Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist
by Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 2013, 415 pages.

To Save Everything, Click HereFor around $80,000 plus a modest annual fee, a company called Alcor can preserve your brain when you die by enrolling you in its ‘Life Extension Program’. This involves putting the recently deceased’s brain through an ice-free preservation, or vitrification, storing it at a very low temperature ‘until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health.’

Cryonics—the prospect of immortality through freezing people’s bodies soon after the moment of death in the hope of reviving them later when science has caught up—has been part of the popular imagination since the 1960s. Alcor has been in operation since the 1970s and has over 100 patients currently ‘preserved’. While it was once the fashion to freeze the whole body, in the last decade it has become more common to remove the head and simply preserve the brain. This is reportedly cheaper, easier to transport and less prone to damage (In an enlightening episode of This American Life called ‘Mistakes Were Made’, we hear how an enterprising TV repairman started his own cryonics business in the 60s and later had to explain to families of the frozen about the consequences of a damaging leak). Steve Bridge, a former Alcor president, describes the experience of conducting tours of the cryonics storage facility. After showing visitors the full-body containers, he would point to a smaller one and explain that some people had chosen to have only their heads frozen:

The most common reaction is a stunned pause with eyes growing to the size of saucers. For them, the entire building has just melted into surreality, like Salvador Dali’s clocks, sculpted in ice. A few people laugh in surprise or nervousness. A small number look queasy or disgusted. And occasionally, if I have done my job well and set up the visitor with descriptions of the repairs that will be possible in the future, the visitor will say, “Oh, that makes sense. You can just grow a new body for the brain.

Bridge must have done his job well more than once, as not only has neuropreservation become the more popular choice, but several of Alcor’s existing patients have since been ‘converted to neuro’.

The quest to conquer death is much older than cryonics of course. What’s interesting is why so many modern adventurers use the vocabulary of science. John Gray has explored this intriguing question in The Immortalization Commission, in which he claims this strange mix of science and the supernatural, of materialism and magical thinking, is really about a refusal to accept the materialist implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s science, he says, “had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species.”

Gray’s book chronicles the delusional nature of two such refusals. One is the eponymous Russian Immortalization Commission, an organisation of ‘God-builders’ tasked with preserving Lenin’s remains for future deification—“a true revolutionary must aim to deify humanity, an enterprise that includes the abolition of death.” The other is a Victorian England group called the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation whose membership ranks boasted physicists, philosophers, poets, physiologists, politicians and prime ministers. The Society used ‘unbiased and scientific’ methods to investigate the paranormal, including telepathy and automatic writing—that is, messages received from the dead through a medium. Most of all, they wanted to find a way for human beings to survive death.

Charles Darwin himself once attended a séance with George Eliot and Francis Galton (some of their peers and acquaintances would later become involved with the SPR.) Reportedly Darwin “found the experience ‘hot and tiring’ and left before anything unusual happened.” But evidently not everyone found it so important to keep a cool head. Darwin’s message of final oblivion and eventual extinction was not one that sat well with the optimism of the age, steeped in Enlightenment values of progress, scientific rationality, and liberation from an age of faith and superstition. As Gray suggests, “For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.”

Is cryonics too best understood this way? Certainly the more recent ‘neuropreservation’ turn in cryonics smacks of disgust at the mortal and decaying nature of the human body. What could be purer than a brain? Indeed, it is curious that the present enthusiasm for neuroscience, with its incautious assumption that we are our brains, should develop around the same time that we are getting the best evidence that Descartes may have had it wrong all along, that mind and body are not separate and that reason, emotion, thinking and feeling are all part of a complex process that involves our whole bodies.

Is the quest to find the essential truth of our humanity in our neurons a turn to science to escape the world that science is revealing? Psychologist Paolo Legrenzi and others have begun to critique our growing ‘neuromania’ and its technological claims, particularly the use of fMRI scans that show the brain ‘lighting up’ under different conditions—“you could be forgiven for thinking of the brain as being managed by a crooked estate agent letting out the same bit of real estate simultaneously to different clients.” Recently, a pair of researchers performed fMRI on a dead Atlantic salmon. While showing the salmon pictures of humans in different social interactions, they were surprised to find it showed ‘neural activity’ when asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.

One wonders what Darwin would have made of fMRIs. But what is it about the world that his science reveals that is so intolerable to so many? Perhaps it’s not just oblivion and extinction that are unacceptable, but the sheer chaos of this. Evolution, we should remember, is drift—it has no purpose or direction. But chaos is the enemy of progress, especially the kind of incremental, orderly progress to a better future for humanity that characterised the Victorian era but that is also the credo of much present-day middle-class liberal progressivism. Gray says such people “look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos; natural or divine.”

