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To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – Remarks

Posted by Raul Barral Tamayo en Martes, 11 de mayo, 2021


Copyright © Evgeny Morozov, 2013.

Our world is at a crossroads. Personal gadgets are getting smarter, and technology is increasingly shaping public life too, logging everything from crime figures to how much we recycle, pollution levels to politicians’ voting records.

But what will the effect of this new transparency be on us? When we quantify our actions, do we change our motivations? Is a world without opacity one where we can be free?

By saving everything, Evgeny Morozov argues, we are profoundly reshaping society – and risk losing the opacity and imperfection that make us human.

Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion and a contributing editor for the New Republic. Previously, he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University, a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, a Yahoo fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown, and a fellow at the Open Society Foundations. His monthly column on technology comes out in Slate, Corriere della Sera, El Pais, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and several other newspapers. He’s also written for The New York Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the London Review of Books.

Comments extracted from the book, they could be right or wrong, you decide for yourself:

  • If Silicon Valley had a designated futurist, her bright vision of the near future, would itself be easy to predict. It would go something like this: Humanity, equipped with powerful self-tracking devices, finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropiately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered too, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do.
  • Professional critics are gone, having been replaced first by “crowds”, then by algorithms, and finally by customized alternative endings.
  • Not all has changed: just like today, the system still needs imperfect humans to generate the clicks to suck the cash from advertisers.
  • The debate ought to shift to a different register: instead of ridiculing the efficacy of their means, we also need to question the adequacy of the innovators’ ends.
  • My previous book, The Net Delusion, shows the surprising resilience of authoritarian regimes, which have discovered their own ways to profit from digital technologies. In this book, I have no such luxury, and I question both the means and the ends of Silicon Valley’s latest quest to “solve problems”.
  • I contend here that Silicon Valley’s promise of eternal amelioration has blunted our ability to do this questioning. To question such interventions, it seems, is to question the Enlightment itself.
  • Hence the premise of htis book: 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. This high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of “the Internet”.
  • Imperfection, ambiguity, opacity, disorder, and the opportunity to err, to sin, to do the wrong thing all of these are constitutive of human freedom, and any concentrated attempt to root them out will root out that freedom as well.
  • I believe that not everything that could be fixed should be fixed, even if the latest technology make the fixes easier, cheaper, and harder to resist. Sometimes, imperfect is good enough; sometimes, it’s much better that perfect.
  • It’s quite simple: the more fixes we have, the more problems we see.
  • The ultimate goal of this book, is to uncover the attitudes, dispositions, and urges that comprise the solutionist mind-set, to show how they manifest themselves in specific projects to ameliorate the human condition, and to hint at how and why some of these attitudes, dispositions, and urges can and should be resisted, circumvented, and unlearned.
  • We will understandwhy attaning technological perfection, without attending to the intricacies of the human condition and accounting for the complex world of practices and traditions, might not be worth the price.
  • It very well may be that, by optimizing our behaviour locally, we’ll end up with suboptimal behavior globally, that is, once the right incentives are missing in one simple environment, we might no longer want to perform our civic duties elsewhere. One local problem might be solved, but only by triggering several global problems that we can’t recognize at the moment.
  • Recasting all complex social situations either as nearly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized, if only the right algorithms are in place!, this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism”.
  • Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked”. How problems are composed matter every bit as much as how problems are resolved.
  • What many solutionists presume to be “problems” in need of solving are not problems at all; a deeper investigation into the very nature of these “problems” would reveal that the inefficiency, ambiguity, and opacity (wether in politics or everyday life) that the newly empowered geeks and solutionists are rallying against are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite: these vices are often virtues in disguise. That, thanks to innovate technologies, the modern-day solutionist has an easy way to eliminate them does not make them any less virtuous.
  • In his influential book The Rhetoric of Reaction, Alfred Hirschman argued that all progressive reforms usually attract conservative criticisms that build on one of the following three themes: perversity (whereby the proposed intervention only worsens the problem at hand), futility (whereby the intervention yields no results whatsoever), and jeopardy (where the intervention threatens to undermine some previous, hard-earned accomplisments).
  • I do not advocate inaction or deny that many (though not all) of the problems tackled by solutionists are important and demand inmediate action. But the urgency of the problems in question does not automatically confer legitimacy upon a panoply of new, clean, and efficient technological solutions so in vogue these days.
  • It’s as if the solutionists have never lived a life of their own but learned everything they know from books, and those books weren’t novels but manuals from refrigerators, vacumm cleaners, and washing machines.
