Despite my blogging habits and two websites, I’m actually a bit of an “old-fogey” as far as technology is concerned. I’m not on Facebook; would never Twitter or Tweet; use the most basic Nokia mobiles; rarely skype; and prefer to ask human beings for directions rather than use GPS.
I’ve been vaguely aware of the various arguments about whether the internet has been good or bad for us but have resisted the temptation to read the hundreds of books on the subject – apart from Jeff Jarvis’ What would Google Do? which I wrote about all of 3 years ago
Efgeni Morozov, however, is a name I recognised when I popped in yesterday to the local branch of Knigomania and his To Save Everything, Click Here looked precisely the sort of book to bring me up to date with the debate – not least because of its extensive bibliography.
I found it an easy read – although an editor’s pen would have been a useful corrective to his rather ornate phrases. I know this is an ungenerous comment to make about a young Belarussian made good (the review in the Times Higher Education Supplement link above ends with a good profile of the guy) but he does rather ask for it since he devotes part of his critique to the notion of "gatekeeping"! The best of the reviews of the book is probably this one in the Los Angeles Review of Books
To understand the limitations of technocratic approaches to social problems, he reads in communication studies and political philosophy. To provide a context for his interpretation of the dominant Internet myth, Morozov draws on key works in the history, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology. The bibliography is diverse, ranging from the canonical debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippman on the role of expertise in democracy. This type of synthetic work is all too rare in cultural criticism, and there is an excellent reading list embedded in the endnotes of To Save Everything, Click Here. If Morozov’s argument rings true — and, for the most part, it does — it is due to the strong philosophical foundation on which he stands.
"To Save Everything" is animated by a thoroughgoing critique of two central ideas that Morozov terms “solutionism” and “Internet-centrism.” The first describes an instrumental engagement with public life that regards all social and political issues as problems to be solved. The second refers to a fascination with the Internet as a wholly novel sociotechnical phenomenon (which Morozov first diagnosed in his 2011 book The Net Delusion). Solutionism and Internet-centrism are both worldviews infused with the technocratic values of efficiency, cleanliness, and productivity, values that are poorly suited, in Morozov’s view, to life in a pluralistic liberal democracy.
These terms allow Morozov to take a position outside the usual pro–con debates over digital technology. Rather than participate in the kind of either-or thinking characteristic of questions like “Is Google making us stupid?” (the title of an infamous 2008 Atlantic article by Nicholas G. Carr), Morozov explores the underlying assumptions that make such a question possible in the first place. Across an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — review of the recent technology literature, he traces a persistent, unexamined reiteration of the dominant Internet myth……
Morozov pinpoints the mantra of today’s solutionism in the recurring description of entrenched institutions as “broken”: Education is broken; the Postal Service is broken; Wall Street is broken; Congress is broken. This solutionist Mad Lib is especially prevalent in the discourses of Silicon Valley where start-up founders are encouraged to pitch to potential investors in terms of the problems they plan to solve. Indeed, writes Morozov, “Silicon Valley is already awash with plans for improving just about everything under the sun: politics, citizens, publishing, cooking.” But not all organizations can or should be modeled after a Silicon Valley start-up: “Most public institutions should not be held to the same standards as their private counterparts,” since “their mission is to provide goods and services that markets cannot or should not provide.” Such institutions will almost inevitably appear “broken” when judged according to the bottom-line economic measures favoured by business-minded solutionists: efficiency, for instance, or productivity. …..
Across 350 pages, he leads the reader on a relentless march through the weeds of Internet-centric hype, criss-crossing technologies and contexts as diverse as open government, gamification and crime prediction, the quantified self and serendipity engines. It is a strange sort of quest that feels almost compulsive in its pursuit of the bugbears of technological solutionism and Internet-centrism. The result is a relatively short book that simply feels too long, its comprehensiveness sliding into redundancy as the examples pile up. One wonders if it was necessary to attack every single instance of Internet-centrism? Following a lengthy engagement with the “datasexuals” of the Quantified Self movement in chapter seven, going after Gordon Bell’s “lifelogging” practices felt particularly tedious at the start of chapter eight. Surely some targets are more worthy than others. …..
The critique of efficiency and productivity in the foreground of To Save Everything builds on a commitment to deliberative democracy that undergirds much of the book. Deliberation, Morozov points out, is quintessentially inefficient. Bringing people with different backgrounds and commitments together for the purpose of reaching a mutually satisfying agreement is a slow and messy and often frustrating process. Whereas solutionism assumes the possibility of consensus and unanimity, Morozov champions compromise. “Perfection shouldn’t be pursued for its own ends; democracy is a complex affair in which, in the absence of disappointments, there would never be any accomplishments.”
Public Books is a site I’ve praised recently and ran an interesting interview with him