Nthposition review of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes, 2004

 One of the most memorable books I reviewed for nthposition. I have written before that time has modified some of my judgments, usually tempering enthusiasms a little. The years since have not, I think, changed the relative positions of Einstein and Freud all that much in the intellectual firmament. Here’s an article on their 1927 meeting from a Slovene website…


The invisible century

Richard Panek


by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

The first thing that surprised me about this book was that it existed at all. Richard Panek, who has been a science writer for the New York Times and Esquire, has written an exciting, fast-paced account of how Einstein and Freud, the two Jewish titans who would be expelled from the pure corpus of Aryan science by the Nazis, exploded our view of ourselves.

For while Einstein’s status as a demigod of science is unchallenged, despite some carping biographies and his refusal to accept the possibility that God might play dice, Freud is barely regarded as a scientist anymore. Einstein has become the archetype, the literal icon (what a pity that wonderful word icon is now so grossly overused, describing footballers and 10-day wonder pop singers) of 20th century science. The title of one of the many books written decrying Freud alone point to his loss of status, ‘Freudian Fraud’, epitomises many people’s feelings about Freudianism. At best a waste of time, at worst a sinister quasireligious pseudoscience – this is the widespread view of Freudianism.

Freud has been steadily attacked over the 66 years since his death. As his papers and correspondence have continued to be published, ethics questionable by the standards of any day and a cavalier dogmatism have become documented. As psychiatry and clinical psychology become more and more driven by the need to be “evidence-based” and the concomitant drive for efficiency, the long-term treatment that is psychodynamic psychotherapy is often derided as a timewasting “therapy for those with deep pockets”, the ‘YAWIS’ (young, attractive, wealthy, intelligent, successful)

Thus, to encounter a book which treats Einstein and Freud as equals is something of a surprise. Panek deals well with the many and varied criticisms of both. However, the general tone of the book is one of admiration. These men revealed the hidden universes of relativity and the unconscious, proving the truth uttered by Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of your philosophy, Horatio.”

Panek begins with the one and only meeting between Freud and Einstein, during the New Year’s Holiday season of 1927. Freud was staying with one of his sons in Berlin, and Einstein called on him. As Panek writes, “Freud and Einstein shared a native language, German, but their respective professional vocabularies had long since diverged, to the point that they now seemed virtually irreconcilable.” Freud wrote to a friend afterwards that “he understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

This meeting is the starting point for six breathlessly exciting chapters. It is one of the best explications of Einstein’s thinking in a historical context that I have read. The story of the exhaustion of late-19th century physics is well-known; the apparent belief that all that could be known was known suffuses the physics of the day. The difficult, daydreaming Zurich patent clerk would change all that.

What is less well remembered is how deeply it was felt in neurology and psychiatry – from today’s perspective, disciplines nascent in extremis – that the end of psychology was in sight. With a good enough microscope, the brain would yield up its secrets as easily as the rest of the body had once anatomy began to proceed in a scientific manner. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace wrote in the late 1700s that “an intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motion of the largest bodies of the world. Nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present.” Laplace’s idea was taken up not just by physicists grappling with the mechanics of the “largest bodies of the world” but by the new psychologists also.

Panek traces the development of 19th century neurology, its splendid achievement in identifying so many neuroanatomical and indeed neurocellular structures, and its corresponding failure to achieve a Laplace-like understanding of the mind. The neuron was not the end of psychology. Freud, it is often forgotten, trained as a neurologist and always claimed a rigorously scientific worldview. Seeing himself as a researcher first and foremost, he was forced to take up lucrative clinical practice to support his wife and family. This practice would be the research that secured Freud’s fame – or infamy – forever. He began to explore the defence mechanisms of the people who came to consult him, their resistance to exploring certain topics or to express certain thoughts, and that very resistance became the stuff of what psychoanalysis would become.

Panek tells his story superbly. The chapters rattle by. Freud once wrote that the years of struggle, in retrospect, are the ones that fill a man’s heart most, and both of these parallels lives are dominated by the years of (relative) obscurity. This is perfectly proper in a book about the ideas of these two men rather than their lives, and makes a refreshing change from some scientific biographies that concentrate at great length on the later, public figure, and skimp over the early breakthroughs that made the subject worthy of attention in the first place.