  • It’s not that solutions proposed are unlikely to work but that, in solving the “problem”, solutionists twist it in such an ugly and unfamiliar way that, by the time it is “solved”, the problem becomes something else entirely. Everyone is quick to celebrate victory, only no one remembers what the original solution sought to achieve.
  • Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems, but those problems don’t include education.
  • There are plenty of tools for increasing one’s digital literacy, but those tools go only so f ar; they might help you to detect erroneous information, but they won’t organize your thoughts into a coherent argument.
  • Adam Falk, president of Williams College, notes that, based on the research done at Williams, the best predictor of students’ intellectual success in college is not their major or GPA but the amount of personal, face-to-face contact they have with professors.
  • Here is modernity in a nutshell: We are left with possibly better food but without the joy of cooking.
  • To reject solutionism is to trascend the narrow-minded rationalistic mind-set that recasts every instance of an efficiency deficit.
  • I’m interested in why and how “the Internet” excites, and why and how it confuses.
  • “The Internet” has allowed solutionists to significantly expand the scope of their interventions, running experiments on a much grander scale.
  • This book is an effort to liberate our technology debates from the many unhealthy and erroneous assumptions about “the Internet”.
  • Revealing Internet-centrism for what it is will make debunking solutionism much less difficult.
  • Consider how Nicholas Carr frames the discussion about the impact that digital technologies have on our ability to think deep thoughts and concentrate.
  • Perhaps we can’t imagine life after “the Internet” because we don’t think that “the Internet” is going anywhere.
  • The problem with using Wikipedia as a model is that nobody (not even its founder, Jimmy Wales) really knows how it works. To assume that we can distill life-changing lessons from it and then apply them in completely different fields seems arrogant to say the least.
  • “The Internet” is not a cuase of networked knowledge; it is its consquence, an insight lost on most Internet theorists.
  • Internet-centric explanations, at least in their current form, greatly impoverish and infantilize our public debate. We ought to steer away from them as much as possible.
  • History itself is deemed irrelevant, for “the Internet” is seen as representing a distinct rupture with everything that has come before.
  • Internet-centrism’s totality of vision, its false universalism, and its reductionism prevent us from a more robust debate about digital technologies.
  • We need to find a way to temporarily forget everything we know about “the Internet”, roll up our sleeves, and work to ensure that technologies do not just constrain human flourishing but also enable it.
  • No serious philosopher would ever proclaim that either transparency or openness is an unquestionable good or absolute value to which human societies should aspire.
  • An inefficient democracy is always preferable to a well-run dictatorship.
  • Studies in psychology has found that, having stated our initial position publicly, we are less likely to change our minds through subsequent deliberations, as we want to be seen as consistent decision makers.
  • The problem is that, now that digital technologies allow us to collect and store data on the cheap, it might be tempting to skip the complex philosophical and empirical analysis that is essential to analyzing the purposes transparency and opacity serve in a given context.
  • Perhaps some information, even if it’s in the public domain already, shouldn’t be organized or “made useful”. Questions of ethics are never posed.
  • original entry: https://raulbarraltamayo.wordpress.com/2021/05/11/to-save-everything-click-here-by-evgeny-morozov/
  • Tony Judt: “Intellectuals don’t ask if something is right or worng, but whether a policy is efficient or inefficient. They don’t ask if a measure is good or bad, but whether or not it improves productivity”.
  • In bordeline cases like Hungary, there is a risk that governments will exploit our new fetish for digital openness to present themselves as far more democratic, transparent, and legitimate than they actually are.
  • While better crime statistics might help some people avoid buying properties in dodgy neighborhoods, they would also make it harder for other people to sell those properties.
  • The tyranny of openness (the result of our infatuation with Internet-centrism) must be resisted.
  • The Pirates’ most advanced and widely discussed technological innovation is an online system called LiquidFeedback, which allows the party to better understand what its members think about issues of  the day.
  • Unlike, say, the Anonymous movement, the Pirates seek to operate within the system. They may despise particular parties and their elected representatives, but they still seem to believe that parties and representatives have important roles to play.
  • Steven Johnson, in his Future Perfect, celebrates the benefits of switching to what he calls “liquid democracy”. In a traditional democracy citizens elect representatives to legislate on their behalf; in a liquid democracy, citizens don’t have to elect representatives, they can simply transfer their vote to whatever they think is more knowledgeable about the issue. You don’t need to b e an expert in everything for your vote to matter. You can picl your targers, and let the people you trust in other fields make the reamining calls.
  • “Liquid democracy” is an interesting example of a set of old, solutionist ideas that hace acquired new currency with the rise of Internet-centrism.
  • Because people can now organize without organizations (be they parties or trade unions) why bother with those slow and ineffective institutions at all?
  • The ultimate irony is that Internet-centrism solutionists, in misdiagnosing the problem and trying to fix it in a rather perfunctory manner, may breed problems of their own.
