Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here”

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Everybody loves Jane Jacobs.

I love Jane Jacobs. “Austrian” economists with whom I disagree, like Alex Tabarrok, love Jane Jacobs. You probably love Jane Jacobs. Steven Johnson says he loves Jane Jacobs in his recent book Future Perfect  — but so does Evgeny Morozov at the beginning of To Save Everything, Click Here, and Morozov is arguing against Johnson. Someone has to be getting Jane Jacobs wrong. Much of this essay is an attempt to see why Morozov gets Jacobs right, while Johnson and others are missing something important.

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From 2005 to 2007, Evgeny Morozov tells us, he thought that digital technology might be a way to rid the world of autocratic regimes. His disillusionment was channelled into his influential first book, The Net Delusion, a full-on attack on “the sheer callousness and utopianism” of the “Internet Freedom” project (p 354).

This time around, Morozov’s target is much broader, but still centred in the world of digital technologies, and particularly the Internet. He takes aim at the ideologies that have grown up around the Internet, and their many manifestations.

Chapter 7 is typical of the book. Here is a collection of people who record and track their everyday lives online, and then analyze and quantify their existence, from toothbrushing to reading to fecal contents. These “datasexuals” now have a social movement, of a sort, which they call the “Quantified Self” movement. It would be easy to dismiss the Quantified Selfers as harmless eccentrics if they did not have a significant presence among the opinion shapers and leading lights of Silicon Valley, and if the mindset they embody was not clearly present, if in moderated form, in the wider digital world, and if the assumptions and goals were not oozing out over the rest of us. From quantifying oneself in a private context it is a short step to the presentation of self through these numbers, and the use of them as a basis for optimization and refinement. So Morozov cites Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, who says that self tracking is a way to “acknowledge that you have bugs, that there’s new development to do on yourself” (237) so that we can algorithmically measure, tweak, and refine ourselves and our self-presentation to the world.

From here it is just one more short step to the buying and selling of our personal data: to insurers in return for lower premiums, to advertisers in return for better deals. Our personal data becomes a new “asset class” and executives respond by “trying to shift the focus [of debate] from purely privacy to what we call property rights” (235). New social pressures emerge as the digitizers follow their path of bits, algorithms and markets (career counsellors now routinely recommend that building a strong presence on LinkedIn is a route to a better job), and we can replace debates about privacy with reassurances about personal choice. “Privacy is mostly an illusion, but you’ll have as much of it as you want to pay for” says Kevin Kelly (236). New companies emerge to optimize our self-presentation on the web (reputation.com), new norms emerge as “If you’re going out with someone, and they don’t have a Facebook profile, you should be suspicious” (Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, quoted on p. 239). Why would you not share your real-time blood alcohol levels with your employer if you don’t have anything to hide? (240).

The impact of the digital on our lives is such that, while the social consequences of self-tracking seem immense, they are just one thread among many of the digital revolution. In separate chapters, Morozov investigates new developments in policing, arts and culture, politics, government, social engineering, civic life, health, the workplace, and the increasingly designed, architected environments in which we live. There is no aspect of life that isn’t ready to be tweaked, nudged, hacked and filtered into optimal performance.

How to respond to such a flood of changes? One is tempted to define oneself by an attitude to digital technologies themselves: to be unequivocally pro- or anti-technology. But to reject or to accept technology wholesale has no future: wholesale rejection entails rejection, not just of integrated circuits, but of the people connected by them: shaping the use of technology lies not in the realm of individual choice, but of social choice. Wholesale acceptance seems fatalistic – abandoning the possibility of having any say in the forces shaping the societies in which we live.

Morozov undertakes two projects, one successfully and one less so. The first is to provide a framework in which to think about the new inventions that are being sold to us, and the patterns of thought behind them. Morozov identifies a twin-tracked ideology behind the inventions and inventiveness of the digital world. One track is “Internet-centrism” – the practice of “taking a model of how the Internet works and applying it to other endeavours”. Writers have imbued the Internet with “a way of working”; it has a “grain” to which we must adapt; it has a culture, a “way it is meant to be used”, and it comes with a mythology in which iTunes and Wikipedia become models to think about the future of politics, and Zynga is a model for civic engagement (15). The second track is “solutionism”: the recasting of social situations as problems with definite solutions; processes to be optimized (23).

