Impossible Conversations - To Save Everything, Click Here

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

The latest in our series of Public Policy, Political Economy, and Public Administration book discussions was To Save Everything, Click Here: the Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov. Piece by piece, Morozov takes on and highlights the limits and risks of technology-driven solutions: crowdsourcing, analytics, nudges, gamification, Open Government, big data, algorithmic threat detection, advanced sensors and the Internet of Things, tracking and measurement, and digital democracy.

On the other hand, let me paint the book club picture: a handful of our members had just taken Govlab’s Gov 3.0 course, subtitled Solving Public Problems with Technology. Nick has been providing some ongoing support to the cohort through his day job at the IOG and its emerging relationship with the Govlab, and his bio occasionally references his positioning “at the confluence of people, public policy, and technology.” For my part, I have official hackathon-related duties in my day job. Perhaps most tellingly, many of the books that Morozov takes to task are regularly referenced by book club members (some of which Nick specifically covered in his Monday Book Review series).

I think it would be fair to say that many of us have carved out our career competitive advantage in part by understanding and applying technology to government and knowledge work. So, Morozov challenges some very familiar ground, which made for an incredibly interesting read and discussion.

As Kent suggests, Morozov’s book fundamentally challenged my assumptions and deeply-held beliefs about the civic tech space. Yes, it’s that good, and if you are a public servant who sings the gospel of Open Government and the like, do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

The author’s self-avowed mission is to diagnose and demolish the twin ideologies of ‘solutionism’ and ‘Internet-centrism’, which he argues are increasingly placing our society’s freedom, and indeed the very things take make us human, at risk.  

First, a few definitions: ‘solutionism’ is the propensity to recast “all complex social situations either as neatly definite problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized”. Think of web platforms that track data on politicians’ attendance at votes or smart apps that track our energy consumption – more later on why those are in fact problematic.

‘Internet-centrism’, for its part, is a set of beliefs according to which the Web has a ‘real’, immutable nature – open, networked, collaborative – and that the principles of this ‘master technology’ should be applied to pretty much all other areas of life.

Morozov’s thesis, in its essence, is that we should quit letting the apparent power of the Web cloud our judgment on how we should ‘solve’ public problems (i.e., everything open, transparent, collaborative, etc.), and instead learn how to engage in narrow, empirically grounded arguments about the individual technologies that compose “the Internet”, in order to understand when they are and are not appropriate (spoiler alert: it’s usually the latter). After laying out this thesis, the book engages in just this kind of narrow analysis –dissecting many of the recent fads in the civic tech space, chapter by chapter, technology by technology. This is the meaty part of the book – the part where my heart sank as I realized just how little I had been thinking through the implications of these technologies as I acted as a gleeful cheerleader for them.

In the open data space, the book highlights how the accuracy of information can be diminished once made transparent because it is repackaged without context, as well as how the re-use of open data can harm individuals by disproportionately casting light on one aspect of their existence (e.g., the fact that they were wrongfully accused of a crime x number of years ago). On algorithmic decision-making, the author argues that customized feeds of information, whether it be the news stories or the books we read and are recommended, can cause us to lose important aspects of civic life such as literature that challenges us and common stories which we debate as a society. And the analysis goes on: as Kent mentioned, it includes the Quantified Self movement, Big Data, smart technologies, gamification, and more…

There are common themes that pop up again and again throughout Morozov’s critiques of these technologies. Many of these point to the causal factors that explain their rise.  Think of humans’ propensity to try and come up with “theories of everything”. Our use of questionable scholarship to justify new ideas – the book explains how the concepts of transaction costs and information cascades, which are iffy to begin with, are consistently misapplied. Particularly important for Morozov here is our misunderstanding of technology: how we place it ‘outside of society’, and how we give it its own logic (“this is what the Internet wants”).  Some of the other themes discussed have more to do with what is at stake. The fact that we need to preserve “moral environments” in society that allow us to debate what is important and what is not. Also present throughout is the fact that solutionist are often trying to fix “problems” that are virtues in disguise. On the application of technology to politics, for example, Morozov urges us to consider how some of these new tools could vacate behaviours we perceive as bad, such as occasional evasiveness and hypocrisy on the part of politicians, when they are in fact the very things that allow for democracy to thrive.

There’s so much I glossed over, just on epochialism, for instance. For now, I will simply reiterate where the main value of the book was for me: making me realize that I fully opted in to these ideologies and that as a result, I was advocating for some pretty dangerous things. Now, on the strength of Morozov’s argument, my own moral environment finds itself a bit shattered… but that’s okay. Time to rebuild it on a stronger foundation.

We often find ourselves unwittingly stuck in filter bubbles, where our beliefs are reinforced by what we read and who we talk to. We don’t know this is happening until those beliefs are challenged. That’s essentially what Morozov has done with To Save Everything: Click Here. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his arguments, but they made me rethink some of my assumptions - perhaps the true measure of any non-fiction book.

Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Now, I find myself having read Francis’s kickoff and wondering what there is to add or debate. I think that’s a wonderful overview of the book, and I’ll just add my voice to one point both he and George make. I said that this book “was written in the language of the internet: that is, trolling.” I legitimately found myself wondering whether Morozov believed everything he was writing, or just having fun with it at times. Or just subscribing to the “What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” maxim.

Some common themes: claiming victory on a debate with anecdotal evidence, bait-and-switching technological solutions with human-based ones in arguments, and rampant use of the “slippery slope” argument (many arguments rely heavily on “might”, “could”, “it’s conceivable”, etc.; i.e., “Who’s to say X won’t lead to Y”, where Y is bad). For any realm in which people are excited about technology’s role in problem-solving, Morovoz was happy to step up and point to real or imagined problems.

Or at least, suggest that we need to think deeper about moral and ethical issues, or recognize complexities of solutions. The last one being a practically bombproof point (also, easier to say than implement), but invariably good advice.

And yet, I want government types to read this book. As George said, it’s a way to get out of one’s filter bubble (even though I have no doubt I still read it with a bias). And Francis is right in that we need to rethink our priors. I still think that there’s much potential in technology, but it’s in the measured, level-headed application that we’ll actually solve problems, not in cheerleading and undue excitement.

Nick Charney
RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Given that I barely made the deadline for review and that – as Kent said – Francis pretty much knocked the review out of the park, I will simply say that I too really enjoyed the book and highly recommend reading it. It gave me pause to think and reflect back on all the choices I’ve made along the way that I never even perceived as choices but rather as inevitabilities. The larger lesson policy makers can take from Morozov’s work, I think, is that the Internet and all that is built up on it doesn’t have a natural state (open) or given end (democratization), and that it is the byproduct of a series of choices people have made along the way.