Technological Solutionism and the Perils of Perfection!

Dear Commons Community,

Evgeny Morozov, the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. has a featured article in today’s New York Times, providing commentary on the hubris of Silicon Valley technology companies that purport to be able to solve all of life’s problems by providing an app or some other tech solution.  As an example of Morozov’s position:

“Recent debates about Twitter revolutions or the Internet’s impact on cognition have mostly glossed over the fact that Silicon Valley’s technophilic gurus and futurists have embarked on a quest to develop the ultimate patch to the nasty bugs of humanity. If they have their way, no individual foibles would go unpunished — ideally, technology would even make such foibles obsolete.

Even boredom seems to be in its last throes: designers in Japan have found a way to make our train trips perpetually fun-filled. With the help of an iPhone, a projector, a GPS module and Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor, their contrivance allows riders to add new objects to what they see “outside,” thus enlivening the bleak landscape in their train windows. This could be a big hit in North Korea — and not just on trains.

Or, if you tend to forget things, Silicon Valley wants to give you an app to remember everything. If you occasionally prevaricate in order to meet your clashing obligations as a parent, friend or colleague, another app might spot inconsistencies in your behavior and inform your interlocutors if you are telling the truth. If you experience discomfort because you encounter people and things that you do not like, another app or gadget might spare you the pain by rendering them invisible…

Sunny, smooth, clean: with Silicon Valley at the helm, our life will become one long California highway.”

Morozov’s conclusion cautions us about the intrusion into our lives of big technology:

“Silicon Valley, oddly, likes to wear its “solutionism” on its sleeve. Its most successful companies fashion themselves as digital equivalents of Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, not Wal-Mart or Exxon Mobil. “In the future,” says Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, “people will spend less time trying to get technology to work … If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg concurs: “There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.” As he noted in Facebook’s original letter to potential investors, “We don’t wake up in the morning with the primary goal of making money.”

Such digital humanitarianism aims to generate good will on the outside and boost morale on the inside. After all, saving the world might be a price worth paying for destroying everyone’s privacy, while a larger-than-life mission might convince young and idealistic employees that they are not wasting their lives tricking gullible consumers to click on ads for pointless products. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are competing for the same talent pool, and by claiming to solve the world’s problems, technology companies can offer what Wall Street cannot: a sense of social mission.

The ideology of solutionism is thus essential to helping Silicon Valley maintain its image. The technology press are only happy to play up any solutionist undertakings. “Africa? There’s an app for that,” reads a real (!) headline on the Web site of the British edition of Wired. Could someone lend that app to the World Bank, please?

Shockingly, saving the world usually involves using Silicon Valley’s own services. As Mr. Zuckerberg put it in 2009, “the world will be better if you share more.” Why doubt his sincerity on this one?”


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