The Folly of Technological Solutionism: An Interview with Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov, a former denizen of the technology world, gained notoriety as a skeptic of that world with his 2010 book The Net Delusion, in which he argued that technology enthusiasts or “cyber ...

Evgeny Morozov, a former denizen of the technology world, gained notoriety as a skeptic of that world with his 2010 book The Net Delusion, in which he argued that technology enthusiasts or “cyber-utopians” had oversold the liberatory potential of the Internet. His latest book, the much-reviewed To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, continues in this vein, presenting a polemical critique of those who too readily embrace digital technology as a tool for freedom and democracy. This interview, conducted in person on May 18, 2013, in Cambridge, MA, pushes Morozov to clarify a number of the perspectives and analyses he develops in the course of the book.


I | Solutionism and its Discontents


Natasha Dow Schüll (NDS): In your book you write against what you call “technological solutionism”—an endemic ideology that recasts complex social phenomena like politics, public health, education, and law enforcement as “neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized—if only the right algorithms are in place!” How did you come to choose the phrase “technological solutionism” to describe the approach you’re criticizing?


EVGENY MOROZOV (EM): The analysis was there all along, but the idea of solutionism didn’t occur to me until the very end. I wrote most of the book in Belarus last summer, and when I was flying back to the States, reading about urban planning and architecture on the plane, I stumbled upon this word. I had been using the phrase “silicon mentality” but it didn’t have the same zing as “technological solutionism.” Solutionism travels very well—you see people taking it up and applying it in their own fields.


NDS: Aren’t human beings solutionist, technological creatures by nature? Do you really think it’s a historically specific, contemporary phenomenon?


EM: It’s a good point—that solutionism is part of our normal problem-solving apparatus. But clearly something has changed. I open the book by talking about the proliferation of sensors anywhere and everywhere, the portability of smart phones, the ubiquity of social networks, et cetera. A new problem-solving infrastructure is here; new types of solutions become possible that weren’t possible 15 years ago. The way in which we have redefined things like inefficiency or ambiguity or opacity as problematic has nothing to do with deep ideas about political philosophy (in the case of politics) or criminal justice (in the case of crime) but has to do instead with this wonderful new infrastructure for problem-solving: Why not introduce it to solve all these problems we can suddenly see? And so citizens are being asked to do things they previously didn’t have to do or didn’t have to worry about. So in that sense, I understand the current state of solutionism through the prism of the kind of problem-solving approaches that overtake governance.


NDS: So the new and concerning factor is not technological solutionism but the types of solutions available to us—or, as you just phrased it, our new “problem-solving infrastructure.” Your book is peppered with compelling descriptions of this infrastructure, showing how specific technologies shape our behavior and social world in certain ways. But how does this descriptive material square with your insistence that technologies should be regarded as the consequence and not the cause of our ideologies and values? The empirical substance of your critique appears to grant technology a more active role than you assign it in your analysis.


EM: The problem that I see is not just the fact that we have a lot of new technologies that suddenly have become much more powerful than they were 10, 15, even 100 years ago; the problem that I see is how those technologies are brought together under the umbrella of the “Internet” and are assumed to have a uniform, autonomous dynamic by which they ought to be understood and governed. My book is mostly a study of the discourse of Internet-centrism created by pundits and technology bloggers and cyberlawyers; that’s why there are so many quotes. But of course, if all I talked about was the discourse, then no one would buy it! So a lot of my focus on the technology and how it works had to do with pragmatic concerns as an author. That material is there so I don’t lose everyone by the last page; they need some food of high calories to sustain them as they struggle through the less appealing parts on the ideology and discourse. I emphasize the technology in my book tour events for the same reason—it’s what engages people. Internet-centrism is not something that you would be able to easily explain to a bunch of people over 70 who might show up, but you can talk to them about smart toothbrushes.


II | Games for Life


NDS: In your book you talk about the use of algorithms in the domains of finance, policing, consumer marketing, and the like. Do you think there’s value to pursuing an “ethics of algorithms,” which is a phrase that pops up in the discussion around Big Data?


EM: I don’t know if you can have an ethics of algorithms. It depends what you mean by “ethics.” What lawyers and philosophers often want to talk about is basically how to build an algorithm that is ethical, without questioning where and when you should build algorithms and where and when you shouldn’t build them. I think “algorithms” as envisioned by lawyers and philosophers is a very comfortable discursive frame: don’t ask questions about whether you should implement them in the first place—like surveillance algorithms—just talk about how to make them “ethical.” My point in the book is that the kind of ethical questions you have to address depend on what domain you’re looking at—because different questions and values are at stake in different domains. So if you ask me if I can think of an ethics that is applicable across domains, then the answer is no. If you ask me to think of a domain-specific ethics, then the answer is yes. To get at that specificity you need to know something about a particular case—you can’t deduce it from general principles.


