Last week I went to a talk by Evgeny Morozov at the Royal Society of Arts on the limits and problems with what he terms ‘technological solutionism’, the subject of his new book To Save Everything, Click Here. It was a brilliant talk, available here, and which I would highly recommend that you listen in full if you have the time.
‘Technological solutionism’ is the idea that many of society’s problems can and should be solved with technological fixes. Take, for example, the obesity epidemic that has swept the developed world. With Nike+ fuel band, a person can now precisely track how much exercise they are doing, and they can count all the calories they eat with nice smartphone apps. This information, shared with their friends and uploaded to online leaderboards and social profiles, will then spur them to keep fit and eat more healthily through gamified incentives.
Whilst this is just one small example, you only need to browse Tech Crunch or Wired (most recently with Brain scans predict which criminals are most likely to reoffend) to see the plethora of apps, initiatives and claims that technology and the internet will lead us to a better, cleaner future. As Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, said: “in the future… if we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.”
There are, however, a few problems with this ideology:
- An excuse to push away responsibility for society’s problems: If you take this ideology to its logical conclusions, then proper political and societal discussion of serious issues is side-lined, and the onus for solving them is either outsourced to Silicon Valley or onto individual people. To take the obesity example, questions about advertising of junk food, the proliferation of high fructose corn syrup, or the lack of free sport facilities, are all pushed aside in favour of placing the responsibility solely on individuals. Because now they know exactly how many calories they eat, miles they walk, and can see how much better their friends are doing. So if they’re still fat, well, it’s all their fault.
- That it makes people overlook the slow erosion of their privacy: What a great deal of these technological solutions have in common is their use of data, either on an individual basis or in aggregate, in ways that many people do not fully realise or understand. Whilst there has been some public debate about this, such as court cases in Germany over Google Street View, much more slips under the radar. Lending companies, such as Lenddo in Hong Kong, base some of their criteria for giving a loan on the applicant’s social profiles, including who they are friends with. Anecdotally, it can be difficult to rent an apartment in parts of New York without a Facebook profile to prove you’re not the wrong kind of person.
These are just a few examples, and can be seen as the thin end of a wedge. In the future the hidden financial and social costs to not sharing your data, and the amount of your data that is used without your knowledge or consent, is likely to continue to grow. More of society’s problems could be pushed superficially either onto individuals or out to tech and data companies rather than being deeply discussed.
One of the main reasons that these quite serious changes in society are being glossed over is that most people implicitly accept the technological utopianism of companies like Google. They are viewed as somehow benevolent, rather than just a business. A business that does not necessarily want to help you, but wants, first of all, to make money from your data.