Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here
My job is building software. Of course I use technology every day, for work, education and entertainment. I like to think, at least, that I’m pretty good at building and using this stuff.
But, for all that, I have a strong luddite streak; maybe folks got that from my post on Summly. I use Facebook but I am intensely suspicious of it. Of the 100 or so apps on my smartphone, I rarely use anything beyond Maps and Alarm Clock. An app like Foursquare – which bills itself as helping “… you and your friends find great places and make the most of your visits” – is to me a bizarre surrender of privacy and security for no return whatsoever. Yet these and other “innovations” have constant command of the business and technology limelight and, despite their dubious value propositions, are all making money in very large buckets indeed. Why the heck is this?
Evgeny Morozov apparently shares my curmudgeonly suspicions. His latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, while flawed in several ways, captures in one word the cognitive dissonance of the distinctive Silicon Valley brand of improvement through technology:
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! – this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.
So what is solutionism? Morozov relates how researchers in Japan are prototyping “augmented reality” for cooking. In this system, cameras are mounted in the ceiling and walls of your kitchen then, for example, if you are about to filet a fish, the system visually senses your intent and projects light indicators to guide you through the activity – for example with projected laser lines that indicate where to cut into the fish.
Or how about this: Bin-Cam, a system with a camera mounted inside your trash bins that records a snap every time you open and close the lid, then passes on the image to a pool of human evaluators who in turn count your recyclables, wasted food, etc. to derive a “score” for your trash. The ultimate aim is you and your neighbors will compete for badges over who has the most eco-friendly trash.
So, what problems are these things solving? Morozov’s contention is these sorts of “innovations” are both arbitrary and hurtful. Can anyone believe the augmented kitchen reality will lead to better-cut fish? What we as users need to do is just what our ancestors did: Learn how to actually cook. Bin-cam can have worse consequences. Recycling and waste are real problems, but by declaring this trivial “solution” we actually move ourselves further away from doing what needs to be done, like enacting market-drivers and regulations that generate real improvement.
Solutionism comes together with Morozov’s other bête noir, “The Internet”, when he critiques liquid democracy. In a nutshell liquid democracy purports to generate better public decisions through delegation of votes to “experts”. Should we have a carbon tax? Don’t ask me, I know little about carbon and even less on taxes. With liquid democracy what I would do is delegate my vote on the matter to someone who is such an expert. Suppose the next issue is access to emergency contraception. All I need to do is delegate to another, appropriately qualified expert. And so on. (Note to future self: If this dorky idea ever gets enacted in the USA, delegate everything to Paul Krugman.)
Morozov’s point – which seems evident to me – is that the “openess” of the “the Intertnet” does not somehow make everything that happens on it good, and that we can’t take the problems that thinkers and writers from Socrates to Voltaire to Churchill to Oakeshott all have pondered over and just “make an app for that”. Morozov writes:
Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing: all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well. if we don’t find the streng5th and the courage to escape the silicon mentality that fuels much of the current quest for technological perfection, we risk finding ourselves with a politics devoid of everything that makes politics desirable, with humans who have lost their basic capacity for moral reasoning, with lackluster (if not moribund) cultural institutions that don’t take risks and only care about their financial bottom lines, and, most terrifyingly, with a perfectly controlled social environment that would make dissent not just impossible but possibly even unthinkable.
I said there were flaws in the book. One is that Morozov is really a philosopher and as such likes to quote and reference other philosophers – a lot of them; the book includes 55 pages of citations. He also comes across as really grumpy and tees off on harmless tech P-R phenomena like Clay Shirky and the TED Conference. Shirky has little cause to complain, though, here’s the #2 hit I got when I Googled Clay Shirky:
I guess Google doesn’t like Shirky either.
Denizen’s of “the Internet” have mostly harsh woods to offer on this book. Tim Wu writes:
“To Save Everything, Click Here” is rife with such bullying and unfair attacks that seem mainly designed to build Morozov’s particular brand of trollism; one suspects he aspires to be a Bill O’Reilly for intellectuals.
Slashdot has a review that focuses on the kitchen augmented reality thing, striving mightily to show how “the Internet” really can teach you how to cook, if only we could incentivize authors to write better directions. Maybe badges for authors … you see where this is going?
There’s a lot more ground Morozov covers – like how algorithms used by Amazon, Google and Facebook are obviously designed for maximum revenue generation, and not for our collective, transparent benefit – or how lifeloggers like Gordon Bell, while mostly harmless, also trivialize the productive flaws of human memory and tradition. Some of that is valid observation, some just grumpiness, less of which would have benefited the book.
In closing, while few people have ever heard the word solutionism, a great many intuitively get the point – which you can see in parodies like this:
Technology mocking itself – a good sign. Maybe I should make an app for that … ?