Reviews — From the September 2013 issue

Numerical Madness

Critiques of a life online

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Discussed in this essay:

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov. PublicAffairs. 432 pages. $28.99.

Taipei, by Tao Lin. Vintage. 256 pages. $14.95.

It’s a rare week when somebody doesn’t have something sweeping to say about the Internet. It’s making us smarter or it’s making us dumber; it’s making us nicer or it’s making us meaner. It’s hard to keep track of when it’s disrupting one thing or having a chilling effect on another, but everybody can agree that whatever it’s doing is definitely irreversible. To Evgeny Morozov, who has emerged as perhaps the most useful — wittingly and unwittingly — technological skeptic around, such “Internet-centrism” is just a new name for old messianic ways of thinking. In To Save Everything, Click Here, he goes about debunking two claims. The first is that there is such a thing as “an Internet” about which we ought to have opinions. The second, to which he devotes most of his energy, is the subclaim that “the Internet” is going to make everything better.

In Morozov’s account, “Internet-centrism” is the belief that there is this thing called “the Internet” and that it has certain native characteristics and priorities — openness, say, or transparency — that we thwart at our own peril. This, he says, is wrong; what we call “the Internet” is merely a collection of tools made by various people on behalf of myriad organizations for manifold purposes — Twitter, he points out, has very little in common with Instapaper — and when we obscure that variety we make ourselves complicit in a lazy, dangerous pietistic fantasy. Appeals to the monolithic and ineluctable, as Morozov has learned from Dewey and Foucault, invariably hide some active party’s power grab, and prevent us from confronting such “complex empirical matters” as “the politics of algorithms” or “the history of facial-recognition technologies.” This is an important, necessary argument, and Morozov has done honorable work in making it.

The cheap McLuhanist belief that there are inviolable qualities of a medium, Morozov continues, provides the foundation for technological “solutionism.” This is the idea that the increased efficiency, clarity, and order provided by technology via the Internet are going to deliver us from the problems politics has failed to solve. Morozov is happy to grant that technology can do a lot of super things. What he thinks the techno-utopians don’t understand is that many of our fixes might prove more troublesome and expensive than they initially seem.

"A Photography Blog," a photograph by Gabriela Herman from the series Bloggers

“A Photography Blog,” a photograph by Gabriela Herman from the series Bloggers

Take, for example, a “smart” trash can. Each time you open and close the lid, an embedded camera takes a picture of your refuse and posts the image to a social network. Consumers, motivated by shame, will be encouraged to recycle. This might minimize household waste in the short term, but at what cost? It could be used as political cover, to encourage consumers to focus on the relatively minor environmental problem of the household rather than the major problem of industry. It might, furthermore, train us on a certain incentive structure, and thus train us out of the broader sentiment of civic responsibility. Each chapter of Morozov’s book applies this basic argument to another field: predictive policing, self-driving cars, et cetera. In each arena, politics — the idea of progress by wrangling — is abjured by “cyber-Whigs” in favor of engineering. If we can solve for efficiency (and thereby minimize friction in resource allocation, bring down informational costs, and properly align incentives), everything else will fall into place.

But as Morozov makes clear, this preoccupation with efficiency emphasizes means over ends. Or, more specifically, it confuses the means we have at our disposal for the ends that are so troublesome to determine. Take, for example, the “self-tracking” movement, which promotes the universal quantification of expenditure.

Self-tracking can tell us how much energy our air-conditioning system consumes and might even tell us how well its demands match our own goals, but it cannot comment on the desirability of leaving the air-conditioning on.

For that, we need the particular kind of proceduralism — messy, imperfect, inefficient in design — we call politics.

Morozov’s favorite formulation of this means/end problem is in terms of two analytic modes: the narrative imagination versus the numerical imagination. The narrative imagination, a term Morozov borrows from the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is the facility we have for telling ourselves, and one another, repeatable and coherent stories about how we got here and where we might now go. These are necessarily stories about ends — about the kinds of people we are and the kinds of communities we wish to live in. The numerical imagination, by contrast, considers the kinds of metrics we might keep in mind as we pursue our goals. As Morozov puts it, “Numeric imagination might tell us how to use the air conditioner more efficiently, but narrative imagination can tell us whether we should use it at all.” As long as we retain both modes — as long as we balance political discussions of whether to use air conditioning with technological discussions of how best to use it — we’ll be fine. The trouble is when we think the computational can do the work of the poetic.

Morozov, not given to throat-clearing, states his book’s premise up front:

Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection — and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity, and imperfection — will prove to be prohibitively expensive in the long run.

He goes on to say that “Sometimes, imperfect is good enough; sometimes, it’s much better than perfect.” The allusion to Donald Winnicott isn’t incidental, for this marks an otherwise unannounced shift in Morozov’s book from political economy to psychology.

Ignorance can be dangerous, but so can omniscience: there is a reason why some colleges stick to need-blind admissions processes. Ambivalence can be counterproductive, but so can certitude: if all your friends really told you what they thought, you might never talk to them again.

It’s all very well said, and To Save Everything has been greeted with nearly uniform critical response: Morozov is a brilliant man. His examples are often a little far-fetched, and he might have written a more persuasive book had he more carefully distinguished between probable futures (self-driving cars) and long-shot ones (the elimination of crime). The problem with Morozov’s book is with his rhetorical style — his paranoid contempt for his perceived enemies; his tendency to caricature their arguments; and his studied neglect of the contemporary thinkers who have anticipated and influenced him, and with whom he might make common cause.

But none of this is merely rhetorical. His book fails on its own moral terms. Nearly every attribute he identifies with the rise of the “numerical imagination” is characteristic of his own argumentative manner. He is certain and omniscient. He has no time for ambiguity or ambivalence. You are with him or you are against him. He might be read as exactly the sort of person we will all become if his direst predictions come true. He puts himself forward as the ultimate product of the Internet whose existence he so resolutely denies.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His book, A Sense of Direction, is out now in paperback (Riverhead).

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