NDS: Along those lines, in the book you imagine audit boards for algorithms, where people could deliberate on the merits of particular technological solutions. In that spirit, let’s consider smoking-cessation apps and devices: when you look closely at the behavioral assumptions that inform their design, there doesn’t actually appear to be a monolithic model of the human subject or even behavioral intervention at work—in fact, those things seem to be quite up for grabs. Smoking-cessation schemes run the gamut from reward incentivization to increasing awareness to behavioral nudges to titration programs. Do you take comfort in this diversity, or in your eyes do they all fall under the banner of technological solutionism?


EM: I have no interest in attributing any essence to gamification. Of course, different logics can be built into apps. But there are structural factors that I think a diversity of logics would not cure. In other words, if we focus on apps that regulate users at the expense of laws that regulate industries, then I have no problem lumping all those apps under one umbrella, because what they share is that they regulate the citizen rather than regulate the broader framework that the citizen is operating in.


NDS: You make a compelling case in the book that individualized solutions are dangerous because of the way they sidestep systemic reform and degrade our awareness of the context in which we live. But isn’t it possibly to “gamify” in a different direction? You describe Fat World as a game that can make people aware of the political-economic context and conditions for their behavior, and the role those conditions play in the behavior. So would it be right to say that you think there are good games and bad games?


EM: Games can certainly help people develop more complex narratives, more awareness of systemic factors, and they can be about health or about climate change. The point of “adversarial” game design or the kinds of “erratic appliances” I imagine in the book is to get you to think about the system without pushing you toward one solution or another. So it’s solutionist in the sense that it shakes things up and disrupts your current pattern of thinking and produces ideas that you may not otherwise have stumbled upon, and it presupposes that you are a learning subject who will then go and investigate different solutions—but it doesn’t necessarily force you to accept any one in particular; it doesn’t tell you you have to recycle, for example. Compare this to what people like Cass Sunstein want to do, which is to nudge you to perform a very specific action; he would put vegetables in front of you and not meat because the point of his “choice architecture” is to have you choose the former, not the latter. Or take the example of trash bins with cameras that give you points for your recycling performance: you don’t actually need to know why recycling is a good idea or develop any narrative about environmental change to play that game well—all you have to know is that earning points is good.


III | Quantified Narratives


NDS: You write in your chapter on the folly of the Quantified Self (QS) movement that “self-trackers gain too much respect for the numbers and forget that other ways of telling the story—and generating action out of it—are possible.”


EM: The QS movement essentially reduces everything to a single number and while you may learn how to adjust your behavior to that number, it doesn’t necessarily translate into any holistic understanding of the self who is behaving. So in a sense the person becomes a kind of a black box with an input and an output, but the user himself has no idea how the input relates to the output.


NDS: Do numbers always work against self-narration? I was just at a QS summit and there was a well-attended breakout session on self-tracking as self-narration. The defining activity of QS is its Show and Tell events, in which individual self-trackers get on stage and tell a story about what they tracked, what they learned, et cetera. In that case, aren’t numbers just an element in a narrative process? I worry that the QSers you quote—mainly from media reports—serve a bit too readily as straw men for your argument. I mean, it’s almost too easy to make fun of them as you do! I wonder what you might be missing by ignoring their actual practices.


EM: There’s no way I’m going to go spend time with them—I can’t stand them!


NDS: Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time with them lately and I can tell you that by and large they’re not converts to the neat, existentially impoverished thinking you resist. They start from the premise that human beings are fallible, inconsistent creatures rather than rational actors, and then they experiment with different ways of living with that fact. For the most part their experiments are deeply reflexive, and very often playful; their aim is not to plug in the numbers and strip life of its imperfections, surprises, and failures. You have no desire to spend time with these people, I grant you that—but don’t you think there can be poetry in numbers, and that you might have missed it in your account?


EM: I’m sure if I spent enough time with them I’d have a subtler account—but the goal in the book was not to understand the QS movement.


NDS: I’m not saying that was your goal—but you use QS in your argument, and in a way that risks missing what’s actually going on. I don’t want to overly ennoble QSers, but I dare say they sounded a lot like the radical self-doubters practicing the kind of “innovation in a different key” that you call for in the final paragraph of your book: “Only through radical self-doubt can solutionism transcend its inherent limitations.” They’re asking all the same kinds of questions that you are, actually, and they’re constantly “auditing” their own algorithms, to use your language.


EM: You’re right that maybe it’s unfair to judge QS by its manifestos, but given that I’m more interested in the discourse and the idea of the Internet, I chose to rely on the manifestos of Quantified Self luminaries as one way to examine that. In those manifestos, I see the narrative imagination dropping out. When I talk about the narrative imagination dropping out, I’m talking about narratives of our relationship with the system—our self-understanding as political subjects. And I’m talking about how numeric, nonsystemic understandings of the self can be co-opted by health care providers or governments or the food industry, who think that posting calories on all their products relieves them of the responsibility of cutting back on sugar, et cetera.

