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Book Talk – Chapter 3

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The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by Evgeny Morozov

“Sunlight might be the best disinfectant, as US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said in 1913, but disinfectants, alas, are of little use to sunburn victims.”  (Page 63)

“The obvious problem with sites like Eightmaps.com is that, in exploiting our rarely examined admiration of transparency, they can be used to suppress virtually any kind of political cause, regardless of where it falls on the liberal-conservative spectrum.”  (Page 64)

In short, transparency can be used to bully the minority as well as liberate the majority.  More facts do not lead to more truth; moreover, it does not increase trust.  James Poniewozik summarized similar sentiments in a TIME magazine article entitled “The Myth of Fact.”

myth_poniewozik

“The Internet” as described in the previous chapter, plus technological “solutionism” as described in the first chapter, combined, produce an unfair and frankly unjust leverage on the part of information managers, in which the greater good or public welfare suffer.  There are numerous examples showing how the open transparency of “the Internet” can benefit both business and the public; however, the examples of business restrained at the expense of the public are rare–as it should be (?).  Why would advertisers promote narratives of news that would be bad for business?

For example, a recent Atlantic magazine article paints a colorful picture of how complicated all this can be.

mag-article-large_willms

Suggestions to restrict this special relationship that allows for the unbalanced stacking of power on the side of IT business fall on deaf ears.  The main thesis of this book fully unfolds:  public discourse is stifled by such convoluted bureaucracy, whether it is government designed or private or the intertwining mix of the two.  The delicate act of communication is polluted by an innate greed of commerce.  The author pleads with a patient reader for the need to put aside our profits for raw dialogue between all parties.

Yet, as you listen patiently, you realize it took over three chapters of text, at least fifty plus pages of literature containing multi-tiered arguments and counters to even begin the discussion.  A plea of this kind is an elephantine square peg that will unlikely fit through the narrow, round hole of a pipeline that our pop culture drinks up media products from like a straw.

“An inefficient democracy is always preferable to a well-run dictatorship.”  (Page 70)

Democracy_Business

An elegant example of transparency in Argentinean government and accountability in conflict develops at the heart of the chapter; but, it is something one should read on their own.  Some things just cannot be summarized or distilled any further without destroying its composition fundamentally.  Many congressional representatives have stated that legislative bills can be too long to read.  The release of torrents of information, volumes of government records, which few if any other than paid journalists attempt to pick through, are used as superficial examples.

As long as it takes to construct the book’s thesis it takes another dozen pages to erect the major antagonist to resolving this conflict:

“This is the other, darker side of “epochalism:” while new solutions are generated because we think that we are living in unique and exceptional times and anything Internet-incompatible ought to be swept away, we also believe that whatever problems ‘the Internet’ presents ought to be dealt with in a manner that won’t affect ‘the Internet.’”  (Page 75)

Half way through the chapter, three genuine items of control emerge:

“…putting data in “read-only” mode, blocking search engines from indexing sensitive data, attaching expiration dates to files…”  (Page 78)

In using “the Internet” to discuss this issue of internet regulation, one will quickly find that the arguments for an absolute transparency are being used to protect silly cat videos that parody pop culture as much as the Argentinean government  restricting access to government data.  The parity is grotesque and trite.

Indeed, there is a need for some privacy in government.  The book’s author tries to prove this by showing how various top governmental committees forced to adopt transparency became less contentious: issues of dissent before and after transparency initiatives are enacted apparently change committee discourse dramatically.  Committee members are less likely to show dissent when open to the public.  At the same time, committees spend more time on fighting off political attacks and attempting to adhere to the “vox populi,” all of which quantifiably takes more time away from actual decision making and governance in action.

The pertinent response to such arguments about preserving some degree of opaqueness in government is to point towards the oasis of direct democracy.  Popular sovereignty is then used as an excuse as to why more people are not involved with public policy.  As if a mirror is held before the public only to be used by agents to deflect criticism from the system and redirect it towards the public itself.  The public should be more involved, but the book cleverly points out:

“…most citizens are not interested in making political decisions themselves or providing input to those who do or even knowing the intimate details of the decision-making process.”  (Page 83)

Transparency advocates fueled by internet e-gadgetry and magical “solutionism” bark back with the technical feasibility of keeping “in the loop.”  We can aggregate and digitize information into a palatable feed for the masses if we only adopt the latest algorithm backed app loaded device.

Thus, individuals in the know circumvent the system entirely to achieve their goals regardless of others.  “Decoupling” is one of three specific slights of hand currently employed by those affected by this transparency debate.  When individuals “decouple” they provide dummy information for the record and voice real intentions off record; it is our modern incarnation of Orwell’s “doublethink.”  With this, you can see the likes of Dick Cheney neurotically keeping his communications from the record by avoiding email and discussing top issues in person.  This type of leadership filters down to all levels of management.  Professionals project a public image for the record in the media and articulate differing views to direct constituents to achieve a consensus building not possible through absolute transparency.

The rise of youths using “Snapchat” shows how digital natives build igloos in a blizzard of “snowing” information.  More sunlight could melt the environment, or the climate may just be too cold to thaw.  Either way, the secrets passed among igloo dwellers evaporate into the ephemera of the present.  As an educator, the biggest concern of this complex approach to public discourse today threatens the preservation of history.  Consider our future leaders couching their boldest ideas in private conversation while our posterity picks through a heap of robotic talking points that dance around the truth.  How can progress truly be made if academia builds upon hollow scaffolding?

Then again, maybe all of this is an error.  Maybe the way we perceive information exchanges is false.  Information reductionism fools us into thinking that information can be distributed and received effortlessly, or transmitted like a product.

“The flawless and perfect communication process assumed by cybernetics simply doesn’t exist.”  (Page 88)

At the extreme we have the-medium-is-the-message style thinking that holds all information as connected to a web of life embedded in way more than the message, more than we will ever truly know.

JFK’s famous “ask not” speech can be interpreted today as ask what Google does for openness, not what openness does for Google?  In truth, Google does a lot of work to appear open and it will vehemently fight for openness among its competitors while at the same time concealing its true business plan from public view in such a calculated way as to profit nicely.

By page 94, the author starts to pick apart the generalized phrase of “open government.”

“…it’s not obvious whether we are talking about data that could make governments more ‘open’ – in the sense of reducing secrecy – or about innocent data that could be liberated from some obscure government archive where it has languished, with little to no effect on the political process and secrecy as such.  Does ‘open government’ refer to making train schedules and city maps more accessible?  Or does it refer to publishing data that could embarrass politicians and end careers?”

“When better train maps earn you points on human rights and secrecy indexes, something must be profoundly wrong with our scoring system.”  (Page 95)

In conclusion, the book presents a disturbing statistic about how people

“…chose not to report it [incidents of neighborhood crime], worried that higher crime statistics for their neighborhood would significantly reduce the value of their properties.”  (Page 98)

When we have a commerce that acts like a corporate neighborhood crime watch, in which the fear of falling profits prevents industry from regulating itself, we are left with weak enforcement and an illusion of accountability that is used chiefly to protect the most profitable status quo.

“…democracy thrives on compromise…”  (Page 99)

I am convinced information must be managed NOT served blindly.  The titans of information technology want humans to consume information as autonomously as our robots serve it to us, but just like with our obesity epidemic, a degree of prudence is needed and nothing but exercise and diet will right the course.  A magic weight loss pill is as crude a solution as total transparency and it ignores the intricate subtleties of consumption born of a material culture that exists in the real world.

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