Evgeny Morozov on the Orgy of Amelioration

There’s an interesting article on the Boston Review which reflects on the critical work of Evgeny Morozov, with a particular focus on his recent critique of ‘solutionism’. We’ve attached a video below for those unfamiliar with his line of argument.

The target of Evgeny’s criticism is an “amelioration orgy” that he associates with Silicon Valley. “In the past few years,” Evgeny says, “Silicon Valley’s favorite slogan has quietly changed from ‘Innovate or Die’ to ‘Ameliorate or Die.’” The book describes, powerfully and in insightful detail, a series of projects of amelioration: self-tracking devices that provide remedies for obesity, insomnia, heavy carbon footprints, and the limitations of memory. Information and communication strategies for remedying political corruption, hypocrisy, opacity, and all the hurdles to informed civic engagement. Algorithms that help us figure out what to read and where to eat. Information technology solutions for preempting crime, keeping the jerks out of the clubs, helping the needy while having fun, connecting with distant strangers while distancing from connected neighbors. You get the idea—though to really get it you need to read the book. (That said, the book is not really about Silicon Valley: it has more references to Jane McGonigal than to Steve Jobs. It is really about the assumptions of some intellectuals who write about information technology.)

The Net Delusion criticized the idea that new communication technologies would serve the emancipatory goal that proponents said they would serve. It focused on the effectiveness of the means in achieving the ends. To Save Everything is about ends, not means. Assume for the sake of argument, he says, that the ameliorative orgy ends in boundless success: obesity conquered; jerks out of the good clubs; bad guys incapacitated; politics cleansed of hypocrisy and opacity; forgetfulness solved; carbon footprints reduced; assistance to the needy turned into a fun game.

What could be wrong with that? Two things. Evgeny challenges the orgy of amelioration, first, by arguing that the ameliorative solutions often turn public problems into private ones: don’t regulate the content of food; give people enough information to nudge them to better personal choices. They promise success by first diminishing the magnitude of the problem. Second, he celebrates the virtues of our vices. Some of life’s good things come from ignorance rather than knowledge; opacity rather than transparency; ambivalence rather than certainty; vagueness rather than precision; hypocrisy rather than sincerity; messy inefficiency rather than tidiness; good enough rather than perfect; time-consuming, indecisive, head-holding pondering rather than algorithmic offloading or gamified nudges.

Evgeny is not alone in these ideas. La Rochefoucauld famously celebrated hypocrisy as the homage that vice pays to virtue. But Evgeny does not think he has much company in Silicon Valley (at least as he imagines it). The problem is that his Silicon-Valley-of-the-mind suffers from (and spreads to others) the ideological blinder of solutionism, aided and abetted by its companion blinder of Internet-centrism. Those blinders fuel the ameliorative orgy—an orgy of fixing, in which the tools for fixing help to define (often by diminishing) what needs to be fixed in the first place. So we need to “unlearn solutionism” and the limits it imposes on our thinking in order even to ask whether all the technological amelioration is “worth the price.”


Categories: Rethinking The World


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