Morozov does a fine job of articulating Internet-centrism and solutionism as two facets of a single Silicon Valley ideology, whose followers include the Valley’s software industry leaders, venture capitalists, conferences and “thought leaders”, as an evolution of the “Cyberselfish” ideology identified a decade ago by Paulina Borsook. The common assumptions, shared biases, and individualistic predilictions give a cohesiveness and homogeneity to the new ideas and inventions, actively constructing and shaping the digital environment from which they claim to draw their inspiration. The insistence on “disrupting” our social and environmental lives; the idea that the solutions inspired by and enabled by the Internet mark a clean break from historical patterns, a never-before-seen opportunity – these mean that the only lessons to learn from history are those of previous technological disruptions. The view of society as an institution-free network of autonomous individuals practicing free exchange makes the social sciences, with the exception of economics, irrelevant. What’s left is engineering, neuroscience, an understanding of incentives (in the narrowly utilitarian sense): just right for those whose intellectual predispositions are to algorithms, design, and data structures. Morozov argues that these orthodoxies have had “a corrosive effect on public discourse and on reform projects” (16) and it’s difficult to argue otherwise.

Morozov’s approach to unpicking the hidden assumptions of solutionism, and the unpalatable consequences of its application, is impressive but less successful. In order to avoid a blanket technopessimism he makes two moves. The first is to adopt a broadly social constructionist approach to the world of digital technologies. The Internet does not shape us, it is shaped by the society in which it is growing. He is with Raymond Williams, against Marshall McLuhan. His stance here is blunt: he refuses to see “the Internet” as an agent of change, for good or bad. “The Internet” is not a cause; it does not explain things, it is the thing that needs to be explained. Chapter 2 is titled The Internet Tells Us Nothing (Because It Doesn’t Actually Exist).

The second, more surprising move, is to adopt a critique that was first described in a pejorative sense by Albert Hirschmann. “In his influential book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Hirschmann argued that all progressive reforms usually attract conservative criticisms that build on one of the following three themes: perversity (whereby the proposed intervention only worsens the problem at hand), futility (whereby the intervention yields no results whatsoever), and jeopardy (whereby the intervention threatens to undermine some previous, hard-earned accomplishment)” (6). Morozov does not see himself as a conservative, but instead places himself in the tradition of other thinkers who have stood against programs of organized efficiency; “Jane Jacobs attacks on the arrogance of urban planning, Michael Oakeshott’s rebellion against rationalists in all walks of human existence, Hans Jonas’s impatience with the cold comfort of cybernetics; and, more recently, James Scott’s concern with how states have forced what he calls ‘legibility’ on their subjects” (7). The list is an interesting one because, as I mentioned at the beginning, it features the same cast of characters that the solutionists — those whom Morozov opposes so implacably — routinely invoke as their own inspirations.

The Hirschmann framework provides Morozov with a recipe for how to think about the many solutionist initiatives he tackles, and many of the passages in the book have a similar structure. Let’s return to self-tracking for a moment. Morozov’s first line of critique is Hirschmann’s “jeopardy”: he invokes the ‘technostructuralists’ to ask not just what individual choices self-tracking offers, but to ask how it changes the environment we inhabit. A decision not to share becomes a tacit acknowledgement that you have something to hide. The danger is that “if you are well and well-off, self-monitoring will only make things better for you. If you are none of these things, the personal prospectus could make your life much more difficult, with higher insurance premiums, fewer discounts, and limited employment prospects” (240). It erodes privacy, the ability to make a clean start, and erodes risk-taking behaviour given the consequences of failure. A second line of critique is to ask what, as our quantifiable aspects become the focus of attention, is missing in the quantified portrait that emerges: what intangible aspects of ourselves become invisible. Do these numbers, he asks, miss meaning? Where do ethics and aesthetics go to in a world of numbers? Morozov surveys the centuries-old debates over the virtues and perils of quantification. Here the critique stumbles, as Morozov rolls out thinker after thinker in a parade of reasons to doubt the benefits of quantification. From Nietzsche to Nussbaum, from nutritionism (the quantification of food) to water-metering and the evolution of clothes-washing norms, to the benefits of friction and dissonance in our everyday lives, there is no doubt he covers an impressive amount of ground, but the argument is scattershot; disjoint. The end result is an erudite and widely-sourced list of the ways in which technologies may lead to bad outcomes – but it is still a list, and it lacks the force of a strong central thesis behind it.

