuing at all.” (Then again, as a wise man once wrote, “To complain that reality is missing such challenges is ridiculous.”)

Morozov’s unintentional irony reaches dizzying heights during his description of the Natural Fuse, a complex system of houseplants that models the economics of carbon offsets by capping electricity usage at carbon-neutral levels. To override the system’s normal operation, a user has to flip a switch marked…”selfish.” Of this design, which possesses all the subtlety of an anvil to the skull, Morozov enthuses: “The fact that the Natural Fuse makes no normative or prescriptive claims — there is no ‘right’ way to use it — is its feature, not a bug.” Morozov later writes:

Of course, some might counter that these suggestions are impractical and seem more like art projects than consumer utilities. But there is little reason to believe that the erratic radio set or the Caterpillar extension cord cannot be put into mass production if users decide that they would rather act like grown-ups and not hide from the actual consequences of their actions.

Yet in the very next paragraph, Morozov seems to suffer from amnesia: “We should not, however…task technology companies with steering us toward particular courses of action.”

So which is it? On the one hand, Morozov rightly decries the utopian fantasies of the tech-obsessed. But his response is not to advocate for increased regulation of digital privacy, or energy-efficient appliances, or some other brand of innovation that makes life easier while improving social outcomes. He opts instead for technological solutionism of his own — only his brainchildren are deliberately flawed and problematic in such a way as to make them unusable to all but the bourgeois set with the most excess time on their hands. To re-appropriate a judgment Morozov himself passed on McGonigal, “The more of [Morozov] one reads, the harder it is to avoid the impression that [he] has never worked a day in [his] life.”

This is frustrating precisely because, buried beneath several layers of bitter pessimism, Morozov has some truly valuable insights into technological fetishism. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) at New York University. There, in a crowd that hailed from journalism and academia alike, I attended various conferences and panels on emerging drone technology.

But I was surprised to discover that, rather than an in-depth reckoning of the military use of drones — the underlying ethics, its impact on strategic outcomes, and so on — I was treated mostly to discussions of drone regulations and, more importantly, how annoying it all was. (Disclaimer: I was only able to attend one of the two conference days, and many of the panels took place concurrently with each other, so I cannot state with confidence that these discussions never took place at all. But they certainly were not the primary focus of the conference when I was there.)

In a rare dissenting moment, one attendee tweeted her surprise at the speakers’ similarities to gun rights advocates, for whom the question of responsibility must never be allowed to stray further than the individual. Laws and regulations were rarely, if ever, celebrated for their comprehensiveness; whatever faint praise existed was allocated to attempts to water them down, as Colin Guinn, the founder of drone manufacturer DJI Innovations, made sure to do.

Because I was just finishing To Save Everything, Click Here at the time, the conference made an especially bizarre impression on me. It was virtually impossible to ignore Morozov’s persistent voice in my ear, silently mocking the unqualified enthusiasm of the drone-makers, consumers, and hobbyists. Multiple PR-conscious speakers insisted that the camera-equipped mini-drones on display at the conference should not be equated to drones as popularly conceived but should, rather, be viewed as an improvement upon current tracking and jib technology for film and TV. Similarly, many presenters were careful to use the term “Unmanned Aerial System” (UAS), connoting a complex array of interconnected and intelligent operations, as opposed to the more colloquial and less reassuring “drone.”

The steady drumbeat — or perhaps more appropriately, the persistent faint buzz — of technological progress permeated the talks and panels, despite the incongruence of celebrating a revolutionary technology while simultaneously downplaying its potential dangers by connecting the technology to already-established practice. These were the brand of “solutionists” targeted by Morozov, and in many cases rightly so. The problems they claimed to solve — preventing manned aviation accidents by snapping aerial real estate photography via unmanned drone, for example — were often dwarfed by new complications emerging from their solutions: for instance, the glaring privacy concerns certain to accompany an airspace newly open to anyone with a couple hundred bucks and a free afternoon to spare.

Morozov is similarly persuasive in his chapter on transparency, “So Open It Hurts.” “When we seek to increase or decrease transparency in some aspect of our public or private lives,” Morozov writes, “we should do it not because we value transparency (or, for that matter, opacity) as such but because transparency promotes or undermines other, higher goods.” This principle is equally relevant to the debate over the “free Internet,” a charmingly ambiguous phrase used by its advocates to agitate for everything from the dissolution of intellectual property law to the universality of free news. (In this regard, Germany’s Pirate Party is especially berated by Morozov for its incoherence.)

Morozov highlights the travails of law professor James Gardner, whose campaign contributions — which have always been theoretically public, if one were inclined to visit the Federal Election Commission — were compiled by The Huffington Post (for reasons that almost certainly related to ad-driven revenue generation and not free and fair elections). Morozov laments that these disclosures, usually visible on the first page of a Google search for Gardner, harm the professor’s ability to maintain neutrality in the eyes of his students. A similar effort by gay rights activists,, displaying information on advocates of the anti-gay Proposition 8 in California, elicits Morozov’s consternation as well.