If one pays close attention, one of the striking characteristics of the kinds of utopian worlds described and promised by those who flee from chaos is often how spectacularly boring they are. Utopias are often stuffy, lifeless places devoid of detail and colour. They lack the kind of particularities that make real life so interesting. One might think that given the limitless possibilities on offer, this sort of poor imagination is really letting the side down a bit. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by this if it is after all a kind of avoidance of life and its chaotic particularities that drives a certain sort of person to imagine perfectly ordered worlds in the first place.

Perhaps it is an unwillingness to be part of life’s chaos that produces the kind of progressivist techno-babble that has become so much a part of today’s public imagination. When it is possible to write books with titles like What Technology Wants and have them sell in large quantities, one begins to suspect there is some seriously magical thinking going on. In this climate, ‘technology’, and especially ‘the Internet’, has become something with a life of its own, a force outside time, society and politics that offers new and better futures if only we are prepared to listen closely to what it has to say. That an idea like technology having the capacity to ‘want’ anything is a bit bonkers hasn’t stopped large numbers of very clever people taking it quite seriously, but when has it ever? Indeed, the breathtaking magnitude of its silliness is undoubtedly a large part of its novelty.

Evgeny Morozov sounds like a man who went to a séance once and found it hot and tiring. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here he describes this sort of techno-babble as: Continue Reading →

Time to go exploring…


Friends, it’s time to call time on Canny Outlaw, at least for now. You’ll notice the frequency of posts has dropped off as of late, and realistically they’re not likely to crank up again any time soon.

I originally had the idea for Canny Outlaw almost two years ago, back when I was working full-time at Apple, frustrated with my uni studies and looking for an outlet to test out some ideas and see if there was an audience for them, while practising my public voice. It began as a digital magazine, which I still believe was a better format, but after three issues it was clear that I had neither the time nor the resources to corral together the kind of work I had in mind in any sort of reliable or systematic way. So it became a website, where the publishing schedule was more forgiving, but it was rarely more than my voice that was heard. Though it proved easier to mount a sustained exploration of some key themes by offering regular commentary on current events, this never really delivered on the ‘conversation’ part of the endeavour. Persistence might have rewarded me with a larger audience in time, but meanwhile life has been changing too.

I now work as a university teacher and researcher rather than a retail admin officer, I have finished my postgraduate studies and have embarked on the long and uncertain path towards a PhD and a career as someone who thinks hard about things that matter and joins the dots for others in meaningful ways. I am still looking for an outlet to test out some ideas and see if there is an audience for them, and I still need to practice my public voice. But I no longer believe Canny Outlaw is the best way to do that.

One idea was to run a series of wandering conversations with a friend in a series run, complete with narrative arc and annotated with links, commentary and other ways to unpack ideas. I still like this idea, but regrettably it’s probably not feasible once the enthusiasm of best intentions subsides and reality remains. To give it the proper treatment would really require a podcast and a more amenable schedule for both me and my friend. Something to revisit in time, perhaps.

Instead, you are likely to see me write more for other publications on an ad hoc basis, particularly on the relationship between ethics, policy and our public lives. I already have some work in the pipeline, in fact. I will leave this site up as an archive for the foreseeable future, but you can follow my updates at my personal website which I will retool a bit in the near future to reflect this new focus.

Thanks to all of you who have kept up-to-date with the site, enquired about what’s happening with it and supported me in various ways throughout the process. Apologies to those who will be disappointed by this news. All I can say is that I have put considerable thought into it all these past few months and in the long-term I think this decision is the right one. All the best, and stay curious and thoughtful!

- Danu

✱ It’s complicated

An interesting piece in The New Yorker from Amy Davidson on Obama’s handling of the situation in Syria:

A frequent complaint about President Obama’s Syria policy is that he keeps making matters more complicated.

Stripped of context, this simple statement nevertheless makes for a nice microcosm of the way many of us approach the obstacles in front of us. Things should be simple, not complicated!

Simplicity is often described in aesthetic terms, as elegant, or wondrous. Designers who seek simplicity of form are fond of saying that their work is finished not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. There is profound truth to this. Simplicity is beautiful. A poem, a song, a novel, a film — the best of these bring order to a chaotic world for a fleeting moment through the artful illusion of simplicity. But simplicity is, nonetheless, illusion.

This isn’t going to be an argument for complexity, mind you. Especially not the kind of complexity beloved of m’learned colleagues in the academic profession who seem to delight in making simple things difficult just because they can, or, when pressed for a stance on the true nature of the problem at hand, say ‘yes, but whose truth?’ and stand back triumphantly, as if they had just won at something.