The other chapters follow a similar pattern: the perversity, futility, and jeopardy of solutionist agendas show a breadth of investigation that should shame many of his more populist opponents, and provide valuable contexts in which to think about technological programmes. In particular, his insistence on seeking out historical precedents for today’s arguments is a welcome change from the language of “rupture” that many solutionists prefer.

If there is a unified point of view behind the critique, it can be traced back to the “anti-solutionists” with whom Morozov identifies. Like Morozov and like Steven Johnson, I’m a big admirer of Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, and James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: which makes me wonder how can they end up in such different camps. The fault, you will not be surprised to hear, belongs with the solutionists.

One of the remarkable insights of computer scientists (and social scientists and natural scientists in the computer age) is an understanding of how great complexity and diversity can be generated by populations of simple agents following simple rules. Just as schools of fish and flocks of starlings create sweeping artistic displays by pursuing simple individual rules, so the rich tapestry of city life emerges from simple everyday interactions. The ideas of network theorists lend themselves to talk of self-organization, non-hierarchical structures, and informational cascades. Computer scientists take ideas such as the “Game of Life”, the stunning images of fractal shapes, and the rich behaviour of networks to illustrate how complexity arises from simplicity. From spin-glasses in magnets to the sorting and emergence of patterns revealed by Schelling and his intellectual descendants, simple “micromotives” give rise to surprising and intricate patterns of “macrobehaviour”. Such agent-based thinking seems at first to mesh perfectly with Jacobs’s closely observed studies of city life. She famously focused her piercing, analytical eye on the details of every day life in large cities, and used her observations to challenge and then triumph over the grand visions and arrogance of top-down city planners. It’s the bottom-up nature of her approach that inspires: the planners are trying to impose patterns on populations from above but they miss the relationship between the large and the small. It is tempting, then, to take the descriptions of Jacobs’s cities and encode them in algorithms: agent-based simulations of the effects of block size on pedestrian traffic patterns seem almost mandated, so obvious a next step do they seem from Jacobs’s chapter on the topic.

Yet this step, I increasingly believe, is a mistake. Solutionism is ultimately central planning by another name. The arrogance of the urban planner reappears as the arrogance of the agent-based modeller and the Internet entrepreneur: the plan is still monolithic, but now takes the shape of a network. As Steven Johnson says, when his “peer progressives” see a social problem, they design a peer network to solve it. But what has happened to the citizens in this network? They have been reduced to dumb followers of simple rules. The richness and complexity – all the interest, in fact – lies in the structure of the network. If the outcome isn’t what you want, well tweak the incentives, adjust the topology of the network, provide an additional option for the nodes (sorry, people) to choose from. For all its talk of bottom-up, decentralized thinking, the Internet-centric solutionists end up with an impoverished perspective of individual behaviour.

Just because complex and rich behaviours can arise from simple rules doesn’t mean that people are simple beings. Any theory that applies both to murmurations of starlings or spin-glasses of magnetic ions as well as to cities of humans is, almost by definition, missing the distinctive features of human societies. Complexity can arise from simplicity at the small scale, but macro-level complexity also arises from micro-level complexity. The subtle and ill-understood nature of our own needs and interactions will defeat the best efforts of solutionist planning, just has it has defeated those of central planning and of free markets.

In his final chapters, Morozov appeals to this particularist view of the world, in which each node of a network is different from others, and in which general solutions don’t exist. To discard the importance of the details of our daily interactions, as the solutionists inevitably do, is to inevitably provoke unexpected responses, unintentional side effects, and unanticipated breakdowns of the solutionist schemes. When Brian Chesky of AirBnB complains that there are 30,000 different cities in which he wants to operate, and that it’s just not practical to negotiate with each one, he is not designing a bottom-up solution, he is imposing a top-down network. He is demanding that cities become “legible” in James Scott’s terminology, to his overarching (and simplistic) algorithms.

To reach for an alternative vision, Morozov looks to artists who have engaged in “adversarial design” to illustrate the importance of acknowledging micro-level complexity. But to look to the artificiality of the arts is second-best here; there is enough variation and richness of detail in the normal everyday world to illustrate the importance of variation and local knowledge and unanticipated interactions.