  • Perfection shouldn’t be pursued for its own ends; democracy is a complex affair in which, in the absence of disappointments, there would never be any accomplishments.
  • Politics thrives on mediocrity, real and perceived; one day everyone is bound to be disappointed. If bargaining could always lead to win-win situations, no politics would be necessary.
  • We must not fixate on what this new arsenal of digital technologies allows us to do without first inquiring what is worth doing.
  • Every new technology rekindles the solutionist urge and gives rise to yet another wave of epochalism, which, in turn, is used as evidence to justify some radical intervention or simply to sanction inaction.
  • The paradox is that, while tecnocracy itself is an ideology, most technocrats try their best to distance themselves from any insinuation that they might be driven by anything other than pragmatism and the pursuit of efficiency.
  • Thinking and deliberation are unavoidable even the most perfect algorithms won’t spare us those, not without impoverishing our political culture as a result.
  • Adrian Chen, gawker.com: “Do you remember ‘books’? A book is basically thousands of tweets printed out and stapled together between pieces of cardboard”.
  • Google’s insistence on the supposed neutrality and objectivity of its algorithms. Instead of acknowledging that its algorithms might have shortcomings and biases that ought to be corrected, Google behaves as if introducing humans to occasionally review the work of its algorithms would be tantamount to abandoning all faith in artificial intelligence as such. Google’s reluctance to acknowledge that its algorithms can occasionally malfunction allows it to extricate itself form a number of tricky ethical aspects of its work.
  • Google should stop hiding behind the rhetoric of mirrors and reflections, acknowledge its own immense role in shaping the publich sphere, and start playing that role in a more responsible manner. Being “objective” is hard work; it doesn’t just happen naturally once all the important work has been delegated to the algorithms.
  • Scientists don’t just spontaneously “try things”: they are forced to think through the social and political consequences of their work, often well before entering the lab.
  • We must stop thinking of the new filters and algorithmic practices promoted by the new digital intermediaries as unproblematic, objective, and naturally superior to the filters and practices that preceded them. Without subjecting these faster, cheaper, and more efficient filters to the close ethical scrutiny they deserve, we risk committing one of the many fallacies of solutionism and celebrating improvements related to less important problems while completely neglecting more burning, but less obvious, issues.
  • Twitter makes certain assumptions about what aspects of the public discussion constitute a trend, decides on how those aspects are to be measured, and having measured them, feeds them back to the public. The company doesn’t just “reflect” the public’s interests but actively shapes them.
  • Just like in the case of Twitter’s Trends, it’s important to inquire what roles the filters and algorithms of a particular platform play in shaping the conditions under which memes are made.
  • Christopher Steiner: “Algorithms may bring us new artists, but because they build their judgment on what was popular in the past, we will likely end up with some of the same kind of forgettable pop we already have. It’s a clear foible of the technology that all these years of so-so music are included in its analysis”.
  • That dubious honor goes to the widespread belief that “the Internet” is ridding us of gatekeepers and intermediaries. There are elements of truth to this, but we shouldn’t miss a far more important and less visible development: the digitization of our public life is also giving rise to many new intermediaries that are mostly invisible, and possibly suspect.
  • It’s the proliferation, not elimination, of intermediaries that has made blogging so widespread. The right term here is “hyperintermediation”, not “disintermediation”.
  • Innovation might be one of the defining buzzwords of our times, but it has not received the critical attention it deserves, and we usually take its goodness for granted, oblivious of how obsession with innovation twists our accounts of the past. The problem is this: since innovation is seen as having only positive effects, few are prepared to examine its unintended consequences; as such, most innovations are presumed to be self-evidently good.
  • According to Benoit Godin, the Canadian scholar who has traced the intellectual history of “innovation” as a concept, for over 2.500 years, the word had negative connotations. Godin: “The innovator was a heretic, a revolutionary, a cheater”.
  • Write Daniel Mendelsohn: “all criticism is based on the equation: knowledge + taste = meaningful judment. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work, and most of us do, but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics”.
  • Just as Amazon’s algorithms makeit possible to predict what books you are likely to buy next, similar algorithms might tell the police how often, and where, certain crimes might happen again.
  • Legal scholar Andrew Guthrie Ferguson: “Predictive algorithms are not magic boxes that divine future crime, but instead probability models of future events based on current environmental vulnerabilities”.
  • There’s the problem of underreported crimes. While most homicides are reported, many rapes and home break-ins are not. If only data about reported crimes are used to predict future crimes and guide police work, some types of crime might be left unstudied, and thus unpursued.
  • As algorithms are further incorporated into our daily lives, it seems prudent to subject them to regular investigations by qualified and ideally public-spirited third parties.
  • In many respects, Internet companies are in a much better position to predict crime than police.
  • Another recent study found that someone’s Facebook profile is a good predictor of that person’s job performance, especially for traits like conscientiousness, agreeability, and intellectual curiosity.