‘Complicated’ isn’t in any meaningful way better than ‘simple’, or vice versa. That way madness lies, of different sorts — the brutality of mass extermination, or first year cultural studies class, for instance.

Rather, we should aim above all for clarity about the things that matter in any given situation. This means asking questions like what is happening here? Where are we going? What is the good thing to do? What is at stake and who wins and loses by our choices?

This is an orientation towards the world as we find it, not necessarily as we would like it to be. It demands that we acknowledge complexity where it exists, and achieve clarity through asking simple questions like the ones above.

Davidson continues:

The President has brought some of the criticism of his handling of the affair on himself. He has seemed puzzled when people asked how military action would help, and has never successfully explained what’s supposed to happen after American cruise missiles hit the ground. In his address on Tuesday, he spoke with feeling about the unacceptability of a world in which dictators aren’t punished for atrocities. But he deflected questions about the scope and the effect of an attack, with empty phrases like “the United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Obama’s worst moments, in other words, have come when he ignores complexity, not when he embraces it. Last year, he narrowed his options by talking about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line.” His performance since has had a fly-by-night quality that has not inspired confidence. But, by belatedly turning to Congress and, now, to diplomacy, he has given the process more time and increased the number of possible outcomes. In a situation in which there are no good choices, that’s not a bad thing.

Lack of clarity often leads to loss of confidence. By clarity I mean only the ability of someone, when asked, to give a good account of what they are doing and why. It is a virtue in short supply in our time, partly because of the suffocation of clear language brought about by risk-averse managerialism that insists on avoiding particulars wherever possible. When was the last time anyone explained to you clearly what they are doing and why? I am guessing that if you can recall an example, it is memorable precisely for its rarity value.

In the last sentence of the above quote, Davidson makes reference to a situation in which there are no good choices. Such a proposition is difficult for many of us to swallow, steeped as we are in hundreds of years of the enlightened assumption that knowledge can be perfected, rational progress can be made and therefore all problems can eventually be solved.

I wish to submit that this stance, rather than a sound and pragmatic outlook on the world, amounts instead to a refusal to admit reality — an amiable delusion with dire consequences. Not all problems can be solved. Not all ‘problems’ can even be defined. Making decisions is often not a matter of right or wrong, or even of good and bad, but only of better or worse.

Recently, in one of the university classes I teach, we were discussing the debt crisis in Greece and what is at stake in that situation. After an energetic and substantial discussion, one of my students offered the following half-statement, half-question: ‘But doesn’t that mean there might be no solution?’ There was a kind of plaintiveness in that question — a hope that the answer was about to be revealed, and a fear that it might not be.

The comment surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Many of my students come in looking for the ‘right’ answers, and most when they leave are still on that quest, despite my many attempts to disabuse them of the notion that they will find the prize they seek. I’m not sure if that’s the way they have been taught previously, or the self-absorbed incuriosity often ascribed to their generation, or a psychic defence mechanism against the state of the world they are inheriting. I try not to read such things into their character. But it is a puzzlement.

There are common themes though. When things go wrong, our impulse is usually to find the right ‘procedure’ to follow to ‘fix’ it, and/or to demand to know when ‘they’ are going to do something about it. We seem to believe that there is a right process for everything. If we don’t know it, someone will. If no-one knows, we need only devise it. There might be problems now, but we just need to find the right solutions. Leaving aside the difficulty that many problems are brought about precisely by those who think they have the right solutions, this is nonetheless not a good recipe for success. Neither is ‘success’ simply a matter of recipes.

The insistent belief in progress by solutions resembles nothing so much as a deep-seated terror of living with uncertainty. The quest for right answers (or the faith that someone somewhere has them) is itself a way of avoiding being in the world, and quite an effective one at that. There are those of course, Obama included, who have renounced ‘right’ answers and ideology in favour of ‘what works’. But this self-styled ‘realism’ is perhaps the most delusional of all. Anything works. If we bomb Syria, that will work. If we don’t, that will work too. So will sitting around and talking about whether we should bomb Syria or whether we shouldn’t. Without attempting seriously to address the questions of what we are doing and why, what goods we intend to bring about and who for, ‘what works’ is just an empty way of keeping ourselves busy to avoid facing the void — it is nothing more than nihilism with KPIs.

