Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Problem with Critique: On Evgeny Morozov's new book

[Update: Okay, perhaps I should say this upfront.  This is not a review of Morozov's book; rather it's a set of reflections on what we do as STS scholars based on two really outstanding reviews of Morozov's book.  I've made some minor changes to reflect this.] 

Evgeny Morozov's new book, "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism" is out.  There's a bunch of reviews out there and out of those I'd suggest two: Tom Slee's on his eponymous website, and Alexis Madrigal's at The Atlantic.  They're both very different in tone and content, yet I think they capture the essence of Morozov's argument (I haven't read the book yet!), both in terms of its strengths and its problems.**

Reflecting on what Slee and Madrigal say about the book, I found myself thinking about STS scholarship in general.  Morozov is particularly against Internet-centric solutionism which usually ends up using an approach that, as Slee rightly observes is often an application of "engi­neer­ing, neu­ro­science, [and] an under­stand­ing of incen­tives (in the nar­rowly util­i­tar­ian sense)."  But what ends up happening though in this criticism of solutionism is that, as both Slee and Madrigal point out, Morozov ends up using tropes that are usually used by conservatives--and worse, by reactionaries. 

And then there is the idea of critique itself.  It was illuminating to read that Morozov is actually inspired by what historians of science have done to their topic, that he wants to destroy "the Internet" the same way STS scholars have destroyed "science" as a natural category.  As Madrigal (using Paul Rabinow) rightly points out, this destruction of science is all but unnoticed outside the human sciences.  Actual working scientists are hardly aware of it, and if they were, they would just shrug and carry on with their work. It isn't that science studies hasn't been revolutionary--but it has been revolutionary within the humanities and social sciences.  It's almost as if freed from the cultural authority that science enjoyed, we, the human sciences--sociology, history, anthropology, literary studies--can now discover, analyze, and understand, on our own terms.  But their influence on science itself and even more importantly, on public life, has been minimal.

And I'm afraid something similar might happen with Morozov.  Some people will read Morozov's book, it might even change some people's minds but Silicon Valley solutionism will carry on as it did before.

The more I think about it, the more I real­ize that the late Richard Rorty had it right. He con­sis­tently upheld the poet, the nov­el­ist, and the politi­cian as roles that are higher than a philosopher–higher he said, because they are the ones who expand or change ideas about human­ness. The problem with Morozov (and with science studies) is that they are stuck at the level of philosophy or critique.  Critique is good, but critique is not the same as doing things.  Even Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though dated as a science studies text, points out that a scientific paradigm is never discarded unless an option is available; old paradigms fall only because new ones appear and until a new one does appear, an old paradigm can carry on with infinite ad-hoc additions to itself.  Morozov doesn't provide that paradigm; even if he does, he provides it in the spirit of critique and that may not work because the people he is arguing with are not in the business of critique.  They are in the business of doing things and while it may be a Silicon-Valley-corporate-profit-driven thing, it still manages to shift people's ideas and experiences in the way that critique does not.  STS scholarship has the same problem. 

Can critique change things?   Again, it's useful to go back to Rorty who points out that certainly something came of the attack on the canon in the 60s and 70s.  Attuned to ideas about race, class and gender, literary theorists went back into the past and re-discovered books that had been neglected because they had not been written by dead white men.  Today, these books, like Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God are no longer just texts in graduate seminars; they are now on school syllabi and increasingly read by school-children.  In that sense, the critique of the canon has indeed borne fruit.  Will critiques like Morozov's and other STS-type critiques yield something similar in the future?  And what will that be?  Only time will tell.


**Slee is good at describing the intellectual moves Morozov makes in his effort to take down Internet Triumphalism.
Moro­zov under­takes two projects, one suc­cess­fully and one less so. The first is to pro­vide a frame­work in which to think about the new inven­tions that are being sold to us, and the pat­terns of thought behind them. [...] Moro­zov iden­ti­fies a twin-tracked ide­ol­ogy behind the inven­tions and inven­tive­ness of the dig­i­tal world. One track is “Internet-centrism” – the prac­tice of “tak­ing a model of how the Inter­net works and apply­ing it to other endeav­ours”. Writ­ers have imbued the Inter­net with “a way of work­ing”; it has a “grain” to which we must adapt; it has a cul­ture, a “way it is meant to be used”, and it comes with a mythol­ogy in which iTunes and Wikipedia become mod­els to think about the future of pol­i­tics, and Zynga is a model for civic engage­ment (15). The sec­ond track is “solu­tion­ism”: the recast­ing of social sit­u­a­tions as prob­lems with def­i­nite solu­tions; processes to be opti­mized (23).
Moro­zov does a fine job of artic­u­lat­ing Internet-centrism and solu­tion­ism as two facets of a sin­gle Sil­i­con Val­ley ide­ol­ogy, [...] The com­mon assump­tions, shared biases, and indi­vid­u­al­is­tic predil­ic­tions give a cohe­sive­ness and homo­gene­ity to the new ideas and inven­tions, actively con­struct­ing and shap­ing the dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment from which they claim to draw their inspi­ra­tion. The insis­tence on “dis­rupt­ing” our social and envi­ron­men­tal lives; the idea that the solu­tions inspired by and enabled by the Inter­net mark a clean break from his­tor­i­cal pat­terns, a never-before-seen oppor­tu­nity – these mean that the only lessons to learn from his­tory are those of pre­vi­ous tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tions. The view of soci­ety as an institution-free net­work of autonomous indi­vid­u­als prac­tic­ing free exchange makes the social sci­ences, with the excep­tion of eco­nom­ics, irrel­e­vant. What’s left is engi­neer­ing, neu­ro­science, an under­stand­ing of incen­tives (in the nar­rowly util­i­tar­ian sense): just right for those whose intel­lec­tual pre­dis­po­si­tions are to algo­rithms, design, and data struc­tures.
Slee thinks that Morozov's analysis of the "solutionism" that he sees coming from the Valley is less satisfying,.
Morozov’s approach to unpick­ing the hid­den assump­tions of solu­tion­ism, and the unpalat­able con­se­quences of its appli­ca­tion, is impres­sive but less suc­cess­ful. In order to avoid a blan­ket technopes­simism he makes two moves. The first is to adopt a broadly social con­struc­tion­ist approach to the world of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. The Inter­net does not shape us, it is shaped by the soci­ety in which it is grow­ing. He is with Ray­mond Williams, against Mar­shall McLuhan. His stance here is blunt: he refuses to see “the Inter­net” as an agent of change, for good or bad. “The Inter­net” is not a cause; it does not explain things, it is the thing that needs to be explained. Chap­ter 2 is titled The Inter­net Tells Us Noth­ing (Because It Doesn’t Actu­ally Exist).

