A Net Skeptic's Conservative Manifesto

Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, follows the same blueprint as his first book, 2011’s The Net Delusion. He takes the over-zealous ramblings of a handful of Internet evangelists, suggests that Pollyannas like them are all around us, and then argues, implausibly, that their very ideas threaten to undermine our culture or humanity in some fashion. Along the way, he doles out generous heapings of unremitting, snarky scorn.

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov, Public Affairs, 415 pages, $28.99

Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, follows the same blueprint as his first book, 2011’s The Net Delusion. He takes the over-zealous ramblings of a handful of Internet evangelists, suggests that Pollyannas like them are all around us, and then argues, implausibly, that their very ideas threaten to undermine our culture or humanity in some fashion. Along the way, he doles out generous heapings of unremitting, snarky scorn.

In the earlier book, Morozov used this formula to challenge the hyper-optimism that has infused debates over the Internet’s role in advancing human freedom and even regime change. In To Save Everything, the target is the way people invoke “the Internet” as the cure-all to every problem under the sun.

Morozov rejects the idea that “technology can make us better,” and he rails against “technological solutionism,” defined here as “recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definitive, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized” through algorithms or other digital fixes. These include, among other things, efforts to improve politics and elections through digital transparency, efforts to shore up the publishing business via crowdsourcing, and the use of various self-tracking technologies to monitor and improve our personal health.

He castigates those who would engage in a “mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden,” cautions that “attaining technological perfection, without attending to the intricacies of the human condition and accounting for the complex world of practices and traditions, might not be worth the price,” and argues that solutionism “should be resisted, circumvented, and unlearned.”

Morozov effectively pricks the bubble of irrational exuberance that has always accompanied new digital technologies. But as with his previous book, he refuses to quit while he’s ahead. Instead, he unsuccessfully labors to convince us that the very concept of “the Internet” holds no inherent meaning and that we have all been suffering from a sort of mass delusion about its existence. Worse yet, he offers only a limited and sometimes contradictory roadmap for building a better world and integrating new information technologies into it along the way.

The result is a treatise that is difficult to embrace, despite its sagacious advice not to allow our tools to become ends in and of themselves. Morozov wants to make sure technology never trumps our humanity, but in the process he presents a vision of reality that is virtual at best.

Pummeling the Pollyannas

Morozov’s first mission in the book—one that he generally accomplishes—is to prove that changing the world for the better is damned hard, and that no amount of blustery tech boosterism can solve such difficult problems as overcoming tyrannical rulers, curing disease, reducing crime, ending hunger, or better educating children. With wicked wit and palpable glee, Morozov demolishes simplistic notions that technology is a magical elixir for the world’s worst maladies.

More profoundly, he cautions that the very act of trying to address these problems by reducing them to efficiency-enhancing algorithms is potentially dehumanizing. “We shouldn’t mistake the easy availability of quick technological fixes for their moral desirability,” he argues. No matter what the Net boosters say, good intentions plus cool technology does not always equal positive results.

Morozov’s enemies list in this regard hasn’t changed much since the previous book. There are villains from the business world (Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg), the commentariat (Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Kevin Kelly), and the government (former State Department Senior Advisor for Innovation Alex Ross). These and other techno-evangelists earn Morozov’s unrelenting scorn because, he claims, their brand of “Internet-centrism” has “mangled how we think about the past, the present, and the future of technology regulation” and has diverted us “from a more robust debate about digital technologies.”

But Morozov overstates things here considerably. There isn’t any lack of “robust debate” about digital technologies and how to think about or even regulate them. Name just about any information technology you can think of—broadband networks, social networks, email services, ecommerce sites, smartphones and their various apps, geolocation technologies, texting, Twitter—and you’ll find plenty of critics and regulatory proposals.

There has grown in recent years a veritable cottage industry of cyber-cranks who publish a constant stream of books and essays with titles like, “How the Internet is Killing Our [fill in the blank].”  For every pundit guilty of overly exuberant Internet solutionism, you can find another guilty of over-simplified Internet victimization.

Against Technological Determinism

Morozov’s approach to technological criticism is somewhat unique in that it rejects all varieties of technological determinism, or the belief that—for better or for worse—technology drives history. There are “hard” and “soft” varieties of technological determinism that vary by the degree to which scholars believe technology shapes history. But Morozov doesn’t have much patience with any variant. He also doesn’t place much faith in the argument that human beings eventually adapt to new technological realities and gradually assimilate new tools into their lives. He equates such thinking with what he calls it “technological defeatism,” or the belief that “resistance is futile.”

