vol 8, issue 9

Interview - Evgeny Morozov

16 September 2013
By Nick Smith
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Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny Morozov on the philosophy of problem solving

‘BinCam’ demonstration

‘BinCam’ brings with it a debate about whether technological developments should be focusing on ‘real’ problems

Technologists seek out problems in order to demonstrate their problem-solving technologies. And the Internet isn't the answer to everything, says Evgeny Morozov.

It can't be easy being a public intellectual in the world of technology. On the one hand you have network neutrality guru Tim Wu describing your work as being "rife with bullying and unfair tactics", while on the other, and perhaps more worryingly, you have Brian Eno lauding you as the "best-informed critic of techno-utopianism". If any of this bothers Evgeny Morozov it doesn't show. Calmly sipping tea in his London hotel, the author of the influential 'To Save Everything Click Here' is relaxed to the point where even Kimi Raikkonen might envy his exterior calm.

'To Save Everything Click Here' is Morozov's second book, which he wrote in a prolonged moment of exasperation to demonstrate how badly argued many of the assumptions we take to be axiomatic about the Information Age really are. "There are so many ideas out there that rely on poor research, poor history and poor theory," says the 28-year-old multi-lingual Belarusian cyber-philosopher. "People use the umbrella notion of an all-pervasive technology to hide gaps in their analysis. With this book I wanted to make it harder for people I am at intellectual war with to make the arguments that they are making. I also wanted to articulate a vision if not for how to do things, then how to understand things."

The elevator pitch for the book might read something like this: "Technology is usually only any good at solving problems it knows it can solve, and if there aren't any problems that fit the technology go ahead and invent them. Also, the Internet isn't the be all and end all of everything, you know." Put like this it may sound a bit petulant, but they are serious points and the book itself – even if there are times when it is at odds with its title – is beautifully argued and giftedly persuasive. In fact, the title presented Morozov with a creative problem of his own. "It was very difficult to come up with something that worked. I didn't even have a title until a few weeks before the book was supposed to go to press."

To this day he's not sure where it came from, but he says that he was experimenting with the kind of message that might appear in a pop-up window on the computer screen. But it also resonated with a kind of hyperbolic language of sloganism used by websites that promise the end of global warfare with a click of the mouse. "I found it nicely captured that lack of critical awareness that goes with that kind of online activism."

But the title also captures the message of solutionism, which Morozov describes as the pursuit of solving problems "without ever figuring out whether they are problems in the first place". This is what he describes as the "ease of the click before the cognitive processing", which is a main feature.

Two examples of solutionism bookend Morozov's essay, the first being that of the 'BinCam' and the latter that of smart parking. Both of these issues – remotely keeping tabs on household waste disposal and maximising revenue generation from car parks – appear to the man on the Clapham omnibus to be an absurd use of technology when there are real problems out there to be solved such as poverty, food security, heart disease and climate change. And yet the issue for Morozov is not their 'absurdity, but the cascading of bigger problems than we started with.

Spying on what we throw away brings with it privacy issues, while smart-parking schemes effectively steal money from motorists by double dipping into the temporal buffer zone of contingency time left on the meter as one car departs and another inhabits a space already paid for. "I define solutionism as the tendency to identify problems based on the availability of quick technological fixes." Drivers don't care too much for how the margins on the revenue they generate for a land owner can be optimised: they just want to park their cars.

Creating the solution

Morozov states that solutionism also covers situations where "a group of reasonable people would agree that there is a problem, but would probably disagree on what counts as a reasonable solution". Or, they agree that a technological solution might be appropriate, but are unable to reach consensus on the criteria for success.

"There is a na've discourse, not so much in Silicon Valley, but all over, that all social problems have sociological fixes. Now, I don't believe that. I think there are times when the technological fix is appropriate. But we need to find criteria by which we can evaluate their suitability. Those criteria need to go beyond simple efficiency and innovation." This, according to Morozov, is where it pays to look at different contexts, whether in education, health, utilities management, government, or even waste disposal.

Oddly enough, Morozov doesn't object to smart parking – which is now ubiquitous in the US – because it "steals money". He says when you think about it, we're not being charged enough, which is why so many people drive their cars to the cities, and why congestion charges appear to work. "The problem is solved by charging more. What I was trying to say in the book was that we could rely on 'big data' to expand, rather than limit, the decisions we make. But the rhetoric that goes with projects like this is that we have the automation, the technology will make the decisions for us, and we will never need to make any for ourselves.

"But this doesn't have to be the case. We could say that cars in a particular place tend to belong to a certain demographic: say, for example, people on low income that drive poor cars. Perhaps we should present the option of leaving money on the meter, or donating money to the Town Hall."

But these sorts of choices are not making their way into the system, because the technologists who design them don't really understand the problem, only the solution. Morozov says that maybe he's got an unrealistic view on life because he believes that citizens should have more choices "in everything we do". The problem here is that it's hard to know what this means: "But there is nothing inherent in technology that results in the loss of personal autonomy or decision-making. It's how we choose to implement that."

