by Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 2013, 415 pages.
For 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:
The firm conviction that we are living through unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold, everything is undergoing profound change, and the need to “fix things” runs as high as ever. “The Internet,” in short, has supplied solutionists with ample ammunition to ratchet up their war on inefficiency, ambiguity, and disorder, while also providing some new justification for doing so.
The Internet, in other words—not the actual internet but the idea of it—has opened up vast possibilities for new ways to avoid the chaos of life by keeping us furiously busy tweaking, measuring and enhancing it. This might sound unfair, but one of the first things one notices about much of ‘internet theory’—for yes, this has become a thing—is the same shapelessness that characterises utopian thinking. This is probably because so much of it is based on an economic model of human behaviour that holds that individuals are rational self-interested pleasure-seekers out to maximise their utility. The people in such models have no particular characteristics at all. They put one in mind of the ageless, sexless and nameless Generics in Jasper Fforde’s novels—fictional characters with no history, conflicts or human foibles who populate books waiting to be written (until they receive basic character training at the College of St Tabularasa). That is to say, they have “nothing that might make them either readable or interesting in any way.” Accordingly, empty economic man in all his uninterestingness does not need to be fleshed out, we just need to plug in the relevant values and let the model do its work. For those whose understanding and ability to imagine real human behaviour only goes this far, the future can often only be conceived, as Terry Eagleton puts it derisively, as “the present plus more options”.
Cue one of ‘the Internet’s’ promised utopias—the democratisation of various fields of endeavour, allowing for increased access and participation. One such instance of this is crowdsourced restaurant reviews (imagine!), talked about breathlessly (or at least with a lack of oxygen) by prominent internet theorist Clay Shirky in his bestselling book Here Comes Everybody. Morozov regards Shirky as a chief perpetrator of ‘internet-centrism’:
As is typical of Internet pundits, Shirky doesn’t bother asking whether this trend is good or bad beyond its offering a vague sense of empowerment to individual consumers … he’s primarily interested in making an argument about “the Internet”–and with “the Internet” as his favourite causal explanation. The operating logic here is simple: pre-Internet meant expertise, post-Internet means populism; we are post-Internet, hence, populism. For Shirky, things just happen—remember, it’s a revolution, so all resistance is futile!—and as long as the people seem to be in charge, it all must be a good thing.
Here comes everybody, says Shirky. Everybody, yes, but anybody in particular?Unfortunately, much of internet theory is about as well fleshed out as its model human Generics. One of Morozov’s major themes is the ‘historical illiteracy’ of many social and technological critics who churn out endless “epochalist” works—“often just a derivative mishmash”—in blissful ignorance of the broader social and political contexts and traditions of the ideas they are discussing. Examples of this include Clay Shirky (again); Tim Wu on net neutrality and The Cycle (the “great-man-of-history style of narrating the past”); Steven Johnson’s ‘liquid democracy’ (public choice theory) and others. This is more than just about keeping score; Morozov is warning about the difficulties and dangers of appropriating the past for the purposes of the present:
If these approaches were not served with the tasty sauce of Internet-centrism, the explanations they generate would be questioned, opposed, and dismissed far more often. Alas, the conceptual novelty of “the Internet” as a field of inquiry, combined with the irresistible pull of Internet-centrism, renders the highly problematic areas of the underlying theoretical frameworks almost invisible.
One example is worth quoting at length, concerning the oft-invoked and taken-for-granted comparison between “the Internet” and that other great revolutionary technology, the printing press. Morozov says most of this sort of talk derives from a 1979 book by Elizabeth Eisenstein called The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:
Eisenstein embraces a rather limiting view of print media, overemphasising what she believes to be the inherent qualities of this technology: fixity (i.e, its ability to preserve texts that might otherwise get lost or badly damaged), ease of dissemination, and the tendency towards standardisation. According to Eisenstein, the very technology of print endows texts with these new qualities—and the rupture is so significant that she elevates those qualities to the status of “print culture”. […]
[L]iterary scholar Mark Warner and historian Adrian Johns have offered much more devastating critiques of Eisenstein’s account. Warner, in his The Letters of the Republic (1990), argues that the technology of printing should not be seen as lying outside of culture or history. It certainly didn’t come equipped with its own “logic” or “nature”; the “inherent” characteristics identified by Eisenstein were hardly universal and were not there from the start. Wherever they did appear, these features were the product of complex negotiations and contingent historical processes, not the natural attributes of printing technology. “No hard fact of technology dictates what counts as printing,” notes Warner. In a somewhat Oakeshottian vein, he adds, “We know what we mean when we talk about printing, but we know that because we are in a tradition; we have a historical vocabulary of purposes and concepts that gives identity to printing, and meaningfully distinguishes for us between books that have been impressed with types and those that have been impressed with pens.”