  • When you can identify people’s names by simply looking at their faces, without even asking them for any identification, you can fine-tune your access strategies in even more sophisticated ways. Or you can analyze faces to detect people’s emotions and, if it looks like they are lying, simply deny them access.
  • Michel Serres: “Neither information nor a drug fix ever gives any happiness when you have it, but will make you miserable when you don’t”.
  • There are very good reason why those with excellent health, impressive driving habits, and Stakhanovite productivity will be excited to track and share their data. But what about the poor and the sick? If you are well and well-off, self-monitoring will only make things better for you. If you are none of those things, the personal prospectus could make your life much more difficult, with higher insurance premiums, fewer discounts, and limited employment prospects.
  • In a world where you can record everything, you will record everything just to be on the safe side.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to rebel against the quantification fetish that he saw present in the then popular utilitarian philosophy advocated by the likes of Francis Galton and Herbert Spencer.
  • Nietzsche’s conclusion about calculations and measurements was bitter but powerful: “An essentially mechanical world would be an essentially meaningless world”.
  • These are not  just neutral, objective ways to measure teaching; they also shape and create norms according to which all future reaching will be assessed.
  • To limit the damage that solutionism can cause, one must find ways to restore some of the alternative perspectives effaced by this “narrowing of vision”.
  • Washing one’s clothes after every use may seem normal today, but it certainly was not fifty years ago.
  • Gordon Bell: “From the microscopic to the heavens, all will be sensed, networked, and stored. This is not a forty-year-out wild guess. This is a decade-out sure bet. And I don’t lose many bets”.
  • Not surprisingly, gamification has already become a favorite trick in the solutionist tool kit. That everything can be gamified does not mean that everything ought to be.
  • Encouraging engaged citizenship is not just about getting people to do the right thing, it’s algo about having them do it for the right reasons.
  • Incentive schemes like to perpetuate themselves, for as people get used to being paid for good driving or separating their trash, they may no longer do so once incentives are removed.
  • The pursuit of internetplanetary happiness might also produce communities where citizens refuse to lift their fingers unless they are provided with a cash incentive or a badge does not much bother her.
  • Our geek kings do not realize that inefficiency is precisely what shelters us from the inhumanity of Taylorism and market fundamentalism. When inefficiency is the result of a deliberative commitment by a democratically run community, there is no need to eliminate it, even if the latest technologies can accomplish that in no time.
  • Sensors, networks, and numbers are not enemies; they become enemies only once they are merged with ill-considered, one-dimensional, and naive ideologies.
  • Projects that pursue the “right thing” should always have a way through which the very definition of what counts as the “right thing” can be challenged and subverted. Some of this happens anyway as users find a way to hack into their own devices. But this is not enough; designers and technologists should embrace the idea that their goal is not limited to making people use their devices; it’s also to make people think with their devices.
  • Designers and policy engineers get even weirder ideas once they fall for Internet-centrism and the technological defeatism that it generates.
  • The problem with engineers is not that they are conservative; it’s that they are not conservative enough. For them, everything is negotiable, dignity and autonomy included.
  • If technological fixes are inevitable, and if some forms of solutionism cannot be avoided, let us at least make sure that this solutionism is of the self-reflective, perhaps even neurotic, kind. Only through radical self-doubt can solutionism trascend its inherent limitations.
  • While most trade books these days desperately seek to feature One Big Idea, I’ve bucked the trend and pursued a study of two middle-sized ideas (Internet-centrism and solutionism) that feed on each other in complex and often unpredictable ways. I wish I could say that I have a magic formula to accurately describe their relationship. Alas, I haven’t found it yet; nor do I believe it exists. These concepts play very different roles in different contexts.
  • In this book, what’s truly wicked are not the problems (those may not even exist) but the solutions proposed to address them.
  • At its most simple, this book argues that perfect is the enemy of good, that sometimes good is good enough, and that no matter what tool we are holding in our hands, both these statements still hold.
  • The former group thinks that “the Internet” is the key to solving some of the greatest policy puzzles of the day; the latter thinks that “the Internet” is only confusing policy-makers more and that the sooner digital activists learn how to make their arguments without appealing to “the Internet”, the better.
  • Onde unexpected benefit of a post-Internet approach is that it deflates the shallow and historically illiterate accounts that dominate so much of our technology debate and opens them to much more varied, rich, and historically important experiences.
  • This book, I hope, has shown that most Internet theorists venerate an imaginary god of their own creation and live in denial.
  • Once we can’t reject technology outright, we’ll need to explain why some fixes are better than others. If it makes us think and ask questions, it is a worthy enterprise all by itself.
  • Technology is not the enemy; our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who resides within. We can do nothing to tame that little creature, but we can do a lot to tame its favorite weapon: “the Internet”. Let’s do that while we can, it would be deeply ironic if humanity were to die in the crossfire as its problem solvers attempted to transport that very humanity to a trouble-free world.

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