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Jul 9 / Great Apes

Book Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

Evgeny Morozov’s new book To Save Everything, Click Here is written primarily as a critique about two aspects of contemporary technology culture that Morozov feels are degrading our public dialogue and, as a result, our public policy.  The first of the two is “Internet-centrism”, the idea that “the Internet” (Morozov always places that term in quotation marks) is some sort of monolithic entity that imparts a specific set of norms and mores on the world.  For example, he criticises the claim that it is “anti-Internet” to be opposed to any form of openness; “openness” is something that is designed into systems, deliberately, by people who have reasons for wanting it to be that way.  The second part of his critique is of what he calls “solutionism”; if I were to attempt to define what he means by “solutionism”, I would say it is the idea that if technology is capable of doing something, then not doing it must be a problem and technology must be necessary to fix it.

The book is at its best when it takes one of two approaches to these topics.  The first is when Morozov engages the vast historical record on technology and society to demonstrate the ways in which technology thinkers and writers fit into broad historical patterns.  Many technologists engage in what Morozov calls “epochalism”, the idea that you live in a unique, revolutionary time in which everything is different and the old rules don’t apply.  I’ve written about this topic myself on a number of occasions, generally in regard to claims that feminism, unions, and the like were important ideas for other generations, but that they have magically becomes unnecessary at precisely the time during which you may be called on to do something about the injustices they seek to redress.  Morozov does an excellent job of explaining why our current age is not unique and in drawing comparisons to previous technologies that were once spoken of in exactly the same revolutionary terms as “the Internet” is spoken of with now (including the sewing machine!).

The other approach that Morozov has a lot of success with is when he skewers Silicon Valley types such as Google’s executive chariman Eric Schmidt or Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired.  Morozov extensively quotes from books and, occasionally, articles by the Silicon Valley set, and their own words provide more than enough rope to hang them with.  They seem to engage in some kind of weird tech worship combined with a messiah complex and a startling naivety about politics.  It is difficult to believe that such people could ever have become so successful in the field of technology given how crazy they seem.  Morozov’s review of Schmidt’s latest book notes, for example, that Schmidt has argued that mobile phones and Internet connectivity might have helped to prevent the Rwandan genocide and that “Young people in Yemen might confront their tribal elders over the traditional practice of child brides if they determine that the broad consensus of online voices is against it.”  If only we give teenagers in Yemen cell phones and Facebook accounts!  Think of all the great social ills that could be stopped!  It really is quite depressing to realise how much power such strangely uninformed and misguided people have, and let’s be honest – Google is one of the most powerful organisations in the world.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but it has its share of faults, as any book of this breadth is apt to have.  There are a number of times in the book where Morozov indicates that some such trend feeds into consumerism, but he treats the issue very philosophically (indeed, the book as a whole is more concerned with philosophy than practicality).  There’s a real missed opportunity here, I think, to examine solutionism not just as the application of “the Internet” as a panacea for all social and political ills, but as the deliberate creation of problems that a particular technology or set of technologies is required to resolve.  Morozov talks frequently about engineers but virtually never mentions marketers, CEOs, accountants, or economists.  In Morozov’s telling of solutionism there doesn’t seem to be very much money changing hands.

One of the topics that the book covers is gamification, the application of game-like elements to non-games in order to make them seem more fun.  But in addition to making not-fun activities seem fun, gamification is also about using psychological tricks to alter peoples’ behaviour in ways that extract the maximum possible amount of revenue from them.  The point of gamification is to trigger particular pleasure centres in the brain such that people are tricked into believing they enjoy an activity when in fact they’re responding subconsciously to some other activity you’ve overlayed on top of it.  Gamification is the ultimate triumph of aggressive marketing: it not only makes people think that products are desirable, it makes people physically require those products on some subconscious level.  Gamification is not just about using technology to solve problems that might not really be problems, it’s about creating the impression in consumers that a problem exists and that the only possible solution to it is whatever you want them to spend money on.  This is much more nefarious, and a much greater threat to democracy, than Morozov’s tale of over-eager engineers and Silicon Valley messiahs.

Another flaw in the book is Morozov’s frequent attempts to argue that the problems that a particular kind of technology seeks to solve are not really problems.  For example, in response to attempts to replace American political parties with online communities, Morozov seems to argue that this is an attempt to fix a problem the doesn’t really exist; the American political system has worked reasonably well as it has for a while, and maybe it’s not such a problem that it isn’t as democratically responsive as some people would like.  Instead, he could have made the more reasonable argument that there are significant structural flaws in American politics but that it’s foolish to believe you can fix them by replacing Congress with online discussion boards.

As another example, Morozov argues against technology that would make it more difficult to get away with lying by arguing that maybe lying is actually pretty socially beneficial.  He misses, I would argue, a much more compelling line of attack: that even though lying is often harmful it is still important to preserve the right to lie because democracy demands it.  One of the major promises of democracy is that other people are – except in narrow, carefully proscribed cases – morally required to allow you to mess up if you want to mess up.  Part of democracy is recognising that other people should be free to live their lives more or less as they please so long as it does not interfere with your rights.  The argument that Morozov really ought to be making is that it doesn’t matter whether lying is good or bad, trying to use technology to restrain it is anti-democratic regardless.

So, while I think the book misses the mark in a couple of places, I would still highly recommend reading it.  It’s an excellent critique of how we as a society often approach technology, and it’s underpinned with a very impressive grasp of history and moral philosophy that too many discussions about “the Internet” are lacking.  To Save Everything, Click Here will probably change the way you think about technology.

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