A Net Skeptic’s Conservative Manifesto

Anti-tech grump Evgeny Morozov overstates his case.

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov, PublicAffairs, 415 pages, $28.99

Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, follows the same blueprint as his first book, 2011’s The Net Delusion. He takes the over-zealous ramblings of a handful of Internet evangelists, suggests that Pollyannas like them are all around us, and then argues, implausibly, that their very ideas threaten to undermine our culture or humanity in some fashion. Along the way, he doles out generous heapings of unremitting, snarky scorn.

In the earlier book, Morozov used this formula to challenge the hyper-optimism that has infused debates over the Internet’s role in advancing human freedom and even regime change. In To Save Everything, the target is the way people invoke “the Internet” as the cure-all to every problem under the sun.

Morozov rejects the idea that “technology can make us better,” and he rails against “technological solutionism,” defined here as “recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definitive, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized” through algorithms or other digital fixes. These include, among other things, efforts to improve politics and elections through digital transparency, efforts to shore up the publishing business via crowdsourcing, and the use of various self-tracking technologies to monitor and improve our personal health.

He castigates those who would engage in a “mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden,” cautions that “attaining technological perfection, without attending to the intricacies of the human condition and accounting for the complex world of practices and traditions, might not be worth the price,” and argues that solutionism “should be resisted, circumvented, and unlearned.” 

Morozov effectively pricks the bubble of irrational exuberance that has always accompanied new digital technologies. But as with his previous book, he refuses to quit while he’s ahead. Instead, he unsuccessfully labors to convince us that the very concept of “the Internet” holds no inherent meaning and that we have all been suffering from a sort of mass delusion about its existence. Worse yet, he offers only a limited and sometimes contradictory roadmap for building a better world and integrating new information technologies into it along the way. 

The result is a treatise that is difficult to embrace, despite its sagacious advice not to allow our tools to become ends in and of themselves. Morozov wants to make sure technology never trumps our humanity, but in the process he presents a vision of reality that is virtual at best. 

Morozov’s first mission in the book—one that he generally accomplishes—is to prove that changing the world for the better is damned hard, and that no amount of blustery tech boosterism can solve such difficult problems as overcoming tyrannical rulers, curing disease, reducing crime, ending hunger, or better educating children. With wicked wit and palpable glee, Morozov demolishes simplistic notions that technology is a magical elixir for the world’s worst maladies.

More profoundly, he cautions that the very act of trying to address these problems by reducing them to efficiency-enhancing algorithms is potentially dehumanizing. “We shouldn’t mistake the easy availability of quick technological fixes for their moral desirability,” he argues. No matter what the Net boosters say, good intentions plus cool technology does not always equal positive results.

Morozov’s enemies list in this regard hasn’t changed much since the previous book. There are villains from the business world (Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg), the commentariat (Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Kevin Kelly), and the government (former State Department Senior Advisor for Innovation Alex Ross). These and other techno-evangelists earn Morozov’s unrelenting scorn because, he claims, their brand of “Internet-centrism” has “mangled how we think about the past, the present, and the future of technology regulation” and has diverted us “from a more robust debate about digital technologies.”

But Morozov overstates things here considerably. There isn’t any lack of “robust debate” about digital technologies and how to think about or even regulate them. Name just about any information technology you can think of—broadband networks, social networks, email services, ecommerce sites, smartphones and their various apps, geolocation technologies, texting, Twitter—and you’ll find plenty of critics and regulatory proposals.

There has grown in recent years a veritable cottage industry of cyber-cranks who publish a constant stream of books and essays with titles like, “How the Internet Is Killing Our [fill in the blank].”  For every pundit guilty of overly exuberant Internet solutionism, you can find another guilty of over-simplified Internet victimization.

Morozov’s approach to technological criticism is somewhat unique in that it rejects all varieties of technological determinism, or the belief that—for better or for worse—technology drives history. There are “hard” and “soft” varieties of technological determinism that vary by the degree to which scholars believe technology shapes history. But Morozov doesn’t have much patience with any variant. He also doesn’t place much faith in the argument that human beings eventually adapt to new technological realities and gradually assimilate new tools into their lives. He equates such thinking with what he calls “technological defeatism,” or the belief that “resistance is futile.”

