Commentary Magazine

Web of Illusion

To Save Everything, 
Click Here: The Folly 
of Technological Solutionism
By Evgeny Morozov
PublicAffairs, 432 pages

Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old computer programmer and “hacktivist” who hanged himself in January, once issued something called the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” The brief and dramatic document is a call to liberate all scientific papers—and maybe even all cultural works—currently “locked up by a handful of private corporations,” by making them freely and universally available on the Internet. As Swartz saw it, “sharing isn’t immoral—it’s a moral imperative.” He called on an army of “those who have been locked out” by publishers, libraries, and universities not only to oppose “the privatization of knowledge” but also to “make it a thing of the past.” He was 19 years old when he wrote it.

Whatever else the tragic and controversial Swartz may have been, he was a passionate proponent of what Evgeny Morozov calls “Internet-centrism.” This phenomenon “feed[s] on Enlightenment-era attitudes toward the liberating power of information,” writes Morozov in his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here. “More information is always presumed to be better than less.” Morozov believes this is a highly problematic notion. His brilliant and unclassifiable book articulates a unique and engrossing theory about morality, efficiency, technology, privacy, and, ultimately, the needs of the human spirit. 

The Belarus-born author’s first book, The Net Delusion (2011)pushed back on the popular idea that the Internet has the power to topple dictators and bestow democracy. It established him, at age 26, as a leading skeptic of Internet utopianism. With To Save Everything, Click Here he firmly moves into the top spot. 

He starts with the basics: namely, “the Internet.” Morozov uses the quotation marks to separate out the actual Internet—the connected networks of servers, wires, and switches—from the mythical, all-powerful, immortal, and holy entity worshipped by the centrists. “The Internet” is a model, a teacher, and mystical force revealing its lessons and pulling us all—if we’ll just cooperate—teleologically toward its ultimate revelations: 

It’s Silicon Valley’s own version of the end of history: just as capitalism-driven liberal democracy in Francis Fukuyama’s controversial account remains the only game in town, so does the capitalism-driven “Internet.” It, the logic goes, is a precious gift from the gods that humanity should never abandon or tinker with. Thus, while “the Internet” might disrupt everything, it itself should never be disrupted. It’s here to stay—and we’d better work around it, discover its real nature, accept its features as given, learn its lessons, and refurbish our world accordingly. If it sounds like a religion, it’s because it is. 

Morozov’s list of the faithful is exhaustive. There are corporate big shots: everyone from Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who speaks of “going with the grain of the Internet rather than against it,” to LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who proclaimed, “You can think like a start-up, whoever you are and whatever you do…. acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself, that you will need to adapt and evolve.” 

There are the pundits, such as former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly, who admits that “much of what I believe about human nature, and the nature of knowledge, has been upended by the Wikipedia.” And there are the eccentrics: “self-trackers,” such as computer scientist Larry Smarr, who uses technology to analyze and report on his feces, and “life-loggers” such as Gordon Bell, who seeks to digitally record and store every experience of his existence and thereby solve the problem of human-memory fallibility. 

Bell’s quest is the prime example of what Morozov calls technological solutionism. The term not only describes a framework in which every problem is believed to have an “Internet”-inspired fix. “What’s contentious” about the solutionists, Morozov writes, “is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself.” That we don’t have the natural capacity to remember every word we’ve uttered or to document every aborted sneeze wasn’t considered a dilemma until solutionists gleaned from “the Internet” that there was a way to correct it. 

Technological solutionism has now made deep inroads into all manner of human experience. There are countless solutionist schemes afoot to improve our politics, education, health, security, and leisure time. The problem, as Morozov sees it, is twofold: First, do the specific things solutionists identify as problems need fixing? Second, what’s the cost of employing their solutions?

Consider politics. Germany’s Pirate Party, for example, “runs on a platform of Internet centrism”—meaning that it wants to apply the nature of “the Internet” to other structures or institutions. “The Internet” is supposedly open—or, to use the term of the moment, “transparent.” Therefore, the Pirate Party is pushing to make public the deliberation process inside the Bundestag’s Council of Elders. Morozov wonders if what on the surface seems like an obvious positive step for democracy might not incur detrimental costs. He cites research comparing the deliberative process inside the United States Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) before and after a 1993 decision to release transcripts of pre-vote deliberations. A 2008 study found that “Fed policymakers appear to have responded to the decision to publish meeting transcripts by voicing less dissent” from the chair’s proposals. As Morozov notes, “This may be explained by committee members trying to anticipate the impact of their deliberations on their careers and images and mitigating them accordingly, which may actually undermine honest debate about policy.”

To this he adds the larger point: “When we seek to increase or decrease transparency in some aspect of our public or private lives, we should do it not because we value transparency (or, for that matter, opacity) as such but because transparency promotes or undermines other, higher goods.” To Internet centrists, the higher good is that which is inferred from the supposed nature of “the Internet.” In this case, that means openness as an end in itself. This is fetishization, not liberation.