If all this seems disempowering and defeatist, perhaps you have missed my point. Life is uncertain. The world is complicated. We can decide not to know these things, but that is the real disempowerment and defeat. The void is there whether we choose to stare into it or not. If however we choose to see what is really there, we are free to realise that while things may never be perfect, we can make them as good as we can, which in many cases is a lot better than they are now. Neither need we wait on ‘them’ to ‘fix’ it. It’s up to us, and only us, to govern ourselves. We can do that by asking each other simple questions like what are you doing and why? Where are we going and who is it good for? We can discuss the answers and decide which are better and worse. It’s not a new idea but an old one, and it’s called democracy. But democracy, and the human flourishing it seeks to bring about, is not something you have, but something you do. Doing democracy, I hardly need to point, bears very little resemblance to the unedifying national self-flagellation a few weeks ago where we all had to go put numbers in the boxes. That was rather an example of what I mean by fixating on process as a way of not having to engage with reality. No, doing democracy is different. Don’t ask me for a recipe. Or a solution. My solution is simply a way of being in the world that offers more empowerment and hope than others I’ve seen. It may not be much when all is said and done, but it’s all there is. Unless you have a better idea…? ◾

Goodbye to all that

Nick Feik nails it:

When you change the government, said Paul Keating, you change the country. Australians are preparing to change the country on a scale similar to 1996, when Keating was thrashed by Howard.

Australia has just experienced the hottest year in its recorded history, yet the nation will elect a man whose great mission as leader has been to reject the government’s effort to address climate change.

The Australian economy has seen steady economic growth through a global recession, has an unemployment rate the envy of the world, has rising wages, low interest rates, low inflation and low government debt. Yet voters will most likely vote out the government because of its apparent mishandling of the economy.

The Coalition has spent the past few years criticising government ‘debt and deficit,’ yet has put forward a policy program that makes almost no effort to address this (which is not to say that it won’t make radical changes when in government).

The Coalition claims to be the economically responsible party, but when it finally released its ‘costings’ these consisted of a mere 8-page list of one-line policy costs, with no explanations or details. The press conference where the Coalition was to lay out the full extent of its economic plan lasted 22 minutes and was the most shameful spectacle of the campaign.

Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why voters have deserted Labor. Australians elect leaders who can communicate a sense of stability, consistency and straightforward competence. Neither the Gillard nor Rudd government was able to project these things coherently, despite their substantial achievements.

It is clear, too, that Australians are voting to end the toxic politics of the past few years – even if the sense of chaos belonged as much to the efforts of the Opposition leader and the Murdoch press as it did to Labor.

Those voting for change will get it. The nature of that change may not be what they expect, but then again, it never is.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a rough ride.

An international laughing stock!

Here is the ABC’s clever election analyst Antony Green complaining about the number and kind of minor parties on the Senate ballot this election:

Much as we all love Antony, I find what he has to say here troublingly anti-democratic.

For a start, he doesn’t seem to have much regard for voters’ intelligence, as he says Pauline Hanson being all the way off to the right of the ballot will cost her votes from people who want to vote for her but can’t find her name. I’m not saying this isn’t true, but it does say something about a certain attitude towards politics.

Many in the political class think politics is a professional game and it’s much neater and tidier when it’s played Seriously. What that looks like is two parties who take turns pulling the levers of government every now and then depending on how successful they are in selling a ‘message’ to the public. ‘Ordinary’ people (the kind I understood democracies are supposed to empower) can’t be trusted to make proper decisions about these things because they don’t know anything, so it has to be put in a language they can understand. When minor parties, weirdos and whackjobs get on the ballot, it makes the whole process unpredictable and untidy and threatens to derail the proper way of things. (The proper way of things being the one everyone is so fed up with and which might have something to do with the amount of minor parties, weirdos and whackjobs who are running this time. Just a thought.)

How dare all those other people stand and direct their preferences in a way that Antony has decided is inconsistent with their real views! He’s always been similarly outspoken when the ALP and the Libs do preference deals that aren’t aligned with their ideologies! Oh? He hasn’t? Well fancy.

Let’s not forget that voters can actually vote below the line on the Senate ballot and allocate their preferences (gasp!) as they see fit. If you want to entrust your preferences to the party, you can save yourself some time and vote above the line. Maybe if you’ve decided to vote for a minor party, you might be more inclined to pay more attention to these things anyway. But it means having those silly big bits of paper and all that extra work for everyone. It must be that internationally embarrassing electoral system that lets people vote further down the ballot than just 1.

Maybe we should just do elections by sampling representative bits of the population (Western Sydney?) and allocating seats by extrapolating the totals. Elections are expensive after all and we pretty much know the kinds of things people think anyway. It would be a loss less work and much easier for the party people, the media and the analysts to deal with. Because that’s what counts, right?

Or more seriously, we could change the system to allow optional preferential voting, or preferences that can exhaust when you say so. That would mean we could vote for minor parties, weirdos and whackjobs without having to have our vote end up with a major party at all! Watch this space, I’m sure that change is coming real soon now.