Blogging for democracy

While Morozov's academic background is in economics his work experience is in new media journalism. He studied in Bulgaria before moving to Berlin in 2005, where he worked for Transitions Online, an NGO in the media development business "building capacity for local independent media" in the former Soviet bloc.

Working in the world of training journalists, investigative reporters and editors, the NGO took on the introduction of new media to technology-barren regions. "I got involved and started blogging about politics and Belarus and eventually I became their director of new media." This post sent Morozov to "weird places" in the Caucasus and Central Asia where he met with bloggers and helped to train them "on the expectation that they would help to promote democracy and freedom of expression". This led to Morozov developing contacts in Brussels, London and Washington, where he found assumptions about the Internet and technology to be "very naive". At the same time he was finding that governments in the post-Soviet space were becoming more sophisticated and developing technology tools for monitoring dissidents, spreading propaganda and censorship.

This experience provided the background for Morozov's first book, 'The Net Delusion', in which he highlights the potential of information technology to play a role in the emancipation of disenfranchised citizens. Described by the New York Times as "brilliant and courageous", the book's central concept was essentially a sub-set of what Morozov was later to define as "technological solutionism", an expression that has from time to time made him unpopular with digital utopians that see him as a cross between a bull in the china shop and the elephant in the room.

'The fix defines the problem'

Morozov says that while society looks to technologists to solve its problems, technologists only really look for problems with computable solutions. This is but one of the philosophical issues relating to the role of technology in society that Morozov addresses. This creates for Morozov a bizarre logic, where the fix comes into existence before there is a proper understanding of the problem. "The fix defines the problem. And that's why we end up with a shallow debate about technology enriching the human condition, without ever understanding what it was that had the potential to enrich that condition to begin with."

Another fundamental question for Morozov is why Silicon Valley needs to present itself so blatantly as the fixer of problems in the first place. Morozov claims that there are two main reasons. The first is that by appearing to be concerned about broader social issues such as climate change, companies will present a softer side to the industry regulators they fear will "regulate them out of existence". Second, they need to attract talent. "If you solve problems you look like a better proposition than Wall Street, where bad things happen. 'Come work for us and you can make the world a better place.' There are situations where this rhetoric is justified; otherwise the whole thing would be empty. But a lot of it is to do with economics and the manipulation of public debate."

All of which has led the press to view Morozov with a certain amount of cynicism, and a familiar tag that gets pinned on him is that of 'technology skeptic'. Is that fair? "I can't control the labels. I don't have the technology for that, unfortunately," he says laughing, before admitting that he's also been dubbed a pessimist in the German newspaper Die Zeit. "But this label – 'technology pessimist' – has been around in Germany for over a century and it is very easy to pigeonhole people with that. If you start to question the implementation of certain technology projects, and if you say that they rely on ugly, dumb logic that doesn't match the context in which the technology is used, people think you are questioning the value of engineering in general."

This, says Morozov, has the potential to damage informed debate, and might prevent people from engaging in critical reflection on how technologies ought to be designed. If you are labeled as a Luddite or a pessimist it is easy to be sidelined. "I've taken that risk and it's too late to worry about it. Just because I point out that a lot of today's technology tools are being used by unpleasant regimes to monitor dissidents or to spread propaganda, this does not mean that I don't think that there are positive uses for those tools."

Morozov may well be suspicious of umbrella terms in technology, and yet he is, in a paradoxical twist, responsible for popularising one: 'solutionism'. For a man who finds meta-labels unhelpful, it would be useful to know just how highly he regards his own neologism. "It's an interesting question. I should probably be saying the exact opposite, but I have no great ambitions for this term.

"I don't really feel I coined it; it has been around for some time in architecture. But maybe my book has done something to give it a specific meaning in the context of technology. If people like the term they will take it up and use it. But I don't claim ownership and its fate doesn't bother me."

'To Save Everything Click Here', Evgeny Morozov, published by Allen Lane, £20

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The religion of the Internet

"People ask me about the relationship between solutionism and Internet centrism," says Morozov. "Academics think that the Internet has an inherent message and logic. This leads to the assumption that, say, Wikipedia points to some sort of broader truth about how the Internet works. This to me is a feature of Internet centrism. And that makes it a kind of quasi-religion.

"You either love the Internet or you hate it. Everything gets lumped under the umbrella term and it looks far more revolutionary than it is. Meta-labels create the evangelism and ruin the debate.

"There is a technology blogger that says we shouldn't allow policy makers to regulate facial recognition technology because they don't know the Internet. This wrongly presupposes that the technology has its origins in the Internet. Facial recognition was developed in the 1960s and ran on a track that didn't much overlap with the development of the Internet. So why shouldn't we have policy makers regulating facial recognition technology?"

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