No Solutions II: Forgetting Our Social Selves, Research Time, 06/02/2017

What does this have to do with efficiency? In a way, it’s an expression of the stereotypical engineer’s mentality – I can figure out a solution to everything.

Here’s an example Evgeni Morozov talks about. Obesity is a serious public health problem in American society. So how does a Silicon Valley engineer and businessperson do some kind of civic duty and fix it?

Another problem with using personal smartphone apps to curb obesity
is that a lot of people who suffer most from obesity do so not because
of a personal failing that a tech fix can repair, but because of a social
cause – like living stuck in an urban food desert, or poverty in
general. In our society, the big projects like space exploration have
been left to the good mad scientists. Our government, which is
supposed to look after the public good, has been rendered incapable.
Because Silicon Valley consists, for the most part, in people who want to become billionaire businesspeople improving their society with technology. For all the examples of petulant man-children or mad scientists, most leaders and workers in Silicon Valley really want to make the world a better place.

It’s messed up, I know. But one thing I’ve learned after working in the business world is that even though it’s all hype, a remarkable number of people actually believe their own hype. So okay, you’re making the world a better place. By doing what?

Create a business that encourages people to become healthier – eat better, exercise. Social networking business ideas – ideas that work in the Facebook economy, essentially, whether in their app ecology or that take it as a model – use data and tracking to achieve their goals.

So self-tracking devices on your phones can let you monitor your consumption and exercise. Then they make a game out of tracking all this data. Earn badges for cutting down on carbs and processed foods, bonus points for eating free-range meat.

The healthy eating app is an efficient way to get people to improve their health. You just do what the game tells you when you play it. Arguing, reasoning, long sessions of training to improve your habits aren’t nearly as effective, because you have to work through them in a long, difficult process of personal growth.

Who wants that shit? Self-tracking apps become a way to replace your dietician here, parking enforcement cops there, maybe even your therapist too.

I think sometimes that when Ted Kaczynski, the radical anti-technology
terrorist, looks at the growing disaster of our planet, he smiles. As if
he was right. Morozov isn't anti-technology, and neither am I. We just
have very critical attitudes about how our technology has developed.
I'm especially upset at the ecological harm that our civilization causes,
which Morozov's beef is the moral erosion of an ideology of arch-
individuality and efficiency. There'll be some projects involving Ted
in the future. They're shaping up to be more than a little terrifying to
the human soul.
This is just one summary of examples of real businesses and apps that Morozov describes throughout To Save Everything Click Here. They all unfold in essentially the same way.

The Silicon Valley method is to develop the most efficient routes to changing human behaviour they can. That efficiency is based on manipulating behaviour, bypassing all the deliberation, self-conscious effort, and personal ethical searching that actually shapes and defines a human’s individual subjectivity.

Here’s Morozov’s whole argument in a few sentences. I mean, I had fun reading his 400+ page book, but the underlying point was remarkably simple. He discovered a lot of different perspectives on this basic idea through all his analyses of various parts of the industry.

So all that detail – how the apps encouraging the erosion of privacy interact with self-tracking approaches to civil service, public health, and education, for example – is useful in letting us see the many facets of the whole affair.

But it all revolves around one central insight: When you prioritize the most efficient way to solve problems above all else, you atrophy our moral senses of responsibility to wider society. You forget that humanity is a society fundamentally.

Ironically, you use social networking platforms to encourage people to think of themselves as disconnected individuals instead of an interdependent network. Ends up treating us as less than human.

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