I first came across Evgeny Morozov via the computer history mailing list SIGCIS. In essence, Morozov had written a New Yorker piece which drew heavily on the work of the historian Eden Medina – which in fact was ostensibly a review of her book Cybernetic Revolutionaries – while only mentioning her name once, in passing. This is a somewhat familiar maneouvre in a certain strand of highbrow book reviewing – the book is an occasion for an essay on a topic, with only peripheral mentions of the book itself.
I don’t feel qualified to comment any further on the issues raised in the Morzov-Medina affair. Some time later, I came across his “To Solve Everything, Click Here” – the precís of which, with its concern with “solutionism” and “epochalism”, resonated. Epochalism is perhaps easier to define – the belief that our times are unique. This is often mixed up with the idea that it is “the internet” and “technology” are what makes our times unique. “Solutionism” is slightly less obvious. Here is how Morozov introduces the concept:
Alas, all too often, this never-ending quest to ameliorate – or what the Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li, writing in a very different context, has called “the will to improve” – is shortsighted and is only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought. Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evidence 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.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning – where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental and narrow-minded solutions – the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences – to problems that are extremely complex, fluid and contentious. These are the kind of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that “solutionists” have defined them; what’s contentious then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.
I find myself agreeing entirely with the above. During the week I attended the CCIO Summer School in Leeds. One presentation was a video talk by Dr Robert Wachter whose report on IT in the NHS will soon be with us. Dr Wachter discussed many of the unintended consequences of electronic health records and eHealth approaches so far; the end of radiology rounds, doctors staying in a computer room doing their work rather than being on the wards, and most poignantly the redefinition of the doctor patient relationship itself (illustrated by a young girl’s picture of a visit to the doctor, who was depicted with his back turned to the girl and her mother, typing away – shades of Cecil Helman’s “technodoctors”)
Passages are excellent, and indeed at times reading Morozov I felt an excitement that at last some of my own ambivalences and qualifications (and enthusiasm) regarding technology were being crystallised. Morozov is as much against technophobia as techno-utopianism – pointing out that both postulate a sort of undifferentiated Technology (such as “the Internet”, as seen in phrases like “the grain of the Internet” and other reifications and indeed personifications of the Internet) with an inherent power. Morozov summarises a vast array of academic literature – the rate in the above quote of one academic namecheck per paragraph is probably lower than most. Therein lies some of the problem – much of the book is a rather relentless account of the work of these academics and various thinkers.
Again, I can’t judge if there are other thinkers and scholars he should be citing and acknowledging more, but in this book (published pre-Medina) his citations are exhaustive (and exhausting)- so much so that a rather annoying rhetorical tic is evident. TechnoUtopian A states X, but X is evidently absurd because Academics B,C and D say so. And Morozov has a verbal tic to match the rhetorical one – his references to “Canadian anthropologist Tania Murray Li” and “Design theorist Michael Dobbins” and many, many more are reminiscent of no less than Dan Brown:
This use of a person’s name preceded by the name of a job, without a preceding article (an anarthrous NP, as we grammarians say when chatting with our own kind in the secretive cabals that we sometimes hold) is odd because occupational descriptions like “fertilizer salesman” aren’t normally used as titles. “Cardinal” is a title; selling fertilizer is merely a job. It is true that noun phrases like fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson are found in newspaper articles (in fact John Cowan points out to me that it is a well-known feature of the style associated with Time magazine), but I have never yet found anyone but Dan Brown using this construction to open a work of fiction. The construction sounds to me like the opening of an obituary rather than an action sequence. It’s not ungrammatical; it just has the wrong feel and style for a novel. (from this Language Log post)
I would argue that, repeated at length, it also has the wrong feel and style for a book length argument, rather than a newspaper piece. Anyway, this is something of a digression.
Many reviewers seem to have missed that Morozov is as opposed to techno-scepticism as techno-utopianism. This is a very different book to those of Andrew Keen, for instance. This is possibly because his opposition is confined to sideswipes. Towards the end of the book there is a – to my mind – rather ignorant swipe at Jacques Ellul:
As far as analytical categories go, “Technology” holds as much promise as “the internet”: it’s very hard to reach precision as the cultural bias implied and produced by such terms are too many. Once we move to a lower – that is, more detailed, empircial and analytically precise – level of analysis, we are likely to notice things that may have escaped the attention of French theologians.
The tone of this is a little surprising as earlier in the book Morozov has referred to Ellul more neutrally:
Steven Talbott, a technology critic in the deeply spiritual tradition of Jacques Ellul, correctly observes that “we have invested only certain automatic, mechanical, and computation aspects of our intelligence in the equipment of the digital age, and it is these aspects of ourselves that are in turn reinforced by the external apparatus. In other words, you will see what engineers will insist on calling a ‘positive feedback loop,’ a loop almost guaranteeing one-sidedness in our intelligent functioning.” We ought not to be as pessimistic – the last chapter of this book will show that digital technologies can help awaken us from the ethical and aesthetic slumber we’ve been enjoying for far too long – but the gist of Talbott’s assertion is right: we have to watch for positive feedback loops.
