We have a new vacuum cleaner. It is a robot. We named him Isaac - obviously - for sound science-fictional reasons. Isaac was purchased with the goal of making our lives a little easier. And tidier.
Two academics at home. Long working days. We attempted to follow the recommendation from university human resources departments: a work-life balance. We failed at the first stage of house maintenance. Therefore, we purchased a robot vacuum cleaner as a proxy. The dream was that Isaac would manage our floors. The problem is that he got stuck. Isaac also became a little too fixated on our beanbags. I am uncertain what pornography for robots looks like, but there has been a focused attempt to bring it to life in our lounge.
Isaac represents many things: the hyperstructured days of academics; the reality that we all “work for Ford” more than sociologist Huw Beynon could have imagined; the changing roles of men and women; but also the desire - the desperate hope - that technology solves social problems.
Evgeny Morozov takes this last flickering desire as the propulsion for his new book. The title captures the argument - To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist. He probes the noun-driven power of narratives promoting technology: convenience, efficiency, speed and pleasure.
His mode of techno-scepticism suggests that we must think more about how and why technology is used. Morozov demands a reconfiguration and re- evaluation of “Silicon Valley’s promise of eternal amelioration”, and questions the propulsive quest for “efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection”. Such promises are expensive and wasteful. Morozov shows that “digital fixes” invent the problems they appear to solve. Put another way, Angry Birds may be angry, but they are not really birds.
Morozov describes this tendency as solutionism: putting faith in technology, rather than taking the time to understand complex social structures and historical processes. He argues that technological “quick fixes” put a cap on our imaginations, aspirations and innovations. Our personal struggles are reduced to an application or an algorithm.
He also probes the technological innovations that are (simply) weird. BinCam photographs a person’s trash and shares the images with Facebook. Such surveillance remains a constant concern in the book. This oversharing and underthinking is also recognised more widely and ironically by Twitter’s hashtag culture (#firstworldproblems).
Like Morozov’s earlier title The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, this is not an academic book but does offer thinking space for scholars. In its early stages it grafts from the Malcolm Gladwell/Clay Shirky mode of writing where stories replace argument. There is a discussion of “human nature” on page 7 that is squelchingly uncomfortable. Occasionally, his attack on technological utopianism swings into unhinged humanism. However, as the book progresses, the structure and commentary matures and the impact of “solutionism” becomes clear. Links are made to other dehumanising narratives, such as Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society and Jane Jacobs’ critique of urban planning.
Educational technology is also a target for this “solutionism”. Morozov argues: “Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems, but these problems don’t include education…Online resources might help students learn plenty of new facts…but such fact cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.” He recognises - like E.H. Carr argued in the early 1960s - that there is a profound distinction between “facts” and “interpretations”.
The book’s most accurate jab hits its target when discussing “the internet”, a phrase intentionally placed in inverted commas. No, this is not a postmodern affectation transposed from the early 1990s that is so ironic we missed it. In this case, the punctuation-encased “internet” reminds readers of ambiguity. Therefore, derived terms such as “internet freedom” become just as woolly.
Morozov argues for the need to separate the physical network and the ideologies that nest within it. Such messiness in defining the internet (rather than “the internet”) means that concrete discussions about specific hardware, software and technologies are hidden by generalisations. Therefore, appropriate regulatory protocols become impossible to create because - let’s say it together as a family - “you can’t control the internet”. Or - sharpening the soundbite - “you can’t put the genie of the internet back into the bottle of regulation”. Information wants to be free. It is about parents assuming responsibility for their children. You get the idea.
A generalised internet is a generalisable internet, blocking debate about the specific, the particular, the concrete. The internet is an untouchable deity: slippery, shiny and omnipotent. Such displacements between technology and faith result in attacks on the blasphemers who cast metaphoric stones at the digital disciples.
This spiritual solutionism explains the rise of the likes of Shirky. He is one of the group described as developing “theories for everything”. The challenge is that when Morozov savages writers such as Shirky, his own argument flattens. Shirky’s ideas are not worth the attention they receive. What his profile demonstrates is that we need to explore with greater vigour the relationship between a laissez-faire framing of technology and the ideas of Ayn Rand. Within such a discourse, change autocorrects into progress.
When moving beyond Shirky and into the creation and movement of data, To Save Everything, Click Here becomes a brilliant razor slicing through hypocrisy. Morozov asks that we consider the value of words such as “transparency” and “openness” in the context of thinking about who profits from “big data”. The notion that technology is autonomous and benevolent means we rarely consider how “the internet” is used in predictive policing in particular. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is now in digital form.
So enter the “datasexuals” who capture and share every slither and slice of their lives via smartphones. Sharing becomes living. According to Morozov, this self-tracking is a way to “bask in your own exceptionalism”. Yet he offers a stark warning: “will a data-rich economy create new forms of digital divide, where only the rich can afford to defend their online reputations?” Morozov believes this “track and share” culture will present a deep social cost to those who do - and do not - participate. Such consequences will continue undiagnosed as long as technology is discussed in the abstract.
To borrow a cliché from music reviewers, this book is “a grower”. It improves as it progresses, and the postscript is a corker. The arguments are clear. There is a wide and disturbing gulf between the internet and “the internet”. A technological system is being stuffed with ideologies, tropes and mantras of progress, revolution and transformation. Actually, it is just the internet. The problem with the first half of the book is that Morozov becomes fixated with crushing the villainous and rather inflated “internet gurus”. But when this demolition derby of digital divas ends, a clear argument emerges about the necessity for a “post- internet”.
