To Critique Everything, Click Here
I have a few weeks where I am slightly less busy than usual, and I have chosen to spend some of that time reading Evgeny Morozov’s latest book To Save Everything, Click Here rather than do other things which I probably should be doing. But I’m unrepentant.
The book moves quickly, skimming over a lot of material in almost a Žižekian manner, but returning often to the two big concepts of the book, solutionism and Internet-centrism. There are several excellent reviews where they are explained and examined: Tom Slee’s is worth reading for the summary, but even more interesting is his reading of solutionism as a type of “central planning by another name,” where a given product enforces Silicon Valley ideas even while they claim they are coming from the bottom up.
This is Slee’s reading of the term, I think, but it is not quite clear, since his review can also be read as attributing it to Morozov, which would be strange since I seem to remember that he often expresses skepticism towards the fetish for “bottom-up” organizing and their potential to replace traditional institutions. Regardless of where it came from, I found myself disagreeing with the claim that solutionists have co-opted a genuine democratic vision for their own top-down ends.
The point that I take from some of the examples in the book, like the way that the design of Twitter Trends embeds a certain vision of how civic discourse should function, is that it is not really possible to create a bottom-up structure which neutrally and perfectly reflects the public’s feelings, thoughts and wishes. The idea that we can do this is part of the ideology of solutionism, and it should be noted, of the free market as well.
Another useful commentary on the book is Alexis Madrigal’s review in The Atlantic. I was particularly struck by this concern about the politics of the book:
my main worry is that solutionism, even accepting Morozov’s framing, contains some elements worth preserving. Indeed, there is a reading of this book (an unkind one, for sure) that finds it deeply anti-progressive and almost frighteningly supportive of the status quo in politics and elsewhere.
It’s not totally clear what this means—does Madrigal believe that solutionism is the only progressive or reform-minded political vision, and becoming skeptical of it is tantamount to defending the status quo? Hard to say. We can find some clues when he argues that encouraging the public to doubt the authority of Silicon Valley software developers might have some harmful effects. When we doubt the authority of scientists, we get climate change skepticism—might there be some other forms of public resistance to taking action if we lose faith in solutionism?
It’s an interesting question and in general it’s worth asking what would happen without solutionism. But the logic is also a bit confused, because Silicon Valley’s false populist rhetoric is the one worst offenders when it comes to spreading fear and mistrust of all public institutions and forms of authority, including science. If we lost faith in solutionism’s promise of individual empowerment through technologically-mediated personal choices, we might go back to trying to solve our collective problems collectively, perhaps through political means.
Madrigal repeats his worry in the conclusion of the review, wondering how Morozov’s book will be used to support social and political injustice, and asking us to imagine how these words would be misused:
That so much of our cultural life is inefficient or that our politicians are hypocrites or that bipartisanship slows down the political process or that crime rates are not yet zero—all of these issues might be problematic in some limited sense, but they do not necessarily add up to a problem worth solving.
What he means is a mystery to me. How would regarding these as false problems be used to support injustice? This might sound like a boring, grading-your-paper critique (“Your essay would be stronger if you went into more detail here…”) but this isn’t the point. I think many people buy into solutionism not necessarily out of a rational assessment that it would be effective, where they would be amenable to the factual counter-arguments of Morozov and others. They believe in solutionism perhaps for negative reasons, because it offers an alternative to the perceived futility of politics. The task then is to argue for why we should believe in politics again.
Nonbelief in politics may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Usually we think that institutional ineffectiveness and failure leads to public skepticism, but what if causation works the other way? Widespread doubts about the legitimacy of institutions as such may be what causes them to fail. One of the most harmful myths spread by anti-institutional thinkers is that institutions are completely isolated from public opinion, they are simply self-sustaining bureaucracies that care nothing for popular legitimacy.
This belief is perversely self-fulfilling. If the public is trained to think that supporting an institution is unthinkable, then of course institutions become immune to public opinion. Why should they waste their time pursuing something which we insist that we will never give? Why should institutions adapt to the needs of a public that claims it will accept nothing short of their destruction?
Anti-institutionalists love to exploit the gap between the institution and the public, implying some kind of authoritarianism because they are “closed”, meaning that we as members of the public cannot directly participate in the decision-making process. Openness eliminates this gap, allowing us to participate directly, usually through some kind of algorithmic process: Yelp computes the quality of a restaurant with our ratings, Google calculates the quality of web pages by counting links to them, and so on.
We’re told that directly representing the public to itself and overcoming the gap between public and institution is a great victory for democracy, but I think it comes disturbingly close to fascism. In a democracy, we are able to dissent from the decisions that are made on our behalf because our institutions do not directly represent our desires and beliefs. Politicians and administrators do not know exactly what “the People” want, so they are forced to guess. This makes any decision provisional, and amenable to re-evaluation if it turns out that the politicians guessed incorrectly or it was just a bad idea. Because of the gap, the public can always object and say “But that’s not what we wanted!”
The solutionist goal is to represent public will as empirical knowledge, eliminating the ambiguity that makes dissent possible. Yelp’s restaurant reviews are unassailable, Google’s search results cannot be doubted. There is nothing provisional about this representation of public will, they remove our chance to say “We didn’t mean that.”
(We can make a connection here to the Lacanian topic of the decline of the Symbolic order, an order which is operative only insofar as it remains virtual. Any concrete policy that could be said to have broad public support is implicitly founded on the authority of the Public Will which is assumed to exist, but is never actual, never quite represented directly—it is a fiction that we believe in, not something we know. Solutionists want to eliminate this fiction, and put it place a new, improved version of the voice of the people that is grounded in hard data—the empirical people rather than the merely Symbolic people—but this may have the unexpected effect of destroying “the People” as such.