But despite these minor complaints, “Click Here” is an admirable and significant achievement. It identifies and makes a valuable and intellectually adventurous assault on what is becoming an increasingly obvious problem: the appropriation of democratic and “bottom-up” visions by those who seek to impose their own top-down networks on the rest of us, and who reduce us to simplistic nodes in the process. This is a valuable book: now if only someone could make a TED Talk of it.

Written using Org version 7.6 with Emacs version 23.

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14 Comments

  1. I am not so enamored with Jane Jacobs when I’m stuck on Toronto’s Allen Road (what is left of the cancelled Spadina Expressway). Jane Jacobs was very right about urban neighbourhoods and equally correct in challenging the assumptions of urban planners but I think she was dogmatic in her opposition to all highways and infrastructure projects.

    I am one of those “harmless eccentrics” that follows the Quantified Self “movement”. My tracking is very much isolated to a private context. It is an extension of the type of tracking I’ve always done with pen and paper. The idea that some/most/all Quantified Selfers are a few short steps away from immense negative social consequences seems to be a doozy of an assumption.

    If the label “Solutionist” applies to me at all I think I’m a Self-Solutionist. I am far from an advocate of self-tracking in aggregate to solve problems in the name of the public good. I don’t even think optimization is a goal. The goal for me is greater self-awareness and shining light on information and claims made by various experts (e.g. family doctors). Reducing asymmetric information is a good thing from my perspective.

    This seems to be an idealogical battle between the Progressive Pessimists (Morozov/Slee) vs. the Progressive Optimists (“Peer-Progressives and other similar Silicon Valley types). Us introverted libertarian types remain puzzled by both sides.

    • Solutionism seems very much in the tradition of sweeping programs like those described in Dr. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, nominally liberative but practically Procrustean. The most paternalistic and fascist tendencies of precious TED presenters make them the perfect colorguards, along with Gavin Newsome and like-minded technobabbling New Media/Big Data milennialists, for a line of shallow thinking which presumes that the human condition is really just a set of Ruby on Rails or Android applications or Ignite talks away from some final solution.

      Libertarians of the “thin” persuasion, which are as common as clever in-jokes on t-shirts in the Valley and other technical industrial centers, do seem to share with solutionists a common disdain for tried and true civic institutions and practices, including politics itself. Both libertarianism and solutionism tend to flourish almost exclusively in places where the hard work of building said institutions and honing said practices has been done. Both thin libertarians and solutionists take as a given that these institutions and practices are obsolete and quaint. It is not a position heavily moored to history, and it’s proponents tend to be selling something, colloidal silver, say, or mobile phone applications for revolutionizing narcissim.

      Evgeny Morozov is here a voice of resistance against a mode of thought not altogether benign. Utopian visions can be totalizing. Solutionism and thin libertarianism both promise to perfect the individual and, in turn, society. They are visions with totalizing potential, so I am quite glad of Morozov’s recalcitrance in the face of the tech-millenialist campaign on common sense.

  2. Everyone thinks I should just endorse Morozov — isn’t he just saying the same thing I’ve been saying for years? Isn’t his critique of Silicon Valley mine?

    Oh, not at all. I criticize Morozov, too, along with those gurus like Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis, both essentially collectivists at heart. Because in the end Morozov *is* for the central planning really, too — I call it “the global GlavLit” like the Soviet censorship agency. Remember, he’s for changing Google results to remove false information which he thinks people shouldn’t have to see. He’s for forming committees to curb Apple. You always get this sense that he’s cynically against all these dewy-eyed (or sinister) Silicon Valley Better Worlders, but it’s because, as he says on his Twitter profile, “Look around. There are idiots,” i.e. “We’re the smart ones, surrounded by idiots, and we should get to run things.”

    The socialist impulse and scientism that this feeds, even the Canadian liberal variant, does tend toward that sort of arrogance and ultimate oppression, so it’s good if you can parse where you differ from Morozov. But for my money (and I didn’t buy the book yet because I’m not on the review list!), he’s trouble in any number of ways. As this anatomy of a Twit fight will reveal:

    http://storify.com/catfitz/evgeny-morozov

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2013/03/evgeny-morozov-and-angela-davis-the-dark-side-of-internet-freedom.html

  3. For all his hand-wringing, how is Morozov’s argument (in this narrow context, as you describe it in the essay) any different from Edmund Burke’s about a different revolution?

