Community Post: From Gadget Reviews To Philosophical Critique: The State Of Tech Criticism

1. A Philosopher Walks Into A TED Talk

In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, digital heretic Evgeny Morozov critiques two ideologies that ooze from TED talks, certain Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and much of the tech press that covers them. In Morozov’s view, these warped mentalities have seeped into our culture, and the fuzzy language of “disruption” and “openness” now permeate the realm of policymaking, journalism, and the way citizens think about tech. (Google search is a gift from Allah and Jesus; “Big Data” will solve poverty and blindess; Social networking is the ultimate form of human sharing.)

The ideologies Morozov strives to describe (and destroy) are what he calls “solutionism” and “internet-centrism.” Solutionism is “Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized…” And internet-centrism is the urge to assume all forms of technology fit into a neat, fixed category that has its own personality and internal logic (openness, participation, innovation), as opposed to identifying individual technologies that each have their own historical baggage, ethical entanglements and political consequences.

Solutionism allows us to believe that algorithms can eclipse aesthetic judgment and moral discretion; internet-centrism tells us that Twitter’s “openness” will topple the Iranian government.

A solutionist’s approach to the obesity epidemic is to “gamify” health and exercise (rather than reflect on the lack of access to nutrient rich food). An internet-centrist way of viewing ubiquitous surveillance is to proclaim “transparency is the future!” (rather than examine the practices of specific social networking sites, or the history of privacy law.)

Morozov wants us to stop thinking that “the internet” is some inevitable, God-like, fix-all and to start putting specific industries and practices in historical context and under ethico-political scrutiny. “Instead of debating the merits of individual technologies and crafting appropriate policies and regulations, we have all but surrendered to catchall terms like “the Internet,” which try to bypass any serious and empirical debate altogether.” (Think of the dominance of net-centrism surrounding: SOPA, net neutrality, social media in the Arab Spring, facial recognition technology, Google Glass, pervasive data harvesting, digital classrooms, do-not-track, Facebook’s privacy collapse.)

Sharp and trustworthy, tech journalist Farhad Manjoo responds to Morozov and his book. Manjoo, who is interestingly one of Morozov’s many targets in To Save Everything, argues that solutionism isn’t really a problem. Manjoo rightly points out that many of the tech initiatives discussed in the book are quite strange, and unlikely to succeed in the marketplace. “Again and again in To Save Everything, I found you fretting about big problems that stem from picayune techie ideas that will likely never go big,” he writes. (Two illustrative examples: a “smart” kitchen that surveills the chef and makes corrections when she deviates from the recipe, and a man who life-tracks his every moment of existence.)

On internet-centrism, Manjoo says that “The ‘Silicon Valley’ of your book bears little resemblance to the Silicon Valley that I cover as a tech reporter.” And he goes on to say that his techie subjects are more nuanced and resistant to “Internet” mumbo-jargon than Morozov lets on.

In turn, the author replies to the critic.

Where Manjoo sees Morozov’s examples as unrepresentative strawmen—wacky business ideas used to paint a prelude to dystopia, Morozov uses these examples, which are often in prototype stages, to highlight the political and ethical implications of specific technology. Rather than serving as rhetorical punching bags, Morozov uses fledgling technologies as intellectual footholds. (While health insurance companies do not require us to log our gym sessions, we can begin to see ethical danger as we discuss life-tracking; Or consider the hidden biases in “big data” metrics.)

Morozov also argues that relying solely on the market to determine how technologies shape our society is “morally irresponsible.” He states, “Given that technology companies usually have millions to spend on marketing; that most tech reporters have consigned themselves to trend spotting, gadget reviewing, or some other form of eyeball hunting; and that our debate about technology is drowning in meaningless terms like openness and disruption, I think we can’t just expect that best ideas will prevail on their own…”

(This indictment of the tech press lacking a critical, “normative dimension” has been made on Manjoo’s own PandoDaily, and many sites elsewhere.)

A parallel to Morozov’s point on technology criticism can be seen in political journalism as well, with what’s known as horse-race coverage. While some writers like Frank Rich or Ta-Nehisi Coates deconstruct media narratives and attempt to redescribe political spin, others, like the site Politico, merely echo a politician’s talking points or communicate to the reader the efficacy of a senator’s speech, the savvy of a Congressowoman’s ad. That a large percentage of political journalists avoid making ethical claims or conducting policy criticism is itself an academic and popularized issue.

Closer to Morozov and Manjoo’s playpen, a similar conversation is being had in video game writing. Instead of being written about as a collection of graphic capabilities and sound design, more and more gamers see their Uncharted and Halos as cultural artifacts, worthy of criticism, embodying values of identity exploration and power, not just 3-out-of-5 product reviewing.

While Manjoo is not one of those “editor’s choice!” or press release-reformat tech journalists, he offers very little to counter Morozov’s claims that we are, in fact, inundated with the troublesome philosophies of solutionism and internet-centrism.

It is deeply ironic that the tyranny of SEO is so radically reshaping Manjoo’s own industry, and that the practices of one very specific search engine reinforce the ideologies Morozov describes.

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