No Solutions I: Stripping Ourselves to One Line, Research Time, 03/02/2017

I don’t know if I’d say this is continued from yesterday’s post, as much as it’s another turn around the same idea. Appropriate for a post that follows Groundhog Day.

Set the stage. So Evgeni Morozov wrote a book called To Save Everything Click Here. Steve Fuller sent me a copy, and I’ve finally got around to reading it.

An aesthetic issue. I find his writing style a little too polemic for my liking personally, as it sometimes makes him sound more like a technophobe than he really is. Because it’s clear from reading the whole book that he’s in favour of a technological society – he only has a problem with some influential business ideologies.

With the government having been systematically defunded over the last
decades since the late 1970s, it's left to private industry to build the
brighter tomorrow we all dreamed of. And it sometimes feels like
everyone except Elon Musk would prefer to build a health tracking
app they can sell to Facebook for $1-billion.
The problem ideology. Solutionism. It’s the ideology that pervades Silicon Valley culture – people as different as Travis Kalanick, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel all think as solutionists.

What is Solutionism? In its simplest form, it’s the notion that any difficulty people encounter is to be smoothed away with the algorithmic and analytic powers of contemporary data technology.

That could come from self-monitoring, the dynamics of ubiquitous social media sharing, data analysis, or actually modifying the environment to restrict human choices from inefficient or destructive activities.

I mean it about that last issue. One of the ideas Morozov discusses to encourage people to follow the law is installing rotating cage doors in subways instead of waist-high wickets to prevent queue jumping.

That leads to another aesthetic issue. This book is too long. I mean that in the sense that it’s longer than it needs to be. Morozov’s style of exploring long lists of examples ultimately drags the book out much longer than it needs to be.

As a philosophical argument, you only need enough examples to demonstrate the point. Morozov seems to list enough examples to prove the absolute ubiquity of these ridiculous solutionist ideas all over the entire business class of the tech industry. And the examples – there being so many of them – tend to bury the core concepts of his argument, which are most important.

Do you seriously think your parking meter can help save your city from
being underfunded and disorganized? Then Evgeni Morozov will hector
To Save Everything Click Here is about a moral inversion that Silicon Valley’s ideology perpetuates. And it’s a problematic ideology – the replacement of responsibility with efficiency.

Here’s how I lay it out, and the best way Morozov himself lays it out. He returns, in several contexts throughout the book, to an approach to business ideas common in Silicon Valley culture – gamification.

Literally, you solve problems by making a game of them. Creating a set of incentives and rewards for civil public behaviour – recycling, improving energy use, improving personal health. You earn these rewards as you carry out the activities we want you to. With each item you recycle, you earn points in the game, and those points translate into real rewards.

This interplay of incentives and rewards makes activity that has previously been a moral responsibility – we work to improve the environment because we’re good citizens with duties to do so – into a prize. Instead of recycling to help our society become healthier and more sustainable, you recycle to earn direct material rewards.

The presumption underlying making civic responsibility a game: that everyone acts only for their own self-interest. Morozov never says so, but it’s that sketchy libertarian principle underlying so much of Silicon Valley culture.

The veneration of self-interest as humanity’s central drive pervades the culture. That’s true for folks all over Silicon Valley whether their explicit political beliefs are as progressive and futurist as Elon Musk or as demented and retrograde as Peter Thiel.

Is self-interest humanity’s primary drive? No. No it isn’t. Morozov cites a few solid psychological experiments demonstrating such. But that’s not how you disprove a purely conceptual question like that.

No, you disprove it in the conceptual realm. Which means you have to point out that moral motivations – drives to act in the name of benevolence – have always been real. If we were only ever truly acting in our self-interest, we never would have developed moral principles in the first place.

We never would have developed concepts of our responsibilities to others if we didn’t perceive that responsibility in our ordinary, everyday social relations. Our moral obligations to each other are real – we experience them in our social relations every day, providing we don’t have something medically wrong with us.

Through understanding the strength and interdependence of our social obligations to each other, we see self-interest as one of many possible motives in the dense network of those obligations. So if you think self-interest is the only drive of humanity, you’re cutting away a lot of human experience.

Now, what does this have to do with efficiency? . . . To be continued

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