The Pirates also strive to mirror what Morozov calls “the mythical ‘architecture’” of “the Internet.” Their most robust effort is the creation of LiquidFeedback, an online platform that allows any party member to suggest and vote on what kinds of things the Pirates should address. This sounds admirably collaborative. But in one geographic area, as Morozov notes, “the Pirates used LiquidFeedback to gather general opinions on only two issues, while only 20 votes were cast in the online poll about the controversial law on [banning] circumcision—that in a federal state with nearly 18 million inhabitants.” The party’s popularity has been steadily dropping, as fewer people find reason to take it seriously. Morozov quotes Der Spiegel’s pungent explanatory observation that “the model of an ominous, gray mass quickly loses momentum.” 

Morozov argues that the very idea that “the Internet” is by its nature particularly open or transparent or freely collaborative is highly suspect: “Once we start paying attention to how digital filters and algorithms actually function, once we grapple with what they hide and reveal, many of the founding myths of Internet-centrism might no longer look tenable.” For example, carefully protected corporate algorithms shape seemingly organic phenomena such as the “trending topics” on Twitter. And algorithms are gamed by cheap hired labor to alter search-engine results or the auto-complete suggestions that appear when one starts typing in the search window. Other “gatekeeper” algorithms are routinely employed by social-media sites to flag, report, or keep out undesirable users. What’s more, personal Web use is often being observed for purposes of market research. Data is obtained, stored, and sold by big-money interests to connect users with content likely to generate more clicks, and hence, advertising dollars.

Users are not so much being shaped by the inherent nature of “the Internet” as they are being guided by commercial interests, Internet utopians, and the not infrequent amalgam of both. They are not being freed; they are being played, sometimes literally. The increasingly popular solutionist trend of “gamification” is a good example. In gamification, users are rewarded for desired behaviors with virtual points or credits that may or may not lead to tangible rewards. In 2011, Google News launched its “badge” program, awarding news readers virtual badges for catching up on the news. Readers can share their badge status with others and presumably take pride in advertising their awareness of what goes on in the world.

“This is just the first step—the bronze release, if you will—of Google News badges,” the company announced. “Once we see how badges are used and shared, we look forward to taking this feature to the next level.” The data collected through the badge program will no doubt be very useful in furthering another solutionist trend, whereby readers are fed news stories tailored specifically to them. It’s not merely a matter of funneling already written stories to readers but also of digitally generating stories to suit the suspected tastes of the scrutinized Internet user. 

It is on these points, the soft tyrannies of solutionist coercion and hyper-efficiency, that Morozov is most poignant. He believes that in solving problems that aren’t really problems, solutionists are ridding us of all the necessary ambiguities and missteps that make a life something more than a succession of mechanical challenges. Put complex policy deliberations under a microscope, and they become a pantomime of earnest agreement. If we read news stories to earn badges, informed citizenship is replaced with a children’s game. If our news comes to us made to fit our most predictable tastes, we’re unlikely to come across the odd story that changes our perspective. And if we’re no longer burdened with imperfect memories, what’s the point of savoring the moment? Morozov describes traditional constraints as marking off “the spiritual pasture where our self is to be cultivated.” Needlessly overcoming them means the pasture “shrinks considerably.” Without the spiritual pasture, how are we to determine or even meaningfully argue about what constitutes a “moral imperative,” whether it be ridding the world of “the privatization of knowledge” or ensuring that copyright law protects authors’ works? 

From all this one might assume that Morozov is a 21st-century Luddite railing against the destructive powers of new technology and seeking to destroy them first. He is very nearly the opposite. His fear is that the mythologies surrounding the Internet are actually restricting the range of potential innovation available to us. Instead of innovating in accordance with some mythical “grain of the Internet” and seeking to preserve its imagined character, engineers and programmers should be thinking about the human character and what enables it to flourish.

Imagine if we approached all technologies with the superstitious reverence paid to “the Internet”; if, say, the evolution of the mass-produced car had reflected nothing but the automobile’s unquestioned “spirit” of speed. We’d all be driving around in rocket cars without radios, trunks, or passenger seats. Believing that “the Internet”—and not people—dictates its own technological path forward makes as much sense. The same logic applies to regulation. Instead of inveighing against the unthinkable curtailment of “Internet freedom,” we would do well to consider human freedom and how it can actually be compromised by things like obsessive digital transparency. 

Case-by-case tweaks of policy or technology might go a long way in serving Internet users, regardless of how they affect “the Internet.” That such a notion often scandalizes Web enthusiasts demonstrates how at odds Morozov is with conventional tech wisdom. Whether or not we are in the midst of a genuine technology revolution, there is little doubt that he’s written a revolutionary book.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is senior editor of COMMENTARY.

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