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Shrines of Technology

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism; Evgeny Morozov

Book review by R. Alan Clanton | published Sunday, September 29, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

It was our first experience with being “kicked out” of social media, and the story is an ideal way to begin this book review.

On the advice of a couple of our younger readers, Thursday Review recently decided to venture deeper into the waters of social media and content distribution by joining the popular sharing community called Reddit, a service originally launched in 2004. Its name is a loose hybrid of the terms “read it” and “edit.” From what I was being told—mostly by TR readers under the age of 20—Reddit would be a natural fit for some of our content, and an easy, nearly instantaneous way to get our top stories into the hands (literally) of thousands of users of smart phones, tablets and computers.

Simple enough, I thought. I’m no slouch (or so I thought) when it comes to computers, so how difficult can this be? I searched for it, took about one minute to create a username and password, and waded into the shallow end of the pool. And I wanted fast results, so rather than waste hours browsing around the various subcategories (called “subReddits”) in a vain attempt to understand the point of this community, I went straight to my newly created account and posted an article, choosing a recent retrospective of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd (by TR’s Earl Perkins) as my first test post. Following Reddit’s instructions, I created a catchy title, inserted the URL—a direct link to the article as it appears in our web magazine—and chose the category “music.”

After that, things went south very fast.

Before I could click the “submit” button, Reddit asked me to verify that I was “human” (as opposed to a robot spammer) by engaging in a visual puzzle, what one friend has called “Scrabble on acid,” whereby a computer user must type the letters displayed in a stylized image field. Anyone who routinely encounters these cryptological gatekeepers can predict what happened next. I failed the test—not once, but twice. Finally, on my third attempt, I passed, but Reddit had already placed me on its list of suspicious users. Next, I hit the submit button, hoping to send our Lynyrd Skynyrd article—already popular on Facebook and Google Plus—out into the busy and manic world of re-posters. A small text message appeared a moment later that said “there doesn’t appear to be anything here!” I had clearly inserted the correct URL, and I could see all of the other information. But the field was still blank. I tried it again, with the same result. Then, I realized what had happened. Reddit was waiting impatiently for the actual “music,” not merely a link to our text in the form of an html file. The sub-category I had chosen was for music files and video sharing.

Oops. I quickly tried to re-categorize the item, but by now advertisements for movies and TV shows were appearing over the Sub Reddit panel to the right. In an attempt to minimize or “click away” these annoying displays, I managed to instead send our Lynyrd Skynrd piece out, again, for the third time—this time as an ad for a movie.

A message appeared on my Reddit homepage that said (essentially) that I was one of two things: a brand new Reddit user who might be an idiot, or a robot attempting to infect the world with spam and malicious spyware. Again, it asked me to pass the test of the anti-robot puzzle. Again, I failed.

After only minutes, Thursday Review was banned from Reddit…probably for life.

Later that same day I found out from a friend that Reddit would have banned Thursday Review quickly anyway, probably after only my second post. He pointed out that Reddit’s content policy is skewed heavily toward “re-posting” and sharing of existing news and information—not original content. In fact, when I researched this very point minutes later, I saw that he was right: Reddit’s own goal is for its users to post no more than 10% (give or take) original content, and the service encourages its users to engage primarily in re-posting—that is, sharing only of information or content already in existence somewhere on the web.

In other words, Reddit frowns upon entities like Thursday Review attempting to use the service for the distribution of original content. Well then, I asked my friend, what then is the point of Reddit? “Sharing, saving and sharing, and, you know, re-sharing” he said. How does original content get into this venue? “By people sharing it from other sources,” he said. There was a pause. This thought hung in the air for a moment between us, and he anticipated my next question. “Okay,” he said, “and now you’re going to ask me something like ‘what’s the point of that?’” No, because that too would be pointless.

In his new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (Public Affairs Books, 2013), author Evgeny Morozov proposes the somewhat radical notion that the internet—like a hundred other “game-changing” technologies over the centuries, has itself become seduced by its own notions of self-importance and grandeur, becoming as much a part of humanity’s problems as it is a part of the unified solution it purports to be offering.

The view that our increasingly digital world will provide venues for limitless societal improvement and crowd-driven democracy already seems strained and somewhat vulnerable (see our review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?), but Morozov’s new book aggressively attacks the premise that somehow the internet transcends all other forms of technology—becoming, in effect, the catalyst for a whole new age where mankind morphs, perhaps effortlessly, from our contentious, primitive state into a world unfettered by gatekeepers and key-masters and into a place of global, digitized remedies and instant, clickable democracy. To acolytes of a techno-encased world, total digitization and the internet will have the same transformative power on human history as mankind’s ability to make fire.

But despite the dazzling pace of technological advances, and the breathtaking speed at which we digitize every aspect of our lives, Morozov sees circular arguments in the thousand talking points we hear each day.

And though he does not mention Reddit in his book (he gives literally hundreds of other examples), Reddit’s intellectually closed-loop of posts, re-posts and re-reposts serves as a perfect example of the folly he identifies: Reddit exists so that people with smart phones and other portable devices can share things that interest or amuse them—funny videos of cats or dogs, traffic camera clips of car accidents, music videos, songs, digital videos of tirades and tantrums by internet users, sports mishaps, news clips—all content already easily available on hundreds of other websites or services but without the “democratizing” effects of Reddit’s self-regulating community of users who “vote” for the caliber of the content. Reddit does not encourage original content—much less original thought—only crowd response via participation in what amounts to a kind of popularity contest. In this sense, its metrics and value systems are based—like those of Google, Facebook, Craigslist, Yahoo—almost entirely on hyper-accurate readings of keystrokes and clicks, with little regard for the quality or meaning on the content.