Thus, Eisenstein’s account holds only if one accepts a sharp separation between technology on the one hand and society and culture on the other—and then assumes that the former shapes the latter, never the other way around. The way Eisenstein inquires about the historical effects of print on society automatically brackets out the question of how society and culture made print what it is politically, materially, and symbolically. For Eisenstein, “print culture” just happens; it comes already prepackaged in its crustacean cage, its “inherent” characteristics intact and ready for immediate deployment. … “Politics and human agency disappear from this narrative … and culture receives an impact generated outside itself. Religion, science, capitalism, republicanism, and the like appear insofar as they are affected by printing, not for the way they have entered into the constitution and meaning of print in the first place.” […]
This is much more than an arcane debate between historians of the book. At stake here is how the history of the printing press—and of technology more broadly—should be done. Eisenstein’s approach is to treat technology and its qualities as fixed, ahistorical, and unproblematic—and, by operating with such an impoverished notion of technology, to trace its effects on culture, society and history.
Morozov writes with a good-natured weariness, adopting the patient tone of someone gently but firmly persuading a lovestruck friend to climb down from the table and sit quietly, pouring them a nice cup of tea and asking whether perhaps this time they should find out what happened to the last three marriages before opening a joint account and moving in. Some will find his style frustrating, even condescending. But as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said, once a group of people make something sacred, they lose the ability to think about it clearly. Morozov simply wants to remind us how to think clearly about technology, especially the kind tech-inspired initiatives that pose as ‘solutions’ to social problems “while also being the blinkers that prevent us from seeing their shortcomings.” He introduces the book with an example of one such ‘solutionist initiative’ for waste disposal:
BinCam, a new project from researchers in Britain and Germany, seeks to modernise how we deal with trash by making our bins smarter and—you guessed it—more social. Here is how it works: The bin’s inside lid is equipped with a tiny smartphone that snaps a photo every time someone closes it—all of this, of course, in order to document what exactly you have just thrown away. A team of badly paid humans, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system, then evaluates each photo. What is the total number of items in the picture? How many of them are recyclable? How many are food items? After this data is attached to the photo, it’s uploaded to the bin owner’s Facebook account, where it can also be shared with other users. Once such smart bins are installed in multiple households, BinCam creators hope, Facebook can be used to turn recycling into a game-like exciting competition. A weekly score is calculated for each bin, and as the amounts of food waste and recyclable materials in the bins decrease, households earn gold bars and leaves. Whoever wins the most bars and tree leaves, wins.
Morozov assumes that to many of his readers, BinCam will sound like a pretty neat idea—an example of exactly the sort of practical innovation that technology can bring to social and environmental problems. But just what ‘problem’ does BinCam address, and is this the one we should be trying to solve? “To know what’s inside our smart trash bins—which is what projects like BinCam seek to tell us—is not the same as to know what happens to our garbage once it leaves them.” BinCam frames the problem of waste disposal as one of responsible consumer habits; the solution to this is to make consumers more accountable by making their actions more transparent. All such ‘problems’ are constructed in this way, and to accept this construction is to commit to a very particular understanding of what ‘waste’ is and how we should think about it. Morozov is rightly concerned that the solutionist impulse deprives us of this opportunity to think clearly about the problem by committing us to an understanding in advance. Indeed, the example of waste disposal is particular well chosen; waste is after all something we want precisely to dispense with quickly while having to think about it as little as possible. It is also inescapably a part of being human—one of life’s little particularities—and therefore never a problem we can avoid thinking about completely or for long. Morozov thinks most problems are like that and wants to drag us back from the airless freedom of our utopian imaginings to face them with all their particularities:
Nowhere in the academic paper that accompanies the BinCam presentation do the researchers raise any doubts about the ethics of their undoubtedly well-meaning project. Should we get one set of citizens to do the right thing by getting another set of citizens to spy on them? Should we introduce game incentives into a process that has previously worked through appeals to one’s duties and obligations? Could the “goodness” of one’s environmental behaviour be accurately quantified with tree leaves and gold bars? Should it be quantified in isolation from other everyday activities? Is it ok not to recycle if one doesn’t drive? Will greater public surveillance of one’s trash bins lead to an increase in eco-vigilantism? Will participants stop doing the right thing if their Facebook friends are no longer watching?