Mostly, Morozov doesn’t approve of the way these debates are framed because he doesn’t believe that “the Internet” even exists: It’s just a meaningless abstraction pushed on us by those utopian Net enthusiasts, he insists. The book is filled with scare quotes around concepts the author finds nonsensical: “Internet freedom,” “Internet values,” “online,” “marketplace,” “ideas,” “crowds,” “networks,” “social media,” “architecture,” “problems,” “solve problems,” “open,” “openness,” “open government,” “transparency” and many others.

Morozov’s argument mimics the linguistic analysis of the term “technology” that the historian Leo Marx set forth in essays such as “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?” (1987) and “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” (2010). Marx worried about “treating these inanimate objects—machines—as causal agents” and “invest[ing] the concept of technology with agency.” Strangely, Morozov never mentions Marx, even though he has borrowed the Marxian approach and applied it to the Internet.

But Morozov pushes this semantic critique to absurd lengths. His incessant scare-quoting of “the Internet” on virtually every one of the book’s 350 pages quickly becomes exhausting. If Pollyanna pundits have brainwashed us into thinking too monolithically about the Internet, Morozov aims to deprogram us by relentlessly pounding home its alleged non-existence. The book threatens to devolve into a jeremiad against language itself. One half expects Bill Clinton to make a guest appearance to question the meaning of the word “is.”

But no matter how many ways one seeks to deconstruct the Internet and disassemble it into all its individual components and influences, when those pieces are reassembled it is hard to ignore the significance of the resulting thing before us. One need not drink Marshall McLuhan’s Kool-Aid about the medium being the message to nonetheless believe that medium impacts message, while having a profound impact on modern social, cultural, and economic developments.

 This globally interconnected, interactive, always-on, decentralized network of networks is qualitatively different from the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and television. It combines attributes of each of those previous mediums and exacerbates their impact. And it is innately resistant to control in a way that those previous technologies were not. These realities must now be factored into virtually every technology-related business and policy decision, no matter how much Morozov wants to dismiss them.

Adversarial Design

Morozov’s approach shares much in common with earlier media and technology critics, including the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, the German historian Oswald Spengler, the American historian Lewis Mumford, and the America social critic Neil Postman. These writers were concerned about the subjugation of human beings to “technique” or “technics,” and they worried that, as Henry David Thoreau quipped in Walden, “men have become the tools of their tools.”

A hundred and thirty years after Thoreau, Postman would decry the rise of “technopoly”—“the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”—that would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.” In a similar way, Morozov insists that “We must resist the temptation to accept ‘the Internet’s’ gift, which might be little more than a curse in disguise. We must not fixate on what this new arsenal of digital technologies allows us to do without first inquiring what is worth doing.”

So what does Morozov consider “worth doing”? This is where things get confusing. After spending the first 300 pages of the book debunking “solutionism” of all varieties, he then reverses course and suggests that some techno-solutions might be worth pursuing if they fit into the sort of adversarial culture he hopes to inspire—a culture that calls into question the worth of new technologies while also disrupting the ease with which we integrate them into our daily routines.

Specifically, Morozov wants to inject “adversarial design” principles into modern technologies to counter the “cult of efficiency” that he believes is somehow sapping our humanity. This means adding “friction” to the process of innovation by encouraging the development of “erratic appliances” that are “technological troublemakers,” forcing us through their intentionally inferior design to slow down, contemplate the ramifications, and make hard choices. For instance, a flower-like lamp that constantly dims unless its petals are touched, apparently reminding its owner to conserve energy.

Morozov hopes that this sort of technological sabotage would create “endless antagonism and contestation of social and political norms” to “make people think with their devices” and “turn us into more reflective, caring, and humane creatures.” But this is just another form of “solutionism,” of using technology to produce desired outcomes. The only difference is that Morozov is in the very small minority of people who would prefer that technology worked less well, in order foster the “endless antagonism” of norms that he desires.

Another bit of Morozovian solutionism was on display in a November 2012 New York Times op-ed in which he decried Silicon Valley’s supposed “new prudishness” and its “dour, one-dimensional algorithms, the mathematical constructs that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.” He even accused Valley engineers of being too “deeply conservative.” To fix this apparently pressing problem, Morozov proposed conducting “regular independent audits of the design, development and modifications of computer systems,” although he offered zero detail about how such algorithmic meddling would work.

Yet in To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov ends with the lament that “The problem with engineers is not that they are conservative; it’s that they are not conservative enough.” So in sum he is revealed as favoring the Goldilocks formula for getting algorithmic engineering just right, without letting us in on the secret of the cooking process.

The absence of details is a recurring feature of Morozov’s tech punditry. He never bothers delimiting the boundaries of his adversarial approach or considering the cost, practicality, or legal issues that might be associated with it. Would product liability law need to be reworked to account for intentionally crippled Morozovian devices?