Nest thermostat caters the temperature of your home to your schedule. Flickr / Nest

Nest thermostat caters the temperature of your home to your schedule. Flickr / Nest

IV | Left to Our Own Devices


Let me ask a personal question: judging from online photos, it appears that you recently lost quite a bit of weight. Did you do any self-tracking to accomplish that, or not?


EM: That was my challenge: to try to lose weight without tracking myself. It was my promotional activity for the book! I lost 80 pounds, and I haven’t gained that weight back in about six months.


NDS: So if getting in shape was your goal, how did you achieve it?


EM: One aspect was a very radical and strict diet—I stopped eating meat, I don’t eat bread, I don’t eat cheese, I don’t eat pasta, I don’t eat sugar. And I do three hours of exercise a day; I row and I run on the elliptical, and I have the equipment in my apartment so I don’t have to go anywhere—and I do other things while I’m exercising, like reading newspapers on my iPad or watching movies on a projector.


NDS: Have you ever tracked things like your time use, for productivity purposes? You’re a prolific writer and I’m curious if there’s any system behind that.


EM: A few years ago I tried using RescueTime [a productivity-tracking software program], which tracks everything I do online, but I never bothered to look at the stats. What has helped me is my safe. Do you know about my safe?


NDS: Tell me about your safe.


EM: Well, some people think it’s very perverse. I bought a safe on eBay with a timed combination lock that lets me preset when it opens and closes. So I can lock my phone and my Internet cable in there and have no way to get online—unless I open a panel with a screwdriver, and so I also lock all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. And that’s how I get work done. I can easily resist on my own—it just takes effort, so what I’m doing is saving cognitive effort: I don’t have to say “no” to myself every 30 minutes when I feel like going to check my email. Why should I do that if I can just use this material artifact to prevent those distracting questions from happening? Why should I have an internal battle with myself?


NDS: Okay, but how does this system not participate in the kind of self-binding logic that underpins a lot of the nudges and apps that you criticize in your book?


EM: I’ve had the safe for about a year and lately I’ve been trying to think how it fits with my philosophy. And I think it actually fits—because in a sense the very decision to put something in my safe is an act of … courage, or will, whatever language you want to use.


NDS: But isn’t that a perfect example of a technological solution in which the individual is saddled with the burden of problem-solving and attention is deflected away from systemic conditions?


EM: The critique that you could advance in the case of my safe is that instead of tackling the ideological foundation of ubiquitous communication—instead of going and fighting with Google and Facebook and my Internet provider for creating a system where my only option is to use a safe, and getting them to take down Wi-Fi routers everywhere so that we have Wi-Fi-free zones, I actually use the safe and do nothing to change the larger context. So there is a way in which the safe depoliticizes me by privatizing the solution. You could say that building myself a safe is a really neoliberal kind of approach to problem solving—it’s like a gated community at the level of my self.


NDS: So, in the end, can you make your safe fit with your philosophy or not?


EM: This is where I think my celebration of imperfection and democracy allows me an escape because I’m using the time I’m saving with my safe to actually write the text with which to criticize solutions like my safe! So that’s how I get out of it philosophically.


V | Disrupting the Foundations


NDS: You end your book with a call for small-scale, empirical studies and “subtle accounts” of everyday life. Being an anthropologist, I much appreciated this. Can we expect this kind of work from you in the future? Perhaps an ethnography of trash-bin cameras and the human practices they engender?


EM: Somebody will have to do it—but it won’t be me! So why do I keep calling for close empirical studies and not delivering them myself? It’s a fair question. The way I see it, if my book had been full of those kinds of empirical studies, it would have lost the breadth of its argument and simply wouldn’t have been as widely read.


NDS: So what’s next for you? You recently started a PhD program in the History of Science at Harvard. Are you already working on something new in connection with that?


EM: I have contracts for two more books. One will be short and polemical, on the future of public space and the implications of things like drones, smart cars, and sensors. The other one, which will also be my PhD dissertation, will be a much more serious book that will take me five or six years to finish, on the history of the Internet and digital culture from the 1940s. I want the project to completely disrupt the foundations of the things I’ve been critiquing thus far. There is a limit to how much you can accomplish by showing the costs of Internet-centrism in all the different domains I’ve examined in my books—foreign policy, consumer regulation, public space, et cetera; to go further, I have to show its origins, and to do that I have to trace the histories of terms like “Internet” and “cyberspace” and “virtual reality”—histories that are longer than we think.


NDS: What led you to pursue a PhD?


EM: It was a lot of factors. Mainly, I was getting too successful! I needed something to tie me down, otherwise the temptations would just be too great—if I didn’t have a seminar to go to I would be somewhere in a very nice place, with no obligations.


NDS: So the PhD programs functions like your safe, at the level of your whole self.


EM: Yes! It’s like my safe—exactly. icon

Featured image: Evgeny Morozov; Wikimedia Commons / Chatham House