Questions, questions. The trash bin might seem like the most mundane of artifacts, and yet it’s infused with philosophical puzzles and dilemmas. It’s embedded in a world of complex human practices, where even tiny adjustments to seemingly inconsequential acts might lead to profound changes in our behaviour.
Needless to say, for those who enjoy finding philosophical puzzles and dilemmas in seemingly mundane practices, To Save Everything, Click Here will be a source of great joy. But the book is not really written for that audience. It seems rather to be directed at those taking part in the séance—those wayward technological and social enthusiasts who have fallen sway to an irrational exuberance about this internet thing. Thus the book is best read as a homecoming call to those who really should know better.
Much of To Save Everything, Click Here is a tour of ‘internet-centrism’ in practice: Occupy Wall Street, Twitter and the Arab Spring, Wikileaks, openness and radical transparency, crowdfunding, situational crime prevention, gamification, Big Data, journalism and the publishing industry, music, restaurants, SOPA, self-tracking, privacy, Pirate parties, predictive policing and libertarian paternalism. Each discussion is richly detailed with numerous examples and Morozov takes care to examine the ideas themselves in their broader historical context. In this sense history turns out to be a bit like waste—we keep making more of it—and Morozov wants us to face up to the problem of what to do with it all. He does not presume to tell us how history should be done (this too is something we should discuss and decide), his concern is when this is decided for us in advance by pretending there is no discussion to be had.
Richard Livingstone once memorably described our peculiar modern condition as “the civilization of means without ends; rich in means beyond any other epoch, and almost beyond human needs; squandering and misusing them because it has no overruling ideal; an ample body with a meager soul.” Though Morozov doesn’t mention Livingstone, ultimately it is this theme that comes through most forcefully in To Save Everything, Click Here, and the following passage is worth quoting at length as it perhaps best captures the spirit of the book. Of another spirit-medium of the great Internet séance, he writes:
Jeff Jarvis’ enthusiasm for a geek-run government of scientific rationality is peculiar for its complete lack of awareness of the sheer unoriginality of such plans (Internet-centrism, as already noted, has the disturbing power to recast old, discarded and retrograde ideas as unique, original and progressive sheerly by virtue of their association with “the Internet”.) Is Jarvis’s demand for a government of “scientific rationality” really different from Saint-Simon’s proclamation—in 1821—that “in the new political order … the decisions must be the result of scientific demonstrations totally independent of human will…. Under such an order we shall see the disappearance of the three main disadvantages of the present political system, that is, arbitrariness, incapacity and intrigue”?
Bernard Crick, in his In Defense of Politics first published in 1961, provided the best criticism of such wishful thinking—and its disrespect for arbitrariness, incapacity, and intrigue—to date. “Suppose the ‘arbitrariness’ which Saint-Simon hated to be no more than a product of diversity; ‘incapacity,’ simply some sense of limitations; ‘intrigue,’ no more than the conflict of differing interests in any even moderately free State … then we have a characterisation of politics itself, indeed a rather good one…. At heart what disturbs those hopeful for a science of politics is simply the element of conflict in ordinary politics; what excites them has been the prestige of science, its good reputation for—so it is thought—‘unity.’” The idea underpinning the latter part of the argument—about the unity of science—has long been put to rest by a new generation of historians of science, who, following Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific paradigms, have shown that scientific disciplines rely on wildly different methods of thinking and argumentation and that much of the presumed unity is a myth. The idea that somehow conflict is bad for politics is even more suspicious. There is so much conflict in politics simply because people who are free to choose will be bound to pursue conflicting agendas.”
The techno-scientific vision of society in other words is one that seeks to eradicate conflict in favour of sameness—a turn to politics for an escape from the world politics has revealed. It desires a world that is smooth, seamless and user-friendly. Society’s goals and aspirations are to be liberated from the inefficient disorder—that is, the particularities—of politics and are instead to be an extension of the rational-utilitarian individual-market idea. This will in turn be enhanced and made more efficient, licensed as it is by the authority of algorithmic certainty—a future that turns out in fact to be just the present with less options.
