Silicon Valley's 'solutionism' issues appear to be scaling

In Evgeny Morozov's latest book, he explores technological 'solutionism,' which he believes is a dangerous ideology that is pervasive in Silicon Valley. Read Alex Howard's book review.

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The Washington Post reporter Brian Fung aptly described the trend of using a technology to fix or solve a real-world problem as "solutionism." The trouble, said Fung, referencing Uber's hire of David Plouffe to help navigate regulatory challenges, is that the way the real world works is "undermining Silicon Valley's apolitical fantasyland." This reality, embodied by the complex, dirty, and (sometimes) corrupt local, state, and national political systems of lobbyists, activists, regulators, campaigns, city councils, NGOs, unions, city halls, and legislatures around the world, is a frustratingly "dirty, petty business that reminds us more of the fading 20th century than the sleek, futuristic promise of the 21st," writes Fung.

To people who build fast and break things, the thinking goes, the built-in friction and resistance to change or efficiency that often pervade the political and the government institutions of society is anathema. Architects of democratic systems for governance might feel otherwise: the considerable friction within bicameral legislatures, or the checks and balances between executive, legislative, and legal branches of government, look much more like features than bugs, despite the lack of productivity in some chambers.

If your ears perked at this use of solutionism, it may be because the term has been applied there before, at great specificity, length, and volume over recent years by Evgeny Morozov. Morozov, the voluble and often contrarian critic of "internet intellectuals" and the worst aspects of the culture of today's technology world, has authored perhaps the most bruising series of book reviews and acid analyses of Silicon Valley's foibles of any writer working today. By almost any measure, Morozov is Silicon Valley's chief critic, a role he seems to relish with each successive polemic and darkly humorous tweet.

At times, his biting style and bilious prose can mask important points of criticism, just as the lengthy "personal take downs" in his lacerating book reviews may turn off people who don't relish pedantic pugilism. To get his work into mainstream discourse, Morozov has successfully pursued "meme hustling" himself over the years, from The Net Delusion, his prescient book on electronic surveillance and "internet freedom," to his critiques of so-called "slacktivism" (where people engage in lightweight online activism, as opposed to more "thick" civic engagement) and more recently "internet centrism," where the principles, standards, and logic that were used to build the network of networks and the World Wide Web atop it are applied towards social movements and societal problems. (Unsurprisingly, catchphrases, buzzwords, and online memes — even if used ironically — are a fine way to market criticism as well as software and startups.)

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To say his generally (if not always) well-reviewed book To Save Everything, Click Here or the vast number of columns, essays, articles, and tweets that he has written since to promote it and the ideas within are infused with anger and contempt for startup founders, venture capitalists, or technology pundits would be to fail to capture the depth of his visceral dislike for the people and the ideas that pervade today's industry, as he makes clear through his popular Twitter account.

Even if Morozov's critiques of technology and its discontents may be weakened by his use of straw man arguments at times, I think the substance of Morozov's work should be a must-read for many people in an industry that all-too-often engages in self-congratulation and rhetoric about "saving the world." (The necessary questions for those who would do the latter, as ever, are from what, for whom, and how?) As documented by Gawker's Valleywag and the broader technology media, the actions and words of many young or callow members of the tech industry leave them wide open for easy criticism, from parties to luxury expeditions to the hot sands of Black Rock Desert to dehumanizing marketing stunts. When disruption and innovation are both overused and overhyped in academia, industry, and government, there's no shortage of targets.

In particular, Morozov's excellent essay on technology, democracy, and "the real privacy problem" in MIT's Technology Review is a must-read. In it, he explored many of the themes I've visited here at TechRepublic and plan to write about in the future:

"The invisible barbed wire of big data limits our lives to a space that might look quiet and enticing enough but is not of our own choosing and that we cannot rebuild or expand. The worst part is that we do not see it as such. Because we believe that we are free to go anywhere, the barbed wire remains invisible. Worse, there's no one to blame: certainly not Google, Dick Cheney, or the NSA. It's the result of many different logics and systems — of modern capitalism, of bureaucratic governance, of risk management — that get supercharged by the automation of information processing and by the depoliticization of politics.

The more information we reveal about ourselves, the denser but more invisible this barbed wire becomes. We gradually lose our capacity to reason and debate; we no longer understand why things happen to us.

But all is not lost. We could learn to perceive ourselves as trapped within this barbed wire and even cut through it. Privacy is the resource that allows us to do that and, should we be so lucky, even to plan our escape route."

Morozov encourages us to think of "privacy" as both a need for democracy and a condition for it, to politicize public debates around privacy and information sharing, to stop quantifying ourselves, and to create more "provocative digital services" that reveal the political dimensions of different technologies or choices in the use or creation. The long essay is well worth your time, largely free of the style he uses elsewhere, which is an absence I'd credit to good editing.