This book is a strong contribution to internet studies, media studies, cultural studies and communication studies. Stay with the argument beyond the first few chapters: it is a great ride. You will never see your bin in the same way again. I look at Isaac in a new way now. This object is not simply a vacuum cleaner. It is a proxy for progress. And it failed.
“I don’t think I or my parents had a good idea of what I should become, but it was pretty obvious that life - and studies - were better abroad,” recalls Evgeny Morozov, born in 1984 in Soligorsk, a mining town in Belarus. “The usual ‘good’ route would be studying in Moscow or St Petersburg. But via a number of lucky accidents, I stumbled upon a fully funded scholarship from George Soros’ Open Society Institute that paid for my studies - my family didn’t have the money anyway - at a US-style liberal-arts college, the American University in Bulgaria.”
“Its mission at the time was ‘to educate the future leaders of the region’. By that, the university mostly meant a bunch of accountants, investment bankers and advertising executives, with a handful of people going into public service,” Morozov recalls.
“I would have probably ended up in investment banking, but I interned at J. P. Morgan in the UK in my junior year, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. I also became friends with a visiting professor of journalism, Aernout van Lynden, a distinguished war journalist and an exemplarily well-read intellectual. He gave me a lot of wise advice, but probably the best was to read every issue of The New York Review of Books. That was a whole new world that got me excited about writing and, well, public intellectualism. (My first book is dedicated to Aernout and I still see him in the Netherlands now and then).”
“Another formative experience was doing some advisory and consulting work for the Open Society Foundations (the very entity that kicked off my career by giving me a scholarship at a university). I was a fellow there and sat on one of the boards (and I still advise them). It was a great learning experience to occasionally sit across the table from giants of thought such as Aryeh Neier and George Soros, and I also got to know a lot of very smart people working for OSF - all of them true intellectuals, from Laura Silber (also a former war correspondent) to Leonard Benardo (a polymath who has written both on US presidents and the names of streets in Brooklyn). Lots of other people were hanging out in the OSF orbit - people like David Rieff, for example. It was certainly a great place to mature intellectually.”
Most recently a visiting scholar at Stanford University, Morozov lives in Cambridge, MA, “by myself, in a pretty spacious loft in a former biscuit factory”. He says he has yet to become an American - “not formally, anyway. I moved here in 2008 and have moved between research visas. I don’t have a green card, let alone citizenship. I guess I relate to US culture more to Belarusian but I wouldn’t list myself as either American or Belarusian at this point. I’m somewhere in the grey area and I’m quite happy there.”
“My parents are still in Soligorsk, along with my sister, her kids, and the rest of the extended family. I go to Belarus frequently and spend at least a month a year there (in between trips). That’s where I wrote To Save Everything - I was living in my parents’ summer house (dacha in Russian) in the woods. I was offline, going to the city only once a week to download all the latest newspapers on my iPad and Kindle, do my email and some occasional research. That was bliss. Do I miss the country itself? Not really. I left when I was 17 and matured intellectually abroad. Soligorsk is a small mining town; my career path was not exactly typical for that town. My father didn’t even go to university, getting a professional degree at a vocational school instead. It’s a very different environment from the one I inhabit right now.”
Asked if his background has affected his view of state power, Morozov says: “My familiarity with how things are in Belarus provided me with an interesting perspective on the divergence between what’s happening on the ground and how we process that knowledge in the West. My experience observing how people in Belarus use digital tools and platforms differed widely from how that usage was portrayed in the Western press: where they saw political cartoons being used to unseat dictators, I saw snarky but ultimately toothless ruminations about cats.”
“But also spending several years working for a Western NGO funded by various governments and foundations made me realise just how challenging a lot of activist work is, how easy it is to get things wrong, and that even benign intentions do not guarantee the absence of adverse outcomes. Spending four years helping Open Society Foundations invest some of its money only honed that awareness and made me realise that wanting to do good is rarely a prerequisite for success; in as much as it blinds the do-gooders with a sense of purpose, it might actually be a recipe for disaster. So these experiences clearly played a role. State power and surveillance - well, I’m not sure. For reasons I never properly understood, my government has never been very interested in my work. I like to joke that I even feel disappointed about that: they literally never bothered to inquire. I can’t really boast of a great dissident past, even if I wanted to, and I do find it odd when I’m introduced as a ‘Belarusian dissident’ - I usually complain about that.”
Asked about his pastimes, Morozov confesses, “That would take me a long time to answer plausibly. In the past 12 months I got somewhat obsessed with dieting and losing weight - I lost 45kg - so my pastimes have been a) shopping for healthy food b) exercising on my elliptical and rowing machines. (I don’t waste time while exercising: I read newspapers on my iPad while on the elliptical and I watch films on a giant screen with a projector while I row). So I do watch a lot of film, I guess - a lot of it is odd European art-house cinema. But I’d say that most of my free time goes into reading and writing.”
Of Facebook, Morozov says, “As a public figure, I’m sure I have a ‘presence’ there because there are pages set up in my name - by fans or enemies (or both). And I have an account in a made-up name that I check from time to time just to know how Facebook works and looks. My career trajectory has been kind of wild and I am not sure I really want to constantly compare notes with my former classmates as to marriages, divorces and summer holidays in Spain. There’s just too much feedback out there and, instead of taking it all in and processing it, I prefer not to take the risk and instead stick to my ‘plan’. I’m sure some people love that kind of feedback. But you know, almost every day I get people complaining about me or my work on a blog somewhere; I get enough feedback - I don’t need Facebook.”
To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist
By Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 432pp, £20.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9781846145483 and 9780241957691
Published 21 March 2013