This passage is quite typical of Morozov’s style – the invocation of the authority of another thinker or academic, a rather directive approach to the reader (“we ought not to be as pessimistic”), a tendency to use the very epochalist language he otherwise disdains (“awaken us from the ethical and aesthetic slumber”)
Techno-evangelists and “epochalists” of the Internet-changes-everything school tend to make pronoucements that are hostages to fortune, and good sense. As with Andrew Keen’s books, Morozov’s cataloguing of these follies is at times a fish shoot in a barrel. It reminded me of books on alternative medicine such as Rose Shapiro’s “Suckers” which list various absurdities and evident follies, but don’t consider the more interesting questions – why? Why, in the case of alternative medicine, are people drawn to all this, if it is so ineffective and evidently absurd? Why, in the case of Morozov (or Andrew Keen), are people to make and admire such statements?
Morozov, for instance, makes heavy weather of “lifestreaming”; Microsoft employee Gordon Bell (see, it’s catching) who has collected nearly every detail of his life using a range of technologies is held up as a sort of cautionary tale.
Morozov’s rationale, on one level, is not superficial at all – indeed, as pointed out above, it is rather exhaustively referenced. But the weakness of his rhetorical arsenal of weak sarcasm and invoking academic masks a deeper rhetorical weakenss. The twin bogeys of solutionism and epochalism can be invoked in almost any situation. Loose talk of “the internet” is very common, and Morozov seems ever vigilant to jump on its use as an example of sloppy thinking.
The most extraordinary passages, however, are in the final chapter where Morozov summarises various conceptual art works and design experiments which, for him, provide a way out of solutionism.
There’s the “erratic appliances”, which “Swedish designers decided to build … that start to behave strangely as energy consumption increases. The strangeness is deliberate: it seeks to introduce aspects of risk and indeterminacy into the use of such devices. Thus the behaviour of, say, a toaster will depend on the overall electricity consumption in the apartment; users are thus deliberately forced to make choices.” The same “Swedish designers” have a radio set which changes frequency when the energy consumption goes above a certain level.
There’s the “trio of German designers” who have set out to build what they call “transformational products” such as the Caterpillar – “that seeks to make its owner think about the energy wasted by products in standby mode.” They also came up with the “Forget Me Not reading lamp. Once switched on, Forget Me Not starts closing like a flower, as it light gradually gets dimmer and more obscure. For the lamp to reopen and shine again, the user needs to touch one of its petals. Thus, the user is in a constant dialogue with the lamp, hopefully aware of the responsibility to use energy appropriately.
This leads to the work of “media and design theorist Carl diSalvo” who is a proponent of “adversarial design.” Never fear, Carl di Salvo in turn is “drawing on the work of political theorists like Carl Schmitt and Chantal Mouffe.” (FYI – Carl Schmitt was known as “crown jurist of the Third Reich”) and in a very Morozov line, “DiSalvo’s thought is worth studying in depth, if only because it provides the much-needed theoretical scaffolding that turns the disjointed insights of “erratic appliances” and “technological troublemakers” into a paradigmatic program and philosophy of design.”
DiSalvo “marshals up numerous examples to show what adversarial design looks like in practice; crime maps that, instead of showing the distribution of crimes on a city map, show which city blocks have the most former residents incarerated; browser extensions that add information about military funding to the websites of universities or convert all prices on sites like Amazon into their equivalent in barrels of oil based on current prices.” Two examples are discussed in more depth. One is Spore 1.1
a rubber tree plant bought from the Home Depot retailer with the unconditional guarantee that it can be exchanged for a new plant if it dies in the first year. The plant is connected to an automated watering system that works on a somewhat bizarre principle: Every Friday it checks how the Home Depot’s stock is performing … if the stock performs too poorly, no water is administered to the plant; if it does well, water is administered… The art project was meant to get observers to reflect on the potentially high but invisible costs of unchecked economic growth
The other diSalvo example is the Natural Fuse. At this point, rather than yet more of me summarising Morozov summarising someone else, those interested can look at the link. Suffice it to say that in Morozov’s words:
The Natural Fuse aims to go beyond the reductionism of numbers and give citizens a better understanding of the logic and ethics of carbon offsets. In other words, it seeks to promote narrative imagination.
There is nothing wrong with any of these projects of course (although they do smack to me of the irritatingly vapid “provocative” nature of much conceptual art) but surely Morozov is engaging in some solutionism of his own – “users are thus deliberately forced to make choices”, “seeks to make its owner think “, “the user needs to touch”, “to get observers to reflect”, etc. This is all surely the language of solutionism, and while the Natural Fuse may aim to “go beyond the reductionism of number”, Morozov has a staggeringly reductionist view of the experience of art (and design) The viewer/user of these projects is portrayed (in Morozov’s account) as a rather passive creature pushed into critical reflection and “narrative imagination” just like that! Critical of the assumptions of so many others (especially when they impinge on human agency and on complexity, here he uncritically repeats the comments of the artists and designers themselves.