To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London, 2013, 413 pp. + xv
It’s probably fair to say that most people are increasingly bedazzled by the rapid appearance of new electronic devices, apps, social media and the dizzying array of options that they offer. Yet under the conditions imposed by globalised, corporatised late capitalism few opportunities arise that enable us to sit back, think and evaluate the implications (Bakan, 2003). Technology assessment of any kind (whether government sponsored or otherwise) has been markedly absent now for a couple of decades. This is no accident. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that once advised Congress on such matters is only one of many such organisations that were eliminated during the ascendancy of Chicago school market-fled economics (Blair, 2013). In retrospect this looks like an increasingly costly mistake since societies are now being re-shaped by forces that few understand and for which notions of ‘control’ have become problematic.
Most who comment in the media, the press and in books about the IT revolution do so in fairly straightforward ways. After reading a number of them it occurred to me that they amount to what I’m going to call a ‘first wave’ of critique. That is, they deal with fairly obvious topics and employ quite straightforward thinking and analysis. For example, few of them relate IT and its many extensions to other existing frameworks of knowledge and meaning making in any depth. Nor do they access wider and deeper narratives that bring into focus the wider threats to our over-extended and over-heated civilisation. Evgeny Morozov is still a relatively new voice in this conversation and yet he qualifies as perhaps the beginning of ‘second wave’ efforts. His two books The Net Delusion (Morozov, 2011) and To Save Everything Click Here (Morozov, 2013) set new critical standards, break new ground and bring into play an impressive range of cultural and linguistic resources. In this brief overview I concentrate on the second and most recent of these.
What immediately sets Morozov apart from most other observers is that, rather than pick off this or that particular target, he ‘interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cybertheorists.’ Thus, according to a Guardian reviewer he finds that ‘often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields’ (Poole, 2013). Morozov is critical not only of the means employed by the Internet oligarchs and Silicon Valley but also of their ends. The premise of To Save Everything… is that:
Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection – and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity and imperfection – will be prohibitively expensive in the long run. (Moreover) this high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of ‘the internet’ (Morozov, 2013, p. xiii).
‘Radical questioning’ is the method employed and the author has a formidable grasp of what it takes to do so methodically and authoritatively. It’s not the purpose of this article to reproduce his arguments in any detail as they need to be read and reflected upon in the original. Rather, it is useful to summarise some of the language and conceptualisations employed as these are arguably significant enabling resources in their own right.
The main themes of Morozov’s work address a number of neglected topics including:
- Questioning the means and the ends (or purposes) of Silicon Valley’s quest.
- Rejecting what he calls ‘Internet centricism’ along with the ‘modern day Talorism’ that it promotes.
- Opposing the rise of pervasive ‘information reductionism’ in many areas of life, culture, economic activity and so on.
- Questioning the fact that many apparently innovative procedures that are being promoted provide pseudo ‘solutions’ to problems that may not exist. He calls this ‘solutionism.’
- Questioning the tendency of IT to reduce the viability of many socially grounded functions and activities – for example, causing entire professions and types of work (both repetitive and creative) redundant.
- Asserting the value of some of the human and social capacities that are undermined by IT. These include ambivalence, the capacity to make mistakes, the need for deliberative spaces and so on.
Morozov supports Taylor, whose book The People’s Platform (Taylor, 2014) reminds us that the dynamic that has shaped, and is continuing to drive the Internet’s rapid growth and over-reach, derives from the never-ending search for profits rather than any concern whatever for human rights. In this view rights are everywhere being extinguished by profit. The underlying dynamic appears in many different guises. It shows up in the supposed ‘neutrality’ of algorithms that, while ubiquitous, are hidden and inaccessible so far as most people and organisations are concerned. It shows up in the vastly expanding realm of ‘apps’ that have hidden costs in terms of privacy, dependency and the promotion of questionable notions such as that of the ‘quantifiable self.’ (That is, a ‘self’ that can be tracked, measured, located, directed and ‘enhanced’ in real time.) Also involved here is an old problem – the ‘quantification fetish’ – the idea that more data is always better, always ‘objective’.
