The glib title of To Save Everything, Click Here belies the serious nature of the book. A better indication of the Evgeny Morozov’s intent is provided by its subtitle: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. In this work, the author repudiates the idea that the majority of human problems can be addressed solely with technology, referring to this ideology as “solutionism.” In his view, such solutions appear to be successful only within their narrow framework, and often have unintended consequences.
One of the pleasures of reading this book is in the numerous examples that are used to illustrate Morozov’s thesis. The overall tone is one of an almost maniacal obsession and displeasure with the perceived hypocrisy put forth by the guardians of the internet. The focus of the author’s polemic is directed at the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, and those who champion the goals of these internet-centric enterprises.
The book begins with a seemingly innocuous example of a technological invention called BinCam. A device attaches to the inside of a customer’s trash can and is able to determine the recyclable content of the garbage. Percentages are computed, and then uploaded to the owner’s Facebook account so friends can be informed of one’s recycling successes. It’s turned into something of a game, complete with gold bars. The hope is that social pressure will cause more people to engage in recycling activities. So far so good. But the author delves into the inherent philosophical issues related to this endeavor. Within the context of the larger society, is this the optimal way to enforce desired behaviors? Do we want to turn what should be a basic civic duty into a computer game?
More telling and sometimes horrific examples follow. The chapter “So Open It Hurts” relates a story of websites that have dug up obscure political donations from decades ago, and published the names and addresses of individuals who have made the mistake of donating to a politically incorrect cause. Years later, their lives are ruined when their coworkers learn of these youthful transgressions. Can nothing be forgotten? As demonstrated, the virtues of transparency often have undesirable consequences for real people.
The chapter on the “Perils of Algorithmic Gatekeeping” tells the tale of how a small publication was disallowed from participating in Google’s advertising program because of a literary short story that was determined to contain inappropriate sexual content. Unfortunately, the brave new world of the internet offers no meaningful appeal process. The algorithms of Google are assumed to be objective and valid, regardless of circumstance. There is little desire to allow humans to override the computer and inject common sense when necessary.
Turning to Twitter, the author discusses the subtle power that lies behind its ability to identify “popular” tweets with its trending algorithms. As for Amazon, the author questions the hypocrisy behind its claims that it is helping to eliminate gatekeepers in its empowerment of authors to self-publish. As pointed out, Amazon itself is a more influential gatekeeper than the thousands of smaller publishers it may be gradually replacing.
Despite its many virtues, it must be said that this tome has a certain pedantic quality that reduces its readability somewhat. However, despite this minor quibble, this is an interesting and informative book that serves as a useful antidote to the often exaggerated claims of “big data” enterprises and the benefits they purport to bring to society.
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism
by Evgeny Morozov
Public Affairs, March 2013
415 pages, $28.99