Einstein’s relativity and Freud’s unconscious are revealed as the pivotal events in, not just science in the general sense, but in our own understanding of ourselves. Even if you are utterly dismissive of Freud and all psychoanalysis, or in the less likely circumstance that you are utterly dismissive of Einstein and all relativity, I urge you to continue your argument with this book.

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.


While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

queen coinwarhol_2348861k

The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.

George Steiner on secondary culture in 1989


Each day, via journalism, via the journalistic-academic, the inherent value, the productive powers the savings embodied in a creative currency, this is the say in the vitality of the aesthetic, are devalued. The paper Leviathan of secondary talk not only swallows the prophetic (there is prophecy and the prophecy of remembrance in all serious poetic and artistic invention); it spews it out diminished and fragmented. In the absence of the guarantor, a counterfeit mode of exchange, that of the review speaking to the review, of the critical article addressing the critical article, circulates endlessly. It is not, as Ecclesiastes would have it, that of “of making many books there is no end”. It is that “of making books on books and books on those books there is no end.”

  • George Steiner, “Real Presences” p. 48

Decomplexifying Society – Joseph Tainter, George Monbiot, Paul Arbair, John Harris

A while back I posted some thoughts on Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. which, coincidentally, I finished in the week of the Brexit poll. The French writer Paul Arbair commented on my post and linked to his far, far more worked out version.

Paul’s post was picked up by George Monbiot in the Guardian:

And, as the French writer Paul Arbair notes in the most interesting essay I have read this year, beyond a certain level of complexity economies become harder to sustain. There’s a point at which further complexity delivers diminishing returns; society is then overwhelmed by its demands, and breaks down. He argues that the political crisis in western countries suggests we may have reached this point.

And, in the Guardian again, John Harris also picks up Paul’s essay 

There perhaps was a time when the idea that increasing complexity would benefit most people just about held true: the 1990s maybe spring to mind. But now? As we all know, wages are continuing to stagnate. Across the UK, Europe and the US, there are increasing worries about sluggish-to-flatlining productivity and disappointing economic growth. Automation is already disrupting millions of working lives. Therein, of course, lies huge opportunities for the insurgents now defining the political zeitgeist. Their basic approach is: a withering look at the labyrinthine realties of trade, technology, population movement, international agreements and the rest, followed by the simplest of answers: “Take back control”, “Make America great again”.

All this began to sit in my thoughts as I was putting together a radio documentary about the new populism, and reading a book by the US anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, which brims with implied parallels between far-flung periods of history and more recent events. It may be some token of our turbulent times that it’s titled The Collapse of Complex Societies: I was alerted to it after reading a brilliant post-Brexit piece authored by French writer Paul Arbair, and I have been dipping into it ever since.

The book was published in 1988, just before the fall of communism was about to offer another case study in what it describes. One key pattern, it argues, applies to whole chunks of history: the way that increasingly complicated systems initially deliver big economic benefits, only for diminishing returns to set in, as systems of power and control become overstretched. Ever-increasing burdens are not matched by material rewards, and popular resentment kicks in.

Tainter’s text covers the demise of ancient Rome and collapse of Mayan civilization in the 9th century, the Minoans and Hittites, and the Chinese Zhou dynasty. He talks about common features of these societies’ fall: “revolts and provincial breakaways”, the end of long-distance trade, resource depletion, declining economic growth, and a point many societies have eventually crashed into: when they are “able to do little more than maintain the status quo”. Currencies become debased; “bridges and roads are not kept up”. Precipitous changes in climate often underlie what happens.

Harris contacts Tainter directly:

I got in touch with Tainter, and though he cautioned me against generalised comparisons, he agreed that complexity held the key to a lot of current developments. “The simpler past seems more attractive than today’s complex reality, and so people vote [thanks to] inchoate frustrations,” he told me. “They choose simplicity and locality over complexity; identity over internationalism. Politicians promote themselves by giving voice to this. Hence, in addition to Brexit, we have calls for Scottish independence, Catalan independence, and so forth.” If complexity and globalisation gave recognisable benefits, he said, the phenomenon would not be so widespread. Quite so, but this is the exact way in which modernity is failing.

Visions of imminent social collapse might be taking all this a bit too far. Or maybe not, for as Tainter writes: “Civilisations are fragile, impermanent things.” Are modern societies vulnerable? It’s a common belief, he says, that our technological capacity, energy resources and our knowledge of economics and history mean our civilisation should be able to survive “whatever crises ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable”.

