Book Talk – Chapter 9
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by Evgeny Morozov
“Smart Gadgets, Dumb Humans”
If our gadgets extend us, then are they also under moral obligation? Apparatuses, or devices of technology that we interact with, classically viewed as tools or institutions or concepts and other abstract cultural creations, fluidly extend humans by extending our bodies, abilities, and effects. Prosthetic limbs replace our bodies, prescription glasses improve eyesight, so on and so forth, and yet at what point do we concede that what constitutes “a person” includes such an apparatus.
Access to a daily planner, a calculator or calender, to know the time even requires use of an apparatus, particularly under Western cultural terms. Punctuality or mathematical accuracy are signs of work ethic and intelligence. If new technology can exploit an advantage in gaining the appearance of extra effort, then are we to blame the lack of equal apparatus opportunity or do we assimilate this layer of bias and once again judge our situations as “un-effected” by the apparatus relationship.
Bruno Latour also starts the opening quote for chapter 9 with, “The moral law is in our hearts, but it is also in our apparatuses.” The same apparatuses that help us sleep so soundly. Furthermore, does this mean that your cloud data storage can be considered a part of your working mind and should be held accountable for the same moral responsibilities of your own. We can have seamless product experiences like fast food dining and longer battery life on a gadget that charges wirelessly, and we can force upon these products programmed restrictions like calorie totals and recycling plans, but when do we institute Asimov’s laws of robotics?
It seems as though our apparatuses are spared moral agency at the risk of future manufacturers producing a refrigerator that refuses to preserve meat products, or at least keep our technology less than human so as to assuage our worries over their perceived enslavement. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man under Socialism:
The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. (1891)
Meanwhile on page 326, Swedish designers seek to “discourage unthinking ideological assimilation and promote skepticism by increasing the poetic distance between people and products.”
From “erratic appliances” that draw attention to their energy consumption, to Germany’s Folkwang University of Arts and transformational products like the “caterpillar” extension cord and “forget me not” lamp:
Today, to engineer is to create a product in thy image. In the words of Henry Petroski, to engineer is human. Thus, what we engineer is an extension of us. Our bridges are but framing of our ships.
“The art project was meant to get observers to reflect on the potentially high but invisible costs of unchecked economic growth: it’s somewhat odd that the rubber tree plant, indigenous to Southeast Asia and ‘ a symbol of life and ecology,’ has become ‘trapped inside a synthetic ecosystem, awaiting the arcane results of the NYSE.'” (Page 330)
“All of these are open-ended questions that do not easily lend themselves to straightforward nudging, self-tracking, and game-ification.” (Page 336)
” … our information habits are not very different from our energy habits: spend too much time getting all your information from various news aggregators and content farms who merely repackage expensive content produced by someone else, and you might be killing the news industry in a way not dissimilar from how leaving gadgets in the standby mode might be quietly and unnecessarily killing someone’s carbon offsets.” (Page 337)
“Projects that pursue the ‘right thing’ should always have a way through which the very definition of what counts as the ‘right thing’ can be challenged and subverted. Some of this happens anyway as users find a way to hack into their own devices. But this is not enough; designers and technologists should embrace the idea that their goal is not limited to making people use their devices; it’s also to make people think with their devices.” (Page 338)
If our kids are twerking and twitching to score the most points on Zamzee devices instead of playing with their energy allergic caterpillars, then maybe future generations will be healthy, athletically fit and environmentally conscientious. And all of this can be purchased. But as if our youth forgot how to subvert the system. To fake your guardian into thinking you brushed your teeth is like using Snapchat.
The fashion of tomorrow will most likely incorporate subversive elements of public disguise in hope of avoiding algorithmic cameras. Kentucky Derby day hats and outlandish church bonnets, hairstyles that obscure points of recognition, all add to our layering of masks. Our faces are covered by apparatuses.
When muckrakers become muck-gamers and the museums of the 21st century start showcasing replica designs of old websites and printing tracts of mindless Internet content, the thought of placing constraints on technological progress will be permanently unchecked.
Bernard Crick is quoted as saying, “Boredom with established truths is a great enemy of free men.”
“…the question is not whether constraints should exist at all, but how to locate them in a way that most effectively promotes all aspects of human flourishing. Wherever they are located, they will be challenged, but that does not necessarily make all constraints illegitimate.” (Page 346)
To grab life by the knobs, we must gain access to the knobs…
“…if we start with the premise that being in command of your own ship is constitutive of being human.” (Page 349)