What this amounts to is a vast series of collective pressures on how people understand their world and how they operate within it. Already there is a costly ‘narrowing of vision’ and the a decline in the ‘narrative imagination.’ Morozov quotes Clay Johnson that ‘much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance’ (Morozov, 2013, p. 282). Having done so he also critiques this view for portraying citizens as being too passive and hence unable to ‘dabble in complex matters of media reform and government policy’. Instead Morozov prefers Lippmann’s formulation of ‘multiple publics.’ These are seen as being ‘fluid, dynamic, and potentially fragile entities that don’t just discover issues of concern out ‘in nature’ but negotiate how such issues are to be defined and articulated; issues create publics as much as publics create issues’ (op. cit., p. 284-7)
Morozov’s work confirms what some have suspected for some time – namely that that the apparent ‘success’ of Silicon Valley, its entrepreneurs and, of course, the Internet oligarchs, has arisen out of a deeply flawed – and we can now say with confidence, dangerous – foundation. That ‘success’ for example depends on:
- Profoundly inadequate understandings of human identity and life;
- Thin and unhelpful notions of how private and public realms arise, exist and remain viable;
- Equally thin and unhelpful views of core concepts such as ‘communication’ and ‘progress.’
- An overwhelming tendency to elevate ‘technology’ to a much higher ontological status than it deserves or can support.
- A profound ignorance of how the drivers of this process are heading down pathways that have already proven to be dangerous and diminishing of the human enterprise.
One of the ‘strands’ of this multi-themed critique is the tendency of Internet promoters to forget that the kind of ‘theory-free’ approaches to knowledge, action and social life that they’ve unconsciously adopted has a long and chequered history. It also reflects the tendency that’s powerfully inscribed in American culture of setting theory and reflection aside in favour of action and innovation. This is certainly one of the most credible drivers of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) meltdown. The fact is that those driving the ‘Internet explosion’ are ‘venerating a God of their own creation and live in denial’ of that fact (op. cit., p. 357).
While Morozov supports some of the suggestions put forward by observers such as Taylor and Glenny (Glenny, 2011) he also takes the argument a considerable distance beyond them. A key part of his agenda is to seek a broad-based oppositional movement that calls into question both the methods and the purposes of Silicon Valley. Part of this is the conscious design and use of products that he calls ‘transformational.’ That is, products that, instead of hiding and obscuring relationships, dependencies, costs and the like, reveal them as a condition of use. An example would be an electronic device that provides tangible feedback about the sources, types and costs of the energy being used. Some of these examples are reminiscent of Tony Fry’s attempts to counter what he calls ‘de-futuring’ by re-directing the evolution of the design professions (Fry, 2009). Such ‘post-Internet’ initiatives will encourage people to ‘trace how these technologies are produced, what voices and ideologies are silenced in their production and dissemination, and how the marketing literature surrounding these technologies taps into the zeitgeist to make them look inevitable’ (Morozov, 2013, p. 356).
A further characteristic of this approach, it is suggested, is that ‘it deflates the shallow and historically illiterate accounts that dominate so much of our technology debate and opens them to much more varied, rich and historically important experiences’ (op. cit., p. 357). Finally, Morozov is at pains to remind us that ‘technology is not the enemy,’ rather, ‘our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who lives within’ (p. 358). This neatly turns the discussion back onto the broader underlying question of the constitution of human identity, needs, wants etc. This ‘take away’ message is strikingly similar to the one I set out in the Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (Slaughter, 2010). It is that we appear to be walking en masse into a world that is being created (or, more accurately, undermined) by remote individuals and organisations that have, by and large, lost any authentic connection with, or concern for, either our shared humanity or the natural world that sustains us.
There are many topics that cannot be pursued further in a review. But they do, however, bring to mind a world in which these very concerns figure large. That is, the culture of the Kesh richly evoked by Ursula le Guin in Always Coming Home (le Guin, 1986). Here the uses of high technology are certainly acknowledged but they are also known to be dangerous. The solution adopted by the Kesh is that they are partitioned off into specific locations where they can be used as needed but their influence is kept in check. Rather than pursue technical power wherever its owners and inherent tendencies may lead, the Kesh decided to bring ritual and meaning into the heart of their culture. We would do well to remember this example and to draw inspiration from it. Although embodied in fiction it carries a vital message to our own time and culture. As the full costs of ‘wild globalisation,’ universal advertising and ‘growth at all costs’, become ever clearer the human future is looking more problematic with each passing year.
Bakan, J. (2003), The Corporation, Random House, London. http://www.joelbakan.com/thecorporationbook.htm
Blair, P, D. (2013), Congress’s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.
Le Guin, U. (1986), Always Coming Home, Gollancz, London.
Morozov, E. (2011), The Net Delusion, Penguin, London.
Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London.
Slaughter, R. (2010) The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Foresight International, Brisbane. http://richardslaughter.com.au/?page_id=232
Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.