Mostly, Morozov doesn’t approve of the way these debates are framed because he doesn’t believe that “the Internet” even exists: It’s just a meaningless abstraction pushed on us by those utopian Net enthusiasts, he insists. The book is filled with scare quotes around concepts the author finds nonsensical: “Internet freedom,” “Internet values,” “online,” “marketplace,” “ideas,” “crowds,” “networks,” “social media,” “architecture,” “problems,” “solve problems,” “open,” “openness,” “open government,” “transparency,” and many others.

Morozov’s argument mimics the linguistic analysis of the term “technology” that the historian Leo Marx  set forth in essays such as “Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?” (1987) and “Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” (2010). Marx worried about “treating these inanimate objects—machines—as causal agents” and “invest[ing] the concept of technology with agency.” Strangely, Morozov never mentions Marx, even though he has borrowed the Marxian approach and applied it to the Internet.

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  • Warrren||

    Die Luddite!

  • Paul.||

    The cotton gin?

  • Hyperion||

    Tractors?

  • GILMORE||

    I officially think the Guy Fawkes thing should be renamed The "Hi! I'm a Douchebag!"-Mask

  • Paul.||

    Not sure why Reason gives space to these screeds. Not Adam Thierer, but Evgeny Morozov by way of Adam Thierer.

    These guys are always wrong... wrong on a Paul Ehrlich scale of wrong and the only reason (I suspect) they get any airtime is because their positions are so off the wall, that they are interesting by the fact that someone is actually willing to say it with a straight face.

    Mostly, Morozov doesn’t approve of the way these debates are framed because he doesn’t believe that “the Internet” even exists: It’s just a meaningless abstraction pushed on us by those utopian Net enthusiasts, he insists. The book is filled with scare quotes around concepts the author finds nonsensical: “Internet freedom,” “Internet values,” “online,” “marketplace,” “ideas,” “crowds,” “networks,” “social media,” “architecture,” “problems,” “solve problems,” “open,” “openness,” “open government,” “transparency,” and many others.

    Morozov is kind of right here, but for all the wrong reasons. The internet is a kind of abstraction that we apply meaning to. It's no different than "The Phone System" was to Victorian society (yeah yeah, "The Telephone merely represents the further erosion of the written word...") so nothing new there.

    "Internet freedom" is freedom. Just like the Journalist Shield law is the First Amendment.

  • ChrisO||

    He gets paid to write bullshit like that? Clearly, I went into the wrong line of work.

  • Hyperion||

    I keep thinking the same thing. I can just make up a bunch of bullshit and if it has an ideological slant that someone likes, or if it's just pure undocumented bullshittery, I can sell lots of books.

    Maybe I can write about how the Mayan calendar was actually upside down when they read it, and it was actually predicting the year of apocalypse as 2102! Fuck, I can sell that baby for the next 80 years!

  • Not a Libertarian||

    I thought Morozov was on the left of the political spectrum

    Also, was this book review not already posted weeks and weeks ago?

  • JWatts||

    Morozov is an editor for The New Republic and writes a column for Slate. He's definitely on the Left.

  • Hyperion||

    Well that explains a lot towards the luddite views.

  • rxc||

    "Progressives" are astoundingly conservative about changes that they do not agree with.

    And enviros are trying to accomplish the same goals as Morozov- to make it more expensive and inefficient to produce stuff. It is a fundamental postulate of progressivism that organized mass production by corporations is evil. The best sort of production is done by individuals, preferably sitting aroung an open fire, singing songs about oppression and liberation.

  • Hyperion||

    Morozov rejects the idea that “technology can make us better

    I didn't read any further than that.

    Well then, exactly what is it that can make us better? Scratching out a bigger hole to shit in after eating our fill of wild berries?

    Praying to the invisible sky gods?

  • JWatts||

    Well then, exactly what is it that can make us better? Scratching out a bigger hole to shit in after eating our fill of wild berries?

    No, but telling others where they can scratch out a hole to shit in and that it can't be bigger, definitely makes Statists feel better.

  • Mark22||

    That's not "conservative", it's just political FUD. That's as popular on the left as it is on the right, because it's the first step for justifying more useless regulation and restrictions. It's an extension of b.s. like "the middle class is getting poorer", "automation is going to make us all poor", and "killer drones are going to kill us all".

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