Nor does he adequately defend the benefits of “friction” and “endless antagonism” relative to the benefits we enjoy daily from enhanced efficiency in product design. People will protest vociferously when their devices and services arrive in an intentionally crippled state simply so that we can satisfy Morozov’s cranky goal of “making people think with their devices.” To the extent that his plot would succeed in getting people to think about their devices, it would likely be along the lines of “How soon can I get my device fixed?”

‘Small C’ Cyber-Conservatism

Taken as a whole, Morozov is building a body of work that is deeply small-c conservative in character. He blends traditional social skepticism about the promise of emerging technologies with a strict rejection of determinism as applied to tech. He then attaches these values to an insistence that people be required to think and make affirmative decisions about their choices, rather than just letting machines or algorithms make those decisions easier for them. He stands as a guardian over existing institutions and norms, trying to beat back the onrushing technologies that threaten to disrupt them.

In this sense, Morozov’s approach is reminiscent of “a certain attitude towards change and innovation” that British philosopher Michael Oakeshott eloquently articulated in his famous 1956 essay “On Being Conservative.” “The man of conservative temperament,” Oakeshott wrote, “prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite” and “favors a slow rather than a rapid pace.” He is “cool and critical in respect of change and innovation” and understands that “a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.”

Morozov’s disposition isn’t quite as grim as Oakeshott’s (“Changes, then, have to be suffered,” Oakeshott lamented), and no one should mistake Morozov for a political conservative in the contemporary sense. But what Morozov shares with Oakeshott is the belief that, as Oakeshott insisted, “not all innovation is, in fact, improvement,” and that “rational prudence” is the wise disposition when considering the worth of new technologies, especially those that come wrapped in the promise of achieving utopia.

It remains unclear just how far Morozov would go to defeat “the cult of efficiency” that he says haunts us. Would he join Oakeshott in insisting that “the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator”—in other words, applying the precautionary principle to technological change?  Morozov’s solutionism of “erratic appliances” and “technological troublemakers” would certainly constitute a preemptive, precautionary approach to digital regulation, should anyone attempt to apply them.

But in the end Morozov seems more interested in changing cultural norms than public policy. He aims to be the father of friction, inspiring a new generation of social critics and technology developers to intentionally complicate the network of networks that shall never be called the Internet. “Technology is not the enemy; our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who resides within,” he proclaims in his final paragraph.

Would the world really be a better place without any “romantic and revolutionary” thinking? Would the benefits of skepticism outweigh the cost of cutting dreamers off at the knees? Morozov seems to think so, but one wonders what the world would look like if we all adopted his Mr. Techno-Grumpy Pants attitude and stopped trying to make the world a better place with technology.

Toward Rational Optimism

Perhaps there is a middle ground here: We can jeer at over-zealous techno-solutionism while still cheering on solution-seeking. There’s no reason to stop trying to fix hard problems in the name of clipping some tech evangelists’ wings.

This more practical disposition toward technological change is what author Matt Ridley calls “rational optimism.” At a macro level, the rational optimist is generally bullish about the future and the prospects for humanity but is not naive about the challenges associated with technological change. At the micro level, the rational optimist seeks practical solutions to intractable problems through constant experimentation and learning through trial and error, but is not wedded to any one process or particular technology to get the job done.

This is the approach seen in the works of Herman Kahn, Julian Simon, F.A. Hayek, Aaron Wildasky, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Virginia Postrel. These thinkers are optimistic about the role technology played in advancing social and economic progress, but their optimism is rooted in empiricism and rational inquiry, not blind faith in any particular viewpoint or ideology. Rational optimists don’t hold an unthinking allegiance to technology as an autonomous force or savior to civilization’s woes. Indeed, the blueprint that rational optimists offer is not utopian but anti-utopian: Precisely because difficult problems defy easy solutions, we should look to devise a plurality of strategies to tackle them. New technological innovations might be among those strategies, but not be the only ones we rely on.

Rational optimists would not discourage dreaming and daring, however. If those “romantic and revolutionary problem solvers” want to give it a go, then more power to them. Some of that entrepreneurial activity will yield socially beneficial results. Far more importantly, it would likely produce many failures, and society would then learn from those mistakes and improve future experiments accordingly.

The goal is not to “save everything” with “the folly of technological solutionism.” Rather, it is to seek to solve some problems through the application of practical knowledge to social challenges, via incessant experimentation with the new and different approaches to hard problems. Sometimes technology—even Morozov’s dreaded “Internet”—can and will play an important role in that process. We shouldn’t let his or anybody else’s relentless pessimism get in the way of that.