Book Talk – Chapter 2
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The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by Evgeny Morozov
In the first chapter, we saw the mindset of “solutionism,” this philosophy or world view that sees all of life’s struggles as problems that can be solved, so much so that the ends always justify the means. An extremist view like this is only further fueled by fiery yet ambiguous language: political slogans that polish nuggets like “hope” or “change” or “country first” leave much room for differing views. “The Internet” is the magic catchall of choice used by solutionism’s disciples. Chapter 2 chops up what we really mean when we say “the Internet.” What are we really talking about, when we say “the Internet”?
“Today, ‘the Internet’ is regularly invoked to thwart critical thinking and exclude nongeeks from the discussion.” (Page 18)
The lack of common knowledge surrounding “the Internet” is in part a fault on public education. The world of academics cannot adapt to the quickening changes that occur today. In a very real sense, general history classes struggle to cover the canon of important historical events that have transpired over the past 2000 plus years. The last twenty to thirty years are too recent to reflect upon responsibly and they are still developing.
Schools have computer technology and students learn how to use a PC enough to access “the Internet.” Skills and discourse unfolding on “the Internet” are expanding the scope of all subjects. Experts in a particular field can continually revise an argument with new media flowing through “the Internet.”
Take history as a subject for example, and instead of focusing curriculum on particular material such as a canon of major events tied to specific dates, the focus now becomes how to think and act like an historian. The students now seek an appreciation of the profession as a role to pursue to varying degrees. Most students will not investigate the recent history of “the Internet.”
“… there’s something odd about how the geeks can simultaneously claim that the Internet is fixed and permanent and work extremely hard in the background to keep it that way.” (Page 19)
“…it’s much easier to imagine how the world itself would end than to imagine the end of “the Internet.” (Page 22)
What’s Minitel? I recently looked up “Minitel” which is mentioned in passing on page 23 and I found out about how it was a French precursor to “the Internet.” Apparently there are various communications systems intertwined in the history of “the Internet.” The language used across “the Internet” is even knottier to peruse historically. Hypertext transfer protocol is something most people have auto-filled by smart search engines embedded into seamless web browsers.
Behind the scenes, we fail to see the hidden bureaucracy and gatekeepers. Apps for smart phones and tablets introduce new gatekeepers and the growing list of middle men involved in what we call “the Internet” is neatly tucked into a term that has endless possibilities. This all leads to mythologizing “the Internet;” it can be all things.
Internet zealots call this recent time period an epoch. They are clear to mark this time period as unique from all other time periods. In fact, this ability to see our own time and so many time periods of the past leads one to believe in “Epochalism”—this timeless vacuum of thought that places our time on level with all other time periods, leaving the potential for our time to be radically different… or not.
“…to imagine that somehow Politifact.com tells us something of interest about the nature of “the Internet”—assuming, for a moment, that such a nature exists—is dead wrong.” (Page 39)
Those that embrace “epochalism” extend the magic of “the Internet” to a state of a nature, as if it is an organism that exists biologically. Die-hards of “the Internet” would never think to question, or tinker with, something that we should not judge for who are we to judge. Once again, we reach a point where “the Internet” serves all by being a blank slate of consciousness.
“The debates over electricity were, in fact, as dramatic and bizarre as the debates we are currently having about “the Internet,” its democratic potential, and its effect on our brains.” (Page 44)
We need a vague, all encompassing term for things like “the Internet.” The concern here is that of the grammar teacher complaining about the use of vague pronouns in how they could lead to the end of “it” all. Ambiguity is good in moderation.
“A 2009 empirical study of students at five British universities found that ‘it is far too simplistic to describe young first-year students born after 1983 as a single generation … . [They are] not homogenous in [their] use and appreciation of new technologies and … there are significant variations amongst students that lie within the Net generation age band.’” (Page 46)
Adding to the mess of definitions and histories tangled in the term “the Internet,” we also have the fracturing of generational cohorts. Students today have incredibly different exposures to “the Internet.” Framing youth as digital natives versus digital immigrants lumps together far too many factions, adding to the reductionism of “the Internet.”
“As historian of science Steven Shapin argues, ‘The past is not transformed into the ‘modern world’ at any single moment…’” (Page 47)
Advancing the timeless quality of “the Internet,” in that it literally stands outside of the bounds of time, the book continues to stress the ignorance of “those” that use this fog to patch public policy. “Hyper-revolutionary times” are used as an excuse for wrong predictions and indefinite arguments. The printing press can be accepted as a miracle and mile marker, when in actuality it is fluidly a part of evolving systems.
“The Jarvis-Einstein view of the world presumes tools are fixed. They lie outside culture and history…”
“… ‘the Internet’ they find is unproblematic and unchanging, its democratic nature fixed in stone.” (Page 56)
And we have looped around again, how can this mysterious entity know as “the Internet” be unalienable and ephemeral at the same time? Argument in the age of “the Internet” adds to the difficulties of defining “the Internet” and understanding its history and place in society. By the time you address all sides of an issue you have deserted your audience and the argument has lost relevance.
“… look at the history of the post office—a communications network created by the government to foster free expression…” (Page 60)
What governmental controls should be applied to “the Internet?” Now, we are getting too close to the heart of the matter here. Currently, the US Post Office is fading and under threat of dissolution. Even though, it also broadened the power of the first amendment and federal government, retrospectively. The post office lingers as an old idea.
A criticism by Paul Starr referenced in the book includes the idea that “… Congress … subsidized the circulation of newspapers irrespective of their viewpoint and spread postal service throughout the country.” It is much easier for government to subsidize or outsource services in order to avoid blame for errors and poor quality. Public education and electricity are locally provided and so is “the Internet.”
“Internet-centrism has also mangled how we think about the past, present, and the future of technology regulation.” (Page 62)
Competition breeds better outcomes, similar to deliberation. Successful economic systems that embrace capitalism tout competition as the solution to all problems; but, in the last chapter we discussed the concept of “solutionism” as a pervasive world view that is now fueled feverishly by technology. We are to be skeptical of “solutionist” thinking, the type of thinking that dismisses the means in pursuit of the ends, the type of thinking that only sees the destination and ignores the journey, the type of thinking that ends the conversation by playing a never-ending record of noise. Still, competition does have its place just as a tool like technology has its place.
When solutionism and “the Internet” combine, they forge a grand illusion. This is the “smoke and mirrors” of today, behind which many evils lurk—and shedding light on the issue is ironically not the answer, or solution, in fact more light, or transparency, is the primary trick promoted by the toxic duo of solutionism and Internet-centrism, which is further described in the next chapter. Cover your face, hold your breath and engage your skeptical lenses.
Imagine a future, in which the US Post Office delivers packets of data to each of the physical mailboxes it currently serves. Instead of retrieving physical junk mail, paper destined to be trashed and recycled, connect your device (wirelessly even) too your mailboxes and unlock bundles of data. Surely, internet service is as easy as hosting a health care web portal. “The Internet” is what we make of it. There is no greater vague pronoun than “we”, as in “We the People.”