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It remains unclear just how far Morozov would go to defeat “the cult of efficiency” that he says haunts us. Would he join Oakeshott in insisting that “the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator”—in other words, applying the precautionary principle to technological change? Morozov’s solutionism of “erratic appliances” and “technological troublemakers” would certainly constitute a preemptive, precautionary approach to digital regulation, should anyone attempt to apply them.
But in the end Morozov seems more interested in changing cultural norms than public policy. He aims to be the father of friction, inspiring a new generation of social critics and technology developers to intentionally complicate the network of networks that shall never be called the Internet. “Technology is not the enemy; our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who resides within,” he proclaims in his final paragraph.
Would the world really be a better place without any “romantic and revolutionary” thinking? Would the benefits of skepticism outweigh the cost of cutting dreamers off at the knees? Morozov seems to think so, but one wonders what the world would look like if we all adopted his Mr. Techno-Grumpy Pants attitude and stopped trying to make the world a better place with technology.
Perhaps there is a middle ground here: We can jeer at over-zealous techno-solutionism while still cheering on solution-seeking. There’s no reason to stop trying to fix hard problems in the name of clipping some tech evangelists’ wings.
This more practical disposition toward technological change is what author Matt Ridley calls “rational optimism.” At a macro level, the rational optimist is generally bullish about the future and the prospects for humanity but is not naive about the challenges associated with technological change. At the micro level, the rational optimist seeks practical solutions to intractable problems through constant experimentation and learning through trial and error, but is not wedded to any one process or particular technology to get the job done.
This is the approach seen in the works of Herman Kahn, Julian Simon, F.A. Hayek, Aaron Wildavsky, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Virginia Postrel. These thinkers are optimistic about the role technology played in advancing social and economic progress, but their optimism is rooted in empiricism and rational inquiry, not blind faith in any particular viewpoint or ideology. Rational optimists don’t hold an unthinking allegiance to technology as an autonomous force or savior to civilization’s woes. Indeed, the blueprint that rational optimists offer is not utopian but anti-utopian: Precisely because difficult problems defy easy solutions, we should look to devise a plurality of strategies to tackle them. New technological innovations might be among those strategies, but not the only ones we rely on.
Rational optimists would not discourage dreaming and daring, however. If those “romantic and revolutionary problem solvers” want to give it a go, then more power to them. Some of that entrepreneurial activity will yield socially beneficial results. Far more importantly, it would likely produce many failures, and society would then learn from those mistakes and improve future experiments accordingly.
The goal is not to “save everything” with “the folly of technological solutionism.” Rather, it is to seek to solve some problems through the application of practical knowledge to social challenges, via incessant experimentation with the new and different approaches to hard problems. Sometimes technology—even Morozov’s dreaded “Internet”—can and will play an important role in that process. We shouldn’t let his or anybody else’s relentless pessimism get in the way of that.
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