But as a corrective, he then quotes the revered German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff’s sobering take on the lessons of the Roman empire. Gin and Radiohead at the ready, then: “Civilisation can die, because it has already died once.”

Of course, one of the nuances which Tainter was thinking of when he warned Harris against “generalised comparisons” was that the collapse of the Roman Empire, was, for those who lived through it, probably experienced as a good thing rather than the apocalyptic, disastrous collapse we think of it as. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see Tainter’s influence as a prism to think about complex societies begin to gain traction – as well as the I-knew-him-before-he-was-famous factor (well, I don’t actually know him, but you get the point) which makes me glad to see Tainter’s name in print.

One would hope that perhaps there can be a movement from seeing this phenomenon of the diminishing returns of complexity in purely fatalistic terms. For these Guardian writers, the election of Trump and Brexit are expressions of inchoate, irrational forces which need explanation. (Personally, I would turn to Homer) As I noted in my prior post, Tainter has considerable sport with the civilisational-decay rhetotic  of Spengler and Toynbee, holding a passage of Spengler up to particular ridicule (although this is also one of the most stirring pieces of writing in the book), and it would be ironic if his work was simply used to buttress cultural pessimism.


Tainter’s framework is an attractive one as an explanatory model; I am increasingly wondering how it could be used to inform policy in a  creative, positive way. Basic guaranteed income, for instance, could be a way of decomplexifying the labyrinthine workings of welfare systems, as well as the other possible benefits  which were enumerated by Monbiot in a column:

A basic income (also known as a citizen’s income) gives everyone, rich and poor, without means-testing or conditions, a guaranteed sum every week. It replaces some but not all benefits (there would, for instance, be extra payments for pensioners and people with disabilities). It banishes the fear and insecurity now stalking the poorer half of the population. Economic survival becomes a right, not a privilege.

A basic income removes the stigma of benefits while also breaking open what politicians call the welfare trap. Because taking work would not reduce your entitlement to social security, there would be no disincentive to find a job – all the money you earn is extra income. The poor are not forced by desperation into the arms of unscrupulous employers: people will work if conditions are good and pay fair, but will refuse to be treated like mules. It redresses the wild imbalance in bargaining power that the current system exacerbates. It could do more than any other measure to dislodge the emotional legacy of serfdom. It would be financed by progressive taxation – in fact it meshes well with land value tax.

I am sure there is much that could be said about the basic income concept and, for the purpose of this post, I am not writing about it specifically, but as an example of how a goal of de-complexifying society could be concevied and achieved.


Management Secrets of the Manhattan Project: The Dabbler, July 16 2015

As featured on the BBC website… I am well aware of the moral issues pointed out by the the third commentator here. Perhaps the somewhat arch tone passed him by, and the mockery of management guides such as The 48 Laws of Power mining history for boardroom-friendly insights. Reading Leslie Groves’ autobiography, no doubt full of omissions and half-truths and evasions, I was struck also by the quantity of organisational know-how (in every sense of the phrase “quantity of organisational know-how” you can think of) And perhaps the canonisation of Oppenheimer and demonisation of Groves slightly annoys me. And could a man described thus be all bad:

First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.

The whole thing is here

The Art of War, ascribed to Sun Tzu who may or may not have existed, was not written as a guide to advancing up the management structure of insurance companies, but it is now a staple of management literature. Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power enlisted a whole host of historical figures, from Joseph Duveen to Madame de Pompadour, in the cause of imparting hints on rising up corporate ladders. “Change management” gurus endlessly cite Heraclitus and Marcus Aurelius out of any context. It is surprising that a more recent example of management genius has not become more cited than it is.

The atomic age began at 5.30 am on  July 16th 1945, at Alamogardo, New Mexico, with the Trinity Test, the first successfull detonation of an atomic bomb. Three weeks later, Hiroshima would experience the second detonation. The Trinity Test is indelibly associated with the famous footage of Robert Oppenheimer looking tragic and solemn, and  declaring that in the immediate  aftermath of the test, he thought of the words of the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”.