I can't say the same is entirely true of his most recent book, To Save Everything, Click Here, in which Morozov warns of the "perils of perfection" that technological solutionism would introduce and impose upon the world, exploring and critiquing the ideology that he argues pervades Silicon Valley. He caricatures the Valley and explains what he means by solutionism thusly:

"Last year the futurist Ayesha Khanna even described smart contact lenses that could make homeless people disappear from view, 'enhancing our basic sense' and, undoubtedly, making our lives so much more enjoyable. In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness — unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person. In that case, Silicon Valley would hand you a pair of overpriced glasses that would make the streets feel like home. To quote an ad for Samsung's fancy TV sets, 'Reality. What a letdown.'

All these efforts to ease the torments of existence might sound like paradise to Silicon Valley. But for the rest of us, they will be hell. They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call 'solutionism': an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are 'solvable' with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal. Thus, forgetting and inconsistency become 'problems' simply because we have the tools to get rid of them — and not because we've weighed all the philosophical pros and cons."

I was skeptical about how pervasive solutionism was in the tech industry when I first read Morozov's book, but the reality of its existence was clear enough over the past year that a Washington Post reporter independently landed upon both the problem and the term without reading it. Solutionism, which has its etymological roots in urban design and architecture, extends into other arenas as well, particularly healthcare. For instance, read John Wilbanks on sensorism and algorithms:

"Sensorism is rife in the sciences. Pick a data generation task that used to be human centric and odds are someone is trying to automate and parallelize it (often via solutionism, oddly — there's an app to generate that data). What's missing is the epistemic transformation that makes the data emerging from sensors actually useful to make a scientific conclusion — or a policy decision supposedly based on a scientific consensus."

"There's no way to grasp what's wrong with some of these initiatives without having some knowledge of debates in deliberative democracy," suggested Morozov to me last year, over email, "of which most people 'doing good' have little clue."

For instance, read Morozov's reply to Steven Johnson, after Johnson responded to a scathing review in The New Republic.

"The idea that progressive politics can be combined with market-oriented and decentralized solutions was already in circulation — in the writings of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis but also of Joshua Cohen and Charles Sabel — by the end of the last century (and, more recently, in the work of scholars like Archon Fung). ...Josiah Ober, who has made a fascinating use of Hayek, game theory and political philosophy to argue that the democracy of classical Athens was so effective because it deployed highly innovative and decentralized schemes of aggregating the knowledge of its citizens."

Instead of approaches that seek to solve complex societal issues simply through the application of new technologies Morozov suggests, quite reasonably, that people seek first to understand the root causes of the issues.

"...a new strand of scholarship on the political implications of 'cognitive diversity' — best exemplified by the work of Jon Elster and Helene Landemore — which has advanced sophisticated, context-sensitive arguments about ways to bring more diverse voices into democratic policy-making," he writes, in The New Republic. "All these efforts start from where reform proposals ought to start: they acknowledge the complexity of the problem that they are trying to tackle and only then do they work their way to their preferred solution."

Honestly, this sounds eminently reasonable to me. I don't think Morozov hates open government or government reforms, as long as they are serious, grounded in social justice, and recognize the role of economic theory and political processes. He hates sloppy thinking, prose, and lack of citations from the relevant research literature and history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in that context, sharp prose, reasoning, and extensive footnoting are his primary strengths, along with dark humor.

To my read, it's not that Morozov is opposed to involving more citizens and leveraging networks in participatory processes but to imprecise thinking that isn't grounded in history, and, more fundamentally, the application of market solutions to democratic processes, or neoliberalism. Viewing open government solely through the lens of software developer participation and publishing open data risks (in his way of thinking) damaging both democratic institutions and the social contract between governments and the governed. It is for this reason and others that Morozov hates Silicon Valley and is deeply concerned about the impact of some of its most prominent technologists and platforms upon democracy, from the application of open source to open government to efforts to use technology to boost civic engagement. He has warned of "transparency without accountability," where digital disclosures do not accurately reflect the goals of those influencing democratic processes or their actions.

What does he support? A close read of his work is suggestive. As John Wonderlich pointed out on the Sunlight Foundation's blog, responding to a solutionist critique, Morozov is a proponent of open government, as it has been instantiated over previous decades, investigative journalism, and using technology to ensure government accountability with teeth. Wonderlich quoted Morozov's own words on a "good faith approach to open data," annotated with links to Sunlight Foundation projects:

How do we ensure accountability? Let's forget about databases for a moment and think about power. How do we make the government feel the heat of public attention? Perhaps by forcing it to make targeted disclosures of particularly sensitive data sets. Perhaps by strengthening the FOIA laws, or at least making sure that government agencies comply with existing provisions. Or perhaps by funding intermediaries that can build narratives around data — much of the released data is so complex that few amateurs have the processing power and expertise to read and make sense of it in their basements. This might be very useful for boosting accountability but useless for boosting innovation; likewise, you can think of many data releases that would be great for innovation and do nothing for accountability.