On one level, I share his concerns. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay on a similar topic when a small newspaper published an interactive map of gun permit applicants following the Newtown school shooting. Addressing the rapidly closing gap between traditionally “public” files that nevertheless require manual labor in order to use versus the online searchable databases springing up everywhere today, I wrote:

We have already accepted, with either youthful exuberance (millennials) or grudging resignation (baby boomers), the rapid proliferation of data and, especially, its migration en masse to the Internet. And yet, our apathy does not always extend to the enterprising minds who cull the contents of these large, unwieldy databases to discover innovative and sometimes terrifying uses for them. The expanding accessibility of data now frightens us in much the same way its mere presence once did.

As Morozov argues, transparency as an objective unto itself is indeed an error to be avoided. In the most recent edition of The New Yorker, financial reporter James Surowiecki observes that, as it relates to executive compensation, “the drive for transparency has actually helped fuel the spiralling salaries” — in part due to wage envy caused by the public dissemination of peers’ compensation. Surowiecki later notes, “Transparent pricing has perverse effects in other fields. In a host of recent cases, public disclosure of the prices that hospitals charge for various procedures has ended up driving prices up rather than down.”

These disturbing correlations notwithstanding, I remain unconvinced that the dissolution of obstacles between ostensibly public files and the viewing public itself is quite the bogeyman that Morozov makes it out to be. Mistaking transparency for the ends, rather than the means, is hardly tragic given the myriad of areas in which either role would be a step in the right direction.

In other words, for every, there is an equally egregious misstep in the direction of opacity. King amongst these worrying trends is the recent proliferation of “sponsored content” or advertorials — both euphemisms for advertising disguised as editorial content. A September 23rd Ad Age article reported on the practice, which is projected to reach nearly $2 billion in spend this year:

For marketers, the appeal is simple: Audiences understand that advertisers have a commercial relationship with a publisher. By wrapping ad messages in a format that looks like editorial content—and calling them something else, such as “sponsored” or “partner” content—they hope to trade on the trust and goodwill editorial has built up with the audience. A bit of confusion is inherent in the appeal.

It’s a tricky trade-off. Publishers would like to see some of that $1.9 billion such ads bring in, but should be concerned about what advertising’s encroachment means for their brands. Already ads have jumped from the right rail into news streams. So-called native ads commonly mimic headline and editorial styles and fonts. Some publications go so far as to enlist their writers to create sponsored posts for advertisers to ensure the right editorial tone is struck. BuzzFeed offers courses to media agencies on its particular brand of storytelling. The line between advertising and editorial is getting really blurry.

From a journalistic ethics perspective, this development is truly horrifying. More to the point, it creates very real and obvious conflicts of interest — conflicts that relegate the converse threat of excessive transparency to the margins. Morozov, in his selective zeal to topple the gods of tech, winds up shooting the wrong target.

And shoot it he does, over and over again. To Save Everything, Click Here is filled with instances of the words “may” and “might:” Morozov is dead certain what’s wrong with Internet-centrism, but he is only mildly fascinated by the challenge of proving it. Decrying the superficiality of British prime minister David Cameron’s “open-government data” initiative, Morozov pontificates: “Adding to the ambiguity, ‘open government’ might just be a euphemism for ‘small government.'”

On the next page, Morozov takes on crime visualization maps, citing a 2011 study in the U.K. showing that 11% of respondents failed to report a crime for fear of reducing their home values. Morozov concludes: “As a result, those who already live in these dodgy neighborhoods might be less willing to report crimes in the first place.” But neither the Guardian article referenced in Morozov’s bibliography, nor the Financial Times article it links to in turn, nor the survey press release itself draw this explicit correlation.

Possibly the lowest point of the book comes a little over halfway through. In a typically high-handed dismissal of the technological philosophy of Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, Morozov takes a sudden ninety-degree turn:

No one liked the idea that technology is just an extension of nature more than the Nazis (well, at least before the possibility of defeat forced them into a more pragmatic mode)…The Nazis heard the voice of technology: it informed them about gas chambers.

For a man singularly possessed by a desire to tear down the axiomatic conventional wisdom on the inevitable forward march of technology, Evgeny Morozov could hardly have validated a more Internet-centric principle than Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” And as with all Nazi analogies, the peril for Morozov is that, in invoking danger at every turn, he may be squandering the one moment where his distress will be most prescient.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Post Revisions:

About Jay Pinho

Jay is a data journalist and political junkie. He currently writes about domestic politics, foreign affairs, and journalism and continues to make painstakingly slow progress in amateur photography. He would very much like you to check out and if you have the chance.

What do you think?