The ubiquitous “auto-complete” function is an example of this process, and pervasive evidence of the circular thinking involved in a philosophy that ask us to worship at the shrine of technology-for-the-sake-of-technology. Online services which use the auto-complete function do so because they seek to digitize democratize browser searches, and they defend the practice even as hackers and vindictive entities create fake or misleading auto-complete queries as a tool for redirecting internet users to false websites or manipulating the results to create bogus phrases. Even though this practice has resulted in lawsuits against Google and others—many of which the internet giants have lost—tech advocates nevertheless see the process as essentially a pure reflection of user-activity, manipulations and all.

Example: If you enter the name if the recently deceased British physicist Stephen Hawking in the Google search window, the first four or five top auto-complete phrases are “Stephen Hawking Quotes,” “Stephen Hawking God,” “Stephen Hawking Death” and “Stephen Hawking Disability,” the four search inquiries apparently most popular with Google users worldwide. But if you had the time and money, you could pay a few dozen computer users to simply type into that same search window the phrase “Stephen Hawking Moronic Buffoon,” repeatedly and as often as possible. After a period of hours or days, the auto-complete function would recognize “Stephen Hawking Moronic Buffoon” as a legitimate search request, and rank it accordingly, based entirely on Google’s algorithms.

Morozov challenges what he calls the “faux didacticism of the internet,” the notion, deeply embedded in technological philosophy, that the web will have the same transformative power to liberate humanity as, say, the French Revolution, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Morozov gives scores of examples of how technology writers and digital advocates see humanity as realigning itself around the computer and internet as a way to rethink the world’s problems and challenges. But (just as Lanier does in his book), Morozov questions the logic of a system which is—at least for now—demonstrably eliminating jobs and privacy at a horrific pace, perhaps irreversibly altering the world’s economies and dooming future generations to economic hardship. Other transformative technologies over the centuries have created jobs—the printing press, the steam engine, the assembly line, radio and television—though a reasonable argument can be made that each of these technologies met a fierce resistance based in part on the fear that they would destroy the prevailing economic template of the day.

Morozov (like Lanier) see some advocates of technological solutionism as following the same path already blazed by other utopian and quasi-religious movements—the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Marxist-Leninism, to name several examples—which asked, directly or indirectly, that humanity recalibrate and reorganize itself around the emerging new world order. Such social reboots were intended to bring universal remedies to often complex human problems. Morozov asks the simple question: does the internet and the sweeping digitization of information bring us any closer to those solutions? Is politics becoming less divided, or more divided?

Morozov is careful to diffuse the perhaps easy accusation that he is a Luddite simply because he is challenging a widely held assumption: that the internet’s ability to democratize data and shatter the old system of information gatekeeping will transform our world into a place of greater equality and equanimity. Clearly Morozov sees the internet as a remarkable tool, but perhaps no more remarkable than the printing press or the automobile, and certainly a tool somewhat short of its implied power to thrust the world forward into a great Amateur Spring of collective data gatherer-hunters-sharers. (Thursday Review received a few emails and a few comments on our Word Press blog suggesting that we were flirting with Luddite thinking for the simple fact that we had posted a review of Jaron Lanier’s book earlier this month; an odd thing to accuse us of since we operate an entirely digital, online magazine promoted almost entirely through social media, tweets and emails).

Morozov is thorough and aggressive, challenging many of the talking points and shibboleths about everything from Facebook to My Space, from Farmville to Words With Friends, from gamification (the process of reducing all forms of social behavior and modification to games) to the blogosphere (the often pejorative term for the shrill liberal versus conservative debates which occur endlessly online) to lifelogging (the process by which an individual copiously records literally every detail of the data of their life, sharing it with information voyeurs, and storing it digitally for “research” and posterity).

In addition, Morozov examines the unlikely connections between some advocates of unfettered technological advance and the writings of Ayn Rand, the famous laissez faire author and novelist, all in the context of “Moore’s Law,” the debatable, elastic and often misquoted 1965 canon of Intel cofounder Gordon Moore which stated, in essence, that micro-processing capacity would double roughly every two years (or 18 months, or six months, or whatever the person or company “quoting” Moore intended to imply or intone) from now until the unforeseeable distant future.

Morozov’s book also begs for a direct comparison to Lanier’s 2013 book. Both are highly readable and easy-to-digest. Both question the utopian view of digital technology to truly transform the world into a more democratic place. And both examine the increasingly uncomfortable questions of individual privacy (though Lanier spends more time probing what this means to us as humans and as members of society). But where Lanier’s book was all over the map (and I don’t mean that in a negative way—only that his mind roams more freely and rapidly through the subject matter, producing an agreeable stream-of-thought book), Morozov is more structured and formal in his indictments of our increasingly techno-obsessed world. Morozov also gives us more direct and newsworthy examples throughout his book.

And, like Lanier’s Who Owns the Future, Morozov’s work was published after many recent high-profile events: Edward Snowden, the NSA’s massive data gathering program, PRIZM, the conviction of Private Bradley Manning, revelations that the Justice Department spied on reporters, IRS description-flagging of conservative political organizations, and the potentially game-changing sale of the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Lanier and Morozov would each share a great interest in these developments, and we will surely hear from each of them on these subjects in their next books.