  4. Hi Tom,

    I love your analysis of Morozov’s book (in particular how you note astutely his use of social construction to avoid a kind of technological determinism/pessimism, as well as his use of the three reactionary tropes that Hirschmann identified).

    But I wonder if you’ve boxed yourself in with your analysis. It’s one thing to criticize Internet-centrism; but what can it possibly mean to criticize something called “solutionism”? Is the idea that there are groups of people who frame any situation into a problem and then construct a solution for it? If that’s the case, then that seems banal; to be part of any community of practice is to learn how to understand a situation as a particular kind of problem to which you can apply a solution from the communal repertoire. What matters is the kind of solution that is applied.

    So your problem (and Morozov’s) is not solutionism itself but that it’s of a particular kind: it comes from Silicon Valley and and is peculiarly suited to corporate interests. It uses the rhetoric of liberation and self-organization–but that’s all it is: rhetoric.

    But the answer (or, heh, the solution) to one form of solutionism is not, it seems to me, asking people to stand still–which is what it seems to me sometimes what critics like you and Morozov seem to be asking. It’s to propose a different sort of solution and convince people to join you. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the late Richard Rorty had it right. He consistently upheld the poet, the novelist, and the politician as roles that are higher than a philosopher–higher he said, because they are the ones who expand or change ideas about humanness. It seems to me that you are Morozov are stuck at being philosophers–public intellectuals, but still philosophers–whereas the people you are arguing with are not. They are doing things (and it may be a Silicon-Valley-corporate-profit-driven thing, but it’s certainly not critical philosophy).

    And that’s why today it’s come to this: you criticize this amorphous thing called “solutionism” –that’s what happens when philosophers can’t stop things from happening. (Is a loose monetary policy in response to high unemployment “solutionism”? Is fiscal stimulus during a recession a form of solutionism? Is increasing mental health counseling at colleges in response to a suicide a form of solutionism? And on and on).

    I also think you are wrong about Jane Jacobs–or rather, I think Jane Jacobs could be appropriated by different people in different ways (just as the “internet” can), and I am not sure I buy your point that those who use Jane Jacobs to motivate their building of self-organizing algorithms are misinterpreting her. But that’s a comment for another time.

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  7. Michèle Champagne

    In “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace,” Adam Curtis dives into the network metaphor and a certain type of “machine-centrism.” Begins here: http://vimeo.com/25966415

  8. Sorry to be so late to reply, and hope some commenters may see this.

    B.D.Dios: Agreed.
    Catherine Fitzpatrick: I have never met Morozov and beyond a certain fellow-feeling from being on the same side in an ongoing debate I don’t know much about him. But then, the essay was sparked by the book, and the book stands by itself. I would not be really interested in arguing about the person unless I knew him better.
    DAW: I think “different revolution” is the key. There’s little liberte, egalite or fraternite to what he is writing about.
    scritic: Lots to think about there, and I’ve never read Rorty so that’s more to do. I do think that “solutionism” is something beyond the banal. I’d not place policy initiatives of the kind you list as “solutionism” because it lacks the totalizing, “clean slate”, social engineering vision that problem-focused networks embody. As for Jacobs: another time, as you say.

  9. Tom, my critique is not about “the person” as you imply to subtly discredit. It is about *the ideas*. These ideas *support violent communist revolution*. I think that’s okay to question. His method of responding to his positive texts supporting Angela Davis, for example, is to dodge and duck and then accuse me of “sloppy research” when I’d done the same sort of quoting of exact text of his with context that he does to Nicholas Carr, for example, saying “this is the way forward”. I think moral positions matter as well. I think not taking a moral position on the government’s crackdown in his homeland matters, and it is not merely about “the person” but “the public intellectual” and their cynicism and cravenness in our age. No book really stands so far apart from its author.

    • “to subtly discredit it” – where did that come from? I tend to be cautious, and in general post things publicly that I’m pretty sure I can stand behind. I don’t know much about EM or his positions on events in Belarus — or, in fact, about those events themselves. I have nothing to say on these matters that others should pay any attention to, so I stay quiet.

      FWIW I generally find myself siding with Nick Carr in their debate. The Internet is a thing, it just doesn’t carry the weight that many want to put on it.

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