Morozov's book is both well-researched and often entertainingly written, though not in every case. Some chapters suffer the same fault that runs through too much of Morozov's oeuvre: he doesn't recount interviews with the people or representatives of the companies that he is pillorying, choosing instead to "know them" through their public writing, speaking, or news accounts of their lives or works. I find that this approach often robs his readers of a sense of who these people are and their own accounts of their motivations for why they do what they do, and even occasionally veers from paraphrasing into unethical territory, at least journalistically, where he eschews interviews when the subjects request them.

Put another way, it doesn't always ring true if a reader knows the people and the culture Morozov is describing. That means essays or chapters can sometimes read like anthropological research conducted without firsthand experience but festooned with footnotes from the work of others, made entertaining by the rhetorical skills of the author and apparently grounded in academic references and theory but sometimes unrecognizable to the subjects in the domains Morozov describes. The best example of this phenomenon is in his criticism of my former publisher Tim O'Reilly, who has been depicted in both familiar and unrecognizable forms over the past year. As my sometime-editor Micah Sifry observed at TechPresident this summer, "Morozov's ongoing war against civic tech is truly nutty in how he assumes only the most nefarious of impulses and never once wades into understanding how civic hackers actually work."

From his take on the maker movement to warnings that technology and algorithmic regulation will mean the death of the welfare state, or even politics itself, Morozov deftly weaves together research or quotes that support nefarious or foolish depictions of his subjects and can leave out those that don't, as in his implication that federated online identity systems don't include public sector options. He may also simply be wrong (or, more charitably, misleading) as he was in a recent op-ed about Facebook and privacy. As law professor Ryan Calo noted at Stanford, "everyone knows privacy is about power," with many books and essays to that effect. I certainly hope that my own writing on privacy conveys that truth.

All of this isn't to say that Morozov's books or essays aren't worth reading, nor that many of the subjects of his critiques don't merit the attention: just the opposite, in fact. His focus upon the nexus of "predictive shopping," data-driven regulation, behavioral economics, and algorithmic transparency, for instance, is both timely and relevant to any debate about the ethics that surround the impact of disruptive technology on society.

That said, if people distrust government (and in the US, they appear to, at historic levels) or see it as incompetent, they will try to fix problems on their own. That's what civil society does, or at least can do in countries where it is strong. This is exactly what anecdotal examples of DIY (Do It Yourself) or DIO (Do It Ourselves) government show have happened, from Hawaii to Russia to the Far Rockaways, where and Occupy supplemented the work of the Red Cross. For that matter, this is also relevant anywhere that people step up to help one another in disasters or communities where institutions have failed. I'm thinking, too, of the role churches play in many parts of the US, far from "peer progressivism" in the heart of evangelical counties.

I don't think there's ever been a time when we've been more continually connected to one another, aware of what our officials are doing or able to organize and collectively make governments more transparent and accountable. Yes, the open data deluge can obfuscate and deflect those efforts, and those interested in services and economic outcomes can confuse the issue, but there are also unprecedented opportunities to apply technology towards the extension and maintenance of democracy. It's also true that the same tools can be used by autocracies or in the service of a modern police state — and that existing differences in power can be exacerbated and extended by differential access to smartphones and broadband internet.

That's why privacy protections under strong regulators matter. That's why the plummeting costs of tablets and smartphones matters. That's why extending lower-cost broadband to the poor matters. And that's why we can't neglect all of the analog aspects of opening government, like the laws and rules that must undergird permanent change.

I think the Open Government Partnership is having a positive effect upon these conversations, even if many countries are choosing to put in e-government reforms or adopt open data for services — often flubbing it — as opposed to passing or complying with uncomfortable freedom of information laws or investing in libraries or civic literacy. "Open government" is now a big tent, with related benefits to that expansion, despite the ambiguity surrounding the use of the term.

What's happening at the local level today, in cities and towns, is fascinating, particularly in the absence of big budgets. People are using free, web-based tools and inexpensive open source tech to self-organize and help one another in times of need. It's messy and uncomfortable, especially when natural disasters hit or awful events like the Boston Marathon bombing occur, but when you see a Google Spreadsheet of people offering runners places to stay and the police department communicating with communities in real time, it's obvious that something about the context we live in has changed.

About Alex Howard

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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