Morozov makes a related point when he cites Canadian legal scholar Ian Kerr to argue that situational crime prevention methods—those that try to make crime simply impossible rather than a matter of observing ethical and legal prohibitions—attempt to automate human virtue and thus run the risk of eliminating the possibility of cultivating a moral conscience. Although seemingly unrelated to the previous example, it has the same pattern of undermining the Symbolic (law, authority, ethical duty) in favor of physical/empirical reality.)
Solutionist technologies register our choices when we aren’t thinking about their broader impact. If I review a restaurant on Yelp, they want me to think about one experience I had and shared it to help someone else decide where to go to dinner, but what if that restaurant goes out of business partly as a result of my negative review? Is that what I wanted? In the worldview of technologically-mediated openness and participation, the answer is yes.
We didn’t know it at the time, but I and a few dozen other diners apparently “decided” to shut them down, and there is no possibility of objecting—it’s what “the People” wanted, after all, and Yelp is neutrally representing it. There is no chance of revisiting that decision later, maybe while thinking of a broader set of issues than whether the entrée was served hot.
The problem is not unique to Yelp—any wisdom-of-the-crowds solutionist approach suffers from a similar deficit. We generate data that’s fed into an algorithm whose inner workings and outcomes are not transparent to us or in our control, and this is celebrated as ‘peer progressivism’ or other nonsense. We are definitely not asked to give opinions about the outcome, and to justify those opinions with reasons.
Silicon Valley culture is famously averse to deliberation, preferring efficient meetings with a standardized, preset agenda and participants who stand rather than sit—the seductive comforts of a chair encourage too much blabbing and take time away from the truly important work of writing code.
To Save Everything makes a similar observation about how solutionism downgrades the importance of debate in favor of problem-solving:
So many geeks are impatient with politics because they think that it involves nothing but talk. For them, deliberation is the cancer in the body of modern democracy, and it would be so much more productive to replace talk with action, with doing things, for all this chatter is of little to no use. After all, no great apps have ever come out of a committee meeting.
Morozov’s book does an excellent job of laying out its assumptions and beliefs, summarizing academic literature to argue that those assumptions may be badly mistaken, and then concluding that the geeks are trying to solve problems that they don’t really understand and show an appalling lack of interest in learning more. So it’s tempting to see solutionism as a worldview forged in Silicon Valley that has insinuated itself in our social and political life.
But I don’t think that the geeks necessarily have a genuine interest in this worldview. Silicon Valley has many apologists—Kevin Kelly, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Lawrence Lessig, Jeff Jarvis, Chris Anderson, and so on—but from what I can tell, none have a background as a software developer or founder of any startups, much less successful ones1. Stewart Brand, founder of the WELL, stands out as an exception.
These authors are certainly influential in Silicon Valley, but we should be careful to understand that their function is not only about promoting the geek solutionist manifesto to a broader audience. It is also to explain to geeks how to design and market successful products that fit into the ideological assumptions of American culture.
It has probably always been this way. Silicon Valley was influenced by 60s counterculture partly because some prominent hackers were involved in both scenes, but also because the computer industry was widely viewed as a tool of the military-industrial complex and that was an impediment to their business goals. Associating with the hippie movement was more of a strategic marketing move than legitimate interest in psychedelic drugs and opposing the Vietnam War.
Then as now, they could see which way the wind was blowing, today with the aid of Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky and all others. The geeks see politics as nothing but talk, reject institutions of all kinds, propose solutions that “cut through partisan gridlock” and use frames like “Washington” vs. “average voters” because those are compelling message to large parts of the American public. It can’t be an accident that solutionists extol the wonders of peer production and the forgotten voluntary sector supposedly solving problems that are beyond the reach of both Big Government and Big Business in the same period when Western governments are using the same logic to cut social spending and farm out those responsibilities to charities and volunteers.
I don’t want to overstate the case, and say that solutionism only passively reflects American culture as a whole, because there are some aspects that are unique to geek subculture, like the impulse towards technocracy, self-quantification and others. And of course Silicon Valley promoters do influence the culture by amplifying ideas that advance the industry’s economic interests over the ones that don’t.
But one fact that favors the idea that solutionism isn’t quite the geek worldview is that—apologies to Evgeny—his book will probably not be widely read in Silicon Valley. If the geeks were sincerely committed to the premises of solutionism, we would expect them to engage with a prominent critic, if only to try to debunk him. But so far I haven’t seen too much of that, and I think that’s because showing the absurdity of solutionism as an idea doesn’t necessarily change its efficacy as a marketing tool.
It might sound as if I’m downplaying the significance of solutionism by saying that it is merely marketing, but in fact it’s the opposite. The fact that solutionism is a type of marketing suggests that Morozov’s critique touches on a set of beliefs that are more deeply entrenched than just in Silicon Valley.
To put it in theoretical terms, is solutionism an ideology in the conventional sense of a doctrine or a belief system? Or is it ideology in the Marxist sense, a set of widely accepted beliefs which appear as commonsense and obviously true, as “non-ideological” in the first sense? I claim it is more importantly the latter.
- On Twitter, Evgeny told me that in fact, many technology pundits are involved in startups. This is true. For example, Steven Berlin Johnson founded Outside.in, a hyperlocal news startup. However, I don't think it disproves my point, which is that these pundits did not emerge out of Silicon Valley, i.e. they didn't begin as successful entrepreneurs who later turned to advocacy—SBJ had already published four books before he founded Outside.in. At any rate, I can make the point in a slightly different way. Here are the Top 200 Twitter users most followed by Hacker News members, a list that's dominated by famous developers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who now have an intellectual function. Of the pundits I mentioned, only Clay Shirky and Lawrence Lessig appear on the list at all, at #93 and #176 respectively. It's interesting to note that most of the prominent open source software advocates did start out as software developers. ↩