Book Reviews

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here; The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 432pp.Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here; The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013), 432pp.

A guest review by John Mark Agosta. John Mark earned his PhD at Stanford in computer science. He is a Data Scientist who works for Toyota-ITC to make the driver's experience simple, enjoyable, and safe. In addition to working for several Bay Area startups, he's been a researcher at Intel Labs and at SRI International. He was a Santa Fe Institute Business Fellow 2007, and has attended the annual Uncertainty in AI conference since its inception in 1985. He lives with his wife and twins in Palo Alto, CA, where amidst other avocations he sings Russian liturgical and folk music with Slavyanka, the Bay Area's Slavic Chorus.

           This book, the author's second, picks a fight with the greed and self-adulation in Silicon Valley culture that would justify any technological advance as an unmitigated good and gift to humanity. To identify his target, Morozov coins the term "solutionism" as the rampant trend of proponents of internet technology to identify things in society they find undesirable as problems to be fixed, by placing efficiency above all else, and putting aside the harder questions that the consequences of technology raise. He disdains the use of the "The Internet," claiming it has become a debased and meaningless banner for the promotion of questionable products whose value is nothing more than a ticket in the IPO lottery for startups.

           First, in the interest of full disclosure, by profession as a data scientist, I am guilty in Morozov's eyes of promoting the benefits of analysis of big data that he sees as part of the problem. I spend efforts analyzing personal data, much of it the massive newly emerging streams generated by individual's cars, especially my own, being one of the so-called "quantified selves" that he derides. I'm one source of the technology and the inspiration that drives the excesses he takes to task in this book. "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa."

           A recent rising star, Morozov is well known for his columns and blog posts (he contributes regularly to with his critical view of ideas coming out of Silicon Valley. His reach is encyclopedic, and only a token of it can be touched upon in this review. This book could well spawn several books to respond to his critique, which would be a desirable and useful discussion to see. Initially he sounds like yet another techno-phobe, by highlighting the unintended effects and social inequities overlooked by the more enthusiastic cheerleaders for the latest high-tech product. Indicative of his approach, among the numerous cases he goes after is a recent startup,, that promises to remove offensive and unacceptable content posted on a company's websites. As he fears, restriction of the web to exclusively anodyne content could well eliminate important opinions, and his might well be an early casualty.

           Clearly the endless stream of claims made by start-ups offer vast opportunities for poking fun. But of all the careful thinkers in the field, one would think he'd be the last to be taken in by hype that accompanies startups pitching their businesses. But demolishing such overdone sales claims makes for some entertaining laughs, if less than enlightening reading. Borrowing from his Russian background, his hyperbolic style savages his opponents by suggestive juxtapositions that place them in as bad a light as possible.

           If you can stand the rhetoric you realize that his book is not an anti-technology diatribe per se (and I can take some relief in not being the direct target of his wrath), but is about the claims made of its world-transforming, inevitable power. His argument is with the purveyors of the technology, who justify their claims with the ill-defined cyber-Whig future of "The Internet." And please do read the authors he takes to task for yourself if, instead of his acerbic critique, you want a fair view of what they truly think. He takes arms against a veritable catalog of internet researchers: Larry Lessig, Kevin Kelly, Jonathan Zittrain, along with Eric Schmidt, Ester Dyson, Stephen Wolfram, Ray Kurzweil, Jeff Bezos, any of the admirers of Steve Jobs, and any speaker who's distilled their opinions to fit within the 18 minute duration of a TED talk. Characteristically he credits Lessig with claiming that the Internet is "like a force of nature" (p. 67), when Lessig deserves to be credited with identifying the utter malleability of the Internet. In actuality Lessig's argument in his book Code is just the opposite, and agreeable with Morozov's sentiments, rather than with the technological determinism that Morozov pins on him. [2]

           While the mud gets slung back and forth by Morozov and his self-envisioned miscreants of Silicon Valley, perhaps I can keep my head down and get some valuable work done, in threshing the wheat from the chaff among the uses of the vast amount of data, along with its currency and the computing power of clusters of machines to process it. For insight into what technology in the internet trenches is that fans the flames of this debate, I recommend Nate Silver's insightful and readable Signal and the Noise [1], a book about forecasting and how it has been transformed by technology. Not to get too much off topic of this review, the point of the book is the challenge of getting through the randomness of most data. Not appreciated in the public debate is how much the technology depends on what the statistical analysis can and cannot recover, and how much the analysis deals solely with anonymous statistical analysis, only at the very initial and final steps having actual names attached to it.

           I suggest starting this book with the postscript and working your way backwards, since the most thoughtful discussion occupies the end of each chapter, once the author has burnt himself out entertaining us with clever putdowns across the entire technological spectrum. A considerate reading, though, reveals a sensitive view of the complexities of technology's social, political and moral aspects that technology proponents and like-minded commentators run roughshod over, in their unquestioning enthusiasm for the supposed beneficence of Internet solutionism. He details cases why technical innovation ignorant of the social norms it imposes can unwittingly hinder social progress, by enforcing entrenched undesirable social practices. To illustrate, such might be the case with statistical social network tracking or face recognition algorithms that unknowingly duplicate racial profiling.

           Morozov has to dig deep to find good examples of the moral quandaries that current applications of technology blithely ignore. An outstanding example is the new turnstiles in the New York City Subway that physically prevent entry without valid payment, unlike the honor system characteristic of many European public transit systems, such as Berlin's. The moral choice a system like Berlin's allows is valuable, and arguably necessary in fringe circumstances when entry — for instance for rescue, or refuge — would be better left to a question of judgment rather than a mechanical device.

           The oversimplification by enforcing choices based on just maximizing efficiency removes the moral need for deliberation, and reduces choice. If the good is supposedly built into the technology, does that make us possibly less morally aware, much as reliance on ubiquitous GPS on our smartphones dulls our innate sense of direction? Not every intricate facet of our social lives is a problem to be overcome by replacement with the use of a novel application conceived with hard-wired values of right and wrong.

           This book is worth a read for its revealing exploration of how idolatry in any simplistic notion of good versus bad goes wrong — in this case the uncritical pursuit of the numerous technical opportunities offered by the current fad in "Internet" innovations, which as they mature are oblivious to the serious role they now play in the future of society.

[1] Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't, Penguin Press HC, (2012).

[2] Lawrence Lessig, Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books (2000).