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Warning: do not surrender to 'the Internet'

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The Folly of Technological Solutionism

By Evgeny Morozov

PublicAffairs, 415 pages, $32

U.S.-based technology critic Evgeny Morozov is extremely skeptical about the wholesale application of digital "solutions" to social and economic problems, and the softball punditry that hails it as inevitable, natural and unstoppable.

In his 2011 book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Morozov, a contributing editor to the prestigious U.S. journal Foreign Policy, argued that Net activists and other "cyber-utopians" have tweeted their way into believing their mass protests and wikis herald a new era of revitalized democracy, while blithely ignoring how the Internet can also strengthen dictatorships through enhanced censorship and surveillance.

In this new and brilliantly written polemic, Morozov finds that the modernist tradition of "solutionism" -- the instrumentally rational quest for a better society most famously lambasted in the works of the late urbanist Jane Jacobs -- has been resurrected and hugely magnified by what he calls "Internet-centrism."

For Morozov, Internet-centrism is a philosophy of action based on the assumption that "the Internet" is some kind of benign external force around which all aspects of life must be organized, owing to its assumed and undisputed values, such as "openness."

The reason for the quotation marks around "the Internet" is that Morozov believes the name has clouded our thinking, leading to boosters (such as Future Perfect author Steven Johnson) and critics (The Shallows' Nicholas Carr) to conflate a whole host of technologies (social media, email, search engines) that should be considered individually.

Where critics such as Carr, Jaron Lanier and Sherry Turkle have argued that the Internet is harming our ability to concentrate, diminishing our individuality and crippling our social relationships, Morozov is more concerned here with broader socio-political implications than individual ones.

Morozov examines the misbegotten adoption of Internet-centric solutions in chapters devoted to how open data initiatives often backfire; how the widespread use of algorithms is generating PR-funded faux "memes" and replacing expertise with simplistic populism; why government should not be remodelled after Wikipedia; why technological crime prevention can be bad for justice; how the phenomenon of personal data tracking misses the forest for the trees; and why "lifelogging" and storing limitless data about your own life are no replacement for flawed, malleable human memory.

He observes that not only does our uncritical acceptance of the presumed values of "the Internet" lead us to the mistaken belief that its transformations are epochal and unprecedented -- when all advances in communications have brought similar changes -- but to see all "inefficiencies" in society as problems requiring a digital solution when they might well play an essential role in a healthy liberal democracy.

What's worse, he believes, these "solutions" more often than not diminish our ability to make moral and political choices by making transgressions technologically impossible, while acculturating us to act as social agents only with the promise of incentives, rewards, or other game-like interactions.

In the case of "situational crime prevention" technologies, the danger lies in assuming that our laws are already perfect. In a brutal thought experiment, Morozov illustrates how facial recognition and other "smart" technologies transplanted to buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 likely would have made Rosa Parks' challenge to racial segregation laws nearly impossible.

With new technological solutions emerging at an ever-faster pace (for example, Google's wearable interface glasses will soon be commercially available), To Save Everything Click Here is essential reading.

It is a warning to citizens and policy analysts alike not to surrender to grand technocratic religiosity, but to consider the benefits and risks of each new technology on its own terms.

Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J9

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