Morozov is clearly concerned that much of the way we approach technology today shuts down thought and human action, even as it promises us greater insight and autonomy. The above passage is also not the first time he mentions the late political philosopher Bernard Crick, whose own thoughts on politics are often summarised as ‘ethics done in public’. Indeed, Morozov finds Crick’s observation that “boredom with established truths is a great enemy of free men” to be significant enough to quote it twice, and it forms something of a motto for the book.
The book’s other big theme explores some of the novelties that promise to make truth more exciting, in particular the idea of market-individualism driven by algorithmic certainty—the pursuit of the ‘quantified self’ as it is often referred to by proponents (Morozov refers to it as “Taylorism within”.) This push for more and more personal analytics he regards as a kind of hoarding urge, but of data.
Hoarding is surely one of the odder human traits, perhaps an attempt to stave off oblivion by arraying little structures of significance against it. Echoing what should by now be a familiar sentiment, Jose Saramango the great Portugese novelist and Nobel laureate describes this as a kind of “metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe.” Many people have lived life by avoiding it in this way, and maybe it is significant that a high proportion of them have been librarians. One such man is Graham Barker, who according to the Guinness Book of Records boasts the world’s largest collection of belly button fluff. These are sourced exclusively from his own navel and are displayed proudly in large glass jars. Other hoards of a distinctly organic nature include collections of airsick bags, gallstones of famous people and of course Sigurdur Hjartarson’s remarkable Phallogogical Museum in Iceland, erected to house a collection of some 280 penises from various animal species, including one human specimen.
It is in this tradition that Morozov places the multitude of ‘self-tracking’ products, services and other applications beloved of ‘datasexuals’ (not Morozov’s term, though he is happy to use it), that is those who consider data sexy. He introduces us to several advocates for the datasexual lifestyle, including Joe Betts-LaCroix, who carefully graphs everyone in his family’s weight and has 10 years of data on his wife’s menstrual cycle; Nicholas Felton, a man who releases his own personal annual report; and Gordon Bell, a Microsoft engineer and ‘lifelogger’ who for more than a decade has been wearing a Sense-Cam so he can record “every single detail of his time on Earth.” And, recycling the waste metaphor, he introduces us to a man called Larry Smarr, a man who, among other things, meticulously tracks his own poo:
But don’t let Internet-centrism trick you into thinking that the digital revolution has taken some kind of unprecedented fecal turn. In fact, Smarr’s quest to grasp the inner truth of his feces may be abetted by the latest technologies, but as self-improvement projects go, it’s an old one. Meet Horace Fletcher (1849–1919), a health-food maniac on par with Larry Smarr, who earned the nickname “the Great Masticator” for urging his followers to chew their food thirty-two times. Fletcher didn’t have Smarr’s panoply of devices, but he still took to weighing his own feces and analysing them under a microscope. The man was convinced that, if humans followed a proper mastication regime, their excreta would be quite dry, having only “the odour of moist clay or a hot biscuit” … Fletcher’s 1912 book Fletcherism, What It is: Or, How I Became Young at Sixty contains charts bragging about the lightness of the author’s stools; Fletcher was a datasexual par excellence (never mind that, having become young at sixty, he died at sixty-eight). His rhetorical question—“Is there anything more sacred than serving faithfully at the altar of our Holy Efficiency?”—is an apt slogan for contemporary datasexuals like Smarr.
Although passages like this are intended to go down easily, Morozov wants us to digest a more serious point:
Members of the Quantified Self movement may not always state this explicitly, but one hidden hope behind self-tracking is that numbers might eventually reveal some deeper inner truth about who we really are, what we really want, and where we really ought to be. The movement’s fundamental assumption is that the numbers can reveal a core and stable self—if only we get the technology right. Thus, Wolf can write that “many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are…. We lack both the physical and the mental apparatus to take stock of ourselves. We need help from machines.” That the instruments and machines might also be pushing us in directions that we would normally avoid is conveniently omitted.”
Omitted too is the possibility that there may be no core and stable self to find. Perhaps, like the dramatist Luigi Pirandello suggested, each of ‘us’ is merely multiple characters in search of an author. In any case, this is again an argument about the importance of ends over means—rather than simply assuming more quantification of the self (or any other technological means) is a good thing, we should consider how (and if) it can be a means to bring about human flourishing. If we frame things that way, he says, we may take a more critical view of when and how such technologies are good. It all boils down to a fairly straightforward point—we would do better for ourselves if we would only think what we do.
