Evgeny Morozov’s an intelligent, entertaining, and above all fearless writer. In his 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here, he ridicules Jeff Jarvis, savages Jane McGonigal, and even takes Larry Lessig down a peg or two. And that’s without mentioning what he does to Clay Shirky.
That said, his targets are not the people themselves, but rather two ways of thinking that he believes they exhibit in their work. The first he calls internet-centrism and the second, solutionism.
This is largely the view that we can make accurate generalisations about the internet such as “The internet has revolutionised modern life”, or “The internet is making our brains weaker”. Not so, says Morozov. Such pronouncements fail to take into account the size and diversity of the multiple networks that make up the internet, leading our thoughts into fuzzy optimism or pessimism. It’s far better, he argues, if we stop trying to discuss “The Internet” as though it were one cohesive thing, and instead turn to more specific areas, even if this does rob us of tempting opportunities for exciting rhetoric or, as the case may be, curmudgeonly dismissal of the modern world. Morozov is really advocating a focussed debate about issues, rather than a macro-level debate that stirs the heart but sacrifices detail and accuracy.
A typical example of internet-centrism is the belief that the internet brings with it a set of agreed values, such as openness and transparency. Another might be that the internet has come to change the world, almost as if it has a will of its own, and you’d better get out of the way because it’s going to get what it wants whether you like it or not. Morozov takes these views to pieces, and doesn’t like what he sees. “Openness” turns out to represent a raft of conflicting values. “Transparency” is good in some cases, but in certain aspects of politics can do significant harm. Finally, the view that the internet carries with it a set of intrinsic values severely underplays the role that humans have had in fastening their own values onto modern technologies. This final view leads us into a kind of defeatism, where we accept the apparent will of our technologies rather than deciding ourselves what it is we value.
One of the causes of internet-centrism has been the view that we’re in the middle of a revolution where everything’s either changing or about to change. Morozov says that this is a result of our mistaken belief that the times we live in are somehow exceptional – an illusion that humans have suffered throughout history. We’re on the brink of something big. Everything’s about to change. Get ready. In fact, the liner notes to my copy of To Save Everything start, “Our society is at a crossroads”, which is as good an example of this as you’re going to get. Maybe Morozov didn’t write those liner notes, because his position is more along the lines of “We’ve actually seen a lot of this before”. Throughout history, new technology has repeatedly been invoked as the harbinger of profound changes, and while this has been true to an extent, we can’t forget that certain important things always seem to stay the same. Politicians lie, people fight over land, and kids find a way to avoid doing their homework.
Morozov is by no means a luddite, and accepts that the wide range of what’s possible through technology is exciting. His critique is really of what we choose to do with these new possibilities. On one level there’s a tendency to look at problems in the world and think “We can solve that with our powerful new tools”. The trouble with this is that we are then more likely to ignore the complex root of those problems, which may be more political or sociological in nature. So we deploy iPads in schools to raise motivation because it’s something we can do, while the deeper causes of low motivation remain unaddressed. Maybe we despair that we can even solve those deeper problems at all, but we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist, or that a technological sticking plaster somehow makes them disappear.
Another solutionist danger is that we grab a tool and look around the world thinking “What problems can I fix with this thing?” Of course, this can result in positive changes – maybe you’ll spot a real problem and fix it – but it’s also common to start fixing something that wasn’t a problem in the first place. You can see this in something like Fitbit, a system that uses a bracelet to measure key health metrics like your heartbeat. These measurements are then synced up to your phone, tied in to your fitness programme, you can compete with friends, earn badges, and so on. It all sounds fun/nightmarish, and there’s no doubt the technology is impressive. But deep in my gut, it doesn’t seem to be solving any problem that I recognise.
Fitbit is, I suppose, a luxury item. The real danger of solutionism is where it becomes established in the mainstream. Morozov provides a fascinating example of this with two kinds of ticket barrier. On the Berlin metro, there is no barrier, though you do get a fine if you’re caught without a ticket. On the New York subway, the barrier has been developed into a full body machine which is impossible to get through without a ticket. You physically can’t do it. Morozov’s insight is that the New York version is an amoral, technological solution to a problem which clearly has a moral dimension. The Berlin metro, meanwhile, appeals to your sense of civic duty. In New York, you lose the ability to choose to do the right thing, and this chips away at your sense of personal responsibility. This has strange and unpleasant effects. If a New York subway barrier is broken, there’s no way you’re going to buy a ticket. In a world where you’ve constantly been kept in line by authoritarian machines, your sense of responsibility has effectively been trained out of you. If that machine breaks down, it offers you a satisfying chance to reassert your own freedom of choice and redress the balance.
This critique of solutionism then branches out to cover other modern examples such as nudges and gamification. For Morozov, both are paternalistic ways of controlling and motivating people which ultimately reduce people to the level of mice in a cage. Our motivations for acting well are complex, and reducing them to something simple can corrupt us. I remember reading about a behaviour system in a secondary school called “Vivos”, where students are given points for good behaviour and lose points for bad behaviour. Every so often, they can trade in their points for tangible things. When the points attain a value of currency, the inevitable result is that some students start being good just to get points, and refuse to be good if they don’t get points. The teacher soon realises that something has gone terribly wrong with the school’s project to turn this youngster into a decent human being.
What does all this mean?
Morozov’s points about solutionism have many implications for those of us who work with technology in academia. Articles on ed-tech frequently appeals to ideas like “Technology should be the slave, not the master”, but in practice this idea can easily fall by the wayside. You find yourself with a flashy piece of kit, and you start thinking “How can we use this to improve our teaching?” Occasionally that works, but often it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s far more useful, in my experience, to identify real problems and then find a solution to them, whether that’s a technological one or not.
Also, the point about considering the moral implications of technology is something that needs to be kept up near the surface. Poor attendance and plagiarism are both phenomena at universities which have moral dimensions. If we tackle them with technology, whether that’s using a VLE to share attendance data with the student, or putting all essays through Turnitin, we need to keep an eye on the implications that might have for a student’s sense of personal responsibility.
Further reading on To Save Everything, Click Here
Tara Brabazon’s review of To Save Everything, Click Here.