Oppenheimer is invariably the focus of much of the discourse around the atomic bomb’s development, but the overall project was directed by Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

In artistic treatments of the birth of the bomb, Oppenheimer is cast as Faust, or Prometheus, with Groves  as Mephistopheles or simply an uptight bureaucrat. This is the mode of James Thackara’s “America’s Children”, of John Adam’s opera “Dr Atomic”, of the Paul Newman/Dwight Schulz vehicle “Shadow Makers”. While perhaps artistically satisfying, and hinting at perennial themes about the hubris and nemesis of human achievement, this tends to obscure that what was initially known by the codename Development of Substitute Materials and later the Manhattan Project (as the Corps of Engineers component was part of the Manhattan Engineering District was a gigantic technical problem that became an enormous moral and political one.

A different Oppenheimer emerges from  Stephen Walker’s Shockwave, an account of the days from Trinity to Hiroshima. Immediately after the success of Trinity, “his old friend Isidor Rabi watched him as he strode across the camp. Something in Oppenheimer’s bearing chilled his flesh. ‘I’ll never forget the way he walked,’ he said later. ‘It was like High Noon – I think it’s the best I could describe it – this kind of strut. He’d done it.’ Gone was the fragile self-doubt, replaced by something quite different: the intoxicating certainties of power.” Later, after learning from Groves that there had been a “successful combat drop” of one of Los Alamos’ “units”, ie that the bombing of Hiroshima had occured – Oppenheimer entered the lab’s weekly colloquium of scientists: “like a prizefighter he clasped his hands together over his head in the classic boxer’s victory salute.”

As Peter Hennessy points out in his introduction to The Secret State, his scholarly study of the elaborate network of bunkers and security installations drawn up by Whitehall in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, the men and women who worked on nuclear war were not parodic Dr Strangeloves but ordinary enough human beings. When it comes to considering the existence of nuclear weapons, wringing our hands and saying how unimaginable it all is and how much we’d like to vomit (a la Martin Amis in “Thinkability”) is not a long term policy.

 Groves was a kind of genius as much as Oppenheimer; a genius of logistics and organisation. Having restored Managua’s water supply after a devastating 1931 earthquake, and then built the Pentagon, he was the logical choice for managing a project as gigantic and as the Allied atomic bomb project (the British project codenamed “Tube Alloys” was subsumed into the Manhattan Project over time). Of course, thanks to Klaus Fuchs, the Soviets knew about the bomb from before the start.

After the war, Groves received a comeuppance from future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who informed him that he would never lead the Corps of Engineer and presented him with a detailed account of complaints about his arrogance, irascibility, blatant manoeuvring for promotion and power and general disagreeableness. Of course, these may well have been the qualities that made him great. Realising that no project as big would ever come along again, Groves retired from the army in 1948 and after various rather half hearted corporate gigs, wrote his memoir Now It Can Be Told in 1962.

Now It Can Be Told is a compelling read about project management, about how Groves pre-empted (in his account) the bureaucratic wrangles. Groves generally refers to the project by its proper Corps of Engineers’ acronym MED. There is pretty much zero hand wringing about the ethics of whole enterprise, and not much on the science. It is a somewhat straightforwardly-written with a few flashes of wry humour, but above all replete with gems of project management wisdom.

One of the most striking, and most relevant in the age of email and text and other impersonal communications, is that nothing beats the human touch to get things done:

As a matter of fact, we never had much trouble with government regulations and so called “red tape”, probably because whenever we encountered potential difficulties, we did not resort to letter-writing through channels. Instead, a competent officer was always sent immediately to the trouble spot with orders and authority to resolve the problem.

Groves himself applies the in-person-visit treatment to another legendary – and rather “difficult” – World War II figure, “Wild Bill” Donovan of the OSS:

I was astounded to learn how thoroughly unsatisfactory the relationships were between G-2 [military intelligence] and OSS. AS I was leaving at the close of our discussion, Donovan remarked that I was the first general office who had ever come to see him in his officer. He appeared to be quite touched by this and insisted on personally escorting me out of the building and sending me back to my office in his own car, even going so far as to insist on holding the door for me while I got in. Buxton told me afterward that OSS would have supported us fully in any case, but my call ensured the utmost in special treatment for the MED …. Going out of our way to establish initial contacts with other organisations and individuals through calls by senior personnel, instead of by letter or telephone, was common practice in the Manhattan Project.