If there is a serious criticism to be made of the book, it is that it could sometimes learn to take its own advice and consider the ways in which the assumptions it makes limit the way in which ideas and practices can be meaningfully discussed. For instance, Morozov writes at one point that ‘an inefficient democracy is always preferable to a well-run dictatorship’. This may well turn out to be true, but it is hardly in the spirit of the enquiry Morozov has set up and pursued throughout. Democracies and dictatorships are merely instrumental ways to organise a polity; it is hard to see why we should value either of them intrinsically, as ends in themselves. Surely it is the flourishing of that polity’s citizenry that should concern us more than the means of administration. Of course, it may well be that inefficient democracies turn out to be better at cultivating human flourishing than even the best-run dictatorship, but this by Morozov’s own logic should be a conclusion we reach through careful thought and deliberation rather than simply saying one is always better and treating this as unproblematic. Morozov shows similar uncritical bias towards liberalism (which is interesting, considering he invokes political theorist Carl Schmitt at one point, who was notably scathing of ‘liberal’ democracy) and the range of his moral imagination seems bordered by what Jonathan Haidt has called WEIRD morality (that is, Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic). This doesn’t invalidate Morozov’s arguments in the book however; if anything it shows how easy it is to be blinded by one’s uncritical assumptions, which, for the careful reader, ultimately reinforces his point, however unintentionally.
In response to any work of diagnostic critique such as To Save Everything, Click Here, there will be those who, predictably, call for the author to provide alternative ‘solutions’. That this response is largely to mistake the point of such critique does little to prevent it, though Morozov judiciously avoids the temptation to dwell on the inherent irony of this position. If ultimately his ‘solution’ is simply for us to think more clearly and carefully about technology’s role in society and what it’s for, in the final part of the book he nonetheless offers some examples of how technology might be used to facilitate this sort of critical, ethical thinking rather than bypass it.
This is perhaps the book’s most thought-provoking chapter. Part of it is a discussion of ‘adversarial design’—an approach to creating technology products that, rather than make things seamless and invisible, instead forces the user to think about the context and consequences of their actions. This includes examples such as a reading lamp that requires periodic human input to stay on, kitchen appliances that behave erratically with increased energy consumption and an extension cord that writhes in pain if it perceives you are wasting power. Though it’s hard to imagine much demand for adversarial toasters, this does remind us that seemingly neutral technology does in fact covertly sneak in its own values and that we lose something important by being blind to this.
This point is best illustrated in a discussion of one city’s plans to introduce ‘smart’ parking meters that promise to make parking more efficient by resetting the meter automatically when a car leaves and by preventing people from overstaying by refusing top-up payments. Morozov proposes a hypothetical alternative where drivers are instead offered a choice when leaving to reset the meter or to keep the remainder for the next driver. This alternative would also provide information on the statistics of vehicles that usually occupy the space—for example whether they are new, prestige vehicles or clapped-out old bombs—which might help inform the choice of whether to reset the meter and boost the city’s coffers or help out a fellow driver in need:
Thus, even a minor tweak to the inner workings of something as mundane as a parking system could produce very different citizens. In the first, fully automated scenario, we get a perfectly efficient system and citizens who are not likely to spend much time thinking about, well, the philosophy of parking: why it’s run the way it’s run, what social problems may have created congestion, whether there are better ways to fix it, and so on. Under the second scenario—where drivers are forced to make choices and decide which values are more important to them—there is a much better chance that at least some drivers will confront the big, meaty issues involved in how parking works.
Morozov’s hypothetical alternative suggests an answer to the question—when all is said and done, by what standards should we judge whether a technological solution is a ‘good’ one?:
If [the original scheme] gives us citizens who don’t normally reflect on their parking and driving habits, then the scheme might still be considered a failure, even if it leads to more efficient billing of parked cars. Such unreflective attitudes towards transportation have given us both urban decay and climate change. We can postpone thinking about seemingly trivial everyday issues for only so long—eventually, they will come back to haunt us.
Though we have lately made a fetish out of clean, efficient simplicity, we cannot long hide from the messy, fraught complexity of our human condition. Technology can be a help or a hindrance to our capacity to think our way through life’s dilemmas, but it cannot be our spirit-guide to that thinking, much less a substitute for it. By presenting many of today’s seemingly novel innovations as little more than yesterday’s tepid leavings, To Save Everything, Click Here seeks to reawaken our interest in this established truth. Let’s hope that for many, it does. ◾