Book Talk – Chapter 1
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The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by Evgeny Morozov
If you use Occam’s Razor to cut the apple of knowledge you will be left with a sore hand. Worse off would be the quitter that leaves the razor in the apple. What is more sinister than booby-trapped treats — how about the slick slicing of delicious sustenance? As a gourmand, I relish a good dish. The culinary arts are like philosophy, in that cooking is discourse. We can savor the symphony of foods and flavors or we can inject our bodies with fuel like heartless engines. If you have a stomach to lose, then follow your nose, and taste before you serve.
Chapter 1 starts with a definition of “Solutionism” and why it should be shunned:
Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized — if only the right algorithms are in place! — this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. (Page 5)
What about the elegance of “thought” to reduce complexity? At what point does the answer to our problems become a burden and a blessing? Most people today could live off of pre-made packaged foods, such as protein bars and vitamin added supplements. Few people want to live a life where eating is a diet indistinguishable of a pet hamster: pellets of food and a drip water-spout. We go out to dinner and sample restaurants. We have meals with family and friends. The “feast” fills our primal, social needs to confirm that we are human and alive. Sometimes life can be so much fun that you can neglect to waste time on food. Every dinner need not be a banquet. All cuisines hold a soft spot for fast food delights. Definitely, be careful to avoid simplifying the human soul, while at the same time allow for the simplification of technology to simplify our struggles and amplify our passions. The icebox may have lured the frozen dinner, but the microwave can reheat a stellar leftover.
Trash may be one man’s treasure. BinCam is the first subject put forth as example and support of the dangers of solutionism: see this BBC News Video. The book’s extremist logic spins out a yarn that leads from cameras in your trash to “nanny state” surveillance that will oppress us in untold ways. You could view Big Brother as an “app” that we willingly download, until one day the choice to download the Big Brother app shrinks to a choice between saving real money and sacrificing some privacy or sacrificing some money and saving real privacy. But what if the money saved is actually the salary of your future employment?
Not to mention, if a city incentivized recycling and trash reduction, we would see the poorer and more populous parts of the city paying a larger share of the collective burden than the affluent and isolated few. Sure we can save money, but what about the jobs that are eliminated? Are we not all responsible for the landfills in our back yard?
Class discussions of nanny state absurdities like BinCam have wandered into such ideas as drug-test urinals in bathroom stalls. Imagine sensors that could automatically detect a violation and lock the suspect in the bathroom until authorities arrive. This sounds rather draconian, but students are quick to respond with clever quips like “looks like I’ll have to use the sink”. Public urination may not be considered when the new urinal contract is awarded to some lucky bidder. People will find a way. Breaking rules is as natural as breathing another breathe and defying the odds that, yes, you are alive, for another moment — the modern man celebrates the birthday past his assigned average life expectancy: see this Economist article on the link between wealth and breeding — despite our calculated fears that wealth would bring about population erosion, affluence may resurrect Malthusian arguments counter to the usual “Idiocracy” thinking that posits breeding as more of an anti-intellectual problem centered on socio-economic status.
In a later chapter there is more debate over the economics of data and labor-trade ingenuity. I am a techno extremist in that I call for the use of more technology, and I see social inequalities in the lack of digital access and control as pressing. Well equipped individuals could profit from the new information markets, or newly dejected and outmoded laborers can continue to be marginalized. Something needs to be done to address the use of robots and computers to replace human labor. Almost like a 3/5ths compromise of sorts, we need to count artificial intelligence as part of a population for tax purposes as well as political representation. Moreover, just like the U.S. Constitutional 3/5ths compromise we should also view the bargain as a patch on a slave enterprise. If private companies amass plantations of artificial labor they should be viewed as major slave owners. Or, we can negotiate a market in which consumers have a stake in the artificial labor market — either to invest in shares or own labor like property. Consider the latest philosophy of “work”:
Corporate gifts like requiring employees to use their own tech. devices is a step in the direction towards democratizing labor, but it also invites a breach of privacy deeper than ever before — unless one has the will to lead a private non-tech personal life or the fortitude to buy multiple tech devices in order to juggle multiple public profiles and personalities. We need to engage in discussions that used to be seen as strictly science fiction: How much of our current technology should be offered as public utility? How can civilians buy-in to robotic factors of production? When will financial literacy include investing and trading in artificial labor?
Corporations and stock markets trading in shares of business are archaic in terms of new economic disruptors like robotic and artificial labor. The solution to use a robot instead of a person is economic, and the unforeseen trade-offs or ramifications go beyond our current economic talk. Just as we expect the common man to have a 401k-type retirement plan and a stake in the healthcare markets, we must soon expect an individual to own a share in robot labor. We already submit our global trade to robot actors, so how do we open the markets even further.
Education suffers from the menace of solutionism too:
In promising almost immediate and much cheaper results, they can easily undermine support for more ambitious, more intellectually stimulating, but also more demanding reform projects. (Page 9)
We could try to apply quick fixes in education, but learning is not a product that can be continuously streamlined. Learning is a process. “Learning” is a concept, like “reading”, that has tons of ambiguity and multiple levels of meaning. We can learn a physical skill and we can vocalize words aloud, or we can understand how to use a skill masterfully and comprehend language with purpose. Wisdom is that deeper level of knowledge that grows in time and stiffens with testing. Solutionism will serve the impatient ones and drain focus or resources from long-term projects that provide even richer payouts.
…to reject solutionism is not to reject technology. Nor is it to abandon all hope that the world around us can be ameliorated; technology could and should be part of this project. (Page 13)
Expression over efficiency. Quality over quantity. The journey over the destination. How will automated cars change our lives? A simple solution to improve transportation may bankrupt public transportation. How will consumers and local governments navigate new forms of transportation? See the latest Economist article on driverless cars. The “invisible hand” may grip the steering wheel, but surely our idle hands should be allowed to grip some of the profits. Again, we surprisingly see benefits (as much as detriments) from technological solutions: see the Economist‘s forum on the Internet’s value — even Google may not be able to return search results for its own self-worth.
The end of the chapter sets up the next chapter on the myth of “the Internet”. The language we use to describe this “web of lies” is obscuring the consequences of solutionism. So if we are to avoid being burnt by solutionism, we must clarify what we mean when we say “the Internet”. Chapter 2 will cut through to the seedy core of this linguistic fruit.
Solutionism wages war on inefficiency, ambiguity, and disorder.
Revealing Internet-centrism for what it is will make debunking solutionism much less difficult. (Page 16)
Combined with a clearer language and bias detecting lenses leery of solutionism schemes, we can scan all sectors of society for potentially harmful infections. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so proceed with caution. Examine that apple before you take a bite; it may be poisoned; it may be forbidden; it might just keep the doctor away; and it’s also simply sumptuous.