The sec­ond, more sur­pris­ing move, is to adopt a cri­tique that was first described in a pejo­ra­tive sense by Albert Hirschmann. “In his influ­en­tial book The Rhetoric of Reac­tion, Hirschmann argued that all pro­gres­sive reforms usu­ally attract con­ser­v­a­tive crit­i­cisms that build on one of the fol­low­ing three themes: per­ver­sity (whereby the pro­posed inter­ven­tion only wors­ens the prob­lem at hand), futil­ity (whereby the inter­ven­tion yields no results what­so­ever), and jeop­ardy (whereby the inter­ven­tion threat­ens to under­mine some pre­vi­ous, hard-earned accom­plish­ment)” (6). Moro­zov does not see him­self as a con­ser­v­a­tive, but instead places him­self in the tra­di­tion of other thinkers who have stood against pro­grams of orga­nized effi­ciency; “Jane Jacobs... Michael Oakeshott [and] ... James Scott "
Madrigal in his Atlantic review does a great close-reading of passages of the book to show that Morozov arguments are often high-ideology.  Which means that he often counters the ideological set-pieces that Silicon Valley types routinely use--visions of a future where a certain technology seems to solve all our problems--with one of his own that paints a completely opposite picture.  And as Madrigal goes on to note, he's really good at it except that at some point, he loses sight of real people doing real things.  This analysis is worth quoting because it is an example of how one can write a fine, principled, rigorous piece of criticism while still basically agreeing with the author on the important things:
Morozov's book is an innovation- and product-centered account of the deployment of technology. It focuses on marketing rhetoric, on the stories Silicon Valley tells about itself. And it refutes these stories with all the withering contempt that a brilliant person can muster over the course of a few years of dedicated reading and writing. But it does not devote any time to the stories the bulk of technology users tell themselves. It relies on wild anecdotes from newspaper accounts as if they were an adequate representation of the user base of these technologies. In fact, the sample is obviously biased by reporters writing about the people who sound the most out there.

"Celebrating quantification in the abstract, away from the context of its use, is a pointless exercise," Morozov writes, and yet he ends up doing excoriating quantification in the abstract. When he does apply his thinking to the specific case of nutrition aids, it is with some serious handwaving. Calories are not an adequate measure of overall nutrition content, he writes, and thinking narrowly about nutritional content is a boon for food companies, and maybe calories aren't even really the problem. All fine and valid ideas, but knowing how many calories you eat is a good starting point for good health, no? This has been well-established by the medical and public-health literature. And, in any case, tracking one's caloric intake is not a search for a "core and stable self." And if your calorie counter doesn't share your data, it could be a private practice. What if you write it in a book as has been done for decades, or in the iPhone's notes, rather than an official app? Is that OK? What about non-tweeting scales, are those anathema as well? Should the ethical concerns Morozov presents really prevent actual human beings from trying to understand the basics of their food intake?

Or take the use of pedometers, gussied up into packages like the Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up, or Fitbit. There are literally hundreds of thousands of pedometers and other activity monitors out there in America, but Morozov does not try to investigate how such devices are used. Are the people buying FitBits and Nike Fuel Bands trying to reveal deep inner truths about themselves? Are they sharing every bit and bite with friends? Or are they trying to lose a few pounds in private?

Look at what Amazon can tell you about the market for these devices: people who bought FitBits recently also bought diet books, scales, and multivitamins. While Morozov locates self-tracking "against the modern narcissistic quest for uniqueness and exceptionalism," it strikes me that I've yet to meet someone wearing a fitness tracker who wasn't engaged in that least unique American activity: weight management.

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