Groves spends a lot of time on the nature of organisational power: “As I pointed out to Senate committee, ever since the failure of the tribunes of Rome no executive group has ever functioned well.” Interestingly in the light of subsequent events with Eisenhower, in one passage he recounts how then-Undersecretary for War Robert Patterson and General Eisenhower specifically refused to be given secret information: “As General Eisenhower put it, ‘I have so many things to deal with that it puts an undue burden on me to be given any secret information, as I am then forced to think constantly about what is secret and what is not.’ Later, with Senatorial criticism that too much reliance was being placed on Groves, this policy changed, to Patterson and Eisenhower’s regret and Groves’ relief.

Groves’ memoir also covers Project Alsos, the Allied operation to discover how much progress Nazi Germany had made on its atomic bomb project, and an equivalent operation regarding Japan. The latter led to a public relations issue about the destruction of Japanese cyclotrons, which was not what the MED wanted at all. Various miscommunications and misunderstandings became public knowledge (this was November 1945)  and Groves, as well as reflecting on the difficulties of absorbing new and untrained staff, illustrates a basic principle of media management: “The press as a whole seemed quite surprised by this frank and open admission of error. As a result, this incident quickly lost its news value and the clamor soon subsided… the basis truth was demonstrated here again, that honest errors, openly admitted, are sooner forgiven.” Of course, this is coming from a man who had presided over one of the most secretive projects of all time.

Towards the end of his book Groves, in his methodical way, provides a handy list of the reasons why the project succeeded:

First, we had a clearly defined, unmistakable, specific objective. Although at first there was considerable doubt whether we could attain this objective, there was never any doubt about what it was. Consequently the people in responsible positions were able to tailor their every action to its accomplishment.

Second, each part of the project had a specific task. These tasks were carefully allocated and supervised so that the sum of their parts would result in the accomplishment of our overall mission. This system of compartmentalisation had two principal advantages. The most obvious of these was that it simplified the maintenance of security. But over and above that, it required each member of the project to attend strictly to his own business. The result was an operation whose efficiency was without precedent.

Third, there was positive, clear-cut, unquestioned direction of the project at all levels. Authority was invariably delegated with responsibility, and this delegation was absolute and without reservation. Only in this way could the many apparently autonomous organisations working on the many apparently independent tasks be pulled together to achieve our final objective.

Fourth, the project made maximal use of already existing agencies facilities and services – governmental, industrial, and academic. Since our objective was finite, we did not design our organisation to operate in perpetuity. Consequently, our people were able to devote themselves exclusively to the task in hand, and had no  reason to engage in independent empire-building.

Fifth, and finally, we had the full backing of our government, combined with the nearly infinite potential of American science, engineering and industry, and an almost unlimited supply of people endowed with ingenuity and determination.


You can almost hear the yearning nostalgia of Groves for his glory days, the days of “clear cut, unquestioned direction” and “maximal use of already existing agencies.” Clearly war time conditions allowed Groves’ genius to flourish, and the shades of grey of peacetime policy making did not suit him.Now It Can Be Told also reveals only a certain amount of Groves the man. Management is ultimately about people, and while his “people skills” were such that would earn stern reprimands from HR today, he also inspired people to produce their utmost. One of his subordinates, Kenneth Nicholls, perhaps summarised this management genius the best and fills out the picture of Groves’ own memoir:


First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.


To Solve Everything, Click Here – Evgeny Morozov

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.


On virtues of the heroic ages: from “After Virtue” by Alasdair MacIntyre

The exercise of the heroic virtues thus requires both a particular kind of human being and a particular kind of social structure. Just because this is so, an inspection of the heroic virtues may at first sight appear irrelevant to any general enquiry into moral theory and practice. If the heroic virtues require for their exercise the presence of a kind of social structure which now irrevocably lost – as they do – what relevance can they possess for us? Nobody now can be a Hector or a Gisli.


The answer is that perhaps what we have to learn from heroic societies is twofold: first that all morality is to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion, and secondly that there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors in which series heroic societies hold first place. If this is so, the contrast between the freedom of choice of values of which modernity prides itself and the absence of such choice in heroic culture would look very different. For freedom of choice of values would from the standpoint of a tradition ultimately rooted in heroic societies appear more like the freedom of ghosts – of those whose human substance approached vanishing point – than of men. – After Virtue, Duckworth Second Edition, pp. 126-7